Chapter 10: The early bird

I paced my enclosure. Was it just my imagination, or did the space seem bigger? It didn’t matter. What was the point of more space if there was nothing in it? I had even less to work with than what I had started with.

My axe, spears, and sling were all gone. Even my pockets had been emptied of hand-axes and random flint blades. Not to mention the new additions that weighed down my forearms. For now, instead of silver cuffs, I had new glossy black ones. They were heavier, and I had no doubt they would be much harder to resist.

All traces of the fire were gone. There was no food. I still had running water and the pit as a toilet, so that was something. In terms of resources, I had plenty of fake logs. But I only had one largish sphere of flint, and of course the high carbon ball. There were no other stone spheres in the enclosure.

And Critter was gone too. I supposed I wouldn’t have to share my food anymore.

I would have to get started with a fire and a hand-axe soon, but for the moment I kept pacing, working off the weakness in my muscles.

I did light a fire when evening came, and I didn’t sleep that night until I had made a new hand-axe. I chipped away at it by the flickering light of the fire, remembering my first night spent in the enclosure. When it was done, I slept soundly at last. The hard surface wasn’t a problem for me anymore. It felt right to go to sleep with a little too much pressure in the wrong places that night.

And it felt right to wake up sore as well, with cramps in my legs and itchy radiation burns from laying too close to the fire. Well, it wasn’t the first time it had happened. They would go away in a day or two.

I had barely finished my morning routine of drinking copious amounts of water and doing my business when the get ready chime sounded.

My hands clung together before the wall had even begun to open, and I felt a pull coming from the other side. I walked closer towards it as a show of good faith. When it did open, the Wisp greeted me from the other side with a warning shiver before sucking me out into the arena.

I didn’t have time to process what I was seeing, and when it dropped me still in the air, my stomach lurched and I tensed. My inner ear went instantly haywire. My foot connected with something briefly, but I still felt like I was falling. I was still flailing wildly when I figured out that I was floating, not falling. Though if you wanted to be technical about it, I was falling, just extremely slowly towards a giant rock. My feet touched down on it gently, and I toppled over in slow motion before bouncing a few times. I didn’t even bother trying to get up. Any movement I tried to make pushed me away from the rock I was hugging. I took in the view from the awkward position I was in.

This arena was spherical and orders of magnitude larger than the ones I had been in previously. Giant irregular boulders floated in close proximity to each other. The light source was in the dead centre of the sphere, but it was dim and cast strange shadows on the rocks around me. 

I got to my hands and knees and only bounced a few times while doing so. There was very little to grip on to. I crawled around to its other side, trying to get used to the mechanics of low gravity. I hoped I wouldn’t throw up. I didn’t have the calories to spare.

On a nearby rock, I spied something familiar and pushed off towards it. I was no physicist, but with the size of these – meteorites I suppose, it was surprising that they had as much gravity as they did. I still overestimated the force needed, and made another awkward landing before slow motion crawling to the glint of deep red I had spied. It was indeed my cache of tools. This was good. This was very good. My five spears, hand-axes, and assorted flint blades were stuck gently to the surface of the rock. Just a way over there was also the sling, and a pile of perfectly sized stones that I didn’t remember collecting. I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I stuffed the hand-axes, other flint tools, sling, and stones into my free pockets and tried to convince myself that I wasn’t looking around for Critter. There was no sign of him. It was probably for the best. This wasn’t exactly the perfect environment for an extra-terrestrial insect. Though perhaps it was even worse for a terrestrial mammal.

Something moved out of the corner of my eye and I whipped my head around just in time to see something huge and long and fast disappear behind a meteorite over the other side of the arena.

Great, I thought. Gigantic space worms. Exactly what I need.

Why they kept putting me up against things that were so obviously above my punching weight was beyond me, but there was nothing for it. I steeled myself to leap to the next rock, and pushed off with less force this time. I guess this means the enemy’s gate is up.

I could only take two of the spears with me, so I chose the best ones and pushed off towards the nearest meteorite. I braced the impact with my spears first, and did my best to avoid toppling over. It was harder than crawling, but I would need my hands free to fight anyway.

I moved in a spiral direction inwards, watching the rocks in the distance carefully. I was out of breath in no time at all. Keeping balance and jumping and calculating angles took energy.

I slowed down when I got closer to the place I had seen the creature. The rocks nearby had been disturbed. Some were spinning and others had gathered a bit of speed and were shooting off in all directions. I found out why when I saw the thing again.

It was using the rocks to move. The front third of its pale form would impact gently onto a meteorite, and then it would somehow grip it with its leathery skin and move it along the length of its body before shooting it out behind it to produce momentum. It had remarkable control of movement using this mechanism. 

It passed right by the rock I was on and I didn’t have time to hide. The way it had moved, there wasn’t much chance that it hadn’t seen me, even if it didn’t have eyes to speak of. I crouched down below the level of my spear tips. If it wanted a mouthful of soft squishy human, it would have to get a taste of sharp bitey flint first.

I watched the snake do a wide lap around the light source, bringing my vertigo back full force, before it returned from the other direction and touched down on the other side of the rock I was on. Its momentum sent us spinning off in another direction, but I couldn’t afford to close my eyes.

I was stuck. With the universe spinning around me, I could no longer judge a safe place to jump to. The head – if you could call it a head – of the creature snaked around the side of the rock and paused not two meters away. I moved my spears accordingly. Up close it was awesome in the original sense of the word. With a mostly white coat that reflected light like the strips on a high visibility vest, it cast an impressive swinging shadow as we spun together on the rock. I was sure I had seen a mouth before, but up close there was no sign of it. Regardless, if I wasn’t trying desperately not to fall, I would have been frozen in place.

“Are we going to be friends?” I asked it under my breath as I shifted my foot into a better position so as to be ready to jump at the first opportunity. The worm dithered as if confused. I imagined it thinking “Is that all there is? Barely even a mouthful.” I chuckled despite myself.

I felt rather than heard a movement behind me, and kicked off without considering where I would end up. Through my legs, I got a brief glimpse of the other end of the worm slamming into the ground with an open maw, right where I had crouched. So that’s where the mouth had been. Clever. That was all I had time to think before I slammed into a spinning meteorite that had been going the other way. I bounced off it painfully, and went on another collision course with a much larger but stationary rock. Unfortunately, it had been blessed with more gravity too. I faceplanted into it at high speed. I had lost one of my spears on impact with the first meteorite, and I was quite sure I had broken my nose on this one.   

Through the stars in my vision, I quickly checked on the creature. It was coming around to me, but it had yet to gather up speed. I scrambled across the face of the rock and jumped onwards to another. If I could get the light between us, maybe it would find it harder to see me, and then I could get behind one of the meteorites and keep out of sight. Three jumps later and some bruised knuckles, I had it situated behind the light, but it wouldn’t be for long. If I squinted, I could see the tail move as it gathered speed. It didn’t seem to want to go directly through the light source, and so was following the same path that I had taken. I considered that a win, and jumped one more rock before manoeuvring myself to its opposite side. Out of sight, out of mind, I hoped in a sort of mantra.

Where to next. I took a peek at where the creature was, and made a hasty decision to move towards the wall of the sphere. The thing was gaining a lot of speed. The next waypoint was a long jump, and I had only just scrabbled behind it when I heard the whoosh of an immense body moving on the other side of my meteorite. There was no time to catch my breath. If it hadn’t seen me then it would very soon. I hoped it had trouble changing directions.

I made it two more jumps before it caught up to me in the worst way possible. A four-sided jaw clamped around my free arm and the entire left side of my torso and began to crush. Evidently it didn’t have enough trouble changing directions. I was pretty sure I got whiplash. But I had seen it coming, and my other arm forced the spear into its hide. It slid off the first time, but then I got the angle right and it slid a few inches under a layer of something. I tried and failed to pull it out, and the worm let go of me and spun away.

I was now effectively adrift, injured, and weaponless, but on the plus side, my trajectory directly into the wall of the arena took me spinning right past the rock that held my other three spears. It was fortunate I was so close, because I didn’t think the sling would cut it against this eldritch monster. I managed my collision, and set off again. The wall didn’t have any gravity to it, but I worked it out. There were only two more meteorites until I reached my stash, but the worm was coming around for another taste.

I scrambled behind the next rock, and felt the impact of a tremendous mass hit the back of it. Somehow, I didn’t get crushed between several colliding rocks, and while the creature was recovering from the impact, I bunny-hopped across and picked up a spear. When the worm lunged at me again, I had an interesting view of the jet-black flesh of the inside of its mouth as my spear went right into a squishy bit between two flat bony teeth. The wound didn’t bleed, but it did make the creature rear away. This time I managed to wrench my spear back before it left. And it was already coming back, mouth open wide as if it hadn’t learned anything.

I prepared myself to be mauled, and used its own momentum and the rock behind me to shove the spear into its palate hard. The jaws began to close around my entire torso regardless. I swivelled and kicked, but my legs were no longer against something solid and I couldn’t gain purchase. I changed tactics. My entire upper body worked to pull the spear out, while my legs tried their damnedest to stay outside of the digestive tract of the giant space alien. The spear came out without its flint head, but I didn’t need it for what I was thinking of. My pelvis felt like it was being split in half by the time I managed to get the spear shaft perpendicular to the worm’s jaws. I wiggled it backwards, and felt instant relief as the pressure let up. I continued to drag it back towards the opening until there was enough room for me to carefully squeeze out, and then I jetted off the creature back towards the rock that held my last two spears.

As I drifted back, I had front row seats to see a gigantic worm thrash about with its mouth propped open. I would have giggled at the sight in any other situation. What the hell, I giggled then as well. My back jarred against the rock I had aimed for, and I twisted around as I bounced, landing again neatly on the balls of my feet. I had my next spear ready when the creature finally realised it couldn’t get the thing out without opposable thumbs and came after me. It didn’t present its mouth to me that time, instead using the mass of its hide to crush me against the rock. It got a jab in its side for the trouble, and I got winded and then very motivated. I noticed that the worm couldn’t keep up its momentum with so many turns. When it came around again, it was the slowest it had ever been, and I jumped directly towards it. I had judged correctly, and took hold of the spear that was jammed in its back. The creature took us both into a death roll.

I had to move fast. Gripping the spear in my teeth, I used my now free hand to grab the lip of the creature and haul myself towards its open jaws. When I was sure I had a good grip, I narrowly dodged a meteorite that shot past my ear, and introduced my spear to the inside of the creature’s mouth for the last time, although I didn’t know it was at the time. Because when I stabbed it with the spear, the creature instinctively closed its mouth to protect itself, forcing the stick that was propping it open to penetrate through every layer of its flesh. The stick ended up protruding a couple centimetres from my knee. The creature curled up in a natural spiral with me still hanging on for dear life, and while I had managed to retrieve the spear that hadn’t been stuck in alien flesh, we were still on a collision course with the wall of the enclosure. I took a chance that the beast was dead and jettisoned away before I crashed with it.

It hit the wall and bounced off, pulsed strangely for a moment, and then drifted off passively at an angle. The victory gong sounded as I watched.

I didn’t know how it was possible that I could have killed such an enormous and brilliant monster, but the fact that I could and did made the world both a little bit smaller and a little bit sadder.

The Wisp came to take me back, which for once was a good thing because I didn’t know how I would find my enclosure, let alone get back to it. My wrists clanged together, and I was pulled without resistance to a place on the wall that opened as I was dragged closer.

My fingers jerked open of their own accord and I dropped my spear just outside the enclosure. That’s not fair, I thought. How in hell would I manage to break through the wall with a flint spear? At least I still had what was in my pockets.

Before I knew it, I was back in normal gravity, on my hands and knees watching distantly as blood streamed from my nose into a puddle on the floor. As I coughed and jarred a probably fractured rib, I realised that I would have to re-examine my strategy. I wouldn’t survive much longer if I kept getting hurt this badly.

Next chapter coming soon

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