It’s Monday, so it must be time for the craze that’s sweeping the nation. If you’re just joining us, you can find previous chapters of Earthian right here at the Oktopod Blog.
It’s shocking how these things catch on. One day, I hadn’t even heard of Audition, and the next, I was passing people on the street heading to their next challenge. It was everywhere, and that alone was kind of amazing. People doing what they love, competing for nothing but bragging rights, and steadily getting better.
Competition was fierce and I was deep inside its jaws. School was out for summer and my delivery job was only some afternoons, so I had buckets of time to waste. Somehow, the game never felt like a waste, though. Not even while skipping stones.
Not that I spent a lot of time skipping stones.
It’s early evening and my shift just ended. I’m coasting on my bike, listening to the chain click while clouds on the horizon turn to gold. Then I hear a chirping notification out of my pocket, and my earpiece says, “Incoming Challenge!”
I’ve got it set to auto-accept; they somehow always come when I’m not busy (like they’re planned around my schedule) and I’m always glad to get them. Truth is that the scoreboard is all I ever think about anymore. I’ve got a couple wins under my belt, but I know I can go higher. I feel the fire crackling, getting stronger, and I need to compete.
So I start pedaling. The phone directs me down a few shady lanes, then over a beautiful little bridge I’m sure I’ve never seen before, and there’s my competition over there. Backwards hat, high-price sunglasses, riding a very expensive roadbike. She looks fit, fast, ready to race.
I don’t imagine my t-shirt, courier bag, and helmet look nearly as intimidating. Definitely not on this old beat-up mountain bike, but I don’t mind.
At the end of this road, I can see a little red flag hanging from a post. It’s dangling in the wind, beckoning us on.
I nod to her and she nods back, then we both begin to accelerate. I hit top gear pretty fast, and I’m out of the saddle, crushing downward with each stroke.
Meanwhile, she’s pulling away. Her tires make a neat buzz on the pavement, like a surprisingly relaxed honeybee, and I can’t do anything but push hard and watch her leave me behind.
Her pale hand flashes out to grab the flag and she slips away around the corner.
I’m being dumb.
“Audio guide,” I say, then I jump the curb and start climbing the grassy hillside.
Audition’s all too smooth voice says, “Next flag bearing three-one-two, distance fifty-two meters and closing.”
The ground is rough, broken by big gouges filled with rocks and gravel. Obstacles to be cleared, hopped over quickly and efficiently. Delivery boy skills.
Just as I crest the hill, I’m careless and my rear tire hits a stone, skips sideways, and nearly tosses me teeth-first into the dirt. A panicked gasp and a few wobbles later, I’m back on the pedal and gaining speed.
I can see her rounding another corner in the distance, but she doesn’t see me yet. She thinks I’m miles behind her, not barreling straight downhill toward the next flag.
“Ten meters, steady on,” the phone says.
I’m going too fast, but the idea of slowing down is a galaxy away from me. The fire is burning so bright that I can only think of winning. I have to win.
I weave past and lightly pop over everything in my way, and I know I’ve never ridden like this before. I feel unstoppable.
The grass disappears all at once and I’m suddenly racing toward the end of the line. The dirt ahead of me stops at a retaining wall followed by a six foot drop to the sidewalk, and man, I’m going like a rocket. There’s no choice anymore. No time to slow down and take it cautiously.
The only options left are to land it, or end up tumbling across cement into whatever comes next. Glad I wore my helmet.
I’m airborne and I don’t think I’m breathing. Am I? I’m oddly relaxed, I guess, considering I’m sailing through the air going too fast for my own good. Knees slightly bent, fingers gently wrapped around the handlebars, I’m just the tiniest bit tense all over. It’s the tension of a well-tuned guitar string.
Then the sidewalk comes up at me all at once like a hungry shark. Tires touch down and the impact splashes over me, I flex, and the bike rolls on.
There’s no time for a celebratory fist pump. Instead, I reach out and snatch the little red flag from its post, and that seems like celebration enough. Especially with an unknown number of flags still waiting somewhere ahead.
It ended up being six, all told; I held onto the lead for the rest of the race, and never saw my competitor again. When I had the last one in hand, I heard a pop and another single firework shot into the sky. Those bottle-rockets are awfully pretty when they’re for you.
I finally stumbled off my bike and collapsed sometime later, then found enough energy to pull my phone out and check the scoreboard. Huffing and puffing, fingers beaded with sweat, my eyes lit up when I saw it. That win bumped me up a few dozen places, and gave me an achievement called Giant Slayer.
Audition was so simple. You do what you love… what you’re good at, and it lets you know just how good. I’m sure there were people who told the game they were the world’s best sneezers, and they ended up sniffing pepper to figure out who really had the goods. Each time, one of them climbed up the board while the other had to make a decision: tell the app to stop scheduling them for that event (admitting that they really weren’t that good), or strive harder for the prize.
Everyone had to make that decision a few times a day. I gave up on Sprintfinity pretty fast, for instance. All it takes is one stomping by a second-grader to put me off a game entirely. I was doing alright in math for a few weeks, but then I hit a higher bracket full of college students, and I was done.
Did better than Wiley, though. I’m not saying he’s dumb. There’s some kind of genius hidden inside of him. It’s just not that great at math.
It’s an unusually windy day, sending clouds racing by overhead. Green leaves rattle and shake. My bike’s coasting, and I see Wiley jogging up the sidewalk. We’re both on our way to challenges… but at this point, it seems like everyone in town is. Maybe everyone in the world, for all I know. I don’t remember the last time I checked a news feed.
“Jace!” he says.
I hate that nickname. I can’t express just how terrible Jace Yun sounds.
I hop off my bike and walk it the last bit. “Long time, no see, man.”
“It’s the game,” he says with a smile. “And, uh… I see it’s treating you well.”
I shrug. “Eh. Pretty sure I saw you riding high on the darts ladder.”
He smiles wide, one jagged tooth touching his lip. He’s a lean and sarcastic stick-figure with a giant poof of red hair. The tip of his nose is always red like he caught a chill.
He just looks at me silently for a second. “You haven’t been checking the main scoreboard,” he says. “Oh my god, Jace. How are you always this oblivious to everything?”
I somehow manage not to punch him in the nose. In the past, he hasn’t always been so lucky.
“What?” That’s the word I say. I’m so eloquent sometimes. It sounds more like a threat than a question, but I’ll just leave that question mark there on the page.
“The main board,” Wiley says. He doesn’t look particularly worried about his nose. He never does. “It’s an overall score based on all the things you compete in, and you get a fat bonus for ranking in a bunch of them.”
“Alright,” I say flatly. “Great.”
He groans and leans in. “You don’t get it. You get a fat bonus. Dude… you’re kicking ass.”
It sounds ridiculous. Wiley’s trying to mess with me, like the time he convinced me I had a twin brother who was put up for adoption. Someone taught that boy how to use PicSlasher at a really inappropriate age. Not that I’m bitter.
Wiley is the #1 dart player in the area. Meanwhile, I’m ranked A Grade on a few different boards, but I’m not even in the top ten for any of them.
“Stop screwing with me,” I say. “I don’t have time for this.”
“How many A Grades do you have, Jace?” Wiley asks. He looks annoyingly earnest.
“Five,” I say.
Wiley smiles. “See… I just have the one.”
Maybe he isn’t screwing with me.
He says, “I only know a few people who have two.”
“And,” I stammer, “how many have five?”
“In the world? Hell if I know. But inside of a hundred miles? You.”
The next word I say isn’t a nice one. It has to do with bodily functions that would make my mother blush.
I pull out my phone and cancel my challenge. “You wanna grab something to eat?”
He nods, his giant poof of hair looking oddly like the clouds behind him.
A few minutes later, we’re sitting down at Más Rápido–our favorite taco shop, the one with a roof shaped like a sombrero–and I can already see my burrito on the way. Wiley’s sitting across from me, tearing his napkin to jagged little pieces. There’s no pattern or purpose. I think he just likes to add his own little bit of chaos to the world whenever he gets a chance.
He’s sitting next to the window under Más Rápido’s logo, a smiling cartoon mariachi running across the desert with a giant taco under his arm. Juan Sabroso. The Taco Bandito.
It sort of looks like little Juan is running over Wiley’s head.
My burrito and Wiley’s giant nacho plate arrive seconds later, and we both dive in like savages. Sour cream and guacamole splash everywhere, painting the table in white and green. I’m so busy with challenges most of the time, my meals just go by in a blur. I have to consciously force myself to slow down right now… I canceled my match. It’s not like I’ve got somewhere else to be.
And apparently, I don’t have to work quite so hard anymore.
“So, how’s it feel?” Wiley asks around a mouthful of shattered tortilla chip.
“I guess… good?”
Wiley smirks. “He guesses good. You’re a real deep thinker, Jace.”
“I dunno. How should I feel?”
He instantly chews and swallows two chips connected by a vast and goopy cheese-bridge, then shrugs and says, “Good… I guess.”
It’s everything I can do not to throw the other half of my burrito at him. It’d be a waste of a really good burrito, though. “So, what now?” I ask. “Is there some kind of endgame content?”
“I don’t know,” Wiley replies. “I don’t know anything. The whole thing’s pretty much a mystery… heck, I thought it was some kind viral marketing at first, but I’ve never seen one this big before.”
“Yeah,” I say soberly, then my mouth is full of burrito again. Still chewing, I say something that sounds kind of like, “Tho vut thew you fink id ith?”
Wiley’s left eye twitches.
I try to swallow, and by my use of the word try, you’ve probably guessed that I’m not too successful. Mashed up meat, beans and tortilla set up a blockade in my throat and refuse to budge while I grab for my soda in a panic.
It takes two splashes to dislodge the lumpy thing, and I feel it tumble slowly all the way down to my stomach. Wiley, as one might expect, is laughing so hard I think he might fall out of the booth.
A guy can hope, can’t he?
After a few breaths and twice as many pulls from my soda, I repeat myself. “Before that comic interlude, I asked what you think Audition is.”
That eye of his twitches again. “Yeah, I heard you,” he says quietly. “Against all odds.”
“I don’t get this game. What are we playing now, Wiley?”
He’s just quiet for a long time, then suddenly he’s got this look in his eyes like he wants to talk about something serious. I’ve only seen it few times, whenever he’s bothered to talk about his father. It’s the smallest tightening of two muscles, but it makes him look like someone else entirely. Someone who actually cares about things.
Then it melts and he’s just as sarcastic and self-loathing as ever. “I’m being ridiculous,” he mumbles.
“Out with it already, drama queen.”
“Fine,” he says. “Did you ever notice… eh. When you go to a challenge… have you ever seen those places before?”
“I don’t know. Maybe?”
“Come on,” Wiley says, waving a tortilla chip a little manically. “Think about it. Really think about it.” He taps the side of his head with the chip, leaving a smear of sour cream on his temple. I artfully neglect to tell him.
I do think about it, though, and he’s right. Every single challenge has been in some neighborhood I never knew existed. In the past month, I’ve gone down enough unknown streets to make up a complete second town.
I’m a bicycle courier. If anybody should know all these hidden little routes, it’s me… and I don’t.
I slurp at my soda and a loud gurgling fills the air. Empty.
“No,” I finally say. “I haven’t seen them before.”
Wiley’s looking at me really intensely now. “Streets, parks, libraries… I looked around online for the library I tested at, and I can’t find it anywhere.”
I’m out of burrito and soda, leaving me with a feeling of immense sadness, despite the burrito’s earlier attempt on my life. “Do you have a point?” I ask.
“I…” Wiley’s self-confidence disappears in a puff of smoke. “I don’t think those places are there,” he says in a hushed voice.
That immediately ranks as the fourth dumbest thing I’ve ever heard Wiley say. One had to do with asking his cousin to prom. Another was about dangerous weather being caused by a shortage of wildfires. The last… maybe I shouldn’t talk about that here.
I shake my head. “Dude, please tell me I didn’t hear you right.”
“I’m stone cold serious,” Wiley says. “I’ve looked everywhere, and none of it’s real.”
“Bu… I…” I take a breath and start over. “I don’t even know what to do with you. Are we walking into fairy circles?”
Wiley says one simple word: “Aliens.”
You ever have a moment like that, right in the middle of the day? One second, you’re just running on autopilot, and then it’s like someone snaps their fingers in front of your face and you wake up.
“How did I…”
“Forget about them?” Wiley chides. “Everybody does. It’s insidious.”
He actually snaps his fingers in front of my face, and I slap his hand away.
“So, let me get this straight,” I say, grabbing a pack of creamer as a prop. My instinctive skepticism jumps back into the fray. “Alien life crosses the galaxy, drops down on Earth,”–my creamer zooms across the table and lands on my plate–“and wants to sell us VR games? Getting grandmothers to knit more is some sort of plot for world domination?”
I sound like a jerk. I can’t always help that.
Wiley glances sideways. “Maybe. Sure. I don’t know.”
He’s lying. I simply don’t believe in the day when Wiley doesn’t have a dozen crackpot theories and half as many logic-defying plans. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if he started that sasquatch-on-a-Nazi-rocket theory a year ago.
Luckily, my judgmental stare is enough to crack him.
“You have to look at the actual mechanics of what they’re doing, Jace. They’re making us healthier, happier, and distracted. And now they’ve given us what?”
“A scoreboard,” I say with a shrug.
“A way for us to kindly sort ourselves by useful skills,” he cuts back. “This is the last step before institutional slavery and eugenics.”
“Exactly!” His fist strikes the table.
His next movements are classic Wiley. Eyes flashing as he realizes he’s shouting like a crazy person in a public place. The instant blush, and then a curled lip like he might throw-up. He gets nauseous in awkward social situations.
It occurs to me I’ve known Wiley way too long. And as usual, the most frightening thing about his conspiracy theories is their strange plausibility. I always have to be on guard for fear of falling into another one head first.
“How do they do it?” I ask. I’m not quite falling yet, but I can feel the gravity of it tugging me down. “These hidden neighborhoods…”
“I’m not totally sure,” he says. I notice the dark patches under his eyes, and I assume he’s been up late nights thinking about exactly this question.
“VR maybe, like you said. They could be beaming things directly into our brains, or maybe they teleport us. They could be bending our spatial dimensions into new configurations, for all I know. Or… maybe we’re all sleeping in amniotic tanks right now with our brains plugged into computers.”
I don’t have Wiley’s love for sci-fi. He goes to conventions in costumes he makes, and can quote every episode of Mission: Centauri by heart. My fandom peaked in junior high with Prism Troopers, and that only managed to hold my attention because I liked their giant robot.
“Wiley,” I say. “You should probably tell Audition that you’re good at conspiracy theories.”
“That’s not funny,” he says in a surprisingly calm voice.
“I’m only half joking,” I reply.
He smiles, but it’s a sad one.
I scratch my chin and say, “What about the overall scoreboard? Does this mean I’m some kind of superior specimen or something?”
“Probably. It could raise your starting price at auction, or maybe they’ll set you aside as a stud. A prize rooster.”
“I don’t know how you can say that and make it sound like a bad thing.”
Wiley smiles. He really smiles this time. “Just talented, I guess.”
And right about then, a waiter arrives with a pair of tacos al pastor and a bag of churros for Wiley, and we continue to eat like wild animals. Like feral dogs afraid there’s a leash in their future.
And chapter 3 is in the bag! Aliens, conspiracy theories, and off-road biking… what’s not to love?
Join me right back here in two days for Chapter 04: Determination!