Sometimes life redirects your attention, just to keep you busy…so it can deliver the missing pieces to the puzzle.
The faint rumble of the tramcar vibrated the walls, ripples disturbing the stagnant pools of water mixed with oil. Even a dozen levels below, you could hear the screech of brakes as the machine pulled into the station. The long, metal, lidless beasts that opened their stomachs to ingest the normals. People waiting on platforms, to be carted off and carried to work. Mindless drones ready to start their labors to support the great machine that was Clockworks City.
No one paid much attention to normals down here, though. Not in the abandoned manufacturing sector. This is where the poor and the forgotten lived out their days of despair and poverty.
“Oy, Marrol, you bettin or what?”
Marrol flinched, his attention on the noises above him. “What? Oh, yez..soory man.” Holding the bloodsticks tightly, he considered the points against him. Grungy fingers with broken, soiled nails, scratched the tattooed scalp around his mow-hawk. He wasn’t having much luck. Mook had thirty-two points, Gerry had twenty-seven. Benny would be lucky to reach twelve points total at this rate, but who cares—he lives off daddy’s credits anyway. If Marrol didn’t win the game, he’d have nothing to eat for the rest of the week.
He sighed quietly, blowing the air through his teeth, so it looked more like strategy than panic. It was stupid to bet his paycheck, but it was too late now.
“You in ta the mushrooms again?” chuckled Gerry and ending with his annoying snort. “Cause if ya have…ya better be passin ‘em around. Know what I means?”
Benny frowned, “He’s pissin around wha?”
Mook slugged the pale-looking gnome in the shoulder, “He said PASSIN, ya doyt! Not pissin…PASSIN!” Shaking his head, “Move it on, would ya Marrol? That or fall out, mate. Places to go, peoples ta mug.”
They all laughed. That is…until the windows exploded.
Glass and fragments of metal framing ricocheted off pipes and railing. The force of the blow knocked both Mook and Benny against the bars. Marrol flipped up against the railing with a resounding thud—a sharp pain shooting through his neck and down to his left shoulder. Stray shafts of sunlight, peeking down between the rows of buildings created a rainbow effect in the air. The dust from the shattered glass reflected the sunlight over their prone bodies.
“What the tic-toc was THAT?” cried Gerry aloud, his ears still buzzing. He blinked a few times until his eyes focused.
One by one, the gang members struggled to their feet. The deep grey smoke from the explosion continued to billow out the window and up into the morning air.
“I don’t know,” chimed Benny, “but I don’t thinks I wants to be here no more.”
Marrol spat on the ground and wiped the blood from under his nose. He didn’t care so much what the trouble was, because the bloodsticks had been blown off the platform. They’d never find them now. Probably dropped another twenty floors down for all he knew or cared. The guys’d be angry…but Marrol would eat until next payday.
He was alright with that.
The oversized doors on the front of the building swung open. Through the thick haze stumbled a silhouette. Back and forth it swayed, until the figure pushed out into the light of day.
“ACK! BAHAH!!” coughed the old gnome, his white lab coat now charcoal black. He pulled the goggles from his face and snapped them up onto his forehead, over his bushy eyebrows. “So much for test number 322. Ptooey!” he spat.
“Hey YOU!” barked Mook, “Ya nearly got us killed!” Pulling his leather gloves tight against his palms, Mook strutted towards the old gnome. One by one his cronies followed him, forming a semi-circle around their intended target.
“Another cell down the toilet,” the old gnome sighed, scratching his black and white striped beard and ignoring the gang altogether. Instead, he pulled a small vial from his lab coat and inspected it carefully. Satisfied the bubbly liquid was safe under glass and cork, he grinned to himslef. “At least I didn’t lose it all.”
“I’M TALKIN TO YOU!” yelled Mook. He took the rim of his hat and turned it around, ready for the physical confrontation. “Ya gonna PAY for that old man!”
Blinking twice, the old gnome looked up. Squinting at Mook, he blinked again, then at Gerry, then the rest of them, one by one as if he finally noticed he was not alone. “What are you boys doing loitering out here? Didn’t you read the trespassing signs? This place is dangerous! Now GIT…before I call the Centurions!”
Mook snarled, the poor attempt at a mustache growth sticking out from his top lip in open rebellion. “I think the Sewer Rats need ta teach you old people a lesson about who’s in charge of these platforms!”
Benny chuckled and stepped closer.
But before Mook could blink, the old man slid in close, an unmistakable grin on his hairy, scorched face. Raising the vial in his hand so the gang member could see it close and clear, he whispered, “Listen kid, you go on and bark all you like, but let me give you a heads up first, alrighty? You see this vial? You know what those sparkly little bubbles are? No. Of course you don’t. You’re a stupid child that probably dropped out of school to show how smart you are, flushing a brighter future down the crapper.” With a haunting grin, he leaned in until their oversized noses nearly touched, “This is my latest invention. Could be good, could be bad. You just saw what happened to my lab. Either way, you’re gonna find out as soon as I douse you and your pet friends behind you.” With a flick of his thumb, the cork flew off with a POP.
The bushy white eyebrows rolled forward, masking the cold stare. “I’m hoping it makes your winkies fall off and turns your innards into goo.”
Without looking back, the gang dashed for the ladders, pushing and shoving one another out of the way. Marrol didn’t wait for any of them and lunged over the edge, gasping the railing of the next platform over. He wondered as he ran, if his mother would let him move back in if he promised to return to school.
Within seconds the gang was gone. The hallways and scaffolding were deserted, scraps of paper and garbage rolling across the rusted metal surface and broken glass. Smoke continued to roll out of the warehouse, the heavy scent of sulfur burning nose and throat.
The old gnome shook his head. Some people’s children, he scoffed. Tipping the vial against his lips, he drank the liquid deeply, draining the container. He smacked his lips. Hmmm. Not too bad. Sweet, peppy and fizzy. It wasn’t the best batch of soda pop he’d ever made, but it hit the spot.
Staring back through the smoke, he did his best to bury his emotions. But he was closer. Shifts in the smoke revealed occasional glimpses of the fried keyboard and the streaming sparks arcing from the relay terminal.
More paperwork, he thought, and another six million credits down the tubes. At least it lasted ninty-FOUR seconds this time. But none of it was comforting. If he didn’t get some results soon, it wouldn’t be long before the government would close him down. Well, cut off my funding, anyway. He cringed at the thought. This project had taken more than four years of his life. Day and night he’d worked to secure the funding and make arrangements for this facility. A warehouse in a deserted area of Clockworks. Abandoned because it was too difficult to get reliable power down here for people to use and live on.
But gnomes did continue to live down here, in the grime and filth, groveling and clinging to the excrement of society. The poverty-stricken, desperate ones did anyway—willing to live under the harshest conditions if it meant a chance of survival and to be left alone by the authorities.
Coughing and wheezing, he pushed the front doors open full. The slight breeze curled the smoke and sucked it out the opening, yanking the foul oder up between the towering buildings overhead. “It’s your own fault, Morty,” he mumbled, chastising himself, “you’ve been alone for far too long.” His boots crunched over the broken glass as he stooped to find his ID badge. It had a habit of falling off. The spring on the clip was worn and tended to fall off his lab coat if he brushed up against anything. “For all the money invested in his energy projects, old man, you’d think you could afford an ID clip.” He looked around his feet, but if the plastic coated security strip was nearby, it was hidden beneath the rubble of his misfortune. Lifting a fallen filing cabinet, he kicked the debris around.
The key to the experiment wasn’t the generator itself. That was the easy part. The entire city had power available to them through generators running on fossil fuels and even the flow of sea water, but it simply wasn’t enough. The life of Clockworks depended on its consumption of power. The very word power had become significant to the gnome tinkerer. The government faction always sought more power…and they controlled the very grid that supplied each and every building, every citizen their own power. They supplied the power, to which every gnome had to pay credits for…or they lost that power. In the end, it was the government that held the power…over the people.
So Morty had had the idea to create more power. Faster, easier, cheaper. Not to give to the government, but to the people. Unfortunately and to his utter dismay, everyone he approached for funding thought he was flat out crazy. It just couldn’t be done, they told him. You can’t make a generator that runs off its own energy, they mocked…and went back to drilling and refining their fossil fuels.
Only the government listened to him. They assured Morty that this would empower the people if he could make it work. All he had to do was bring his projects to the energy committee and they would make sure everything was placed in the proper hands. Like hell they would.
So Morty took a risk and signed the project over in exchange for regular undisclosed credit sums. Every purchase was monitored, but the tinkerer quickly found ways to circumvent the nosey politicians by buying extra parts for the PROMIS. The device was hardwired into the mainframe that reported its findings back to the committee. The spare parts were then assembled in a side room and used off grid and unplugged. It wasn’t ideal, but it was still a secret after three years of intense labor. Use up the main parts to see what works and what doesn’t on the PROMIS, then fine tune the secondary device using his findings and spare parts.
The PROMIS stood boldly in the center of the warehouse. Most of the smoke had cleared the area, but sparks still emitted from the tower and monitor. This was the tenth attempt to create an amplification device, using a modified back up generator. The three phase 277/480V industrial machine had lasted longer than its predecessors, mainly because of its six configurable outputs, rubber mounted engine and generator. The problem was most likely the automatic voltage regulator.
Pulling the pins from the side posts, he put on his rubber gloves and carefully opened the side cabinet. He hacked and yanked his safety goggles over his eyes as the sulfur-rich smoke jumped out at him. The battery bank was fried.
“Blast it to Humär! Another voltage regulator dead and buried. Morty, you clever gnome…you should have gone into weapons manufacturing. You’re a nature for blowing things up.”
“Oh alright…ALRIGHT!” he screamed back at the console. The blue light flashed in irritation. “Where is that cursed ID card!?” he complained, then noticed the neon green card lying under one of the windows, amidst the shattered glass. Snatching it up, he swiped the backside under the reader on the PROMIS.
“Thank You Dr. Teedlebaum,” said a sterile computer voice. “The modifications you are making will be recorded and transmitted to the Energy Analysis Committee for evaluation. Your feedback is always welcome.”
“Shut up, Deloris.”
The batteries were completely fried, including the connector cables. Plastic dripped down the inside walls of the cabinet, leaving the wires exposed. Morty took a pair of wire cutters and snipped the cables connecting the worst two batteries. Might as well try to salvage some of them—even if it’s only for show. Setting both batteries on the roller table, he pushed through the debris and over to the garbage compactor. Grabbing the lever on the door, he stopped.
That’s strange. Leaning closer to the metal, Morty strained his ears. It was a muddled sound…almost like a voice. But that was absurd. Besides, the top of the compactor was broken anyway. The very chute that let the smell rise from the holding compartment also let the air currents in. It’s just the wind, he convinced himself, flipping around the garbage. He nodded to himself. That had to be it. Just shifting pieces of junk.
Besides, he thought—not ready to let such a curious notion go, that would be stupid, really. Why anyone crawl into a dumpster? You’d get crushed…and that’s if you’re lucky. Flash incinerated is more like it. Well, if the machine worked properly, anyway. Then again, how could anyone have gotten in? The doors to the warehouse are always locked. He had security systems on all the windows. Ok, they were cheap plastic beepers from the credit store…but he lived here. He would have heard them go off if anyone tampered with them.
Tap, tap, tap, he knocked on the metal door. He couldn’t resist…but he immediately felt foolish.
“This is nuts,” he snorted and chuckled to himself, “You really have been alone for too long Mort…”
Tap, tap, tap!
“CRIPES!” cried the gnome, jumping back from the compactor. His heart thumped in his chest like a base drum. “There IS someone in there!”
Grabbing the lever, Morty cranked it down and pulled with all his might. The door squeaked and groaned, flakes of rust falling from the hinges to the floor. Paper and plastic, used bottles and gooey, moldy wrappers from months of TV dinners came tumbling out.
…as did four bodies.
“AIIIIIR!!” screamed Chuck, gasping and struggling desperately to free himself from the wet attack of his six foot beard. The thick white hair had wrapped around and engulfed his face, held in place by candy wrappers and rotten veggies. He pulled and yanked, fists full of fluff…with chunks of what looked like cheese mold, but he wasn’t altogether sure.
Alhannah and Dax flipped across the ground and immediately rolled over onto their bellies, gagging and hacking on hands and knees. Just under the garbage door sat a petrified Lili. Her brown eyes were wide and vacant, unblinking…hands limp across her thighs. A Boo-Boo brand candy wrapper slid down her cheek to her chin, leaving a trail of brown and fuzzy green…something…across her skin.
“What is WRONG with you, monkey?” stammered the wizard. He sat upright, yanking the beard from around his head, “Suffocation is not the way I wanted to go, I tell you!” He stopped to scratch his nose, then flicked a gum wrapper from his index finger. “I always thought boredom would be a nice way to go. Maybe a hot tub in the tropics, cute ladies, those drinks with the cute little umbrellas…”
“It wasn’t my fault, old man!” hacked Dax, “That bin wasn’t there last time we were here.”
Chuck struggled to his feet, pulling his fingers through his beard in a combing motion. “What have I taught you about taking accountability for your actions, huh?”
Morty folded his arms, glowering at the wizard, “Funny, coming from you, Morphiophelius.”
Spinning around, Chuck threw his arms apart, “MORTY! My little genius, how are you? So good to see you. By the way, you may want to napalm your garbage can there…things are growing in it that may be able to hold a conversation soon.”
The gnome studied each of his visitors in silence, Chuck standing frozen with open arms, his smile now strained. “What are you doing here?”
“No hello? No, Hiya Chuck, after all the advice and famous inventions I gave you to get you in the good graces of the factions?” The wizard dropped his arms and peeled another candy wrapper form his beard.
“Famous?” Morty scoffed, “Try INfamous! Let’s talk about those, shall we? I used the diagrams you gave me to recycle our water supply. Got approved by the government within a week of my presentation.”
Chuck grinned wide, “See? I knew it…”
“What you didn’t tell me, was that the minerals required to make it work were the same ones consumed by setana!”
“What are you talking about?”
“The recycled water made our urine glow!”
Chuck bit his bottom lip. “Whoops.”
“Yeah, whoops. I was branded the fool responsible for the city-wide wave of bio-grafitti!”
“Well what about…”
“The worm-head cabbage? It multiplied in the fish tanks just like you said.”
“…and killed all the fish. Sprouted so fast it suffocated every living thing in the industrial tanks. We had to flash burn the crop to get it to stop growing!”
“Super-bond glue? Dissolved in water!”
The wizard help up his palm, “Wait.”
Morty’s shoulders rose and fell in frustration, “Grrrrr.”
“What about the uPod?”
The gnome’s expression changed in a flash, like he’d been splashed with cold water. He stood upright and the tiny hints of a smile peeked out from under his mustache. “Alright, the uPod is pretty cool. BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT!”
Chuck flinched and stumbled backwards. His staff appeared out of nowhere and jumped into his hand, just in time to steady himself.
Morty lifted the goggles from his eyes and snapped them to his forehead. “What…are you doing here?” he repeated.
Looking to Dax and Alhannah for support, they simply stared back at him blankly. Lili still sat there, though now looking around her, trying desperately to take in her surroundings.
Clearing his throat, “I need a favor.”
The laughter sounded like a mouse being mutilated in a horrible trap. Morty dropped forward and placed both hands on his knees. “You…want a favor…from me!?? HAHAHAHA! Are you insane? Why in the name of TGII would I help you, Chuck? Have you looked around? Have you noticed where I’ve been forced to live? It’s not all out of choice, old man…it’s because I’m a laughing stock!”
“Well I don’t know…a little paint, a few flowers—maybe a couple rounds of sand blasting…”
“CHUCK!” snapped Morty.
“Oh alright, alright Morty—I’m sorry. I only was trying to help you. Truly I was. I didn’t mean any harm. Gnomes are the most wonderful race and I just wanted to make things easier, alright?” Pushing out his bottom lip, Chuck pouted. Unfortunately it looked more like a heaving, furry centipede. “You’re mad, I can see that—but you’re the only one that can help me. Well,” he waved a hand at the rest of the group, “us.”
Morty pushed his way past the wizard to hook up the battery replacements. “What do you want?”
“Uh, well, you see Morty, that’s the hard part.”
The gnomes head fell against the door. He sighed loudly. “It’s always hard, Chuck…just spit it out.”
With a tap, tap, of his staff, Chuck crept closer and then leaned in. “I need you to take us to Deloris,” he whispered.
Morty choked on his own saliva, “Deloris?! Are you inSANE!?? You want me to take all of you, humans and…” he paused to wave his hands wildly in Dax’s direction, “not-so-human, to my ex-wife?!? Why would I risk imprisonment, even banishment for aiding off-landers? Even worse…why would I voluntarily talk to that crazy woman?!”
Chucks expression softened, his voice calm and low, “Two reasons. One, because you love her. You always have, you always will, and; two, because the fate of the world depends on it, Morty.” The gnome pushed away from him. Studied his expression. Chuck held his gaze, unblinking, until the gnome looked away.
“I don’t believe you.”
“No?” replied Chuck, “Well the boy’s all the proof you need.”
Morty looked around and frowned. “What boy?”
Spinning on his heels, Chuck looked behind him. “Monkey!”
“Whaaaaat!?” he gacked, pulling a sweaty lollipop from behind his ear.
“Where’s the boy?”
Lili blinked twice and pointed over her shoulder, “He is…still in that box. Was…under the rotting…potato’s, I think.” She shuttered, “Can we please go home now? I don’t want to be here.”
With a flurry of cloth, Chuck dashed to the side of the compactor. He tossed the staff to the side and it hovered in the air next to the open door. Hanging over the lip at the waste, he reached inside with both hands and tugged. Grunting and cursing under his breath, he pulled out a sneaker…which was connected to a leg.
The body stuck.
Frustrated, Chuck pulled harder.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
“Chuck!” cried Dax, hopping onto his feet, “Let me help you!”
The wizard snarled, irritated, “No. I’ve got it, thank you.”
He yanked Wendell’s leg in rapid succession. BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG!
Dax forced the wizard away from the compactor, “STOP IT—Yer gonna give the kid brain damage!”
Alhannah joined them and with a few delicate attempts, had Wendell’s body on the floor. The gnome picked the garbage and miscellaneous wrappers out of his hair and off his arms. Anything attached to the mägoweave slid off completely, leaving the material looking clean and new. Chuck used a handkerchief to wipe Wendell’s face.
“You brought me a…dead body?” Morty cringed. The blood drained from his face. A dead boy. They actually brought a dead body into my warehouse, he whimpered, So now I’m not only guilty of harboring non-gnome fugitives, now I could be made an accessory to murder! Neither Dax nor Alhannah said a word. Morty walked around slowly, keeping his distance, careful not to touch it. When he’d seen enough, he cleared his throat, “Why should I care about some human kid I don’t know?”
Chuck smiled then. It was a knowing smile, which he let linger on his face before answering.
“Because the fate of the world depends on it, Morty.”
The gnome frowned back, “You said that already.”
But this time the wizard knelt down and lifted the black t-shirt with the frozen smiley face on it. The room filled with a soft glow of rainbow colors. The Ithari sparkled in the center of Wendell’s chest.
Morty froze. His eyes locked on the gem and his mouth instantly fell open.
“Ok,” he choked, “I believe you.”