Panic wrapped its oily, icy fingers around Arkaday’s throat and began to squeeze the second he tried to move his arms. An oppressive, constricting sensation gripped his entire body, from his neck down to his feet. The fibers of his bodysuit twisted, constricted, then slackened a hairsbreadth before repeating the motions. Electrical stimulation flooded the piezoelectric crystal layer, causing it to flex, then relax, all while Arkaday’s lungs fought and clawed for air.
Arkaday’s breaths came in ragged, raspy gulps, forcing them through a stranglehold. Others around him fared little better, all of them frozen, or dead. One held the pose of a woman in the middle of a desperate charge, knife glinting in the overhead sunlight, streaming through a hole in the ceiling. Her form poised and ready, her arms tensed and close to her body.
Yet above the arms, Ashley’s head was snapped back, caught by the force of something slamming onto her helmet. By the time one of her arms found its way up to pry the device off of her visor, it had already activated.
Another Spartan suffered a similar fate, frozen in a much less dignified pose. The device on his chest plate clicked, whirred, and sputtered sparks all the same, locking the man in place, but his pose was markedly more dire. Markos was frozen in the midst of a vicious piledrive, sending him down into a black granite table, sundering it in two from the force of the impact, like half of an unfinished pitcher where his assailant was absent the scene.
If the blow hadn’t shattered his spine, then the Spartan would be fighting for breath far worse than Arkaday, his body suffering from the effects of being winded, and the crushing force of an overstimulated bodysuit.
The last among them was already dead. Shot through the visor while her shields crackled and whirred. She was the lucky one, and Arkaday wished that their assailant would get it over with, finishing the rest of them off.
But the woman was in no hurry, having won the bout, she now lauded the victory over them. She made a show of patting down the dead Spartan, deactivating Lillian’s armour restraint, and letting the body go limp with a clunking sound of armour plates sliding against one another. Their assailant’s armoured boots thudded on the metal floor of the office complex, crushing debris and brick dust underfoot as she stood back up, sliding the armour restraint back onto a magnetic holder on her thigh.
Arkaday’s eyes focused on it, willing it to activate and at least give him the satisfaction of watching the black-and-white Spartan suffer as he was. No such malfunction came, however, and as though sensing his angry thoughts, the three-lensed visor of the brutalist helmet turned upon him.
Three short boot falls, and the upper part of the Shikari’s body disappeared from Arkaday’s visor display. The motion tracker fizzled, his shields pulsed and warbled, and the cacophony of sound did nothing but heighten his anxiety when his enemy went out of his eyesight.
A boot dropped down upon the magnum, located just a few scant inches away from Arkaday’s outstretched hand. The harsh sound of metal scraping on metal pierced through the din of Arkaday’s malfunctioning HUD elements, and for a second he strained his muscles taut, trying to reach it.
Nothing moved. The bodysuit didn’t even budge, merely answered the force of his movements with even greater constriction. The tips of his fingers grey numb, the blood flow blocked off temporarily by his actions. The more he strained against the hold of his own armour, the more it tightened and restricted him.
A cruel, hollow laugh echoed from somewhere above him, followed by the click of a pistol slider, and the feeling of it pressed against the side of his helmet.
The SHIKARI knelt down, three lenses peered into his eyes, tilting to one side. Studying him. Arkaday waited for the shot, closing his eyes.
“If failure is the best teacher,” she said, reaching her other hand up to grip the chin of his helmet, “then you’d better be a genius after this.”
Arkaday opened his mouth to retort, but felt a searing, explosive pain shoot through his temple before he got the first syllable out.
He bolted upright, gasping for air, holding the side of his head. Wires and sensors hooked to his body pulled taut and snapped loose, and two technicians on either side of him put their hands on his arms to try and keep him down.
“It’s okay”, one of them said. “You’re okay.”
Arkaday closed his eyes, shaking his head, doing all he could to push the sensation of death from his mind.
“Shit!” his voice came hoarse, scratchy. Cradling his head, Arkaday groaned.
“Bet you’ll think twice before agreeing to an experimental ONI sim, next time?” a voice to his left said.
Arkaday looked over to find a redheaded woman grinning at him, her lips upturned in a smug way.
Arkaday swung his legs over the side of the sim-bed, shaking as he stood up. He pointed at her, taking a deep breath. “You go fuck yourself, SHIKARI, yeah? You enjoy that, huh? You goddamn psychopath!”
She laughed, a similar laugh to the one he heard in the simulation. She stood up, stretching her arms and legs, and unhooking the sensors from her skin. “My job isn’t to babysit you,” she said, looking down the line at the other beds, where the other three Spartans were going through the same motions as Arkaday.
“My job isn’t to go easy on you. My job was to teach you that all it takes is one mistake, or one bad day, and your life?” she arched her brows at him. “Your life is over, Spartan.”
“Oh, yeah. Real magnanimous,” Arkaday spat. “As if you weren’t getting some sick thrill from that. Get your rocks off, did we?”
I was ordered to fight you, I fought you,” she smiled up at him. “And, well,” she clicked her tongue, tilting her head to one side. “That wasn’t much of a fight.”
Arkaday went to speak, but his words failed him when she stepped into his personal space, placing a hand on his cheek. “Next time, try to last a little longer,” she whispered. “Because right now, you fight like a stereotypical young man. Eager to begin, but,” she hummed, patting the side of his face. “Quick to finish.”
She let go of his face, pushed herself past him, and walked towards the other end of the sim room, where their armour and full bodysuits were stored. Arkaday watched her leave with balled fists, cracking his knuckles.
Shaking his head, he turned away from the woman. “Goddamn psychopath.”