copyright 2017 by R.A. Hunik
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Zeke fought his way out of a deep, cloying sleep to the sound of a jangling alarm, followed by the blat of a foghorn, the bang of a gong, a police siren, and various others shrieks, whistles and bangs. He was naked, on some sort of narrow bunk bed with a thin, plastic mattress and no covers, in a rectangular room barely larger than the bed.
When he had gone to sleep he had been in a tent in the woods on a hunting excursion. He had no idea how he got from there to here, or where here was.
Sourceless light filled the featureless gray room. No longer sleepy, but still confused, he swung his feet over the edge of the bed, sat up and took a closer look all around. There was no sign of any door or window.
The racket stopped, which lessened his disorientation, but the bed, hinged against the wall, dropped out from under him, spilling him to the floor, then just sort of melted into the wall. He got to his feet, a little bit unsteady, and was staring in fascination at the smooth wall where the bed had disappeared, when the end wall of the narrow room folded or slid away, revealing a greenish brown expanse of water and, about sixty yards away, a sandy beach of a peculiar orange color, brighter than any sand he had ever seen. The vegetation above the beach looked a peculiar shade of green, but he didn’t have time to study the view; the other end wall advanced, forcing him out onto a narrow strip of deck with no railing.
Zeke saw other people, as naked as himself, being pushed from similar cubicles on both sides of his. They all looked as confused as he felt. He counted over a dozen but there was no time for a better count. The buzz of conversation that started up was cut off by a very loud, strangely accented voice from a hidden speaker. “Attention. There is no time to tell you the whole story so I will tell you all that you need to know. Predators are coming in the water. There is safety on the beach. You must swim to it. If you do not swim fast enough the predators will eat you. That is all you need to know. Start now.”
“What the hell is he talking about?” a tall man next to Zeke shouted to anybody or everybody.
“They can’t do this to us, can they?” protested a plump woman with a lovely set of breasts.
Zeke turned away from the naked flesh and tuned out all the babbling. His dad had always said there was a time for talking and a time for doing, and knowing the difference was the better part of wisdom. The message had been as clear as the announcer’s voice; if he didn’t swim fast he would be eaten, so it didn’t take a lot of smarts to figure out that this was not a situation for talking. He took two quick steps and jumped into the water, landing with a big splash.
Even with his quick reaction he wasn’t the first into the water. He saw one skinny kid dive in ahead of him, cut cleanly into the water and swim away like a dolphin. Zeke wasn’t a very good swimmer but he was strong and motivated and he gave it everything he had.
He was about halfway to shore when the screams began behind him. A man a few yards ahead of him stopped stroking to look back but Zeke kept up his single-minded swimming. Hadn’t the man heard the voice explaining what would happen? It did sound like someone was being eaten but he could wait until he got to shore before he looked.
Zeke had never enjoyed swimming and never practiced much, so it was no surprise to him that even though he was giving his best effort several people passed him. He heard the screams of pain,the cries of surprise, and shouted curses getting closer behind him and tried to swim faster but he was already gasping for breath and his arms felt like wooden clubs.
Fighting panic, he kept moving. He was nearly ashore, he could rest soon when he got there. The water was getting shallow and before long he could put his feet down and run. Pain flared in his leg but he kicked and kept swimming despite the wound. Something brushed his leg and a few seconds later he felt another flare of pain. It hurt to move his legs and they were no longer responding well but he didn’t stop.
Finally his feet touched bottom and he kicked a fish-like creature with big teeth. It retreated a few feet but as he limped to shore it attacked again, tearing what felt like a big chunk out of his left calf. His leg collapsed under him and he crawled the last few yards, scrambling and splashing desperately to get out of the water with his left leg dragging behind him.
He collapsed onto sand that looked the color of orange peels, and when he rolled over onto his back the sky seemed to have a hint of purple tainting the blue. He pushed himself up on his elbows but didn’t have the strength to go any further. A couple of people were still splashing and screaming in the water but not getting any closer to shore.
Even in pictures Zeke had never seen any body of water that peculiar gray shade of greenish brown. Must be the sand, he thought. But I can’t be seeing that right either.
The tall man who had shouted on the boat came running to Zeke. “You’re bleeding badly. I’m a doctor. Let me take a look.”
Zeke nodded and took a look at his own legs for the first time. Sure enough, he was bleeding badly, mostly from his left leg, which was missing some large chunks. He could even see the teeth marks in a few places. The man knelt beside him but threw up his hands in frustration.
“I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you.”
Zeke nodded again and looked out over the water, now still and empty, except for a few mangled body parts floating on the surface as a grim reminder of what had happened. Even though he had made it ashore Zeke was weak and dizzy and he had a feeling he wasn’t going to fare much better than those people out there. He collapsed onto his back and gazed up at the circle of faces spinning around him. He knew he was bleeding out and would be dead in another minute or two and there was nothing he or anybody else could do about it.
“Make way, make way,” cried out a cheerful voice. The people parted quickly and a spider-like robot with a body the size of a football helmet scurried straight to Zeke and positioned itself over his chest. “Don’t be scared, I’m the auto-vet extension. I’m here to fix you up enough to get you into a tube so you can be healed for the next episode.”
“What in Hell are you talking about?” Zeke asked in a weak whisper, wondering why he shouldn’t be scared about being put in a tube.
“I’m a doctor. This will stop the pain.” One of it’s limbs brandished a gleaming metal cylinder while other limbs did things to his bleeding legs.
“Why didn’t you say?” Zeke said as the cylinder darted at his arm. He expected the sharp pain from the stab of a needle but all he felt was a light touch and the bright pain separated from him and receded until it was just a little sparkle on the horizon. Zeke relaxed on the comfortable sand, or maybe he was just getting weak from loss of blood, but that didn’t matter anymore because he saw a thin tube with red liquid flowing from the spider robot into a vein in his arm.
Zeke was barely conscious when he was loaded by a few more of the spider robots onto a stretcher or gurney that rode so smoothly it felt like he was floating. He was taken into a building, down a corridor with a glowing strip down the middle of the ceiling, through a door, then placed in a large tube that looked disturbingly similar to a test tube laying on its side. If he hadn’t been so zonked on drugs he would have panicked, but he was in before he had time to protest and it was warm and comfortable so he went to sleep.
Zeke woke up he knew not how much later, expecting a world of pain, but there was none, and his head felt clear, not full of drugs. Maybe it was all a dream, he thought, until he realized that his eyes were open and the gray he was seeing was the ceiling of that featureless gray room again. Or another one just like it.
A door opened in the wall across from him. Rather than waiting for the bed to dump him on the floor he got to his feet, which were bare, but the floor wasn’t cold. He was wearing a pair of blue jeans and nothing more. At least they fit well. With both hands he felt his left leg under the material and it was all there, no chunks missing.
The bed folded into the wall so, before he was given another unsubtle nudge, he used the door to exit into a corridor with a slightly bluer tinge. Several other people emerged at about the same time. A tall blond man in blue jeans identical to his own stepped up to him and held out his hand. “I’m Jeb. You were stuck in a healing tube so you missed the orientation session. I’m here to fill you in.”
Zeke recognized the man as the doctor who had tried to help him on the beach. He shook the man’s hand, introduced himself and said, “So fill me in.”
“Come on, I’ll tell you on the way. They won’t like it if we’re late.” He headed down the corridor behind the other people and Zeke fell into step beside him.
“Tell me where I am.”
“Heh heh heh. In case you haven’t noticed, earthling, you ain’t on Earth no more.”
“Yeah, I noticed that. There was that orange sand, the peculiar sky, the spider robot that drugged me, and there’s not a McDonald’s to be seen.”
“Don’t remind me. Let me sum it up for you, then if anything isn’t clear you can ask questions, but don’t expect a lot of answers. You’re on an island in the middle of an ocean on an alien planet, nobody knows how many light years from Earth, or in which direction. You, along with hundreds of other people from rural areas all over Earth were kidnapped by aliens, placed in suspension, and brought here by alien technology.”
“What do you mean by ‘alien technology’?”
Jeb threw up his arm in a broad shrug. “Could be teleportation, wormholes, cryonic suspension, or something we haven’t even thought of yet. That’s one of those questions I can’t answer.”
“Right.” That answer was far from satisfactory and a hundred more questions boiled around in his head, but he was sure Jeb couldn’t answer them either, so he tried to focus on the most important. What came out was, “But why?”
“Entertainment? You mean they watched us swimming and struggling and dying in that water just for fun?” He glanced down at his leg, somehow certain that the alien technology had healed him without a scar, but he could still see the wounds in his mind’s eyes, and he could feel the pain and the weakness as he bled out. He had almost died back there.
“That’s right, but it’s not just entertainment, it’s big entertainment, on a scale you’ve never imagined. We’re participants on a game show with an audience numbering in the billions.”
“A game show? I’m on a game show? What If I don’t want to be on a game show? What if I refuse to participate?”
“Well, you really have nowhere else to go, so when they place you at the beginning of a competition, whether you want to be there or not, you either participate or you die. I advise you to do your very best.”
“Why, so I can die in the next episode?”
“It’s not quite that bad; if you survive five episodes they’ll let you live and even grant you the lowest class of citizenship. Better by far is to win three times; then you’re actually a free citizen and you even get a small percentage of the take.”
“The payout to all the aliens who bet on you to win. They’re heavy betters here, fanatics even. They make the Chinese look like amateurs. Oh, here we are. They’re about to start the orientation.”
Jeb steered Zeke through a door into a room with a couple of dozen chairs in two rows facing a blank gray wall. Ten of the chairs were already occupied. Nobody sat close to anybody else.
The door closed behind them with a distinct click.
“How come it started as soon as I woke up? Were they waiting for me?”
“Not really. The episodes are regularly scheduled, but you took a lot of damage and required quite a bit of tissue regeneration, so you used up all the time between episodes to get healed. Back on Earth, if you had survived, it would have taken you months to recuperate and you’d be scarred and handicapped.”
The light in the room dimmed and the wall in front of them brightened. Jeb, his eyes on the wall screen, hastily took a seat in the back row and Zeke followed suit.
On the screen colors swirled, separated into particles, then came together to form an image of an animal of some kind, an undeniably alien creature. It was shaped kind of like a kangaroo, but it’s tail was shorter and more supple, it had bigger, longer, claws, sharper teeth in a more aggressive jaw, and it looked more like a reptile than a mammal. As it stood there, not moving much, just sort of bouncing on it’s big hind legs, a voice, sounding like a typical game show announcer on TV back on Earth, said, in what Zeke considered a far too enthusiastic tone, “This is what you face today. Previous Earthlings have dubbed it a HABIB, a hopping and bouncing infant beast. Yes, it looks fierce, and it is, but it’s only knee-high to the average Earthling.”
As colors swirled and separated and condensed into a picture of a man standing beside it to illustrate the size, Jeb said sotto voce, “There’s got to be a catch.”
“Unfortunately there is more than one for each of you.” The image of the HABIB multiplied and multiplied and they all started bouncing a little higher.
“We’re all going to die, I just know it,” wailed a woman and Zeke turned away from the screen to look at the plump woman he’s seen on the boat, huddled in her chair with her fists together under her chin. He felt kind of the same way himself, but his dad had conditioned him not to show weakness like that.
“All you need to do,” the voice continued, “is run through a pack of them and dive off a cliff.” The screen showed the man doing just that, eluding three of the creatures, then taking a flying leap and doing a graceful dive off a fifty foot cliff into the ocean. “For defense we give each of you a chance to obtain a club by untying it from a rack.” The floor-to-ceiling screen showed a life-size image of a row of what looked like fence posts, and beyond that a rocky field teeming with the hopping beasts, kept at bay by what looked like nothing more than a painted line, but Zeke was pretty sure more alien technology was involved. Tied to each post by colorful ropes was, (Zeke blinked and looked again) what looked like a baseball bat.
“Be aware, there is a time limit for untying the club.”
“Always a catch,” Jeb muttered.
“Now get out there and play.”
After a few seconds his seat began to tilt so he stood before he was dumped. Someone from the front row walked up to the screen, reached out to touch it and passed right through. At some point, when the screen image matched reality, the screen had been done away with.
Zeke didn’t want to play but, as with the swim, he had no choice but to comply. If he didn’t go along they would push him, and if he chose not to play once he was in position he would die sooner. As he followed the others out of the room to his post he felt anger beginning to burn inside him but he had nobody to direct it at so he turned it into determination to survive.
The club was more bulged at the end than a bat and it was currently held, in addition to the ropes, by a metal clamp. Sticking to their format of never giving the humans quite enough time to catch on and catch up, the alien voice said, “Start now.”
The clamp released and Zeke started picking frantically at the knots. He had always had strong fingers and working had toughened them so he found the knots fairly easy to untie. In just a few minutes the club was in his hands and he was running for the edge of the cliff, through the beasts, which were indeed bouncing in anticipation.
Motion caught his eye and he glanced to the side and saw Jeb pacing him, a look of grim determination on his face. He imagined he wore the same expression himself as he crossed the line.
Half a dozen of the bouncing beasts hopped up at him and he beat most of them aside with his club, but the weight of them slowed him down and he got bitten a couple of times. The bites weren’t all that serious and he knew all the wounds they inflicted could be healed in one of those doctor tubes, but they hurt now.
He batted a few more out of his path, then one from each side, and caught a glimpse of Jeb down on the ground with half a dozen HABIBs chewing on him. Then a swarm of five of the creatures bounced at him all at once. He blocked two but the others scored hits and he realized that, small as they were, they could quickly wear him down, and if he didn’t make it over the cliff soon, so he could be healed, he would die here like Jeb.
With a supreme effort he put on a burst of speed, outdistancing them for a moment, but as he neared the edge of the cliff one of them took a big chunk out of the back of his leg. Bleeding from numerous wounds, with one leg nearly dragging, he fell as much as jumped off the cliff. He bounced off the cliff face, losing more skin and flesh on the rough rock, and went into a spin. He hit the water with a painful splash and sank deep. Using the one hand that still worked he struggled to the surface where he was relieved to see one of the spider robots floating toward him.
As it injected him with a painkiller it said, “The bad news is that any more damage would surely have killed you, but the good news is that you won the competition. Congratulations.”
He was loaded onto a stretcher and as he was taken to the tube to be healed the robot explained to him, “Each time you survive a contest you get a point; if you win you get two points. With two points you are entitled to an enhancement that will help in certain aspects of the skills required in the contests. With three points, which you now have, you can be made stronger, healthier, smarter, or more dexterous. Which do you choose?”
Zeke thought about his clumsy fall and said, “I think I could use some better dexterity.”
“I’ll program that for you.”
This time when he woke up there was no urgency. He had been very seriously injured again, almost killed in fact, but there wasn’t as much tissue regeneration required this time, so it hadn’t taken quite as long to heal him. The door opened for him and he went along a short corridor that led to a common room of some sort, with low couches and tables, as well as tables and chairs like a restaurant would have, all made of smooth, gray plastic. At that end of the room he saw a display of food, cafeteria style, and headed that way.
A black-haired man with thick, curly body hair scowled at Zeke as he went past, cutting off his greeting. Zeke shrugged and kept going.
There were buns and cold cuts and fresh fruit and vegetables. He was suspicious about the meat, and discovered that he really wasn’t that hungry, so he just grabbed an apple and, with some trepidation, bit into it. It was crisp and juicy and delicious, just like a good apple back home.
Zeke looked around for an empty table to sit at and his eyes crossed those of the plump woman he’d noticed on the boat and at the briefing. Her breasts were covered now, but only under a layer of thin gray cloth. She flashed him a smile and gestured for him to sit down. As he did so she said, “Don’t worry about him, he’s just pissed because you won.”
“What about you?”
“I didn’t expect to win. I’m just glad to be alive and I need somebody to talk to. I’m Kate.”
“Zeke,” he said, then chewed on his apple for a while before asking the question uppermost in his mind. “How many of us are left?”
He found himself staring into her eyes. She didn’t look away. She had lovely, dark blue eyes.
“Do you want to have sex?” she asked, holding his gaze.
“What? Are we allowed to? Is there time?”
“I never tried before and gorilla man over there doesn’t appeal to me, but there’s time now. I’ve only been awake myself for about four hours, near as I can tell.”
She was rather more forward than he was used to, but he didn’t want to seem too eager. As he sized her up more closely with his eyes he said, “Don’t they have clocks here?”
“Sure they do. There’s one right behind you.”
Zeke turned and saw a big circle on the wall divided into ten different colored wedges, numbered one to ten in a variety of symbols, including those he was used to. A single hand was coming up on the six. As though it had seen where he was looking the clock formed a rectangular display that read, in English, “Next competition in 1-1-9.”
He turned back suddenly and caught her appraising his body, but all he cared about was the time. He gestured with a thumb over his shoulder. “So what does that mean?”
“One hour, one minute, nine seconds.”
Zeke glanced back and “1-1-9” was still on the digital clock. “That’s a long second.”
“Longer than a minute, as a matter of fact. Jeb explained it to me.” She winced when she used the dead man’s name but carried on. “I don’t remember how he figured it out but the day here is about twenty hours long, which makes the hours on that clock about two of our hours, their minute is about 12 of ours, and their second is, as I said, over a minute long.”
Zeke did a rough calculation in his head. “That gives us about two hours and twenty minutes.” He grinned at her and one eyebrow twitched up a bit. “So we do have time.”
She smiled and took him by the hand and led him to her room, which was identical to the room he woke up in. He thought briefly about his girlfriend back on Earth but he knew he would never see her again. For that matter, he might never see Kate again, she might never see him again, he might never see anybody again, but neither of them brought that up.
Nobody tried to stop them and nothing interfered. “What if they’re watching?” she asked when they were both naked.
“Then let’s give them a show.”
It turned out that they didn’t have quite as much time as they wanted; the bed dumped them on the floor before they realized it was time to assemble for the competition.
This time there was no briefing room; they were just marched out to the area of the contest and directed to advance about fifty yards to a line on the ground. Kate stayed close to him. Ahead of them was a stretch of hard-packed level ground with six narrow tracks delineated, one for each participant. Between every second track was a row of five plants, spaced about fifteen or twenty yards apart. Each plant had a cluster of four long, thick, tendrils, waving slowly to their own rhythm, independent of the wind.
In their usual efficient fashion the aliens didn’t give them any time to wonder; an unseen announcer spoke up right away, explaining what he saw. “This one is called the CHAP/LAV. Your task is simple; run past the Lashing Alien Vines to safety at the far end of the track.” The announcer emphasized the capitals. “To provide incentive, as soon as you start two Clawed Horned, Alien Predators, will be released behind you.”
As one, the participants turned around to look behind them and saw the vicious-looking alien beasts. They stood on two thick, strong legs with hoofs like a bull. They had barrel chests and muscular arms ending in four-fingered hands with long, sharp claws, they had short necks, small heads with four sharp horns, pointed teeth, and hungry, slanted eyes, and they were covered nearly everywhere with short, bristly brown fur.
Behind the CHAPS, on rows of bleachers set up above the doors they had come through, were thousands of aliens watching the action. This was the first time Zeke had seen what his captors/tormentors looked like, but they were too far away for him to see them well. From where he stood they looked almost human, but with narrow heads, no hair, and a bluish cast to their skin.
“Looks like we have a live audience this time,” Zeke said.
“They were there last time too, you just didn’t see them,” Kate said.
There was no time for any more conversation. The unseen announcer said, “On your mark,” just like he remembered from his high school track events, and all the humans turned around and toed the line. Zeke wondered briefly what would happen if he started running too early but he was pretty sure it wouldn’t be good for him so he didn’t bother trying. Not that he had much time anyway. As soon as the last human touched the line the announcer called “Go,” and everybody took off running.
Zeke got off to a good start, leading everybody else by a few steps. He kept an eye on the vine he had to run past, but it was faster than he anticipated, lashing at his face, and he barely saw it coming in time to get his arm up to protect himself. It hurt a lot more than he expected, tearing off a strip of skin and leaving a sticky, stinging residue all around the wound. The sting penetrated deep into his muscle and he felt his whole arm stiffening.
He put on a burst of speed to get past the next vine but took another lash, right across the chest this time. The wound stung like fire and the stiffness spread through his body, and he felt himself slowing down despite his best effort. The damned vines were poisoned. A couple more lashes like that and only sheer determination would keep him going.
He had always been a good runner but the poison from two lashes was working on him so he was being passed, and he knew desperately well that being passed in this situation was not a good thing. He ducked the next vine by the narrowest of margins and ran on, but he could feel the stiffness seizing all his limbs, so he was too slow to dodge the next vine. He cursed as the cumulative effect of the drug took a stronger hold, and he saw another runner passing him on his left.
One more vine, he could do this, he was close now, time to duck, and the vine passed over his head. He was on the home stretch now but the door to safety looked so far away and his breath came so very hard, and he felt like he was running knee-deep through pancake syrup, dragging a big rock behind him.
Another runner edged past him and somewhere behind him somebody screamed in mortal agony, but only for a few seconds. One of the predators had made a kill and he could hear the other one clopping along close behind him. With his peripheral vision he noticed a fourth person had pulled ahead of him, leaving him as the next prey. He jinked to the right and a handful of claws like bowie knives missed him by inches.
With every ounce of determination he had left he fought off the deadly stiffness of the vine’s poison and managed a slight increase in speed, just enough at the right time, in fact, to almost elude the handful of claws, which cut deep into his back but didn’t go deep enough to damage the vital organs the CHAP was trying for. Then one more step and he was through the doorway into the safety zone.
He turned around to look.
Even though there was no physical barricade the alien creature stopped short at the doorway, looked directly at Zeke with a hungry intelligence burning in its eyes, licked Zeke’s blood off its claws, then turned and ambled away, back to where it had come from.
A spider robot scuttled over, extended its legs so its body was at the height of Zeke’s wounds, and proceeded to bandage him.
The hairy guy who had spurned him came up to him and said, “Congratulations, you made it, and you’re only half dead this time.”
Zeke grinned at the crack. Yeah, he was bleeding like a pig from multiple deep slashes on his back and they hurt like hell, but after he was bandaged he could still walk on his own two feet to the healing tube.
When he woke from the tube, in another of those identical rooms, he went to the common room where the episode clock told him he had nearly an entire day this time.
Now there was a large window at the couch end of the common room, looking out over an alien landscape, a strange jungle of bizarre green and purple plants, exotic flowers, and peculiar alien trees. The land sloped down to a view of the ocean about half a mile away. At least he assumed it was a window, though he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just another alien technology screen that behaved like a window. He decided it wasn’t worth speculating about it and just enjoyed the view.
While he was sitting there the hairy guy came over and apologized for his behavior after the previous competition. He had won the CHAP/LAV race, taking only a few minor vine wounds, so he was feeling pretty good.
Zeke hadn’t held a grudge against him at all so it was easy for him to say, “Forget about it, we’ve all been under a lot of stress here, but that’s no reason to be enemies.”
“Not much point in making friends, either, considering we could both be dead in a few days, but what the hell, my name’s Romeo. Yeah, like in that play.”
As Zeke introduced himself and they shook hands he couldn’t help thinking about Kate after Romeo’s remark that they might both be dead soon. “Who else is left?”
“There’s you and me, an old farmer named George, who sulks in his room except when he comes out to eat, and Kaitlynn over there.” He pointed out a slim, blonde woman with the body of a dancer or aerobics instructor, lounging on a couch across the room. “She doesn’t talk much either.”
After chatting a bit and reminiscing about life back on Earth Romeo said, “You’ve been hurt pretty bad every episode and spent a lot of time in the tubes, so you probably haven’t seen much of the video room.”
“I haven’t even heard about it.”
“You’re in for a treat. Come on, I’ll show you.”
The video room had half a dozen large screens, twice that many chairs and, for each screen, a remote control unit that wasn’t much different from what Zeke was familiar with. Romeo showed the CHAP/LAV episode first, concentrating on his own victory, then he showed Zeke how to select different episodes, participants and angles, how to zoom out or in close for incredible detail, how to use forward and reverse, from ultra-fast speed to super slow motion, and of course the freeze frame.
Morbid curiosity drove him to watch himself through every contest. He started with a wide angle shot of the swim to shore, amazed how long it took some of the people to get into the water and start swimming. He was about a third of the way to shore before everybody was away from the boat, and from this angle he could see the alien carnivores closing in. There were only five of them and one was lagging behind. The number, he learned a bit later, was determined by lot, and was fewer than usual. He was thankful for that; if he’d been attacked any sooner he wouldn’t have survived.
He froze the picture and zoomed in for a closer look at one of the attacking creatures and got a better look than he had on the beach. It looked rather like a very large piranha, but with proportionally larger mouth and teeth. A helpful feature he discovered on his own identified it as a SHAWC, a small, hungry, alien water carnivore.
Just as he remembered, the first SHAWC attacked a swimmer when he was about halfway to shore. Three or four good bites could finish off a swimmer, but some of the swimmers were pretty slippery so the carnivores didn’t get good bites. It was painful to watch so he pulled back to a wider angle, until he saw himself getting attacked just a few yards from shore and had to zoom in for a closer look. From this angle he could actually see exposed bone on the back of his leg. No wonder he hadn’t been able to walk very well. Earth technology might have been able to save his life but not his leg.
He viewed his HABIB whacking performance and thought he did quite well, until he saw his dive, starting with the feeble jump off a collapsing leg, the graceless fall, the painful bouncing and scraping off the cliff, the wild spin, the flailing impact, the spectacular splash, and the desperate, heroic struggle to the surface. The term “Epic fail” popped into his head as he cleared the screen, hoping not too many people had seen that, but when he turned around Romeo was standing there.
“Yeah, we all love that. Truly awesome. After seeing that I don’t even begrudge you your win. That clip is pop-u-lar. It went viral minutes after the initial broadcast and already has close to a billion hits.”
Zeke winced. “That’s just great, but I’d rather not see it again. I’m done here for now.”
Zeke got up and stretched and realized that he was actually hungry for the first time since he had been brought to this alien world. After the previous episodes he had been in a tube, where he assumed he was fed intravenously while healing, and he hadn’t been awake long enough afterwards to work up a hunger, but he certainly had one now.
The food in the cafeteria looked familiar and tasted like it was supposed to. He didn’t know whether it had been grown locally, shipped from Earth, or synthesized. It didn’t matter, it was what he had to eat and he was glad it tasted good.
After he ate he explored the confines of his cage. There was a short corridor lined with those identical rooms with just a simple bed in each. There was the common room with seating and eating facilities, and, more important, through an inconspicuous door, the washroom, complete with a dozen showers and recognizable toilets in stalls.
Then he did a full circuit without finding another door, but that didn’t surprise him because walls and doors weren’t necessarily permanent here. For lack of anything better to do he went back to the video room.
He found his profile page and learned that he was popular. He was in third place for the most hits taken in three episodes by a survivor, and his grim determination to keep moving in the face of every adversity was earning him fans. Which meant they were betting on him. Odds were he would take a lot of hits and die this time, some bets were hoping he would take more hits and live, perhaps even breaking the record for most hits in four episodes, but that was a long shot, and a tiny minority were betting against all the odds and saying he would emerge unscathed. That was Zeke’s personal favorite, but he had the glum feeling that the majority was probably right.
He could only access past episodes that featured the same competitions as he’d been through, but the swim to shore presented a lot of possibilities because of the variety of water monsters available, and because there could be a few or a lot, and they could start close or far away.
He whiled away a few hours and when he got tired he counted doors to get to his room, but the door wouldn’t open. He thought maybe he had miscounted, but then he realized that since they were all identical it didn’t matter which one he took, and somebody was probably in this one so he took the next one.
Even though he was tired he couldn’t get to sleep for a long time because all the death and violence he had witnessed kept replaying in his mind. While watching he had been caught up in the novelty and excitement of it, but now it hit home that those were real people dying there, and he could well be one of them next time. That led to fear and anxiety, and a burning anger at their helplessness. His mind spun with all sorts of fantasies and possibilities but in the end he realized there was nothing he could do nothing against the aliens and their technology, nothing that is, except survive.
Zeke slept for a long time and when he got up he was ravenous. When he made his way to the common room he was startled to see a stranger, a small, dark-skinned man with black hair and beard, sitting alone at one of the tables. As Zeke passed him the man scowled at him, said something angrily in a guttural foreign language and made a rude gesture. Zeke looked him right in the eyes and fingered him. He almost hoped the little man would start something so he could pound the living crap out of him and vent some of his anger, but the little man’s scowl just deepened and he looked away so Zeke moved on.
He had enough time to eat a big meal and shower before the next episode but not much else. When he came out the dark skinned stranger was gone but he saw Romeo finishing a meal and sat across from him. “What’s with the new guy?” he asked.
Romeo wiped some sauce from the corner of his mouth and said, “He’s left over from a previous batch, the only survivor after four episodes. They like to have five participants in each competition and there were only four of us left so they brought him in.”
“He looks like a real asshole.”
“Sure does. I hope he doesn’t make it.” He looked over Zeke’s shoulder at the clock and said, “We better get ready.”
Sure enough, within a few minutes they were ushered down a long corridor that hadn’t been there before he ate.
For this episode there was no explanation. They lined up as directed, about ten feet apart, the ceiling opened and the floor rose until it was level with the floor above. They were in a new arena, each of them facing a wall that matched their height
Before he could look around Zeke was seized roughly by a pair of burly aliens and tied securely to a post, facing away from the wall. Up close the aliens definitely looked alien, with hairless skin, oddly proportioned bones and joints, and they felt almost hot where they touched him.
Parallel lines on the ground delineated five tracks about a hundred yards long. At the far end of each track was a barred gate. Behind each gate was a massive alien, with a body like a hippo or rhinoceros, but with a flat face. They left one of his arms untied but one of the aliens held onto it so he couldn’t use it while a sourceless voice explained the competition to the participants.
He would have as much time to untie himself as it took for the RAM, a ramming, alien masher, to charge down the track and squash him against the post. If he succeeded in untying himself before it got to him he had to jump over the wall and release several latches to open the escape door while the RAM tried to break through the wall to get at him.
The signal was given, his arm was released and he started picking at the unyielding rope with his fingernails.
“Good luck,” the alien said quickly in passable English as it left, “I’m betting on you to survive unhurt this time.”
“Me too,” Zeke grunted. From the look of this competition he figured he would either escape unscathed or be thoroughly squished.
He thought he was good at knots but somehow it seemed like a whole new ball game when he was using only one hand, so by the time he got his other hand free the massive creature looked like it was halfway down the chute. He could feel the ground trembling from the ponderous tread of not just his own RAM but from the other four as well.
Sweating profusely, fighting down panic, he kept his head down and worked frantically at the knots holding his torso and legs, loosening them, pulling them apart, all while the ponderous tread got louder and closer. At last, while his fingers pulled the last knot apart, he could take it no longer and looked up to see the beast no more than twenty feet away. It had thick, elephant-like legs, a flat face with slit nostrils, a wide mouth full of pointed teeth, wide-set eyes that burned with hunger, and a bony plate on the top of its skull, which was aimed right at him.
He heard its heavy, huffing breath, and felt it and smelled it as the last knot released and he dove out of the way. The RAM hit the post with a sound like a cow being hit by a semi and when he rolled to his feet and looked he expected the post to be broken or damaged but it was intact.
While the RAM backed up for another charge Zeke jumped up and scrambled over the wall, which was exactly as tall as he was. One foot caught on the top of the wall, tripping him so he landed on his face, but he wasn’t hurt and he knew he wasn’t safe yet. He scrambled to his feet and ran to the door and started turning the wheels and sliding the bolts that moved the multiple latches that held the door closed. While he did so he could hear the RAM crashing repeatedly into the wall, and he could hear the wall breaking, and pieces flying off it with every impact.
The door remained stubbornly closed; he was missing a latch or two somewhere in the stupid puzzle. Listening for the next impact he heard only a crunch instead of a crash and wheeled around to see the RAM charging right at him. He dodged to the right and it crashed into the wall and door without doing a hint of damage.
He had about a second and a half to marvel at that alien technology again as he ran around behind the creature to the other side before it backed up for another charge. It had a short, thick neck so it couldn’t turn its head very far. He stayed beside it, to the rear, out of sight, and when it turned in the direction it had last seen him go he ran to the door, found the last latch, twisted it in the right direction and slipped safely through the door before it was even half open.
He had made it and this time he hadn’t been injured at all. He sagged against the wall in relief and breathed heavily while he looked around. He was in a corridor. One man was already there, George the farmer, he assumed, though he hadn’t met him yet, which meant Zeke was in second place, which was a bit of a disappointment, but he was so glad just to be alive that not winning didn’t bother him much.
He could hear the roar of the crowd and the crashing of RAMs hitting walls.
There came a somewhat muffled crash and the roar of the crowd got louder. He winced, realizing that someone had just been squashed and killed. He wondered briefly if anyone else would die today but in the next few minutes two more doors opened, letting Romeo and Kaitlynn into the corridor. It had been the surly foreigner who had been squashed so he didn’t feel a whole lot of regret.
Their part was over so the humans were ushered back to their compound.
The downside to not being seriously injured was that he had a lot of time to fill. Since he had been taking so much damage in previous episodes he opted to cash in his two points to make himself tougher, more resistant to injury, but that required only a brief stint in the tube.
He could only watch so many people being devoured by aliens so the video room didn’t hold much attraction to him anymore, but the next day he was startled to find a stranger in the common room. To Zeke’s surprise this guy came up to him, held out his hand and said, with a thick British accent, “Hey, you’re the fall guy. Great to meet you. I’m Nigel.”
Zeke shook the proffered hand but he winced and said, “Call me Zeke. That fall isn’t what I want to be remembered for.”
The guy chuckled and said, “I can understand how you feel, but it’s too late for that. At least you’re still alive.”
“For now anyway. I have one more competition to get through. So what’s your story? You here for your fifth episode?”
Nigel shook his head with a wry grin. “No. I’ve already made it through five.”
“So what the hell are you doing here?”
“I have two wins under my belt so I have the option of joining a competition to try for a third win to earn a higher grade of citizenship.”
“Are you crazy? You made it through alive and you’re coming back voluntarily?’
“Maybe I am a bit crazy, but it’s no fun out there in the alien ghetto.”
“Remember, you’re the alien here. If you survive five that’s where they put you.”
“It’s got to be better than being dead?”
“I suppose, but if I get a third win I’m still alive, I’m rich and I’m out of the ghetto. As a two time winner I can come back any time I want to make up the five participants needed for an episode. I’ve had a few enhancements so I think I have a pretty good shot at this one.”
“You know what we’re going to be up against next?”
Romeo, heading for the food section, overheard that part of the conversation. After introductions he called over the other two survivors, more introductions were traded and Nigel filled them in on the next competition.
“It’s a GAS, giant, alien slug, and you get to shoot it.”
“Sounds easy,” Romeo said.
“I suppose it is, once you get your gun, but you should know by now they never make things simple for us. The guns are tied to posts and as soon as one gun is untied all the slugs start to move. They don’t move very fast, but they’re only fifty yards away and untying your gun is only the first step. Once you get your gun free a sandpit is uncovered and you have to dig up your ammo pack, load it, and start shooting before the slug reaches you.”
“What if you don’t get your ammo pack?”
“You still have a chance. There’s a bayonet you can attach to the gun so you can use it like a spear, but it doesn’t do a lot of damage and you have to get close to the slug and they are pretty hard to kill. You’re far better off to get the ammo pack.”
“How many bullets do you get?”
“No bullets. It’s an energy weapon, and you only get five shots, but if that’s not enough you can turn it around and get six more shots at half strength. If that isn’t enough you have to go for the bayonet, but usually by then either the slug or the participant is dead.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Zeke said. With his extra dexterity he should be able to handle the knots and he had always been a pretty good shot, so it looked like he had a decent chance of surviving.
Over the next couple of days Nigel talked quite a bit about life outside, what they had to look forward to. Their status would depend on how well they did and how popular they were, but even at the best they would be forced to work hard for their subsistence, and their living conditions would be pretty basic. Overall it sounded better than ghettos on Earth but still not very pleasant and Zeke began to understand why Nigel had chosen to come back and try for his third win. With only one win under his belt Zeke was glad he wouldn’t have to make that choice.
When the time came they were sent out to a new arena, which was pretty much as Nigel had described, with the five posts holding the guns and a covered sandbox just in front of each post. This time each participant’s section was fenced off and he realized it was to keep the humans confined rather than to direct the alien slug.
Hearing about the giant slugs was nowhere near as bad as actually seeing the repulsive things. They looked like huge, elongated mounds of opaque gray jelly topped with three waving eye stalks, and to Zeke they more closely resembled a snail without a shell than a slug. He didn’t see any kind of mouth but if it caught up to him and crawled over him he knew he would be done for. It looked hard to kill and he wondered just how much damage the guns could do. Probably not as much as he would like.
The competition started with knots again, but with his enhanced dexterity, and both hands to use right from the start, Zeke found himself handling them pretty well, but he still had a few to go when he noticed that his slug had started to move. He risked a quick glance to each side and saw that Nigel, true to his prediction, had finished his knots first and was heading to the sandbox to start digging for his ammo pack. He wasn’t too worried though because several seconds later he finished his own knots and headed for his sand pit. He was more concerned about just surviving than he was about coming in first, and was even willing to let Nigel get his third win as long as he himself survived, but that didn’t mean he was going to slack off at all. He knew from past competitions that he had to give it everything he had in order to have a chance at surviving.
The sand was wet and packed, more solid than he had anticipated, but he gritted his teeth and dug in with the same grim determination he had faced every other challenge with. He didn’t need his eyes to dig with so he kept looking up and seeing the monstrous slug advancing, slowly but steadily, yard by yard, and he was beginning to despair when his fingers touched cloth.
Frantically he dug around it, trying to loosen the package from the sand packed around it. He worked his fingers under it, wiggled it back and forth and up and down, got a good grip on it, braced himself and pulled as hard as he could. It broke free suddenly and he fell back on his butt, but he didn’t have time to care about the embarrassing position; the giant slug had covered half the distance and was only twenty-five yards away.
While he was pulling the ammo pack out of the bag he glanced in Nigel’s direction and saw him already loading his gun. He tried to fit his ammo pack into the slot but it wouldn’t go and he wasted precious seconds figuring out that he was trying to put it in backwards. He spun it around, pushed it home and it clicked into place. He brought the gun up to his shoulder and pulled the trigger as soon as the huge target came into sight. It was an energy weapon, so there was no bang or recoil, just a crackle and a bright, purple-white flash. He saw a puff of steam rise from the front of creature so he knew his shot was accurate but it didn’t seem to have any effect.
He pulled the trigger again and again, but the gun only fired once, and he realized he had to wait a few seconds for a tiny light to come on before the gun was ready to shoot again. Although he knew the slug wasn’t actually moving very fast it was only ten yards away and seemed to be closing the distance between them much too rapidly. He was a good shot and he kept shooting in the same place, hoping to maximize the damage, and it seemed to be working, but after four shots it was almost on him, and it kept on coming, so he had to skip backwards a few steps before using the last shot in the magazine. The blast of steam wafted foul stench into his face and he coughed as he dodged to the side, trying to reload the gun with the smaller charges, but it wasn’t necessary, his slug was motionless, dead.
Nigel hadn’t been quite so lucky or skillful with his shots, but while Zeke watched he managed to run away, change his ammo pack and get off a couple more shots with the smaller charge that finished off his slug before he was cornered. Nigel was alive but Zeke had beat him. He had made it through five competitions. He was done. He was alive. He was out of this cruel game.
His heart still racing, he looked around to find out how the others had done and saw Romeo still dashing around to avoid his slug, shooting frantically at it, but Kaitlynn and George were nowhere to be seen, while their slugs were no longer advancing but still clearly alive, quivering all over in rhythmic palpitations. He nearly threw up when he realized that they were feeding and turned away to check on Romeo again and was relieved to see him lower his gun and lean against the fence.
He felt a pang over the loss of two more people he had come to know, but after five of these competitions he had become somewhat inured to it, and any grief was overshadowed by his own exhilaration at still being alive. That many near-death experiences changed a man
Because he had won this time Zeke had two points and chose to cash them in for increased stamina, something he believed would come in handy if he had to work hard when he got out. After a brief visit to the doc to receive his enhancement he was taken to a new section of the compound where he was congratulated, given his citizenship, and briefed about his new responsibilities and opportunities. He would be assigned a job and required to perform it adequately. If he didn’t meet the requirements he wouldn’t be fed, and there weren’t any other options in the alien ghetto.
“Remember though,” the blue-skinned alien said, “as a two-time winner you always have the choice of coming back to try for your third win.”
“No thank you,” Zeke stated emphatically.
“If you ever change your mind you need only call us.”
“Not too likely,” Zeke said. He’d had quite enough of risking his life for their entertainment. He turned his back on the alien and walked away. With a disappointed Nigel at his side he stepped through the door into a new world and headed for the transport that would take him to his new life.
If you liked this book please take the time to write a short review, and check out other titles by this author. Thank you.
About the Author: Rik Hunik was born in Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, in 1957, and has lived his entire life in BC, except for a few summers in Alberta, and a few days in Washington State climbing rocks. He has lived in Ymir, Wells, Quesnel, Prince George, Quesnel, North Vancouver, Quesnel, Burnaby, North Delta, and Quesnel. He lives with his wife Jo. Although he mostly constructs buildings to earn a living, he is a also a writer, poet, photographer, artist, indepentdent e-book publisher, and role playing game designer. He’s written dozens of stories, including fantasy, horror, sword & sorcery, mystery, humor, erotica, and science fiction, frequently combining genres. More than forty have been published in small press magazines and e-zines. He has also published dozens of ebooks at Shakespir, many available to the public for the first time.
Other titles by Rik Hunik: available at
Down Among The Hoodoos (atmospheric ghost story)
The Hole Story (science fiction, space opera)
Widdershins (modern fantasy retelling of old English folk tale)
The Gold Watch (western ghost story)
Defiance (horror poem)
Easy Money (alternate history, fantasy, paranormal detective novel)
Key Service (humorous contemporary fantasy)
On Full Moon Night (horror poem)
Incident In A Tomb (fantasy, horror, humor)
The Ghost In The Kettle (contemporary ghost story)
The Sitting (horror)
Worse Than An Orphan’s Curse (dark fantasy)
Joyride (fantasy, horror)
Green Eyes (horror)
Defiance 2 (poem)
Witch’s Skin (horror)
The Dark Gate (fantasy novel, sword & sorcery)
Forces Of Evil: The Board Game (horror, humor, zombies)
Night Lures (science fiction)
The Hole (horror, joke)
Under The Shade Tree (ghost story)
Wake-Up Call ( flash fiction)
Time To Time (A collection of time travel stories)
Swords & Knives & Sorcery& Magic (An eclectic collection of sword and sorcery stories)
Witches’ Skins: The Witch Skin Quartet ( 4 horror stories)
The Black Book and Other Poems
The Thing In The Shack (horror)