A clock hung as guardian above the locked steel door. Each ticking second was a sledgehammer, shattering the darkened silence, slamming against the concrete slabs of the enclosure. He rolled in his bunk toward the wall, away from the contraption at the far end of the room. The metal frame groaned; each sight and sound a reminder of his plight.
21-306 slept furthest from the door, in the bottom bunk. An honor he earned through longevity and nothing more. As more experienced men lost their way, he moved away from the cold steel, and the clock, one bunk at a time.
There were forty men in the room. Sometimes less. When one was removed, Section 21 would be at thirty-nine for a week. Never longer. Then, the new man would arrive, and everyone would shift toward the back wall. Toward the empty mattress.
It was a gift and a curse. In the beginning, though faint, there was hope in the rows of bunks lined to the far wall. The prospect of moving to a new bed was the potential for a future. The last bed was the top of the mountain, something hidden deep in the enclosed space. But, now that he was there, he realized there would be nothing ahead on the horizon. Bunk 40 would be the last mattress on which he would ever lay.
He would die in the last bunk.
His eyes wide, 21-306 stared through the darkness at the imperfections in the wall as the clock counted down the minutes before the new day. There were eight windows on three walls, all reinforced with crossing steel bars. The fourth wall opened to the toilets. Beyond the windows it was dark, but that would change in a few moments in to something much different. Something counterfeit.
For 21-306, the black night was comforting. It was one of the few remaining authenticities in his life. The darkness couldn’t be faked.
The clock’s ticking hands beat against one another, racing toward morning.
He cupped his hands to his ears as the sirens replaced the thundering hands of the clock. The dreadful sound filled the space, bouncing off bare walls and concrete floors. Wailing, screaming alarms. The siren hanging above the world, signaling the beginning of the day. Signaling the work to be done.
Past the bars and steel, the world was bathed in the deceptive glow from above. It was 6:30.
The men stumbled from their bunks, passing one another as strangers. Heads down, eyes closed, feet shuffling. Toilets flushed and steel beds creaked. 21-306 sat, eyes heavy, hands folded in his lap. Hands stained brown in the creases. Red faded to maroon faded to brown. Always brown.
Outside the windows, the fake lights hung from the steel sky. Illuminating the crops. The fields outside the Barracks stretched in the distance, a sprawling expanse of machines and madness. Fields and plants the men were required to tend. Their sole purpose for being.
The reason he was alive.
A lump rose in his throat as he stared at the fields. His heart swelled and ached, though he didn’t push it away on this day. He held tight to the pain, as it forced him to stand and breathe. It was maybe the only thing he had left, like a flash of light in the dark. A single flame.
21-306 shook the flicker of a memory and stood with men that all looked the same, but different from when they first arrived. Men with blank faces and no names. White shirt, green pants, brown shoes. The men in the front bunks were the last to rise with the sirens, but they’d learn that it was to one’s advantage to be ready to work promptly at 6:45.
The men of Section 21 watched as the heavy hands of the clock cracked against thick concrete. There was no talking. They didn’t like it when the men spoke before work. As it was, there was little worth discussing.
The steel door shifted, sliding open to reveal the fields. Row upon row. The men filtered out, 21-306 fourth in line. He stepped from the building, shielding his eyes from the fake day. A familiar odor slipped around him like a blanket. It coated the back of his throat. Like wet copper. The same smell every day, for nineteen years.
He was a child when he was taken to Section 3. He remembered little of the event. It came in flashes while he slept, the outline of his mother’s face, tears streaming across red cheeks. An anguished scream, and then darkness. He pursued the image often in his waking moments but never caught up to it. It never came in to focus.
He couldn’t even remember her name.
He moved through the rows of plants, sometimes never bothering to look at them. Often chasing a memory he’d never catch.
He was a Collector. There were worse jobs, but that didn’t make the work any less horrific. Disposers, Cleaners, Mechanics. Some positions not altogether necessary for a man. As a Collector he was able to maintain a semblance of humanity. A piece of himself that he wouldn’t allow Them to take. He tended the fields and harvested the plants, but he wasn’t cruel.
The wheeze and whine of the machines was white noise in the fields, drowning out the squeak of rubber on metal from his boots. Kshhh-whooo. Kshhh-whooo. Kshhh-whooo. Thousands of them, all in unison. In a few hours, it would fade into the background. Soon, he wouldn’t even notice.
21-306 worked the fields because he had utility. He was not unique when compared with other men, and yet he possessed a particular attribute which earned him favor. He did not have superior strength and his intellect was unremarkable. He was painfully unexceptional in nearly every way, but the steady rush of blood through his veins made him invaluable.
According to the legends, tending to the plants used to be an automated process. Collections, disposals, cleanings. Machines did all the work. Robots poking and prodding and tearing. And entire crops were ruined. Field after field wilted, and They grew impatient.
In Their haste to harvest, They hadn’t understood the impact of human interaction. The importance of contact. Only after years of failures did They introduce the human workers.
Never had the fields flourished like when touched by the hands of men.
And They required the men to call them plants. Never anything else.
He moved through Zone 2, feet sliding against metal. Shuffling forward, always moving. He was designated to Collect for Zones 1 through 6. Each zone needed to be tended twice a day. With fifty plants in each zone, he could spend an average of sixty seconds with each. One minute to collect and move along to the next.
To drain the plants.
He had been a Collector for almost eight years, and had worked to cut his collection time with each to fifty-five seconds so that he could sit longer with one of the plants in Zone 3.
The extra five seconds routinely afforded him almost twenty-five minutes to spend with her.
He’d considered escape, of course. Everyone had. The new men more than anyone. They’d speak in hushed tones under bunks and into pillows. Elaborate plans to pass through the Exclusionary Zone and the Outer Perimeter, drilling through thick steel and bursting into the world. Pipe dreams, all of them.
There was no world beyond the Perimeter.
Whatever once was is no longer. He assumed he had a father. All men must. Yet he had no recollection. Not even the flash of an outline, or the hint of a voice. He had no understanding of his age when he’d been taken, only that he’d been a child. So many years had passed; he knew nothing of the outside world. He only assumed that it had been torn apart, much like his family.
There could be nothing left.
He finished the collections in Zones 1 and 2, and then skipped to 4, 5 and 6. He always saved Zone 3 for last. Saved her for last.
Section 3 was different than Section 21. For children, there was no work. There was only waking and sleep. Growth without existence. He assumed there were other sections that must have housed children as well. Though he dared never ask.
He passed through the fields, rows of plants on either side, his brown boots squeaking wet against steel. Kshhh-whooo. Kshhh-whooo. Kshhh-whooo. He tasted the rust on his tongue; felt it on his skin. Skin turned red beneath his fingernails. Red matted in his arm hair. Red that stained brown as it dried.
He filled containers and turned valves; watched the fluid drain. A quarter pint each. Half a pint per plant per day. His hand always against their skin while they drained. The contact was critical. It was the sole reason for his existence.
21-306 stepped into Zone 3, the collection cart behind him. Always looking at the clock in the sky, always checking the time. He’d gained nearly ten minutes to spend with her. Talking, watching. Touching.
He discovered her after his promotion to Collector. Only after he’d been assigned to Zone 3. For years he had tried not to see the plants for what they were, and had maintained a grip on his sanity because of this willful ignorance.
These men and women, breathing without life. Awake and yet forever asleep. He refused to see them, only concentrating on the work. But, he saw her and she was real. She appeared as though he had awoken from a nightmare; as if the whole of his incarceration never occurred. Her dark hair, dancing eyes. Soft lips pulling and pushing at the air, ever so slightly. It wasn’t intentional, but he couldn’t ignore the sight of her. Of the way she responded to his touch. His hand always below her knee. Always respectful.
Only seven years he’d known her, and yet she had become a part of him. When he spoke, she listened, and though she couldn’t say it, he knew she felt safe when he was near. He protected her.
He stepped through the field with caution, scanning for flaws in the environment. Anomalies were a sign of Their presence. The Captors were camouflaged whenever They appeared. Most often They stayed behind steel panels and black doors. No one had seen one of Them in true form, and yet everyone knew They were there.
His stomach fluttered and his pulse quickened as he turned down each row. She was there, in the distance, fake light bathing her body. He worked to not stare as he collected from the others, lest They catch on. There were many rules for interacting with the plants, and much of what he did could be explained by the duties of his position. Still, nineteen years had taught him that one could never be too cautious.
He had witnessed the repercussions of carelessness. He had known men to let down their guard, and to take missteps.
One eye on the clock, 21-306 watched the seconds tick-tick-tick. He sealed a container, red spilling onto his hands, staining his pants, dripping on his shoes. Metallic red, wet along every surface. Rivers of it, all in little containers. All emptied and filled anew each day.
Truckloads of red.
Never enough blood.
He approached and wrapped his hands around the container so They wouldn’t see. Her eyes danced beneath closed lids, and he set the container below the valve. Nothing peculiar. Nothing out of the ordinary.
This he did with extreme care. To avoid Their wrath.
Her lips no longer blue; cheeks no longer paper-white. Her black hair full, he brushed it from her face. Porcelain skin, eyelids fluttering as she slept. She was exquisite. It was all he could manage to make sure the Cleaners did their job with her and nothing else. Few of them could be trusted.
He exaggerated the effort, his left hand sliding the container beneath the apparatus, elbow twisting a sticky valve. His right hand on her bare leg, below the knee.
He’d named her Sun. During the first years of his imprisonment in Section 21, some of the older men told stories of how the sun had warmed the earth. How it had bathed the world in its magnificent light, giving life to everything it touched. When the men spoke he couldn’t help but think how it must have felt on their skin, how it must have given them air to breathe. How it must have pushed them from their slumber every morning.
He couldn’t remember the sun. The only image was of his mother, screaming, and then darkness. Everything else had been stolen. Despite this, when he finally met his love, he knew her name. She was the light.
The wheeze and whine of the machines faded into the background as he gazed upon her. Nothing untoward. Never inappropriate.
It was forbidden to name the plants. To allow them any shred of humanity. Though he never said her name aloud, he spoke of her often. He told stories of the sun, and how it could fill a man’s soul. He spoke of its beauty and how a man could lay down his life for such a thing. How a man might give everything he had for just one glimpse of the light.
How he would do anything to feel the warmth against his skin.
Her pulse quickened against his finger. Sleeping eyes fluttered, dark lashes dancing. He took it that she was trying to communicate the only way she could. A sign of thanks. Appreciation.
The clock above was unrelenting. As it had just begun, their time together was over. The siren wailed against steel, echoing in his skull. He removed the full container from beneath the valve and pressed on, glancing back at the soft lines of her face as he left.
A slight smile tickled the corners of her mouth.
The collection cart full, he progressed toward the Barracks, and the last bunk. The rows of machines hissed and whooshed as he passed, though he paid the plants no mind. He focused only on her. On the Sun.
And the smile.
The men ate in the same box in which they slept. The meals were odorless and had no taste. Nutrients mixed for optimum performance. Delivered by yet more workers with no names. Men without faces.
21-306 ate in silence, resting his head against the cool concrete wall. He rarely spoke to the other men, only offering encouragement or criticism when warranted. When he thought it might make a difference. When he figured it may save a life.
And, he spoke of the sun.
The sounds of hushed conversation bounced against the walls around him. Mostly this was from the new workers. Those in the first few rows of bunks. These men often spoke with force, their voices crisp and hopeful. Over time, this would change, something weathered and worn. Soon, they would not even recognize the sounds as their own; how work in the fields would steal a man’s voice. How it could take everything.
He remembered missing his mother. When he was a child, in Section 3, he remembered crying for her to come and steal him from this awful place. Tears that seemed to flow freely and uninterrupted. He remembered hoping for an escape, to one day see her again. To hear her voice and to remember her name. That hope had long ago faded, and over time the tears dried. He forced himself to forget, and to let go of hope.
He’d only recently stopped taking her blood. After great deliberation. He’d begun rotating the plants from which he drained more than a quarter of a pint. Almost always men. Male plants. And he only took a bit from each. Just enough to equal an extra quarter of a pint each shift.
Enough so that he didn’t have to drain her. Enough so he could place a full container beneath her valve.
The change in her came quickly. Lips full and dark. Skin soft and warm; no longer clammy and cold. She was waking from a deep slumber, though never fully present.
The siren echoed against the steel outside the windows. The meal was over. Once outside he rushed through each zone, eyes scanning the fields while his heart raced in his chest. That smile. That recognition of his presence. Maybe, after seven years, she was responding.
Perhaps, she sensed his love.
His hands worked with speed, red splashing his clothes and dripping to the steel floor. Red flowing over his arms and between his fingers. Red, bright and thick and viscous.
He pulled the collection cart through Zone 3 and stared across at her while he worked with the others. Arms burning and chest heaving, he twisted valves and held legs. Men, women, children.
He filled containers and moved through rows, rushing with the others as he glanced up at the clock high in the sky. By the time he reached her, he had forty minutes to spare. Forty minutes to spend with his love.
An eternity by comparison.
The air hitched in his chest and his stomach tightened as he approached. Her dreaming eyes swam beneath closed lids and her rose cheeks twitched, though the smile had vanished. He waited, and pleaded without words. He stood and watched. And held her leg.
Her skin was warm beneath his fingers and her pulse raced up his arm and filled his chest. The night-black hair was curled at her neck, and her heart beat in time with his. He watched her sleep and was patient. He would wait for that smile again. As long as it took.
He would stand beside her forever if she wished.
The clock in the sky counted down the minutes, racing toward the darkness. Always too fast. Never enough time.
Perhaps it was the smile. Or the thoughts of the warm sun against his face. Perhaps he ran out of strength. No matter the reason, he knelt and breathed her deep, stroking a strand of her hair with trembling fingers. He whispered his love, and he knew she could hear.
Standing, 21-306 wiped a tear from his cheek. As he turned to leave, he reached beneath the apparatus for the full container, but it was gone. In his rush to be with her he’d forgotten the charade. He forgot to drain her for Their watching eyes.
His heart shattered in his chest.
The alarm sounded. A piercing cry. He looked back to her as he walked away on weak knees, his palms moist and his breathing strained. He pushed the collection cart and his pulse raced. No smile chased after him as it had before. This time something dark fell across her. Her face contorted in a grimace.
His failure was complete.
He squeezed his eyes closed and whispered his silent remorse. Walking away, he was distinctly aware that he’d never get to see the light. He’d never touch the sun.
They came for him that night.
Kshhh-whooo. Kshhh-whooo. Kshhh-whooo. Thousands of machines hissed in the night. Steady, rhythmic.
This was true darkness. This was not synthetic.
The poison pulsed in his veins, a fire spreading through his body, flames tearing at his skin. His eyes were open, though he could not see. His lungs at work, though he could not breathe. His heart beating, though he could not live.
A siren silenced the hiss of the machines, if only briefly. The alarm wailed as the artificial sun rose in the sky, signaling the work to be done. Cleaning and Collecting and Disposing. Turning valves and filling containers. Draining the plants.
Harvesting his blood. Far off, rising above the wheeze and whine of the machines, a woman screamed; her cries echoing about the cold steel of the world.