What Lurks Below: Part Two
Also by gwendarwen
Geoff stood like this for what seemed like an eternity. Then he heard the slow, metallic steps of the thing coming toward him. He gulped. He heard the odd steps coming closer – Clack. Step. Clank. Clack. Step. Clank. Closer. Closer... Geoff felt like he was about to faint. Then they just stopped. Geoff listened. Nothing. "It's standing right behind me," he thought. Then, straining his ears, he could just make out the faint, wheezing breath of the creature.
Geoff bit his lip. There was only one thing to do. "Leave me alone!" he shouted, his voice shaking. He whirled around, and was taken aback by what he saw.
An old Wocky stood before him. But Geoff had never seen any Neopet like this before. The Wocky's fur was the color of mustard. He had a white mustache and a shock of bushy white hair. He held an intricately carved mahogany cane in his right paw, which is what must have been making the clacking sound as the pet approached. His tail, which only had half of its fur left, drooped forlornly. But what really caught Geoff's eye was his face. The left half of it was made of steel, and the eye on that side appeared to be glass. It reminded Geoff of the Bionic Cybunnies he had encountered while playing Neoquest II. Then Geoff remembered the metallic sound of the steps he had heard coming up behind him. He lowered his eyes slowly, not wanting to startle this probably-deranged old Wocky. His left leg wasn't there. In its place was a large metallic cylinder, covered in wires and flashing lights. Startled, Geoff looked up. He realized that the Wocky's left arm had this same appearance.
Geoff 's eyes returned to the old Neopet's face. Now Geoff could see that he didn't look deranged, or even dangerous. He just looked perplexed. And... there was something else, deep in his eyes. He looked as if he had been carrying a very heavy burden for a long time, all by himself. It was the weary expression of someone who had long ago convinced himself that no one would ever help, or even care. The Wocky cleared his throat and spoke slowly. "I hope I didn't startle you. The fact is, I was rather startled, myself, when I realized someone had come down here."
By this time Geoff had relaxed a little, since there was no way the old Wocky could endanger him. "I'm sorry, sir," he said. "I came down here to investigate after all my factory workers disappeared."
The old Neopet furrowed his brow. "Oh... I am sorry. I didn't mean to cause anyone any trouble. I never should have tried..." he trailed off.
Geoff waited, but the Wocky didn't finish. "If you don't mind my asking, sir, what were you trying to do?"
The Wocky sighed. "I guess it's no use now." He shook his head slowly. "I might as well tell you. It's a long story. We'd better sit down. Oh. I'm Professor Ickstein, by the way."
The professor led Geoff through a maze of giant machines to a small office area. Clearing a stack of papers off a wooden crate, he offered Geoff a seat. He sat on a chair nearby. "I'm sorry I can't offer you this seat," he apologized. "I would, but with my back... Anyway, let me tell you what you came to find out so you can get going." He took a deep breath. "First of all, I never should have taken your workers. I wasn't thinking clearly, and again, I'm very sorry... I thought I would bring them down here to test my equipment. As you can see, it's very sophisticated!"
For the first time since they had met, Geoff noticed a little gleam of something other than sadness in the other pet's eyes; he thought it looked like excitement. "It's magnificent, isn't it?" the Wocky asked, beaming at one of his largest machines. Geoff nodded, and he continued. "I used to be a professor of mathematics, and in my spare time I would come down here and invent things. Once I even invented a time machine, which crashed in Tyrannia! That was quite an adventure. Neopets came from all over to help me rebuild it. But I suppose that was before your time... Ah, I had so many ideas!" Then the sadness crept back into his eyes. "But as you can see, I am no longer... the way I was."
He gazed at the floor for several moments. Geoff wondered if he was going to cry. But the professor began speaking again, his voice nearly a whisper. "There was a terrible accident one day. I had been working on a very complicated chemical concoction, and it exploded. It injured me very badly. I was in my classroom at the time, and the explosion burned half the room. Thankfully no one else was there with me. While I was in the Neopian Hospital, I managed to come up with the blueprints for my bionic limbs and faceplate. An old friend had them built for me, and helped... install them."
The old Wocky paused a moment, remembering. Then, drawing a deep breath, he continued his story. "I had a hard time... up there," he said. "I always felt that everyone was staring at me. After some time I went back to teaching, but... I just couldn't do it anymore. I felt that all the children were mocking me, even if they didn't say anything. I could see it in their faces! I couldn't stand it. My friends told me I was imagining it... I wasn't that different, they said. They said I should stop worrying. But I felt so distant from even my friends! We weren't the same any more. I felt like I was in a different group... all by myself. My friends were merely trying to be kind, I could tell. They probably didn't really even want to be friends with me any longer. I tried to live among everyone else, but I felt so isolated, so abnormal, and I couldn't take it anymore. One day after working on my inventions down here, I just decided to stay.
"I told myself I didn't need anyone, anyway. I would immerse myself in my inventions. And I did. I came up with so many marvelous things! But... after a while, your accomplishments don't seem to mean anything when you have no one to share them with. Sometimes I would ask myself if I had made a mistake. Perhaps my friends were right... so I thought, 'Maybe there's some way I can find someone who will appreciate my work.' Living below a plushie factory had inspired me to find improved ways of manufacturing plushies. I invented machines that could double, even triple, the output of the machines in ordinary factories. Then it occurred to me... There were people right above me involved in the manufacture of plushies – if anyone would appreciate my work, it would be them! So over the course of several nights I replaced the factory tiles, specially rigging the new ones. After I finished, I built a large, moveable platform and raised it to within several feet of the factory floor. It was ready! All I would have to do would be to pull a lever, and everyone in the factory would have only a short fall before landing on the platform. It may not have been the most comfortable way to get down here, but it was all I could think of.
"I was overjoyed as I tried the new rigging for the first time. It worked perfectly! Just one pull of the lever, and here they were! Everyone was stunned at first, and then they started to panic. I lowered the platform and explained. 'I want you to see my magnificent plushie-making machines!' I said. Needless to say, things didn't go as I had planned... no one listened. No one cared about my machines. They just screamed that they were being kidnapped by a mad scientist! I tried to reason with them, but nothing I said had any effect. I finally let them go. They must have abandoned their jobs after that, not wanting to return to the factory, because the factory closed for several weeks.
"I don't know why I kept trying, honestly. But after the first time I was more careful. I didn't want to get a reputation in the land above as an insane inventor. Besides, I thought that if I hid myself, the workers wouldn't think I was so odd. So after that I always spoke through an intercom. Even then, my plan never worked. All that changed was that the workers decided I must be a ghost... Sometimes I thought that perhaps I should go back up, with everyone else. But after all my years down here, the very idea made me so nervous that I felt sick with fear. I knew what I was doing was crazy, but I could see no alternative... I kept thinking that maybe, someday, one of those workers would see my inventions for what they are – wonderful tools meant to help Neopet kind. Of course that didn't happen. Eventually the factory above was put into operation less and less often... I suppose it was rumored to be haunted. Until just a few days ago, it had been empty for many years.
"And that didn't matter. I had resigned myself to my lonely fate. I realized that no worker would ever understand what I was trying to do. But then... when I heard the machines start up again, after so many years... a small ember of hope was reignited inside me. 'Just one more try,' I thought. It was crazy. Insane. I really must be insane. I never should have done it, of course. It just frightened everyone, and stopped production in the factory! I just wasn't thinking clearly..." The Wocky's voice cracked, and he trailed off, his gaze still fixed on the floor.
Geoff looked at the old professor for a moment. Then he stood up and said, "Would you show me your inventions?"
Up in the factory, Mort was starting to worry. Geoff had been down in that hole for quite some time. If he didn't come back soon, Mort would have to follow him. At least the lights in the underground room were on now, and he could fly down, being a Draik. But he didn't relish the thought.
Professor Ickstein was right. These really were amazing machines. Geoff was fascinated. If he had just one of these plushie manufacturing machines in his factory, he would become a plushie tycoon in no time.
Mort tried calling to Geoff, but there was no reply. "Great," he thought. "Now I'm going to have to follow him... and who knows what's happened to him! Maybe the same thing will happen to me. Maybe I should get the Defenders of Neopia first..." But he decided that this would probably be overdoing it, so he just left a note on one of the machines explaining where he and Geoff had gone. Then he grabbed his crowbar and headed down to find Geoff.
"You know, I really think I could use this in my factory!" said Geoff as the professor demonstrated one of his machines. "Is there any way I could borrow it?"
The professor just stared at him for a minute. "Really? I thought you were just humoring me... You mean you would actually want to use this?"
"Yes! Of course! I mean, it's great! I've never seen anything like it. It would be a huge help in the factory!"
Professor Ickstein beamed. "After all these years... I can't believe it. Certainly, I would be very honored if you would put one of my machines to use." He and Geoff began disassembling the machine so that it could be moved to the factory above.
Mort had reached the floor of the hidden laboratory. Looking around him, he was fascinated by the huge machines. He had always fancied himself as something of an inventor, and he could see that the creations around him were truly inspired.
It didn't take Geoff and the professor long to take the machine apart, since Professor Ickstein had specifically designed it to be easily portable. They loaded some of the parts on dollies and began pushing them toward an exit built into one of the walls.
As Mort continued to study the machines, he heard something on wheels being pushed toward him. Spooked by the sound, he hid behind the machine, peering out.
As Geoff passed by, he thought he saw a flash of yellow behind one of the machines. He stopped. "Just a minute," he told Professor Ickstein. "I thought I saw something."
"That sounded like Geoff!" thought Mort. But he didn't want to come out from his hiding place, just in case... He pressed closer against the machine and closed his eyes.
Geoff walked behind the machine and found himself face-to-face with Mort, whose eyes remained tight shut. "Mort! It's me!" he said.
Mort's eyes flew open. To his relief, Geoff appeared to be unharmed... "Oh! Are you ok? You were taking so long, I thought..."
"I'm fine," Geoff assured him. "Follow me. There's someone I want you to meet." Geoff led Mort out from behind the machine and over to Professor Ickstein. Then he introduced his friend.
Mort studied the Wocky carefully. There was something about him; he looked so familiar... Then Mort remembered. "Professor Ickstein!" he exclaimed. "I know you!"
Both Geoff and the professor were stunned. They hadn't expected this! "Are you sure?" asked the professor. "I haven't seen anyone I know in many years."
"I'm sure!" replied Mort. "You were my maths professor at school! You were my favorite teacher. I was so upset when you left!" The professor couldn't believe his ears. He didn't know what to say. Geoff continued, "I even remember how you built that time machine back during the Tyrannian War! Everyone at school was talking about it. We all thought you were so cool! My friends and I even played a game where we pretended to be time travelers!"
Geoff was impressed. "You remember the Tyrannian War?" he asked. "I don't think I was even born yet."
"Yes," Mort admitted. "I was pretty young, but I remember!" Then he turned back to the professor. "Why did you leave?" he asked. "Everyone was so upset that you weren't going to be our teacher anymore."
"Everyone... was upset?" The professor was obviously shocked by this information.
"Oh, yes," said Mort. "We all hoped you would come back. Our new teacher was so mean! But no one knew where you had gone."
The professor shook his head. "I can't believe it," was all he managed to say. But the beginnings of a smile etched their way across his wrinkled face.
All this time, Mort had been snatching glances at the machine parts the professor and Geoff had been transporting. "What are these?" he asked. "I love technical things, myself."
Now the professor really smiled. "Ah, I have much to show you, in that case!"
After they finished transporting the plushie-making machine to the factory above and reassembling it, Professor Ickstein gave Mort a tour of his laboratory. Mort was fascinated by all the different inventions, and he and the professor discussed them at length in advanced scientific terms. While they were busy with that, Geoff had some errands to run, such as finding new workers for his factory.
"This has been an amazing day," said the professor, after showing Mort most of his inventions. "I never dreamed that something this wonderful would happen to me. Thank you."
"Of course," said Mort. "But really, I should be thanking you. The technology you have here is so advanced! Outside of the Space Station, I've never seen any machines this complicated. It's wonderful! I really think what you have here could be a great help to a lot of Neopets," he concluded.
"I'm so pleased that you think so," said the professor. "Do you think you and Geoff would be willing to bring them up above and demonstrate them for me?"
"That would be great!" said Mort. "But I have one condition."
"Oh..." said the professor. He looked crestfallen. "What is it? I don't have many Neopoints..."
"No, no! We'd never ask you to pay us," said Mort. "My condition is that you come with us. Geoff told me your story. I think it's time that you rejoined society. Maybe we can even find some of your old friends!"
The professor hesitated. "I don't know," he said. "It's been so long... and I'm still not sure that others will accept me," he sighed.
Mort gave him a reassuring smile. "There will always be some Neopets who don't accept you. I learned that the hard way. I was teased and bullied a lot when I was younger," he said. "I always used to worry about whether others were going to like me. But after a while I realized that there's nothing wrong with me. Oh, sure, I have faults, just like everyone else. I'm not saying that I'm perfect. But I'm a nice person. I try to help others and be a good friend," he said. "Sure, I may be a little nerdy, and sometimes I'm a coward, but I always try my best to do what's right. And that's what's really important. But no matter what I do, there will always be some pets who just don't like me. Some of them even go out of their way to be mean. And that's up to them. I've come to accept that that's their problem, not mine, and if they don't want me for a friend, it's their loss," he finished.
The professor stood still for several moments as Mort's words sank in. Finally he said, "You know, I think you're right. All these years I've been hiding down here, afraid of what others would think of me. But hiding didn't help. I've just been miserable. And if I ever want to do any good for my fellow Neopets, I'll have to share myself with them. I want Neopia to be able to make good use of my inventions! I know that if I open myself up to others I'll risk being insulted," he said. "But I realize now that the rewards will far outweigh the hurt."
Mort beamed. He was so glad that the professor accepted the truth of what he had said. "Great!" he exclaimed, giving the professor a hug. "Now we just have to move all these machines..."
It took Mort, Geoff, and Professor Ickstein several weeks to transport all of his inventions to the surface, but they had others to help them. At first Professor Ickstein was nervous around the new pets, but he grew more comfortable, even excited, as they marveled over his creations.
Geoff and Mort ended up using several of the professor's machines in their factory, tripling their output. Other factories clamored for the machines, too, so that the professor had to start a waiting list. Mort brought Professor Ickstein back to Neoschool, where many of the professor's old friends still worked. They were all shocked but delighted to see him again. Mort, Geoff, and the professor's friends decided to give him a coming home party.
At the party, Mort sat with Geoff as they drank their punch. They were watching the professor, who was having a great time, laughing as he relived old memories with his friends. Geoff took a drink, then set down his cup. "Well," he said, looking at Mort. "I bet you never expected all this when you agreed to work for me!"
"No," Mort agreed. As I recall, "'investigating haunted factories' and 'finding long-lost inventors' weren't in the job description," he said with a laugh.