“I thought maybe you had decided to stay to replace Pete and be a Waiter after all.” Reid signed to Paul after they secured headlamps to their yellow Hazmat suits in the Entrance Antechamber. Paul had not had the privilege to enter the Chamber yet, and Reid had been in only once before. Paul looked at the grey painted concrete walls lined with racks of yellow suits in various sizes. He thought of the weekends he used to enjoy. The one day he used to have off in Yellow Key, he would now spend loading these single use yellow suits in bins to be sent off for recycling. Or he would be cleaning the machinery in the Chamber in preparation for the coming week. The clock never stops down here. So many glamorous tasks here at the Plant, he thought.
“I just had to finish a science fiction trilogy before I came down.” Paul signed in reply with a veiled smile, unseen through the plastic mask. Reid’s face obscured, his name badge became the only form of recognition on the uniform yellow suits.
“Well, at least you won’t have to get used to the pounding of the machinery in here. My ear covers don’t even begin to cut it. Just remember to wash off at a Wash Station if you get too much Soil on you. And we can only be in there for about a half hour to forty-five minutes or we’ll suffer from the heat. You ready?”
Paul inspected Reid’s suit one last time, giving him a thumbs up.
“After you, my friend!” Reid motioned as he swung open the door to the Chamber. He patted Paul on the back reassuringly as he passed the threshold.
The heat was sweltering in Paul’s suit. His mask fogged up immediately from the condensation already present on every surface. The hand rail was slick to grip with his thick, gloved hand. The Chamber was poorly lit from singular lights mounted along the steps descending before him. The steps appeared to have been cut from the sheer black stone walls to his left. To Paul’s right, beyond the handrail, a drop off into darkness. Below, Paul could barely make out a slight green glow through the thick mist. The headlamp only penetrated a few feet ahead of him due to the thickness of the haze.
“I see why they keep the rest of Red Key so cold now.” Paul signed. Reid closed the door to the Antechamber and nodded as he turned to follow.
Paul started down the stairs, gripping the handrail firmly as he found footing at each step, careful to keep his headlamp on the steps ahead. He looked over the rail every few steps as the pool became increasingly visible. He began to make out headlamps laboring in the distance. Paul’s heavy, thick boots slipped a time or two on the moist steps, but he was able to keep a grip on the slippery rail.
During the descent to the work floor, Paul’s thoughts moved to the revelations during orientation from Dawson Himself. Paul never would have known them had he not already committed to do the work. The curiosity was part of the draw of being here. At this point, he admitted to himself he was not as thrilled to be here as when he first arrived at the Plant. He certainly was not as excited as Reid was, with his ever-pleasant demeanor and generally positive outlook on life, even without using Soil.
Paul finally neared the base of the steps. He could see a Wash Station near what Paul assumed to be the hatch to the Exit Antechamber. The Wash Station was simply a single shower head with a pull chain to activate it. It was currently in use. Paul could see the hazy outline of an unrecognizable person cleaning Soil from their uniform. Paul turned from the Wash Station, to rib Reid about showering in front of others. He looked to find utter darkness ascending the steps behind him. Squinting through the darkness, he could make out the faint light of the circular window of the door through which he had entered the Chamber, and no Reid.
Paul’s stomach dropped. He had no idea what to do. He had never even been in the Chamber before. He ran to the figure at the Wash Station, who was angrily scrubbing at the back of his uniform with a brush. His panic was momentarily relieved as he recognized the unmistakable stature of his shortest friend.
“What do you want?” The figure signed, tense. Will Graves eased slightly, recognizing Paul. “I’ve been in here past my time and I’m dying in this suit!”
“Will! I can’t find Reid! He was coming down the steps right behind me!” Paul exclaimed.
“Are you serious? You better not be fooling with me…” He signed as he tried to wipe the water from his visor.
Paul stood before him, frozen in panic. Will must have gathered by Paul’s lack of response the gravity of the situation. He looked suspiciously beyond Paul to the stairway. His figure relaxed a bit, still cautious.
“Although… there should be two of you coming in at a time... Follow me.”
As they painstakingly hurried along the narrow footpath, Will signaled to another yellow suit of a person having fallen into the pool somewhere along the staircase. The figure ran to find more help. To Paul’s horror, he could feel the concentrated Soil, thick and viscous, clinging to his shoes. He dared to hope Reid had somehow fallen onto a shallow area and was just waiting for someone to pull him over to the main walkway. A figure approached and handed Paul a long pole and they continued into darkness to find Reid.
Paul trudged forward into the claustrophobia of complete darkness, his mind flashing with images of the thick, soupy Soil covering Reid’s mask, hands and face, struggling to keep his head and mouth free in his bulky uniform. Totally alone, gasping for air. Choked by the Soil he could not spit out. The most terrible death Paul could imagine. He pressed on.
His cheer, infectious. Reid could make any situation- even this one- tolerable. Paul felt his stomach turn at the thought of working the ever-lessening remainder of his days here to die without Reid, his brother. Dying more and more every day as the Soil’s atmosphere poisoned his lungs- just as it had poor James Wilson. James hadn’t even survived six months of exposure. I cannot die here all by myself. Without my family. Without Reid. These thoughts drove Paul forward, searching for Reid in desperation.
Paul had always been the prankster. He could seamlessly work a prank into daily chores and routine. As simple a thing as putting a toy snake in his Mom’s laundry basket. He subconsciously knew the exact thing to do to a person to produce the desired result. His Mother would scream, and he could just walk in the room, aloof of any shouting. How could he have known she was shouting, after all? A natural. A pro.
Reid, on the other hand, never had been very good with practical jokes. They always fell flat or embarrassed him or the victim. But this time was going to be beautiful.
Reid had finally thought up the perfect trick. He had it all planned out in his mind.
Reid would let Paul sweat it out looking for him. He would eventually convince Paul to go cool off, and then Reid would surprise him. He could see it all so vividly.
Paul would take off his helmet in the Exit Antechamber. He would slump onto one of the steel benches bolted to the wall. Reid would stand before him and remove his own helmet. Their eyes would meet.
Reid, Paul would mouth in shock, recognizing the face of his thought dead friend.
The thought of Paul’s reddened, tearful eyes, flushed face and matted hair would be too much for Reid to handle. Reid would fall to his knees and laugh harder than he ever had in his entire life. The pure exhaustion from his exertion adding to the delirium. Paul’s mortified expression would be priceless, frozen in horror. Slowly, Reid would savor the realization creeping across Paul’s expression.
Reid reveled in these thoughts as he knelt in the darkness of the steps, headlamp turned off. He patiently watched Paul frantically communicating with somebody at the Wash Station.
He doubled over, nearly falling from his laughter. He envisioned his plan playing out- Paul crossing the short distance of the Antechamber and punching Reid squarely in the face. Reid barely feeling the pain in his face or the bite of the steel bench in his side as he slipped in his wet boots and fell, coughing and cackling in pure delight.
Sure, someone may be angry at him for postponing production for a while, but it’s not like they’re just going to send him home. He contented himself with these ideas, biding his time, coolly letting his plan play out to perfection.
The green, faintly glowing pools of Soil bubbled lazily, uncaring and unaware of any urgency. New shifts had since joined and expanded the search effort. Despite the additional help, the search was slow moving: the walkways narrow and treacherous, the Chamber so poorly lit. After an indeterminate time, Paul felt a tug at his arm. Exhausted, he turned to see what the person wanted. Through the clouded condensation of his visor, Paul could see an indistinguishable yellow suit standing in the gleam of his headlamp.
With slumped shoulders the person diverted his own headlamp from blinding Paul as he signed, “You can’t stay in here much longer. You have to cool off, if you’re going to continue on.” The grimy suit signed in fatigued concern.
Paul shook his head, and turned to return to his work, thoughts a blur. His boot slipped and the other worker caught his arm, steadying him. But the hand did not release its grasp. Ashamed and numb, Paul jerked his arm to resist the grip of the concerned fellow Resident. Paul could not give up on Reid. He was prepared to die here searching for him.
The unfamiliar Resident’s grip loosened, his own footing slipping. The Resident fell backward, head striking the rocky pathway. His helmet fell loose, bouncing away, headlamp flashing and blinking as it sank into the Soil. Too tired to react, Paul stared in disbelief. In the haze, the Resident gagged, clawed their throat, slipped, and fell headlong into the pool.
Blindly, frantically attempting to reach the walkway, bound by the bulk of the yellow suit, all free movement was impaired. Paul carefully stepped nearer the edge of the catwalk. Without the Resident’s headlamp, Paul could barely make out an amorphous mass of movement within the darkly glowing Soil. Paul reached with his pole to help, horrified.
The disoriented, blinded, suffocating man was moving away from him. Plunging into the darkness beyond.
Careful not to fall in himself, Paul squinted into the hellish environment, a mere audience to the poor man’s death.
Paul absently scrubbed himself at the Wash Station. He would never see his family again. Without Reid, he was completely alone, devoid of any family connection. Deliberately, Paul made his way to the exit with his remaining strength. A fellow Resident unbolted the heavy door, motioning for Paul to pass. The Resident then stepped through, sealing the hatch. Through the small round window, Paul observed the far-off headlamps within the Chamber despondently toiling away in their perpetual labor.
Paul braced himself against the tundra’s gale biting through his light shirt and shorts. Squinting against the wind, Paul saw individuals scattered across the frigid expanse. Curious, Paul took a step, approaching one of them. The person appeared to be angry, stomping the ground. Tentatively nearing the man, the ground creaked under the pressure of Paul’s step. The tundra was not solid ground but a frozen body of water. He leapt in surprise as a shadow passed below the surface. Many more followed. Upon closer inspection, the shadows appeared to be bodies. Bodies wearing the familiar faces of family and friends passing him below the frozen medium. They floated in the frigid waters, glancing at him in indifference. Frantic, Paul kicked the ground with what force he could bear. His old schoolteacher glanced up at him unconcerned, gliding beneath the ice.
His screaming caught in his throat, a chill clenched his spine, as his Mom slid below him. Paul redoubled his efforts to communicate her danger. He hurried to pursue her as she attempted to distance herself from him. Fearing for her life he pounded with his numb, bloodied fists. She then turned to face him, cursed him and swam away.
The ice trembled and gave way.
Paul awoke to the Exit Antechamber’s metal hatch ahead of him. A fellow Resident sitting next to him gestured to the door. He noticed the free hanging lights wavering through the Exit Antechamber’s porthole. He looked through to see a body being dragged from the Chamber. The hastily rinsed yellow suited body dripped water.
Paul donned his helmet and entered the Exit Antechamber to pay his respects to this man who’s only mistake had been trying to help. The unfamiliar Residents surrounding the body stepped away uncertainly as Paul approached.
As he knelt, he recognized Reid’s face, contorted in death. Paul felt lightheadedness wash over him. His legs gave out, falling on top of the body.
Paul’s mind bent.
The earth shook.
The lights went out.
Paul’s body squirmed in complete darkness.
Robbed of his senses and any tie to family or reality, Paul struggled to comprehend what had just happened. Wasn’t Reid already lost? Had Reid’s body simply been found near the other dead Resident? What is going on in here? His mind bucked reality. Had he killed, not simply a fellow resident, but Reid?
Paul seethed, screaming with rage and frustration. The ground’s familiar tremors accented his anger. He hated this world. He hated this smothering suit he was wearing. He hated the Soil. He hated Richard Dawson. He hated his parents for taking the Contract in the first place. He hated all the helpless people who were reliant on this damn system. He hated Reid for being so excited and happy to come die for other people too lazy to be responsible for themselves. Paul screamed within his helmet, cursing everything and his own, hopeless, futility. He hated himself. He hated himself for falling for it. For following Reid, buying into the whole scam. And now he was here. He would never get out of here. He would work here until he died. For people he hated. Who didn’t know or care to find out what they were asking him to do for them.
He screamed until his body forced him to catch his breath. He raggedly gasped for air.
Completely spent, Paul felt a clarity within his mind.
Lying in stillness, staring up at the ceiling, condensation dripped onto his blurred visor. He felt himself mentally lifting his head out of the dark pulp of the Chamber, coughing out mouthfuls of the Soil, his eyes opening to the reality of the world around him.
He took in the pensive stances of the two suited individuals beside him. They stood regarding him, apprehensive and unsure how best to help. He sat up, and studied Reid’s lifeless body before him.
Paul realized the blindness of his rage. Reid was a well-meaning person. He didn’t deserve Paul’s anger any more than any person Paul had grown up with. Everyone around him had chosen what to do with their lives. Even he, himself, had freely chosen to come work at the Plant, hadn’t he? He considered all those people he had known as he grew up. They were all well-meaning, good hearted people motivated by kindness. Even Richard Dawson had created his Soil out of great sacrifice to himself on behalf of the world. There really was not a person to blame. Those people needed Paul’s work here. They depended on him in a way nobody ever had.
Paul’s frustration and rage lay squarely on the foundation upon which his entire life was built. All those people were in the dark about the reality of the Plant. The volunteers were no more aware of what happened in Red Key than anyone on the outside. All their lives, they happily and lovingly cared for one another and supported this Plant, and the Residents in turn happily toiled away to support the world outside. They stood apart, however mutually dependent upon each other. Why would the outside world ever suspect such a terrible truth underneath it all? His thoughts overwhelmed him, and he forced his mind to take a pause.
He lay still in silent exhaustion. The pounding vibration of the machinery outside the Antechamber stoked his inner struggles. He let the swells of the machinery wash through him, the pressure of this place lessening with each pulse. Each pulse lightened, becoming less imposing, less threatening. More calming, even.
Paul’s tortured mind blossomed in epiphany.
He felt as though he had been in free fall his entire life. Falling through the cracks of everyone else’s explanations meant to buoy him. Falling through the grasp of any hands that could have caught his fall. Until landing here, under a mountain. He was right here, now, and nowhere else. On the floor of the Antechamber, lying beside his dead best friend. Both in their respective places as a result of every choice that had ever been made. Here, these circumstances, were the culmination of the choices of their parents, and their ancestors, and every other person bumping into one another along the streams of time.
The Plant, this place, would be angry every day. It would kill. It would rage. It would loom large overhead every single day. In this way, it was highly reliable. Whether or not he chose to stand in its way and fight the Plant directly, it’s machinery would never stop under his strength. And that freed him to think differently, to reinvent his approach. Dawson had done just that and remolded the entire world, had he not? Society could no longer push at him and overwhelm him. Because it was never pushing on him any more than he chose to let it. He stepped beyond the four walls of Dawson’s world into a new place. A place of no guarantees, a world of unknown and opportunity.
Paul admitted that he did not know what was going to happen in his life. He could never hope to control his own future. He gave himself to this place. He felt himself falling. Into the complete darkness of unknowable possibility. In the face of absolute nothing and absolute everything at once, Paul experienced his first conscious moment without fear. He let his new world soak into him. His fear dissipated into a serene peace.
Paul lay here, alone in his thoughts, no one forcing him to do this or that. No longer pushed along by his parents’ expectations, or his own expectations, or Dawson’s- spoken and unspoken. No longer tagging along with Reid, aimlessly waiting for anything, good or bad, to come his way. Free to choose his own intentions, despite his circumstances.
He determined his own outlook. He could stand on his own strength. Strength he did not ask for or deserve to have. And yet, he had it. He knew he could stand up. Here would be his starting point. A point of wonder. Of the entire world of the unknown for him to reach for.
Paul rolled over, shakily rising to his feet. And he was okay. He even felt a new drive from within. The drive of his own will. Pressing his hand against his chest, the indentation of his Red Key outlined in his skin under all the suit’s layers. He considered his surroundings anew. It was impossible to engage the outside world to improve the Red Key’s lives. The perfection of the outside world lay beyond his reach. They knew not with what issues the Residents dealt. Nor were they able to help in their ignorance. The only way anything could be improved here lay in the hands of the Residents. In Paul’s hands. He refused to support the Plant in his intentions. But he also refused to fight against it. Because he could not defeat it. It represented nothing more than a concept, cold and uncaring, however obliged to rely on the work of his hands.
And so, with complete clarity, he made a choice with intention. Unhurried, unpressured, and entirely his own. To stand for hope in today. To create a different tomorrow. Whatever that ended up looking like.
He was now void of any negative emotions related to his past. He could look back at every person that had any effect on his ending up here. He could consider them all with care, and be thankful for all of their individual efforts, for, or against him. He was not anywhere else. He was not someone else. And he was proud of who he was- Paul Purcell.
Lifting his gaze, he steadily eyed his fellow Residents, seeing them in a new light. They shuffled their feet in anxiety, glancing between themselves then back to Paul, expectantly eyeing Paul for some response. He met their concerned looks. To his surprise, his vision blurred in tears.
He was no better than either one of them. These people were all in the same boat. The truth was immutably clear. The reason they had all come here. Why everyone scrambled through life every day. All in a desperate attempt to prove to themselves that they were enough. And they were. He committed to every day, right here, to dignify their lives.
A shiver of excitement ran up his spine, followed by a shock trembling the Antechamber. One of the other Residents in the Exit Antechamber shrugged.
Paul looked at Reid’s body with fresh determination. Grief tugged his attention. He embraced it, letting the tears fall freely. It was quickly eclipsed by Paul’s new commitment. There would be time to work through all the emotions later. Blinking away tears, he nodded thanks to the fellow Residents for retrieving the body. He began to crank the hatch open to call off the search within the Chamber.
He looked through the porthole to see several headlamps madly struggling toward the door. Paul swung open the hatch and felt an unnatural warmth wash over his feet. He looked down to his feet immersed in Soil. He turned to see Reid’s body contorted, afloat in the viscous fluid.
“Hold him there!” Paul frantically signed to the other Residents.
They responded readily, grabbing Reid’s body, clinging to the metal railings.
As Paul stood in the doorway, a shock went through his body, throwing him into the Soil at his feet. He smeared it from his face mask and looked into the faces of the two suits struggling to hold onto Reid’s body. The ground trembled again. The entire room blazed aglow with a blinding orange light. Scorching heat surged against his back from within the Chamber.
He turned and faced the molten fire overrunning the Soil’s pool. He set his jaw and faced the mounting flames. This place could no longer touch him.
Through his melting face mask, he saw his father, Dean, kneeling before him, eyes level. Dean’s fierce eyes locked his son’s gaze, in a nod of solemn approval.
: Solely the willing participant may sign the Contract, without outside pressures to do so.
: The willing participant must partake of strictly one dose of Dawson’s Oil daily without fail.
: A signature below contracts a lifetime supply of Dawson’s Oil.
: Participant shall voluntarily refrain from use of other stimulants or mind altering substances concurrently with Dawson’s Oil.
: Failure to comply with aforementioned rules will void contract and may result in serious, permanent, personal injury, likely death. Furthermore, no future offer to sign a new Contract is possible once voided.
: Solely mature decision making adults may sign the contract. Apply this term at your own discretion.
Sign and Date
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