“This is it! My promotion went through! I can’t believe I’m doing this!” Reid’s mind sprinted with the excitement of his lifelong efforts realized. The transition protocol was just as it had been when promoted from Green Key to Yellow Key. Only, then, Reid had the option to turn in his Green Key and leave to have a normal life. He could join the rest of the world in partaking of Soil with his family- but Reid wanted more.
Reid turned the yellow key, opening the lock box. Within the lock box was a single, worn Red Key. He left behind the Yellow Key in favor of his prized Red Key within.
He shouldered his bag, fingering the name badge- Reid Mitchell. Me. I am actually doing this!
Time slowed for Reid as he walked into the elevator and inserted his prized Red Key into the worn access panel. The access panel had a single light and three key holes- one keyhole for each of the Plant’s floors . The elevator moves to the floor corresponding to the key utilized. He had to wriggle the Key to release the lock, but it did turn. The light blinked confirmation of unlock. The blinking stopped in a short moment, then stayed on. Reid held his breath as the door closed. He closed his eyes, as a surge of adrenalin caused his heart beat to pump in his ears. He could feel the gears begin to turn overhead. Reid’s body shook as the elevator descended deeper into the mountain. After a time, the motion slowed, and the light blinked again over the Red Key.
Upon removing the key, the door opened. Reid felt the frosty atmosphere wash over him, causing the hairs of his arms to stand up and a chill run down his spine. He doubled over and wretched immediately, vomiting into a small trash can- until now unnoticed- in the corner of the elevator. His senses were immediately punished.
The pungent smell of sweet peaches, Reid had grown accustomed to in Yellow Key, heightened to a sickeningly rancid scent, overpowering his sense of smell. The distant thumping of machinery from Yellow Key now battered his ears. His eyes watered, and he wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve as he hurried into the heavy door ahead. Reid’s eagerness washed away with the unwelcome bitterness of vomit in his mouth.
Upon entering the dimly lit room, he regarded the haggard man calmly seated before him. Reid remembered he was here for Red Key Orientation. He stepped into the room, letting the heavy door thud shut with a note of finality.
“Take a seat, Reid. Welcome to Red Key.” Richard Dawson signed from across the table.
Reid settled heavily into the conference room chair and noticed a pair of ear plugs on the table. Dawson gestured for him to make use of them. Reid did so. And so began Red Key Orientation.
Despite his nausea, Reid sat up straighter and regarded Dawson. This Dawson had aged compared to the image his mind had created from years of media and news reports. The wrinkles around his eyes had deepened and his shoulders slouched under a lifetime of stress and difficulties. He wore old scratched glasses which made his eyes appear larger than they really were. His loosened neck tie and dress jacket were tattered from years of wear, but looked comfortable on him, fitting his demeanor well. He smiled grimly, but warmly, as he began to sign.
“Welcome to Red Key Orientation, Reid. I don’t even bother to wear the ear plugs any more as my hearing is practically gone by now. Oh, and I’m sorry you had to make use of our elevator’s trash can.” He signed in passing amusement, “If you don’t mind, may we begin? I would like for us to start our discussion by hearing from you. Perhaps you would share your point of view on a thought experiment I’ve been contemplating?”
Reid coughed and gestured for Dawson to continue.
“Oh, great. Thank you! Here we go: What makes you happy when ‘good things’ happen for your friends, or even complete strangers?”
Reid blinked in confusion at the unexpected question. “Hmm… I’m not sure… I guess I just like seeing their happiness, and it makes me happy to see others feel good.”
Dawson nodded, processing Reid’s response, then signed, “I can agree with that. Is there anything else you would like to add?”
Reid slouched in his chair, his mind still fuzzy from the elevator. “No, I guess that’s all I have to say on it so far.”
“Perfect. I think what you said is very true. We do, naturally, empathize with the feelings of others, whether they be positive or negative. But I think there is more to it. I think, fundamentally, we all want what is best for ourselves, unabashedly. Because we feel like we deserve the best. Whatever facet of that life we choose to focus on, and according to whatever bar we set for best, we are willing to strive for that until we die. The best food, the best family, the best education, the best afterlife, the best life. However, if we are not being completely egocentric, we know this same principle applies to our neighbors. You, for instance, have been able to select the studies you wanted, even as diverse as they were, uninhibited. You have been free to ultimately select your job here at the Plant, under no pressure from anyone. You’ve been free to eat any food, all of exceptional quality for most of your life. Historically, this has not always been the case for everyone. Without restrictions and given the freedom to choose, I’ve proven that- given the opportunity- anyone would choose the highest-quality foods, products, and tools to use in their everyday life. Across the board, every person.
“We feel happy for others simply because we feel they deserve it. We see their happiness as a mirror of the same happiness we feel we deserve. When each person partners in empathy, everyone is given what they deserve. True empathy causes you to seek what is best for yourself and for each other, mutually. Personally, I believe everyone deserves everything. While everybody deserves nothing...
“Nothing we have- the air we breathe, the plants and animals we eat, the materials we build our homes from- is present on this planet of our own doing. They all grow and reproduce of their own accord, with or without our intervention. We have done nothing to deserve or earn all this, and yet it is there to enrich our lives. Once man’s eyes were opened to see it this way, the world changed…”
Dawson’s faraway look faded and his eyes refocused on Reid. “Thank you for indulging my little thought experiment, Reid. It helps me to share my internal thoughts and express them with others. Keeping them to myself down here underground makes me feel a little pent up sometimes. Now back to why we’re here. To the task at hand!”
“Dawson’s Oil.” “Soil.” My Oil. It changed the world! But what it actually is or does I have been attempting to define since I first discovered it. It is a naturally occurring substance solely found in the Chamber within this volcanic mountain. In its native form, it is highly noxious, toxic and harmful to any other life forms. My dear friend, James, fell ill to the effects of the raw materials, all while tirelessly working toward our dream until he passed away.
“However, once inactivated and preserved- the primary function of your time in Yellow Key- it takes on the form the public refers to as Soil. Originally marketed as a “health program,” it proved to be much more. And it is impossible to duplicate outside the Chamber. Believe me, many tried to replicate my formula in order to monetize it... It simply cannot be reconstituted or recreated.”
He waved his hand dismissively, with a look of consternation at his last statement. His stern presence combined with his awkward mannerisms and heavy heartedness mixed to create an endearing, enigmatic air as he talked. Reid wanted to get to know this man. Not just the embellished man of the books and secondhand stories. Dawson’s expression lightened, and he continued.
“As for the properties expressed when in interaction with the human body, it is simple, elegant, however difficult to define. During the initial days of introduction to the system, the user experiences a short phase, commonly coined the “Malaise,” as the immune system and bodily processes adjust to its symbiotic presence. Even so, my Oil exerts a pain-relieving property, however not sedating, in effect. It simply reduces the intensity of pain to something of an ‘indicator’ of the body’s distress. Even during traumatic injuries, the effect is incredible. There are no further observable physical properties to its use.
“Nevertheless, the psychological effects of the Soil are by far the most marked. These would be too simply described with a single term, such as “responsibility” or “selflessness,” “trust” or “perspective.” However, it may and does exhibit each in turn. It completely removes any and all emotional and psychological relationship to pain from trauma. And the fear this pain previously held over their lives. Essentially providing the user with a complete inner peace. Allowing them- empowering them- to make choices based on their own decision-making differential- or “conscience”- if you wish to call it such, free of any past weight or pains. The user is able to live fully in the present. Be fully themselves, as they wish to be. They essentially cease concerning themselves with or worrying unduly about their past, and their futures alike, as if they pale in comparison to one’s immediate surroundings. Past faults are forgiven- regardless of their weight on the user’s minds. Crushing pasts are lifted. Even at the time of death, the user feels no guilt or regrets- How could they? Knowing they lived their life as fully every day as they could. These are the most splendid of applications observed in those using Soil.”
Dawson paused and took a drink from a glass on the table. He rose from his seat as he offered Reid a glass as well. Reid welcomed it eagerly and tried to rinse the acidic flavor from his mouth. As he received the glass, Reid noticed Dawson’s arm within the sleeve of his jacket- his wrist frail, and his hands, gnarled and scarred from years of labor. This man really had experienced a hard life. Dawson returned to his seat, sitting heavily on the metal chair. He wiped his lips dry on his sleeve, satisfied, and continued.
“And this is but the beginning. The applications are endless to what one can do once fully acclimated to Soil. Individuals are now content, no pleased, to contribute to an aspect of society through one’s career and life, whatever it may be. Health concerns managed to the extent humanly possible, a roof over one’s head and food supply being the primary focus of local government- government itself no longer marred by monetary or personal gain- the individual is free to spend the time, today and every day, with their families, cultivating themselves and those around them. Family connection, the cornerstone of our society, being so very important to each member therein, becomes the center of each individual’s life.
“Infrastructure presently in place was refitted to serve the new purpose of community. The broken individuals in jails were quickly accepted, respected and given assignments as they were reintegrated into society with their pasts forgotten. If only you could have seen the reactions the day the justice system purged all records of people’s pasts. The anxiety lifted from countless lives by this simple motion of goodwill. Resolution of law infractions were now completely individualized based on what would best serve the individual in need of redirection.
“Jails and hotels were then used as temporary housing for those with damaged homes, or ones without homes would take up residence within until appropriate housing was constructed under local government’s direction. Hospitals opened for use by all people of the community. Any person could have any procedure necessary at whichever facility was best suited for the treatment. Every aspect of society was refocused with the single-minded goal to enrich everyone’s quality of life.
“Colleges were necessarily opened to any and all. With demand and supply at all time highs, educational needs were instrumental to meeting society’s needs. As individuals were no longer constrained by monetary concerns, or necessities simply resolved such as food and housing, they were now free to pursue whatever education they desired. In fact, only those who have completed their collegiate studies are then allowed to partake of my Soil. Ensuring their maturity and awareness of what the Contract entails. Though, anyone not partaking is practically unheard of.”
His brow furrowed and he paused for a second in thought. He pointed at Reid with a crooked finger.
“Ah, I just remembered... You are, of course, familiar with the most common side effect of the Soil- the children born with deafness, or partial deafness. With this ‘side effect’ came the simplest answer to one of Society’s greatest hindrances to man’s progress since early times. Communication became universally streamlined. In times prior to my Soil, the nature of Deafness tended to isolate those individuals affected from the general population. They had the unique circumstance in that they were not generally born into a community of people who could communicate freely with their obligatory sign language. Oftentimes, they were pressured to develop, essentially, ‘workarounds’ requiring extra work or undergo painful procedures to communicate with hearing individuals.
“As if their obligatory isolation and subsequent ill effects such as depression and loneliness were not reason enough for public action, the sudden increase of the Deaf population following the rise of my Soil only served to emphasize the inadequacies of the language barriers in place! Now, within the answer to this issue lied the key to not only bridging speaking languages to sign languages but to the complete integration of language across the world. The signed Common language you utilize was developed as a unified approach to allow anyone on the planet to communicate with anyone else easily and comprehensively! Simply marvelous!”
Dawson chuckled in excitement and approval at the simplicity of this solution. He smiled, but his smile darkened and his expression sobered as he continued.
“With regard to any other side effects, they have largely been resolved by the provisions of the Contract. In our excitement at the complete success of our early tests with adults, we offered the Contract to children. The effect was disastrous. Now, you know, to stop taking Soil is extremely harmful to the body’s system, often resulting in death or crippling mental and physical impairments. The children could see the effects of the Soil to be undeniably good. This coupled with an honest desire to please one’s parents also drove the youth to sign those Contracts so very early. As the children matured, though, they no longer had the option to experience life without Soil, to learn and appreciate its value.
“Can you imagine?” He signed, shaking his head, “To my everlasting dismay, I realized all too late they had been robbed of the freedom to voluntarily make a life changing choice! As a result, many children broke Contract and died or have debilitating illnesses. All too young! It is simply a responsibility a child is not meant to bear. They cannot be expected to make such an important, weighty life decision so very early. Therefore, children are raised in their parents’ household, free of the responsibility and burden of the Contract. They are, however, free to see the benefits of the Soil, as they are apparent in their family life. Upon completing their collegiate studies, they are free to Contract…” He paused, then frenzied, slammed his fists on the table and mouthed silently to Reid. “KIDS CAN’T DEFEND THEMSELVES. They rely on us to protect them. They trusted their parents... They trusted me…” He let out an agonized heave and finished signing. “Fortunately, we learned from these poor children’s examples, and since then, have not had a single further issue with the Soil’s use…”
Dawson stopped gesturing and set his hands in his lap, his shoulders slouching even lower as his thoughts trailed off and his gaze passed through the table into the expanse beyond. Reid could see the guilt and anxiety at war within the poor man. He carried such heaviness… He coughed and looked at Reid, absently straightening his glasses as he deliberately tried to gather his thoughts.
“Apologies, for I digressed! Community based programs became the center of local communities as artisans and specialists were free to share their passion, expertise and skills. From the arts to medical training, it could all be learned locally free of charge. But all of this was done without my direction. It was the work of the people themselves.
“My own gift- what I really am proud of- is the Lottery. When a couple marries, they are provided a lottery number. The hope is for the number to never be needed, but it is welcome all the same. If and when a child is orphaned, at birth or unexpectedly later in life, a Lottery number is drawn. This number coordinates to a lucky family who is to receive and raise them. Orphanages, and the like, are things you have never heard of, Reid, because of my personal endeavor. The surprise and stress upon the child is shared and worked through with their newly assigned family. The communities surrounding them provide support to alleviate any additional stresses during this unexpected transition.
“The opportunities are now endless as to what one can achieve with my Oil. I need you, Reid. I need your help to keep this place going. Thank you, sincerely, for coming here. For volunteering to work beside me. To ensure our world keeps growing and progressing through more great ‘todays’.”
He capped his last remark with a satisfied smile and sat back, adjusting his glasses, eyes watering.
Reid sat back in his seat and scratched his head, taking it all in.
Reid began to sign, “So… The Soil. It’s not strictly speaking ‘responsibility.’ And it’s not ‘happiness...’ You’re right… It is hard to pinpoint…”
And, after a moment, as if reaching, “It’s more like… an excuse!”
Dawson remained still for a time, his solemn expression now blank, lost in thought. “That’s certainly one way it could be described…” He said, mulling it over internally. “I actually like that quite a lot!” And laughed. “People can do anything with an excuse. Anything! Narrow or broaden their own horizons and those around them!” He laughed harder than he had in many, hard years. He had earned this laugh. He wiped another tear from his eye, which now had a gleam to it. After his laughing fit had worn off, he looked at Reid soberly, then burst abruptly.
“The Soil made me do it!”