Song of the Mute
Written by Ethan Yen on 7 May 2014
George Avery thought he had a good idea what the inside of the factory looked like, but the moment he passed the metal doors, he knew he should have been anywhere other than where he was now. He had expected assembly lines flanked with workers, performing mundane tasks, just like in the stories his uncle wove when George was a child. But here, in the main factory of Lundleton, George could tell from the giant vats of purple bubbling liquid, warm pulsing lights, foreign inscriptions, menacing contraptions, long sharp metal objects held by concerned-looking men and women in white coats, and occasional screams of something alien, that this was not at all a factory in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, George was fairly sure that ‘factory’ was a very poor term to describe the scene in front of him. ‘Laboratory’ seemed to fit better.
A man walked by between George and the foreman with a glass container filled with the purple liquid in his arms. A faint scent crossed George’s nose, a scent that reminded him of cinnamon.
“Right over here, Mr. Avery.”
George turned his head towards the large, burly foreman, who was now standing next to one of the large tanks. Rolling his shoulders back from their slouched position, George walked towards the man.
“This here is one of the mixing chambers,” Foreman Myers began, patting the tank. “It’s a big beauty, almost as large as my mother!”
George feigned a smile at the crude joke, did his best to look interested as Foreman Myers began explaining the mixing process and chemical additives, but inevitably, his gaze shifted around, trying to take in all the odd sights. The environment was just so…foreign to George. Years of sitting in lecture halls and wearing suits had not prepared him for the such structured chaos. Everything had its own place, but always moving, always working, always making sounds.
“What is that ringing?” George spoke up, flinching slightly as the piercing sound he heard earlier, returned. It was high pitched, but muted among the factory machinery.
“Oh, that must be the boiler,” Foreman Myers said, “sometimes we have leaks and the gas escapes, I’ll make sure to have someone fix it. Here,” The foreman dug into his overalls and handed George a pair of earplugs, which George accepted with a certain hesitation, eyeing the foreman’s soot covered hands. He quickly pocketed the ear plugs, deciding it was better not to risk getting some sort of ear infection from the man’s working hands.
“Come on, I’ll take you to the control panel.”
The control room was more bearable than the ground floor of the factory. There were considerably less people, which meant more space, air, and quiet. George was surprised that he could still hear the faintest hint of the ringing, but he easily pushed it to the back of his head. The extra space allowed George some room to breathe, and take in his surroundings with more control. He was actually able to understand some of the phrases that the control room operators were using – mostly the phrases that dealt with “returns on investment” and other money-related matters. After bidding farewell to the control room operators, who George admitted were quite personable people, Foreman Myers led George across the hallway to a room that George assumed was an office…the office.
“And this is the boss’s room.” Foreman Myers said. Surprisingly, Myers sounded tired, perhaps the yelling over machines and joking all day had taken his toll on him.
“Well, I guess this will be your room soon.” Myers continued, smiling and giving a quick wink before adopting a serious face. The change was so immediate, George was taken aback, and it was then he realized that it was not tiredness in the foreman’s voice, but that the foreman had adopted a hushed tone. The foreman knocked gently once on the door, and was immediately met with a reply.
The large man reached for the door knob, his weathered hands eclipsing the tiny bulb. Before he turned the knob, he looked back at George, raising an eyebrow. George took a deep breathe, adjusted his suit and nodded towards the Foreman.
The door opened silently, like a fabric curtain pulling back the stage. The office was not roomy by any standards. There was a large desk that took up most of the space, and the walls were covered in bookcases filled with books resting in obtuse and acute angles. Papers were scattered all around the shelves. But the desk itself was completely spotless, save for three items: a computer, a coffee mug, and a lighter. Behind the desk was a tall woman, dressed in a sharply pressed black suit and dark blue dress shirt. Her gaze was still affixed to the computer monitor when the two men walked in, her fingers still typing.
George was unsure how to proceed, debating whether or not he should introduce himself and risk interrupting the woman’s typing. The room was silent, except for the typing of keys against a slight humming. George then remembered the first thing he learned from Wexley’s: first impressions are everything. Making his decision, he stepped forward as confidently as possible, opening his mouth to introduce himself. But just before a sound came out, the woman swiveled her head towards George, her gaze taking the man aback.
“You must be Mr. Avery, Gregory’s nephew.” She said a matter-of-factly. Surprised that the woman had used his uncle’s first name, George nodded slowly. He then extended his hand and gave as relaxed of a smile as possible.
“Yes, pleased to meet you. My name is George Avery, you must be Ms. Niles?”
“Correct.” Ms. Niles got up from her seat and shook George’s hand. George noticed that the woman did not smile. He expected her to continue talking, but the head of the factory remained quiet, still eyeing George, who was starting to feel uncomfortable.
“Thank you for seeing me.” He said, clearing his throat in the process. Ms. Niles nodded. George added, “it must be hard to fit me in your busy schedule.”
“It is.” Ms. Niles admitted off-handedly, “But you are clearly a priority.” She then looked past George’s shoulder.
“Thank you, Foreman Myers, I can show Mr. Avery the rest of the factory.”
George watched as the short, burly man hesitated for a fraction of a second, his eyes flickering over to George, then Ms. Niles, then back to George, before giving a slight nod and walking out of the room. It was at that moment that George realized that he had not heard one sound come out of the usually brash foreman after he introduced George to Ms. Niles. Before the thought could take root within George’s mind, Ms. Niles spoke.
“Mr. Avery? If you would follow me please?”
The factory boss held the door of her office open, waiting for George to follow. George cleared his throat and smiled. He started towards the door, regaining his composure and straightening his posture as he had learned from his time at Wexley’s.
“Of course, lead on, Ms. Niles.”
They took a right turn once out of the office, heading down a steel pathway towards an area George had not seen before. They walked quickly, the tapping of Ms. Niles’ shoes reverberating through the metal, brisk and precise. Trying his best to keep pace, George could only afford brief glimpses to his left and right, making note of the mixing vats and testing stations that Foreman Myers had pointed out on their way to Ms. Niles’ office. He also was beginning to notice that the factory was split up into three general groups, each differentiated by their uniform. There were the “workers” or, as George assumed, the scientists, who conducted all the grunt work of the operation wearing their white lab coats, the foremen and women who watched from the raised balconies, wearing button down shirts and heavy leather overalls, and finally there was Ms. Niles, wearing her sharp, black business suit.
“What is that noise?” George asked, the ringing once again returning as they passed by the factory floor. It was louder this time, and sounding less like a ring…
“Must be the air conditioner,” Ms. Niles said, still walking briskly, “I’ve told the workers not to use it too much, but they don’t listen. It probably needs to be fixed again.”
George nodded, admitting to himself that the factory was indeed quite cold, he could feel goosebumps on the back of his arms from the moment he walked in. But the noise was bothering him, and it was getting worse the further they walked.
“I assume Foreman Myers has shown you the processing and refinement sections of the factory?” Ms. Niles inquired after they passed through a set of swinging doors.
“Yes, he was quite…thorough.” George replied politely, trying to remember all the technical information and performance standards the foreman had rambled about. As he focused on conversing with Ms. Nile’s, the noise faded.
“He is quite dedicated to his job,” Ms. Niles commented. George thought he could detect a faint smile from the boss’s voice, but any hint quickly vanished as Ms. Niles continued. “You will find that many of the workers here and at the other factories are quite dedicated to their jobs, and are quite good at them. Your uncle made it a point to care for each and every one of his employees. Therefore, if you are planning to downsize any departments, you may find that the quality of our products will diminish greatly. But of course,” Ms. Niles added dryly, “the factories are yours to do as you wish.”
George involuntarily winced. He had expected this. Even with all her professional experience and demeanor, even Ms. Niles could not hide her resentment for George. George took a deep breath and stopped, readying himself to give the speech he had prepared before arriving.
“Ms. Niles, before we go any further,” Ms. Niles stopped and turned around, just in front of another metal door locked with an intimidating keypad. Ms. Niles raised an eyebrow, which George took as indication to continue.
“I barely knew my uncle, and I’m still not sure why he appointed me as head of his factories. You clearly have dedicated your career to my uncle’s work, and should, by all means, be the one to continue running his factories. I’m sure we can both agree that my uncle’s wishes greatly inconvenience the both of us. I would like to propose that you continue your position as the de-facto head of the factories, and I will take a backseat to the operations, leading in name only.
“That is very wise of you,” Ms. Niles replied. Her delivery of the phrase almost felt like she was warning George that he had just dodged a bullet. “I accept your offer. It was your uncle’s last wish that the factories must be owned by an Avery, but your privileged business education will not help you here, at least, not with these…trivial operations.”
“Good, I’m glad we have an arrangement.” George replied. He could not help but feel that he had somehow found himself at the losing end of the bargain. But he reminded himself that this was exactly what he wanted. He now had a title that would make him well-respected among the business community without the burden of running his uncle’s factories. He went to Wexley’s to make a name for himself, not to continue his wild uncle’s legacy.
Ms. Niles turned around, signifying the end of the agreement and began punching in numbers in the keypad.
“What are we going to see now?” George asked, hoping to lighten the mood. Ms. Niles finished entering the code and placed her thumb on the pad. After a confirmation beep emitted from the keypad, the doors slid open. George was immediately struck with the sound of the alien screams he had heard faintly before. The screams pierced his head, cause George to take an involuntary step back, let out a gasp, and cover his ears.
“The trivial operations.” Ms. Niles replied unfazed, not even looking back at George to see the man in obvious pain. She walked into the room. George attempted to follow, but the screaming was just too loud. He suddenly remembered the earplugs, and desperately reached for them, jamming them into his earholes.
Even with the earplugs, the muted screams still reverberated within his ears. The feeling of being in the wrong place came back to George, and he realized just how little he knew about what went on in the factories. Briefly he considered turning around and walking away, after all, he did not need to know what was going on in the factories to continue to profit from them. Ms. Niles turned around and raised her eyebrow in her characteristic way, waiting for George to come in. That one action drove George on, his pride would not allow itself to be tarnished. George needed to show the de-facto boss that although he was not the one taking charge, he was capable of it nevertheless.
The chamber they entered was vast, far larger than George remembered the factory looking from the outside. He felt the damp air around him condensing on the raised hairs of him forearm and realized that he was no longer in the factory proper. The hewn stone walls of the chamber signified that George had now entered into the interior of the mountain range that the factory had been built next too. There were many white-coated scientists scattered around the room. Some were close together, attempting to converse over the constant screaming. Others were seated behind large monitoring instruments, with cables that led from the back of the instruments towards a large glass box.
George took a step forward as he gazed into the glass box. Inside was a small grove of trees, unlike any kind of tree he had seen before. Their trunks were long and thin, with a dark green-purple like bark. Glistening leaves of blues and purples hung form wiry branches. Humanoid figures in white suites gathered around the base of one of the trees. One of the figures took a large bladed instrument and in one swift motion, sliced the trunk of one of the trees. Immediately the screams intensified, and George winced. The other figures swiftly came up to the cut and affixed a black hose to the outlandish tree. Purple sap oozed slowly out from around the pipe. Next to the glass box, George spotted Ms. Niles, who was conversing with one of the suited humanoid figures. Cautiously, George approached the duo.
“…and you haven’t come across any unexpected problems?”
“No ma’am, everything is going as usual.”
“Good.” Ms. Niles turned her head and spotted George and was just about to say something before turning her head around and looking at George again, her eyebrow raised. George looked back at her, raising his eyebrow as well, wondering what the woman was looking at. After a short second, Ms. Niles stepped back and gestured towards the suited figure. “Mr. Avery, may I introduce you to Dr. Willis, Research Director of our Raw Materials Extraction department.”
The suited figure removed its head covering to reveal a woman underneath. She held out her gloved hand and George shook it.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Avery,”
“Likewise,” George responded, “Willis? Any relation to-?””
“No,” the doctor immediately replied, surprising George. She then gave a smile, or an attempt at a friendly smile, which unsettled George even more.
“I suppose you are wondering what you are looking at?” She asked.
“Yes…what exactly am I looking at?”
“The source of our product.” Ms. Niles commented.
“Yes,” nodded Dr. Willis, “you see before you the only grove of extra-terrestrial flora known to man…well, at least, some of man.”
“Extra-terrestrial? As in alien?” George asked, stunned. “You expect me to believe that?”
“You don’t have to believe me, just look at it.” The doctor replied, “Your uncle found this place thirty years ago, started his company from this very site. This is where we harvest the raw material, and we ship it off to other factories for increased processing and production.”
“So this is what our product is made from. Is it safe?”
“As far as we can tell, although the chemistry of the whole thing is quite complicated, still trying to figure it all out. But this is more just a precautionary step.” The doctor patted her suit, “all that we know is it works, and works well.” So this was the source of his uncle’s best-selling product. George grimaced. This was an unexpected turn, which would certainly bring about many complications to his career plans, and many questions. Another shriek erupted form inside the glass box, and George noticed that he was the only one among the trio that gave any response.
“Are…they alive?” He asked, unsure of whether or not he really wanted to know.
“Well, yes, in the same way trees here on this planet are alive.”
“But…do they feel pain?”
Doctor Willis said, she shifted a glance over to Ms. Niles before answering.
“Honestly…we aren’t quite sure yet, still trying to figure that out.”
“But the-” George began, only to be interrupted by Ms. Niles.
“What matters is that this is the source of our product, and it’s been a well-guarded secret for years.” Ms. Niles said.
“Then why show it to me?”
“Because,” Ms. Niles said, once again raising her eyebrow in amusement, “You’re one of us now.” George shuddered at the words, almost as if the phrase had entered his mind with a cold blanket. He looked into the glass box again, watching the suited figures standing around the tree as the purple sap was collected. He had not prepared at all for this situation. No one in their right mind would prepare for such a situation, George assured himself. He was sincerely regretting walking into the cavern. But now he was here, and now he knew. He could not escape the feeling that he had just walked into a spider’s web.
“I want to go inside.”
George had not realized he had said the words until they had left his lips. He was just as surprised as the others at the sound of his own voice. He did not know what made him say the words. Perhaps it was his sense of curiosity getting the better of him. Perhaps it was the desire to see the eyes of Dr. Willis widen her eyes to an almost comedic point. Or perhaps it was his way of challenging Ms. Niles’ authority, even though he had given it to her.
“And….why would you want to do that?” Dr. Willis replied suspiciously, her eyes immediately shrinking down to squints. Her glance constantly shifted between George and Ms. Niles.
“Because…I’m curious.” George replied half truthfully. Dr. Willis looked closely at George, before turning towards Ms. Niles to hear her verdict. Even without turning, George could feel the piercing stare of Ms. Niles as she tried to discern George’s motives. No doubt she was surprised by the proposal, in fact, so was George. But she was attempting to find reasoning where George knew none existed. Finally, after what seemed like hours among the constant screaming of the alien trees, Ms. Niles nodded solemnly.
“Dr. Willis, please find Mr. Avery a spare suit and help him put it on.” She continued to stare at George as she spoke, and George made sure not to turn away until Dr. Willis called him over.
“Of course, right this way, Mr. Avery.”
George followed the Research Director across the chamber towards the corner of the large glass box which contained a pressurized doorway. Next to the door was a rack of white suits similar to that which Dr. Willis wore. George could not help but notice how closely they resembled biohazard suits.
“Why all the precautions?” He asked, trying to sound as unworried as possible.
“Can’t take the risk, no idea what kind of contaminations could happen.” Dr. Willis replied, handing George a suit with a nametag reading FORD with a large red X over the name. George was about to ask the significance of the red X, but decided that he did not want to know the answer. He knew he had made some sort of challenge towards Ms. Niles, and there was no way he could back down now, his pride and reputation were at stake.
“Now, the radios in our suits are being repaired right now, so we’re going to have to resort to caveman gestures.”
“I’m surprised you can hear anything anyways.” George said. The screaming from the trees were still going, and while the earplugs helped, George could feel a migraine coming along. Dr. Willis did not reply, and instead tightened one of George’s straps.
After a few stumblings and embarrassed looks due to Dr. Willis’ assistance, George was finally suited up. He decided to risk a glance back to see what Ms. Niles was up to. The boss of operations was standing behind one of the computer desks, looking at one of the screens as a scientist continued typing. George was clearly peeved, but he could not let it show. Ms. Niles clearly knew how to play this game, and the fact that he wasn’t even being regarded as a player was a blow to his pride that he was not willing to let stand.
“Are you coming in as well, Ms. Niles?” George called out, getting the boss’ attention, “There are plenty of extra suits.” Ms. Niles looked up from the computer and sent chills down George’s spine as she smiled.
“No thanks, Mr. Avery. I’ve already been inside and seen all that I need to see.”
Before George could think of a clever retort, the door to the glass chamber opened up with a resounding whoosh as pressurized air escaped. Dr. Willis motioned for George to go inside and followed, closing the door after them.
“These plants aren’t dangerous, are they?” George asked. Dr. Willis smiled her unsettling smile.
“Don’t you think you should have asked that before we came inside?” The second door opened as the sanitation process finished. Once the door opened, the volume of the screams rose, despite the fact that George’s head was encased in plastic. He was beginning to feel a small sense of claustrophobia, but pushed it aside as he walked into the glass chamber. He felt the unnecessary need to walk slowly, as if he was an astronaut walking on the moon in minimal gravity. It seemed like everyone was walking in slower motion inside the chamber, as they were trying to be careful not to disturb the environment.
The two of them walked over to one of the alien trees. Dr. Willis grabbed one of the bladed instruments from nearby and handed it to George. As the two of them could not verbally communicate, Dr. Willis resorted to using hand gestures instead of talking to get her point across. She took her hand and made a slicing motion across her neck and then held up a black hose. George understood, and took his stand next opposite of Dr. Willis. He looked up the tree and examined the bark closely. The green-purple bark reminded him of celery, the way the bark ran up the trunk in straight, parallel rows. He placed a gloved hand upon the bark and quickly drew it back, surprised at the pulsing. He looked over at Dr. Willis, trying to convey his surprise and ask what the pulsing was, but the scientist only shrugged, motioning for George to being the slicing process.
Taking a quick glance out of the box, George noticed that Ms. Niles was standing right outside, watching George and Dr. Willis work. Her arms were crossed and she was standing in a stance of relaxed authority. Taking a deep breath, George turned back toward the tree and placed the blade against the bark. He closed his eyes, and in as swift of a motion as possible, he sliced, bracing himself for the increased intensity of the noise.
But no noise came.
In fact, all the screaming had stopped. It was completely silent. George opened one eye, peeking towards the tree to make sure he had made a cut. He had, but there was no screaming, nor was there any purple sap oozing from the wound. Opening both eyes, George looked over at Dr. Willis, who seemed unfazed, waiting for George to step back so she could insert the hose. It was then George realized that Dr. Willis wasn’t wearing ear plugs. He looked over at Ms. Niles beyond the glass wall, and realized that she too, had not put on any ear plugs. George slowly turned back to the tree.
Leaning in, George examined his cut, confirming that he had indeed made what should have been a sufficiently deep wound. The interior of the wound was pitch black, almost as if the tree itself was hollow. George tried to peer closer, but could only see more black. It was a black so dark that it seemed to absorb all light around it, so much so that George thought his vision was warping. It was an abyss that consumed light and sound, promising complete and utter silence, a finality that was not intimidating, but inviting. Instinctively, he drew his hand closer to the wound he had made. He was so encapsulated with the wound he had made on the alien tree. Dr. Willis, realizing too late what George was about to do, reached out just as George inserted his hand into the emptiness.