Forge shook the can to help the triangular meat slide out, landing it professionally on a gear-shaped platter. He quickly seasoned the meal with some spices and ladled his famous hot sauce on top until the meat sizzled before putting it on the rack. The aroma of the meat filled the shop, and along with the soft lighting courtesy of Lampwyck, it gave the place a homey feel.
A red Acara stepped forward to accept the food and put some neopoints on the counter before retiring to a darker corner of the room to eat.
It was relatively quiet in the Melting Morsels shop, but it was a pleasant respite for the shadow Bruce. It gave him time to fill up the steam-powered conveyor belt that moved around the shop and offered buyers a tantalizing glimpse at today’s fresh specials and the best of what Forge had to offer. Half an hour ago, lunch break ended and so did all of the meals on the conveyor.
Now only two pets remained, the Acara and an average-sized yellow Ogrin who wore a nice leather bodice: one of Cog’s latest articles of clothing. Other than the constant hum of the machinery inside and the throbbing outside, it was pretty quiet.
Then a new fellow appeared.
A rather skinny Aisha with her ears tied back stepped up, a bandana covering one of her eyes and an overcoat that seemed a little bit too big for her spread across her back.
“Welcome to Melted Morsels...” Forge began in a deep but kindly voice.
“Root stew, leave out the carrots.”
Forge was taken aback by the words that seemed so much like a command a general would give to a subordinate, but said nothing and took the neopoints that were now held in the Aisha’s hand.
“No need to be rude, miss,” the Ogrin stated calmly, chewing some fried ginger.
“Not rude – blunt,” the red Aisha retorted and sat down loudly beside the conveyor belt to wait for her meal.
Forge was unused to those like her. His regulars were always open and nice, and conversations flew freely between them like lava through a volcanic vent. There were always the quiet ones, and some who talked way too much, probably after drinking too much of his Hot Magma special. This one was different, but if she was paying then Forge didn’t complain. His profits fell recently and he needed some more neopoints to keep up his business.
Forge took out an iron bowl and began to slice the different root vegetables with his trusty knife. He then gave them a quick roast, threw in some salt and poured the root stew over top, garnishing with some herbs before adding the spoon.
“One root stew, no carrots, coming up,” he announced, placing it on the conveyor before going to the sink to clean his knife.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the Aisha take the bowl as it rolled past her table and began to eat. Again there was that odd, uncomfortable silence, punctuated by the sounds coming from the nearby quarry.
“So apparently Moltara has been ‘rediscovered,’” the Aisha drawled, chuckling slightly.
When no one responded, she simply continued. “Kinda silly if you ask me.”
“Why silly?” Forge replied, washing the counter with a clean rag, hoping to get a nice conversation going to break up the almost tense atmosphere of the room.
“Just ‘cause when you think about it, after all these years it feels silly that we never realized there were others up there.”
Forge nodded quietly. He had seen these so-called ‘adventurers’ arrive in Moltara, a Lutari with a pompous attitude and a splendid hat, a knowledgeable Wocky and a short little Kougra, telling the people about the upper world. He lived in the city all his life, and it made him blush with shame that they never really knew of others living on the surface. Yes, it did feel silly.
“Personally, I don’t like it one bit,” the Aisha grumbled.
“How so?” the Ogrin asked.
“Soon Moltara will be crawling with the upper people, and they will be bringing all of their stuff to our world. It won’t be long before we become just like them, our culture falling to rust.”
The Ogrin laughed. “Nah, I doubt they are that harsh; besides, we are Moltarans! We will preserve our culture no matter what.”
“Well, have you met them, kid? How do you know they won’t dominate us? You know, assimilate us into their ways?”
“And how do you know that they will?” the Ogrin retorted loudly.
“Oh I know,” the Aisha stated, evading his question, “but really, what benefit is there to knowing the upper people?”
“Many,” the Acara said for the first time. “We can trade.”
The Aisha barked with laughter. “Yeah, and what will we trade? Maybe people? If the upper world is as good as the strangers say it is, then soon all of us will leave to go there and will never come back. Sure there might be visitors here, but sooner or later they will get bored, and they will leave for good.”
Forge rolled his eyes. The Aisha had some logic but it was wrongly stated. Forge knew that although Moltarans had a taste for his goods, having more people in his restaurant and thus more business would quickly settle his money woes. However, if this Aisha was right and the citizens of Moltara would leave, then he would have no business at all. The thought was foreboding.
“Say, Ogrin, what’s your trade?”
“I work in a factory... and my name is Bolt,” the fellow said cautiously. “And you are?”
“The name is Dag, kid. But really... a factory, eh?” Dag grunted, finishing the last of her stew. “Won’t it be nice then for you! When everyone leaves, there will be no demand for the junk that you and your buddies make...”
“Toys,” Bolt growled, “not junk.”
“Whatever. Anyway, what will happen when there is no demand for your toys, hm? Sooner or later, that factory of yours will close down and move to somewhere on the surface, and where will you be? Oh, that’s right! On the curb.”
The Ogrin seemed surprised for a few moments, and then his ears drooped in defeat. Fuelled by her success, the Aisha whirled around to behold the Acara. “And what is your job?”
Instantly the Acara bared her teeth but refused to speak, and Forge couldn’t blame her. In fact, he had just about enough of this character who, although she bought and ate something, was causing trouble.
“Ma’am, this is a peaceful restaurant and we don’t need anyone spoiling the atmosphere. I suggest that you go outside.” Forge stood up straighter in an intimidating gesture, and Dag seemed to get the idea and turned to leave, depositing her empty bowl and spoon upon a conveyor that would return them back to the shopkeeper.
“Enjoy being part of a bigger Neopia, everyone,” she announced suddenly.
“Leave,” the shadow Bruce growled.
The door of the restaurant slammed shut, the sound ringing through the building as if it were a tuning fork and someone hit it gently. A nearby generator whirred nosily and the fans above stirred to life. Even though there was a pleasant back noise, the Moltarans within were deathly quiet. Slowly, they returned to what they were doing, but the deed had been done. The Aisha arrived with a barbed tongue, and left them all feeling shaken to the core.