Elevators: Chapter 1
—by Nathan on June 29, 2012—
As an elective, I did the One Year Adventure Novel. For those of you not clear on the title, I needed to write a novel in the course of a year. Which I did. It was tough, but fun. A couple of months of planning, followed by the writing of the story itself. I've decided to post the first chapter of my story, "Elevators," here. It's pretty long, but I'm sure that doesn't seem too daunting. If so, read it in snippets. It's summer! Take your time and enjoy. Have fun.
My heart beat like a locomotive. It hurt to breathe. I'd run hard before, but this was different. I'd never run for my life.
I could hear the footfalls behind me, growing louder. Not good. I needed to go faster, get farther away from my pursuers. This wasn't the first time they'd chased me, of course, but this wasn't some generated world. This was real.
White-walled hallways turned, curved, and crisscrossed to form a maze I'd never stopped to memorize. In all my fourteen years of living in this facility, I had only been in a handful of halls, granted access to only a number of rooms. I was running blind through a labyrinth, knowing full-well why the workers called this place "The Infinity Complex." It never ended.
To my knowledge, the Complex was divided into three floors. The top floor was used as the living quarters for the runners and hunters. The second level had all sorts of training rooms for us, a vast dining hall, and a kitchen with a smell that always had the faint trace of onions. The third story was a basement where the "machine" was stored. Supposedly, equipment used in our training and in keeping the Complex in tip-top shape was kept there as well. Of course, when it came to the Complex, truth was hard to find.
So was the exit, as it seemed. I was currently on the bottom floor, the storage area, seeking some door. I had been on this floor before, yes, but I'd never paid any great attention to the layout. I'd never studied maps, which, as it dawned on me about now, would have been a good idea. Getting the design is always a great idea when planning an escape. I hadn't forgotten. I just hadn't even thought of it in the first place. I knew the top and middle floor as well as I knew my own bedroom, but this bottom level…
Run hard. Find door. Escape. That was all the planning I had done. It didn't help that I had only been given the idea the day before. Stupid, stupid, I thought, passing by a hall, glancing down it. That door looks familiar…Don't tell me I'm going in circles.
That really seemed to be how my luck ran. Inadvertently retracing my steps, while trying to stay out of arm's length from my pursuers, guys in black Kevlar body suits, some with masks, some without, letting me see the livid anger in their faces whenever I glanced back for a brief moment. These guys didn't give up. And why would they? This is what Maverick had trained them to do.
Maverick. He was why I was in the whole mess in the first place, wasn't it? All because of him and his Program, his machine. The Elevators Program was his baby, his brainchild. He'd gotten himself a machine built that could create virtual worlds. Into these worlds he would stick us runners, and we would, well, run. From the hunters. Towards the numbers. That was the "mission."
It was simple. We would be given a briefcase and a gun of our choice. The briefcase would have tumblers. Depending on the number of levels in the mission, that would determine how many tumblers there would be. For each tumbler there would be a corresponding number. On level one there would be the first number for the first tumbler. Easy arithmetic. Dumped into the levels, we would have to find the number before the hunters found us. And there could be twenty hunters on each level, all different, all fresh. Meaning, one three levels, one runner could face sixty hunters. Harder arithmetic. That's where the gun and fighting skills really came in handy.
Inside the briefcase was a hypodermic needle. Before the mission, we would be injected with a poison of sorts that would cause incredible pain unless it was counteracted with the cure inside the briefcase. Each poison was timed, each time different. This was incentive to keep us going, to keep us charging into danger instead of cowering like babies. I had managed, so far, to counteract every drip of poison put into my bloodstream, but I had seen kids who weren't so lucky. They came out of the machine doubled-over, groaning, eyes wide. Some kids had vomited, passed out, or even been bed-ridden. We were taught not to pity those who failed. Failing showed weakness. We were not allowed to be weak.
I didn't know how many of us there were in the Complex, but I knew the number periodically changed when new runners were brought in or some runner graduated to hunter status. Each of us had been kidnapped at young ages by Maverick's agents. I'd been told I arrived when I was two years old, with no recollection of who my parents were or where I had lived. All I knew was the Program and the Complex, and even the Complex's location was never told to me. Rumors said something about Siberia and that Maverick had a deal with the Russians that let him stay there, out of the reach of Russian or American authorities. But even if the complex was in the middle of the Sahara or the Amazon, I still wouldn't know. The only ones who did were the hunters, and they would never tell.
In the Program, there were only three kinds of people. The first two were the ones primarily engaged in the Program. Hunters and runners. The predator and the prey. While runners were hunters, in the sense we hunted for the numbers, we were really like scared rabbits, trying to get the numbers before the wolves descended on us. Very often when it came to new or younger runners, the hunters would win more often than not. But as we got older and more mature in our skills, we learned their moves, their tricks. We soon could outsmart them. The hunter relied on strength and weaponry; we relied on skill and speed.
Killing wasn't allowed when it came to hunters. They could not, under any circumstances, kill a runner. That didn't mean, unfortunately, that they couldn't come close. Sometimes, I would see runners bloody and bruised after their missions. We all would know why, but no one said a word. We didn't want to make Maverick angry. Nobody wanted that.
For runners, however, Maverick made an exception when it came to killing. The thought of killing made me sick, but other runners found it as a way to get back at the hunters. It was our way to get back at their treatment at us. But all I had to do was remind myself that they were once kids like us, and I couldn't bring myself to pulling the trigger, ending it all. It was just too painful.
There was an unspoken agreement between everyone about killing hunters. Hunters were expendable. Runners weren't. Maverick had picked us to breed a new generation of hunters. When we graduated from runner status, we immediately became a part of Maverick's business. He sold assassins, mercenaries, killers. He sold them to armies, terrorist cells, and gangs. He trained us to survive, then sent us out to kill. The years of training were to help us in the field, teach us how to hunt down a target and how to deal with opposition. He kept the hunters on a schedule. Some of them spent six months in the field, while others spent six months in the Complex. Rotation would bring in new hunters so the challenge always stayed fresh. When one was killed, either in the Complex or out on in the real world, a new hunter was cycled in. It was a nasty business, sure, but each and every one of us finally got to the point where murder, blood, and death no longer affected us. Again, I was the pitiful exception to the rule. I couldn't kill. No matter how many opportunities I was handed, I turned them down. I shot my share of hunters, but that was only to wound them. I beat them to a pulp, but I never overstepped the line. I had sworn not to cross it, and I didn't.
Maverick, though, was someone I could make an exception for. I once had a dream where I put a gun to his head and fired. He was the instigator. He ordered kidnappings. He allowed men and children to beat each other to death. There was no shred of love or humanity in him as far as I was concerned. Given the opportunity, I figured that crossing the line might be easier than I expected.
When a runner turned sixteen, Maverick would give them their final test. I'd heard that it's very difficult to pass. Maverick always had the missions changed around. He changed environment, number of levels, elements like that. For this final mission, it's said that Maverick gave the tester five levels. That meant five numbers. Five environments. And a whole lot of hunters. It may not sound that challenging, but Maverick usually made us only do about one to three levels, four if he was feeling particularly mean.
Luckily, when it came to levels, finding numbers became a bit predictable. Maverick always put them in places where they would be kept them safe. For example, on a level that was a bank, a number would be in a vault. Or on a level that was an army base, the number would be in some heavily fortified area. But while it could be rather predictable, we had to remember that the hunters realized that as well. They'd get entered into the Program at practically the same time the runner did, which made getting the number a race. The hunters never used the number; they just waited around, set up a perimeter, posted guards…anything to make sure the runner never got through.
The conflict between runners and hunters had always been brutal. We never liked each other. When Maverick was watching, we'd play nice. But when his back was turned, we'd threaten them, spit at them, and even fight with them on occasion. And that was outside the machine. Inside, the war between hunters and runners was a whole lot worse.
It was rather obvious for us runners to hate the hunters. They chased us, taunted us, hurt us. The enmity that emanated from the hunters was a little less obvious, but we knew why. It was no big secret that hunters really didn't like staying the six month interval at the Complex. They wanted to be out in the field, pursuing and killing, not trapped in the Complex, hunting kids like us. The time spent at the Complex was a prison sentence without parole, but it was the perfect chance to take their anger out on us. If they were going to be imprisoned, they had better make the most of it.
It always hurt when a runner graduated to hunter status. We always felt like we were just stabbed or punched in the gut. When the runner got the traditional black outfit every hunter was supposed to wear, I felt like any thread of friendship was just broken. I saw friends graduate. It hurt knowing that, given the chance, they'd come after me with all they could dish out, no mercy, no past friendship hindering them. They'd come, bullets flying, fists ready to break my nose. It happened. I was forced to take down old comrades. I never felt any pleasure doing it, either. Hurting hunters I didn't know was fine, even enjoyable when it was a guy I really hated or who had pummeled me real good before. But there was always something about squaring off with guys I held to be my friends that always stung internally.
The third type of person at the Complex was the trainers. They were the people who had either been runners who never graduated or men Maverick had bribed or blackmailed into working for him. Runners not good enough to become hunters were basically given a choice. Either they could train other runners or become part of Maverick's staff and help out with whatever menial task they were given. Runners could take the test as many times as they wanted or until Maverick got fed up with their begging him to give them one more try. Most runners became trainers at around eighteen if they'd failed to become hunters.
Trainers helped us with our skills. They made us stronger, faster, better. We were taught how to handle enemies, given tips when it came to finding numbers. But they were also friends. While runners and hunters treated each other with scorn and hatred, and while the runners themselves were a community that often was riddled with envy, most of the trainers were genuinely kind to their protégés.
Don Turner was my trainer. I remember the first time I met him. Training for the Program began at age eleven. Until then, the focus was on education. Mathematics. History. Science. Maverick believed that some of this was important. Less important subjects, such as social studies, were only taught through the basics. Maverick thought we wouldn't have much use for certain subjects in the real world outside the Program. We would be hunting and killing. The biggest focus really was on physical education. Obesity was not allowed in the Program. We had to be in perfect shape.
But that all ended for me the day before my eleventh birthday. I was taken into a special room, where an older man in sweats and bright orange t-shirt greeted me. He wasn't ancient-old, but he seemed to be in his fifties, and was a bit potbellied, with a tiny bald patch on top of his head. His arms were thick, bristling with hair.
The orange shirt was actually what I noticed first. It seemed too bright and colorful to belong in the Complex. In the Complex, the walls were white, the hunters were dressed in black…my usual dress code was a gray hoodie and dark blue jeans. Whenever I saw Maverick, he was always wearing some darker colored suit, like gray or black. This splash of color took me back for a couple of seconds.
Don had spoken first, his Southern accent heavy. "Glad to make your acquaintance, Rick," he'd greeted me, shaking me with a grip tighter than what most hunters would grip me with. Something else I didn't expect. "Last name's Saul, right?"
I'd nodded and muttered something about being happy to meet him, but I really wasn't. For nine years I had heard about the Program, seen the runners, learned to fear the hunters. In the dormitory I'd shared with seven other boys, stories of the horrors of the Program were not uncommon. This day would begin my training. Soon, I'd be in missions, running from predators, looking for numbers.
"Your knees are shakin'," Don had observed, looking at my legs. "S'alright to be scared, boy. No problem there. You're just not scared of me, are you?"
I'd shaken my head quickly. "No, sir."
"Ah, ‘sir' isn't necessary here. For teachers and Maverick, maybe. But not me." He'd leaned down and put his hand on my shoulder. "I don't just wanna be your trainer, Ricky. I wanna be your friend. Can I do that?"
"That's a good boy." He'd grinned, patting my arm. "Your first lesson begins tomorrow at nine sharp. We're gonna have you on that treasure hunt in no time."
"Treasure hunt." That was how easy Don looked at things. He didn't see the world in black and white like the rest of us did. To us, there was only the mission. There was only success or failure. To him, the world was much more. Sometimes, he'd go a bit too far, in my mind, especially when he called Maverick "Mav" or something like that. He'd once said it to Maverick's face. I've only seen the man angrier one other time.
Maverick wasn't one we wanted to make angry. He was older than Don, and much more serious and cruel. He was always dressed in some fine Italian suit, his light gray hair slicked back with some expensive cream, his eyes piercing flesh and bone whenever he looked your way. Everything about him was imposing, except for his limp. Runners called him "the Gimp" amongst ourselves, and, when I was younger, my friends and I liked to mimic his stride, using some stick as a prop for the came he used. Whenever he was around, though, that all changed. We were scared of his presence and knew he didn't have any qualms about whacking a runner who irked him in some manner. Making fun of him was just a way we hid our fear of him.
Don wasn't as scared of Maverick as we were, and I noticed, during the occasions when he and I were with Maverick, how his easy-going nature made the old man upset. Maverick never did anything about it, but I knew how much he wanted to hurt Don somehow.
According to Don, he and Maverick had history, but he never told me anything specific. All I knew is that they had served together in some foreign country while working for the government there. That's all Don told me, no matter how much I asked him to tell me more. Don would just shake his head, say he didn't want to tread on "shifty ground" and leave it at that.
It was Don's idea for the escape. The next day was my birthday, and I was turning sixteen. Don said he didn't want me to do that test. He said he didn't want me to go into being a hunter. Not just because I lacked the killer instinct, but because I was more than just a runner who Maverick could toy with. Don was my best friend as well as my mentor, and I almost considered him to be a father figure. He was concerned with my future, a future where I was a human being and not some puppet whose strings were pulled, or cut, at Maverick's will.
I told him I could've become a trainer, but he was adamantly against that. I was unique, he said. Every other runner he'd trained had that cold, calloused desire to kill. To him, I represented something more. I was more than a heartless, ruthless killer. Something inside of him told him I wouldn't be capable of training kids to become murderers. My conscious wouldn't allow it. Don didn't want me to be condemned to a life at the Complex, as either a hunter or a trainer. And he knew that, if I became a hunter, I couldn't escape at the first possible moment. Maverick imbedded each hunter with an obedience chip, a microchip that, if a hunter ever went rogue, would give them a near lethal shock that would most likely leave them paralyzed.
That's why he wanted me to escape. That's what he'd told me. Unfortunately, he'd been called away before giving me any decent details, and I hadn't seen him since. When the curfew for the runners had been called, I'd decided to try and escape on my own. Don had let me know the entrance to the Complex was on the bottom floor, but he neglected to tell me where. Old age does that to people, I guess.
I'd managed to sneak out of room, down the hall, and down a flight of stairs to the second floor, but that's when I had run right into a hunter. He recognized me as a runner and had gone for me, but I'd evaded him, speeding past him and down another flight of steps to the bottom level. By then, the hunter I'd run into had raised the alarm, and other hunters began to pursue me.
Perfect. I had no plan, hunters were coming after me, and I was probably running in circles.
My lungs burned, begging me to stop, to rest, but I knew that if I did, I'd be caught. Then what would happen? Insubordination wasn't taken lightly at the Complex. Only a few others had tried to escape before tonight, and they'd all failed. They'd been taken to Maverick's office, coming out looking like ghosts. They never said a word about it, no matter how much we pressured them to.
As I ran through the halls, I started to understand why they wouldn't say anything. I was terrified, sick to my stomach. The anticipation of escaping this life mingling with the fear of failing hurt my chest. Knowing I could be face-to-face with Maverick in less than an hour made it worse.
Rounding a corner, my hopes crashed as I came within a foot of slamming into what felt like a wall. I fell back, cushioning my fall with my hands.
Glancing up, I gazed into the paralyzing stare of a hunter. He was massive and looked really ticked off. I recognized him as the guy I'd run into in the stairwell.
Behind him were more hunters, all prepared to collar me and bring me to Maverick. But I had been raised as a runner; we weren't supposed to let hunters get us.
And it wasn't like I was going to run anymore. Given the situation, there were only two solutions: Allow myself to be captured and hauled off. Or try my best to fight them off.
"You're never as good as your enemy thinks you are. You're better." One of many bits of wisdom Don had given me over the years. I loved it when he said those words. Always pausing between the first and second sentence, a twinkle in his eye as he finished it off. The words sounded cocky, over-confident, but that was the whole idea. Maybe not to be superiorly self-confident, but just enough so you didn't underestimate yourself. There was still a line between confident and brash, true, and it was a thin line, but Don knew that I could stay behind it. It was a difficult task sometimes. I mean, if you think you're the best, why act any less?
The one thing I couldn't do was underestimate myself, think myself lower than these buffoons. Another bit of advice that Don had given me multiple times was to never consider the battle over before it had begun, never think your enemy had won before you had lost. If I thought like that, I would have already been defeated.
Not only was the hunter before me the man I'd run into, he was also Sergei Machinev. Don had spent many hours making me memorize the names of nearly every hunter who was stationed at the Complex at any given time. He had also drilled me in their weaknesses, such as the more fragile or easily hurt parts of their body. As I stared down the hunter in front of me, I began going over what I knew about him in my head.
Sergei Machinev, age 32. Active hunter for sixteen years. Likes using his silenced WA2000 semi-automatic sniper for far range combat. Not as good at close combat, but is fair enough. Main weakness is abdomen.
"Careful where you're going," Sergei grunted, his Russian accent nearly making me laugh. Don had also told me that, while Sergei had ancestors who were Russian, he'd been born in America. His accent was all but fake, but he was still able to fool most. Don wasn't "most."
I wasn't really paying attention to him as he spoke. I was thinking through how to take him out. A blow to the knee would stagger him, two swift punches to the stomach would hurt him, and a shot to the jaw would drop him.
He took a step forward, and I noticed his hand reaching slowly for the knife handle that stuck up from the sheath on his belt. The glisten in his eyes and small grin made him look like a hyena that had just cornered a meerkat. Like some hungry animal.
This was why we hated the hunters. It was why I hated the hunters. The hunger they exhibited when it came to hurting us was infuriating. It reminded me that they thought the same when it came to killing other people, innocent people.
Don said I have anger problems. When I got upset, I really got upset. He often compared me to a ticking bomb with a too short fuse. He told me I was easily offended, quick to violence, and bad when it came to forgetting wrongdoings taken against me. While he said that was probably a reason I was capable of surviving well in the Program, he also reminded me that it was also a liability that could make me rush headlong into situations. I didn't kill, but I could hurt and cripple when necessary. Even when it wasn't necessary.
Such as this one.
Before he took a second step, I'd spun and kicked Sergei in the knee. He stumbled back, mostly in surprise, and was regaining himself when my fist slammed into his stomach. He doubled-over, and I jabbed him there again for good measure, just as I had planned. The satisfying crack my knuckles made as it connected with his jaw caused me to smirk a little as he fell back.
I identified the four other hunters and was starting to go through their weaknesses when they charged.
Martin Solino, glass jaw…
Carlos Trip, legs…
Barney Welsh, easily dislocated left shoulder…
Devon Crum, weak ear…
They were upon me in seconds. Martin and Carlos went for my arms, hoping to pin them while Barney wanted to grab my legs. Devon stayed back, acting as a reserve.
There were no rules here. They still couldn't kill me, but I had just broken regulation in trying to escape. That didn't mean they had to play easy with me either.
I thrashed my legs, catching Barney across the cheek. Devon stepped in, punching me in the gut. I tried to ignore the pain as I struggled against the other hunters' grips on my arms. But they had me.
Close combat wasn't usually my style. I liked staying back, sticking to the shadows, picking off my enemies with darts or sneaking up behind and putting them in a choke-hold until they were out. When it was necessary, I fought, but that was only when I was cornered by one hunter or two. Very rarely was I faced with four hunters at once, and, if I was, that's where the gun came in handy. I had no gun now.
Martin let his grip on my left arm slacken as he tried to grab my head, giving me the opportunity I needed to elbow him in the jaw, making his grip slip completely. That gave Carlos the chance to go for my freed arm, grabbing both and twisting them around each other.
"Stupid punk," I heard Barney mutter as he stood, wiping at the trail of blood that snaked down his chin with the back of his hand. "Think Maverick will mind if we teach him some manners?"
"Yeah, I think he needs a little lesson in respect," Carlos agreed. "Kid, you had to have been a lunatic to think you could get out of here."
"Never hurts to try," I responded, trying to shake his hands off.
"Oh, it hurts alright," Barney snapped, pulling back his left arm. "Where should I hit him, Carl? Face?"
"Right where he hit you," the other hunter answered. "You know, an eye for an eye and all that."
I reacted as soon as the words left his mouth, ducking my head. It seemed like a trick straight out of a cartoon, but it still managed to work. Carlos's hold fell away as Barney punched him square in the jaw.
"Geez, Carlos…" Barney hissed, uttering a curse as I grabbed his arm before he retracted it and gave it a sharp twist. The hunter grunted as I pulled the shoulder right out of its socket.
"It hurts alright, I'll give you that," I said, watching as his knees shook.
Barney glared at me, hot rage flushing his face. "If I could, I'd kill you, boy."
"If I wanted to, I'd kill you," I snarled back. The words left my mouth before I thought them. I knew they weren't true, but, in my anger, I couldn't help myself.
Barney chuckled at this, like I'd made a joke. "Really? You? Kid, you wouldn't stomp a butterfly if you were given the chance. You're too soft. What kinda turnip has that fat hippie turned you into?"
My eyebrows dipped as my teeth and fists clenched. Don was my friend, and I couldn't stand it when he was made fun of. His nature made him one of the friendliest people I knew, but it also made him seem weak. And that made me seem weak.
Maybe I said this before, but…
We were not allowed to be weak.
Barney's nose caved in like an egg shell as I punched him with a right hook. His shaking knees gave out and he slumped to the ground, chuckling for some reason I didn't care for.
My short fuse had just run out. The time bomb had just exploded. Again. Every single time I was given a chance to back off, I failed. Don warned me and scolded me, but it was no use. He said diplomacy; I said violence.
I stood over Barney, face burning, paying little attention to the footsteps that approached behind me. That was a mistake. As a runner, I'm supposed to keep all my surroundings under constant radar. That means my eyes, ears, and nose are on red-alert 24/7. But I was too focused on Barney, too deep in my anger, to be aware of anything else.
It was only when I heard the voice that I started to turn…
…but, by then, the Taser had hit me, filling me with searing pain, which was quickly swallowed up by darkness as I blacked out.