The Grundo Thief
The conveyor belt whined and clunked as more and more tiny figurines were born of the churning, sliding seemingly endlessly down the rubber. The stench of Kreludite filled the air, and the worker wrinkled his tiny nose in disgust. The days were long here, but the nights were longer. He was glad to have secured himself a shift at a more sociable time this week, not only because of the boredom, but because of the fear. Blob by painstaking blob the Kreludite dropped into the vats, the levels seeming only ever to fall, despite the constant dripping. Now and again Worker 146A (for that was all he was here, stripped of his identity and committed to being a drone) would wipe his cheek in disapproval as the Kreludite missed its target and splattered its surroundings without discrimination.
146 cast a wary glance at the high window beyond the machine. It was getting late. The sky was beginning to darken, and soon night would shroud the factory. A shiver bolted down his spine, and he flinched, watching in dismay as a miniature evaded his grasp and clunked to the floor. Gingerly, he bent to retrieve it, eyes never moving from the space behind the machine. He could not take that risk. It was ruined, he decided, the tiny scorchio’s scales cracked, its tail in disarray. Silently, he slipped it into his pocket to dispose of in secret. Dr. Sloth would not take this well.
On the wall, the clock chimed eight. 146 removed his jacket and hung it on the wall, glad to be free of the vile fluorescent nylon. “287,” he said in relief, as another orange Grundo appeared from the shadows, already weary looking, bags under his beady eyes. “Good timing.”
287 cast a furtive look at the conveyor belt, the tiny figures drifting to their fates, and pulled his jacket closer. “All quiet?” he asked, a tremor in his voice.
“All quiet,” 146 confirmed. He did not envy his colleague this shift. “Nothing to report.” Silently, he slipped away, walking so briskly as to almost be running towards the factory door, never looking back.
287 watched the figures glide, extending a stubby hand now and then to retrieve an imperfect chomby, signing it into the waste bin with a detailed report of all its flaws. Beyond the machine he sensed a presence, but he did not raise his eyes. “I know you’re there...” he whispered, his skin glistening with beads of sweat. He had slept little, if at all, lately, terrified of what it was that he sensed night after night in this factory, whose eyes he felt burn into him, compelling him to flee. He wondered who it was who watched him, eyes tracing his every movement, how it came to be that there were never quite as many figurines at the packing stage as he had counted on the belt. “Why won’t you leave me?”
287 knew he was not alone in these experiences. Nobody stayed here long. After just a few short weeks of night shifts at this end of the belt 146 had applied to change his shift pattern. 287 hadn’t been concerned, for the night shift paid better, and his children were growing, needed Starry Gnorbu plushies and faellie cakes in order to be content. He had kissed them goodnight in the evening, and padded off to work, thinking of all the lovely things he would get them, all the perfume he would buy for his wife. But then, mid-shift he had sensed the presence, sensed that all was not well in the factory. Day after day he had stirred in his bed as he wondered what secrets were held by the shadow behind the machine. Night after night he jittered with nerves, always afraid of the stranger’s intentions. Enough was enough now. He couldn’t take any more!
“Show yourself!” he hissed, maintaining a facade of composure for the sake of his colleagues just metres away. “Show yourself!”
Angrily, 287 checked that his colleagues were distracted, and before he knew what he was doing, had slid under the belt and into the shadows beyond. Deeper he ventured into the darkness, skin prickling with fear of the overwhelming unknown.
A sudden squeal startled him, and all bravado abandoned, 287 dashed back the way he came, forgetting in his haste how he had crawled under the belt. With a dizzying thud, he crashed into the metal and collapsed in an undignified heap in the shadows. And suddenly there was movement, a bottled faerie’s glow illuminating just enough for him to make out an outline; the thief. The one who watched him from the shadows and snatched a figure from the line. Clad in a woolly hat and thick dark jacket, their purple flesh glistened in the moonlight.
“So we finally meet,” 287 whispered, gazing up at the thief.
A strange silence descended, a pause so long that 287 almost thought he might be dreaming, that no-one now stood over him as he lay here on the floor. And then a hand was in his, and he was rising to his feet, wiping off his jacket now thickly caked in dust. “Oh,” he said in surprise. “Oh.”
287 followed in astonishment as he was lead into a back room, the light of the faerie all he had to guide his way. Before him now stood a room, bare but for the figures, many, many figures made of brightly coloured Kreludite. “I’m sorry I was mean,” he said softly, and touched the child’s arm, her purple lips puckering in contemplation as she gazed up at him from beneath her hat. “But I didn’t expect you to be a child. I wasn’t expecting a little girl. I thought you were a thief.”
The little Grundo shrugged a little, cast aside her hat and coat, and busied herself with a rainbow chomby she appeared to have had in her pocket. “Well, I didn’t pay...” she confessed, “So maybe I am a thief.”
287 was struggling to follow now, overwhelmed with vibrant emotions. All this worry he had felt, all those sleepless days he’d had, all over a little girl who had taken some toys so she could play. “Why are you in the factory?” he asked, and abruptly wished he hadn’t.
Big beady tears rolled over her smooth plum cheeks. “Dr. Daddy says to keep out of sight,” she whispered, and an almighty sob wracked her body.
287 drew her to him, cradled her in his arms. “Dr. Daddy? You mean Dr. Sloth?”
The tiny Grundo nodded, clutching her figurine to her chest. “He doesn’t want people to know,” she whispered. “He can’t let them know he has a daughter.”
Suddenly there was a stirring, and the little Grundo fled from 287, vanishing into the shadows, her bottled faerie forgotten. “DRONE!” came a booming voice, and 287 quaked in his boots. “What on Kreludor are you doing here?!”
Dr. Sloth loomed over him, green face luminous with rage.
“I’m sorry!” 287 cried. “I’m so sorry, I just... I saw... I heard... There was someone behind the machine! I thought it was a thief. I didn’t know you had a daughter.”
Sloth’s jaw dropped in astonishment. “You know...” he said dully, no emotion quite fitting this occasion.
287 nodded slowly.
Timidly, the child emerged from the shadows. “I’m sorry, Dr. Daddy...” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to tell.”
Silently, Sloth reached for Sara, drawing her up into his arms. 287 watched in amazement as he kissed his daughter’s head. “She looks just like her mother,” Dr. Sloth told him. “Beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Beautiful,” he agreed.
Slowly, Sloth explained how he no-one could ever know about Sara, never know that he loved a Grundo. “This factory would never work,” he whispered, stroking Sara’s head. “It would never work. I have a reputation to maintain. Who would fear me then?”
He scowled. “So what to do with you then, Drone? What to do with you?” With a swift motion he reached into his pocket and whipped out a terrifying laser weapon. “This secret can’t get out!” he boomed.
287 dropped to the floor in terror, but the searing pain never came. Opening his eyes to investigate, he found Sara whispering into her father’s ear.
Sloth sighed. “Sara thinks perhaps we can come to some arrangement? She thinks perhaps you will keep our secret in exchange for your life.”
287 nodded keenly, knowing in that instant that he owed his life to an eight year old child.
So although 287 knows that the figure beyond the belt is Sara, the other workers still believe it’s a vile Grundo thief, and no-one can quite understand why, despite the feeling of being watched and the mysterious disappearances of the figurines, 287 continues to do his night shift at that end of the belt, and always seems to have a special twinkle in his eye.