I drifted slowly into awareness and began to take in the scene in front of me. There was a table with a teapot on it. I poured a cup into existence, and looked up to face a mouth of needle shaped teeth. The creature examined me carefully with all too human eyes.
“How long did it take you to go mad?” it asked me conversationally in my sister’s voice.
“Not long,” A voice over my shoulder answered. I didn’t bother looking to see who it was. “Eleven days, I suppose.”
“Hardly,” My other shoulder disagreed. ”If she wasn’t mad before she went there, I’ll eat my hat.”
“I wasn’t,” I said without much conviction. I frowned inwardly. “I don’t think I went mad at all.”
“I was only being metaphorical.” My shoulder declared. “I don’t have a hat.”
“I’ll lend you mine,” My uncle’s voice declared. I turned towards it to see another needle toothed creature, it wasn’t wearing a hat. “But anyway,” It continued while eating a grey loaf, “Did you try talking to him?”
I frowned, “You’re not supposed to have that.”
“I know,” It replied, “But sometimes you can be a little… you. It doesn’t hurt to try and make friends.”
“I did.” I told it. “I tried,” then, “But no-one told me how.”
“You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.” The creature with my sister’s voice piped up.
“I didn’t!” Then turning back to the other one, said; “Stop eating that!”
It kept munching on the loaf. “Did you even ask his name?”
“Stop it.” I said, suddenly holding my axe instead of a teacup.
I jolted awake and instantly regretted it. The entire left side of my face felt swollen, and it pressed into the ground at an uncomfortable angle. My neck was too stiff to be of any help. I rolled onto my belly, only to have my diaphragm protest horribly at the movement. I stayed like that until I garnered the courage to get up to my knees, also stiff and bruised, then unsteadily to my feet, which actually felt ok. I spied my axe, lying next to the spear near the closed wall. There was no loaf waiting for me, but I didn’t think I would be able to stomach it anyway. Critter did look suspiciously bloated. There was no sign of the last few bits of my carcass either. Even the bones and horns were gone. They had been too soft to work with, but I hoped it was Critter who had gotten to them rather than whoever kept cleaning up the enclosure when I was out. If only Critter could tell me who or what it was.
Limping to the water, I choked some down and rinsed my forearms and face. I checked the bruises on my stomach, splotches of sickly bluish grey, a swelling where the stone had hit me. As I was inspecting my knee, which had some fluid on it, an uncomfortable pressure in my lower abdomen made itself known.
I made it to the latrine in time, and even managed to grab some tinder before I went, but getting up the second time was beyond me. I settled with a half crawl back to the fire, which I soon gave up on restarting. The coals didn’t have enough life in them. I would have to light it from scratch. But I had no energy and everything hurt and my hands couldn’t hold the sticks properly, so I simply curled up half buried in the ash to suck up the warmth that was left. When night came, Critter joined me. Curled around his now sizable body, I shivered through the night.
The next day, I felt somehow worse. But the need to be prepared spurred my movement. Gritting my teeth through the pain, I retrieved my knapping stone and the new spheres of flint that had been provided. My hands shook, but I made a new hand-axe and was halfway through another when my arm gave a spasm and the stones in my hands let off a spark. I took a moment to process, then replicated the striking movement a couple of times. Sparks flew each time. It didn’t take long to figure it out, and even less time to have started working on making up another fire. The knapping stone had to be high carbon steel, or something. And it had taken this long to figure it out, even when I had been bashing flint with it a hundred times over.
I got the fire started in moments, and was rewarded by the achievement tone and a grey loaf rising through the revolving hatch. I ate the food without cooking it for no particular reason. I wondered how long it would take to die of scurvy.
I worked on the second hand-axe until the evening. Sleep came easily that night with the comfort of warmth and a full belly.
I spent most of the following day watching the wall that could open, axe in one hand and spear in the other, with everything else I needed stuffed in the pockets of my cargo pants. The get ready chime never rang out. Perhaps they were giving me a reprieve to tend to my injuries.
I whiled away the rest of the afternoon by practicing with the sling I had stolen. I collected some chunks left over from making the flint tools and stone axe and went to work. I tried hitting the invisible ceiling with my projectiles. The ones that made it up there never made it back down. I filed that away as unnecessarily confusing. Hitting the walls with the stones proved quite easy, but aiming was harder. I stopped when one ricocheted close to Critter’s head. All in all, it wasn’t really my sort of weapon, but I thought it could prove useful in a pinch. I had some designs on using my old shirt cord to make a new sling, a better one that was right for my arm length and could hold bigger projectiles, but that would have to wait.
I woke refreshed on the fourth day after killing the man who’s name I never asked. I was still in considerable pain when I moved, but was at least able to move my neck, and the horrible rasping noise whenever I breathed had gone away. With the pain subsiding, I was able to notice that I was getting intolerably greasy and itchy. I washed myself with the help of a chunk of pumice. My hair was unmanageable. I removed some of the knots by force, and put it up in the semblance of a braid using some cord to tie it back. My hairband had disappeared into the ether.
I washed my clothes too, but put the undergarments back on wet. The cargo pants and thermal top I held out near the fire to dry. As I did so, I observed the mark my axe had made on the wall. It had made me hopeful before, but now it just stared into my soul, demanding me to act. And I didn’t want to anymore. I wasn’t sure that I ever had. My recent experiences had changed my priorities, nothing more so than almost dying at the hands of the nameless man. I’d never fancied myself afraid of death. Pain, certainly, but not death. And if the last two weeks had taught me nothing it was that I could resolve myself to pain, or at least endure it. I re-examined my thoughts on this, being perfectly open to the idea that I was wrong. No, I concluded, it wasn’t fear of death or pain that held me back.
I just didn’t want to lose what little I had left. My axe could break attempting to get through the wall and I could be left with sub-par defences moving forward. Critter could be taken from me, with the tools and the spears too. But all of these things had meant nothing to me a few weeks ago, so why should they now? Really, losing my things and Critter would be regrettable, but I had survived with barely anything when I first got here and I could likely do so again.
What I was really afraid of was losing that mark on the wall. Or rather what it represented. If I left it alone, then it would always be there to remind me that I had power. That if I tried, I would be able to get somewhere. On the other hand, if I tried and failed miserably then I would know that I couldn’t ever escape. I realised that I didn’t think I had a chance to be able to escape or better my situation by trying. It was probably true to be honest, what with the technology of the enclosure and ever-changing arena and the fact that the man had been stuck in this place for six months or more…
Learned helplessness. The phrase darted into my mind from somewhere. I was learning to be helpless, or I was being taught it. That just wouldn’t do.
When you thought about it, regardless of my actual chances, I couldn’t influence the outcome in my favour. Either I would fail or I wouldn’t, and the outcome had already been decided by unknowable factors outside my control. Thus, this notion of “losing” something by trying to escape was simply a fabricated understanding that wasn’t rational at best, and was downright pathetic in certain lights. Of course, to be afraid of dying or being hurt badly in the attempt would have been very rational. But I didn’t have any of that, so I slipped into my damp clothes, filling my pockets automatically, and picked up my axe. My lips curled into a strange grin. I was ready. If not to succeed, I was ready to go to war.
I chose the wall that could open as my target. I didn’t know if there was anything behind the others. Using the entirety of my body to create momentum, I swung the axe around to hit the place that I expected the middle of the wall to be. The force of it rattled my teeth. I grit them and swung again, noticing as I did so that it was having an effect. Three more swings I took before I let my arms rest and checked the wall. A series of shallow gouges marked where I had hit. If I looked closely at the deepest one, I could even see the delineation between the two edges of the wall’s opening. I had chosen my spot wisely.
If the wall was made of stone or concrete, it wasn’t any sort I knew of. It was more like a type of really hard wood. I would think about that later, but at the moment, I had a task. I checked the edge of my axe. It was holding up well. I returned to my task with renewed vigour and better aim. Six more hits. More progress. If I could just punch a hole through, I thought, I might be satisfied. Maybe I couldn’t even do that, but I wanted whatever had brought me here to see what I was doing, and be forced to respond.
I took a run up for the next three, then stopped to catch my breath. Where was the Wisp? Perhaps they weren’t watching, or maybe they knew I wasn’t a threat and wanted to see how it played out. I hoped it was the first option. I brushed off some of the bits of broken wall to better see my target. I swung again, and again, and again. I began to lose myself in the repetition of it. Swing the axe onto the gash in the wall until you can no longer breathe. Stop to breathe. Brush away the bits of loose wall and check progress. Rinse and repeat.
When the axe broke through, it took a couple of seconds for me to realise what had happened. Eventually I shook myself and pulled the axe out. I was attempting to make the hole bigger with my hand to be able to see something through it when I finally heard the subtle sizzle that heralded the approach of the angry Wisp. I didn’t hesitate to punch my hand through to the other side. It hurt, but I would have tried anything not to lose the progress I had made.
With my right arm fully through to the other side, I turned my head to face the Wisp and raised an eyebrow. It shivered angrily. “Yeah, I know,” I told it. “But what are you going to do about it?” Evidently the tried and tested method was its modus operandi. I felt my arms begin to move together from either side of the wall and grinned. They slammed together around the wall without any subtlety, and I felt more pieces begin to flake off around the opening I had made.
Another sizzle. The Wisp darted towards me angrily, and I didn’t have time to do anything but brace myself for the shock that would come. Static filled my ears as my vision whited out. This can’t be good for my heart, I thought through the agony that ran through my body and commanded my muscles to curl in on themselves. I waited to pass out, but it wouldn’t come.
The relief when it was over was indescribable. I didn’t try to move, I wasn’t sure that I could. My vision came back into focus slowly. I had been moved. I knew that because this place had a proper ceiling rather than the stars. My arms were ridiculously heavy by my sides. I tried to move them, and was reminded exactly why that was a bad idea when they flashed with pain. It wasn’t bad enough to pass out, but something commanded my body to do so, and I obeyed.
When I woke next, I had only the vague understanding that something was wrong and nothing more. I flopped around a bit on the hard surface, and managed to turn my head enough to take in my surroundings. It was my enclosure. I knew that at least. Or I was pretty sure at least. Yep, there were the plain walls and hard ground at my back. There was the running water, and over there was the pile of fake logs. And right above me were those damnable stars. But there was something important I had to remember so I could figure out what was wrong with the picture.
And then came the realisation. I had failed. Completely and utterly. All that I had feared had come true. I had lost everything.
It didn’t hit me as hard as I thought it would. It was bearable.