We Ought Never To Have Done It:Part Eight
Three weeks passed, and the drilling progressed exactly as Hamm O’Grady had scheduled it. Humphrey Haggerty received a weekly bonus for his excellent oversight, and the resulting good nature carried over to the workers, who found themselves eager for extra work and the profits it would bring. The only ones who weren’t happy, it seemed, were the villagers of Little Morker, but there was really no way to tell. Ever since Belinda Bellshanks had left Humphrey in a huff, no one else from the village had made their way up the hill, and neither had the workers deigned to visit the little hamlet. But so long as there was no interference, there was no reason to worry.
A rich vein was struck on the 23rd day of drilling, leading to an onslaught of 24-hour shifts, workers being replaced only when they fainted from exhaustion. Humphrey himself was often busy for the same amount of time, dealing with paperwork for workers compensation or else commanding more work to be focused in one location over another. The coal flew out of the ground in waves and was subsequently shipped down the hill like an avalanche. The money began to flow.
On the 25th day, the workers hit a strange rock in the pit; it seemed to be perfectly cube-shaped and was made of a pitch-black substance that resembled coal but was much harder. A quick attempt at drilling through it resulted in no success.
Humphrey was not pleased. "It’s right in the middle of the vein, of course. Well, there’s no hope for it. Send back to Central for some diamond drill tips. Hate to ask O’Grady for it, but the points coming from this site should lubricate him a bit. Besides, he’s already spending a fortune on the next zone."
The Buzz to whom he was speaking made a series of quick notes on his clipboard. "So...just the tips?"
"Aye, and maybe another bonus." He grinned cheekily. "Could use it for a bit of a party. I feel like we deserve one, don’t you?"
Humphrey immediately packed his bags and took a short journey back to Neopia Central, claiming that he deserved a break and they wouldn’t be doing any work besides. And one missing Poogle wouldn’t be all that bad, would it?
For four days after the cessation of drilling, the workers of Zone 12 waited and relaxed. The order was flown to Neopia Central via Weewoo and would take a reasonable amount of time to be responded to with the appropriate equipment in tow. In the meantime, there was a good excuse to enjoy the various amenities of Little Morker and the surrounding pine forests, of which there were none. Thusly, Humphrey Haggerty’s army of miners whiled away the long hours playing cards and losing money in innumerable and innovative ways. Finally, a Weewoo returned with a note agreeing to the shipment of diamond drills, and a large cart arrived soon after, pulled by a pair of Kaus who seemed insistent that they be paid up front for the return journey to the city. The goods were collected, the delivery folk dispersed, and the camp soon went back to normal.
On the 30th day, drilling began. Beneath the diamond tipped drill, the cube shattered instantly. For another few seconds, the drilling continued as normal amidst whoops and hollers. But then, for the remainder of the 30th day and all days after it, drilling at Zone 12 had stopped. Something terrible had happened.
Humphrey Haggerty suspected that a diabolical trick was being played on him when he set foot in Little Morker on the 32nd day. He’d only been gone for about a week, and he had seen off the delivery Kaus himself, so he knew for a fact that the diamond drill had at least been shipped. So when he arrived in that miserable little village at the base of the hill and saw not a single soul involved in the setting up of coal deliveries, he was sure that they were all in hiding, ready to spook him.
"Alright, men, a lark’s a lark, but let’s get back to business, eh?" he shouted into the air of the deserted town square. His voice echoed off the empty market stalls, the abandoned carts, and the motionless windows of the houses. "Ha, and you’ve got the townsfolk in as well! It’s all very funny, but I think it’s time for us all to…" He meandered off. "...to…."
He noticed for the first time that not only was he alone in the village but that the village could almost certainly be described as abandoned. Carts lay broken in the dust at the side of the square, windowpanes were shattered, and the ground looked as though at least four conflicting armies had danced across it in the near past. Smoke even poured from somewhere a few roads down. It was billowy smoke, the kind from a bonfire. Humphrey smelled meat.
"Guess everyone’s...busy," he mumbled to no one. "Back to the site...I suppose."
He turned his back on the empty village and set off towards the trail leading up to the hill. He didn’t see again the fallen houses, the signs of a scuffle, nor the smoke that issued forth from fire or fires unknown. It was, perhaps, for the best that he didn’t see any of it, for he might not have later been able to speak of what he had seen at Zone 12.
The trek to the hill was as disconcerting as the arrival in Little Morker. Humphrey had expected to see workers trudging up and down the path, lugging equipment up, coal down, along with all manner of sundries to be traded with the village. With the new drills, there should have been no reason not to work around the clock; Hamm O’Grady paid based on the amount of coal that was driven from the ground, and the more black the workers put into his pockets, the more gold he would put into theirs. For there to be silence now, even at dusk, was not only bizarre, it was economically unconscionable!
Humphrey crested the rise into Zone 12 just as the moon was cresting over the tops of the pine trees surrounding the worksite, a poetic beatitude that was entirely lost on the winded Poogle. Here too was the eerie silence that had permeated the buildings below. Even if they were all hiding on a too-bold joke, the drill should still be going. The fires in the buildings should still be lit. There should be some muffled laughter or sound or something to indicate that there was something else alive in the Zone other than Humphrey Haggerty, foreman of seemingly nothing.
"E-enough’s enough, lads!" he boomed to the drill bits. "What Hamm O’Grady will say when he hears that you’ve stopped entirely, I don’t like to think. Just because old Humphrey goes out for a few days doesn’t give you cause to-" He stopped short at the sight of a small Buzz hovering towards him from the direction of the visitor’s building. Humphrey’s chest lightened. "Ah, lad, finally! You can tell the rest of them hiding in th-"
"Sir! Oh thank Fyora! Oh goodness, oh sir! Sir it’s like nothin’ you ever saw before! Sir, we have to get back to Central and tell them! Oh sir!" The Buzz’s words came out in a torrent, each pushing past the former in a mad rush to be heard. The whole thing blended together into a pitiful blubbering in which only the words "oh sir" could reliably be heard.
The Buzz collapsed against Humphrey’s legs, and he delicately extricated himself before crossing his arms in a dignified manner. "Pull yourself together, man! Now tell me what all this fuss is about. Where’s everyone else? Why did the drilling stop?"
"Sir, you won’t believe not a word of it if I told you! We have to leave-"
"I’ll decide what I do and don’t believe, thank you very much. Now tell me why exactly you stopped drilling."
The Buzz wiped an eye and hovered to his feet. "It’s like this, then. We got the drills and drilled right through the cube and then...Something strange come up out of there. Something I don’t know what to call."
Humphrey’s eyes glimmered briefly. "Oil?"
"Sir, I think I’d know oil. It was…" He paused and shifted his gaze to the ground. "It was pets, sir."
"Eh? Pets underground?"
"We didn’t know what to think either until things started going...bad, sir. I don’t know what those pets did - I was in one of the buildings, see - but I start hearin’ these screams from outside. Everyone was shoutin’ to stay away from the pets and to get...well, they wanted saws."
"It was very strange, sir! All I know is I stayed inside and there was more and more screamin’ and moanin’ and sounds that I never heard before and never want to hear again. So I stayed inside until I heard the screamin’ reach the other side of the camp and then I ran into the woods and stayed there until the screamin’ stopped."
"I don’t know whether I should call you a coward or a hero for at least staying. But…" Humphrey looked around. "What happened to everyone else? Did you see where they went?"
The Buzz shook his head slowly. "I only took a quick peek behind me as I ran away, but from what I saw, there was a whole mob of pets taking on the miners. A mob so thick, you couldn’t see through them. Pushin’ our guys along with ‘em, draggin’ ‘em. I figure maybe they took ‘em off to wherever it is they came from."
Humphrey sat down heavily on the ground and placed his hands on his head. "Agh...must have been the villagers. I knew that Bellshanks woman wasn’t going to take this drilling lying down. Too much fire in that one. She must have gotten some of the villagers to spring a trap and took them off to somewhere in the woods."
"But...but sir, the pets came from in that cube. How could they have-"
"Well, what’s your alternative, eh?" Humphrey snapped. "That there were pets just living in some black box in the ground for who knows how long just waiting for us to open it?"
"You didn’t hear ‘em, sir...They didn’t sound right."
Humphrey Haggerty sighed and looked around the Zone once more. "Even if we find everyone and lock those villagers up for the rest of their lives, they’re still going to close this site down. Whole forest, all the planning, all of it will be off-limits. Hamm O’Grady will have my head. And if we don’t find them…"
"Sir, I have a plan," the Buzz muttered after an uncomfortable silence. "I think we should wait here for the villagers to return and then trap them in the pit. Lure them into it and bury them."
Humphrey’s breath caught in his throat. "I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you say that," he rumbled. "We’re still pets. We aren’t savage."
"Sir, if you wait with me and see what it is that came at us out of that hole, you’ll agree with me that we’d be doing the world a disservice to let them wander free."
The drill sat in silence. The moon rose higher. "Well, waiting can’t hurt. Maybe I can convince that Bellshanks to let everyone go if we promise to leave."
"You wait, sir, and you’ll see...you’ll see something that’ll make you wish we had never come here at all."
To be continued…