Criteria – Short Story [Explicit Content]

The room was cold but her skin prickled with the clammy sweat of nervousness. Amari’s eyes traced the lines between the ceiling tiles and though they offered nothing new in their design she found that the uniformity did not comfort her as it usually did. Flynn’s warm hand grazed her cheek, she rolled over to face him but his eyes were still closed. He groaned in mock exasperation and buried his face into the pillow. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” she apologised softly in the darkness.

“Are you worried about tomorrow?” he asked, concern and sleepiness showed in his voice. Seeking comfort she moved into him and he folded her into his arms.

“Yes,” she mumbled into his shoulder.

“Hmm?”

“Yes,” Amari said again “I’m worried about tomorrow.”

Withdrawing so that he could look at her he fought against the tiredness that sought to reclaim him.

“Everyone has to do it,” he replied “this is just another stage in your training.”

“I know,” she affirmed “I just wish they’d tell us more about it.”

“Have you considered that that’s part of it?”

She huffed out an impatient breath.

“I wish you would just tell me what it’s all about.”

He tucked her back into his body and winced as her cold fingers touched his chest.

“Then how would you learn?”

She replayed the words until the angry sound of their alarm woke her. Amari was unsure if she had slept at all, her head was groggy and heavy from the restless night. The sheets had already cooled on the other side of the bed though she could still scent him in the bedding and with effort she forced herself to rise. Her uniform waited for her inside of the wardrobe and she shimmied into it with jittered hands that betrayed her calmness.

The Simulation Suite was a short walk away and the fresh morning air soothed her en route. The inside of the building had the falsely clean scent of a medical unit and the white coated doctors matched the walls. Their presence did not cool her nerves and she relied heavily upon her training to help her compartmentalise and stow them away for later. Glass doors parted automatically as she neared them and the waiting room within revealed the other candidates all awaiting their turn. They each sat in silence, some of them hiding their nervousness better than others. One man fidgeted with his papers obviously, the rustling was loud in the otherwise quiet room. Another man hunched forward, his elbows resting upon his knees whilst he bounced in time with his temperament. Though they drew her eye she said nothing to them as they said nothing to one another. Amari approached the reception table and handed over her papers. The receptionist was a slight woman who did not look so much younger than she and she cast a warm aura about her that was aided by her civilian dress. Overall she was unthreatening though it did little to ease the tension in the room. The receptionist appraised her documents and as she bent to look at them her soft gold hair shimmered healthily in the artificial light.

“Thank you Miss Ree,” she said and raised her head to meet her eye “you can go through.”

Amari was surprised not to have been sat with the others and as she turned around to look at them she could tell that they too were wondering why she had been allowed expedited entry.

“Through there?” Amari asked, indicating to the door that would lead her further into the clinic.

“Yes Miss Ree,” she replied “just through there.”

She felt hesitant though she opened the door with confidence. A tall technician awaited her within and though her bright smile was warm her demeanour did not put her at ease as the receptionist had. Her skin was a dark coffee and her hair was cropped short, highlighting sharp cheekbones. She was beautiful but there was a cool distance to her that separated them.

“Good Morning Miss Ree,” she said “take a seat.”

The technician indicated to the chair behind her and she approached it cautiously. It was curved and almost horizontal like a dentist’s chair and as Amari sat she looked around for familiar equipment to ground her. As she lay flat she felt vulnerable.

“My name is Emma,” the technician offered though she did not proffer her hand in the usual greeting “I will be watching over your simulation today.”

Amari nodded and tried to stifle the nerves that she felt might betray her. The technician appraised the chart in front of her.

“As is standard Miss Ree candidates are offered no information pertaining to the stages before they are tested. I see that this will be your first military simulation?”

“Yes,” Amari agreed “that’s right.”

The technician nodded.

“Then this simulation will not be like those that you’ve previously encountered.”

“Why?” Amari asked and Emma looked up from her chart with a forced patience.

“In this environment the simulation will not end until all of the criteria have been met.”

“I can’t leave?”

“No,” she replied after a pause “the situation will run as long as it takes you to complete the exercise. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” she replied reluctantly and when Emma began to attach the sensors her heart rate spiked angrily on the screen.

“Calm down,” the technician instructed. The words were not mean to comfort, they were an order.

“Sorry.”

“Open your eyes wider,” Emma instructed and expertly dropped milky drops into them. Amari blinked away the excess though her hands remained glued to the armrests.

“In a few moments your implant will activate and the simulation will begin.”

Amari watched nervously as Emma tapped a few quick commands into the interface.

“What if I want to get out?” she asked but Emma was no longer there. Gone was the cleanliness of the Simulation Suite and instead she lay on a hard and dusty floor. Though the monitoring wires were now absent, her limbs were heavy and sluggishly she rose and moved to explore the simulation. Burnt tones of rusted metal and rot were the only features she was able to distinguish in the false and yellow strip lighting. She ran her hand along the nearest wall and rubbed the loosened flakes between her fingertips. Untroubled she continued to feel along the wall until her she groped around the doorframe, her hand swallowed by the open void. With quick tug she was grabbed and pulled into the corridor and unable to slow her momentum Amari slammed headfirst into the wall opposite. Her face crunched against the surprisingly sturdy concrete and Amari clutched at her forehead and certainly broken nose and leaked downwards and into her mouth. The metallic taste coated her tongue at the in time with the cold lick of pain sliced that into her abdomen. On a gasp she fell to the floor and soon her hands were wet with blood that rushed quickly out of her, in surrender she sank into the warmth.

Amari awoke on the debris ridden floor and quickly scuttled backwards, away from the open doorway. Not daring to remove her eyes from the doorway Amari grabbed at handfuls of dirt and clutter until her hands coiled around a cold metal pipe. Though her heart beat wildly she walked towards the doorway with aggressive determination and bolstered with the weapon in her hand she marched forwards into the blackness. She was quickly grabbed by her lurking opponent and outmanoeuvred swiftly. The attacker used Amari’s momentum to fling her towards the opposite wall but she remembered to spin so that her back took the brunt of the hit. The blunt pain near winded her with the force of it and she had barely recovered from the hit before a brutal blow was delivered to her temple. Before she hit the ground she was swallowed by darkness.

Careful not to make any noise, Amari forced herself completely upright before backing slowly away from the door. More confident in the positioning she reached to her feet and picked up the metal pipe and then with silent steps she moved around the edges of the room. Though her heart beat wildly and her breathing was laboured she made not a sound as she waited for what seemed minutes rather than seconds. As she hoped he would, her assailant cautiously entered the room. Luckily he began his sweep of the room from the other direction and, without waiting for a better opportunity, she brought down the pipe onto his head with a great show of strength. He fell to the floor heavily and Amari retreated out of his grasp. She waited for him to regain consciousness but as the blood slowly trickled out of his head wound she knew that he would not. “Fucker,” she hissed and hit him again to be sure that he would catch her unawares. Whilst she waited for the simulation to end she became near hypnotised by the oozing wound that grew tacky in his hair. The blood looked near black in the bad lighting. When the simulation did not end she looked back towards the doorway and eyed it as if it were a dog that might bite her.

“The criteria are not yet met, huh?” she asked of her imaged spectators and, though she was fearful of a further attack, she felt around the body of her assailant for a better weapon than her pipe. His body was warm to the touch and as she felt about him the reality of her actions made her feel nauseous. Despite searching him completely she could find no better weapon than the knife in his hand and she palmed it contemplatively, comforted by the slight weight. The smooth blade was short and she winced at the memory of how it felt slicing into her. Dispelling the imagery she moved out of the room. She was careful to scan the hallway and though it was much darker than the room she was exiting her eyes quickly adjusted to the lack of light. The corridor was not wide and she moved quickly onwards. Arriving at a blind corner she peaked around it cautiously but found no further assailant awaiting her around the next corridor. Instead she saw before her a brightly lit and inviting staircase that seemed to ascend to freedom itself. Amari approached it at an eager pace, constantly checking the open doorways she passed, each time relieved to not be attacked from within.

She ascended the stairs backwards, careful to scan every darkened direction with each cautious step. Her combat boots were not quiet on the metal steps and she winced with ever groaning movement of the stairway. Though she could not feel the detail of the grasp Amari felt the strength behind the yank as it circled and pulled at her ankle. Her stomach lurched in freefall as she fell headfirst into the serrated steel that rose up to meet her face. Every rising barb pierced her skin and she settled heavily into the pain of it. She blacked out quickly and as she succumbed to her unconsciousness she was grateful of it.

Amari jumped up from the basement floor and marched quickly towards the rear of the room, grabbing the metal pipe as she walked. “Come on your bastard, come and get me,” she called and, accepting the taunt, her attacked entered the room. The sharp blade in his hand winked at her from across the room and she noticed his grimace though she could make out very little of his look through the camouflage paint that blurred his features. They circled to asses each other, drawing out their collision that came when he launched towards her, confident in his skills and physical advantage. When he was nearly upon her she reared the metal pole back from her though she was fearful of her exposed side and the weapon in his hand. She was rewarded by the crunch of bone as she brought it down on his defending arm but it was too late to slow his momentum the blade entered into her fleshy abdomen a bare inch. She yelped at the intrusion and swept his feet out from underneath him. Amari smashed the pipe into his face repeatedly until the adrenaline swept her pain away but the mess at her feet ensured that he would not be following her and she snatched at the fallen knife before leaving the room. She did not scan the hallway as thoroughly as she had previously and she marched towards the end of the corridor with steely determination.

The stairway beckoned her with ethereal light and though she was tempted to make a quick run towards it instead she kept to the shadows. Her back clung more closely to the wall than the crumbling plaster as she swept along it, the soft scraping sound of her clothing the only noise as she circled around the staircase. From her new vantage point she noticed the moment that he entered the room, creeping soundlessly from the doorway and she knew that she felt vindicated in her decision to hurry from the previous room. He watched the opening of the corridor she has just vacated and Amari approached him silently from behind, hoping to catch him unawares. As she approached him the sly glint of lengthy steel glinted in his hand and she near gasped at the sight of it. Stifling the noise she forced herself to close the distance between them and throwing herself at his back she slit his throat with a quick drag of her blade. She had aimed her incision too high and the sharp edge caught against the cartilage of his Adam’s apple, forcing her to dig in deep to free it. The wound was a deep and gruesome hole as he sagged against her hand and in disgust she released him and the blade along with it. Amari snatched at his sword before she lost her nerve.

The steel was heavy in her hand and she toyed with the weight of it as she waited for further attack. When nothing happened she grew impatient though she was fearful of what awaited at her at the top of the stairs. Amari hoped beyond all reason that the light above her signalled the end of the simulation but the weapon in her hand hinted otherwise. She ascended the staircase slowly, holding the sharp edge of the blade high and forward facing as she moved. The light that had seemed so inviting mere moments ago now blinded her with the contrast and no sooner had she found her feet on the platform than she was knocked back down again. The wind on the platform was strong and quiet and pulled at her hair as she fell. The blow to her back ached up her spine and forced her down on to all fours and even from her sturdy vantage point the un-railed rooftop made her stomach lurch. Not wanting to start all over again she stood quickly and turned in the direction of her attacker but as her vision adjusted she backed slowly away from him, dropping the knife in fearful wonderment. “Flynn?”

Instead of replying he kicked the hilt of her fallen sword so that it span towards her, catching the tow of her boot with a slight thud.

“Pick up the sword Amari,” he instructed and twirled his own weapon, testing his grip.

“No,” she replied, shaking her head accusingly.

“Pick up the damn sword.”

“I won’t kill you.”

He huffed out an impatient breath and closed the distance between them. With the hilt of his own sword he knocked her hard on the temple and the blow sent her to the floor beside her weapon. She landed dangerously close to the edge.

“Pick up the fucking sword Amari,” he hissed and reluctantly she grasped at the handle. As he walked away from her he turned his back and though she knew that she could rush towards him and end their torment quickly, she hesitated. He clicked the kinks in his neck and she watched his muscles tense as he rolled his shoulders.

“I don’t want to do this,” she said softly and without replying he rushed towards her with his blade held high. The sound of clashing metal reached her ears before she realised that she had had the sense to fight back and with a satisfied glint in his eye Flynn withdrew only long enough to attack her again from a different angle. Several times he left openings where she could have taken advantage and her training screamed the weakened spots to her with each pass. Still, she ignored them and then, impatiently he forced her to raise her blade high to meet his. With her opened stance he grabbed at her waist and thrust his thumb into her open wound.

“Ahh!” she yelped and crumpled quickly to the floor.

He fell upon her, though neither of them dropped their blades. He could easily have finished her off but instead he opened slightly and allowed her a quick advantage which she took to ease the pain at her side. Throwing him off her body she followed quickly and put her sword to his throat.

“Finish it!” he spat.

“I can’t kill you,” she sobbed at him and before she could control the weakness tears rolled down her cheeks.

“The simulation won’t end until you do.”

“This is cruel,” she said.

“Do you want to get stuck here forever?” he asked her.

“That wouldn’t happen, they wouldn’t allow it.”

“Are you so certain of that?”

She hiccupped a soft sob and the motion dragged her blade along his skin, a small red line formed at the wound. She focussed on the blood.

“I can’t do it,” she cried and dropped the blade.

Flynn threw her body away as she had done her sword and when she made no move to recover he stood over her, his own weapon reclaimed. Angrily he stood upon her dominant hand, the crunching of her bones against the platform heard as much as felt.

“Is it because you think I won’t hurt you back?” he asked and pressed more firmly into the pain.

“Stop!” she yelped and he crouched down to her level.

“If you won’t fight then why don’t you start again?” he asked and though she wanted to reach for her blade he kicked her off the platform with an uncaring shove. The freefall was bliss.

The waking was hell. She made no sound as she killed the first man and snatched his knife with venom. The next death was delivered with swift efficiency, a clean sweep across the throat that betrayed no sound of her passing as the life left him. She took the sword from his still, warm hands and tucked the knife at her belt as an extra precaution. As Amari ascended, determination was in her stride and she lingered in the void between the two levels as she waited for her eyes to adjust. She launched herself onto the platform and Flynn regarded her silently. He seemed to be waiting for her to make a move and as they appraised each other in their silent stand-off she moved towards him, frightened that she would change her mind. “Did you enjoy the basement?” he asked mockingly.

“Shut up Flynn,” she replied and as she brought down her blade upon him she chanted inner words of encouragement to herself. He was quick to fight back and his face displayed an enjoyment in their engagement that she could not match. Again Flynn left the same weak spots open in his parries and when she had spotted the pattern she took swift advantage. As he twisted to meet her blade she split her strength and met his sword with her right hand as her left reached for the sword at her belt. Without a second though she forced the blade into his side and the shock on his face was a perplexing mask of pleasure and betrayal. He fell away from her and she dropped the blades at once to cradle him.

“It isn’t real, right Flynn?” she asked him between sobs. Caringly he reached up a hand to stroke her cheek.

“No Amari,” he said comfortingly “none of this is real.”

She awoke in her own bed but the relief she felt at having completed the exercise was overshadowed by the need to find Flynn. He was not in their room and as if drawn by a pull she walked back towards the Simulation Suite with a determined stride. The soldiers who had been waiting earlier were now noticeably absent and so too was the receptionist though she did not pause to think on it. Instead she saw Emma, the technician herself, in the young woman’s place.

“Miss Ree,” she greeted her “what can I do for you?”

“Hello Emma,” she replied.

“May I enquire as to the progress of the other simulations today?”

Emma looked at her questioningly.

“Yours was the only simulation today Miss Ree.”

“Oh,” Amari puzzled “then where are the other participants from earlier?”

“Just part of the simulation,” she responded offhandedly and continued in her tasks.

“Ok,” she said slowly “could you just tell Flynn that I was looking for him then?”

“Flynn?” Emma asked.

“Yes,” she replied “Lieutenant Thompson?”

Emma sighed and put aside her work.

“Miss Ree,” she said impatiently “did you not read your debriefing papers?”

“No,” Amari replied “I came straight here.”

“Flynn Thompson isn’t real Miss Ree,” she replied “he’s part of the simulation. You would have known this if you had read your summary pack.”

Amari reeled and felt for a moment and thought to question the technician. Instead she walked towards the exit slowly.

“Oh and Miss Ree?” Emma called after her “congratulations; you passed.”

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