Nestor Pinkly loved Odd & Ends almost as much as he loved Dovetail and Regibald (his automaton companions), watermelon pie (his favorite desert), and giving to others who need it (a thing kind people do because it’s the right thing, rich people do because it looks good, and other people do when they’re feeling existential guilt). So of course, with the Heart’s Desire sale on the horizon, Nestor was pouring all of his energy into ensuring it was the greatest shopping event anyone in Skymoore had ever seen.
To that end, he was working tirelessly on acquiring materials and mundane objects for crafting and enchanting for the sale. He had to make sure his magic, self-setting alarm clocks was made from just the right clock, so his customers were getting products that looked great and worked great. He’d been meeting with merchants, flipping through catalogues from the surface, tinkering at home, and refurbishing things he found at one of Skymoore’s many Unwanted Item Storage Basins (colloquially referred to as “dumpsters”). Nestor was in the home stretch for preparations just a few days before the sale, but there was one major acquisition he needed to ensure things went according to plan: Majicite.
Majicite was a rare, rust-colored stone that occasionally appeared in boulder-sized chunks amidst Aftermaj storms. This rendered their appearance entirely unpredictable, making them profoundly valuable. They were also profoundly dangerous, as their raw magical energy was known to warp the bodies and minds of those exposed to them for too long. But when properly refined, these stones made a very useful core to anything being crafted by an artificer, as their innate magical energy worked as a catalyst, lessening the amount of the artificer’s energy necessary to enchant a given item. In short, it would make Nestor very efficient.
Ever since the massive Aftermaj storm in the autumn, there had been an abundance of Majicite in town, making it the perfect time for Nestor to get his hands on some. Unfortunately, Kasey Refn, the owner of Skymoore’s best and only Majicite refinery, Kasey Refn’s Rusty Rock Refinery, hadn’t responded to Nestor’s offer letters for over a week now. Never one to be deterred by the silence or disinterest of others, Nestor headed down to K-Quadruple-R himself to have a word with Kasey in person.
The refinery was located in the exact center of Skymoore, as it needed a space where you could dig below ground without hitting the open air too soon. This meant they had to take a spot somewhere in the Government Labyrinth that made up the middle of the city. To navigate it, Nestor paid a small fee for a guide dog, and then a slightly larger fee for a druid to translate the guide dog’s instructions, which he was forbidden to write on paper, lest he give an unauthorized individual the way in before the nightly Shifting of the Maze.
An hour and a half later, Nestor had made his way to the center, where a large chrome octagonal building overshadowed a modest obsidian pentagonal building, neither of which had any doors or windows. The dark building was marked “FORBIDDEN! ENTER AND MEET CERTAIN DOOM,” and the chrome building was labeled “Kasey Refn’s Rusty Rock Refinery,” so Nestor checked out the chrome building.
As previously stated, the building lacked any sort of entrance. Nestor knocked.
“Was that knocking?” someone asked faintly from within.
“Yes!” said Nestor loudly.
“Holy Sol above!” they shouted. Their voice was low and grumbling. “An actual blasted visitor! We’ve been trapped in here for weeks!”
“Reckon nobody could look for us seeing as how we work in the government district.”
“What about the government?” Nestor asked. The other person shrugged audibly, stones rubbing against one another. They must have been a kamenclo (a humanoid made of rock) or one of their elemental cousins. “Well, is there anything I can do to help you get out of there?”
The kamenclo tapped his foot loudly. “There’s supposed to be some kind of maintenance route that Berwip the Service Imp uses when she does work in here. I don’t suppose you’re imp sized, are you?”
“I’m slightly larger than imp sized,” said Nestor, “but I’m good at squeezing! I’ll find my way inside faster than you can say ‘imagine an imaginary menagerie manager managing an imaginary menagerie” ten times fast!”
Nestor got to work seeking an entrance as the kamenclo attempted the tongue twister. He made a full circle (or rather, full octagon) around the building, looking carefully for seams or cracks, tapping the wall for secret panels, listening for the sound of machinery or airflow, and otherwise investigating the structure. It was not a fruitful search.
The surrounding area was also largely uninteresting; for a square at the center of a labyrinth that housed two especially important-looking buildings, it just sort of had some barrels, a wheelbarrow full of glue, and an unfinished outhouse. And then it dawned on Nestor: a barrel is a good place to hide an imp, and even better place to hide a secret door. Sure enough, after Nestor used the glue-filled wheelbarrow to help himself up the barrel, ruining his shoes in the process, Nestor opened the lid to find a metal ladder and a deep hole in the ground.
“Huzzah!” Nestor cried, the exclamation echoing down the barrel tunnel for some time, and began to climb.
(Author’s Note: It is worth noting that while barrels are certainly not the worst place to hide the entrance to a toxic and important refinery, it’s not entirely accurate to call it a “good” place to hide such an entrance. It is actually the labyrinth that hides the entrance, if you think about it, with the barrel merely acting as a final precaution. Odd & Ends is absolutely not liable for any successful break-ins at your barrel-protected lair.)
Nestor had only made it a few rungs down the ladder when one of his glue-covered shoes adhered to the metal rung. This went unnoticed until Nestor took the next step, sending him off balance and tumbling upside-down, and bonking his head lightly against the wall. His top hat fell from his head and down the tunnel before he managed to catch it. As he reached up to adjust himself, the motion caused his foot to slip from his shoe, sending Nestor tumbling down the narrow shaft. He caught the various rungs as he went, but he was sweating from the fear of the situation and his hands slipped off as soon as he took hold.
The bottom of the shaft curved, and as Nestor hit it he began to roll down the slope as the world become a blurred swirl of straw-colored pipe. Eventually he hit a wall, and the ground opened up beneath him automatically. Flailing wildly at the now open air, Nestor caught hold of the lip of the pipe he now found himself in. He was in a bathroom, hanging above a large tiled area full of shower stalls, right above an enormous drain. Just out of reach, at the point right before the pipe turned downward into the bathroom, Nestor’s hat rested above him, taunting.
“Don’t leave, don’t move, stay right there!” a shrill voice called from below him. “If you move, the pipe will close again! We’re saved! Oh thank glorious Orso beneath, we’re saved! Hey Gedrick, hey Frankfort, we’re saved!”
“That’s me!” Nestor called, confused and dangling and sore, “Nestor the Incomparable, Nestor the Magnifico, Nestor the Savior of Refineries!” Suddenly Nestor heard a soft thud echoing further up the pipe. Then there was another thud, and another, until a cacophony of thuds was headed right his way. “Um,” Nestor said, immediately before being struck in the face by his hat and glue covered shoe. He lost his grip and fell toward the slippery tiled surface below. Hanging onto his old acrobatics knowledge he gained as a traveling performer, Nestor landed directly on his shoe, slipping his foot back inside, and used his momentum to pirouette as he caught his hat. He placed it on his head with a flourish.
Three large, humanoid mole people looked at each other in confusion and clapped politely. “That was really cool,” one of them murmured. “But you just blocked our way out!” another added.
Nestor frowned. “Ah, yes. I’m terribly sorry about that. But I’m sure there’s another way out! Like my great Uncle Karop Pinkly used to say: where there’s a will, there’s a way! He was talking about his husband William, but I like the expression anyway.”
The talpid – for that is what their kind was called – who had first called to Nestor, crossed his arms and squinted. “Don’t you think, if there was a way out by now, we woulda found it instead of just being stuck here all day?”
“It’s just as well,” one of the other moles moped, “we never could have fit in that pipe even if we did have a way up there. We’re not gnome-sized.” And they certainly were not. Talpids were, on average, taller than humans, and significantly bulkier. “I’m Gedrick. Welcome to the most toxic prison in Skymoore, Nestor Many Names.”
The talpid who must have been called Frankfort pulled an opaque, globe-shaped helmet from within a large messenger bag he wore about him, and placed it on Nestor’s head. It was too big, and couldn’t see very well through the thick glass, and he wobbled a bit when he walked. “This is the only way for your kind to breathe down here. Only kamenkin and talpids can safely breathe in the air around Rusty Rock. You should be okay with what exposure you had. But still, you couldn’t have endured a shoe, little man? At least you could have climbed back up and called for help.”
“Let it go, Frankfort,” Gedrick said. “He didn’t know what he was doing.”
“Alright, but being nice to this little guy isn’t getting us anywhere.”
“Neither is being mean to him!”
“Can you two please quit this?” the other talpid demanded. Whereas the other two were dressed in thick garb with oversized gloves, presumably to resist the effects of touching dangerous Majicite, this one was wearing a button-up and slacks, and carried himself with more authority. “Excuse my coworkers, friend. My name is Uzadoor and things…things are tense right now. In more ways than I can count.”
“Let’s start at the beginning,” Nestor said. “How did you all get stuck in here?”
“Workers’ dispute,” said Uzadoor. “To oversimply things, anyway. The first thing you must understand about this factory is that it’s divided into two groups: the Workers and the Wielders. We include other species of course but in general the Workers are kamenkin. You know, Kamenclo, Kamenoha, Kamenleda, et cetera. My staff and I, mainly other talpids, are the Wielders. We store, label, distribute, and dig new storage spaces for the Majicite, and generally handle the more specialized and scientific work around the refinery. The Workers are the grunts, handling the actual labor of refining the Majicite into a form that won’t turn your head into a pineapple when you stare at it for too long.
“This whole disaster started, well it kind of started two months ago when the Workers started throwing a hissy fit about the way lunch hours are distributed. Honestly, I haven’t been paying much attention to the demands, it’s not really my business. Ms. Refn keeps hemming and hawing instead of coming up with an actual actionable solution to their dissatisfaction, so we’re not really getting anywhere at all. Things came to a head one day when Amak, who’s one of the fire rock guys, locked himself in the Majicite Core, the dangerous room where all of the raw Majicite is kept, and put everything on lockdown. The lockdown is a failsafe, in case there is a breach that compromises the safety of Skymoore. It leaves this place almost completely impenetrable, as I’m sure you observed.”
Nestor frowned. “How do you undo the lockdown? I don’t suppose you can only do it from inside the core?”
Uzadoor shook his head. “No, it ain’t like that. You can actually deactivate it at the main entrance. The kicker is this: you need the shift supervisor of the Wielders – that’s me – and the shift supervisor of the Workers – that rabble rouser Amak Pungert – to use their keys simultaneously. Unfortunately, the grunts can’t get their act together and grow up enough to help us out.”
“Have you tried talking to them?”
“At first,” said Uzadoor, “but they wouldn’t listen to reason. We told them to come to us when they were done throwing a fit like children.”
“Come to you…in the bathroom?”
“This is just where we hide when they get too rowdy outside,” Frankfort explained. “We can’t stand all the stomping about. They’re so loud, the kamenkin.” It was then that Nestor properly noticed the stomping and shaking coming from without. “Honestly, I wouldn’t mind a change in the lunch situation myself. I never have time to eat breakfast in the morning because I have to take my kids to school, and waiting until so late can be torture. But until they can have that conversation like adults, they deserve to explode, the way I see it.”
“Even if you also explode?”
“Whatever teaches them a lesson in civility.”
“There’s another thing…” Gedrick murmured.
Uzadoor rolled his eyes. “This again. You’re being alarmist.”
Gedrick shook his head. “Take it from someone who actually works with the stuff, er, sir. The core is filled with raw Majicite which can transmute the makeup of the air in unpredictable ways. If the air in that room becomes flammable and ignites, there’s no telling the damage that could be done to the facility. Every minute we’re still alive is another lucky minute.”
“What are we standing around in the bathroom for?” Nestor asked. “Someone should get him out of there as soon as possible!”
The talpids all exchanged wary glances. “You feel free to go,” Frankfort said, “but we’re not sticking our necks out. Those stone skins can clean up their own mess.”
This seemed an ineffective way to solve a very dangerous problem, but Nestor was trying to repress his urge to change the nature of every stranger he met. Karessa had said some people found that rude. Instead, he thanked the talpids for their assistance and made his way out of the bathroom and into the refinery proper.
“Listen out for the alarm,” Gedrick called after him. “If you hear it, follow it to its source. That’ll be the safest place in case of a leak or explosion!” Nestor tipped his hat in thanks.
The bathroom let out into a grey steel annex, with many labeled doors on the first floor leading to things like CAFETERIA, CONVEYANCE, and COOLING CHAMBER, while many doors on the second floor led to things like ADMINISTRATION, AMAK’S OFFICE, and A PICTURE OF A CUTE CAT HANGING FROM A TREE. Nestor bounced off the floor gently when he entered, as the stomping and chanting of the many kamenkin and various helmeted individuals shook the floor with notable force. “More work! Less play! That’s the Kasey Refn way!” the crowd chanted, their attention focused on the second floor. Some threw metal canisters at the door labeled ADMINISTRATION, which rattled beneath the impact.
Nestor’s entrance went unnoticed with all the racket, and he easily made his way to CORRIDOR CROSSING, where a crossroads led to three more rooms, including PRE-CORE. A nearly Nestor-sized individual came out of that room, grumbling something inaudible through his thick spherical helm. They paid the gnome no mind as they passed.
PRE-CORE was a relatively small room containing two desks piled high with notebooks and a small table containing a liquid-filled glass sphere with googly eyes and a pair of dentures inside. Against the far wall were three doors, two of iron and one of what appeared to be diamond. All of them were barred with an identical luminescent material. It was very quiet in the room.
“I told you already,” the dentures said from within the sphere in a deep, blunt voice, “I’m not interested in discussing this with you anymore. Until Ms. Refn is willing to listen to what I have to say, I’m staying right where I am.”
“Mr. Pungert?” Nestor asked. “Is that you? Are you dentures?! Did the Majicite do this to you?”
“Yes, I am Amak Pungert,” the dentures replied. “These are a communication method for people within the Majicite Core to talk with…wait, who is this? I thought I was talking to Paddick.”
“Paddick!?” Nestor asked. “Paddick? Halfling? Crazy hair? Talks a mile a minute when he’s got an idea?”
“I don’t know about the crazy hair, but everything else sounds right,” Amak said. “You didn’t answer my question. It’s my business to know everyone in this factory and why they’re in it, and I can’t say as I know you or why you’re here.” Nestor explained who he was and why he was here. “Well you’re out of luck. Sorry, little man, you’ve come at a bad time.”
“What do you mean? Just come on out of there and we can discuss this!”
“I’m not going anywhere. Paddick and Refn won’t listen to our demands, and I’m not coming out until they do. My crew and I would rather see this factory burn than put up with the Wielders another day.”
“You’re awfully hostile, Mr. Pungert, but I’m not here to take sides or hurt anyone or – what’s the matter? What are your demands?”
“We’d like all the usual things. Wage increase, better benefits, more vacation time, you name it. Just because we’re in the government district we’re subject to all sorts of unfair policies even though we’re privately owned. But honestly? My men and I would settle for a fairer lunch schedule. We do the harder and longer labor, and we get one half hour lunch, and it’s the first lunch. We’re all worn out by the end of the day. The Wielders get a full hour lunch, and it happens an hour after ours. I’m a shift supervisor, for Sol’s sake, and I am subject to a worse schedule than the greenest Wielder.”
Nestor looked away, now thoroughly creeped out by the dentures and googly eyes. “That’s it? All you want are better lunch hours and you’ll get out of here? And let everyone else leave?”
“It would be a good enough start, yes,” Amak explained. “But how do you intend to make that happen? You think you can just walk up to the boss and make everything better?”
“Probably!” Nestor said, and wished Amak goodbye. After all, he’d known Paddick for years and years, surely he could convince him to lighten up about the lunch hours. When Nestor returned to the Annex, it was easy to spot Paddick walking up the stairs to the second floor, into A PICTURE OF A CUTE CAT HANGING FROM A TREE, slamming the door behind him in time to deflect a half-eaten apple. “Excuse me, pardon me, just making my way to this cat picture!” Nestor said as he ducked and weaved through the crowd. He managed to make it upstairs with only a banana peel stuck to the side of his helmet. He thought it added character.
The room lived up to its description. A massive, detailed portrait depicting a cat hanging from a tree with the words “Hang in there!” on the bottom took up the entire back wall of the room, which otherwise contained a few sofas. Paddick was running his hand along the base of the portrait, and jumped when Nestor opened the door.
“Don’t mind me; just taking a look at this frame!” Paddick said. “Have you ever noticed how the pattern kind of looks like a flock of birds?”
“Paddick!” Nestor cried. “It is you!”
“Nestor? Nestor Pinkly?! What are you doing here?” Nestor explained the situation. “Well you picked a well and truly dire time to come looking for some Majicite. Though I guess it would be unlike you to make anybody’s life easier.”
“What’s with the tone?” Nestor asked glumly. “Did I do something wrong? I thought you’d be happy to see me!”
Paddick sighed. “Nestor, are you really going to keep doing this? Look, I don’t have time to talk about this right now. I’m glad you’re doing well, what with the shop and all. I was worrying about you, you know. We all were. But right now, I’m worried about my factory exploding.”
“I don’t understand how there can be this much fuss over some lunch breaks,” Nestor said. “Why can’t they just take lunch at the same time?”
“Cafeteria is too small. Besides, the first solution I offered was choosing when their breaks were while keeping the lengths as is. But the talpids refuse to have lunch with the Workers, and the Workers can’t stand the Wielders. It’s an awfully silly mess and it’s going to get all of us killed, and I am rapidly running out of time to come up with a solution, so…so…” Paddick sighed. “Actually, what the hay. You have a way of getting people to listen, whether they want to or not. Ah, here it is!”
Paddick pressed his hand against a part of the portrait and the painting swung inward, revealing a cavernous passageway beyond. “The talpids dug this some time ago as an emergency exit for Refn. I’ve never actually been in here, but the foreman’s locked herself in her office, so I figure I oughta take a look at her if we’re going to put an end to this.”
“This is what you do now, huh?” Nestor asked. Up until half a decade ago, Nestor and Paddick had been a part of the Luminous Company, a traveling band of four performers who delighted the people of Skymoore with their plays, acrobatics, and pyrotechnics. “You always had a way with machines and such! Glad to see you putting that brain to work.”
“I mostly do paperwork,” he admitted, “but I offer technical advice when I can.”
Neither of them said much else as they made their way through the brief, winding tunnel. It quickly narrowed into something more room-sized, and ended in a yellow door with red paint that said “WRONG WAY. RETURN TO THE CAT ROOM AT ONCE.”
Paddick took a key from his belt, and opened the door.
Kasey Refn’s office was wide and circular, with filing cabinets surrounding a majority of the room. On the wall was a painting of the woman herself, sitting atop her father, who looked just as Nestor remembered him. In the middle of the room was a chairless desk, where some documents had been propped up so that Kasey could read them.
(As you’ve no doubt assumed, Kasey Refn is about five ounces of sentient water occupying a glass cup of about that same size.)
“Paddick!” Kasey greeted as the halfling entered the room. “I’m so gosh darn sorry I locked you out earlier! I weren’t thinking! I’ve just been under so much stress and I told the door to lock you out for five days. I totally remembered about the secret entrance, though. Door?”
“Yes, Ms. Refn,” chimed a clear, ringing voice from everywhere in the room at once.
“Next time I tell you to lock someone out, please include the portrait entrance as well.”
“Yes, Ms. Refn.”
“Who’s this little fella?” Kasey asked, turning her attention to Nestor, her body bubbling suspiciously.
“Nestor Pinkly,” Paddick said. “We used to work together.”
“Oh!” said Kasey. “I think you’re friends with my pa!”
(Kasey’s father, you’ve no doubt assumed, is the sentient well that lives in Skymoore, not far from Odd & Ends.)
“Well that’s all well and good, and it’s nice to meet a friend of pa’s, but I just don’t know that this is a terribly good time for introductions. With us about to blow up and all.”
“I don’t understand,” Nestor said, “what’s so difficult about giving everyone the lunch they want? Surely this is an easy solution. If people could just talk to each other…”
“If only,” Kasey sighed. “The talpids are so stuck up that they won’t bother discussing things with the Workers and the Workers are so fed up with the Wielders stuck up attitude that they just take everything out on me and I’m freaking out because if I have to go to Mayor Dew about this he’s probably going to shut us all down!”
“What!?” exclaimed Paddick.
Kasey gurgled. “I’m sorry, Paddick, this is why I kicked you out. There’s only so much time before he realizes we’ve gone totally silent. We’re lucky to be set up here in the government district – the very center of all places! This is one of the most secure places in all of Skymoore. But we have to play by their rules, and one of their rules is a monthly report on the productivity of our department. Another rule is a strict budget of lunch hours based on the number of employees. It’s mathematically impossible to treat everyone fairly.”
Paddick snapped his fingers dramatically. He started talking frantically. “No, it isn’t. Nestor’s right, everyone needs to talk. But the talpids are running and hiding and the Workers are too noisy to get a word in edgewise. Unless we give them a reason to stop their yelling. Nestor, you haven’t gotten rusty with your enchantments, have you?”
“I’m offended that you’d even ask, Paddick!”
The halfling grinned. “Then listen up, and get ready to solve some workplace disputes.”
Three and a half hours later, the door marked ADMINISTRATION opened, to the cheers and jeers of the Workers chanting in the annex. Out stepped Paddick, who hopped to the railing of the balcony overlooking the lower floor, and leaned over the edge to see the dissatisfied workers below. The cries dampened to a murmur as the people of the refinery looked amongst in each other in confusion until someone asked the question on everyone’s mind.
“Where’s Refn? Still hiding like a coward, is she? These corporate big wigs don’t ever face their problems like proper –”
Paddick reached into his coat, and produced a glass of water.
“Valued workers of the refinery,” she began, only to be cut off immediately.
“Unless your next words are ‘you can take an hour lunch later in the day,’ you can get drinked, lady!”
“I understand that you’re under a lot of stress, so I won’t hold that insubordination against you, Cooper. Now listen, everyone, I only want to say that-”
“Get drinked!” the crowd called in unison. They repeated it again and again until it became a chant.
“We have managed to work out an emergency exit!” Refn shouted over the crowd.
This caught the attention of some, and the chanting began to soften. “We don’t want out!” one of the kamenkin said. “We want better treatment!” “I dunno,” said another. “At this point I kind of just want to go home. I actually kind of like my lunches the way they are.” This disagreement caused further yelling within the crowd, and things quickly devolved into senseless noise.
And then, from inside A PORTRAIT OF A CAT HANGING FROM A TREE, a screeching alarm began to sound, accompanied by the scraping of metal on metal, as though a massive door were opening just beyond. What little shouting remained in the crowd quickly gave way to the stomping of feet as everyone stampeded toward the second floor, and into the room with the massive cat portrait. Refn’s cries for an orderly evacuation fell on deaf ears.
Inside the room, where there was once a portrait of a determined kitten, there now lay a window to the outside world, with the black pentagon and the barrels and the unfinished outhouse mere yards away. The room soon became a crowded mass of shoving and shouting as each Worker fought to be the first one to leave the room.
Among all this fighting, a second crowd, made up largely of talpids and nicely dressed kamenkin, emerged, this one led by…a second Paddick. Nobody noticed this discrepancy, however, nor the makeshift phonograms in the corners of the room, loudly emulating the sounds of alarms ringing and doors opening, until after they realized that the outside world was a mere illusion, conjured by an artificer who enchanted the painting’s frame to house a new image of the world outside. And by that time the door had already closed behind them, deadbolted by a lock Paddick had thrown together.
The Workers and Wielders were quick to divide themselves into their respective groups, leaving Nestor, Paddick, and Kasey in the center.
“Another one of Refn’s dishonest tricks!” said Cooper, the kamenclo who led the stomping and throwing before. The crowd roared in agreement. “She’s probably got us all here so that she can brainwash us, or let the Wielders escape…except the Wielders are here too…and…so is Refn, and why are there two Paddicks?”
After the crowd was done yelling and willing to hear what their so-called captors had to say, the first Paddick, better known as Nestor Pinkly, spoke up. “I’m sorry, sirs and madams and others, but we mean you no harm! We only wanted to get everyone in the same room so that we can properly discuss what’s bothering everyone.”
“There’s nothing to discuss,” said Frankfort, who shoved forward through the crowd. “These Workers are throwing a tantrum, and overstepping their bounds by –”
“See, Frankfort,” said Paddick, “while the work you do is no doubt important, that kind of talk is a significant part of the problem. You’re blaming Amak for acting on a resentment that your faction manufactures.”
“Well if Refn could just do her job, this wouldn’t be an issue,” Frankfort said.
“There’s something we can actually agree on!” Cooper chimed in.
“We have a solution,” said Nestor.
“Not everyone is going to like it,” Paddick admitted.
“But it’s going to have to do,” added Kasey. “It has come to our attention that some of the Wielders wish they could have their lunches earlier in the day, is that right? And go home early?”
A handful of the Wielders began to murmur their assent.
“And some of the Workers are happy with their half hour lunch, as long as it isn’t so close to breakfast, right?” asked Nestor.
Again, some assent.
“I haven’t been honest about the extent of the problem,” Kasey admitted, “and you all deserve more transparency.” The glass of water that ran the refinery explained their predicament, to much dissatisfied murmuring. “But Nestor and Paddick have worked out a solution. We’re going to offer greater flexibility in the length and timing of your lunches, within reason. Want a later, half an hour lunch? You get to go home early! Willing to stay a little later for a long breakfast? You can do that!”
“We’ll have a sign-up sheet available for everyone soon,” said Paddick, “where we can work out the allotted lunch budget!”
“More lying!” a kamenkin roared. “How can we trust anything you have to say?”
“Because she’s finally willing to be honest with you,” Paddick said. “And if we aren’t true to our word, this whole refinery is going to fall apart beyond repair.”
Someone cleared their throat loudly from within the crowd. “But who is to say this is even an amicable solution?” asked Uzadoor, who stepped beside Frankfort. “I don’t want to share my lunch time with these unstable rabble rousers! Some of us value those times for their peace and quiet.”
“You’re more than welcome to have your lunch somewhere else, then,” Kasey offered. “The alternative is that none of us have jobs in a few days.”
“And look at yourselves!” Nestor cried. “Workers and Wielders at each other’s throats, and for what? I know the Workers may have been rash and I certainly understand bristling at the Wielder’s pompous attitudes, but do you know what you all are? You’re remarkable employees of Kasey Refn’s Rusty Rock Refinery! Nobody else in Skymoore can do the work that you do, and that’s why you do it. What does it matter who is doing the heavy lifting and who is doing that calculations? Nobody’s job could function properly without the other. Without the Wielders the whole factory would get turned into custard and without the Workers there’d be no product to make the factory worthwhile.
“I believe every person has more things that make us the same than that make us enemies. I think if you’re willing to compromise, and work together on this lunch thing, KRRRR can become a better workplace than ever!”
Frankfort furrowed his brow and took a step toward Nestor. Nestor took a step back. Frankfort leaned forward and plucked Nestor off the ground, looking straight at him through his opaque helmet. “Strange little gnome. You came from the ceiling like a fool and came down here barking nonsense about compromise, and I thought to myself, grand, things are going to get more annoying down here than ever. But I have to admit, I like the way you think. Perhaps we have been too hard on the workers. If they have been made this desperate by our words and deeds, perhaps our words and deeds have been unjust.”
He set Nestor down gently. There was a general hum of agreement from behind Frankfort.
Cooper stepped forward and put his hand on Nestor’s head. “Yes, thank you for your wisdom, Paddick and Not-Paddick. Foreman Refn, I apologize for our misplaced anger.”
“Ah shucks, it wasn’t displaced, partner,” Refn said with a chuckle. “Get it? Displaced? Ah just some water humor for y’all. But seriously, I should have been more honest with the lot of you. I stressed myself out wanting to look like I had everything together. It can be hard to make it as a business owner when you’re a woman, and even harder when you’re a woman who’s also a glass of sentient water.”
Nestor beamed beneath his helmet, and Paddick gave him a thumbs up. Nestor returned the gesture as the apologies and amendments continued from both sides of the alley, and from the middle. It wasn’t long before everyone filed out of the very claustrophobic room and informed Amak that an agreement had been reached. Inside of an hour, the lockdown was ended, and a lot of people saw and smelled the fresh air for the first time in weeks.
“Whew,” said Paddick. He took off his helm – revealing a clean-shaven halfling with a wizened face and deep, colorful eyes, and inhaled deeply. His hair, once curly and wild, was tied into a neat ponytail behind his head. His hair had always been a brownish gray, but age had finally turned it grayish brown. “It’s been a while since I got to breathe anything that wasn’t stale. Thank you for help in there today, Nestor. I wasn’t sure we were ever going to talk some sense into them. You were always good at seeing the best in people, and reminding them that the obvious solution is often the right solution.”
“It’s my pleasure!” Nestor said as he took off his helmet as well.
Paddick smiled for just a moment. “You haven’t changed at all.”
“That’s the plan!” Nestor said.
Paddick crossed his arms. “Tell me about it.”
“Is that a bad thing?” he asked.
Paddick closed his eyes and shook his head. “Aw, I don’t know. Just seems like sometimes things change, and a fella’s gotta change with it.”
Nestor smiled and shrugged. “My life stays pretty much the same! I mean, I changed my job and my socks and my friend Dovetail moved away for a while and I try and try new foods whenever I get the chance and I have mostly new friends, but…other than that, pretty much everything is the same!” Paddick looked at Nestor for a long time without saying anything. Nestor cleared his throat softly. “I’m not usually one to ask for compensation, but…”
“Name it, Pinkly,” said Paddick. Nestor explained the sale, and what he needed. “We’ll get you a suitable chunk of Majicite at no charge, friend. For the old times, and for the new times. I’m just glad to see you’re doing better for yourself.”
Nestor’s face fell. “When wasn’t I doing well?”
Paddick just shook his head and put an arm on Nestor’s shoulder. “Forget it, Nestor. Good luck with your sale. I might even stop by.”
“I’d love that, Paddick! Let me know if you ever need my help talking sense into people at the factory again!”
The halfling grinned. “I’ll keep you in mind.”
The two shook hands, and Nestor began to leave, before turning back toward Paddick. “One more thing, Paddick.” Paddick tilted his head. “Could you help me get out of here?”
Paddick laughed, and led the way.