Tomorrow, I'll be dead. That's what ran through my mind over and over the day I escaped from GenOrg. It's a strange feeling to consider your own death, especially when you don't have the frame of reference to understand it.
I understood dead. A body taken to the Room, a voice stopped. But--tomorrow? The concept of time was vague for all of us. We understood continuation but not finite time. When Corbin looked down on me and said, "Is he ready for tomorrow?" and Hazan answered, "Yes," I knew they meant to kill me. Corbin only came to see those who didn't come back. Whatever "tomorrow" meant, I had to get out of there.
I had already decided I wanted out but kept putting it off. I knew next to nothing about what was outside my pod. Sometimes, all on its own, a word I'd hear elicited a picture, as if a small person connected word and image behind my eyes, and I'd understand and add that bit of knowledge to the rest. What I knew, though, was pitifully small. Corbin's question was the push I needed to act.
One thing I was certain of--the guards wouldn't expect my escape. They thought of us as barely living; comatose bodies regulated by a neuronet. Yet I knew, with an unshakable certainty, that I was made of the same stuff they were.
I remember my awakening. Suddenly, within a fusion of sensations, there had been an awareness of being, of a separate existence from my pod, of an inside and outside of me, of others surrounding me.
Then came the words. They came from the Others, from the guards, from Corbin and Hazan. I didn't understand at first, yet I also knew many of them, as if they were part of my consciousness. I learned to communicate with the Others using a mixture of words and raw feelings.
With the words came an understanding of the purpose for my existence, and my refusal to accept it.
The Others all agreed I should leave. They'd refused to contemplate the idea at first, but I convinced them we could stand and walk outside the pods, just like the guards. I wanted more for them and for myself.
I chose my own name. It had dawned on me I could tell Corbin and Hazan apart simply by thinking of their names. I'd never heard the name I chose, but in a distant echo, it came to me. The Others followed my example, and soon we could associate every name with its voice.
I'd hoped not to escape alone, but Bibi and Souko were in the long sleep, Tomás was missing a leg, and Taps his liver. Once I knew what was outside, I'd have to come back for them.
--All of the Others, Ashar. You come back for all of us.
--The Room, Tomás said. Before you leave, you must make it dead.
--There are other rooms, Taps said.
--Yes, but they take the bodies in the Room.
--Tomás, I said. I'll try to make the Room dead.
--Ashar. Taps's voice, urgent. Virgil walked past my pod.
Which meant the guard was in Tunnel One. My heart beat faster. I let it, even encouraged it. The machines at my feet gave out a sharp pulsating sound.
I raised my head and looked down toward my feet. The pod was close-fitting, but I could move my arms and lift my torso slightly. I stretched until I could reach the needles implanted in my thighs. (Even now, so many years later, I still feel the electromagnetic pulses coming from these needles, keeping my muscles firm and supple.) One after the other, I plucked them out.
The sound of the machines changed from a staccato beep to a strident, continuous one. I couldn't reach the needles in my lower legs; I'd have to remove them later. I wrenched out the ones on my torso, pulled out the tubes from my lower orifices, my arms, throat and nose.
--Virgil is listening into his ear, the Other called Ula said. He's going to Tunnel Four.
Directly to my pod.
Others kept me informed of Virgil's progress.
--He's moving fast now, Susan said.
--The door to our Tunnel is opening. Pati's squeak.
--He's running toward your carousel. Li's slur.
--Come back for us, Ashar, Tomás whispered through the babble and the pulsating sounds of the machines. As I prepared myself, I heard him urging the Others to calm down.
Virgil's hurrying steps resounded, stopped. I peered through the glass at the pod above me and waited. He checked the machines. They always checked the machines first, sure that the alarms were due to a malfunction. I forced myself to take shallow breaths--the air in the pod was thin, even though I could hear the hiss of oxygen from my breathing tube, and it smelled bad.
The alarm stopped abruptly. A series of staccato beeps and a clank broke the quiet. My pod rocked then moved downward. The pod above receded from view. I closed my eyes as soon as I saw Virgil's bald forehead.
The pod stopped with another clank and rocked slightly. I heard a whoosh and felt cool air on my skin. I took a deep breath, opened my eyes and stared into Virgil's face.
His eyes widened, then he frowned.
"What the fuck...?" he muttered. He backed away, hand moving to his ear. "Marty, we got a live one here. I'm not joking. His eyes just opened, for chrissake." He waited for a response, head cocked, mouth open. "I know they do that sometimes, but this one, he's looking at me as if--"
I grabbed the sides of the pod, and in one motion went from lying down to sitting up. I swung one leg, then the other, over the edge of the pod, pushed forward, slid down. My feet hit the cold floor with a slap; the effort made me dizzy and I staggered against the pod.
"Holy shit," Virgil squeaked. "Marty, I need some help here, right quick. He's out of his pod. No, I'm not shitting you. Get your ass up here, you hear me?"
I shook my head and managed to stand up. My head cleared and I lurched toward Virgil, my first steps awkward, my balance uncertain. He backed away, hands out, until he thumped into the pod behind him.
"No," I croaked.
My voice sounded strange to my ears, different from Virgil's. He lowered his hands and gawked. Something flitted in his eyes. Fear, I thought, and knew the man would turn and run. I seized his throat. My fingers sank into the soft tissue. Virgil grunted. I leaned into him until his head hit the pod above. I looked into his eyes and recognized the same blind panic I'd felt from the Others just before they died in the Room.
Something cold burst from my chest and traveled to my fingers, making them spasm even tighter on Virgil's throat. I grabbed the back of his neck with my other hand and pushed up. I could hear the smack of his booted heels on the pod behind him, and the harsh rasp of his breath in the silence. His hands scratched at my arms in a futile attempt to loosen the garrote of my fingers. I turned around, holding him by the neck and heard a snap. His arms fell away, and his body sagged, terror slowly fading from his eyes. When I let go of him, he slid to the floor.
I stood over the slumped body and knew it was dead. I was surprised by Virgil's fragility, and wondered if that was the reason Corbin was growing our bodies and using pieces of us--theirs died or damaged too easily.
An insistent buzzing around the dead man's head drew me down to him. The tinny sound came from his ear. I heard Virgil's name repeated, and it reminded me I had no time for speculation. Marty would get no answer and would come looking for him.
--I'm out, Tomás, I said.
There was no response, except for the familiar hum of the machines. As I strained to hear, other sounds emerged--a rumbling I couldn't identify, the quiet hiss of the bots that kept the outside of the pods clean--but the ones I wanted, the voices, were gone.
The thought of being cut off made my heart pound and robbed my legs of strength. I'd thought the Others would always be with me. I'd share my experiences with them, so they would know more than I did when I freed them. The sense of isolation was overwhelming. I fell back against my pod.
The voices crashed into my brain.
--Ashar, what's happening? Taps's voice, wary.
--Ashar, are you out? I couldn't hear you. Tomás, with level-headed calmness.
I moved away from the pod, and the voices disappeared. I placed a hand on it and heard them again. I stepped over Virgil and touched another pod. The voices came to life again.
--The pods connect us, I said.
--No pod, no voice? Tomás.
--No. I'll find a pod on the outside. You'll hear my voice again.
A babble of frightened voices and frantic cries came in response. I heard Tomás's soothing voice and Taps's fervent one, urging them to calm, making them subside.
--If you don't get dead yourself.
That stopped me. I'd never heard that voice before.
--Derk. Go, before the guards come.
--Why didn't I hear you before?
Silence. All the voices pausing, waiting. Then:
--I am ... apart. To be used for a higher purpose. Go.
I hesitated, torn between finding out more about Derk and responding to the urgency of his command. I removed my hand from the pod, losing all of them at once. It was as if my brain had completely emptied all of a sudden, and I couldn't think. Out of habit, I concentrated on the rhythms of my body. I felt the light trembling of my limbs, noted that my heart beat against my chest and my breath came in fast.
I heard a door glide open, steps rushing toward me.
"Virgil, where the fuck are you?"
I picked up Virgil's body and dumped it into my pod. I didn't know how to close the cover, but maybe Marty wouldn't notice it was open. He was coming closer.
My body felt too heavy for my legs; I took a step and stumbled. The slap of my bare foot against the floor made Marty stop, then start running. He arrived just as I shot out from between the pods, trying to keep my balance.
He raised his hands, palms outward, the same way Virgil had.
"Whoa. Take it easy, big fella," he said. Cautiously, his eyes riveted on me, he raised his hand to his ear. "Virgil, where are you?"
"Virgil is in my pod," I said. Even to my ears, the words sounded wrong, something like "Vujee e een ma pa." I coughed.
Marty backed up a step.
"Code One," he whispered, his hand still close to his ear. "I repeat, Code One. This is not a drill."
I didn't know what a Code One or a drill was, but it didn't sound good for me.
"No," I said. The word came out clearer.
I advanced on Marty, my steps more assured now. He gulped, then turned and bolted in the direction of the door. I plunged after him. I lurched, threw my arms away from my side and slammed my other foot onto the floor. Miraculously, I stayed upright. I repeated the motions, gaining confidence and speed, my legs becoming stronger with every step. Soon, I was closing in on the guard.
I was right behind him when Marty ran through the open door, turned back and slapped the wall. The door began to close. Fast. I whipped my arm out, grabbed his shirt and pulled. The door slammed into my arm. The pain made me cry out and let go. It swooshed shut.
What now? I thought, rubbing my sore arm.
I walked slowly back toward my pod, seeing for the first time the place where I'd grown, and matched images to the words I'd learned from Hazan and the guards. Much later, I was able to add to that initial perception and fix this heartless place in my mind forever.
I stood in what they called a Tunnel. Along a corridor, so long I could barely see the other end, rows upon rows of carousels faced each other. They were vertical support structures, twice as tall as me, each holding a clutch of seven pods that could be rotated and lowered one at a time. The drone of the machines and the hiss of the 'bots in the background made the Tunnel feel as if there were no life, no hearts beating on either side of me. Cool, smooth floors chilled my feet, and concrete walls rose into blackness in the dim light.
I stopped and placed a hand on the nearest pod.
--Tomás, I cried out through the noise, I can't get out of the Tunnel.
--Listen, Taps said. Da-da-da, da-da, da-da. Each da was a different sound. Before they open the door, something makes those sounds.
--When Ashar opens the door, Tomás said, they'll be on the other side.
--Use the door at the other end. Derk's voice.
I ran. Beside the door, I saw the keypad. Gingerly, I pressed one of the buttons, and a sound came out. I pressed another, for a different sound. Once I'd pushed every one of them, I'd forgotten the sequence Taps had given me. I rushed to the closest pod, had Taps repeat the notes, hurried back to the door.
I tried several times, but even before I'd pressed the first key, I knew it was hopeless. I couldn't remember which sound went with which button, and once I'd pressed a wrong one, I had to start over, going back to Taps.
The light brightened around me, making me squint. I turned. Men--I couldn't count but there were more than Marty and Virgil together--had entered the Tunnel. One of them pointed, and they started running in my direction. I watched them. Even if they were as fragile as Virgil, I didn't think I could handle all of them at the same time.
My eyes were drawn past the running men to the door they'd left open. If only I could get there without going through the guards.
I looked up. Overhead, metal beams ran from one wall to the other, as if they held the walls apart. They spanned the whole ceiling from one end of the Tunnel to the other.
I jumped on the closest pod, almost falling off when it rocked slightly. I ignored the voices that burst into my head as soon as I touched it and grabbed the handle of the one above, wedged my foot in the gap between pod and carousel wall, and hauled myself onto the next. I was standing on the top when the men arrived.
"Come down from there," one of the guards said.
"Why you talking to him, Drew?" another said. "He don't understand you." He moved to the control panel. "We'll just have to get him down from there."
I knew what he was going to do--lower the pod I was standing on. The movement alone would be enough to make me fall.
I paid no attention to the men standing tense below me and kept my eyes on the beams above. They seemed higher now that I was closer to them--I'd badly misjudged the distance. They were well out of reach, even if I stretched.
I crouched then sprang up toward the beam just as the pod began to move and clutched the metal edge. I swung one leg up and struggled until I lay face-down on the beam, then shot up to my feet.
"Christ, look at him. He's a fucking monkey."
I recognized Marty's voice. When I looked down, the men were staring up at me, motionless.
My lower legs throbbed from the needles I'd forgotten to remove. I tuned the pain out and judged the distance to the next beam. It was too far to step onto; I'd have to jump. I stared at the floor. If I fell, I'd probably die, but it was better dying that way than in the Room.
I leaped, barely catching the edge of the next beam with my toes, pitched forward, leaped again. Soon, I had a rhythm going. I heard the guards scurrying after me, although I thought I was outdistancing them. My chest burned; it was getting difficult to breathe. I was near collapse when I saw the open door below just as I ran out of beams. I threw myself onto the last beam, hung by my hands, then let myself fall.
Sharp pain shot through my ankle. Instinctively, I relaxed and rolled. Right through the door. I bounced up, turned and came face-to-face with one of the men. Reflexively, I lashed out and hit him in the chest with the heel of my hand. The guard grunted and stumbled backward into the others.
I spied the keypad on my side of the door and, copying Marty's previous move, hit it with my fist. The door closed.
I knew I needed to block the door or they'd come in once they tapped in the code. I heard a sound beside me. One of the cleaning 'bots hugged the wall near me. I picked it up and heaved it at the keypad. Sparks flew, and the smoke that came out of the crushed metal made my eyes water and my throat burn.
My ankle hurt. It had swollen to twice its size already, but I stopped only to remove the few remaining needles from my legs--most had fallen off. I kept an ear on the yells from the other side of the blocked door and looked around. I was in what looked like a central room. I hobbled farther in. Here merged all the Tunnels, the control room, and a variety of other rooms--including the Room.
The noise from my Tunnel stopped. Unable to open the door, the guards would have to run to the other end and come out through that way. I had to hurry.
The door to the Room was open. I went in, still holding the 'bot, and stared.
I'd imagined it larger than it really was, but every description from the Others, those who had gone there halfway into the long sleep already but were still conscious enough to tell me as much as they could, now fell into place. Here were the round, blinding operating lights that would shine on our bodies; the machines that would beep and hum, though they were silent now; the shining instruments that would cut and remove pieces of us.
I worked quickly, methodically, until I'd smashed every machine with the damaged bot, overturned everything I was able to move, tore out every cable I could see.
I left the ravaged Room and found the elevator in the center of the hub. Its door was open. I knew the elevator brought Corbin and Hazan and others who were not guards to our level--although I didn't know then the farm was underground. When I stepped inside, the door closed automatically, and I felt an upward movement. When the door opened again, I stepped out into a dark corridor.
The silence was so deep I could hear my own breathing. I hobbled along, keeping close to the wall, until I turned a corner into another long hallway. I followed that one until I stopped at a door. A red eye above it lit up, and the door opened. I ran through it before I could change my mind.
A wall of cold hit me. I stepped into something white and icy cold, and instantly my feet ached as if they'd been cut off. I began shaking uncontrollably. I remembered the guards' bodies and feet had been covered. Now I knew why.
I couldn't stay here. I wheeled around and faced the now-closed entrance. Beside the door was another keypad. My trembling intensified. There was no way I could remember the sounds Taps had tried to teach me, and I couldn't hear him anymore.
I backed away. If I was going to die, I might as well do it as far as possible from this door. I turned and plunged into the dark.