The Slaving Tree
By Ben Bartee - January 16, 2024

Originally published via Armageddon Prose:

A children’s story:

“12.50 DCU/Gram,” read the neon sign hung on the façade of Hair Harvesting Facility #179. “25 Grams Minimum.”

The prices changed daily with the market, and one had to play the casino game to squeeze every bit of sustenance out of the numbers as one could — at least people like Alice did.

Most laws had remained in a state of Kafkaesque flux in the past decade, but supply and demand, in its own twisted way, still governed the economy.

Alice added the inputs into her forehead implant. It calculated: 12.50 x 30 grams (she estimated based on her last pruning) = 375 DCU (digital currency units).

375 doesn’t get me much, she thought.

The official ration rate of the day was 140.8 calories per DCU, granted at the HHS distribution center near her tenement. Prompted, her implant spat out another response: 52,800.

Alice had learned through hard trial and error that she and Bella could scrape by on a combined 2,400 calories a day — for a spell, at least. It would draw their ribs in something fierce, but they might live.

52,800 calories, then, would be good for 22 days, per her implant.

If she took her DCU to the black market, she thought, where the rates were a bit better, they might eek out a few extra rations, maybe 25 days.

“I have nothing to eat,” Alice pleaded with the motionless android staffing Hair Harvesting Facility #179. “You can take my hair.”

“Head on the extractor,” was the only reply.

And the machines weren’t happy, but they might have been if they were capable of feeling anything at all.

Later that day, as the sun set, Alice trudged to her quarters to bring back the bounty to split with Bella: mealworm protein and a kilo bag of rice so old and so moist from storage that green mold had colonized the bottom.

A month’s-worth of hot summer days came and went. The DCU from her last hair-pruning lasted her and Bella a bit longer than expected, as they both made trips in the early mornings to the plasma clinic every other week in the interim.

One didn’t receive much for the plasma — 59 DCU/700mL was the going rate, though it fluctuated minimally from day to day — and Bella had learned the hard way that plasma extraction more often than every ten days or so would spell trouble. In a pinch, however, a quick trip to one of the Plasma Stations conveniently located throughout the district could get her by.

So she took a walk, though she was immensely exhausted as always, living on sub-subsistence-level caloric intake.

“I have nothing to eat,” Alice informed the android — indistinguishable in appearance, with the exception of the gold and red insignia on its lapel, from the one at Hair Harvesting Facility #179. “You can take my plasma,” she pleaded.

“Arm in the needler,” came the boilerplate response, the exact one given to the disheveled wretch in line before Alice. (“The needler” being universal parlance for the plasma extraction platform, a tool industrial and merciless in its precise capacity to ferry plasma away from the donor’s blood vessels and into the enormous warehousing facility in the back, to be done what with no one was quite sure, least of all people like Alice.)

And the machines weren’t happy, but they might have been if they were capable of feeling anything at all.

As she trudged home with her mealworm protein and musty rice in tow, an overwhelming but hopelessly distant memory — as if it were from a different universe — overcame her. It was Sunday evening in Toledo, Ohio, her hometown that had long since been demolished. On the table, where she, her mother, father, and sister were seated and next to which stood in eager anticipation her beloved Lhasa Apso Snowcone — pets were outlawed years ago as decadent and unnecessary consumers of carbon — lay a magnificent spread of mashed potatoes laden with garlic and butter, smoked ham, etc.

The intoxicating aroma passed into her mind as if right in front of her and made her mouth water all those years into the future. When she came back to her senses, the desolation that she carried with her, forevermore, was all the more palpable.

It had been a great long while without any potatoes, let alone ham. Bella, Alice sighed to the street — empty and silent save for an elderly woman bent over in half shuffling home with her own bag of mealworm —might die before ever tasting such delights.

“I have nothing to eat.” Alice pleaded to the unblinking android at Egg Harvesting Facility #502. “Take my eggs.”

“Legs spread on the chair,” came the response as the android injected a sedative concoction into her arm. Everything went black, and when she came to, Alice had a throbbing pain in her groin and 628 DCU transferred into her implant. And she could eat for another short season.

And the machines weren’t happy, but they might have been if they were capable of feeling anything at all.

“I have nothing to eat,” Alice pleaded with the android at Kidney Center #465. “Please, take my kidney.”

Everything once more went black on the sterile operating table. When she came to, Alice had been credited 1,215 DCU — no meager wage, in relative terms, though it came at the cost of an organ — enough to feed herself for another, longer season. Alas, she had another kidney to rely on.

And the machines weren’t happy, but they might have been if they were capable of feeling anything at all.

Three months full of changing leaves and chillier weather later, “I have nothing to eat, and a starving child at home,” Alice pleaded once more at Kidney Center #465 to the same robot (or so she thought; it could just as easily have been a new one, as they all looked the same). “Please, take half of my remaining kidney.”

“Face up on the operating table,” the unfeeling Android instructed.

She came to, this time with 303 DCU to her name and a throbbing pain in her abdomen.

And the machines weren’t happy, but they might have been if they were capable of feeling anything at all.


Alice’s eggs had been sucked dry. She had half of a kidney left, miserable and overtaxed and failing. The handful of DCUs for her plasma every other week wasn’t cutting the mustard.

She had nothing left to sell — nothing on her or in her that the machines would want to exchange government credit for.

“A loan? It will grow back. I’ll take six DCU a gram. That’s half,” Alice offered, her voice cracking. A solitary dehydrated tear poured down her face.

“No loans,” the plastic android replied curtly.

“I have nothing left to give you,” Alice protested the plastic android face administering Hair Harvesting Facility #179.

Its expression remained static. “Then we can send you for final processing.”

“I’m so tired,” Alice sighed to no one in particular, she being the only living thing around that might relate to the sensation of exhaustion.

“Have a seat on the conveyor belt,” the android instructed after a moment to the machine in the corner — an inconspicuous machine, Alice had noted, of the same sort that existed in all government facilities but which she had never understood the function of.

Alice sat her exhausted, hairless, scarred body on the conveyor belt. It whirred and ferried her slowly into the tunnel on her way to Municipal Biomass Recycling Plant #63. Bella would wonder where she had gone.

And the machines weren’t happy, but they might have been if they were capable of feeling anything at all.

Ben Bartee, author of Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile, is an independent Bangkok-based American journalist with opposable thumbs.

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