It was a small, white table – a modest addition to the tiny kitchen of my flat – upon which I was balancing myself when I first realized that someone else was in the apartment. I stopped fumbling with the rope and the ceiling fan and a man walked in. Short and broad and balding, he was dressed in a tweed suit.
“How’d you get in here?” I asked him.
“I broke the window and climbed in,” answered the man. “You were making quite a ruckus yourself, so it seems my intrusion went unnoticed.”
“I’m not sure what you’re selling,” I said, “but I must insist that you leave at once.”
The man looked up at the noose hanging sloppily from the ceiling fan. “Indeed. But if I could just have a moment of your time, Mr. Lindey,” he said, raising the briefcase hanging from one of his hands, “I assure you we could come to some sort of arrangement to your liking.”
I looked down at him from atop the table, and realized that for some reason I’d put on my best suit that morning. Since I was already dressed for business, and I had a feeling it would be more trouble than I cared to go through to get him to leave, I stepped down on to my chair, then to the floor.
“I suppose I may have another few minutes in me,” I said to him.
“Fantastic!” he exclaimed.
* * *
We sat at the kitchen table and spoke for nearly half of an hour, after which time I packed a small suitcase and we went outside where a car was waiting to take us across town to the edge of the warehouse district. Most of the warehouses and factories we drove by were abandoned, sitting large and squat and silent like giant metal boulders. But the building which was our destination was as large as a city block, ten stories tall, with smoke stacks spearing the white clouds and spewing out large black pillows into the air. A tall fence wrapped around the building, and the man in the tweed suit nodded to a guard as a gate was opened for us to drive through.
When we walked inside, I could hardly believe what I was seeing – machines everywhere – all of them as big as rooms – with workers in greasy and dirty overalls walking and running and hauling things this way and that. At a closer glance, I realized that all the machines were connected via a series of tubes and pulleys and gears and chain. I looked around and was unable to find any amount of space where something wasn’t sliding or spinning or raising up and down. Above me was an endless spiderweb of walkways – machines hung in the air above other machines – countless chains and pipes and pistons – like an inverted castle of steel and copper and dials and levers.
“You’ll mostly be working in flora,” yelled the man over the sound of pistons and hissing and cranking, as he led be towards the heart of the building. Beyond the clusters of machines and workers, there ahead of us was a cylindrical tower, rising from the floor up to the very ceiling, at least as far as I could tell from where I was standing. Lights bled from windows of the tower, and at every level several walkways emerged towards the rest of the building.
“We like our design teams to really be a part of the other teams –,” he folded his fingers together, to simulate the teamliness he was trying to create, “ –so that engineers and workers feel as essential to one another as they really are.”
We walked into the first floor of the tower and stepped into an elevator, across from which was a huge industrial elevator the size of a large room. The man shut the sliding gate and pulled two levers, and the elevator lifted us up through the tower. He tapped a gauge that had the numbers 1 through 9 printed on it. “You’re floor five,” he said.
There were three departments on floor five – Flora, Trees and Fruit. Trees and Fruit took up most of the floor, and Flora was about a fifth of the floor, having three rooms: a design room which had drawing boards and charts and notes scattered about everywhere; a testing room, with test tubes and fabrics and inks and chemicals; and a library, mostly filled with books about plants and their effects on history, culture, moods, etc. There was also a room in the center which was connected to the elevators, which was the break room. It had a white table and a sink and an ice box, and it reminded me of my old kitchen, so I rarely went in and never stayed there for more than a few minutes.
* * *
I researched. I drew up plans and designs and tested my theories, deviating from used designs, blending old ways with new, and the months drifted into the sky along with the smoke from the smoke stacks. I never got to know my fellow designers, and after a month or so they stopped trying to get to know me. They respected my ideas, and so did the workers – they liked how I kept them from having to make the same flowers day after day. Then, over the months, the small group of designers got smaller and smaller as one by one they got transferred or promoted, until I worked day and night by myself.
I had a cot set up in the library, as well as a dresser for the few clothes that I owned, and the length of rope from my old apartment was carefully coiled and sitting underneath my undergarments in one of the drawers. I ate mostly food that didn’t have to be kept cold, so that I never went into the break room, except to pass through to the elevator.
I never accepted a promotion, at least not one that took me out of the department. Every few months they added something to my title – Manager/Executive Designer/Floral Specialist – all nonsense, but it was nonsense that was easily ignored.
One day I found myself sitting in the library with nothing to do. I’d read all of the books multiple times, I was months ahead of schedule and I’d drawn up all the ideas I had – even the far-fetched ones. There were a few chemicals and books I’d ordered that I was waiting on, but they wouldn’t be delivered until the next day at the earliest. So I decided to do something I hadn’t done for some time – I went for a walk.
Leaving the building’s parking lot, I at once felt eerily like I was walking around in the past – like a stranger in my memories. Without the hum of my department rooms or the jumble of mechanical noise, the world seemed unnervingly quiet and empty. Empty of meaning, empty of hope – the bright blue sky taunting with its vividness up above. “You can never have this,” it whispers to the people walking under it.
I walked through the blocks and blocks of warehouses, until I came to a small, quaint neighborhood. I tried walking through a park, but the flowers and trees and grass bored me. So I went and sat at a trolley stop and watched the cars drive by. Some of them were bigger and stranger looking than I remembered, and I could tell that some were powered by different means than they used to be.
I heard a page turn, paper against paper, and I turned to see a woman reading on a neighboring trolley bench. She had long red hair and a bright blue dress. But her hair… it wasn’t “red,” not really. It wasn’t magenta, nor apple nor raspberry nor blood nor… nor anything. It wasn’t even a blend, it was a solid imperfection – a deviation. A mutation.
It occurred to me to wonder then – on all those floors of the factory, in all those departments, was there a group of people in charge of hair? Was this really an accident, a mutation? Or did someone purposely give this creature a head full of long, soft hair of such an indescribable color? And where did they find such a color in the first place? I became overwhelmed with my own thoughts, over-stimulated by the outdoors and the fresh air and this color. All the colors of the cars going by, the houses and the plants and even the sky, paled away like some old photograph behind her, this girl quietly reading on a trolley bench.
She looked over at me and smiled. I smiled back – which probably looked weird, since smiling in the company of others was not something I was accustomed to – and a trolley squeaked to a stop in front of us. I followed her up the steps, and sat behind her. Her hair spilled down over the top of the seat, and I looked around timidly, making sure that no one was paying attention. Then I took a pair of scissors from my coat pocket and cut off a lock of her hair. She glanced around at the snip sound, but I looked out the window, and she went back to reading.
I slipped the lock of hair into my vest pocket, where it sat above my loudly beating heart. I got off the trolley a few stops later, and then crossed the street and boarded another trolley going back the way I came, back to the park. Then I walked hastily back to work, feeling light-headed. My hands were sweating.
I took the elevator up to the fifth floor and walked into the laboratory. My hands were shaking and I had to take deep breaths to steady them. I pulled on a lab coat and goggles and carefully pulled the hair from my vest pocket, slipped it into a test tube and put it over a burner.
Working carefully with my limited sample, I added only a few drops of one chemical at a time, then took samples from the test tube and looked at them through the micro-slide machine, which projected it up onto a large screen.
I worked with the theories I knew, and even a few I’d only tested a handful of times, until I had the right consistency of theory and innovation. I dipped my rubber-gloved finger in, then looked at the shimmering unnamed reddish color dripping down the glove, and it was everything to me in that moment.
I took the test tube and walked quickly out, over the metal catwalk, above and past hoards of cranking machinery. “Out of the way, please!” I said to my workers.
They parted and I looked down into the tub of fabric they were preparing. “More bleach!” I ordered, and one of the workers pulled a lever and bleach sloshed out of a pipe and into the tub. “Close the lid and spin it!”
The giant metal lid was clamped shut and the machine began whirring loudly. I walked over to the dying gun – which was essentially a large upside-down funnel ringed with glass tubes, each with a different color inside, and several accordion-like rubber tubes running into the top. I spun the device until I came to the empty glass tube, then opened the top and dumped the test tube into it.
“Bleaching’s done,” said one of the workers.
“Excellent,” I said. “Put it into a mold.”
“Which one, sir?”
“I don’t know.” I waved my hand absently in the air. “Daisy.”
The workers went to the press and put hooks through the outer holes of the heavy iron mold, then a small crane was used to picked up the mold and carry it over to the wall, putting it into the empty “carnation” slot. They took off the hooks and put them through the loops of the “daisy” mold, then the crane swung it over to the press.
Once they’d screwed the tubes and hoses up to the press, they pumped the bleached fabric in. After that was done, they used the dying gun to pump green into the leaf and stem hoses, then yellow into the pollen hose. Then they hooked the dying gun up to the petal hose, and pumped the color I’d found into the mold.
“Never seen a daisy that color red before,” said one of the workers.
I turned to him. “Is that the color red?” I asked, tapping the glass tube.
“Not exactly,” he said.
“It’s…” I said getting very close to him, “…not red.”
I turned back to the machines. The process was complete. “Open the mold,” I said to them.
When they separated the two pieces, gasps came from several of them. Inside was a daisy – familiar, ordinary, yet at the same time new – a new sort of creature, a new sort of life which had never been seen until that moment. Something audible opened up inside each of us, as if a portal to a new and strange world was sitting there, broadcasting itself.
Finally, after several moments, I broke the silence. “Send it to the Dehydration Tank.”
As if woken from their dreams, the workers began moving again, slowly at first, their memorized movements no longer coming as easily to them. Two of them came at the daisy from either side, with long tongs in each hand, and carefully picked up the delicate, moist creation. They brought it over to a towel, which they laid it on and slid it into the Drying Chamber, where the hot air gently dried the dye onto the cloth flower. Then they took it from there, put it in a large metal cradle which was suspended in the air by chains, and lowered it into the belly of the Dehydration Tank. They closed and clamped shut the dome lid and ran the machine. I clenched my teeth, and no one spoke. Somehow the whole factory of churning noise and cranking metal seemed to hold its breath.
Then a lever was pushed up and the machine came to a halt. A knob was turned and below the tank, on a small slide, a tiny object rattled down and stopped at the bottom. One of the workers used a pair of tweezers to pick up the tiny seed, and everyone looked at it in silence.
“Can you make more of the color?” asked one of the workers. “I don’t think there’s enough to make another.”
“There only needs to be one,” I said, not taking my eyes from the seed.
It was in that moment that I realized the city itself would be my new laboratory, and from then on I would walk through it, finding the undefined colors and hidden shades, every time making only enough for a single flower. Maybe it would spring up in a garden, or perhaps in a park somewhere, and someone would find it and it would change the way they perceived the world. Or maybe it would just give them a moment’s peace. Maybe it would grow in a forest or upon a mountain where no one would ever come across its beauty. But I would know. I and my workers would behold the deviant beauty before we sent it off to the Distribution Department, lost in a box of identical seeds, and that knowledge would be enough – it would satiate me – at least for now.