Terror at 20,000,000 Feet
12:35 am NST – Crew Quarters, Level E
There were, Zarlox thought, only two real certainties in life. The first and foremost was that one should never, under any circumstances, trick a Skeith into believing you have food. The second certainty, and the one that applied more directly to the moment, was that alarm sirens did not exist on Terror Mountain. He had purchased his fourth ice pop, downed it in record time, and was contemplating returning to the ludicrously happy storefront when a blaring alarm sounded across the mountainside.
This is not right, thought Zarlox drearily. This is Terror Mountain, where alarms don't exist.
An avalanche tumbled down a nearby peak, burying a platoon of skiers.
Why should an alarm cause an avalanche?
The spritely Lenny who had sold Zarlox the ice pops stumbled out of his shop, heard the alarm, and sprouted a trunk like an Elephante.
This is not right. Lennies have beaks.
Zarlox looked down and noticed to his mild annoyance that he was no longer on Terror Mountain but in the midst of an erupting volcano. On all sides, lava roiled and bubbled as it surged towards the surface some impossible distance above. The alarm seemed to be present here as well.
This alarm is not here.
"Zarlox! Wake up, you fool!" A voice squeaked its way through the rumbling of the lava and the incessant wail of the alarm. It seemed familiar.
That voice is not here.
"Zarlox!" The voice grew louder, the rumbling softer. The lava seemed to recede as quickly as it had encroached, leaving behind an impermeable darkness.
12:48 am NST – Maintenance Shaft 12-8
There were, Landin thought, only two real certainties in life. The first was the unreliability of maintenance technicians, and the second was the unfathomable need for the higher-ups to run the alarm system at any and all hours for "emergency testing." Even though there was no concept of "night" on the Space Station, there was still the Off Period, when visitors retired to their rooms, the games shut down, and the employees of the Station were allowed a few hours of respite. Every employee save the Offers, of course. A small cadre of mechanics, engineers, janitors, and the like, the Offers were miserable folk whose job it was to maintain the Station during the Off Period.
"Fyora take this job," muttered Landin, chief maintenance officer of the Offers. "Can't be the only Grundo with a hand for coolant pipe bifurcation." The job should have been a simple one: split a coolant pipe in two and create a new offshoot leading towards a new engine room. It was a three person job, however, and Zarlox, one of Landin's lackeys, was nowhere to be found. He had sent Jenkins to go find him, but that had been ten minutes ago, and neither the Ixi nor the missing Grundo had returned. "Fyora take 'em both."
Landin threw his wrench on the ground and sat against the wall of the cramped maintenance tunnel. The alarm continued to echo piercingly off the metal walls as it had been doing for the past half hour. A faint red glow illuminated the small space in time with the shrill sound. It was enough to drive a Grundo mad. The muckety-mucks must really be having a field day with this one, Landin thought hatefully. They don't pay me enough to deal with this.
He felt his eyes to begin to droop closed and considered briefly whether to fight the urge. A minute later, Landin was snoring softly. Two minutes later, the first explosion collapsed the entrance to the maintenance tunnel.
12:52 am NST – Control Room B7
It was pandemonium and uncertainty in Control Room B7. Commands were shouted, disobeyed, and changed with alarming alacrity. Papers flew everywhere, detailing escape plans, codes of conduct, and even the time sheets of every employee on the Space Station. Limbs tangled with limbs as Grundos raced for control panels, Grarrls rushed for security booths, and every species in between hurried from cubicle to cubicle trying to figure out what on Neopia was happening.
Above it all, the head officer of Control Room B7 watched with an air of calm most unfitting given the situation. Garron Stale, Ogrin extraordinaire, was not yet worried about the alarm. When it had first sounded little more than half an hour ago, Control Room A1 had contacted them with the message that the alarm was not a test and that some unspecified problem had arisen on the Station. This in itself was not a concern; the alarm could sound for something as minor as a cracked water pipe. As soon as the problem was identified, a maintenance, security, or other team would be dispatched to take care of things.
That, at least, had been the command given from A1. And that had been half an hour ago. Since then, there had been no messages received, and any attempts to contact them had fallen on seemingly deaf ears. The main control room had gone silent. When the sound of a distant explosion rumbled through B7, all control was lost.
"Mr. Grog. Attempt to open communications with A2 again." The command was given swiftly and efficiently but received less so. Mr. Grog, the Grundo second-in-command, was nowhere to be seen. Having been previously sent down from the second-floor office of B7, the pitiable Grundo had no doubt been swallowed up by the sea of panic below. Stale had expected him back and was taken aback by the silence behind him. "Mr. Grog, you seem to be absent from your post." The statement was addressed to the office window. It too was met with silence. "Very well, Mr. Grog. I shall perform your duties for you." Stale spun primly around and stepped towards the communication device nestled in the corner of the office. As the Head Officer in Charge of Control Room Operations, Stale felt radio operation beneath him, yet he picked up the speaker. The life of a commander is a hard one, he bemoaned internally. If only Marietta could see me now.
"Is anybody there? Please, is anybody there? Oh Fyora, they're coming! They're coming!" The voice erupted out of the receiver in a burst of static and agitation. Stale gaped at the receiver, evidently expecting the pet behind the voice to come crawling out at any moment. He shook himself after too long and began shouting into the speaker in his best impression of an important person.
"This is Head Officer Garron Stale of Control Room B7. Please state your name, rank, and the state of your emergency."
"What!" The voice seemed confused by the simple instructions.
"Name, rank, and emergency," Stale repeated calmly. "I can't help you unless you start speaking properly."
"Benny Meston, janitor! And it's the Grundos! I don't know what they are or where they came from, but – Havers, hold that beam up – but they're breaking down the windows!"
"Where are you, Mr. Meston?"
"Control Room B6! We've managed to got them blocked out for now, but we need – Havers, no! Oh Fyora, they're in. They're in, they're in, they're in, they're-" The receiver cut into static.
"Mr. Meston?" Stale tapped the speaker roughly. "Mr. Meston!" Static continued to pour out of the receiver. Stale felt a cold sweat break out across his forehead. B6 was the closest control room to his own. He did not know what these Grundos were that the frightened janitor had spoken of, but the terror had been real enough. Something dreadful was nearby, and Garron Stale wasn't going to have any part of it in Control Room B7.
He threw open the door to his office and cleared his throat to quiet the room when the second explosion came. It seemed to have come from no more than a few hundred feet away and rocked the room so fiercely that half the assembled pets fell to the ground at once. Stale himself was nearly thrown head-first from the top of the stairs and only just managed to keep himself stable by throwing his arms around the railing and holding on for dear life. Screaming renewed at a fever pitch.
"Attention! Attention, everyone!" Stale's thin voice was crushed by the bedlam. He tried once more, casting his voice out into an ocean of uproar like a fisherman using a single worm to catch the king of the waves. "Please, everyone! I need you to listen to me!" It was no use. The Ogrin would not be heard. As Stale came to this realization, his stomach slowly sank. Something horrible was coming, and he was the only one who knew.
1:12 am NST – Residence Deck E
Zarlox and Jenkins pushed their way through a crowd of frightened Meercas and emerged in a relatively clear intersection. Around them, half-awake vacationers milled about, wondering aloud in various stages of panic what the alarm could be about and why nobody had told them what to do yet. One particularly boisterous Eyrie declared to all who would listen that "Them that run this place oughta know better than to wake up decent folks in the middle of the night! Ain't right, makin' us listen to alarms when we oughta be sleepin'." Residence Deck E was, as of yet, unaffected by the explosions stirring the control rooms on the upper floors. Nobody had yet been trampled.
"Which way?" Zarlox asked, frantically tugging at Jenkins' arm. The Ixi spun in circles, trying to discern which passage would lead them to Control Room E2, their base of operations. After the first explosion, Jenkins had decided against returning to Landin in the maintenance tunnel and had instead dragged Zarlox down the hallways destined for E2 and the safety of their bureaucratic overseers. Surely they would know what was happening.
"Er... this way! Come on!" Jenkins took off suddenly down a nondescript arm of the intersection, and Zarlox hurried to keep up. As they ran past more rooms, they could see pets peering out from around their cracked doors or else standing agape dressed full in sleepwear. Some shouted questions after the pair as they raced past while others merely gawped. The scene repeated itself in each hallway they passed through. Once they passed through a door marked "Maintenance Personnel Only," the sound of only the alarm was a welcome reprieve.
"Lance'll know what's going on," confided Jenkins as the two made their way through a maze of twists and turns. "The other control rooms must've checked in by now." Zarlox personally doubted whether Officer Lance even knew how to operate the receiver, but he held his tongue; things seemed too serious to make jokes, even if the joke was mostly factual anyway.
A panel in front of them burst out into the hallway and clattered against the wall. Jenkins leapt back in fear. "Oh sniddberries!" he swore, expecting a grotesque alien to emerge and send the two techs to their doom. Instead, a harried green Grundo fell out of the opening and dusted himself off as though everyone started off the new day by popping out of holes in the wall.
"L-Landin, sir?" Zarlox asked, tremulously. "Aren't you supposed to be in Shaft-"
"12-8, yes." Landin preempted the question and dismissed Zarlox with a wave of his hand. "Tunnel collapsed, I barely escaped, long story. Now if you two want to live... you're going to have to come with me."
1:29 am NST – Control Room C2
The arrival of the Ogrin had taken the room completely by surprise. No messages had come through stating that B7 was sending their head officer nor did any attempts to question B7 about the personnel change result in any answers. The head officer in charge, a blustery Yurble known only as Captain Pollock, had tried asking the Ogrin exactly why he was no longer in charge of his post, but the answers were less than acceptable.
"So tell me again about these Grundos."
"Ten feet tall! With eyes as red as hatred and hot as fear itself! And they're all gone... all all all all gone." The Ogrin was leaning against a wall of Pollock's office and staring into the distance, still seeing whatever Grundos it was that he was imagining.
"Riiight. And you said these Grundos were... robots?"
"Clockwork! Gears and cogs and springs and ticking and ticking and ticking. And they kept coming and coming and coming! In through the windows and walls and all around and no one got out.... no one except me." A horrible grin spread across the Ogrin's face. "Heeheeheeeeee, no one but me, no one but me." His words adopted a sing-song quality and his head tilted to one side as he trilled. "No one but me, but Garron Stale. He lived so long to tell his tale."
Pollock looked at his second-in-command in utter bemusement. "He's lost his mind. Poor fellow. Always said running a control room isn't for everyone."
"But sir," attempted the second officer, a small yellow Kiko with glasses, "Shouldn't we at least verify his story? If we send someone down to B7, they can tell us if anything's wrong." The idea was a sound one, but the explosions had set C2 on edge, and Pollock couldn't imagine sending any one of his subordinates out of the room.
"We'll wait until things calm down. Is there still no word on what caused the explosions?"
"None, sir. I think it may be something in the Communications Level, though. Several control rooms aren't responding to our broadcasts." The Kiko delivered this last hypothesis with a modicum of hope in his voice. An electrical fire at a communication station was preferable to an invasion of robot Grundos.
"We'll see, Athersby. We'll see."
A swell of sound rose up from the room below, and Pollock looked out the window to see two Grundos and an Ixi burst through the exterior door, shouting for the officer in charge. Pollock pulled his collar down, brushed his hair back to its most executive position, and descended down the steps.
"I am Captain Pollock," he said imposingly as he came within sight of the newcomers. "What is the meaning of this intrusion?"
The green Grundo, who looked like the one in charge of the group, stepped forward. "Landin, chief maintenance officer." He saluted briefly. "Sir, with all due respect, you need to get your act together and start locking down this room. There's something awful on the way."
Pollock stared at the impudence. "Are you ordering me around, Maintenance Officer Landin?"
Landin ignored the loss of his "chief." "Yes, sir. You need to begin initiation of Security Protocol 8.5.13 right now or everyone in this room..." He looked around at the assembled pets. "Everyone in this room is dead."
1:52 am NST – Overseer's Office, Factory Floor A
"Are you sure, Worth?"
"It's the right frequency, sir. Each Grundo is set to the same frequency."
"And if you can match it...?"
"The words'll match, sir. Dr. Sloth demanded an emergency destruction protocol in case of situations like this."
"...Are we going to die, Worth?"
"I'm afraid so, sir."
"I see. Open a channel to all control rooms. Tell them... tell them what's happened. Tell them about the Grundos, about the words, the frequency, all of it. Tell them to type as fast as they've ever typed in their lives. And tell them..."
"Tell them about us, Worth. Tell them what we've sacrificed for them."
"Arrogant to the last, sir?"
"Heh. Arrogant to the last, Worth."
2:02 am NST – Control Room C2
The control room's typist had hyperventilated himself into a lasting faint, and Pollock was finding it very difficult to locate another tech who had both typing skills and fingers. The message from the factory had confirmed the truth of the Ogrin's absurd babbling. There were clockwork Grundos on the move, but there was a way to stop them. Unfortunately, the only tech capable of typing at speed, when faced with the prospect of being the savior of the Space Station, had found himself unable to cope with the pressure.
"Are you telling me," Pollock rumbled, "that there isn't a single one of you who can type faster than five words per minute?"
Jenkins raised a hoof. "I don't have fingers, sir." This gave rise to a chorus of scattered snickers.
Pollock simply stared. "Then you should gallop right out an air lock if you're going to keep making inane comments." He turned and pointed at Landin. "You, maintenance officer. Can you type?"
Landin shrugged apologetically. "Wouldn't even know where to start, sir. Never looked at a keyboard much. Wiring and pipes are more my specialty."
Zarlox was next to get the accusatory finger. "You, Grundo. Can you type?"
Zarlox had been known to type in the past when his life's dream had been to join the CGTF, or Code Grundo Task Force. The CGTF was responsible for maintaining the computers of the entire Station. This dream had, of course, been shot to pieces when he was assigned the more pedestrian duty of fixing rusted pipes. "Er... I typed once, sir?"
"And your speed, Grundo?"
"I got to sixty words a minute, once." Zarlox was plagued by humility. This was far better than anyone else in the room could manage, and Pollock knew it.
"Upstairs, now," he commanded in a tone that would brook no argument. He half-led, half-shoved Zarlox into the office and seated him in a chair facing the window. "Your new station, and welcome to it. You'll have a clear field of view from here. If my assumptions are right, the Grundos will be coming through that set of windows there." Pollock pointed directly across the room at a set of windows covered by security paneling. "The paneling won't stop them for long... as soon as they blast through, it'll all be up to you. We'll be right behind you." The remark was more literal than comforting; the entire crew would be evacuated up to the safety of the office.
"What if there's too many, sir? What if I can't stop them all?" Zarlox was not as impressed with his own skills as Pollock had seemed to be.
"Then this is your grave, son... and welcome to it."
6:32 am NST – Commander's Quarters
"Ladies and gentlemen of the Virtupets® Space Station, this is the commander of the Station speaking. I regret to inform you that a terrible event has occurred. Several hours ago, a ventilation pipe burst in the maintenance shafts above the control room corridors, spewing toxic fumes from the Station's engines into several of the control rooms. The fumes mixed with electrical sparks, causing several of the explosions you may have heard last night.
"Control rooms A1 through C5 were affected as the toxins continued to make their deadly way through adjoining rooms. Due to security measures, the doors were sealed, leaving the unfortunate members of the crew stuck in their rooms only to perish at the hands of the fumes. Maintenance squads worked tirelessly to contain the spread, but it took several hours and it was too late to prevent any deaths. We urge you not to worry about any continued pollution; the problem has been well and truly taken care of. Please do not hesitate to remain here on the Space Station and enjoy our food, games, and famous hospitality.
"A memorial service will be held later this evening for the unfortunate crew members who lost their lives combating the spread of the fumes. These members included, but were not limited to, the head officer and entire crew of control rooms A1 through C5, the chief maintenance officer of the night shift and two of his underlings, and, most unfortunately, a small Warf whose collar identified him only as Norbert. They shall be sorely missed. Thank you."