Sione could tell the wind was blowing. Through his classroom window, he could see the thick band of vegetation marking the perimeter. The aspens, each exactly the same height, shape and shade, glittered and sent beads of light dancing along the manicured grass surrounding their trunks.
He slipped from the room, sliding his hand up under his shirt to detatch the tube from the medication shunt imbedded in his side between the bottom two ribs. Carefully he worked his way along the hall into the shadowy corner by the school’s sanitation facility.
There in the floor was a circular door with seven buttons on it. He reached down and punched in a code. He held up his left arm. The bracelet was surgically implanted, running through a centimeter-length of skin just under his palm. He couldn’t remove it without giving himself a scar. And he was pretty sure they’d leave it—the scar—as punishment. He tapped another code into the buttons that ran along the top of the bracelet—a hack he’d made up. Before the shunt, he’d been brilliant at working with processors.
He opened the portal and dropped into the small shaft, wiggling quickly and silently, snakelike. He wormed his way down, using his elbows and knees, until he came to the horizontal bend just before a screen-covered door at the end. He edged the screen out of the frame, reached down, and walked the rest of his body out, palms in the cool, tickling grass. He squinted in the blinding sunlight.
The breeze was strong. He closed his eyes, feeling its brush against his skin—so different from anything inside, so completely unpredictable. This wind was everything all at once. It was like the colors he could see right now in his mind, like his un-medicated thoughts racing ahead and branching off in a hundred directions.
He paused a moment before reentering the classroom. When he saw nobody was paying particular attention to the doorway, he walked through.
He flinched. She was standing right there, right next to the door. She had been waiting for him. “My legs got restless,” he said. “I just took a short walk.”
“We might need to up your dose…” Senior Tavares started, then stopped as she looked at the medication tube dangling down against his pant leg.
“It came out.”
She sighed, and the sternness in her face faded to sadness and resignation. “I’m sorry, Sione, this has happened too many times. I need to call your parents.”
“The shunt’s obviously not working for you.”
“But Mama, the specialists said I wasn’t ready. My skin’s too young, and I might scar.” Cold sweat had broken out onSione’s palms and upper lip.
“It’s for your own good. I’ve talked it over with the Compound Father, and he insists that you get the procedure tomorrow. Your safety is not something we are willing to risk.”
“I am willing to risk it.”
“But your judgment’s impaired.”
“The Father’s convinced you of that. He wants to put me away. A scar will be his excuse, Mama. He’s ready to be done with me and go on without the baggage of a non-medianized son.”
Mama’s face paled. “Don’t ever speak against the Father like that again,” she said quietly. “You go in to the specialist for surgery tomorrow. They are going to try to go through the back of your skull so that if there is a scar, your hair will cover it.”
“What if the scar makes it so my hair doesn’t grow back?”
She let out a deep gust of air and closed her eyes tightly for a moment, pressing her fingertips to her temples. Sioneknew that meant it was time to stop asking questions.
He lay in his bed after she left, thinking. Images flashed rapidly through his mind: the diagram of the surgery when they’d first presented it to him three years ago; a little pump implanted directly into his frontal lobe, just above the pituitary. Meant to help him focus, they said.
Meant to make him….
He was out of bed before he even thought. He didn’t even try and stay quiet; he ran down the hall.
“Sione?” His mother’s tired voice echoed down the corridor.
“Toilet,” he gasped. “Sorry I woke you.”
He stood in the sanitary room, panting. All he could focus on was the circular covering on the portal in the floor. He’d never used it before because he worried that if he were caught it would get his mother in trouble.
He knelt on the smooth stained concrete and pressed the square buttons, one after the other, in the pattern he’d seen the repairman use once. He had no idea where this shaft went. All he knew was it went out. All the sanitation shafts lead out. And that’s where he needed to go, and quickly.
He used his knees and elbows to lower himself down the pipe. It met a giant tunnel he could stand and walk in, which ended in a hinged metal gate. He opened it, stepped out, and darted across the perimeter. He didn’t stop to touch any aspens; he ran.
It started to rain. At first he enjoyed it, but then the wind blew up and flung the icy drops hard in his face and against his arms, stinging him. He stopped in a clump of bushes that had a wild, strong smell he couldn’t identify. Sleep, when it came, was deep and full of dreams. Colorful, frightening, absorbing dreams, the kind he’d always had before the shunt.
“Hey.” Something shook him.
Sione opened his eyes. For a moment, the face looking down at him made no sense: eyes slightly uneven, nose slightly crooked. Teeth folding together in the middle instead of lined up perfectly between the lips. But there was something that kept him looking, something substantial about it. It was like the scent of the bush he slept under—wild and provoking, stirring his emotions and thoughts.
“Did you get lost?” A girl, Sione realized from her voice.
“Uh… yeah,” Sione replied, sitting up carefully. “I’m Sione. Who are you?”
She stood. “You must be new to the company, because I don’t recognize you or your name. But then, I’m new, too. Rachel. Why are you this far out? I’m only out here to find mullein and sage—the midwife couldn’t find any by camp.”
Sione shook his head. “I…” he didn’t even try to finish.
“Well, we’d better head back.”
Sione began trotting after her because he couldn’t think of a better option. What did he plan to do out here all on his own? He definitely hadn’t thought things through enough.
“What is it?” Sione asked. The words weren’t enough to convey his astonishment at the view as they descended into the valley: the mass of people and tents; the giant, strangely-shaped vehicles clustered around the river. It was a city—a mobile city. One of the taller wheeled buildings had a spire rising above it, with a statue. He put his hand up to block the bronze glare coming off it. Was he seeing things, now?
“The company, of course,” Rachel answered. “We’re the fifteenth stake….” Her expression changed from confusion to recognition, to worry. “You’re not from the company at all, are you?”
Sione shook his head.
Rachel reached out and edged down his left cuff. She groaned when she saw the bracelet there. “A runaway. Well, first thing is you’ll have to take this off.” She whipped a short- bladed knife from her pocket.
“No!” Sione gasped. “I’ve disabled it. I mean, there’s still a weak signal but it’d be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Reluctantly, she put the knife away. “I don’t know if that’ll fly. I’ll take you to Bishop Diamond, and we’ll see what he says.” She squinted at him. “You’re positive you… that you’re…” When Sione didn’t answer, she shrugged, rolled her eyes, and gestured for him to follow her.
As they walked down into the mess of people and wheeled buildings that choked the river valley, Sione felt like he was in some kind of story. Like the books he’d read as a child about mythical creatures and vengeful gods, only more fantastic. The people were all so abstract—strangely uneven features, long hair on some of the women. Facial hair on the men! He had read about such things, but never seen them in real life.
“Come on,” Rachel chided him as he paused. “Plenty of time to look around later. We’ve got to make sure about that bracelet.”
They boarded a vehicle encased entirely in some clear material. Sione followed Rachel up the stairs and then stopped, astonished, as they entered what seemed to be a jungle—trees, bushes, the floor covered with small green plants. He recognized lettuce and tomatoes and corn, fruit trees and many other things, though they were irregular—all different sizes and odd shapes.
“Hello, Rachel,” a man said, looking up from his work at a table where tiny green plants were growing in little pots. He nodded at Sione. “And who is this?”
“This is Sione. Sione, this is Bishop Diamond.”
Sione couldn’t help but stare at the tuft of hair in the middle of the man’s face—moustache, Sione remembered from his books.
“He’s from the compound,” Rachel explained.
Bishop Diamond nodded. “When did you leave?”
“You’re still wearing the bracelet.”
“I’ve mostly disabled it—they’d never be able to track the signal that’s left.”
“And you want to stay with us?”
Sione shrugged. “I don’t really know.”
Bishop Diamond nodded again. “Let me show you around.”
They looked at all the different plants. Bishop Diamond told him what they were for—food, herbs for flavoring, medicines—and let him taste an apple. It was odd, but good. Oddly good—a mix of tastes; sour and sweet and bitter peel all in one bite, completely different from the perfect sweetness of the apples back at the compound.
“So,” Bishop Diamond said when they’d been through the whole thing. “Why have you run away?”
Hesitantly, Sione explained about the operation.
“Medianized,” Bishop Diamond murmured.
Sione frowned. “You say it like it’s a bad thing.”
“God made us in his image, Sione.”
“Then God’s imperfect. That’s not true.”
“Yes, well, who decides what is perfect?” When Sione didn’t answer, Bishop Diamond smiled. “You are welcome here, either as a passenger to another perimeter, where you can be quickly sent back home, or as a permanent member of our company. But,” he nodded at Sione’s wrist, “It would be an invitation for the government to interfere if they suspected we’d kidnapped a minor child from the compound. And however slight, the possibility they could track the signal on your disabled bracelet is a risk I can’t allow. I hope you understand that. If you stay, it has to go.”
Sione felt like he couldn’t quite draw a breath. “I don’t know the way back.”
“Rachel can take you.”
“I don’t want the operation.” Fear was making his mind buzz, stirring the maelstrom of colors.
“It’s your decision, Sione. But know that if you’re here, you don’t have to worry about being medianized.”
Sione turned and looked at Rachel. She gave him a half-smile that bared her crooked upper teeth. It stirred something inside Sione; mixed emotions like the taste of the apples. It felt real. It tasted real.
Sione shut his eyes, grasped the top of the bracelet and brought it up over his hand. Rachel gasped and reached out, but before she could stop him he jerked the device out of his flesh. He handed it to Bishop Diamond, drips of blood running down his arm.
“It’ll leave a scar,” Rachel said, pressing her sleeve to his wound, sending a sear of pain through his wrist.
“I know,” Sione whispered.