We dig our toes into the dirt, gripping the cliffside. Branches become handholds. Some steady, some snap under our weight. We force upward, away from Aggregate City. Home and prison, at the same time. If I could open my body into wings and shelter his escape, I would. A fair trade, me for my brother.
Brief seconds of sliding, my heart stops. I catch on the natural ridges of earth, jamming fingers into any crevice. Thighs burn, feet cramping, but I cannot stop. I climb. To stop this upward sprint is death, for both of us. Loose grit yields to waves of steep rock. Layers crest above the city line and my palms slough against the brittle edges, cutting red payment in slashes.
Each time he loses footing and slides, I am the barrier between him and the valley spread below. This barrier they thought would keep us contained.
I catch a leg, an arm. Giving up my own handholds to shove him back up. I fall feet back down, only to scrape my way upward. Always upward. And still no gunfire. A haze of wind grows as we climb, arching raindrops against me. My fingertips shred against the jagged rocks, but I doubt the darts would reach us now. A needle sticks in my lower back, broken off from the syringe body. It pinches close to my spine, tickling vertebrae with each muscle spasm.
Julien had to drag me out of the building, nearly carrying me to the border-climb. More quickly than they would expect, adrenaline burned through the sedation drug at the foothill. I can not afford to stumble now. My limbs move faster than thought, operating with instinct to survive. How much they want us back—I have heard a cat only wants a mouse more for the struggle.
Each step is a victory, our pace a staggering defeat. I force the numbness away, urging blood back into my hands, even as the abrasions clot. Acid rain drops sting my eyes. I blink away halos, grasping at anything to keep going. Behind us, the Aggregate caretakers are reflective in full rain gear and respirators. I have never loved weather more than this moment, as we climb toward the sky. I hope it seeps into the cracks of their overcoats and burns them.
“Faster, Julien!” I push him square, making my body his shield. Mud camouflages the glow of our white uniforms and fog curls against their spotlights. The wildwood beyond reaches to protect us.
Honestly, I think it was luck that got us out. For now, they are unprepared—barely enough margin of time. They will send more like me, ones who can resist the pollution clouds without tech. They know my tests are superior, but the results were all under laboratory conditions. Out here, everything is a guess. Too many variables for proper calculation. The biggest wildcard remains with me, my brother.
“Keep going.” It comes out a whisper, my throat chewed by the toxic air with each breath. We cannot go back and be forced into piecemeal. Not Julien.
“Forward,” I scream, trying to break through his anesthesia clumsiness. He pushes toward the crest with a last burst of effort. I stay close, keeping him covered with my body. He is taller than me, and he curls his height against the rise to present a smaller target. They must see us slipping away—now they will kill instead of capture. I hope pride narrows their success.
Aggregate always thinks it has the upper hand. Usually, they do. This is their world, their city. We are their creation, programmed to host their future. Replacing natural bodies with upgraded donor parts, as needed. We are not people to rebel, only stocked products on their shelves. And Aggregate City citizens gobble up the product. They can live forever, thriving on pieces of me. How they must hate us for their own dependency.
Shouting, below. Dead assets prove a better option over proprietary material escaping—braindead, even better. Aggregate could collect tissue from us before decay sets in. Each cell, tissue, milliliter of ichor designed by them for living harvest, set in an opposition of wills. A thrill of fear comes with this knowledge. Their isolated experiment, now revealed. If we were powerful half-undone, what will we be whole?
I know that the Aggregate prefers to start small with new product lines. Julien and I are the best, the highest producers with the best profit margin—better than weapon-grade products, even. Such a fresh idea in a polluted environment, the understanding that humans are a renewable resource. They are controllable, unlike the greater world with its dry wind and storms. So, the Aggregate made new rules to match the desire of the populace. Life, health, time—all sold at reasonable prices. A bubble of power, nestled into the wild. The Aggregate is always hungry, though.
The natural world has done well in isolating survivors, perhaps rescuing itself from another fast tragedy. Most surface ores and metals are tainted with radiation. It limits their ability to conquer. I expect there are dozens of bubbles like ours in other territories. The wealthiest citizens have their eyes fixed outside of Aggregate City. They are the kind with oiled, functional bionic replacements or adaptations. Upper crust people. They reach for more of everything. Most of Aggregate City survives with regular biologics.
“L341G, you are an embarrassment to the ward.” It is my caretaker. I recognize his voice, even through the magnification respirator. I miss the next branch, sliding down a meter until I can scrape my foot into the rock. Pressing my forehead into the dirt, I let his words filter into my mind. I cannot keep them out. Julien’s heel kicks down a rock, heavy enough that it scratches the back of my neck. I need this pain, it is enough for me to remember myself. It cuts off the whispered memories of his voice. My taker. I persist, despite him.
We near the top of the climb. Between the toxin cloud and precipitation, their tech must be slow. Our bodies have not failed. Our lungs expand and contract. For the distance we have achieved, rumors will spread. Aggregate prefers to silence anyone who carries their proprietary information. Two donors successfully navigating through the barrier zone with only original biologics, inside an acid storm, is newsworthy in certain circles.
“You are the property of this facility. If you do not return willingly, we will retain you and L818B in a permanent coma. Your wardmates will fulfill your production requirements, up to and through expiration. You have acted against the intended purpose for your creation. Your parental debt will transfer to any remaining relatives, up to expiration.”
He pours the words together, trying to fold me back under his control. Brains are so malleable, suggest reality and then it becomes real. I know the taste of their truth, as bitter as their mercy. I drag the meat of my arm over the ground, letting the thorns eat away my skin. The wounds give me a measure of calm.
The others shall pay for my atonement. I will be selfish, for Julien. Any poor family associated with Mother will be stripped of their food and water recyclers, and die slow. The donors will die quick, pulled apart to meet quotas. My taker miscalculated the dregs of my compassion. He drew out the last of it successfully, then failed to fill the void with proper mental blocks. Yes, a smaller part of me would go back to him. I crush it down.
“Go, Julien.” I slap at his legs. I pinch his calves enough to bruise.
Death limits their yield significantly, by comparison. An Aggregate coma means death in pieces; the sleeper never knows how long they live, brain drugged into submission. The bio-harvest from sleepers has diminished quality, but low grade material still brings profit. Recouping a margin is better than total loss.
“Nearly there,” Julien calls over his shoulder. I can barely see him in the mist, his shaved head and a patchwork of healing skin. “The top is in view.”
Julien was the bonus child after me, secondary approval granted to our mother after my successful delivery. They bought us together, even though I am older. Females go into production later. All humans create stem cells in bone marrow and brain niches, but a mature female produces the most. The way life travels from the female through the umbilical cord—such possibility in those invisible cells. The potential to become a whole person, unlike any other group of matter. The Aggregate takes that potential for profit. There is never even a heartbeat.
Hand over hand, we flee from our prison. The earth loves me hard. Digging claws of scrub brush under my nails and between my toes. Drawing out Aggregate product. I tear out the feeble, growing things that could not root deep enough. I pull upward to the crest, leaving a broken trail. These small deaths are worth Julien’s life. There is always a trade.
Mother traded us for her lifestyle. It is a good income source, if the fetal genetic manipulation is successful. Perhaps her years of recreational drug cocktails caused her system to adapt to foreign material. Another miracle, for our sake. Adaptation, humanity’s greatest asset and Aggregate’s most beneficial cultivation. Culling the weak and harvesting the strong. The Eden Project perfected both pregnancies, and she responded well to their ministrations. The newest line with survivors.
As donor candidates, we were excellent specimens. Whatever credits Mother received for skimming off the top, she should have negotiated better. After harvest, my tissues go to the basement levels, to Aggregate special weapon storage. Not to shipment and procurement. I assume Julien is the same. Our destiny has been measured, graded, and scored. We will need a new scale for success, in the wild.
The toxin cloud increases with height. No test in Aggregate laboratories could be as rigorous as this—a true case study. Outside the boundaries of our Aggregate halls, such upgrades are forbidden. Any violators are executed, to keep proper containment. Out here, bodies are the only resource we have left to spend.
From our official sale, Mother received a substantial amount. Enough credits to fund her addictions, an apartment with central filtration, and bio-upgrades for years to come. That new money glow from repeated skin transplants, sealed into place with stem glue. No wrinkles, but slightly changed after each surgery. Barely discernible muscular changes beneath the even dermis.
It is the old money people who always look the same, frozen in time. Instead of pure biology, many opt for a thin layer of tissues over as many metal parts as they can afford. More durability, more strength. They upkeep their tissues with pure serums instead of surgeries. Tiny needle punctures, no slicing or lasers. These are the most powerful citizens. Money and power are the same thing, yes? I think I have neither.
A sudden burst of wind threatens to yank Julien away from me. I scrabble at his back, trying to get a hold on his uniform. Forcing more energy into my core, I shove him forward again. We cannot lose momentum.
“Nearly there. Just to that tree,” I urge. I beg. I pray that there will be enough wilderness to protect us on the other side of the rise. I could not plan with certainty. The other donors only knew the way out of the building. Outside? Aggregate City survivors only view outside through thick panes. And there is no need for window ports in the donor halls. Only white lights, the plastic equipment. Pain and sterility and isolation. The touch of machines and gloved hands.
Now, feeling mud and sharp branches scraping my skin is a pleasure. Breathing unmetered air, a gift.
When I plucked Julien from his chamber this morning, I wished the rumors into reality. That others, maybe even donors, live beyond the barrier climb, where the citizens cannot go due to pollution. In large part, even the Aggregate is corralled inside the city. The mistakes of history yield our freedom.
A crack sounds above the white noise of the rain. My right side splatters with mud. One overeager rifleman?
“Request live, request live,” my caretaker says. He left the volume high, projecting his voice at his escaping prey. His brain scrubbing has failed, his security measures have failed. I will not answer his failure with my own.
The Aggregate captivated itself, diluted itself. So they are convinced that my spirit was chained to their approval, their needs or desires. I have secrets too, Taker.
“Permission live confirmed,” he announces. I glance back, but I cannot see him at this distance. One grey uniform sinking into shadow. “L78G per order of the Director, your termination is inevitable for catastrophic system failure.”
Confidence runs from his voice, and the second half of his sentence rushes out. We are at the top, so close. Beyond their capacity to follow without huge expense and high visibility. They cannot afford the rumors. They will wait to deploy another countermeasure.
How quickly will they rip out his upgraded parts for this error? Will they wait even one day? He would not qualify to be used in my place on Floor 3.
I boost Julien, tipping him over the edge in my haste. My muscles are strong, but I feel the cords tear with effort. Marginal seconds are all we have. Julien slides over the shallow peak and tumbles into the wildwood beyond. He is free, by the time the first bullet sounds.
It reaches me, right through my shoulder and into the dirt. Soft tissue only. Pops of gunfire sound from below. The bullets shred vegetation over my head. I will not die here and leave Julien alone on the other side. It would be too easy for them to collect my body if I fell now. Better to die in the wild.
“We will erase you,” my taker announces. A beautiful voice, deep and rasping. Passionate, even. From this distance, it turns tinny. A second bullet tears through my leg. “Your brother is innocent. Why betray him to his death?”
Luck runs dry. The third bullet snaps my forearm. I claim the peak and collapse over it, trying to roll farther into safety. A sharp ping near my ear is the fourth bullet. It kisses my cheek on the way by, burning the skin open.
I am over the boundary rise, sliding down the far cliff side.
“Listen to me! Come back, and she will have Aggregate mercy.” He calls to Julien, and I hope he cannot hear. “Fulfill your purpose, fulfill your duty to the city!”
I fall after my brother, letting the boundary rise grow thick behind me. Wide enough to cut apart the words chasing me. I embrace the freedom of pollution. Prior centuries dumped their wastes here, burying sickness into humped mounds. A fitting barrier to the city bearing Aggregate Headquarters. I roll down the slope, each movement punctuated with a shock of pain. So blunt, it batters against the walls of my mental training.
I wake and Julien is above me. My wounds are wrapped in long leaves. He dragged me under a tree. Beautiful vegetation, encrusted with splattered mud and brown spots and dying fruit. We must grow accustomed to drinking and breathing the crud of civilization, as has this green life.
“Sister,” he sees my eyes open.
Even surrounded by forest, the size of his rebellion is small. The laws of Aggregate City have followed us into the wild—at the transition ceremony, donors are stripped of their names. To say one afterwards is to reject this destiny.
“Julien.” My voice emerges as a croak and I breathe carefully through the pain. I can feel dehydration from the blood loss. The rain has stopped and it is dark. “We must find water, shelter. How long was I asleep?”
I see he pushed the pieces of my right arm together, wrapping tightly in layers. He is close over me, keeping pressure on my left leg with one hand, and right shoulder with the other. Nerve endings scream with this necessary pain. I will thank him later. My brother, who has watched the caretakers with the hungry, yellow eyes of a predator bird. They are hazel now, focused. He has grown, since our childhood. Of course. It has been years now, I suppose.
I hope he is still my brother. His hands have never worked the magic of medicine. I remember him, when we were young. The shine in his eyes, watching the specialists prepare us for donorship. Flashing, a beacon against the blanched laboratories. That is the boy I hope he still is, the one who loved his games. Turning biopsies, tests and feedback into strategy contests or bets of chance.
Now, he wears new freedom shyly. He looks down, not at my face. I cannot lift my arms to tilt his chin toward me, so I use this scrap of voice and will him to remember.
“Julien, remember.” He pauses, hands stilled on my leg. “Remember adapt, or die.”
His nostrils flare as if he can breathe in the words. Like the old memories have a scent, but he does not answer.
“Promise me,” I ask. I feel his fingers spasm.
Those words flutter around my head in echoes, fragmenting as my vision swims. Promise, promise, promise me. He bites the top of his lip, thinking, using the pain to clear his mind.
He only shakes his head no. “Not yet.” He steadies himself on a breath and plunges into triage. My control slips and he slaps me awake.
“Not yet,” he says again, but he means something different this time. “You are bleeding too much. Can you move your other arm? Your leg is bleeding the most, here.” He gestures, then guides my hand to feel. He has packed leaves into the hole. A wink of smile lights his face. “Adapt?”
He flattens my palm over the wound. One-handed, he grips a large rock and eases it onto my shoulder to keep some pressure. The pain presents with stunning silver sparkles over my face.
“Awake! Stay awake.” Another slap, my head rocks with the force of it. “Keep pressure. I need to find water.”
The urgency of necessity divided between preservation to keep blood in, and survival to find water. I need fluid to replace the blood. He stands and is gone.
I do not keep pressure. I do not stay awake. After several minutes, my hand slips into the grass. My mind falters, lulled to sleep by the in and out whistling of my own breath.
I wake to cold water dumped over my head. It is odd to see Julien in a panic. Eyes unblinking, pupil grown large. Contrasting with the pale iris. Yellow, like mine. Only set slanted, narrow, where mine are round. Always serious, my brother. Calculating for his games, measuring outcomes and influences.
I hear his heart booming gently. Such strength, bound only by his fear. I am so used to the mask of flat affect we wore at Aggregate’s facility. I lose focus on him. The repetitive crashing of his voice against my ears jars my brain.
“Shh, Julien,” I try to say. He stops shaking me awake and sticks himself with a needle. I feel an answering prick in my own arm, with the unyielding pressure of his touch. He speaks with someone I don’t know, or else is talking to himself.
“Shh, Julien. They will hear you!” But he has no answer, because my words come out as another pitched whistle of air.
When I wake next, it is with a desperate thirst burning my throat. I am still flat on the ground. The warmth of Julien sitting close permeates the leaves he has heaped over our bodies. It is quiet. A pair of tubes runs between our arms. Vibrating gently with our hearts, one darker than the other. The bright one pulls hydrated life from Julien into me, and the other pushes dull purple sludge back into him. Julien’s warmth, the tubing coils, they remind me of when we were children. A slow drain of resources, and Mother standing above at a great distance. Her face pinched with discontent, flicking the fluid bags with a fingernail to check their progress. Always so unhappy. Like a dream, the boy that was Julien coalesces from swirls of memory. Dark circles under his eyes, yet vibrant. Arms and head thrown back against my nightmares, he is fierce and bold and is saving me.
I jerk awake again. The irony of life, when I always want to protect him.
“No,” I tell him, now. Does his sharing blood make us both strong, or both weak? “You need this.”
Webs of gauze catch my right arm. I force it to bend by crawling my fingertips toward my left side. They are the hands of a stranger. Caked with layers of dirt and blood. Nothing clean, here. Above my wrist is a line of skin where the muck was wiped clean. It disappears underneath the bandages. Where did he get a medical kit?
“Sister,” he says.
My fingers spider-creep, reaching the tape over the transfusion needles. One more moment and I should be able to tug it free. Each time I move my fingers to pinch, they slide away instead of grasping. Julien presses my wandering hand, squishing out the shape.
“You will die,” he says simply. “I need you here with me. This is what we are made for, anyway. I am very good at it. The best, actually.”
“Ah, Julien,” his name feels good on my lips. It overpowers the acrid taste of smog. He is right. Ignoring every evil thing, at the most simple, we were made to heal. Made to share ourselves. Maybe this would be celebrated, desired even, if it were by choice. I look at the golden boy. Warmth spreads from our shared transfusion.
“Better than me?” I ask, holding back the nightmares with teasing.
He only gives me half a smile. “Time will tell. And the air is bad.”
He is right, of course. I should heal myself, except for the amount of damage combined with breathable toxin. Aggregate specializes donors for accelerated results. I recover quickly for repeated harvesting, and minimal industry financial burden. Designed to withstand pain and human interventions. To adapt to missing pieces and process high infection loads without hospital resources. This allows Aggregate to conserve funding from medications or supplies on donor use, and sell them instead.
For anyone who is not a donor, I am the cure for their illness. It is my body that churns out healing serums, my harvested tissues that strengthen, my cells that destroy malignancy. Over and over, my body is used and used up. Made to repair itself.
My taker knows exactly how much I can handle before breaking. He always watches, prodding wound sites to increase resolve and force stress adaptation. There are many caretakers who have this job, but he was the primary on my floor. Assigned to me, alone. They are human machines, too, I suppose. Excellent at enclosing my world into the planes of his face. At punishing me when I fail him. Always there after procedures, for all the other donors on my floor. When we shook with exhaustion. With one hand, my taker cooled my forehead, and the other made trails of fire where the tubes connected. Tugging at needles and IVs.
Caretakers are the perfect balance to lead all donor sheep into the fold for shearing. Even wanting it, because the pain provides our only human contact. My heart beats faster when I see him, from fear or excitement. To a starved mind, takers are not just clinical, they become a craving. Their touch is a caress, a sign of love or affection. Their hands are gentle, strong, not calloused from labor. Their skin grows soft for our sensitive nerves. I am sure the Aggregate calculated these details, data gathered from each failure. Isolating us, until caretakers are the only warmth in our hard plastic world.
Did I beg, like the others? I could hear them, when night came to Floor Three. Sobs escaping along with the tears, just audible over the whir of recyclers. Takers allowed one moment of sound, not more. Sprinkled between rooms, they quickly, gently suffocate any prolonged noise. Calm, not rushed in their movements. Sure and calm. And quiet.
I am sure they revived all those punished. Aggregate designed us to be resilient. Quite the technique--when the body starves for oxygen, any sharp pain from one silly bone extraction dulls immediately. He trained me well. I was the best on my floor, too.
How many donors escaped mental chains, before Aggregate founded their perfect system? Now, they pair each floor of donors with takers designed to apply a persuasive obligation. How quickly did I trust my taker, how easily did I learn to devour sickness and hurt because he asked? Strong, symmetrical face to relax our minds. Yielding all the markers of balance and good health.
Caretakers are excellent jailers, so integral to Aggregate’s living products. My taker knows everything about me, about my body. Is that enough to conquer me? Just the right amount of broken machinery to my system. A slow dying that will leave Julien starving and alone and desperate to return to his own floor.
Fear sparks life into me. “Promise,” I ask him again. When I try to sit up, he levers a forearm over my neck.
“Stop moving,” he says. His eyes search the woods and he continues in a whisper. “I am concerned about your lungs. Too much filtration required for the healing. Your internal resources spread too thin, even with switching our blood. Cycling out the impurities. I am afraid your progress is not good. And I need you to recover. I will wake you when it is time to go.”
I slide to a twilight world, a meditation place. Only, “Go where?”
“Away from the Aggregate.”
For years I constructed this one goal, escape. And now that I have it, what am I left with? The doubt sewn into me with each harvest. The flighty, little thought that I am not enough. Alone, I am not enough. I need the Aggregate to be whole. I need the direction and clarity offered by my taker. Don’t I?