VII

United News

August 14, 2151

The Upper Echelon is said to have approved a series of experiments on rats today. What the experiments will consist of has not been released to the public, but theories are already circulating throughout The Districts. These theories include various speculations such as a renewable energy source, and a cure for cancer. A more eccentric theory circulating the rumor-mill comes from Swiss scientist Liam Oezdemir, who believes that “the rats will unlock a secret to the human anatomy and reveal things about humanity on unprecedented levels.”

Updates will be released as more news comes on the subject, but one thing is for sure: the future holds extremely interesting fortunes. In other news, The UE held its…

 The van rolled down the road. The Mole in the driver’s seat, Martha passenger, Noah and Isaac in the cargo area. This bumpy drive was all too familiar for Isaac. Crop back then, man now.

The moon was full that night which meant more light to see, but also to be seen.

The Mole turned the headlights off as they reached the vicinity of the factory, and as they reached the building the engine as well. With the vehicle in neutral, the only hint of what was to come was the foreboding sound of pebbles and asphalt being crushed underneath the wheels.

They parked on the back side of the factory just like they had planned. Away from any Sentinel or Scanner route. They were free to whisper here.

“How many are we going to try and get?” Isaac asked. Surely they couldn’t fit every body in one trip.

“As many as we can.” Noah said. “Martha, you stay here and keep watch. You..” He pointed at The Mole. “Come with us.”

The three men walked to the edge of the factory, seeming to almost come together in formation. Albeit, a loose one.

“We should have waited for a night with more cloud cover. Maybe rain.” The Mole said.

“We’ve waited too long already. Word about Daybreak is starting to spread through The Byways. Just a matter of time before it winds up at The Crest’s feet.” Noah said. “Isaac, you take front since you know this area more than any of us.”

The formation broke into a line of three up against the factory wall. Isaac peered around the corner. A scanner hummed off in the distance. It’s headlight weaving through the trees, making their shadows strafe through the woods. It was too far away to notice the group.

Too close now to whisper, Isaac motioned for the group to move forward around the corner. The next obstacle was the large bay door that led into the factory. Inside, two Sentinels patrolled the aisles of concrete and flesh. They walked in sync down the main aisle before splitting off in opposite directions down the width of the factory.

Isaac was shocked that there were now patrolling guards in the factory. They hadn’t been there the other times. He signaled to the group but they couldn’t stay there long. A spotlight was fixated above the bay door, illuminating their entrance. Isaac turned to check the location of the scanner. It had ventured out into the crowd of trees. If anything, they would be able to hear the low hum if it turned back towards them.

Isaac gave the signal to crouch and move into the factory. Noah, The Mole and Isaac each took cover at a separate concrete slab. Noah peaked over the top of the body next to him. The Cultivator’s office lights were off. He wasn’t home.

The Sentinels had now re-converged at the center aisle to continue their joint patrol. The group situated themselves on opposite sides of the slabs to evade view. As they passed by, Isaac noticed that the men had devices fixed to their backs. Much like the one that The Cultivator tested on him. Though, Isaac didn’t know what this meant yet, he knew that they should be extra careful.

As the guards passed, Noah moved to the machines connected to the crop beside him. The Mole and Isaac waited at the foot of the slab.

Noah carefully unsheathed the needles from their flesh capsules. The group wouldn’t be lucky enough for the crops to wake like Isaac did. They would have to carry them out.

As they readied to lift the first body, the guards separated into their singular routes at the other end of the factory. The men had to be quick.

The Mole signaled that this one was his.

Noah and Isaac lifted the crop onto his shoulder and The Mole quickly left the factory. He scurried to the van, his legs already fatigued from the weight of the burly male on his shoulder.

Martha had crafted a bed out of a quilt and some folded blankets to lay the crops on while she waited. She helped him get the crop off of his shoulder and lay it on the bed. It’s lifeless body lay there in the deepest sleep, though very much alive.

Meanwhile, Noah and Isaac readied the next crop. This one female. The machine beeped along with her heartbeat. Rushes of blood with each pulse of the organ, until Noah put that to an end. Chrome removed from its home in the vein. It still shimmered in the light, just more red now. Blood pearled on top of the wound before accumulating enough to snowball down her arm. The beeping had stopped.

The Sentinels had again reconverged together at the middle aisle, now making their way back down to the groups end of the factory.

Noah signaled at Isaac to begin the lift of the crop, but his mind had wandered elsewhere. His home had caught his eye. His slab. The womb that held him for twenty-three years. There it stood, and on top of it lay a fetus. Still slimy and wet as if it had been birthed only moments earlier. There it laid, fixed to the machine. It beeped along with its tiny heart and its blood rushed through the tubes as well. The needle seemed almost the size of the tiny human’s arm. Isaac had been replaced.

Noah frantically signaled to Isaac as the guards approached, resorting to waving and other big movements. It was too late. The Sentinels had noticed either the men or the empty concrete slab because they were now running down to investigate.

Isaac finally snapped out of it, but it was a moment too late.

“Take her!” Noah yelled.

Isaac threw the woman over his shoulder. He hesitated to leave, waiting for Noah to join him. But Noah was now in the clutches of the Sentinels.

“Go!” 

The guards forced him to his knees, one of them clobbering the back of his head with the butt of their gun. Noah’s body clobbering the floor in the same fashion. His cheekbone smacked the concrete, reminiscent of a bat slamming an out-of-the-park home run. He laid there lifeless like all of the crops among him.

Isaac turned and ran out of the huge bay door, Sentinels close behind. The long lost scanner had made its return and followed in tow lighting the whole area with its headlamp.

“Start the van!” Isaac sprinted with everything he had. With the crop over his shoulder it was like trying to run in knee deep water.

Martha and The Mole jumped into the cab of the van and quickly turned the ignition. Isaac jumped in the back, slinging the female crop down as gently as he could in that situation. Slamming the cargo doors behind him, the van skidding off before they shut.

“Where’s Noah?!” Martha asked hysterically.

“He’s gone…I don’t know. The Sentinels got to him.”

“Shit!” The Mole said, gripping his mouth as if to shove the word back in.

“What happened in there, Isaac?!” Martha trying to keep the van on the road in all of the excitement.

“I…” Isaac tried to make sense of it in his head. “I spaced out. I spaced out when I saw my old home. My old slab.” As soon as the words left his mouth he wept with immense guilt.

Martha and The Mole both looking back at him, didn’t say a word. The vehicle zig-zagged its way back to The Byways.

VI

United News

May 3rd, 2143

“In approximately 7 years, scientists predict the planet’s population will grow past what the Earth as a planet can sustain. Major world organizations, including The Upper Echelon, are said to be meeting later this week to discuss potential policy changes and contingency plans for the possibility of disaster. One man within The Upper Echelon is said to be preparing to propose the most dramatic policy to date on the issue. The results of the meetings will be published next week.”

The roar of the commoners doing their daily business was louder than most days. The thick mud had been trampled down into a sturdy walkway almost as if it hadn’t rained at all the night before. Isaac leaned against a corner store wall smoking a cigarette and sipping on a piping hot cup of coffee. The essentials, purchased with some scrap change that Naomi lent him. 

The morning was chilly, but the sun’s rays warmed his skin. This was his morning routine now, as it had been for the last few weeks while he recovered at the clinic during the day. During the night, though, the group would convene to go over their plans. Each week the meetings would be more tense with the anticipation that the moment was drawing nearer. Noah was reluctant to join in on the meetings the first few times, but now he was almost as fierce as Naomi. Almost.

Naomi’s passion for the task at hand was exceptional. She couldn’t get over it, and now neither could Isaac. His fury grew as well. The long, passionate talks about the way the world is fucked up. “Under the table” is a phrase she used to describe the governmental system. A hierarchy that was stacked in the shadows. 

The long hours of being hooked up to the tubes in the clinic. All because of a society he never chose to live in.

And even then, leaning up against the same corner store Leech had taken him a month before, he watched the heartbeat of The Byways. Brittle women in heavy boots, just to make it down the street. Fathers pulling their children in sleds behind them, so that they themselves won’t sink in the mud. 

All of this lit a spark inside of Isaac that had been growing into a flame. The Byways were his home now, and even though he had only been there a short time he knew no one should have to live like this. 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

That night, Isaac and Naomi sat in the clinic awaiting the arrival of the rest of their group. Due to the numerous scanners patrolling the area, Naomi had started to refer to all of the meetings and plans as Daybreak. It must have been her way of justifying the chaos that Daybreak was about to birth onto The Byways.

The clinic door swayed open. It was Noah, and he brought the rain along with him. That night, the water seemed to find any crack in the door and push its way in.

He came in and shook the wet cold off of him and started up some coffee. 

“Where are the others?” Naomi hunched over with her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.

“They should be here soon, I was just ahead of Martha and Jonas.” Noah sat the kettle on the burner. “How are you feeling?” He looked at Isaac.

“All healed up.”

“I meant about the plan.” Noah came and sat down around the wood burning stove. “Are you ready to head back there? To the factory?”

“I’m nervous, but the plan is in place and I want to get as many people out of there as possible.” Isaac sat a can of beans on top of the stove to warm. “I believe in Daybreak. Without it, I’m not really worth anything to this place.”

“You are worth something, Isaac, and you’re showing that by being a part of this.” Naomi placed a hand on Isaac’s shoulder.

He smiled, but an unconfident smile.

The clinic door opened and Martha and Jonas walked in. Martha was in her early thirties, Jonas in his late twenties. Both were what some people called replacement babies. After the Sentinels would take a families baby away every fifteen years, a family would feel empty, thus quickly having replacement babies to fill that void.

Martha took both their raincoats and draped them over a chair by the wood burner to dry. They both gathered around and waited for the last member of the group to arrive. The stove fire crackled and popped. Isaac’s beans sizzled in their juices as he plucked them off of the stove top to eat. 

The five of their shadows danced around the room like some sort of ritual. Noah poured coffee and passed it to the group, his shadow eerily jumping around him as the fire flickered. 

Naomi sipped on the hot coffee. “One of the last few good things in this shitty world.” She said while giving a little chuckle. 

The others agreed, but they were too busy sipping.

The clinic door opened, letting the moonlight break the shadow ritual which was happening in the middle of the room. A man stood in the doorway with a hood over his head. Isaac had only come to know him as The Mole. 

Naomi had said that he was a defector from The Upper Echelon, someone that knows the most about their atrocities, next to Isaac. Apparently, he had been in the meetings and had been in the talks when legislation had passed. Now, he was a very different type of board member.

He was an older man, probably mid-forties. One of the few from The UE that had aged, due to his apparent disgust for Intravenous Incubation. Though, he said it wasn’t a fear of needles. 

He sat down at the fire, grey eyes glistening and reflecting each spark. His beard was dark brown, but had started to become more grey than even his eyes. And his face had wrinkles. Common in The Byways, but not of someone from the Cloud City. 

The Mole refused to give any other identity for fear that he would be found out. He figured if no one knew, then he was that much safer.

“Sorry I’m late.” He slid the hood from his head. “Scanners are out and about in force tonight.”

“We were just having some coffee.” Naomi said, downing the rest of hers. “Let’s get started.” She slid over an empty chair to use as a table. 

Naomi was the de facto leader of Daybreak. It was her vision.

“Martha…Jonas…were you guys able to secure a van?” Naomi unfolded a hand drawn atlas sized map of the surrounding area and sat it on the chair in front of her.

“We were able to get one, I’ll just be forever in debt to the old man that owns it.” Jonas said.

“Well, hopefully that won’t matter when this is all over.” Naomi pointed to the map. “Noah, you and Isaac will take the van with Martha and The Mole to the factory. Park it here.” 

An outline of the factory was drawn on the map, Naomi wanting the van parked on the back side. 

“I’ve scoped it out, scanners don’t usually pass by that side, and Sentinels are only posted inside the factory.”

“You’ll be staying back here, right?” Isaac reaffirmed.

“Correct, me and Jonas will stay here and keep watch while we wait for your return. Once you guys get here, we’ll help unload the bodies and start checking their vitals.”

“Who’s driving the truck?” The Mole asked.

Everyone looked around before The Mole nodded that he would take the driver’s seat.

Daybreak continued to iron out every detail of the plan. Many cups of coffee were drank that night. The fire slowed to a smolder as the sun started to peak over the tops of the alleyways.

“Tomorrow night.” Naomi whispered in a realization this was actually going to happen. “Tomorrow night.”

None of the group said anything. They all came to the same realization. One by one, each member trickled out like the end of a long party. All, except for The Mole.

Isaac, mesmerized by the flickering fire, didn’t notice that the man had pulled up a chair next to him.

“I remember the days when you were either looked down upon or looked up to.” He stoked the fire with a stick. “Now you’re just looked through. But up there, in the Cloud City, up there the people only look inward.”

Isaac just stared into the fire, not knowing what to say.

“It was a beautiful city. Skyscrapers faded into gray clouds. The only proof they didn’t go on forever were the beacons of light illuminating through the fog.” The Mole leaned back in his chair, face towards the ceiling. “The city was built on change, but too much change can be destructive.”

“How long did you live there?” Isaac didn’t remove his stare from the flames.

“I’ve seen him.” The Mole whispered fiercely, not acknowledging Isaac’s question in the slightest. “I’ve seen The Crest.”

“What does he look like?” Turning to face the man.

“Success. A determination so strong, millions of deaths caused by the ink in his pen couldn’t break it.” The man’s breath protruded past his shadowy hood. “Perseverance. A man that had risen through the ranks of the legislative system, the likes of which had never been seen. Not for quite some time.”

His voice was soothing, but dreadful. The moisture in his boots sizzled next to the fire. The wood sizzled as well. The Mole stared at the ceiling, head back, and hands in his coat pockets.

“We have to end this. You need to lead us to The Crest.” Isaac watched the plumes of breath leave the man’s silhouette.

“What the hell do you think I’m here for?” He chuckled at the sound of ignorance.

Isaac leaned back in his chair, seemingly imitating the man. Eyes to the ceiling, boots sizzling, and reflecting on the task that was at hand.

V

“How’s he doing?” The woman asked.

“Still asleep.” The man examined Crop’s vitals.

“His body must be exhausted from the bad transfusion.”

“Exhausted, but recovering. I spent most of the night just ridding his body of the blood,” The man said as he motioned to stacks of blood bags. “Who would do this to someone?”

“Noah, you should get some sleep. You look terrible. I’ll take it from here,” The woman flipped through a stack of medical reports. “What’s this?”

“I told the clinic over on the East side that we could take a patient for them. They don’t have any room.”

“What happened?” The woman looked through the file.

“The Sentinels came to extract the child, but the woman wouldn’t accept. She has some blunt force trauma to the head. They should be bringing her over in a couple of days.”

“I’ll prep the other room,” Her actions said this was a regular occurrence, for the Sentinels to extract a child. But her face said it occurred way too often. “In the meantime, I’ll finish up checking his vitals,” She rubbed Noah’s back. “I’m serious, go get some rest.”

Noah, exhausted, reluctantly gathered up his jacket and backpack and headed for the door. 

The mist fell on the tin roof, gathering into droplets of water hitting his head as he opened the plywood door to the clinic. Noah quickly slung his hood on.

“Naomi, if you need anyth…”

“I know, I’ll radio you.” She grinned.

As the night went on, Naomi continued to monitor Crop and provide periodical blood transfusions of her own blood. The mist turned to a continuous drizzle now, the white noise from the tin roof was a weight on her eyelids. 

A clap of thunder woke Crop up, half expecting to still be laying on the asphalt. To his surprise he was in a halfway decent bed, an amalgamation of a single couch cushion, a stack of folded blankets, and a rolled up sleeping bag for his pillow. This was all laid upon the foundation of an old ripped up military cot, but it was the best bed Crop had slept on.

“Hey, you’re finally awake!” Naomi said, almost dozed off herself.

“Where am I?” 

“Southwest district of The Byways. I’m Naomi, by the way. We were never able to get your name.” She gave Crop a paper cup of cold water.

“I don’t think I have a name.” He rose up in his bed and drank.

“You don’t know your own name?” She flipped through his file, looking for a record of concussion symptoms. “Well, where are you from?”

“I came from the factory.”

“So, it’s true?” Naomi sat up in her seat. “No one’s ever made it out of a factory, at least not that I remember. How did you end up here?” She heated up some soup and gave it to Crop.

Crop sat up in his makeshift bed and told her the whole ordeal in between sips of hot soup. It had a broth base with chunks of entrails, onions, and radishes. He was so hungry that he didn’t mind the entrails.

“Well, if you don’t have a name, I’m going to call you Isaac,” She said, as if no wasn’t an answer she would accept. “It was my father’s name.”

“Isaac it is,” Anything was better than being called Crop, he thought. “What brings you out here?” He said before blowing on his soup. “Do you run this hospital?”

“I wouldn’t really call it a hospital, it’s more of a clinic,” Even that was a generous description. “My twin brother, Noah, and I run the place. When we were around eight, back when the world was just starting to go to shit, my parents were chosen in The Polling,” She got up and started making herself some soup. “Our parents were devastated, obviously, but me and my brother didn’t really understand the full extent of what that meant. But, they were mostly chosen because The Upper Echelon found out we were twins,” She sat down and blew on her soup. “Twins don’t exactly fit into Family Planning.”

“I heard about Family Planning.” Crop said curiously.

“That’s how you ended up in that factory. Somewhere down the line the world got too crowded. Family Planning was The UE’s way of solving that issue. The only problem is it involved The Polling, and…,” She took a sip of her soup. “Well, you have to keep the population down, that’s where Family Planning comes in. Restrict the amount of reproduction happening.”

“But where do the factories come in? Where do I come in?”

“The factories are filled with people’s babies, just like you, plucked from their homes every fifteen years. That’s where the crops come from, that’s where the blood comes from…,” She sat her bowl down, spoon clinking on the porcelain. “That’s where The Drip comes from.”

Crop, now Isaac, sat for nearly half an hour listening to Naomi tell him of the inner workings of the world. How he was a love child of greed and selfishness. Raised by machines in the name of immortality. So that those in The UE could live and he could die. Isaac, a renewable source of life, but at what cost? 

Scanners outside flew past the clinic door. Surveillance drones patrolling the alleyways, every face seen probably in some database somewhere up in the Cloud City. Floating by the heads of pedestrians, every now and then having to duck their heads to miss them. Peering into shops and houses, always listening. And now they were outside the clinic door.

Isaac could feel the tension on Naomi. But even then, nothing could contain her resentment for the state of the world and how it affected her. 

“I built this place to help people, to do my part in the place that raised me.” She got up and put her ear to the door before returning to her chair. “But every day it gets worse, and we are literally just bandaging an open wound. I want to do something more, and I want you to help me.” She whispered, but the whisper was fierce.

“I don’t know anything about this world.” Isaac said. “How would I be able to help?”

“You don’t know about this world, but you know about their world.” Noami twirled the IV cable in her fingers. “I want you to lead me to the factory.”

“Why in the fuck would I go back there?” Isaac whispered, but his was more concerned. He had only just shed his Crop name.

“I’ve got some other people around The Byways that want to help too, but I can’t go on letting those people stay there.”

Isaac had just gotten out of the factory and had no desire to return, but if he had a chance to free more people from that endless sleep, he would. He nodded in agreement.

“Good.” Naomi sighed as she rose up out of her chair. “A couple of us are meeting tomorrow night to talk about the plan. I sleep in there in the other room. You can stay here and get some rest. I’ve got to go out, but I’ll be back later.”

Naomi peaked out of the clinic door. The scanners were gone, somewhere deep in the maze of The Byways. As she opened the door, the sound of rain poured into the room as if itself were tangible. She slid out of the cracked door, a sliver of fluorescent light leaked in like a sunbeam in that dark space. Isaac could hear the splashes fade until they sounded no different than raindrops.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

That night, The Byways went to sleep before Isaac did. The rain was even kind enough to tuck itself in, the clear skies letting the moon illuminate the alleyways. The sporadic cricket chirps fascinated Isaac, only stopping when a scanner hovered overhead. The quiet humming had a certain cozy feel to them. Disrupting the dead silence of the night just enough to make a man forget about his thoughts. Red light peeped through the cracks underneath the clinic door as the scanners patrolled the main street. Isaac counted the blinking patterns like sheep as he fell asleep.

IV

The sounds of swooshing and pumping encapsulated the atmosphere in which Crop inhabited. Maybe he had dreamt it all. Leech, the factory, The Drip. Maybe it wasn’t real, but what he was hearing at that moment was. It was all real. Like a deja vu known all too well. Crop opened his eyes to view the source of the comfortable noise. Though, they were comfortable to only a crop.

Tubes and vials, going every which way, attached to his flesh. All coming together and running into one hunk metal fastened to his back. With each contraction and subsequent expansion of the plungers, he could feel the suction beneath the tissue, sucking out every last drop. Crop traced the tubes with his vision, trying to reverse engineer the contraption in his mind.

“I’m quite surprised you slept that long.” A man in a white lab coat said from behind a thick pane of glass. His voice was old and muffled, but he looked middle-aged. “I’d expected you to be bursting with energy.” He found himself humorous. 

“Wha…” Crop still creeping up from the blackness of unconsciousness. “What is this? Get me out of this.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, friend.” The man in the lab coat said as he entered the room Crop was positioned. “But what I can do is answer your question.” He approached Crop and shined a piercing light into his eyes, before checking his heart beat. 

Crop looked around the room, as the man examined him. It looked like a command center for a knock off space opera, but rusted and damp. Plungers plunged, lights blinked, and the man talked.

“This machine right here…” He placed his hand around Crop, but the only thing shown love was the system on Crop’s back. “This is my creation.” He pointed out the door towards the lower level of the building. “You see all of them down there?”

Just like that, it dawned on Crop. He was back at the factory, and this was The Cultivator. The one he had seen in his dreams, and when he escaped.

“You see them? You are one of them. One of the many crops that we farm here everyday, and all over the District as a matter of fact.” The man spun Crop back around to face him. “Hundreds…thousands of crops everyday, making life possible through Intravenous Incubation.”

“That doesn’t explain why I’m hooked up to this fucking machine, strapped into these shackels.” Crop was getting impatient.

“Now…you see them?” The Cultivator pointed to the guards posted by the door. The Sentinels. “They’re our first line of defense! Our law and order! They have to deal with stresses that no man can imagine,” He spoke of the Sentinels with such high regard. “They shouldn’t have to wait for the next Drip to relieve some of that stress…that’s where this comes in.” He gave the machine a pat. “This is the CIIM, Continual Intravenous Incubation Mechanism. This tube right here…” He held the tube fastened to Crop’s left arm. “This tube takes the blood out, and this one…” He moved to the tube inserted into the inside of Crops right bicep. “This one puts new blood in. Out with the old, in with the new…a continual Drip, if you will.”

“But why am I here, and why is it hooked up to me?”

“Well, you broke out of here.” He stood up and walked to one of the control panels, fidgeting with switches. “I don’t know how you broke out of here, but we found you, and now you’re here. And seeing as how you belong to us, we grew you after all, The Upper Echelon allowed me to use you as my…” He stared blankly. “Personal guinea pig.”

“Get me the fuck out of here!” Crop said while frantically trying to rip the hoses from his arms.

The Sentinels, alerted, took a step forward.

The Cultivator raised his hand towards them. “It’s alright, fellas.” He turned to Crop. “Now…listen, the testing isn’t finished. Once it’s finished, we’ll get you out of these shackles.”

“Well, how much longer?!” He had no choice, but to comply and wait.

“Oh, about a day left of testing. If there are any adverse effects of recycling blood that quickly, we should know by then.” The Cultivator approached Crop from behind. “Until then, I’ll need my peace and quiet.” He pierced Crop’s neck with a thick needle, and he slumped over.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The sunlight through the truck window was like a shock blast to the abysses that were Crop’s pupils. His eyes dilated fully like black holes in the depths of the universe. He lay, strapped in position, in the back of a bread truck. Now, he was the delivery.

A hand slid open the grate to the main cab. “I guess you could say there’s…been some bad blood between us.” The Cultivator said. The driver grunted happily as he said it. “Not all blood mixes well, as I’m sure you’re figuring out right now.”

Excruciating pain swept through Crops body, like his insides wanted out. The feeling of an incompatible lifeblood coursing through one’s veins is not something to be wished on the worst of enemies. Crop’s arteries felt like earthworms tunneling through his flesh, as if they were searching for the surface. His heart pounded with a ferociousness as it was force-fed another human’s crimson. He yelled, involuntarily.

“Like oil and water.” 

Some bumps in the road jostled the whole vehicle. The Cultivator braced himself before speaking again. 

“I’d like to thank you for your cooperation in the testing of CIIM. It went quite well and we’ll be rolling it out soon. Which means, I don’t really have a use for you anymore and I can’t really just hook you back up at the factory.”

Between screeching and screaming Crop managed to utter a few words. “What did you do to me?” He wilted in pain.

“Another experiment, I guess you could say. Though, I already know what the outcome will be.” The Cultivator looked forwards towards the winding road.

The road was a mixture of poorly filled potholes and eroded asphalt, tossing the bread truck. It was a gloomy, damp morning and the clouds had just started to roll in. They lowered to fog level as the truck entered the forest. 

Trees piercing the top of the fog like hairs from the epidermis. Every now and then a gust of wind would blow by, swaying the tops which would rip the calm surface of the fog and sling a mixture of leaves and bark off to fall into the mist below.

The man interrupted the silence and daze that Crop was trying to enjoy in that moment. 

“The Crest has given me more, let’s call it, creative freedom. And, just like any freedom, if it is not exercised then it is in jeopardy.”

The bumps in the road became more spread out as the truck came to a rolling stop. The vehicle was parked in an alleyway somewhere deep in The Byways. The only sound was the tapping performance of the rain dropping from the tin roof inches from the top of the bread truck. 

This performance was overshadowed and cut short by the slamming of the driver side door. The Sentinel had exited. The crunching of broken up asphalt panned from left to right as the guard made his way to the back of the truck. The Cultivator followed. The slam of his door sent splashes of collected rain drops off the side of the truck like a flash flood. The latches of the back door echoed through the compartment as they were undone. 

Crop was undone as well. His insides now felt like they were ripping their way out of his flesh. The burning felt like he was no longer fastened in the back of a mere bread truck, but now chained to a stake in some form of dark age martyrdom. Maybe the latter wasn’t too far off. Crop’s veins felt like moving worms, the tips of them like needles trying to pierce their way out. 

If this is what life is like, take me back. He thought.

But it was too late to be brought back to the old factory. The truck door slid open, like that of a garage. Metal sections retracting into the slits above Crop’s head. The Sentinel grabbed him, Crop nearly limp like a ragdoll. 

“You’ve been a pain in the precinct’s ass.” The guard said, his mask muffling his voice. 

Crop thrown against the pavement, his body splashing in the micro puddles of the morning mist. He was nearly paralyzed from pain at this point. His joints refused to function under the intense pressure that only the transfusion of incompatible blood could apply. A medical procedure gone wrong, or in this case gone horribly right.

“Now now, stand down. It’s been a lucrative asset to us and CIIM. Thanks to this crop, we will be able to outfit the whole force in due time. Just like any crop, he has been harvested. And what remains shall be disposed of.” 

The white lab coat swayed in the breeze as he stood over Crop as if he were to say Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!, but he didn’t have to. His statue stance and marble complexion left nothing to the imagination. 

“I’ll let The Crest know of the successes achieved here. I’ll let him know of your tenacity in acquiring the crop.” The Cultivator outstretched his hand to the shoulder of the Sentinel. “The Upper Echelon will recognize you, I’m sure of it.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Without saying another word, the two separated to their respective sides of the truck. The monstrosity swaying on its suspension like a pendulum as each climbed into the cab. 

Crop spread out on the concrete, his shallow breaths creating ripples in the centimeter deep water that his face laid in. The tires slung pebbles into his back as the vehicle sped away into the winding alleys of The Byways.

III

Genocide? Or The Only Hope For A Future?

Yesterday, The UE finished its discussions and debates attempting to find a solution to the Earth’s overpopulation problem. All 195 countries were represented at the gathering, which took place at the Millionth Street Tower. The solution proposed by a young politician here in The UE was discussed at length and voted upon by representing members of each county. The vote was 127 to 68 for affirmation of what is now being called The Polling policies. The policy states that a series of “televised lotteries” will be conducted live on dates to be determined. These lotteries will choose random citizens from every country via their citizen numbers, and those selected will perish. The UE has not stated how these, to be frank, murders will be carried out, but we cannot sit idly by and let these policies be enforced. This “solution” is mass genocide. It’s time for a call to a…

Leech’s ears rang as the piercing brakes of a white truck pulled up to the bus stop. His concentration was now broken. He was bored of that newspaper piece anyway. Just another failed revolution, he thought. 

They popped up all the time in the early days, back when motivation was an epidemic. Now it was as if people got lazy. Complacent with their surroundings. No one sought out better options or fought for what was right. Perhaps time really does heal all wounds.

The white truck waited for the two men, plumes of steam spilling out of its exhaust pipes. They both stood up from the bench and Leech walked up to the passenger side window. The glass snuck down and they exchanged words before the driver exited the vehicle and made his way around to the bed of the truck. He lifted a tarp.

“Hey,” Leech said to Crop. “I trust this guy.”

Crop examined what was underneath the tarp and looked concerned.

“We gotta lay under this for a while until he gets us up there. Up to the emerald tower.” Leech hoisted himself up into the bed, handing the driver something before he found his home underneath the grey tarp. Possibly payment of some kind. 

Crop followed suit, reluctantly.

The road to the Cloud City was a bumpy one. Trails of tread left behind from the tires stretched for miles. Once they reached the border, the muddy roads turned into damp pavement and it was smooth sailing from there. Crop watched the streetlights zooming by as their light shined through the wet tarp. Leech slept in between his fidgeting fits.

Eventually, they came to a steady stop. Crop could hear the driver and someone talking. It must have been a checkpoint. The guard must have figured he didn’t get paid enough to check anything and let them right through without an issue. It had to have been another forty miles before anything else exciting happened.

The truck came to a stop and the driver rolled down his window, gave two knuckle knocks to the outside of the door and said “This is as far as I can take ya.”

Leech rolled back the tarp and hopped out of the bed of the truck, the man watching from the rear-view mirror. 

“The city center should be a couple of miles that way, but I can’t get too deep into the city without being found out.” The man pointed out towards the front of the truck. “Here take these.” He reached back behind the seat and pulled out some nice-looking clothes. A charcoal grey suit with a white shirt for Crop, and a black suit for Leech. “These are the best I could find closest to your sizes.”

“Hey, thanks man!” Leech said. This will definitely get them in.

“You guys take care now, tell your friends if they ever need to get to The UE I’m their guy.” The man drove off.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

They approached the cobblestone stairs of the city center. The muffled sounds of talking and laughter crept through the walls of the great building. Atop the stairs stood a crimson door sectioned by golden rods running vertically down the seams. The doors stood ten feet tall, dwarfing the men. 

Inside, The Drip was in full swing. Leech, desperate to get his hands on some blood, entered the place nonchalantly. He motioned with his eyes, to Crop, as if he were egging him on. The giant doors drifted open in silence as if it were someone’s sole responsibility to keep the hinges greased. Diamond chandeliers hung from the ceiling giving off a kaleidoscope shimmer to the surrounding walls originating from the lights nestled deep within the crystals. 

The Drip was just like any other big banquet, only at this one, the attendees gathered around IV bags instead of the punch bowl. Thin translucent tubes running from the metal stands into the folds of their arms. 

“Type?” said the lady behind the counter.

“Huh?” Leech said, trying to make it seem like this wasn’t his first rodeo.

“Your blood type.” She said in a tone, as if she already thought they were idiots. “That’s why you’re here, right?”

“Uh…yeah.” Leech said, scratching the back of his head in a nervous tick. “A positive.”

“And you?” She looked at Crop.

Before she could find out Crop is a mute, Leech chimed in, remembering what Crop’s was from that one time he pumped himself full of the excrement.

“He’s O positive.”

The woman wrote the blood types on a notepad and mosied her way back to the cold storage room, rolling her IV bag right along with her. The wheels squeaked and wobbled from overuse. She came back out and sat the two blood bags on the counter, rubbing her arms to get the cold off. She double checked the blood types with what Leech told her.

“Ok.” She said. “Here’s the A positive.” She handed the blood to Leech, “And here’s the O positive. You two enjoy yourselves.” 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The leather sofa absorbed Leech’s torso. Crop followed suit, engulfed in his chair as well. Leech got them all situated with the blood bags hooked up, but by now Crop was damn near a pro at hooking himself up. He’d been unhooked and re-attached more times in two days than these people had in the six months. Crop watched as some nameless beings lifeblood rolled into his flesh. Instant euphoria. A euphoria he had felt since birth, which is why Leech looked confused.

“Shit, I guess you don’t know what you got til it’s gone.” He laughed, until he didn’t. He floated away into euphoria as well.

It wasn’t long before the televisions in the hall started the anticipated broadcast. The Crest began to speak, his voice amplifying over every nook and cranny of that banquet. It vibrated the very blood in their veins.

“Good evening!”
The crowd clapped. A few drunken whistles pierced Crop’s ears.

“We are brought together again on this night for the biannual Drip.”

The room became so silent that you could hear a syringe drop.

“I simmered and simmered over my paper as I prepared for this speech tonight. Now, I don’t want to get overly dramatic, but I think it needs to be said. Gratitude needs to be given. We’ve spent so much of ourselves to get where we are today. Sacrificed so much. I want to thank you. Really, I do. Because without your sacrifices we would all be like those miserable souls down there in The Byways. God bless them, but they are stubborn people. They don’t want help. I’ve tried. I tried with Family Planning and I tried with Polling, but some people are selfish. They don’t see the bigger picture.” He sighed. “Anyways, enough of the seriousness. This is a fun night! Now, enjoy yourselves and be safe. I’ll be dripping right along with you! Goodnight!”

The television faded to static before blackness.

Crop sat in a daze as blurs, of what he could only imagine were people, moved all around him. Time seemed to slow and quicken in short intervals, something Crop had never experienced. Colors shifted and combined all around him. The laughter, chatter, and noise all merged into one endless glob of almost tangible resonance. So much so that Crop involuntarily let out a yell.

“Quiet!” Crop yelled. His senses overloaded.

Leech jumped up from surprise that the thing could talk, only to be reabsorbed by the chair.

“I….” Crop stumbled over his words. Due to not knowing them or his sensory overload, either one…it didn’t matter. “I can’t take this.” He held his head in his palms. The glob of resonance dissipated, but only for a moment.

“You mean we could’ve been talking this whole time?” Leech said, almost disappointed.

Crop grunted, still shocked that he had spoken for the first time. “Did you know this would happen?” He lifted his head from his hands.

“No, but I didn’t know you’d wake up from your little nap either.”

The chatter from the crowded ballroom drowned out their conversations. They could plan a coup right there in that very room and no one would ever hear a peep. 

Leech fiddled with the needle sticking into his arm. Like a phalange, an extra limb, it was a part of him. Or at least he felt like it was a part of him. He looked at Crop and watched as he slowly peeled away the chrome from his veins. An empty man, just a body. He thought. Just a body…

“A walking blood bag.” His thoughts turned to words and Crop looked up at him as he held the bloody tubes in his fingers.

“What did you say?”

“A walking blood bag, a body.” It was like a light flipped on inside Leech’s mind and his eyes widened with the thought of great promise.

“What are you talking about?” Still holding the paraphernalia in his hands.

“You be my personal blood bag!” Leech exclaimed, like it was a normal thing to ask of someone. “Fuck this shit man.” He gestured to the squeaky stand that held his A positive slush pack. “I don’t need to come to this shit anymore, we don’t need to.”

Crop, even while calculating all of this in his mind as fast as he could, knew that Leech must have thought he was an idiot. “I…”

“I wouldn’t need to sneak in that factory anymore,” Leech spewed, before Crop could get more than a word out. “If you think about it, you’d be doing all those other crops a favor.”

“I mean,” Crop gathered his thoughts. “I don’t think that I really want to have you periodically getting off on my bodily fluids.” Crop just kind of said some shit. He didn’t know why the drip affected him the way it did…or why he all of a sudden knows what getting off means.

Leech looked disappointed to say the least, angry almost. “I broke you out of that place man, you’d still be there if it weren’t for me.”

He has a point, Crop thought to himself. “The only reason you broke me out of there was because you were there to leech blood off of me.” He said, coming to his senses.

Leech stood up among the crowd. Though, his shoulders sagged, on the inside he felt like the tallest man in the room. “Something divine led me to you. I know it. I can feel it,” He gestured around to the packed room, but no one paid Leech any mind. “I was led to you to…to set you free!”

Crop, still seated, looked up at the lunatic. The words that the man vomited were that of The Drip, that of an inhibited mind. “You came to me randomly. You even said you had been there before. It was by chance that you chose me that night.”

Leech lowered himself back into the cushioned seat. He had had his epiphany and now sought to share it with Crop on a more intimate level. They were now face to face. “Nothing is by chance, man. I was there to wake you up. Something set me on that path.”

“And you think that path leads to me being your personal blood bag? What divine being would set you, or me for that matter, on that path? I won’t do it.”

Leech rose up out of the sofa abyss, and started to walk off.

“Where are you going?”

“To take a piss!” Leech yanked the blood bag stand right along with him.

Crop watched the crowd move around him like everyone was connected as one big organism. A giant Man O’ War drifting through the figurative currents around him. He finished tidying up the siphon and joined the organism, but only long enough to return the blood bag to the lady at the front counter.

“You’re finished?” The woman said, surprised.

“Yeah, I think it’s about time I leave.”

“No one ever leaves a drop behind.” She shockingly grabbed the blood bag and took it back to the cold storage around the corner.

Crop stepped outside to wait for Leech, when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Two Sentinel guards had followed him outside.

“That’s him alright.” One said while looking down at a message on his dispatch log.

Behind the Sentinels, Crop could see Leech watching from a distance. I guess it was his way, or no way. He thought.

The left Sentinel cocked back his bludgeon in the air before releasing it upon Crop’s head. The force like that of a recently unlatched catapult. Crop fell to the ground, his face smashing against the concrete. Consciousness slipping away slowly, he could still make out Leech fading into the crowd. Looking back to show a grin only a childish evil could conjure up. Then everything went black.

II

The homemade door slammed shut like a screen door to a country side home. 

“I’ll get you some clothes.” Leech disappeared around the corner, but Crop could hear the scuffs of his feet on the floor all the way down the hall and back. 

He handed Crop a pair of jeans and a smelly T-shirt. Leech plopped down into the sunken cushions of his recliner and flicked on the television. Crop stood by, almost as if he were awaiting orders.

“Take a load off.” Leech tossed a bag of dried potato slices onto the couch next to him, inviting Crop to indeed take a load off. 

The potatoes were the closest thing to chips in The Byways. They had a similar texture to dried apples, or any fruit for that matter. Most were plain, but every now and then one might be lucky enough to find the salted variety. 

The television continued coverage of the highly anticipated biannual event: The Drip. Interviews, pre-shows, all fashioned up like a red-carpet extravaganza. It was a time looked forward to by all in The Upper Echelon.

“Here we are in the Cloud City, getting ready for tomorrow’s big event.” The reporter said. “As you can see, everyone is in great spirits. Ma’am, how are you going to celebrate tomorrow?”

“Well, I plan on donning my best dress and showing up at the city center. I think that’s where a bunch of us are going.” The lady said.

“Oh really? Is that what you do every event?”

“Well, on the first of the year we just had a small get together at a friend’s house, but I’ve always wanted to hear The Crest speak at one of the big events, even if it is still on TV.” Her voice trembled. A barrage of lenses pointed at her face..

“The Crest will be speaking tomorrow, what is it about hearing him speak that you look forward to the most?”

“I just admire him so much, he sacrificed so much and worked so hard to get us to where we are today. I just…” She paused before getting choked up. “I just remember what it was like back then.”

“As we all do. Thank you for your time, Ma’am.” The reporter faced back to the camera to send it back to the anchors in the studio stationed somewhere in the forest of buildings. “I hope that in all of tomorrow’s celebrations, we can take time to focus on what this all really means and who helped us get there. Back to you guys.”

“What a bunch of bullshit.” Leech said as he sat the recliner back up into its resting position. “We’re the ones fucking sacrificing.” 

He moaned as he stood up, the lactic acid now settling in his muscles from all of the crouching and running. He walked into the kitchen, replacing a bucket to catch the water dripping from the ceiling with a new, empty one. 

Crop sat, munching on the potatoes.

“They only show the glamorous side, the good part,” Leech cracked open the fridge and grabbed a drink. “They don’t talk about the factories or the Polling. They don’t wanna talk about that,” He slumped back down in his recliner, snapping his fingers at Crop, signaling for some much-needed dried potatoes. “But I’ve seen the bad part, first hand.” He said while cramming the slices in his mouth, followed by a splash of whatever drinks he had left in that mildewed fridge.

Crop looked down at the fold of his arm, blood dried from just hours earlier when Leech helped himself. He looked up, judgingly at Leech, you could see the questions of morality written on his face.

“Oh you think I’m the bad guy, huh?” Leech reached down and grabbed a belt from the floor and flung it at Crop. “That will do better than that hose, if you’re still bleeding.” 

The siphon hose still wrapped around Crops bicep, barely doing its job. He loosened it. Fresh blood formed on the surface of his skin, but it wasn’t enough to justify applying a new tourniquet. 

“They’ve been doing this for years.” Leech had a small bit of guilt lingering. “I just get what I can, when I can.” 

Crop continued to watch the television as Leech flipped through the channels, frustrated. Partially at Crop, but mostly at himself. No doubt that he would go back to his junkie ways as soon as the cravings resurfaced.

They sat in silence as the TV narrator went on and on about how “we can all do our part to keep the world clean”, the same shit they’d heard for years. It’s the same story that’s being told today, but in reality, the decision has already been made. The Crest made that decision along with the rest of the leaders in The Upper Echelon. The narrator seemed to hold a bias towards The Upper Echelon and especially The Crest.

“Ever since The UE rolled out the Family Planning policy in 2161, the population has been on the decline, back to a healthier level. The streets are cleaner, the water is cleaner, and even the air is cleaner…” He spoke over archival footage of individuals which inferred they had some relevance to The Upper Echelon, but no one really knew who they were. They were just faces to names for people down there in The Byways. 

“The Crest took chances; risks.” The voice continued. “It paid off, and now look at us.” The archival footage switched to aerial views of the sweeping landscapes and emerald skyscrapers which only existed in dreams, dreams of the people of The Byways. In the Cloud City, materialism was a commonality. 

“Shit, I’d love to see that shit.” Leech said as he nearly exceeded the limits of his recliner. 

Crop looked up at him with an excited expression. The place looked beautiful on the TV, but it didn’t do it justice.

Leech slung up in his chair. “We should go!” He fiddled with his fingers. “We could see those buildings!” All he really wanted to do was get into The Drip to get another taste. He had never been to The Drip before, but he had heard of the glamour of it all; the extravagance. A little too flashy for him perhaps, but he was more than willing to make due.

Crop shook his head in excitement. He wasn’t dumb enough to think Leech actually wanted to go to see the city, but he didn’t really care. He had never seen anything like that place.

Leech became giddy like a little child, but almost frustrated at the fact he had to wait a whole day before he could get relief. 

“You can sleep over there.” Leech pointed to a small mattress in the corner of the living room. “I don’t have many blankets, but it don’t get too cold in here at night.”

Crop nodded in agreement.

Leech got up from his sunken recliner and stretched. “Well you know what they say, ‘the sooner you go to sleep, the sooner you wake up’.” He rolled up the bag of dried potatoes to keep them fresh and sat them on the table beside his chair, took one last gulp of whatever was in that cup of his and headed to bed.

Crop did the same. He walked over to the cot on the floor and laid down looking up at the ceiling. He watched the shadows and colors dance across the room with every flicker of the TV. He had forgotten to turn it off, but he liked it better that way. The way the television screen morphed into a spectrum of purples and blues mesmerized him, watching them for hours before he finally slipped off to sleep.

That night he dreamt of those humongous emerald towers and could feel the warmth from the reflection of the bright sun bouncing off of the infinite windows. In the dream, he seemed to float in midair and either way he looked, up or down, the building seemed to reach forever. He envisioned a park full of families and children playing. Crop walked through the streets and mingled with the happy people who populated his mind. He rode the elevators up and down the skyscrapers until the cables were molten, pushing all of the buttons so that he could see each and every floor. 

Even the alleyways were clean, unlike The Byways. As he had a break in his amazement, he saw a man waving to him at the end of the alley. A wave as if he wanted Crop to join him. He ran to the man, but in his dream, it was as if he was stuck in quicksand. 

Once he got closer, Crop could see the man was pointing at something in the sky, smiling. Crop gazed up into the sky, shading his eyes from the bright sun. The man pointed at a catwalk spanning the length of the city. 

“He’s searching for you.” The man said happily. 

At the end of the catwalk, Crop saw the man in the lab coat from the factory, The Cultivator. He paced up and down the catwalk, peering over the rails, at the busy streets below. Crop could hear the clank of his shoes as he walked down the path echo throughout the blocks of buildings. He was so scared, but he couldn’t move, and the man just continued to point saying “He’s searching for you.” 

Crop tried to lift his feet and run until The Cultivator peaked over the side of the catwalk and spotted him. The two locked eyes as if they were in a standoff. Neither moved. The man didn’t yell or try to capture Crop. He stared until finally his eyes crept back over the edge of the catwalk and the rattle of the metal continued to ring throughout the city.

I

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.