What Lurks Below: Part One
Also by gwendarwen
It started out as just another day at the plushie factory. One of the managers was explaining to a group of dropouts how, if you shredded it just right, no one would know the difference between stuffing made from the Neopian Times and stuffing made from the finest NeoCotton. Just as the manager was getting to the most crucial part of his explanation (you have to tear the paper from left to right), the lights went out.
Blackouts weren't uncommon in this part of town, what with all the competing plushie factories sucking up electricity. However, this factory had a backup generator that should have turned the lights and machines back on within a few seconds – but nothing happened. Everyone waited. And waited. One of the dropouts complained, "I'm scared of the dark! And it's making me hungry!" Suddenly, the electricity came back on. There was a new problem now, however. Except for the hungry dropout and a manager who had hidden in a corner, everyone was gone. Needless to say, not much work was getting done.
"This is horrible, just horrible!" wailed the factory owner, a blue Chia known as Geoff, when he came to check on his factory. This was his first attempt at becoming a plushie tycoon. He thought miserably, "Does this happen to everyone? And who knows when I'll find the workers! It could be hours... If I have to pay them for all the lost time, I'll go broke!" He put his head in his hands.
Mort, a yellow Draik who was the lone manager left on the scene, spoke up timidly. "Uh, sir? Maybe it was one of your rivals... you know... sabotaging your business."
Geoff quickly looked up at him, his eyes filled with dread. Then his shoulders sagged as he sighed, "So what? There's nothing I can do about it."
The dropout decided to pitch in. "I'm hungry!" he whined.
"And you're fired," Geoff retorted.
Mort the manager cleared his throat and said, "Please don't fire me... sir. You don't have to pay me while no work is getting done. But I'd like to help out if I can."
"Thanks... uh..." Geoff stumbled.
"Mort," said Mort.
"Thanks, Mort, but I think everyone probably just left. Must have been their idea of a practical joke or something... that's all there is to it."
"Well, sir, I can vouch for my friends, at least," Mort assured him. "They wouldn't just walk out on their jobs like that. And... I just thought of something. I didn't see or hear any of the doors open."
Geoff sighed. "Great! So now my employees were all... abducted or something! Well. What do you think we should do then, Mort?"
Mort thought for a moment. "Umm... I guess we could ask around at the other factories. See if anything like this happened in any of them."
So Geoff and Mort set off, interviewing workers and owners from various factories, but no one was able to offer any explanations. Most of them seemed to think the two were trying to play a joke on them, or were crazy. Finally, late that afternoon, Geoff and Mort came to the largest, nicest factory they had seen, with literally thousands of workers. The owner was the Top Tycoon – the richest plushie-maker in the whole of Neopia. Geoff and Mort couldn't speak directly to the owner, of course, but after a long wait they were able to get a few minutes with the head manager.
The manager, a purple Skeith, looked at them skeptically. "You mean to tell me that you actually own THAT factory?" he asked, laughing. When they nodded, he stopped smiling. "Oh. So you're serious, then. Well. That's really quite odd." Geoff and Mort glanced at each other, perplexed. "I'm surprised you haven't heard about that place," he continued. "In fact, I'm surprised you managed to buy it! That factory's been shut down for years. After the last owner left town, the doors were chained... and no one's set foot in it since. Everyone who's owned that factory has gone out of business."
"Why's that?" Geoff asked in alarm.
The manager stared at him for a few seconds, then looked at the floor and sighed. After a moment, his eyes returning to Geoff's confused face, he replied solemnly, "It's haunted."
Geoff's mouth fell open in disbelief. So that's why the factory had been so cheap! He stammered, "Uh... I'm... new to this business. I had no idea! Do you think there's anything that could possibly help me?"
The manager raised one eyebrow, then he shook his head. "I'm sorry, kid. The only advice I have for you is to stay as far away from that place as you can." And with that he turned and walked away.
Stunned by what the Skeith had told them, the two discouraged Neopets trudged slowly downtown to the office that had sold Geoff the factory. Although Geoff begged and pleaded for them to let him sell it back, the hyperactive Lenny behind the counter just laughed. "Oh no, oh no, you don't. I heard what happened to you. Word gets around, yes, it does. We are not, we certainly are not going to pay all of those workers of yours, no, sir. You'll just have to keep that haunted factory, and it's your responsibility to send the workers' paychecks to their families. 'Compensation to employees must be made by the employer for any missed work due to an on-the-job accident.' That's in the contract you signed. Didn't you read the fine print? And furthermore, we, the sellers of the property, are not responsible for any liability relating to a haunted, cursed, hexed, poorly-built, damaged, or otherwise incapacitated factory. And that's that." The Lenny said all this so quickly it seemed to be one long run-on sentence. He finally took a deep breath, smiled, blinked several times, and darted to the back office for more coffee.
Mort and Geoff slumped, dejected, on the bench outside the office. Finally Mort cleared his throat and said, "I think we should go back and investigate the factory first thing tomorrow morning. There's bound to be some sort of clue there that can help us find out what happened."
Geoff raised his eyes from the ground. "I guess you're right. I don't see what else there is to be done, since no one seems willing to help us. Oh, well. At least if we disappear, too, I won't have to worry about paying all those workers!"
The next day, armed with flashlights (they didn't want to be caught in another blackout), crowbars (it's always a good idea to have a crowbar when you're trying to solve a mystery), and Wellington Boots (because they're so fashionable), Geoff and Mort crept into the factory. Then they just stood there in silence for about five minutes, not knowing what to do. "Well," said Geoff. He looked at Mort. Mort stared back at him for a few seconds, his expression blank. Then he said, "I know! Let's look in the corner I was hidin... er, inspecting when the lights went out." They made their way over to the corner, which was hidden by a large, cobweb-covered, rusty old machine.
"So... now what?" asked Geoff. Since neither of them knew, they stood looking around for another few minutes, hoping to spot the all-important "clue".
"I never knew mystery solving was so tedious," Mort said, and yawned.
Geoff scratched his head. "Uh... I guess this corner tile looks.... dirtier than the surrounding tiles, so... that could mean... umm..."
"That we need a better janitor," Mort finished. "Maybe that angry orange Yurble." Since the dirty tile was their only lead, the two decided to examine the other tiles in the factory. It turned out that most of the tiles were relatively clean, except for those tiles that were underneath a machine, even partially. "So," said Mort, "I guess the janitor just didn't bother to clean these tiles, since they're under machines."
Geoff shook his head. "That doesn't make sense. I can understand the part of the tile that's beneath a machine being dirty. But why would a whole tile be dirty if only part of it is under a machine? Besides, that tile you said you were standing on isn't under a machine at all, and it's dirty, too."
"You're right," Mort agreed. "Maybe we should take another look at that corner where I was standing."
They headed back to the tile in the corner. Not knowing what to do yet again, they stood and stared at it, puzzled. "Hmm... I wonder..." started Geoff. He lifted his crow bar and began prying at the dirty tile. No luck.
"That's what I was thinking," said Mort. "Wait. Let me try something." Geoff stood back, and Mort began prying with his crowbar on one of the clean tiles. After a few seconds, it started to give way, then one end lifted and the whole tile rotated on an axis until it was vertical. "Wow, look at this, Geoff!" said Mort, getting down on his knees to inspect the wobbling tile. "It's got a steel rod running horizontally through the middle of it that lets it spin!"
"That's amazing," said Geoff. "I wonder if any of the other tiles do the same thing!" So he and Mort began prying at the tiles again. The clean ones all spun on an axis, but the dirty ones wouldn't budge. "You know," said Geoff, "These tiles are so large that I'm beginning to wonder if everyone couldn't have just fallen through the floor!" Mort gave him a quizzical look. "No, I'm serious," Geoff insisted. Maybe there's some sort of mechanism that can make all these tiles turn at once. It would explain how everyone could disappear so quickly."
Mort thought about it for a moment, then conceded. "Yes, I think you could be right... and I just thought of something else. Maybe some tiles are dirty because they're older. These rotating tiles could have been installed more recently."
Geoff nodded. "Yeah... you have a point there."
"So... what now?" asked Mort. Geoff replied instantly, "We have to go down and investigate, of course!" Mort sighed. "I was afraid you'd say that." Geoff was obviously excited. "It'll be fun! Come on, I have some rope in my office!"
"You have rope in your office?"
"Yeah... I was practicing lasso tricks. ...What?"
Mort rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Never mind. Let's go."
They got the rope, which was quite long, and tied one end securely to a machine. Geoff held the other end out to Mort, but he crossed his arms and shook his head, so Geoff shrugged and fastened it to himself. He turned on his flashlight and peered into the hole under the tile, but all he could see was thick darkness.
"Well, I don't see anything," he said. "Must go down a long way... I guess there's nothing else to do but climb in and find out!" he said enthusiastically. Mort sighed. "All right then... I guess I'll handle the rope." Reluctantly, he took the rope and slowly lowered Geoff into the waiting blackness.
As Geoff was descending, he noticed that it seemed to get gradually colder. Finally, his flashlight beam reached the floor of the cavernous space, which looked like it was made of solid steel. After another minute, his feet touched the ground. Geoff realized that he was standing on a large, low platform made of steel. He stepped down, and with the help of his flashlight, he could see hulking metal behemoths that were twice the size of any machine in his factory. He started toward one.
"Did you make it down ok?" came Mort's voice. He sounded a mile away. Geoff called back that he did, and continued toward the huge machine, fascinated. He could see that it was covered in dials and gauges, and they all looked completely foreign to him. He was studying them when the lights came on.
Geoff froze. Whatever was down here now knew he was down here, too. It was probably looking right at him... he felt completely vulnerable. He hardly dared to breathe. He felt for his crowbar, then realized he had left it in the factory above. He closed his eyes and silently hoped he hadn't been seen. But he had a feeling deep in his gut that he was about to come face to face with whatever lay hidden in these depths.
To be continued...