A/N: Read part 1 first, please.
The next morning, it was back to work. The piece of glass continued to glow, but it didn’t seem to be doing anything more sinister than that. I helped Avery with some glass blowing. We mostly made sheet glass in the Factory, but we made some decorative glass too. All of our sheet glass was colored. Some of it looked like marble, some like ink in water, and some like things I can’t describe.
I didn’t know who we made glass for, or who shipped it. I know that we made glass, and stacked it on rumbling carts that moved automatically up and down railroad tracks. I didn’t understand. I mean, I liked stained glass-- it was our specialty-- but in a world where the sun was covered up by dark clouds and they have to barricade workers in their workplace… What was the glass used for? Who had time to appreciate its beauty?
Avery and I talked a little as we worked. Sometimes the conversation would halt for fifteen minutes while we were engrossed in the glass, but it would always pick up right where we left off.
“So, what do you think of the new recruit?” Avery asked.
“He seems nice enough. For a newbie.” We received a new worker for every one that died. We called these “new recruits.” They always came in the cart. There was an ongoing stigma against new recruits because there was only so much room in the cart. They could fit supplies or a person in the cart, not both. So whenever a new recruit was sent, we had to eat rats until our order of glass was filled. Not to mention that one of our fellow workers (and presumably friends) had just died. The newbie seemed to be replacing them.
The new guy’s name was Todd, and he seemed slow to grasp the concepts of glass making. But he was sure quick to “understand’ the nonexistent social hierarchy here. He tried to buddy up with those he thought had more “power.” And, unlike all the others who knew better, he called me out on a couple instances, even though he had only been there a few days.
“Hey Lurker! Or should I say Loser!” he had said when I volunteered to assist the tableman. “Why don’t you get back to skinning rats? Leave the big jobs to the big men!”
I glared at him through squinted eyes, but I didn’t know what to say. It was true: I wasn’t strong enough to do more than assist the tableman. But that tableman stuck up for me.
“Newb, I don’t know who you think you are, but Lurk here is the best tableman assistant I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. I can’t say anything near as nice for you. I wouldn’t mess with him.. He sent a man down the carts who never came back up.”
Todd’s expression tightened into a frown, but he said nothing. When the tableman turned back to his work, Todd stuck his tongue out at me. I almost laughed. He was so juvenile.
I had come here as a very small child. I was sent as a punishment to the workers who had been making bad glass as retaliation against the poor rations. Rather than resent me, however, the workers took me in, and raised me like I was a part of their family. Eventually though, the Factory workers I had grown up with all died or went crazy. All except for Avery, who grew to be my only true friend.
“Pass the the bent stick. The small one.” Avery said, as he rolled the glass at the end of a blowpipe.
“This one?” I asked, holding up a bent steel rod.
“Yeah. Thanks,” he said as I handed it to him. He continued with the conversation from before, saying, “I don’t think I like him. It’s like he’s lording his nonexistent position over others of ‘lesser class.’ I have a feeling he’s gonna poison our well.”
I nodded my head as I watched him roll out the glass. There had been a few spats while I had been there, with workers getting greedy or trying to take charge of the whole Factory. I couldn’t see why anyone would want to be in charge of this rickety heap of scrap metal. Those people had always suffered unfortunate accidents…
The day that followed the change in the furnace was pretty ordinary. I tried to acquaint myself with its new light, but no matter how many times I told myself that it was just a different color, something in my stomach pulled, saying, “No! You’re wrong! Something’s off! Run! Run away!” I ended up avoiding it as often as could be helped. It didn’t hurt that it was there that Todd liked to spend his time. I think Todd was afraid of getting lost in the Factory’s nonsensical passageways.
All of our glass glowed when it came out of the annealer, but it didn’t burn us. The sheets glowed green in their warehouse, lined up in shelves. The furnace didn’t break when it turned color. The crucibles didn’t leak onto the floor. It didn’t seem like such a harmful thing.
Then people started getting sick.
It started with the ladlers and the tablemen. They began to feel over-tired and nauseous. Even after we told them to take it easy and gave them another day off, they were vomiting and getting migraines. Red, patchy areas appeared on their skin. Some awful part of me was disappointed that Todd didn’t get sick. He looked as worried as the rest of us though.
As time progressed, the substitute ladlers and tablemen became sick too, and the already ill ones got worse. They started bleeding uncontrollably. We gave them all the medicines we had, but nothing helped. They started shivering and spasming.
They died soon after.
We only had enough space on the cart for one body, so we had to cover the rest of them and hide them in a corner. All glassmaking screeched to a halt, and the supervisors were nowhere to be found. I assumed they were discussing what to do about this unsettling turn of events.
What was left of the healthy workers-- about 12 men-- gathered around to discuss things on our own. A morbid air clung to the gathering, and it was mostly conducted in silence. We sat in a circle, stoic faces studying the ground between our feet. We fidgeted until we couldn’t take it anymore.
“I saw a two-headed rat,” someone said haltingly, breaking the quiet.
“I saw one with three tails,” added another voice.
“The rats have been acting a little strange recently,” admitted Avery.
Silence fell again as we pondered the implications of this new situation. I didn’t know what to think other than, I wonder if they’ll taste different…
We waited for the supervisors to come back. Looking back, I still have no idea where they went. Hours seemed to be creeping by. Eventually we grew tired of waiting.
“People are dying. We have to escape. It’s final,” announced Avery.
“But there’s no way out,” a voice moaned bleakly.
“We’ll find one,” promised Avery.
I looked around at all these people, desperate to make it out of this place. This place that had always been my home. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I thought the Factory was a nice place. It had been the only home I had ever known, and I was a little reluctant to leave it. However, I couldn’t ignore the pile of bodies hiding like an obvious blind spot in the corner. I excused myself quietly and ran the labyrinthine passage to my platform. I gingerly lifted my castle-- my three dimensional map of the Factory-- down. It was heavy and cumbersome, but I could manage it. I brought it all the way back to where the group was still sitting in silence.
Avery heard me first. He always had a knack of knowing when I was in the room. His noticeable intake of breath clued the others something had happened. Avery’s eyebrows shot higher than I had ever seen them go.
“Is that your castle?” he asked, rising halfway from his seat.
“Why did you bring it?”
“It’s not really a castle. It’s a map of the Factory,” I said. My voice sounded hollow. It was like I was giving up a piece of myself. And glass is so easy to break. The group eagerly gathered around, but remained a respectful distance away. They could sense this meant a lot to me. Everyone listened as I explained where we were, and what the scale and accuracy were.
They poured over it, murmuring things like, “I never knew that was there,” or “how could I miss a shortcut like that.”
“Keep in mind,” I said, “I haven’t found any ways out yet. I’ve only mapped the parts of the Factory I’ve been in.”
“So we still don’t know if there’s a way out or not.” Avery said. “But there’s always a chance that there’s one where we haven’t explored yet. And we have to take that chance. We can’t stay around here any longer.”
A couple people nodded and agreed.
“So, which way do we go, Luke?” Avery asked.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Probably the best bet, based on where the furnace is in relation to the cart… would be that way.” I pointed to an unfinished hallway.
“That’s it then, let’s go!” Avery said, starting in the direction I pointed out.
“Wait a minute,” interjected Todd, who had been mostly silent up till now. “We’re just going to abandon our only known source of food and head off willy-nilly based on what this Loser says? Count me out.” He planted his feet and crossed his arms.
“Fine. You can stay here with the rats. Let’s go.” Avery turned his back on Todd, and wouldn’t stop even for Todd’s continuing protests. Eventually everyone was trailing behind Avery. Todd watched us leave, glanced at the bodies piled in the corner, and chased after us. I was a little disappointed.
It was several hours before we reached the spot where my glass castle cut off. I had refused to leave it behind, so I carried it-- despite its bulkiness-- all through our trip. We caught rats along the way. Most had mutated, but they tasted just the same. As we wandered off the map, our progress became slow as we argued over which way to turn. I figured that it didn’t really matter, any direction would be just a shot in the dark.
Then that phrase became much more literal than I would have ever imagined possible. Lights that had “steady” and “unwavering” in their definition suddenly flicked off with a zap. We were left in total darkness.
We sat in silence for half a breath before the nasally voice of Todd echoed down the hallway. “Well now what. Look where you got us, loser.”
I heard a little scuffle, and a voice that I couldn’t place among the workers said, “He’s done more than you ever have for the Factory, and he’s helping us escape when you wanted to sit back and rot next to the furnace. So you can either stay here and whimper in the dark while the freaky mutant rats eat you, or you can shut up.”
I didn’t hear anything else from Todd for the rest of the journey.
We all kept a hand on the wall, where we could touch it. Sometimes we touched metal or sheets of glass set into their holding places. They must have been sheets that hadn’t been touched for decades: they were all covered in a layer of dust.
A voice called out from the back. “I think I hear something!”
“What is it?” Avery called back.
“It sounds like! Oh my--” His sentence was cut off by a blood curdling scream. “The rats! Run!”
We all surged into a blind-panicked run. The people near the back were screaming, and some unearthly grunts were following us. I had an idea. I passed my glass castle off to Avery who accepted it without a question. Then I stopped running, falling back to the end of the group, letting the rats and their glowing eyes catch up to me. But before they could even take a nip, I reached out, felt for the nearest piece of glass, and yanked it out of its holding shelf. It smashed behind me with a deafening crash. The sheet glass that fell jostled the opposite shelf, causing a domino effect that followed me all up the hallway. I ran for my life.
We wandered for what seemed like days. We were starving, but we were afraid to hunt down any rats. The glove of darkness pressed on my eyes, and I kept tripping over unknown blockages. Each step could have been leading closer or farther away from escape.
Then we stumbled onto an ending that was different from all the dead-ends we had faced previously. A red light shined down: the first light we had seen in days. It shined down in letters spelling the answer to our prayers. E-X-I-T. Below it was a door outlined in light.
I stared at this for a moment, my mouth gaping open. I rubbed my eyes to make sure I was seeing it right. I was. We advanced toward the door, and Avery pushed it open. Our black-accustomed eyes were almost blinded by the bright white light that shined within the room.
When my eyes got used to the light, they focused on an old man who looked as equally surprised to see us as we were to see him. He had white hair, and he was older than anyone I had ever seen at that time. He wore little round glasses that sat on the edge of his nose, and he was hunched over papers piled on his desk.
“Well hello,” came a tittering little voice. “Who are you?”
I was glad Avery spoke because I don’t think I could have said anything if I had tried. “The workers from the Factory. We could ask the same of you.”
“Oh hello! It’s nice I finally get to meet you. Though I never would have guessed you worked right behind the door in my office. I’m the manager of this branch of the company.”
“So you’re in charge?” Avery asked, a little wary.
“Indeed.” The man puffed out a little.
Avery slammed his fists down onto the man’s desk, knocking off a little glass paperweight (that looked rather familiar…). “Why have we been eating rats then, tell me that!”
“Nonsense. You receive plenty of supplies from our base camp.” The man waved his hand as if swatting a fly.
“Does this look like rations?” Avery showed his rat-blood covered hands to the man.
He recoiled. “Go wash your hands! That’s not sanitary.”
Avery hit the desk again, rolling his eyes and turning away from the man to face us. “Looks like we’re out. Let’s go get food. I’m starving.”
“W-wait! You can’t leave your post! We need every worker!”
“Could you tell me one thing, Mister Manager?” Avery asked, not even bothering to face the man.
“Well I’m not-”
“Good. Where is the nearest restaurant?”
The man just gestured weakly toward the door we hadn’t come in. As we marched out, the man noticed my glass castle. He reached out a wrinkled hand towards it.
“My, that is beautiful. What would you sell it for?”
I held my life’s work away from the grasping man. “I wouldn’t sell it for the world.”
We marched through the corporate building of the glass company, attracting strange looks from all the white collars wearing spiffy suits. Soon, though, we were out into the sunshine.
Yes, the sun shined down, and all the clouds I could see were white and puffy. Not the dark smog that I had been told covered the sky. The others looked up in equal amazement, all except Todd, who was watching us carefully, a sneer on his face. I supposed he probably knew more about this than any of us did. He was the most recent recruit, the one that had most recently lived outside the factory.
But I didn’t care what Todd had to say.
I was too enraptured with the stained glass that glittered in every window in every house, looking just like my glass castle.