There was a rumor floating around the Underfloor that Help was coming today. It came from nearly the most reliable source, Mr. Sharp, who heard it from his sister.
Now, she claimed that her best friend knew about it because while she was working in the galley, she overheard the janitor telling another cook that he had been mopping upstairs when a maid rushed to tell him all about it.
The maid claimed that the 3rd Floor Attendant had been caught (and reprimanded for) telling a different servant that the Chief of Security was in a tizzy because her superiors told her that (according to their own sources) they would need to prepare for guests, and EVERYONE knew what that meant.
The stifling smoke would soon be cleared, they would say. The Help was going to bring the sun back, others would reply, and so on and so on.
The work would be easier, the water would be less fizzy, the fungal stench would clear, the beds would be delivered, the paths would be swept, the elevators would stop creaking, the signs would be painted, and everyone would get new pens for their trouble.
Others cried treason, explaining to anyone who would listen that any Help was not only unnecessary, but dangerous!
After all, the soup was always warm, the animals were trustworthy, the electricity flowed freely, they were never sick, nor hungry, nor ever really tired – any “Help” would just be a distraction. Or worse.
The cold gravel crunched and snapped nearly as loud as the talk between those who walked upon it, all scurrying to find a place to watch the elevators’ arrive and discover if Help was truly coming.
The ebb and flow of this tide of excitement rose to its highest when the illuminated face of the clock tower that dominated the center of town ticked slowly to 4pm.
As soon as the hand hit the mark, a natural symphony of machinery whirred to life as the elevators sang themselves to life, creating pillars of light that began to rise around the town.
Elevator #4 always awoke first, followed by #17, then #31, then #12, and so on, each drawing a small mob to it, but not so close as to appear desperate. Most wanted to welcome the Help, not frighten it off by appearing too needy.
Besides, other citizens of the Underfloor would be returning from their daily work as well, and it wouldn’t do to crowd them.
Blue sparks began to fall as the elevators began their descents, unloaded their usual passengers, and returned up to retrieve the next group. Shining brass boxes riding the pillars, rattling their metal cages as they moved, uttering brief chirps both on arrival and departure.
As the lights danced, the hands of the clock tower moved ever forward, pulling the tide slowly back. For each and every chirp, the number of hopefuls shrunk by a fraction – when the bell in the tower tolled, even more people abandoned the watch.
The pillars of lights began to flicker and shut off, one by one, as the clock’s hands steadily moved towards the great iron 5.
Murmurs, groans, cursing, the occasional smug grin followed by a shove here and a sigh there, the Underfloor’s buzz descended into a quiet rumble, punctuated by coughs and the occasional shout of dismay. Soon, all but one light had been snuffed out, and the choir of the elevators was now being maintained by one lone singer.
Elevator #59 was always slow on the uptake, so it remained open, in theory, to stragglers who had been held back for various reasons. Or, on occasion, newcomers.
It was only a hair’s breadth from 5pm when a wave of shocked voices rippled through the crowd. Sparks.
#59 began crying out as loud as it could as it brought the final arrivals to the town under the 1st floor.
The elevator creaked and shook and sang as it lowered, some claim even more rapidly than it should have, as if excited to reveal the passengers.
The machine stirred to a halt, the metal doors concealing its occupants, but not the light emanating from within. After the briefest moment, the doors opened, illuminating the world in front of it. The bodies surged silently forward, desperate to see who was inside.
Jack Idgar, Mary-Ann Yewles, and that straggler bellhop Henrik slowly skulked out, a tad ashamed that their tardiness would draw a crowd this large.
There was an uproar at first, disappointment and relief fighting for control of their cacophony, but eventually everyone returned to their homes and their lives.
The next day, a new rumor began to flit around the Underfloor…