Sizable balls of dim marooned light found solace on the once golden arch embedded within walls littered with black plastics molded to aid the artist in capturing light.
Quinn pulled the thin leaf of paper from the tray of chemicals like the skin off an apple, being too afraid it may otherwise bruise.
Extensions on his stubby fingers clicked together unembodied, dampening singers of the smallest violins. There, already appearing from the white void, cut copper pipes and rising steam. A gasp of air escaped his nose—the upper edge forgotten to burn. The print would need another go. The wooden, anthropomorphized shape grabbed at the fault and swung until gravity had its way.
Still but his breath.
If a mirror could find fault as easy as his eye, one would never gaze onto one’s self. So befell a mask of deception when he would need its utility besides its illusion of lathe spaces, but all deception would crumble while he spied into the world captured by his own camera. The arm of time moved as steadily as a heartbeat, as trepidatious as any ambiguous countdown; though with this there may be no end. In sight he is sure it could stop at some point, a mere expression of energetic physics, but more abstractly the end may never come.
The lights flashed on. Quinn blinked to acclimate easier.
“Time’s up 1-0-2-4-8.”
He was grateful now had not been a time when he was in the middle of developing film. Far too many times was he lost in the embrace of the warm seclusion, only to begin developing too late and have his negatives ruined at the drop of a dime.
The group allowed personal hobbies such as these, in fact encouraged it, as long as the activity was unanimously agreed upon. The small darkroom, fabricated with plywood walls, and secondhand developing equipment, stood in a small alcove cut out from a section of wall in the infirmary.
Programs such as allowing workers to partake in hobbies, to wrangle with their muses, were common experimentation ever since the first group of workers had showed up to the factory farm. Quinn was apart of a group who answered the open call for any workers willing to leave the city and move and work fulltime in the factory farms, with a promise of housing, meals, and entertainment, all provided for.
Ever since the city had walled itself in, allowing no citizens to leave unless authorized to do so, the factory farms have become a place enshroud in rumor; a place far from the city walls, hidden in great expanses of mystery. Even as Quinn flew to the factory farms in a plane with no windows, with his whole life packed away in one suitcase, he had no way to know where they were headed.
Quinn gathered up his print he’d have to fix during his next session. With a red china marker he circled the upper right corner and drew a large X, rather violently.
Two guards flanked either side of the curtains covering the entrance to the darkroom. The feathered hats drew energy from the small atmospheric fluctuations distributed by Quinn exiting through the curtains.
It would be a year next month since arriving at the factory farms. The work was not overly exciting, and though some people would equate it to a prison, Quinn enjoyed the routine and lack of responsibility. As long as he worked, everything was taken care of.
Quinn took a moment to stand between the two guards, gave each of them a quick smile, and turned to walk out of the room of white, holding a mass of boxes similar to his own darkroom. Though what was inside these could be drastically different from Quinn’s. Each of these monoliths, some painted black, while others had kept the rustic look of pressed plywood, stood separately from each other, allowing the pure white lights, simulating a clear sunny day, to run like egg yolks across the floor, and around the red uniforms of the guards, standing in twos outside of each muse-shelter.
How many there were in total was hard to say. Quinn had never walked anywhere but straight to his own muse-shelter. Though if everyone had their own, there would be hundreds.
Quinn stretched his back and allowed his eyes to adjust further before heading back to his room. Some others were emerging from their dens as well, slipping through the strips of thick plastic. Only an hour a day could be attributed to these more personal indulgences, and since he arrived with a group around six o’clock, after they had finished eating their evening meal, he would be leaving with the same group.
Among them was a man named Chet. Quinn had grown rather fond of Chet since their coming to the factory farms at the same time almost a year ago. Though they didn’t have much time during the day together, Quinn being a seeder, and Chet a waterer, they had developed a strong friendship through mutual love of the mundane.
He watched Chet emerge from his muse-shelter, looking dazed and a bit annoyed as he always did. “Chet!” He received a stern look from a guard. He waved, ignoring the guard’s continuous stare.
They merged onto the walkway at the same moment.
“Get much done today?” Chet said amongst a yawn.
“What were you doing, sleeping in there?”
“Naw, just really spaced out. So let me see, got anything good?”
Quinn whipped out his one print with the big circled red X in the upper righthand corner. “Forgot to burn the edge there, but overall it came out surprisingly well.”
“Damn, you sure do have an eye. I can’t believe they let you in there to take pictures.” He was referring to the boiler room. Ever since Quinn was instructed to fix a leak in the lower levels he was enthralled by the lights and parallel lines of pipe running along the walls.
This picture was trying to capture just that. An orange light diffused over rusted pipes, all aligned and equally separated, in straight, parallel lines. Off camera a boiler steamed vapor, covering the concrete wall so to make the pipes look as though they were floating in the clouds.
Quinn shrugged, “I wouldn’t say giving me five minutes in there was really allowing me to properly photograph anything, but atleast I got one good shot.” He looked down at the print. “Now if only I could get the print right.”
They walked amongst the wall of muse-shelters. Sometimes they could hear tiny clicks from typewriters, or great bellows of voice emerge through the reinforced walls as they passed.
“How about you, got much done today?” Quinn looked down and saw Chet’s hands, washed with charcoal.
Chet shrugged. “Wasn’t feeling it today I guess.”
Quinn looked down and saw him holding a small piece of paper covered in scribble—he didn’t press any further.
“Well there’s always tomorrow.”
“Can’t argue with that.”
They reached the doorway leading out to a serpentine strip of walkway. Overhead projections of extinct biology swam through a pristine blue tunnel of water, following the flow of the crowds below. Quinn did bother to look up. The illusion was nice for the first two weeks, but once Quinn realized the very obvious loop it lost all its charm. Workers in identical blue jumpsuits fled in both directions down the hall, some past the muse-shelter room, while others entered it with a look of determination on their eyes.
“How about a drink tonight?” Quinn suggested out of the blue, feeling like he didn’t want to spend the rest of the night alone in his room.
Chet had already willfully embraced the soothing flow of water above so as to forget whatever feelings of impotence had plagued him within his muse-shelter. “Have you ever known me to turn down a drink?”
Actually yes, Quinn could think of many times, but instead laughed and shook his head.
“I can be there around eight o’clock. Just gotta wash my damn self and I’ll be right there.”
Quinn knew this meant he needed to go beat himself up for not being able to perform in his muse-shelter, alone; and until he could properly do that, he would stay there, alone.
“Sure, take your time,” Quinn said, pushing away from his empathetic thoughts, “I’ll be there.”
And as Chet, with a hand held high as a wave of goodbye, walked down a perpendicular corridor towards his living quarters, Quinn was left alone to walk the rest of the way to his room.
Quinn let out a large sigh and walked towards his own, looking down at his print, running his hand along the smooth wall to keep his balance. He took his time, people passed, many of which he recognized.
He saw the scene through his photograph as if it were more brilliant than it could ever be in person. Maybe because perceiving takes on a span of time no matter how small, but never as small as the moment captured by a photograph. The pipes running parallel in a subtle downward slope showed off their beautiful rust, unabashed in exposing their imperfections. His eyes went towards the top corner once again where the edge was horribly underexposed. He couldn’t think of why just this particular area was so poorly developed. He couldn’t remember their being any overly bright areas down there, and the rest of the print was practically uniform in its contrast, plus the negative looked to have no imperfections. It was a section of the room that should be of little significance but greatly distracted the eye. Tomorrow he hoped to change that. He placed his finger on the red-waxed markings to feel its relief when the print was all of a sudden knocked to the floor, and he into the wall. His head slammed against tin.
“Oh! I’m so sorry,” he heard a voice say as he rose to gather his balance, confused as to how he had gotten on the ground, the photograph still falling like a feather. “I’m sorry to say I wasn’t watching much where I was going. These fish have me entranced.”
In front of him stood a woman he had never seen before. She was regaining her composure, teasing her hair to fall back the way it was. She picked up the print and handed it back. Quinn felt a wave of anticipation as he watched her gloss over the picture.
“That’s a nice one,” she said, trying to sound sincere.
“Thanks,” he delicately grabbed it from her hands, “just printed it this evening.” He looked back towards the muse-shelter room. “What’s your poison?” he asked cryptically, hoping she would know what he meant.
“Oh, painting. But I have yet to set up my muse-shelter. They tell me it could take a few weeks to get all the necessary supplies.”
“So you’re new here?”
“Yeah, just came in last week.”
Quinn felt a swelling wave of nostalgia; she had been in the city only a week earlier, its heat and insanity still radiating off her. “City still the same shit hole it was a year ago?”
She laughed, pinning her hair behind her ears. “It’ll never change.”
“No, I don’t believe it will.” He tried changing the subject before it could rouse any further heartache. “Well I know a few painters who I’m sure would be glad to have you borrow some of their equipment while you’re waiting for your own.”
“Thanks, that’s very generous, but I think I’ll just wait for my own. I was actually heading there now to see if there was any progress on my shelter. It’s a group of about ten of us who will have a new section all to ourselves, apparently.”
“Is that so?”
A pair of guards stepped around their conversing bodies. “Might want to keep it moving in here,” one of the guards said nonchalantly.
Quinn glanced quickly at the guard and turned back to see her too afraid to do the same.
“Better hope you don’t get stuck between two singers, might be the end of all your creative drive as you know it.” It was meant to be a joke, but she didn’t seem to find it very funny. “Well hey, uh, I’d love to chat some more sometime, I always love picking the new one’s brains about the city. Maybe we could grab a drink sometime?”
“We’re allowed to drink?”
Quinn laughed. “You’ve got a lot to learn. You don’t drink, and you may just go crazy in here. Name’s Quinn, room 32-A in the Yellow sector. Ring me whenever and I’ll show you the ropes.”
“That sounds great,” she said stepping back, “I better go take a look at my new digs before I run out of juice.” She turned leave.
She spun around in a pirouette.
“You never told me your name.”
“Cora!” she bellowed as she continued to back up down the hall.
He watched her walk around the bend, her footsteps falling in line with the rest. He looked down at the photograph again wishing she had seen it completed. “Damn,” he said under his breath.
Quinn stepped into his room. The lights hummed on. A bed and desk were surrounded by hundreds of photographs taped to the walls. He took the one in his hand and threw it onto his desk. Falling into bed, trying not to think of his life as it was in the city, he stared out his small, oval window.
It was evening, and the setting sun made mounds of sand look like martian boulders dipped in moonlight. The expanse was great and the view showed him more than he could ever explore in a lifetime.
The factory farm stood on stilts so as to avoid the annual floods that came once a year from the mountains, putting their durability to the test for three whole days of a constant bombardment from torrential waters. Quinn had yet to see the flood but knew he’d be right here watching when it did.
He watched a group of harvesters parade around in the evening bliss, searching for minerals to power the farms. They walked in single file, as fluidly as any real spider could move. From this distance you could only track their movement if you were to stare at them for a while, like watching a cloud pass overhead, or a satellite in the night. A whirlwind of dust swept by the closest dune, clouding the already nebulous and evasive rock outcroppings.
Something about Chet being on edge, and meeting Cora left Quinn with a strange feeling of abandonment. He put his hand on the cool pane of glass, wishing he could know what the sand felt like between his toes. The only time he had gotten a taste was when he was first shipped off to the factory farms. Him and the rest of the recruits had been informed to wait on the east end of the city. As they all awkwardly stood there, a man dressed in all black came through a hidden door in the wall and signaled for them all to step through. They were being led outside of the city. It took Quinn a whole minute to realize that he and the desert surrounding the city had nothing separating the two. He remembers his sneakers sinking into the sand spilling over onto the concrete holding carriers and a large drop ship, supposedly what they were meant to board. Their singlefile procession into the dropship bent and swayed like their capes in the wind. Guards lining the way to enter shifted nervously, while mechanics and technicians ran to make any last minute repairs.
The whole charade seemed far too elaborate, though it was a big deal to be able to leave the city. Not many people had the pleasure—maybe pleasure isn’t exactly right. Quinn peered back at the huge white wall, now closed once again as everyone had passed through, and felt a twinge of regret as he saw the giant architecture consuming the sky. He tightened his muscles and squared his shoulders in the direction they were being herded, for that is in fact how it looked, and why it felt so strange to be leaving this way: Single file, lined with guards—only one way this parade will end. The fate for this group of individuals has been determined, and now Quinn’s decision to leave felt less and less like his own and more and more like an influence imposed into his psyche.
The line of workers wound into the hangar and up the ramp of the dropship. Inside, amongst the various tacky and hastily thrown together comforts, were rows of seats that looked out of place. Quinn assumed they never had so many passengers been on board before, and were conscious, but not too worried, of their need for comfort. The rug lining the walkway between seats had never been walked on, and the seats themselves seemed not to be connect to the floor in any way.
Nervous chatter and uncompromisable silence were the only two forms of existence amongst the newly recruited workers. Quinn ended up next to a man whom he has yet to see again. His beard and wildly styled hair overtook his face, a face that neither held emotion nor blinked a single time, at least not that Quinn could catch. He must be as scared as I am, Quinn remembered thinking to himself.
During the flight he tried concentrating on the feeling of his hand running along the back of the seat in front of him. Just as the rug, these seats had never been used. The smell caught to his hand like a department store perfume. A nostalgia of new things, something he may be giving up for good.
Chet was on this flight somewhere, though Quinn didn’t know it at the time. It would have been nice to find a friendly and approachable face in the sea of anticipated worry, and stoic apathy. Only twice did he hear crying, he couldn’t blame them. This felt like being sent to war. They were promised nothing but recognition of their valor and nationalism, stepping up to the plate when the city needed them most. They were the ones providing a future for the city. That’s atleast what they were told.
The fuselage buckled and shook as they touched down; a shorter ride than expected. Some raised out of their seats, anxious to exit, while others, including Quinn, were too nervous to move. Rustling erupted from the front of the craft as men in red leather and frilly hats, all welding machine rifles, stormed the plane to line the aisle. Those standing quickly sat. The men stood at attention.
You will see under your seat, a voice lept from the ship’s overhead speakers, two numbers and a color.
Quinn reached under his seat, found a crudely made leather pouch, and felt the sharp edge of paper inside. He pulled it out:
These indicate, the disembodied voice continued, your new I.D. number, room number, and wing of your sleeping quarters.
The rustling of paper crept in like a waterfall. Quinn could hear people around him comparing numbers in three or four word sentences. Quinn looked to the man sitting next to him, he sat with the piece of paper folded in his hands.
As the last of the guard leaves you will be allowed to exit. Please head straight to your rooms for orientation, signs are posted where necessary.
Talk about a warm welcome, Quinn thought.
The clapping of boots started and the guards began to exit. People rushed to gather their things to follow them out.
Upon exiting the ship Quinn saw a sign with five colors, he followed the sign for blue, and finally, at the very end of the blue wing, stood a door reading 32A.
Please type in your identification number on the keypad now. A voice came from somewhere in the door. He unfolded the piece of paper from his pocket and plugged in the numbers 1-0-2-4-8. The door screamed open. The smell of plastic and bleach was overwhelming. He flinched, squeezing his eyes closed to stop the burn. As he was turned away, with a tear drying in the corner of his eye, a realization swept him off his feet. He peaked out of one eye and saw it: a window above his bed. Not just any window, a window looking out to the desert! He kicked his two suitcases in, and rushed over to the window, practically pressing his cheeks against the glass.
If this was going to be his life, at least now he had this.
Quinn let out a deep breath, blinking away the memory; one becoming harder and harder to bare. The skin on his hand stuck to the window, eventually falling to his lap. Opening and closing doors were heard up and down the hall outside his room. He knew the longer he sat here the harder it would become to get up and leave. He looked again at the rising mountains to the North, faded glimmers of rock shone like reflections on a lake. A place for the harvesters to work he supposed. The sun had almost set, and the lights in his room had faded to a less piercing white. He reached over to grab his drink tokens, pulling out three from the drawer, and placed them in his pocket. Wanting nothing more than to forget, he left his room, facing his window as the door closed in front of him.