“That oughta do it. Nervous?”
“More than you can guess,” Aichen admits. He tugs on the restraints at his wrists. “These have to be so tight?”
“Part of the safety protocol.” The computerized voice is warm, almost human. It’s been programmed with perfect attention to colloquial speech, but it still lacks a proper bedside manner. The questions it asks are never followed up. Is he nervous? Yes. No. It doesn’t matter how he answers.
“So if I win—” he begins.
“—I’m not programmed with that information.” Two beady eyes blink behind a flat screen, which twists to meet his gaze. That’s as close as the programmers could come to successfully mimicking physical mannerisms in a human conversation. No matter how he turns, the screen will follow him.
“Great.” Undercover mission or not, Aichen didn’t sign up for this. His superiors will be hearing his complaints—if he lives. “Throw me in then. I’m as ready as I’ll get. The longer I wait, the worse this feels.”
“You’ll wait until your allotted time.” Blasted thing. “Your partner hasn’t been decided.” Aichen stands from his patient bed and investigates the window on the far wall. From here, he can barely make out the roaring coliseum. There’s a crowd from floor to ceiling and there’s no telling how far up the ceiling goes. It’s impossible to guess at this angle.
“This isn’t some en masse fight to the death or something, is it?” Aichen wonders, hands pressed to the glass. After being captured, he’d been told absolutely nothing. It started in a cell, then he was being led down this hallway, and now he’s stuck in this room. His only mission detail was: get captured. What could be so important inside those anti-gravity walls?
He won’t have much chance for recon.
“Await your time, prisoner…1227894-4-4-4….”
“122789435,” Aichen finishes for it. “You’d think they could afford functioning ‘bots with the high bets they get here.” He briefly glances at the bot, who’s makeshift face is a blaze of expressions, and sighs.
“Guess it’s finally my turn.” Approaching the sealed door, Aichen mentally prepares his first encounter with the chamber. Recon, then fight. And in a worst-case scenario, gather his bearings before proceeding. But he’s seen anti-gravity before.
He’ll be fine.
His body jolts forward. The roars erupt. And then he’s plummeting. Where’s the anti-gravity? For a fear-invoking moment, he just falls. Air whooshes past him, billowing through his tunic, ruffling through his hair.
A hand grips his ankle.
“Get it together!” the shout is audible, even over the deafening thrum of people, machines, and fear. Hovering above him is a woman as well-lived as the council. Aged ones are rare. “Check the bonds.” As Aichen flails to grab his wrist, she drops him.
Two blurred figures clash with her.
She blocks. Parries. Counters. Her form is pristine. She must be aged. Aerial combat is no longer sought after. The academies deemed it archaic. It and every other form of combat. That’s why he had to find a teacher.
“Focus,” Aichen whispers to himself. His eyes waiver over the wrist binds until he sees it. Ripping a circular tab up from the forearm, he gives it a twirl, then shoves it back in. His body jolts. Like a crescent hand, an air current forces him back up the clear shaft. It forces his gaze onto the woman and her plight. She kicks one of the figures away and sinks her fingers into the other. Pieces of them scatter, framing the air around her.
Aichen whirls to meet the sound at the very base of the chamber. And then it begins to fill. A liquid floods beneath them. Water? Aichen’s never seen water before. But the frothy blue could be nothing else. He stops. The crescent releases him, leaving him dangling near the very height of the chamber.
But the water is rising.
A rhythmic clatter before the full vacuum. He holds his breath. His heart pounds. His eyes clamp shut. The vacuum overwhelms him, water filling in over his head.
Soft at first, another beat. Then, from the all-consuming liquid, the beat spreads.
Though soft on the ears, it vibrates through him. He hazards a peek. The aged woman is nowhere to be seen. But those two figures are approaching him. Fast. With an unplanned weave backward, his hands hit the glass. One figure eases a hand over his throat, the other threatens with razor teeth. Aichen’s limbs are heavy. How did his ancestors move in water? How did they swim?
Panic sets in.
“Oy!” the woman’s voice echoes in his head. And theirs too, apparently. They both turn to meet her. Two thin talons puncture the tips of each finger. She strikes. A flurry of movement. A feline cry. Then two screams as they dissolve. “They’ll be back.” Her words are filtering through a throbbing bubble. It fluctuates with every word, every breath.
“This is a team event?” While Aichen usually prides himself on asking astute questions, this isn’t one of his best moments. And here, under the water, the drowned sound of his voice causes the words to sound even less intelligible.
“Swim.” She ignores Aichen, drawing him toward the surface. “You may not understand the feeling. But you’re drowning.” They breach the waterline. And Aichen gasps. His chest is burning. His nose, too. But with the air, the weight of his limbs lessens.
“I can’t swi—”
“—I know. The academy never trains ‘em right these days.” Her grip on him holds. But her gaze is less loyal. She’s surveying the landscape beneath them, the crowd threatening to break through the chamber, and the ceiling.
“No, I’m no—”
“—Save it, embboy. You’re an incarnation of academy regulations.” She gestures at his feet. “Any hidden weapons in those boots?” He ignores her.
“There’s nothing wrong with being born,” he grumbles. “Being of embryonic cells is preferable to whatever you are.” For a brief moment, the woman meets his judging glare. The bubble at her mouth squirms against her frown. “Are you one of those tube babies? A biobot? Or maybe you were one of the original crafted?” He knows he’s digging his own grave, but he can’t stop the onslaught of insults from tumbling over his teeth.
“Do you have something against crafted?”
“No,” he’s quick to recover. “No, I’ve just never met one.” She eyes him a moment longer, before glancing away. Deep in the water, the figures are easing toward them. They don’t have time for this.
Diving beneath the water, the aged woman takes hold of his boot. She rips the laces free. And the knife beneath them. The other boot is short to follow.
“Wield this,” she orders him as she resurfaces.
“Fine.” He reluctantly takes the blade. And then he’s sinking. Rapidly. Two billowing claws climb his legs. They rip. They shred. They slice through his skin. And he swings aimlessly. The knife strikes once. And the figure recoils. It screams with a growing wound, which festers and spreads. It’s skin dissolves. Again.
The water recedes.
From above him, the aged woman lunges. She catches Aichen by his belt. Then herself on the wall. “The trials are quick. You have to keep up.” Thrusting him onto the wall, she points with her head. “Each scenario is different. But the goal never changes. Kill those things, survive.”
“Right.” He can do that.
The water drains beneath them. A harsh moment. A long moment. His heart’s deafening him in anticipation. His hands are clammy.
But nothing happens.
“They can take a moment to transition,” she admits under her breath.
“I guess we can catch our breath,” he jokes. He isn’t sure she even has breath. If elders are rare, the crafted are inconceivable. They had died out decades ago, along with the other elders. And for good reason, at least, that’s what he’d been told. Dangerous, unpredictable, unstable, and horrific. Not one positive descriptor had ever been used to describe them.
He resists the urge to stare at her. “What’s coming next?” His question drifts beneath the mechanical engine that erupts beneath them. The hatches open. There’s creaking joints, the rattle of movement, and a heavy hiss. But above that, a black mass scaling up the wall towards them.
“The air, the water. I could handle those. You’re afraid of biosects?”
“What?” Aichen looks down at the mass. “I—I…”
“I’ll handle this one. Climb,” the woman lowers herself. Among the mass, two shadowy figures surge. It’ll end if he kills one and she kills the other. Closing his eyes, he lets go. As he falls, he raises his knife. “No!” Her shout bursts his eyes open. The shadow has moved. Beneath him, there are only biosects. “Throw it. Throw it!” Before he hits the ground, Aichen releases the dagger. Mid-air, their daggers graze each other. That soft touch is enough to guide his.
Screams. Aichen flattens to the floor. No biosects. No shadows.
“Stand, hurry.” The woman is already beside him, gathering both daggers. Looping a hand under his arm, she lifts him to his feet. The wail of a siren. Pounding from the opposite side of the chamber. Cheering. “It’s not over yet.”
“M-more fears?” Aichen wonders. He squints at the crowd, wondering how they find enjoyment in this. They wouldn’t if they were the ones down here. No, they’d be begging for mercy and dying one by one.
“Two unknowns, one fear.”
“So then it should be over.”
“Yours are. Mine aren’t,” her eyes scan the chamber. “The unknowns could be anything. But if you understand them, then I need you to—” The words are sealed into her mouth by a thin thread. Alarmed, Aichen tries to reassure her. But he can’t. His lips clap together. The thread is quick. Once finished, it pounces from his mouth to his eyes.
Wings? No. Electricity.
A hand encloses in his. But the touch is gone as soon as it arrives. His dagger is all that remains. He tightens his fingers on it. This is something he’s been trained for. Bending both knees, Aichen assumes a proper dagger-stance. He can hear the woman’s breath to the left. But to the right, a whoosh. He swings. The blade connects.
And then she’s screaming.
“Elder?!” he shouts. He approaches her. One arm as his guide, he interprets the situation. She’s on her knees. The figure has her by the hair. Digging his fingers into what should be the figure’s eye sockets, Aichen thrashes back. The knife moves with him. A sickening, fleshy sound tells him he hit.
Light filters back through his vision. But the woman is lying on the ground. Blood has stained the floor around her shivering form. “Hey,” he whispers, dropping to her side. “Hey!” His hands cup her wrinkled cheeks. “Please. I need your help.”
“Wrap it,” her voice barely passes her pale lips. Aichen tears the fabric from his shirt, peeling it into a long thin scrap. “My shoulder.” He heaves her into his lap, securing the fabric around her chest and shoulder. It’ll have to do. Another failing of the academy. No medical practice.
“Give me the other knife,” Aichen tells her.
“No.” She shakes her head.
“Give me the other knife!” he barks.
“I’m not dead. We’ll finish this together.”
Before Aichen can argue further, the lights cut. Her unknowns are all visibility related. Will her fear be as well? Electricity hisses up the chamber walls. In an arcing coil, a blue spark alights. The back of his neck tingles. This is an unknown for him, too. He has no experience with live electricity. It’s an issue of the past.
The coil rotates inward. With increasing speed, it lurches in at them. He pulls her beneath him. “I can take it,” he promises. Engulfing her small frame in his body, he absorbs the shock. It rattles him. In his every nerve. In the deep, squirming organs. In his instantly nauseated stomach. His teeth chatter. And he groans. Saliva foams through the corner of his lips.
But in the soft glow, he sees them.
Against the increasing pain, he brandishes his knife. The figure flits in and out of view. But its location is constant. Are they testing his timing? Without a second thought, he hurls it. The knife passes through at first. But the figure returns just as the blade seeks to exit. And its eyes bulge.
“Give me the knife,” he sounds the words out through pained whimpers. He’s passing out. The electricity is only gaining in strength. The once aching tingle is now a violent jolting.
“No.” Her hand flicks out. He watches the blade spiral into the darkness. And then he’s free. The blue crackle releases him. The lights flicker back on. And the chamber erupts with applause. But he’s still vibrating.
Regardless of his freedom, he’s suffering. Hugging himself with both arms, he attempts to still the trembling. But it’s not just his body that’s shuddering, it’s his eyes as well. Even if he calms his body, he can barely see anything.
“Don’t move too suddenly,” the woman rests a hand on his shoulder. “You could be injured.”
“It’s fine”—he jerks out of her touch—“If we’re going to get out of here, I need to know. What’s your fear?” He isn’t one who likes to be doted on. He never has. Joining the academy was a way for him to prove his worth, not to be protected like a child. As it is, they prepared him to handle worse shocks than that.
“No. Tell me. Now.” He pushes to stand but falters. The knife is too far out of reach. He has to get to it before the next test begins. Dragging himself across the floor, he strains his fingers out for it.
His fingers crunch under her boot. He withholds the scream, even through the throbbing. He’s in enough pain now. It’s all numbing. The woman bends to retrieve his knife.
“That.” Her voice comes from behind him. Oh.
“You’re afraid of yourself?” he confirms. The woman above him grins. Knife in hand, she dives for him. He rolls. Catching her leg in both hands, he rips her to the ground. They tumble. They wrestle. But she manages to gain the high ground. From the corner of his eye, he can see the real woman facing a similar fate with another version of herself.
This is the last one.
The last one.
Tightening his fingers into the woman’s striking wrist, he leans forward. His teeth clamp down on her nose. His jaw holds firm, even though the rest of his body is wavering. She claws his cheek. Those metal points in her fingers are identical to the real woman’s. But he doesn’t let up. Blood seeps from her face. Her grip loosens on the blade. And Aichen rips it free from her hands. He delves it deep into her throat.
Plumes of smoke fill the chamber. The crowd disappears as the screens stop projecting. The sound of them fades with it. The duplicate bodies of the elder woman glitch until they’re nothing but training dummies. Including the one atop Aichen. It flops, weighing him down to the floor; nothing more than a sand-filled human-shaped sack.
“You’re certainly resilient.” The elder woman stares down at him. The messy, silver tresses that were once tangled into a bun are now sleek and straight at her shoulders. Her dirty, torn tunic and pants have slimmed into an ankle-length, black pantsuit. The tattered shoes are nothing but bare feet. “And considerate.”
“I was trained to b—”
“—Oh, certainly not. You may look regulation, however, you’re anything but. The agents before you left me to die; the ones who made it that far. After all, they still won without me. But you never assumed that to be true—” she kneels beside him, her lips to his ear—“Embboy, who really trained you?” Aichen doesn’t answer. His mission was to get captured, but now he’s wondering who issued it. And who she really is. Like all aged, is she part of the council? If so, he has no reason to talk. He refuses to have a reason. They were the ones who drove him to join the academy. Fighting them was the only thing keeping him alive after...
“Twelve,” she calls out.
“Commander?” a familiar face enters the room. Aichen’s eyes widen.
“Weldler?!” Aichen exclaims the name before he can stop himself.
“122789435.” Weldler bows to Aichen in greeting. He then returns to the elder woman. His bow only deepens.
“W-Weldler.” Aichen’s voice softens. They’d lost Weldler nearly a year ago. He’d gone undercover and never returned. But those with him couldn’t remember what happened. They just labeled him MIA and the higher-ups dismissed any requests for rescue.
“What can I do for you, Commander?” Weldler prompts the elder woman when she doesn’t instruct him. Gaining a soft grin, she rests a hand down on Aichen’s head. A pat. Two. Then she strokes his bangs from his forehead.
“Prepare 122789435’s new living quarters. Oh, and change his file name to Aichen. I will send him to be escorted shortly.” She dismisses Weldler, who leaves without a second thought, or a second glance. Her fingers trace down Aichen’s cheek before resting under his chin. “Your mentor won’t be able to hide from me for long. See. I’m eager to unravel your mind, Agent Aichen Lurch. All too eager.” She stands with abrupt grace and snaps for another man standing at the door.