It was the first time in years that sunlight pierced through the thick fog that covered the Earth, but the light only shined on The Upper Echelon. In the city’s underbelly, there were places so deep that the sunlight wouldn’t dare enter, much less someone from such a lavish lifestyle as The UE.
Riddled with famine and disease, it was just as hard to enter The Byways as it was to leave. A Grand Canyon of industrial complexes and shacks like favelas littered that dark and dreary place.
Factories now blanketed the plains where farms were toiled centuries before, but the only crops harvested in those monstrosities were humans. Steel and iron housed slabs of concrete that checkered the floor like braille bumps. Jutting out from a merger of metal and smudged chrome, each one not at all warmed by the motionless life which laid upon it. Up close, one wouldn’t be able to hear the rain over the pumping of the machines hooked up to each crop, and the crops stretched far, seeming to melt into the grey wall at the other end of the factory.
Leeches used the extra noise to their advantage. It made for an easier job, and thus, an easier trip.
A literal hijacking of lifeblood, the Leech fidgeted over the machinery hooked up to the crop. Excited to get an early taste of what’s to come, he just couldn’t help himself. This must have been his hundredth time sneaking into that place, but he could never shake the half-excited half-nervous feeling. A compounding anxiety that only The Drip could make fade.
Leech pulled his hands back from the machinery, and admired his preparatory work. The kind of preparations that only hands with tremors could construct. The crop lay comatose on the slab of rock, this time a young adult male. Like a Grecian statue sculpted into the fetal position, pristine and perfect.
The Leech slid his backpack straps from his shoulders and cracked open the sack of contraband. He began to attach needles to some sort of makeshift hose, ready to siphon blood directly from the source. He could almost taste it. He shivered and his teeth chattered. Beyond the bay doors, steam rolled off of the asphalt with each raindrop.
Leech fumbled with the belt for an eternity before he tightened it around his bicep. As the needle began to pierce his own skin, he took one last glance up at the monitor for the blood type, not desperate enough to make that mistake again.
He stared at the needle in his own arm so long, he thought he saw the crop move as if it were in a dream. The Leech held the other end of the siphon in his fingertips, and pierced the crops vein. His hands trembled from excitement. One could only imagine the trek underwent that led to this moment. He braced himself as the red sludge trickled down the slopes of the makeshift hose like the collection of dew on a leaf. An involuntary gasp spewed from Leech’s mouth as the crops blood crashed with his own. He covered his mouth, but only to deafen the euphoric laughter.
Leech slouched there, up against the concrete slab. Minutes? Hours? Even he wasn’t sure. Feeling a tug against his arm, he snapped out of it. He turned his head to the best of his ability, only to see that the crop had woken up and was yanking the tubes out of his arm, including the siphon Leech made.
The junkie, in half-amazement, didn’t know whether to giggle or be angry. He watched in awe while his newly crafted siphon was thrown on the ground. The Crop was in awe as well, but for a totally different reason. He had woken up. Something that had never happened, but he didn’t know that. The only thing crops ever see are their dreams, if they have any. Crop looked around at all of the concrete slabs and all of the bodies, blood still running down his arm. The machines pumped away in the background.
“You…” Leech still in awe, tried to speak. “You’re awake?!”
Crop looked at the man and saw old age in his eyes, but Leech was full of young blood. Not your typical junkie of old, but a fit, handsome man. Addiction only affected his mind.
A light flicked on at the opposite end of the factory. An office room, surrounded by a balcony, illuminated. The light faded into an amber color as it glistened on the skins of the crops below.
“Get down!” Leech snatched the bleeding arm of Crop and pulled him to hunker down behind the neighboring slab. Forced into sobriety now, Leech looked over at the Crop. Both breathing heavily, Leech said in between breaths, “You weren’t supposed to wake up.”
The Crop didn’t even acknowledge the sentence and continued to watch the man pace up and down the catwalk observing the crops. Leech tracked his eyes to what held his attention.
It was loud, but he whispered out of fear. “That’s the guy that runs this place.” He returned to staring at Crop. “They call them The Cultivators. We gotta get out of here!”
Crop continued to watch as the lab coat paced closer and closer towards their end of the factory. Leech tugged on his arm.
“Let’s go!” He said in a loud whisper.
They crept through the aisles of slabs like a game of checkers as the clinking of the man’s boots on the catwalk echoed throughout the factory. It was a catwalk that ran longways from the Cultivator’s office down to the opposite end of the factory. Leech and Crop made their way through the maze of lifeless-like bodies, only stopping to make sure they hadn’t been spotted.
Crop examined the body that lay on the bed-like structure before him. He touched it, shook it even, but it was in a deep sleep.
Leech took off his backpack and grabbed the siphon tube from inside. Crop grabbed his hand, thinking he wanted another taste, but Leech began tying it around Crop’s bleeding arm. The makeshift tourniquet made out of neoprene material wasn’t ideal, but Leech genuinely wanted Crop to live. He had only thought of the crops as objects until this point. He tied the tubing in a knot around Crop’s bicep, and it did work…for now.
“That will have to do.” Leech stressed to himself, Crop wouldn’t answer anyway. “We have to get a move on, before he spots us.” Leech nodded in the direction of the door and snuck away through the aisles. Crop followed.
The two reached the open bay door that stood tall and wide. They crouched off to the side of the opening. The rain became heavy and loud and splashed on the floor of the factory. Under the wetness, the chrome floor resembled a cleanliness one might see in The Upper Echelon.
Leech looked back at the Cultivator as he strutted and mumbled some words, but under the roar of the storm, he didn’t hear a thing. As the man paused to examine the bodies below, Leech tapped Crop on the shoulder and they both ran off into the dark. Water splashed beneath their feet as Crop fell behind but kept moving forward. The asphalt tore his infantile skin with each labored step.
“We’ve gotta keep moving,” Leech turned his head to the right while he ran, “they’ll notice you’re gone soon!”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Off of the main road now, sirens blazed in the distance. Leech’s vision was broken by the dense woods, but he could see the vehicles speeding down the road.
The asphalt steamed from the cooped-up heat, only cooled gradually by the downpour that night. The hot mist dissipated into nothingness as the crafts passed over the streets. Puddles swelled before evaporating under the magnetic fields of the hovering vehicles.
These cars were uncommon down there in The Byways, only used by the Sentinel force and the occasional visit from a member of The Upper Echelon. Though, no one seemed to remember the last time a member had graced The Byways with their presence.
The Upper Echelon shined bright in the night like high beams coming through the fog. That dense, almost palpable illumination sat high in the sky shrouded behind the blanket of dark clouds draped over The Byways. Leech gazed up at it as if it were a second moon.
“They’ve realized it,” Leech said as he stared up at the golden clouds. “They know you’re gone.”
Crop grunted, the first sign of acknowledgement that he had given Leech other than the occasional gasp for air. Crop had no knowledge; not of the world, not of language, nothing. He only knew of what he had seen in the past hour or so.
He had had visions throughout his years hooked up to the incubators, one might even call them dreams, but they weren’t dreams like Leech had. They weren’t dreams like anyone had. Auras, hues of color, but that’s about it. That concrete block was his home. He’d spent who knows how long laying there. Crop tried to contemplate this, but without language it’s hard to contemplate anything in your mind.
Leech’s hands were visibly shaking. He was exhausted. He clenched his hands together to try and subside the shake, but there is only one thing that can calm an addict’s mind. Sleep can wait, he thought. Besides, the crop can’t be tired. He chuckled at the thought of a man who had spent a magnitude of his life asleep, being tired and ready for bed.
He got up from the wet pine needles that coated the ground, and brushed the stragglers off. Crop, figuring it was time to move, followed suit.
Wandering deeper into the forest, the sirens faded and were no longer audible. Leech had been babbling about someone named Carol and how she fucked him over, for what seemed like a lifetime. Crop just followed in silence, either not caring or not comprehending. Leech didn’t care either way.
“And that’s why I’m doing this shit on my own now.” Leech continued his long story, “Well, until I…” He paused, “Met you.” Leech said that almost as if it were a question.
He grinned, sort of sarcastically. He didn’t really meet Crop, there was no formal introduction. He snorted at the thought of such a greeting, especially with a naked man twice his size that he had just stole from. It was his blood after all.
In fact, thinking about it brought the trembles back. He had the craving once again. He eyed Crop, like a seared steak. Leech hadn’t had a steak in ages. Good food wasn’t easy to find in The Byways, to say the least, since regular menu items down there consisted of soups and stews.
The Byways wasn’t necessarily an impoverished place. It was more like a neglected one. The alleys wove in and out of muddy streets and walkways with houses on top of businesses and businesses on top of houses, placed wherever they could fit.
An almost eternal drizzle of rain kept the ground sloshy and the mud thick. Residents would be careful to lose a shoe in the thick ground, that is, if they owned any. Not because they were poor, but again, because the place was neglected and there were none left. Resources were simply…focused elsewhere.
Leech and Crop were in the heart of The Byways now, their feet suctioning to the ground with each step. Crop took in much of the happenings around him like a small child with a sponge for a brain. They stopped off at an alleyway shop where Leech picked up a pack of smokes.
“Thirty cents” The clerk said.
Leech slung the coins onto the sheet metal counter. The sound it made resembled the erratic thunder from the storm. He immediately tore the package open with his teeth and lit up a smoke.
“You want one?” He asked Crop.
The Crop had seen many people up and down the streets smoking them. He shook his head and Leech lit him one, Crop coughing as he painfully inhaled the first puffs.
Leech watched out of the corner of his eye, Crop observing him in the manner in which one smoked a cigarette.
They stood there for a while, Leech enjoying his much-needed smokes, and Crop attempting to enjoy it. They stood there, under the tin roof watching the world go by with another day in the books. Crop grew tired as the rain’s percussion on the tin roof made a heavenly beat. The nicotine soothed Leech’s withdrawals for now, but it would be short lived. He’d surely blow through the whole pack before the night was over.
“It’s about that damn time again.” The clerk said from behind the counter. He watched a small TV mounted on the thin walls of the street side shack, showing the daily news.
“Wait…” Leech said, putting the pieces together in his head. “Today is May 31st?”
“Yup, that whole damn place is about to be one big methadone clinic.” The clerk laughed, but in a sad tone, if that is even possible. “Except those fuckers don’t want help.”
“Yeah…” Leech chuckled with little guilt. He didn’t want help either. In fact, the revelation that tomorrow was The Drip made the hair stand up on the back of his neck with excitement. He looked at Crop and took one last puff of his cigarette, “Come on, you can stay at my place tonight.” He flicked the red ember from the tip of the cancer stick and it flew down to the ground like a burning asteroid to ants.
Crop gently put his out in the ashtray and they faded into the masses of The Byways.