The assembly line suddenly came to a halt; a Poogle plushie toppled, knocking over another figurine. Confused, the Grundo factory workers simultaneously raised their heads, and conversation broke out.
“Is it broken?” hissed one employee. Her face slowly paled from orange to an apprehensive white. “Think what Sloth will do!”
“It wasn’t my fault!” protested another. His eyes bulged grotesquely. “Please, Sloth... I had nothing to do with this! Nothing!”
For a moment, the whispers remained quiet, and then chaos broke out. Screams pierced the air while several Grundos climbed onto the metal conveyor belt, grabbing the plushies and attaching eyes, painting feathers. Other, less brave pets cowered in the corner, tears leaking from terrified eyes. The third group had approached the video camera and proceeded to beg for mercy from their leader.
The loudspeaker crackled, and the room went eerily silent; and the Grundo Thief sprinted out of the room, unnoticed.
He didn’t dare stop running for almost five minutes. At last, he slowed, breath coming out in tiny, desperate puffs. That was the hardest run I’ve ever made, he recounted to himself, but easily the most beneficial. Craving the sensation of success, he dragged the heavy cart out to face him.
Rows and rows of plushies, many colors, many species, sat upon the metal throne. The sight instantly thrilled the Grundo Thief; he had to suppress an urge to wrap his arms around his treasures, but he knew that the act would be, to say the least, unwise. Quickly, he counted up the prizes. There were one-hundred fifteen in all, twenty-six more than his old personal best and forty-nine more than he had received on his last run. And - even better - he had successfully shut down the conveyor belt! For a minute, the neopet basked in the glow of his accomplishments, a truly satisfying experience. Then, however, reality set in.
The Grundo Thief stared in horror at the day’s catches, and realized what a daunting task he had ahead of him.
One fifteen, he told himself. Just one fifteen more. And then it’ll be months before Virtupets can fix the assembly line. He grinned at the torn wires and gears on the bottom shelf of the cart. I can actually take a break for a couple of months.
Saving the world took all of the Grundo Thief’s time and energy, but if he wasn’t needed for a while... The fantasy quickly clouded his mind. He could catch a flight back home to Kreludor and see his wife and child. Lith, their adopted Krawk, must be nearly two by now... he must remember to buy a Babaa for her...
One fifteen. Just focus on the plushies first.
As if reading his mind, a Purple Cybunny plushie’s eyes glowed scarlet, and faded almost immediately.
He grimaced. That one would have to be taken care of first, but he didn’t have the materials here... he had to get off of the Space Station.
“Thank you, Vinetta.”
The faerie Grundo merely shrugged, tearing a piece off of her bacon omelette. “You know that I’m glad to help,” Vinetta said, mouth full of egg, “just as long as -”
“We stop in Tyrannia,” he finished, smiling. “You and your breakfast food.”
“It’s all dehydrated up at the Station, GT!” she argued. “So when I have to give you rides to Neopia Central, I might as well get something real to eat.” Her tone changed from light-hearted to serious as she switched topics. “So... over one-hundred of those. Are you sure you’ll be okay on your own?”
“Of course. Always have before, haven’t I?” the Grundo Thief said, but his words did little to alter the concerned look on her face.
“Before, you had ninety at most. This is over a hundred. It’s pretty dangerous. I could come with you...”
“No,” he declined. “I need you back up there, making sure that the conveyor belt stays broken for a good long while. Please, Vin-Vin... you know how much this means to me. It’s been a year since I’ve seen my daughter.”
“But you’ll be alone...” she said.
“No, I’ll be joined up by the Scientist before long. I’ll be okay. I’ve had tons of practice.” He chuckled mirthlessly before abruptly wrapping his arms around Vinetta. She returned the hug, burying her face in his shoulder.
“I worry about you, GT,” she whispered.
“Hey, it’s okay, sis. Don’t worry about me. Just worry about yourself.” He pulled away and offered half of a smile. “Bye. I’ll message you when I need a ride, so you can take me home."
“Do me a favor, bro-bro?” she said suddenly, smirking at him over her shoulder. “Stay alive.” And then she took off and disappeared into the sky.
First step: Find the Scientist.
The Grundo Thief pulled a map out of his gargantuan suitcase, being careful not to accidentally brush up against any of the toys. Their presence was beginning to make him anxious, as their eyes glowed more and more as each hour passed. The only solution was to finish this quickly, and to do that, he had to get to the lab.
He wished that he could have the pathway memorized; he’d been down it more times than he could count. But the secret laboratory was in an otherwise uninhabited area of Neopia Central, one reminiscent of the Haunted Woods. The Grundo Thief was completely unafraid of stealing and transferring dangerous items; however, something about the jungle terrified him. The noises, the trees, the darkness - it suffocated him, and he wasn’t enjoying the journey.
At last, he hopped over the last root and came to a stop in front of a large, gray building. A long line of neopets waited outside. Ordinarily, he would wait his turn, but he had to get inside now. Without so much as an apology, he shoved his way through the crowd until he was inside.
The Yellow Scorchio glanced up, and a horrified recognition appeared in his eyes. “Lab closed!” he hollered. The cluster of pets immediately started to protest. In order to silence them, the Scientist sent bright beams of light everywhere with his creation. Screams pierced the air as beautiful faeries transformed into mutants, and before long the laboratory was empty and the Scientist had locked the doors.
The crazy neopet turned towards the Grundo Thief. “Do you have more?” he asked incredulously. “It’s only been two weeks since you last brought me those... those... things.”
“Plushies,” the Grundo corrected with a smirk. “To answer your question, yes. I have a large amount this time... one hundred fifteen, to be precise.”
As he had expected, the other’s eyes spun with fear. “I c-c-can’t!” the Scientist sputtered. “You know my limit... one-hundred. I’ve told you that before. Any more and there’s the risk of running out of time before...” The Scorchio visibly gulped and shivered.
“The risk is mine as well, if you leave me with fifteen of these!” said the Grundo Thief. “Please. You have the means to stop them. I don’t.”
The Scientist wildly shook his head. “Look, I’ve worked for you all these years. Together we must have changed thousands of these maniacal creations to harmless toys. So you understand - I am a coward. I am too scared - I would not be able to fight back. And besides - it isn’t like you aren’t familiar with the attacks -”
“Shut up!” the Grundo Thief growled.
“I am only making a statement -”
“No, it’s not that,” the Grundo said. “I heard something. Someone.”
The Scientist nervously watched as his companion began to throw aside other experiments (all of them failed) in his pursuit of the noise he had heard.
“I know there’s someone here -”
And then the Grundo Thief yelled in rage and tossed aside a large chunk of metal to reveal a trembling blue Grundo.
“What did you hear?” he screamed, making the younger neopet flinch. She stood, backed up against the wall, and gazed at the Grundo Thief in terror.
“The truth,” the Grundo Thief insisted, voice icily calm.
The blue Grundo sighed. “Everything,” she muttered, defeated. “I followed you all the way down here. I have a friend who is a faerie Grundo, like your friend. I saw you running from the Space Station when the line shut down and I thought if I caught you... maybe Sloth would be proud of me, give me a reward... but you’re going to strange lengths to get rid of those plushies.” She glanced at them warily. “Is something wrong with them?”
The Scientist and the Grundo Thief exchanged alarmed looks. Did the workers really have no idea what was going on? “If you leave right now,” the Grundo Thief began, regaining composure, “and if you never tell anyone about this, you won’t be hurt.”
Her face twisted. “I’m just a kid!” she protested.
He shrugged. “I don’t care.”
He unlocked the doors for her and she walked out, casting longing glances back at the plushies. “How am I supposed to get home?” the blue Grundo shouted just before he shut the glass door.
“You work that out.”
The Grundo Thief slammed the door and walked away.
“How will you know if she tells anyone or not?” the Scientist asked anxiously. “Because, you know, I don’t want roped into this -”
“We’ll know,” the Grundo Thief grimly replied, fists clenched. “Sloth wouldn’t take this lying down. But I think we’re safe. She seemed fairly terrified.”
“Good,” the Scientist replied, not entirely reassured. “Now, back to the original dilemma - I’m only accepting one hundred at a time. I’m sorry. I’ll neomail you as soon as I’m finished, and you can bring me the remainder - until then, stay safe.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the Grundo Thief grumbled. He selected fifteen of the plushies, the ones whose eyes had yet to glow frequently, and started out the door before calling loudly, “I’ll be staying at the Cheap Hotel here in town, if you need to find me. Please, get these done quickly... I can’t hold off fifteen of these on my own for long.”
The Scientist didn’t respond, having pulled his goggles over his eyes and placed a wriggling plushie in front of the ray. The Grundo walked out, and was momentarily blinded by a violent flash of yellow light - and then it was over, and he strode back into the jungle once more, fifteen plushies wrapped up in his arms.
The sun had almost completely set, and the Grundo Thief wasn’t yet at the hotel. He yawned and dropped a few plushies so he could consult the map; he was still about an hour’s trek away from the Neolodge.
He sighed deeply; it was dangerous to be out here on his own with the plushies, but it would be far more dangerous to abandon this starry, dimly lit clearing in favor of walking in complete darkness. There would be no light whatsoever. His fear of the jungle bubbled up and he decided against the hotel. He could just turn around in the morning and head back to the Secret Laboratory to check up on his colleague’s progress, after all.
With a great effort, the Grundo Thief was ignoring the flashing of the toys’ eyes, and how several had began to squirm. First stage: the eyes. Second stage: the movement. Third... He didn’t even want to think about the third. There was a reason he wore body armor. Frowning at an almost invisible scar on his arm, the neopet curled up on the soft grass and closed his eyes, trying desperately for sleep that he knew would never arrive.
And that’s why he was unprepared when something struck him in the back.
He yelled loudly in pain and stood up, knocking aside a Blue Kacheek plushie. The plushie’s eyes were bright maroon and had a consistent glow, much like a flashlight; foam dripped disgustingly from its mouth; and, worst of all, it was moving.
It was alive.
The Grundo Thief groaned and adjusted to a protective stance. He knew this would happen! And now he had no means of protection...
Another plushie leaped into the air and landed roughly on top of the Grundo Thief’s skull. He shook it off effortlessly, but then three jumped up and pushed him over. He screamed with all he had, but there was no one around to hear him...he swung wildly, but they just kept coming back...
Fifteen plushies attacked him mercilessly, and, as his hit points drained away, he wished that he could have seen his wife and Lith once more...
And then the figurines were gone.
He weakly got to his feet and stared across the clearing; there, a blue Grundo was dismantling the creatures, pulling out all of the wires and fixings, pressing buttons and tossing aside metal parts. She worked rapidly so as to not allow any of the plushies to come near her. A look of steady determination colored her face.
At last she was done, and the two Grundos were left to stare at each other, disassembled plushies littering the dewy field.
“I thought I told you to go home,” the Grundo Thief said quietly, although his tone held no malice, only wonder.
She half-smiled. “I kept following you. From the way you were talking about the plushies, it sounded like they were dangerous - and then I got it. Why we had to add metal to these otherwise soft toys. Why we weren’t allowed to speak of our profession outside of the ’Freaky Factory’ doors. And I figured that you might need someone with a knowledge of the anatomy of these little menaces. I wasn’t about to leave you with them.”
He blinked. “You saved my life.”
“I’m glad I could... I might be responsible for thousands of other injuries, all across Neopia.” Her brow furrowed. “I’m not going back there. It’s too horrible, what they do - what I used to do. I’m going to stay - no, wait.” She paused. “Do you steal these plushies with the intention of getting rid of them?”
“Sort of. We don’t get rid of the plushies, we just change them. The Lab Ray Scientist is an old friend of mine, and we worked on my small first pickings for a very long time. They grew active, and we had to restrain them with a cage so we wouldn’t be attacked - but we were, countless times. And then we discovered accidentally that a simple lab ray zap would destroy whatever made them evil. Your method worked, and I sincerely wish we had had you around during that difficult time - but look.” He gestured to the stuffing strewn around the clearing. “These plushies are destroyed, and the Scientist and I - well, we still wanted children to be able to play with the toys. We just didn’t want those kids hurt. So we’ve used the lab ray for years now.”
“I want to help you,” the blue Grundo said, fire burning in her eyes. “I worked for the wrong side too long. Will you allow me to assist you?”
He hesitated. “You’re much too young, and this is a dangerous line of work. I wouldn’t want you getting hurt.”
“Please!” she begged. “There must be something I can do.”
The Grundo Thief was about to refuse her once again, but something stopped him. An idea worked its way into his mind. “There is something...”
“Sarill!” the Scientist demanded. “Let’s go over this one more time.”
The Blue Grundo grinned. “I take these plushies to Faerieland, and give them to the Discarded Magical Blue Grundo Plushie of Prosperity. He’ll give them out to others when they come to visit him. It’s not exactly a difficult plan, Sci.”
The Grundo Thief repressed a smile. “This is serious, Sarill,” he reprimanded her. “Make sure they all get there safely. Children need to have safe, free toys.”
Sarill nodded. “Of course, GT. You can count on me.”
“You can help us with the shipments from now on if you like, but the factory is going to be down for a few months.” A mischievous smirk crossed the Grundo Thief’s face. “So during that time, you should try to find yourself a family. I’m sure there would be many who would love a kid like you.”
“I don’t know about that, but I can always try. See you sometime, all.” And then Sarill walked away, disappearing into the jungle.
They watched her for a few minutes, and then the Grundo Thief set off as well.
“Sounds like a close call,” Vinetta commented somberly, after her brother had finished telling his tale.
“It was. Lucky Sarill was there, otherwise that might have been the end.” A chill ran down his spine.
“I don’t understand why you keep this up, GT. It’s much too risky,” Vinetta said. She stared at him with a serious, intent look. “I don’t like the thought of you being hurt.”
He shrugged. “I don’t either, but the thought of all of those little kids being hurt is far worse.”
The faerie Grundo sighed. “Apparently nothing I can say would convince you otherwise. Are you ready to go back to Kreludor?”
He almost said yes, but stopped himself at the last second. “Almost,” he admitted. “There’s one more thing that I have to do.”
The Grundo Thief entered the Petpet Shop and smiled at the cashier.
"One Babaa, please."