Of Menaces, Hopes and Icky Space Food: Part Five
Art by ssjelitegirl
They fell down onto the bay floor, bounced a bit and scrabbled up the crate that was emanating muffled cries. The lid levered off easily enough and the ropes were easy to chew through. Tim, red in the face, tore the gag off and jumped out of the crate, or at least would have if his foot hadn't snagged.
"Oof!" he said and scrambled to his feet. "We gotta stop them!"
"Whoa, kid," said Bloody Mary, sliding off the crate and onto the floor. "In this corner, a carefully planned takeover with high-grade blaster supplies and probably trained warriors. In the other corner, a kid with a mop. And you didn't bring your mop."
"And you," Tim pointed out.
"Did I say that? I know I didn't say that."
"Look, it's no skin off our backs if they do take over in the name of the doctor-whoever," remarked Bob Squeaky. "We're still in a floaty metal box, correct? The overtakers still need to eat. Supply ships will still be flying. We'll just wait in the vents until things settle down, hitch a ride with the next ship out, maybe the ship will then have new logos but what difference does it make? As for you, odds are pretty good they'll still want a janitor. A very good job, janitoring, always in demand."
"He might not be a particularly bad leader," Bloody Mary said. "How hard can the job be? Long as he doesn't let the supplies run out, but he's probably got people to take care of that."
"But he's evil!" Tim wailed.
"People say that about us as well," Justice remarked drily.
"Well, but... okay, fine!" The Usul spun around on the spot and marched off. "I'll just need to do it myself then."
"Alright, have fun," said Bloody Mary. "Okay, folks, how do we get back into the vents? Might be good to lay low for a little."
"Wall grate right there," said Joe the Chef.
"Awesome, let's move."
"Hey, hey hey hey!" Tim shouted from the hydraulic door. "You're supposed to reconsider and come after me!"
"Cute, but no," Bloody Mary said, marching the group firmly towards the wall.
"What... I..." Tim was practically squeaking with indignation. "Okay! Fine! See if I care! I might perish out there! You guys are terrible mentors!"
He keycarded the door open, stood fuming until the gap was wide enough to let him through, squeezed past and then tried to key the door shut again, only to find out that the door opened all the way before closing again. He scanned the card angrily several times while the door slid shut with calm indifference and eventually closed with a soft thump.
"Nice kid overall," said Justice, prying the new grate off for them to get back into the vents. "Might go places, once he gets past the everything-is-terrible phase."
"Eh, they grow out of it," said Bob Squeaky. "What are the chances that there'll be grub in this station that isn't in tubes?"
"I'd check the tourist area," said Justice.
The door behind them hummed open again.
"I have a plan!" Tim cried. "Wait, wait, stop climbing into that vent, I have a plan and I need you for this!"
"You do realize that it's only awkward for you, not for us?" Bloody Mary asked gruffly, turning around to look out from the vent he'd already bounced into.
The Usul hurried pell-mell across the bay floor. "Listen, please, I'm not asking you to do anything. I just need you to show me the way, is all. Then you can stay back and watch without being in any danger yourself. It's what you've been doing so far anyway. Please!" He skidded to a halt and dropped to his knees. "I know I can do this, I just need your help for this one thing. Please."
He tried to read anything to the positive or negative out of the impassive little blue faces that were now looking at him, but Meepits are excellent at only showing what they want to show.
"The funny thing is," Bob Squeaky noted, "I'd take points off for the catty remark and add extra points for the catty remark."
"I'll throw in points for specifically using arguments intended to leverage us into agreeing," Justice added.
"We don't have any levers."
"Yeah, but if we did, he'd be pressing the right ones right now."
Bloody Mary cast glances around while the team was throwing out comments, then fixed his look on Tim, who was waiting breathlessly, barely daring to move.
"Really, you think we'd give you a hard time for the sake of it?" he said. "You make good points. Climb on in and tell us what the deal is."
After hearing the plan that Tim rattled out in a hushed, echoing whisper in the winding tunnels, the Meepits all agreed that what it lacked in common sense, it made up in enthusiasm.
"Okay, so all large rooms or areas have separate forcefield generators for extra protection," Tim explained, scrambling breathlessly after the pattering gang. "We need to find the vent that goes over the Astrovilla common area, right, I'm sure that's where they'll go because that's the only place with a proper gathering of people right now, and they'll be civilian tourists so they'll be good hostages with minimum chance of training to fight back. Then I'll hack the local forcefield generator and trap Mednix, I mean Ylana and the three stooges into it, and at that point, when they're all distracted, I'll jump into the field myself, grab their weapons and throw them outside the field, and then punch their lights out!"
"I like it," Bob Squeaky remarked. "Clear-cut, straightforward, no convoluted wiggles. I hope you can hack fast, though, odds are pretty good they'll get there first, since they know what they're doing and we're doing guesswork."
"It barely counts as guesswork at this point," Joe the Chef noted grimly. They'd been following the voices of loud shouts, laughter and general noises usually made by tourists in a foreign venue at nighttime.
"Well, the good news is, they're not screaming yet," Justice said encouragingly. "Means the takeover hasn't started yet.
Bloody Mary cast her a sideways glance. "You sure? They sound plenty loud to me."
"Yeah, but that's having-a-good-time sort of loud."
"I reckon it'll be a while before the rest of the station even figures out something's wrong," the leader said grimly. "I mean, how would they even know? Say I'm stationed here as a night guard and I hear shouts that're maybe slightly louder than usual, I'll just think that someone won big at bingo. Ooh, is that candy?"
"It's a filing box," Tim said incredulously. Their hurried journey through the vents had taken them up to a small plastic filing box sitting next to a vent grate. The Meepits shot a collective look through the grate when marching past, someone muttered 'attentive guards, my tail' and the box got smoothly swept along the fuzzy blue tidal wave that was pattering along ahead of the Usul.
"And this," said Bob Squeaky, his coarse voice now rising into an actual shout because the humdrum of noise was graduating into a proper certified ruckus, "is why you don't hold out on your fellow colleague and hide your personal stash of candy in the vents. Someone will exact revenge in the name of your poor candy-less colleagues. Remember this one for your bright future, Timmy-boy, might win you friends someday."
They came to a bend that led to a much wider ventilation shaft, climbed halfway through it and stopped at a large grate in the floor. Through it, the enormous common room of the Astrovilla Neolodge could be seen far away, brightly lit and teeming with Neopets. It was decently late by now, steadily progressing on to indecently late, and the surrounding noise had taken on that particular dumbing quality that presses against your senses, makes your head hazy and overly sharp at the same time, and somehow convinces you that what you really need right now is a plateful of something greasy, a decision always regretted the next day.
"No evident takeover or bingo winnings in sight," reported Justice. "If they are coming here, then they can't be far behind, but we actually made good time getting here, so I'd estimate five, ten minutes. Someone pass me a candy bar."
The Meepits settled down around the grate, while Tim shuffled off by a few feet and prized a panel off the wall, revealing a switchboard and a jumble of wires. He stared at it for a moment.
"Um?" he ventured.
"Sure, have some," Bloody Mary said, holding out a candy bar.
"No, I mean, do any of you perchance know how to hack this?"
The Meepits turned and gave the switchboard a critical look that was just long enough to make the Usul hopeful, then Bob Squeaky summed their collective answer up with "Frankly, I'd just bite all the wires."
"Come ooon, that's not how it works in stories!" Tim muttered frantically, jabbing at the control panel, which started beeping irritably. "Roses are red, forcefields are blue..."
"Don't touch the thick yellow one, you'll cut the power," Justice said idly, making the Usul nearly jump and pull the yellow cable in question.
"How do you know that?!"
"She reads things," Bloody Mary said, while the others nodded.
"Well, do you know how to work the forcefields?"
"Sorry, no clue," said Justice. "You'll want to sort that out fast, though, looks like it's showtime."
"What?!" Tim left the open panel behind and scrambled back to the grate, under which the ruckus had now died down a little as the Neopets down below turned to look at something in a farther wall with apparent confusion.
To be continued...