Of Menaces, Hopes and Icky Space Food: Part Four
Art by ssjelitegirl
Strictly speaking, the Virtupets space station had no night and day, but it still operated on a 24-hour cycle that matched the hemisphere of Neopia that the station hovered over, both for the comfort of tourists and because it would've driven the staff nuts otherwise. At 10 PM, lights were dimmed to emergency evacuation lights only and the station was declared on night schedule until seven the next morning. You still got tourists milling about, but the nighttime activity mostly stuck to the recreation deck and the Astrovilla Neolodge, which was its own separate area.
Activity also died down in the ventilation ducts in night schedule, which meant that during their collective journey to the loading bay, they only encountered seven other sneakers-through-the-night, and avoided meeting all of them head-on. Tim had crawled into the ducts from the dorm kitchen, which had a large enough pipe, and followed the Meepits at a meek distance.
Bloody Mary, feeling altogether more benevolent than usual – Meepits are nocturnal so being up on this hour put them all in their element – had forwent his usual position at the head of the team and lagged behind with Tim for the explicit purpose of spouting occasional wisdom.
"Y'see," he was currently saying, "you know what metal sounds like, right?" He klonked down with his paw for emphasis. "But when whatever's making the klonk is farther away, some of the noise gets lost, right? Listen to those guys up front." He paused, letting the smaller klonk-klonks of meepitsteps up ahead sink in. "So when you deduct the noise you're hearing from the current sound that you yourself are making, you get the distance between you and whatever source is causing the noise farther away."
"But if whatever's making the noise is bigger and heavier than you?" Tim asked, sweating with the eagerness to learn this lesson properly.
"Then they make different sounds. Might be a thump, or a plomp, or a clunk, or pitter-patter. You just gotta know what that'd sound like if it was right up close. How come a kid with ears like yours doesn't know this stuff anyway?"
The Usul flopped his ears backwards. "I guess I just never saw a reason to learn."
"Rich kid problems," Justice said from up ahead.
Tim bristled. "Hey!"
"I mean it," said Justice. "Rich kid problems. Poor kids get problems with finding food and learning a trade that'd put food on the table and knowing how to recognize people who'll get them a step up in life. Rich kids get problems with motivation and independence and skills you can actually call yours."
Tim digested that for a while against a series of klonk-klonks.
"So what are your problems then?" he asked.
There was a chorus of hah-s.
"Here we are then," said Bob Squeaky, stopping next to a ventilation grate in the floor. "Keep a lid on the chatter, the fellas are down there already."
"Doing what?" Tim asked in an excited whisper, trying hard to move forward silently.
"Doing nothing while trying to look like they're cool and dangerous," said Bob, sidling around the grate for a better vantage point. "The usual. Who'd be bringing the shipment? There has to be a crew."
"It's a company called Roogistics, they ferry us supplies a lot," said Tim, who'd done research earlier than evening. "Scheduled to get in in twenty minutes. You think they're in on it?"
"Depends on how smart the brains behind the operation are," Justice said drily. "Ships can ferry goods without knowing what those goods are and the fewer people know about your illicit candy business, the smaller the chance that someone lets something slip. We'll see how they interact. Now sit down and be patient for once."
They sat down, patiently in the Meepits' case and impatiently-but-trying-hard-to-look-patient-ly in Tim's case. Minutes ticked by to the clicking and whirring humdrum that made up the background noise of the Space Station's life processes.
Suddenly, the Meepits looked alert. Tim strained his ears and could eventually pick up a change in the background humdrum. Machines were shifting, gears were interlocking and an airlock slid open.
They watched as a small cargo ship docked, the bored-looking crew climbed out, stretching and shaking ruffled feathers and fur, papers were signed, cargo was unloaded, new cargo was reloaded onto the ship and it took off after half an hour.
Beady eyes plus a pair of big Usul eyes watched from above as the three Blumaroos gathered around the crates.
"Right, look alive now. You know the drill. Break open, shift, remove, close."
"Yeah, yeah, keep your pants on."
"C'mon man, more elbow grease. What are you, a Cybunny?"
"You wanna do it, hotshot?"
"Right, okay, this one's sheets of metal. Hold this up, c'mon."
"Move on to the next." Crack, shuffle, shuffle, clank, shuffle, irritated mutters.
"Right, next one."
"Aw come on, stupid springy toys again?"
"Hey, don't question it, keep digging."
"Oh hey, there's something here. Get some light this way."
The Meepits realized too late that the latter didn't come from the Blumaroos. The Blumaroos took a moment to arrive to the same conclusion, and then spun around to see Tim sit on the floor next to a still-spinning ventilation grate, rubbing his backside with a hurt expression.
"Well- still, ah-HA!" he ventured, getting to his feet. The Meepits above him backed quickly away from the hole.
"The heck?" the green Blumaroo asked in confusion.
"The squirt's been spying on us from the ventilation!" blurted the red one.
"And I caught you red-handed!" Tim said valiantly. There was more away-backing in the ducts above him.
"Doing what?" the blue Blumaroo asked with a scowl.
"Uh..." Tim realized too late that the Blumaroos hadn't actually yet uncovered anything, but pressed on all the same. "I know you've been smuggling candy!"
"In that box!"
"How do you plan to get to that box?" the blue Blumaroo sneered. The other two puffed up menacingly.
"I, uh," Tim stammered, "I got backup!"
"Ooooh no you don't, buster," a very quiet voice said from the ducts, going unheard by everyone below.
"Callin' your bluff," said the red Blumaroo. "Where's the backup?"
Tim stared up at the hole in the ceiling.
"Truly, it breaks my heart," said Bloody Mary, who by that point had backed several yards away and around a bend together with the rest of the gang.
"This one, he was not ready," said Santa, to unanimous grim nods.
"Got to admire that pluck," said Justice.
"From afar," said Bob Squeaky, as muffled scuffling could be heard from the warehouse.
"Right, kiddo" said a Blumaroo voice from below, "we'll figure out what to do with you later, and you might as well stop struggling, I do know how to tie knots properly, thank you."
"Akay, what do we have in this box then?"
Clank, shuffle, clank clank, with a newly added background of Tim's angry protests that went wholly ignored.
"Wait, what is that stuff? Doesn't look like candy."
"Some more toys, keep digging."
"No, man, look..."
Silence fell. The Meepits, now curious, shuffled back to the edge of the hole and peered down. The Blumaroos were leaning over the crate with baffled looks. Several springy toys had been strewn on the floor and the three were also holding... something that looked like springy toys at first, but smelled entirely different, for starters.
"Well," Bloody Mary said heavily.
Tim, who was tied up with ropes and wiggling angrily around on the floor, was craning his neck to try and see what the Blumaroos were so baffled about.
"These," whined the blue Blumaroo, now with definite panic in his voice, "are weapons."
"High-grade blasters, it looks like," said the red one, trying and only partly succeeding to keep his voice cool. "Okay, okay, so we get weapon shipments, but this wasn't marked as a weapon shipment."
"Someone probably messed up planetside again," said the green Blumaroo. "Remember when they sent Tchea fruits? The whole load had gone rotten by the time it got here."
"Yeah, but it's a little bit easier to mix up candies and Tchea fruits than candies and blasters!"
"That's not a mix-up," the blue Blumaroo said grimly, trying hard to conceal the shrill panic note in his voice. "You see this packing? This is careful packing. Springy toys all along the sides and the weapons in the middle."
"Should we ask Mednix about this?" the red one ventured.
"What if that was her plan all along?" said Tim, wiggling himself more upright on the floor.
"Could have a point there," said the green Blumaroo thoughtfully. "She's never wanted much of a cut of the candy ring, has she? And remember all those times she's told us how much potential we have with this."
"And so you do," said a new voice, to the smooth whirr of an opening hydraulic door. A new figure strode in, a tall Tyrannian Acara with a proud posture and a pretty bad haughty sneer. The Blumaroos snapped to attention.
"Hm, pretty good," Bloody Mary said approvingly from their unseen meepit-vantage point. "Neat timing with all those thick metal doors. Probably been listening in this whole time."
"She missed the best point for entry, though," said Bob Squeaky. "Come on, 'what if this was her plan all along' is basically fanfare and a red carpet."
"Mark my word," said Joe the Chef, "the kid's about to say something lame like 'You!'"
"Ehh," Bloody Mary snorted, "we've had a better effect on him by now."
Tim rolled himself over to face the newcomer. "You!"
"Nevermind, lost case," a small voice said in the ceiling above him.
"Well, yes, it is," Mednix said, visibly taken aback, "seeing how those three were just talking about me. Right, Jeremy, if you would be so kind and pack all these blasters into that flat box you see next to bay door 27C, thank you." She stepped closer and towered over Tim as the Blumaroos set to work hesitantly. "Now, what should I do with you?"
"Which one's Jeremy?" Justice asked.
"Eh, I can't tell them apart," Bloody Mary said dismissively.
"What are you going to do with those blasters?" Tim demanded hotly, earning an unheard "Ooh, good, get her monologuing" from above.
"Oh," Mednix said sweetly, "the usual, really, distribute them to my secret co-conspirators, take over the station, locate the amulet with Dr Sloth, bring him back to power."
"Oh, that's the twist," Justice said appreciatively.
Bloody Mary eyed her grudgingly: "The what now? Wait, nevermind, they're about to explain this with needless obviousness and some well-placed posturing anyway. Did anyone think to bring popcorn?"
"I got some everlasting apple here," said Joe the Chef.
"Excellent, pass it round."
"But... why?" Tim had gasped in the meantime. The Meepits sat down on the edge of the hole in two neat rows.
"Because he pays well, but I don't really get my payment until after he's out of that amulet," Mednix said drily.
The Usul's eyes widened. "Wait a minute now... you're... you're Ylana Skyfire, aren't you?"
"Gasp," said the Meepits, enjoying themselves immensely.
Mednix – or Ylana – sneered. "Funny thing, isn't it? They searched me far and wide after the last takeover, blue Acara, five foot three, birthmark on upper lip, armed and dangerous, but does it ever occur to them that paintbrushes are available even to those who don't have Dr Frank Sloth's funds behind their backs? I was back on the station within four months."
"Say, um, ma'am," said a Blumaroo. "Will we be briefed on this?"
"You just were, essentially," Ylana said with a grin, "but yes, you'll hear more when we get to the headquarters. You two, take the box, and you, stuff this kid into the crate. We're making our move right now, the place will be ours before he's out of these ropes, if he gets out of these ropes in the first place. Did you check him for concealed blades?"
The Blumaroos looked sheepish.
"Yeah, this is what I get to work with these days," the Acara sighed. "Move it!"
Tim was stuffed in a crate, gagged with a rag, the lid was slammed on and Ylana marched the three dumbstruck-looking Blumaroos out of the dock bay. Silence fell, broken only by muffled protests from the abovesaid crate.
"Well, that's that," Bloody Mary said cheerfully, after they'd sat for a bit and decided that nobody was showing up any more. "Can anyone smell anything interesting in those crates? They might've shipped in some candy besides the weapons."
"Nothing except a candy bar Timmy-boy looks to have in his pocket," reported Bob Squeaky.
"Really? Shame on him, he's held out on us. Let's go, then."
To be continued...