Rob had stopped writing actual maps in his notebook after the second time he’d gotten caught. The police had confiscated his satchel along with his notebook and figured out too much from it. If he’d just had the usual things in notebooks – poems, stories, a few sketches, then they might’ve let him go, thinking he was a student of a sort.
That alone could have spelled trouble because schools had ceased to be in the years after the Disappearances. But it wasn’t uncommon for people in their early 20s to cobble together some kind of curriculum for themselves. The police didn’t mind that, seeing it as a harmless way to spend their time. They knew it wouldn’t, it couldn’t, lead to anything. But if they suspected his notes were about Walks then the whole plan could have unraveled overnight.
The police couldn’t go on Walks, of course. If they could, they would. Who wouldn’t? The ability to travel from Room to Room, discovering new buildings from the inside was quite a feat. It was like having a master key to every house. “Open house” events took on a whole new meaning if you were a Visitor.
The problem was, some Visitors worked for the police. Not willingly, mind you. The only “pay” they got was being set free. They’d been caught on a Walk, often helping themselves to something in a member of the Quality’s house. Visitors didn’t think of it as stealing, but the Quality sure did, and the police were notified.
How can it be stealing when the items weren’t even bought by the Quality? The concept of “possession is 9/10 of the law” still held true even in this time, because the people who did all possessing had all the lawyers on their side. Hell, half of the Quality were lawyers, those that hadn’t had time to settle down and start a family.
Visitors who were caught had two choices if they wanted to go free. Pay a fine or rat out another Visitor, which sometimes meant decoding their maps so the police would know where to catch them. It wasn’t much of a choice because most Visitors didn’t have enough money to make the police happy. Too little and they couldn’t pay. Too much and they were liable to face yet more charges, including burglary or robbery. It was seemingly easier to be a snitch. But it also carried a penalty. Snitches didn’t tend to last long. Once word got out among the Visitors, a snitch would often get shoved into a Room whose closest Door was at least 100 miles away.
Those kinds of Rooms were why Visitors made maps. Some things were too unpleasant to want to have to do again. They’d exchange information whenever they could about Doors that were useful and ones that were less than. Someone else’s misfortune didn’t have to be yours.
Rob had decided on his own to transform his maps into sketches of leaves and flowers. This way it looked like he was going on nature walks rather than going on Walks.
A darkened bit of leaf here, an apparently inchworm chewed bit there, and nobody was the wiser. His marks made sense to him, and that was what mattered. He used actual plants as his basis for the sketches to have verisimilitude. He didn’t have a good enough imagination so he didn’t try to make them up. His Gran had taught him quite a bit about plants, albeit unintentionally. He was her garden helper and had to know what was weed and what was vegetable. He thought of it as slave labor at the time, but he was grateful for it now.
His leaf maps were starting to make more sense. Now that he’d had time to compare notes with Mickey and Julia, some of the missing areas were filling in nicely. There still were areas that didn’t appear to have any Doors at all. He compared these areas against a large topographic map of the state at the local library. He and Julia agreed that more and more evidence pointed towards the problem starting with all three areas called Rayon City, and it didn’t take long for the two of them to convince Mickey that they were on to something.
The three Rayon Cities were built hundreds of years ago by a chemical corporation to house their employees. The cities, more like large villages, were built in short order along with the plant. It was an added incentive to have a ready-made place to live for young impressionable potential employee.
The same people who were drafted to go overseas to fight the Germans were the same kinds of ones who took up jobs in that labyrinthine, windowless complex of a plant. Both groups barely out of high school and with no marketable skills other than day labor. Both groups were average (or worse) students. Both groups were from poor families. They didn’t have many choices.
The military or the plant was the same as far as a choice went. They both paid well, had good benefits, and were dangerous. People took their chances going to work for either of them. With the military, you could die or come back missing a limb or your mind. Death or dismemberment wasn’t a great risk with the plant, but mental illness couldn’t be ruled out. Cancer was a strong contender, too.
Both groups thought of themselves as lucky, as above average when it came to the odds. In short, they didn’t think the bad stuff could happen to them.
Something bad happened, but not what anyone could have expected. All those years of “not me” Pollyanna optimism, all that time being surprised when the bad stuff actually did happen, all those people who cheated themselves out of their own future by borrowing against it with wishful thinking – it all mixed together somehow with the secret experiments that were going on at the plant.
The three plants were privately run but government controlled. It was a weird sort of marriage that had happened before. It had begun with the post office and ended with the auto manufacturers. It was an experiment that resulted in an odd hybrid of the two – good benefits from the government side, better management from the private industry side.
It wasn’t perfect, however. Employees had to commit an actual crime to be fired. Plenty of people who would never have gotten hired in private industry got to not only keep their jobs but often got promoted. It seemed like the more inept you were, the more you got paid.
Another feature of this corporate chimera was the secrecy. Regular private businesses were supposed to be transparent. The government was as transparent as a brick wall. Even the Freedom of Information Act couldn’t be used to pry open the company’s files on its less-than-normal experiments. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway even if someone had tried. They didn’t write any of this experiment down. It was too important to risk being exposed.
The company had divided all of the workers into tiny groups that never spoke with each other. Sometimes the left hand didn’t even know the right hand existed. Each workgroup had its assigned task and were told nothing about how it related to the whole. At first they were told it was for the benefit of national security.
The company made a lot of material for the war effort. They were involved in anything that involved chemicals. Rayon, that miracle fiber that was invented in their laboratory, was used in making parachute cord. Chemicals normally used in fertilizer were instead used to make bombs. The workers understood the need for secrecy – the less they knew, the less chance of the wrong information getting into enemy hands.
The war was long over but the secrets continued. It had become habit to not ask questions, become a matter of fact that you just didn’t even think about what other groups did, even those that shared your area. The metaphorical cat wasn’t even curious, so he stayed alive and safe.
Until everything went wrong.