The Visitors (part 12)

The company thought they were making improvements to the population. They created chemicals that created a strong psychic ability in lab monkeys. After that, it was simple to add the chemicals to breakfast cereals for kids. Sure, they had to cover up the taste by adding more sugar, but it seemed like a good trade-off. Clairvoyance for a few extra pounds, perhaps?

They didn’t imagine the kids would stop playing outside, stop exercising almost entirely. Their parents were terrified of strangers kidnapping and killing them, so they plopped them down in front of the TV and let Bugs Bunny do it instead. The effect was the same – their minds erased by hours of TV, their health gone from years of inactivity.

The children ate the colorful cereal, marketed to them with cartoon characters just like those on the TV that served as a surrogate parent. Their parents thought it was good for them because the cardboard box said it was fortified with vitamins and minerals. They just didn’t know what else it was fortified with. Over the course of a few years, the chemicals in the cereal altered the DNA of the children enough so that when they were old enough to have their own children, they had the trait the company was hoping for. The only problem was that society wasn’t ready for it.

The children were almost too sensitive. They knew far more than they should have at early ages, because their brains were closer to crystal radios than carbon-based structures. They received all sorts of signals, all the time. They were flooded with information, with no way of filtering it or turning it off. Everything was too much. All of their senses were working overtime.

Some went mad. Some had to be institutionalized. The company managed to get some of its researchers hired on as aides at the long-term care facilities across the nation wherever the cereal had been sold. The worst cases came from parents who had eaten four times the serving size of the cereal as children, or had continued eating it into adolescence and adulthood. They were beyond hope, of no use to anyone.

Some of the others were very sensitive, but without too many adverse effects. Regular doctors labeled some of the children as having autism, or Asperger’s, or simply sensory processing disorder. The children’s difference was seen by them as a disease rather than an enhancement. The medical professionals kept trying to medicate them or assign therapy to make them act like regular children. The company never said a word, never let it be known that they’d dreamed of this day.

The company began hiring these children once they reached 18. The public and the press were delighted. Finally there was a business that not only was willing to make accommodations for this new and unusual generation, but actually seemed to want them. Little did any outsider realize but the company wasn’t being enlightened. They actually sought them out, not to appear benevolent but to further their own secret project.

Under the guise of new employee orientation, these unusual workers were assessed for their psychic ability. Those that had the highest scores were given up to three hours of specialized training every day. The other employees simply thought it was because of their special needs. Like all other employees, these new hires were sworn to secrecy. They had no idea that what they were learning wasn’t normal.

It wasn’t normal at all. In fact, no one had even tried to tap into the psychic ability of a group before. Each employee was trained to link up with each other, in series, creating a synergistic effect. The net result was far greater than the sum of the parts. It turned out to be more than the Overseer could have ever imagined or dreamed. It turned out to be the worst nightmare ever.

Strong emotions concentrated the results. The teachers had the group focus on their parents, thinking that they would have nothing but love for them. They were wrong.

They had not accounted for years of suppressed rage of being ignored, discounted, and ridiculed. They hadn’t realized that the vast majority of those in this group were seen as a being a burden to their family, an embarrassment. It was worse for the boys.

They were expected to carry on the family name, to provide grandchildren to dote on. The latent feeling of grief that their parents felt, especially their fathers, was profound. It was never talked about to the children, of course. It didn’t matter. The parents never knew that their hidden resentments were being broadcast directly to the very people who would most feel hurt.

Unknown to the researchers, the boys as one force shaped their rage at their parents into a ball of hatred, and then reached inside, shaping it. Like how a potter expands a vessel on his wheel, it became ever larger until it surrounded all parents, not just their own.

In a blink of the eye, all the parents were gone.

The Visitors (part 11)

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.

The Visitors, part two

The Door was a drainage culvert this time, Rob noted with displeasure. All the muck and leftovers from the city were here, and he was knee-deep in it. Come to think of it, the city-zens would think of him as muck too, washed away down the drain. They’d always thought of Visitors like that.

Couldn’t tell what caused what, the person became unwanted because they chose to be a Visitor, or the person became a Visitor because they were unwanted. Maybe it was a little of both.

All Rob knew was that he better get out of this culvert and fast. He could hear the rumble of a storm coming. His Gran had taught him all the prayers and blessings, including the ones for lightning and thunder. “See, nothing to be afraid of my boy! They’s something to be thankful for! You can get in your daily quota of thanks with those! Two-for-one, even! A bargain!”

He said the prayers dutifully, even thankfully, when he was a child, but he wasn’t feeling thankful right now. He needed to get out of that culvert, and quick. The storm was coming faster than he expected. He scrambled up and out to catch the lay of the land.

His Gran wasn’t a visitor either, just like Julia’s Gran. No Gran-mothers were Visitors, because Visitors happened after they were able to choose. All the parents died suddenly over the course of about a month, a decade back, and all the children were left in the care of their Gran-mothers. The Gran-fathers were suddenly off either working to support their new families or off fighting against the new enemies. Sometimes they were just off, not able to handle the new strain of new mouths to feed.

Nobody had ever seen an enemy, none that they knew were there. There had to be an enemy. There was no other reason for all the unexplained deaths and tech failures. They all suspected the usual suspects, the nation-states who they’d grumbled with off and on for generations. Nobody fessed up though, so they were left guessing. Rob even suspected some of them killed off some of their citizens to make it look like they were hit too. They were low enough to do just that.

Right now he didn’t have time to think much about the past. His present wasn’t looking very good, and his future was downright uncertain. That thunder was getting closer. He said a prayer and looked harder. He didn’t have much to work with.

This Room was an open field, long, low, and empty of much except rocks and a few scraggly wildflowers. Not all Rooms were actual rooms. Every Visitor learned that before their first Walk. Some Rooms were entire buildings full of rooms that lead only to other rooms, not other places. It was important to be able to spot the difference. Otherwise you’d spend all day, or all your life, stuck there. He didn’t have all day, with that storm coming.

Perhaps those boulders to the right may hide a nook that he could wiggle in, that might take him out of here. If nothing else, it might just be enough to keep him dry. That alone was enough to head in that direction. Not like there were many other likely options. An abandoned well could do as a place to find a Door, but he’d rather skip the worms if he had a choice. It certainly wasn’t a place to be scouting out in a storm. Shouldering his canvas sack, he trudged on.