Main concern's: Too heavy with backstory, not enough present tense action. I'm thinking about revamping the whole thing and starting from the beginning. :/ But then it wouldn't be a short story anymore.
The Allentec head offices were burning when I exited the main doors, and descended the last set of stairs. And by the time I passed their perfect marigold gardens, half of the tower was warming the town. This building was the one thing that held this sorry city afloat, and now it was just an elaborate fireplace. I walked faster as the midnight air pierced right through flesh and into my bones. The warm stench of the collapsing tower was far and high above me.
I quickly made my way off of Allentec property, expecting a rapid spread of the fire to the lower floors, though I knew it would take hours. I grabbed my helmet and jumped onto my bike. With one last glance back, I revved the engine and set off.
The wind brushed cooly past my exposed skin, too cold to feel at first. The streets were deserted as usual. I knew that the whole town would soon be watching, hiding in their dilapidated shelters, desperate and scared. Who wouldn't stop and watch if their only hope was burning to the ground?
Rocks and debris littered the cracked and decaying streets of New New York. The city's formerly tall buildings had become hunched-back monsters, old and leering. Their busy streets were worn out with conflict and desperation, but the destruction made it harder to manoeuvre through the filthy roads. Attempting to distract my worried mind, I stared down the skeletal buildings, their dusty glass windows like empty eye sockets. There was no one here, no businesses on these isolated streets; this was Allentec property. The last breathing inhabitants of New York knew that. Especially me, I knew that perfectly well.
The road was wide and lonely, littered with the reminders of architectural decomposition. I made a right turn, but continued away from the offices, heading north. Eventually I would leave company property and enter the shantytowns that had become our suburbs, where electricity was shared and homes consisted of a bathroom and a bedroom. There could be no such thing as safety, let alone luxury when survival was taking enough out of us. That is, of course, unless you worked for Allentec.
We'd been scrambling for a chance at life ever since the outbreak. The mould infestation had been overwhelming, it arrived without warning or reason. When the mayor offered a solution, "Burn, burn it down!" he got his wish. He died the next night, hacking and coughing, alone in his office. City hall made for a spectacular fireplace, but that couldn't stop the epidemic.
Ahead of me, the Allentec employee apartments stood tall and threatening to outsiders. It was elaborate, clean and heavily secured. My reflection walked in pace with me, visible on the shining glass walls of the entrance. Like all things created by my former employer, it had been constructed using only pure materials. Flex plastic, glass and synthetics. This was where Allentec employees lived, with the luxury of safety; a real home. Just a few miles away, the Ordinaries were sitting by fires outside, avoiding the cold that leaked into their badly built shelters. They collected like the piles of debris decorating our streets, huddled and mumbling in paranoia. They were perpetually scared, like primal animals. I'd been in their sector far too many times and I could still remember their dirty, savage faces.
Pushing the thought away, I entered my pin number into the control panel, following the procedure by memory. I put my hand on the glass print reader attached to the door, and it slid smoothly open for me. Inside the foyer, another sliding door awaited me. I stood relatively still as a pale blue light ran across the whole length of the walls, checking my facial features, retina and height as well as scanning for contamination. The door slid open, and I opted for the impeccably white marble stairs instead of the lift. They'd even created a mock wooden banner running along the railing. For old times' sake I supposed. Inside it was only marginally warmer than outside, but I had always felt it was easier to breathe in here.
My room was on the sixth floor, number 6409. My ID was detected by the scanner, disguised as an eyehole, and the doorknob unlocked for me. I entered the room. From the wall length window I saw the fire burning like a beacon, though it had only visibly consumed the first few floors. In the other direction, I could see the shantytowns, their small fires like dotted lights. They crowded around their little flames like a hoard of insects. Insignificant. I turned away from the window, and faced my bare room; it was still a stranger to me. The glass table and counter tops, the clean hostility that represented Allentec, I hated it and yet it was all I had to look forward to. Clean, closed, and safe.
The drawers glided smoothly and the flex-plastic dropped to the ground as I searched through the debris on my desk. Nothing. Synthetic pens, plastic sheet paper, but nothing else. A strange feeling sunk into my gut, because this place held no significance to me. It had been useless to come back. I took a last parting glance before I left the apartment, my last safe haven. Aside from some clothes and food stuffed in an old backpack, I carried nothing but my identification. I went through the same security measures to leave, the weight of the ID chip burning itself onto my neck. I didn't mind being a series of numbers, not if it meant I could live. They stored my long, insignificant history in a fragile chain and pendant. A dove embellished with diamonds, encircled with a wreath of bay leaves. It was a symbol of achievement in what had been my career at Allentec. All my belongings, all I'd ever needed was in that ID chip.
I glanced at my bike parked in front of the concrete steps, unsure of what I should do next. I decided on a detour. Carrying my backpack with me as I walked, I circled around the back of the apartments and headed to New Suburbia. The smell of the burning flex plastic stayed with me, like an incessant memory. They offices had been designed to last, so it was going down wth a fight. I headed towards the shantytowns, desperate to pass by quickly and finally leave the city.
In outer New Suburbia, the residents were emaciated, filthy and desperate. I despised their squalor, their desperate beady eyes and everything else that defined them. They saw me in my uniform and quickly averted their eyes. I was glad of it. If I had not been wearing it, I would have been subjected to their stares, but with it I can incite fear. Lewd, angry, jealous, I hated them for existing. They didn't have the power, and I loved reminding them. The men who sneered at me, took the bait and followed me down secluded alleyways, they provided most of my income.
I had been recruited into Organ Catching training since I was twelve. I knew that nothing beat the satisfaction I found when their bloodshot eyes widened with shock, and then dulled right in front of me. It was only then that I could look anyone in the eyes, just to see the hideous fire in them burn out. The satisfaction was mutual between a lot of employees, but so different for each of us.
"Nothing beats playing God," Gerard used to say. Then he'd hand me my next assignment, like everything was an elaborate joke, and we were here to amuse him. Everyone knew he was a greedy bastard, but to be fair, we all played for our own reasons. Gerard was as much a Catchers as the rest of us.
The company didn't care who we got the products from, but I still handpicked my sources. Occasionally I'd catch a sick, or unfit organ and I'd lose the profit. It was a good thing we had Allentec labs, adjusting our organs until they were fit to sell. And sell they did, for prices no one who needed it could afford.
We had been a secret, and work was easier then. No one knew about the Organ Catchers, because we always did our work in the dark, under cover and disguise. I played the bait, searching the dilapidated streets for the lowest of the low. I looked innocent enough, I looked young enough. And what better service could a lowlife pay than to save someone else? Someone who could use it a little more than they ever could. That rule, of course, was my own and my teams. Not everyone worked with rules. My former best friend, Gina, now liked to take the organs before they were put down. Said it was fresher that way. Her method was too loud, too blatant. It disgusted me. Of course, Gina is very different now. She must be storming the bloody slums, thinking she owns this company. Thinking everything had went to plan, but wait till she gets back.
I caught the scent of cheap Allentec disinfectant. It was pungent like the smell of the fire had been. Allentec sold supplies to the Ordinaries to satiate their desperation and anger towards us. They couldn't afford much else. Since I'd started training, I had been subject to endless treatments with the same, cheap cleanser. It worked to decontaminate, but Allentec technology had moved past these troublesome, old solutions.
The woman had smelled like disinfectant. On the glass desk lay small piles of synthetic paper, a security camera screen, and a phone.
"It's a good job, you can start immediately and we'll provide you with safe housing, do you prefer to live on your own?"
Her voice was brisk, and her sentences ended a millisecond before they should. She was a pretty blonde woman, her hair tightly wound in a bun.
"I-w- I don't understand. They said an interview?"
I was twelve. A dirty and thin child standing in such a blatantly clean office. Fresh from the fire that destroyed my home and forced me to abandon my family, I was tired and thankful to be out of the slums.
"No need, you were scouted out by us. When those men who brought you here, we'd already hired you. I just need your information and identification for our records."
The secretary held out a print scanner expectantly, movements as sharp and graceful as her voice. I wondered if I even had a choice in the matter. I placed my hand on the cool surface.
Time was hard to keep a track of when you were alone. At the time, a safe place to live sounded like I had died and gone to a better place, or gotten impossibly lucky.
"How did you scout me out?"
"One of our affiliates, Mr. Miller, found you. We can give you details afterwards."
She sent the print through the system and then had me go through a scanning and decontamination process. I was set to receive five years of training, at the Miller-Stanton Institute. No one ever told me what my job would be, but I understood it by the end of my first year.
I finished training a month before I turned seventeen. What Miller said saw in me was anger and carelessness. A carelessness with life, that is. I had abandoned my family, and even the regret soon faded because I knew they were doomed to die anyways. Miller helped me realize that. He said there truly wasn't anything I could have done.
He had seen me stab a man who had robbed me. He recalled how I took my things back and spit on the ground next to him in furious silence. He said that it was my contempt for humanity that he needed to save it. He called it contempt, but I called it anger. It was the anger and frustration that had fermented inside me, feeding bitter blood to my veins. I was a child, trying to survive the slums, yet there were men who would steal, manipulate and use me. I learned to avoid death by inflicting it, and I saved myself several times with my father's pocket knife. That old blade had grown dull, and it only made them suffer more.
The Miller-Stanton Institute was run by Charles Miller and Agnes Stanton. The former an ex-mobster and convicted murderer, the latter a corrupt scientist. It was more of an experiment than a training institute. Agnes had been a hero to the lower class, until she used them for her own achievements. Charles Miller was a born assassin, heartless to most because he hid his weaknesses well. I came to train under Miller, while Stanton studied us. She had used some of the students as test subjects for the various drugs she had been producing. I was one of Stanton's successful test subjects, to Miller's relief and anger. Placed as one of his prodigies, he believed I had potential and did not want anti ageing products injected into me lest I die and waste all his hard work.
The man took care to watch over me, but after I learned he'd lost his granddaughter to the mould infestation, I knew he was trying to make up for his loss. I must have reminded him of her. He was a mentor to me as much as I was a replacement to him. It would have been something redeemable about my childhood, if it hadn't occurred over five years of unyielding training and practice.
When Miller died, the Institute closed. Stanton had been murdered by some Ordinaries a year before. No one really missed her death, considering the number of Institute trainees she had murdered with botched doses of medication. Miller was only sixty-five when he succumbed to his failing organs and bad health. Ironically, Allentec had not provided him with a spare organ, even though he was in the business. I was left angry, knowing that he could have been helped. I'm still bitter in contemplating that he allowed himself to die.
I could hear my shoes against the pavement, crumbling against dirt and gravel. The silence stopped me in my thoughts. Without slowing, I looked around me at all the beggars of New Suburbia, who were gazing at me intently. Some eyed the backpack I carried, some eyed me judging like an injured rabbit, tallying up my potential weaknesses. I grimaced at their looks, annoyed by their depravity and mistaken assumptions. Their bonfires burned on, but they smelled rotten. The smoke made my eyes water.
I decided I'd take a different route, turning left at the nearest corner. I found myself in a much darker, isolated side street. I knew that if I kept walking forward and made a left turn down an alleyway up ahead, it'd lead me straight to the old Miller-Stanton Institute. It was just rubble now, a pile of demolished bricks and glass. Everyone here was so intent on breaking things, they never bothered to clean them up.
I half expected footsteps, maybe one of the Ordinaries had followed me, but the silence drifted on. A bitterness crawled under my skin, I felt more alone than before, knowing even Miller had abandoned me. A jaded criminal had been the last of my family. Now, I had no family, and no life here.
During those years at the Institute, I learned self defence, stealth and of course, murder. The training was hard and the punishments were worse. Miller had always preached the importance of punishment. Said that his childhood would have been worthless without it, and he would not have been the man that he was.
Every other day we had to train our bodies, so we would run courses, lift weights and practice escaping and hiding techniques.
There were different types of classes for each of the students. Strength, Speed and Efficiency. I was put into Efficiency because of my speed and intelligence, or so Miller had said. Some of the students considered it a higher class, because we proved to be useful in combining speed and strength to our benefit. I had hardly any of either.
In the central courtyard of the Institute, there was a track we ran daily. If someone could not finish running the track within a minimum time, they would run it until midnight. If I had missed dinnertime, I could be found puking into the dry grass in the light of the moon. But because of this, I learned to work better at night. I'd stay outside and train so I wouldn't have to be punished ever again.
I met Gina on the stealth course. The object of the course was to travel without ever setting foot on the ground. There were beams on the ceiling, ropes, bars and tiny crevices in the walls. We had to successfully reach the target, a dummy, and kill them. One day, one of the students lost their hold and fell to the ground after smashing their head on one of the metal bars. I remember how I stared in horror as they lay silently in pain and all the other students crowded around his curled up form, trembling on the ground.
Over the influx of curious voices, and crowding students, I was the closest to the boy.
When one of our trainers came up to check on him, a girl in the background took the chance to speak.
"Can I take out his organs? He's dead, right?"
And the man had laughed. He praised her as everyone looked on in mild jealousy. Gina had had the unpleasant look of a perpetual sneer even as a child. We were both thirteen. Though I refused to show it, I had been exceedingly jealous and angry. I felt she was intruding on my title of star student, and I spent the rest of my years training like this; sick with disgust, but determined to cling to their sick praise.
From behind me, there were faint voices coming from an alley that led into this street. A dirty looking man and woman appeared and I ducked out of sight, hiding between two abandoned buildings. I heard their rushed voices. They were walking in the same direction I was, all the while shooting paranoid looks behind them.
"Are you sure we'll find anything, the place is all rubble now. What was it, anyways? Some medical lab?" The woman's voice was nervous.
She walked with her shoulders hunched, and her greasy brown hair hung limply. The man was equally as filthy. His posture stiff, he walked with wide steps that the woman had to rush to keep up with. I watched his figure in curiosity. I was familiar with the way he held his arms rigidly, jaw clenched, hands glued to the inside of his pockets. This was the gait of a guilty man.
They had reached the opening of the path that led to the old Miller-Stanton Institute when the man slowed down and lagged behind the woman. I stepped out from behind the buildings and made my way closer to them. Before I got much closer, I saw the man hastily pull his hand out of his pocket, revealing a rather old pocket knife. From behind the woman, he brought his arm around her neck and jerkily pulled the blade across. She had begun a startled scream that became a gurgle as her body gradually slumped over. Then she fell silent, her hands still clutching at his arm.
I stared in shocked silence. Even the Ordinaries, desperate and too scared to rebel were becoming cannibalistic in their bid for survival. I looked at the distasteful display. He must have been a fool; there was no way to carry her organs. He hastily covered her empty face with his jacket. I was distractedly staring at the puddle of blood that escaped the cover of his old, synthetic coat when suddenly the man froze. From my peripheral, I could see the red glint that laced the edge of his knife, but I kept my eyes on the profile of his face. He turned around quickly towards me. I did not flinch when he jumped up, pointing the knife haphazardly at me.
When he clearly saw me, his fear faded and he smirked. I took off my backpack and threw it against the building's wall beside me, keeping an eye on his face and posture.
"Who the hell are you?" He eyed me, his gaze lingering on my uniform and the Allentec symbol.
I took his distraction as an opportunity. I lunged towards the knife and grabbing his wrist firmly, I twisted it downwards as I ducked under his arm. I was now standing behind him.
When I gave his arm an extra twist, he yelled in pain. I loosened the cheap knife from his grasp as he tried twisting his body around to ease the strain. While my mind and limbs worked automatically, I imagined the stretched threads of his ligaments, desperate to hold his shoulder joint intact. My years of study at the Institute still hadn't satiated my curiosity.
When I retrieved the knife, I let go of his arm, and kicked him in the back of the knees. He was collapsed, kneeling on the ground and quivering in fear. I kicked him in the back one more time for good measure, and he fell sprawled face first beside the legs of the woman's corpse. I pointed the knife against the ground, angled, and I stepped on the breadth of the blade. I felt it give under the combined force of my weight and leg muscles and the blade snapped off of the handle. I threw the pieces as far as I could down the alleyway that led to the Institute.
Grabbing my bag, I took one last look at the man on the ground.
"She's lying. Your organs will be fodder, too. But if you're stupid enough to believe Gina, maybe you deserve it."
He was grimacing at the ground, pushing himself up to stand on his feet. I thought, he must have been nearly forty. Too old to be murdering to survive.
"Burn in hell." His voice was bitter. He did not look up at me.
"Oh, but I think you are."
I turned and left him there, his shoulders slumped in defeat. Or maybe it was despair.