Final Test

Here’s a short story I wrote a year and a half ago. It’s kind of fun and will be part of the anthology I am working on.

It’s called Final Test.

***

Aaron needed a weapon.

He ducked left, but it was as if his opponent could see the future, because the enormous creature swung its gnarled tail in the same direction. Aaron’s muscles tensed, feeling the impact the moment before it landed.

Then he was flying, the entire left side of his body caved in, ribs pulverized, his hip bone screaming in sudden agony. He hit something large, flat, and hard that stopped his flight and he landed on the floor. Through the haze of pain, he finally understood the first thing about this episode: he was going to die.

He shook his head, sensing the juggernaut coming toward him at terrific speed. Thanking the gods of wherever he was that he had been raising his left arm when the club-like tail struck him, he used that hand to push up, then kicked off the wall of the small sunken arena and rolled, low and tight. Moving entirely on instinct, he stopped the roll and flattened himself to the dirt floor.

Air crackled above him as the creature’s next attack sailed high.

Aaron snagged a handful of dirt and forced away his awareness of the pain throbbing along his left side. Willing himself to focus, he took a precious half second to scan the area. The creature’s last attack had carried it several meters to Aaron’s right, but it was righting itself fast. The thing was massive, towering at least three meters above Aaron’s head, with at least ten appendages lining each side of an articulated body and a long, whipping cudgel for a tail. In the poor light, Aaron couldn’t make out the thing’s color.

The problem, Aaron thought, was that the thing moved fast and seemed intent on killing him. Another problem was that Aaron had no memory of how he’d gotten here and his quick scan of the space showed no door that he could get through to make his escape.

The ground shook and Aaron watched closely as the creature thundered toward him, rearing up, balanced on its six back legs and its tail. Thousands of tiny, milky-white cilia lined the monster’s underbody, keeping it moving fast. Its long arms extended, unfolding into meter-length, serrated blades.

“Are you kidding me?” Aaron dropped back, unnerved. He flung his handful of dirt toward what he hoped was the creature’s face. “What am I supposed to do here?”

He skittered back again, trying to keep away from the creature’s sword arms. The thing followed him fast, moving out from the wall and boxing him in. Was this thing smarter than him? How could such a brutal thing be out-thinking him?

And then it came to him. The creature was out-thinking him, somehow predicting each move he was going to make.

“I have to be unpredictable.”

He watched as the monster approached again, but didn’t wait until it got close. He ran at the thing, screaming his throat hoarse. At the final moment, Aaron feinted as if he were going to jump, pushing that thought to the forefront of his mind. But instead he dropped into a quarterback’s slide, feet first, aiming for the creature’s right side legs.

He felt a satisfying crunch, but didn’t wait to see the damage he’d inflicted. He reached up with both hands, grabbing the base of two razor-sharp appendages the moment before they sliced into his head. The monster lifted those limbs, carrying Aaron off his feet. Aaron frantically kicked at the monster’s middle. He ignored the throbbing pain along his left side and twisted. He planted a foot on one of the thing’s arms and shoved off.

He landed in a graceless roll, jarring his neck painfully.

The creature followed. Aaron felt and heard it land heavily on all of its arms or legs and knew what was coming. Instead of rolling backward though, he spun, took a moment to get his bearings and leapt at the creature.

Its tail attack swung under him, just missing his ankles.

Aaron hit the top of the creature. Ridges and leathery, rough skin scraped at Aaron. He fought for a handhold.

The creature rolled.

Too late, Aaron tried to get clear. The monster’s enormous weight landed on top of him, pinning him to the ground. Air exploded from Aaron’s lungs. His vision darkened.

The creature wriggled. The ridges on its back dug into Aaron’s stomach, chest, mid-section, and face, ripping his skin.

Aaron tried pushing the monster off with his right arm, his left being pinned under the monster. No good. His vision grew darker as he struggled for air. Pain burned all over his body.

He tried getting a leg free, but both were pinched between the ground and the now wildly wriggling creature. For a moment, he imagined he heard gleeful laughter coming from the monster. It had won. He was going to die.

So be it. I’m dead. But I’m not done yet.

Aaron snaked his one free arm around the creature’s torso and between two waving appendages. With the last of his strength, he grabbed a handful of cilia and yanked hard. They pulled free, warm fluid splashing across his fist.

The creature let out an earth-shaking screech and the pressure on Aaron was suddenly gone. He sucked in a painful breath. All of his ribs ached. Every bone in his body felt battered and bruised.

Aaron rolled to his knees, gasping. The creature’s club tail slammed into his left side again. He heard his ribs break. Felt the flame of agony erupt. He shoved this to the back of his mind.

He pushed to his feet, controlling his thoughts as well as he could. He didn’t know if the thing could read his mind or if it just knew how to fight humans. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to take any chances.

He thought of puppies, with their soft snouts and needle-sharp teeth. He jumped over the creature’s next tail attack, then pushed off the arena wall. He filled his mind with the plaintive whines of the hungry puppies as he kicked out at two of the creature’s legs, feeling the satisfying crunch with both impacts.

The tail swung again. Aaron accepted the blow to his thigh as he kicked at two more legs. Needy puppies with their sour breath and soft ears. Now he rolled to the side and dodged the next tail attack. “Come on, stand up!”

But the creature was too smart. He had found its weakness and wasn’t going to let him exploit it.

Kittens with their sandpaper tongues. Aaron jumped onto the creature’s back, landing on his feet, a lance of agony burning up his entire left side. He slammed into the creature’s back again, then again. Four of its legs, weakened by his kicks, crumpled.

Cat litter. Disgusting stuff. At least toilets flushed. Aaron dropped, wrapping both arms around one of the creature’s good appendages and wrenching it back. The joint popped and the creature snarled. But with only two good legs on one side and another appendage popped out of joint, it had no leverage and it couldn’t roll over.

Cleaning out those nuggets from cat litter had to be nastiest thing ever.

Aaron grabbed another appendage, yanked hard and felt its joint pop. But he wasn’t done. “Why would you ever have a cat, anyway?” His voice bounced off the arena walls. He jerked the appendage up, forcing the serrated edge to unfold. “Zero affection and they shed everywhere!”

He shoved the wildly squirming creature’s knife arm into its side. At first, tough skin resisted, but the blade finally burst through. Aaron shoved the knife arm all the way into the creature. It snarled and reared up.

He rolled off. Where was this thing’s heart?

On its back four legs, all of them good, its tail keeping it balanced, the creature unfolded four blades and spun. Each blade hummed wildly through the air. It skittered toward Aaron.

He stepped back. Dogs were better, of course, but they chewed everything. He spun and kicked at a blade arm. The agony in his side softened the kick, made it a little off, but he still connected. The blade sliced a bunch of the cilia off. Having any pet had to be like having a hairy, shedding kid that never grew up.

He leapt at the monster, grabbed the back of the blade arm he’d just kicked, and shoved with the last of his strength.

The blade met almost no resistance. It slide into its owner’s torso smoothly. Warm, slimy fluid poured out as the blade sliced a long opening. A disgusting smell, like rotten beans or eggs, assaulted him. Tubes and bits gushed out of the thing’s body.

It fell, twitched once, then died.

Aaron collapsed, making sure he did so on his right side. The throbbing pain along his left side felt like it was setting his hair on fire. He felt like a side of tenderized beef, with each bruise from the creature’s ridged back a knot of twitching agony.

He looked around, wary. Was there going to be another creature?

Nothing moved. The circular arena with its ten-meter tall stone walls was completely still and silent. Only darkness could be made out above the walls. He saw no doors, no cracks—nothing in the smooth arena walls.

The walls flickered. The body of the creature disappeared.

Aaron found himself sitting on the Senso-Resin floor of Wizzard’s test room. The pain in his body was gone. He stood, running his fingers down the smooth, black suit that covered every inch of his body. He took the light, comfortable mask off his face and dropped the hood off his head, letting the reality of the test room replace the simulated sensations of the Gamer Suit.

“So?” The voice came from speakers overhead.

Aaron swiveled and grinned at the developers in the observation room. “Yeah. It works.”

About jaredgarrett

Jared Garrett is the author of Beat, a YA scifi thriller, and its forthcoming sequel, both published by Future House Publishing. A new series, debuting in January 2016 and also published by Future House, kicks off with Lakhoni, a fast-paced rescue adventure in a world reminiscent of Aztec culture, to be released in January 2016. He self-published Beyond the Cabin, a novelization of his childhood in a cult, in December 2014. Both Beat and Beyond the Cabin were Whitney Award nominees, and his story Song of the Wind, received honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. In addition to writing, he's spent fifteen years in adult education and is an accomplished public speaker and workshop leader.
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