As much as I despise acknowledging stereotypes, arrogance is a greater sin in my eyes. Ignoring my own character would be the equivalent of shooting myself in the foot and throwing my body into the streets. Not only would I be vulnerable, but I would be at a disadvantage. The only way to stay alive in this profession is to know how to blend in, and if you stand out, you need to find ways of quieting your appearance or nature. But instead of characterizing my disposition as “quiet”, I truly aim to be transparent. A highly desirable skill sought out by my employers and the few candidates that so far have survived. While many chose black or navy clothes, I picked only grays, to match my dusty colored hair and the wall paint of the building. If you are not searching for me directly, you would never see me, a fact I am quite proud of.
The two men behind me walked at an even, calculated pace, void of hesitations. Like machines set to a code, they did not need to speak in order to show me where to go. Instead they used a long metal rod to jab my shoulders in the right directions. Their faces were blank but I knew they were getting some sick pleasure digging it into my skin if I walked too slow. Probably hoping that I resist so they can use the rod for its true purpose, inflicting blunt force.
After being pulled from my room I was pushed down the left hall, taking random turns before we came to a thick, windowless steel door.There were no signs that properly marked it as an exit, but I had gone through it once before. I have managed to block out the major events of that day, but I remember standing in front of that steel door. And how lucky I felt being to come back through it outside of a body bag. As we approached the door I felt inclined to raise a hand and greet it like an old friend, but I didn’t. It sat numb by my side.
I am not sure if in any other outcome I could have grown differently or have been gifted with another life. If I could allow my mind to wander, I would like to imagine different lives for myself. A calm life in the country with a large family, or maybe a small apartment life in the city. I would attend school and plan a course for my future. Maybe I would get into college and get a degree, start a family. But that is not reality and therefore it is useless to think about. My life was chosen for me and I can not fight that now, it is too late. What resolve I once possessed was cut out of me, along with random sections of flesh from time to time. But unlike the wounds, I cannot sew my willpower together again. If I have learned nothing, it is when to admit defeat.
That must have been the reason they picked me up. They must have seen my weak design and morals, despite my biting tongue and fast legs. Of course experienced farmers can judge the relative outcome of the seeds they had cultivated. Perhaps it is the gleam of their shells that call out to them, or it may be that they tracked down their parents and evaluated their genes for desirable traits. Testing out ones that looked debilitated, or feeble, and see how they reacted to their first winter. The ones accepting of the cold nights were the most favorable and must have persuaded them not to dispose of them. Even the weakest worker can be given a job, or at least that is what we like to think.
Adaptability was a trait to fight over, but if not naturally possessed there were methods to program it. It is incredible to see how the value of one’s own life can change a person. It occurred so often hardly any of the older candidates blinked anymore. Death was a manageable fix, especially if the subject’s passing could be written off as “natural occurrences”. After all even killers like clean hands. Why sully one’s knife for free and then be burdened with a useless carcass. The only time they properly disposed of the bodies was in winter. In fact they were delighted to throw them into the fire, smiling as the furnace clanged and clinked at the offering. A smile was hardly seen, and to see them blooming in the stench of burning flesh was sickening. Few candidates could look at the heater coils that stood menacingly in almost every room and hallway. Some were horrified at the treatment of human remains, but it was mostly fright over their own eventual outcomes. I never found myself looking at them for too long either, but not in cowardice, but respect. There are much worse ways to get rid of a body, and at least I could provide something after my consciousness is gone.
Despite the questionable morals, they were at least methodical. But if one thinks on it for a moment or so, it is only logical that a corrupt and secret organization would need a stable financial manager. A man that would get things done quietly, quickly, and efficiently. There must have been a party when they found a man who suggested burning the useless candidates for fuel. Finally, they must have thought, a man who has some sense.
Beyond the steel door was a dirt path and a ten foot fence with spirals of barbedwire. Leaving those metal gates and tainted brick behind would have been the highlight of my younger years, had I not been aware of where I was heading. With a paperless order still ringing in my skull and a knife weighing down my usually empty pocket, I took my first tender steps into the cold. My eyes couldn’t help but flicker over the slightly bulged pocket of my tattered pants. It was so odd. With what felt akin to fear, but was more a mixture of curiosity and temptation, my eyes flickered over the handle of the knife. It was not special to me and it was far from new. In the time it took to blink I pictured all of the blood it must have tasted covering the ground, a stark contrast against the white. It was too red, bleeding into the snow and the frozen earth, desperately searching for its final resting spot. If it were any other time I would have liked to think longer on the image, but this was not a time to be dreaming. My hands curled tight into a first, curling around the knife in my hands. I do not remember grabbing it, but I recognized the rough texture of plastic and knew it could not belong to anything else.
This is the moment I had been waiting for. Seven years had been almost a lifetime and I am now hours away from leaving this place. I am not sure if all of those years had passed or not, or if I had just slept and am now waking up. At first I thought I would be focusing on the sky and breathing in the clear air while I could, but instead the instructions were numbing my thoughts. The odds that I will perish in this last test are high. I could not hesitate, I could not waste time, I could not let my mind wander. But still, no matter how long I have been here and how many times I have tried to will away my personality, I can not kill my curiosity.
These are thoughts for another time, I remind myself. I could not spare my mind on that miniscule subject at the moment. I had to move. And to accept the inquisitiveness of my own being would be allowing myself to feel linked to humanity, a step back I could not afford. I had lasted so long behind those gates and I was finally out, for however long that may be I am not sure. But I could not deny, despite the biting cold wind, the air was refreshing.
Beyond the view of the brick building sat a stripped forest of soaken black trees and white desolate paths. Taking one of these perfectly cut trails seemed like the most accessible choice, an easy trek no doubt, but I knew better than to trust the obvious. So I took to the trees, while staying within sight of the road, maybe my opponent is a half-wit.
It was silent with barely a sound in the wind, not a good sign. I pulled up my hood and crept from tree trunk to tree trunk. Watching my feet to keep them from touching the snow. leaping from uncovered rocks, dry patches, and large roots jutting from the ground. My eyes flickering around the area, scanning for any sign of movement. The lull was threatening. How could he be moving without making a noise? Even my clothes were making a soft brushing noise as I jumped, it was unavoidable. The only ways it could be this quiet is if he is not moving, no one is out here and I was fooled, or he is much more advanced than I am. None of the options sounded pleasant, and even with these in mind I am no where closer to finding my enemy.
Roughly twenty minutes had passed when I decided to stop in my walk and settle against one of the trees. This was getting me no where and it left me more at a risk of being found. If he is hiding, then he might take me by surprise, or he could be waiting for me to tire out. I had not been walking fast enough to feel fatigued, but still it would not be long before I am running on sore legs.
Stashing the blade back into my pocket, I grabbed at the tree and leaped for the closest branch. There was a soft crunch as my hands pulled at the moist bark. I gritted my teeth before pulling myself up all the way. If the enemy has a long ranged weapon, that could have been all he needed to shoot me down. Now at least seven feet off the ground I took in the new view. It was better, but still I could climb higher and widen my range. Jumping to the next branch and twisting myself up to the fourth limb of the bare tree, I stopped and settled against the nook. The forest was larger than I had first thought, but it did not come as too much of a surprise. Calmly catching my breath, my eyes continued searching. He had to be here, they have never lied before.
Five minutes passed before I spotted movement. From the corner of my eye I saw a black movement pass behind a tree, 300 feet to my right. Judging from the size of the tree and the blur, he was small and fast. I crouched lower to the branch, hoping that my gray clothes made me look like accumulated snow. I muffled my mouth behind my sleeve, not wanting the cloud of breath from the cloud to give me away. Slowly I reached for the knife, watching as the enemy stealthy crept closer. He seemed to know relatively where I was, but at the pace he was moving, he must not be able to see me.
Next to the trees his dark clothes worked well to mask him, but as he ran from one to the next, it was impossible not to see him. He was a black blur on white ground, completely out of his element. I gripped the knife with white knuckles and with each step the other took my lungs ached. My breath was slipping from me as I clung to the branch. I knew what I had to do and I was so sure of my victory I felt my teeth sinking into my bottom lip. It was not the first time I had tasted blood but at the moment it felt too foreign.
Twenty feet away and I could see his face, it was controlled well, but his eyes were strained. No doubt he was trying to track where I went. I shifted my hand infront of me, and pointed the blade in his direction. I was surprised at how still my hand was, although blades had always been my preferred weapon, this was the first time I was pointing it with malicious intense. Before my eyes had always focused on red outlines on a target board or a tree trunk with a white circle painted on it. Now it was focusing on the area between his two brown eyes. A space of only an inch in length, but it held both my future and my humanity. What I thought I had lost over the past seven years was twenty feet away, looking for me.
The boy started to walk again so I had to act fast before he was out of range. I scrapped my foot against the bark and watched as the noise startled him, his head whipping straight in my direction. His hand moved to his pant pocket, but before it could reach in, it stoped. And seconds later his body fell back, creating a soft thud in the snow.
I dropped from the branch and pulled off my hood, glad to feel the chilling wind slice against my ears and neck. Slowly my feet brought me over to black mass in the snow, its eyes opened wide and mouth hung. A small stream of blood flowed from the knife, dripping into the white ground. I reached down and took back the knife, my hands finally beginning to shake as I went to shut the boy’s eyes. I kept my hand over the lids for a moment, hoping that the muscles could relax, but they fell open when my hand left. They were looking straight ahead with no thought or life behind them and yet I could feel them piercing me. I grabbed the hood from his jacket and pulled it over his face. If I could offer him anything it would be an honorable death. My knees fell as I sat beside the body, my head bowed low.
The knife must have burned my hand because the snow suddenly felt soothing. I buried my hands beneath its crystals and rested my head on it. The biting pain reassured me to some extent, and after a minute I found the strength to stand. Deftly brushing off the snow collected on my pants and sleeves, I took to walking in the fallen boy’s footsteps back to the brick building and metal fence. They were a size smaller than mine and powerless to stop my shoes consuming any trace of the other’s steps. It was as if I were erasing every sign he was alive.
My ears seared in the cold but still I made no move to pull up my hood. If I could see them, I hope they are red.
It was a long time before I heard the buzz of the gates roaring to life and clanging open in front of me. A flash caught my attention and I raised my hand, effortlessly grasping the handle of a knife inches from my face, its blade reflecting a set of blank green eyes. I lifted my head and saw three men standing a foot out of the door.
“Congratulations candidate 11. Your first mission is in ten hours, be prepared and report to the information room.” His voice was deep and emotionless but that was no surprise. Most workmen were lithe and pliant, but this man was anything but. His face demanded attention with large commanding muscles and his chin poised high. His clothes had a camouflage pattern of brown and gray and a belt with holsters for various sized guns. I had never seen this man before. Something in my stomach told me to be wary.
The others I had seen before. On the left was a lengthy individual who found pleasure in needles and darts. Most called him The Doctor, but I have yet to see him attempt to save or alleviate anything. On the right was my weapons trainer, possible the most receptive man here, and yet I have heard less than five words out of him that have not pertained to aim and posture. He never said his name so I only knew him as Trainer, and he has responded to it before. I never placed him very high in this system, as I have only ever seen him taking orders, but seeing him standing next to these two imposing men, I was starting to reevaluate him.
“I heard you like knives.” The burly man chuckled discerningly. I briefly looked down at the weapon in my hand, its weight slightly heavier than the one in my pocket, and blinked at the shape. It was double edged and came to a fine tip, a rope woven handle and a circular ring at the bottom. I flipped it a few times and stashed it in my pocket.
The man laughed loudly before returning into the building, The Doctor right behind him, his sharp silver eyes lingering as he turned. I started to walk in behind them when I felt a hand fall on my shoulder, I blinked and watched the hand slip off.
“Good work, Jaden.” I could not hold back the surprise on my face. Seeing my wide eyes Trainer turned and slowly followed the other men into the building, leaving me to watch the ground.
I grabbed my head and pushed hard into the temples, finding a pressure flair to life. Pounding against my skull, flashes stabbed at the back of my eyes. I had just killed a man. I had just murdered a friend. I threw a knife between his eyes and watched the blood drip. I walked away from the body like it was nothing. Why are my eyes only hurting now?