Time for another challenge! What’s Jason going to compete in today?
If you’re just catching up on Earthian, you can find all previous chapters right here at the Oktopod Blog!
It’s an hour past sunrise. The horizon is the color of an unripe lemon, with thin clouds like snakes sitting low above it and basking in the coming light. I’m out on the sidewalk, jogging calmly toward my next challenge.
I feel good. I’m wearing a track-suit, my five-toed running shoes, some knuckle gloves, and an orange knit cap. I like my black one better, but I’d look a bit too much like I’m out snatching purses at this hour.
I’m dressed for free running. No one ever knows what challenge is coming, so you have to decide… either get ready for all of them, or just the one you really want.
The only thing I want is the top spot on the free running board, and there’s only one name left above me: Helena Moore.
Since the conversation with Wiley a week or two back, I’ve tried to make mental notes of where my phone leads me, but I just can’t get a handle on it. I turn this way, I go through that door, and I end up in some familiar-looking place I’ve never seen before.
This time, a flight of concrete stairs leads me up to a metal door with a wide handle. When I pass through, I’m so confused by the sight that I start to worry Wiley might be onto something.
I’m on the roof of a ten story apartment complex (from the looks of things) and I don’t remember climbing quite that many flights of stairs. There’s fifty yards of uneven surface up here, littered with air-conditioning equipment and scaffolds, and beyond that, a city. It’s a messy landscape of buildings waiting to be raced.
And she must be Helena Moore. Black, fit, dressed in mottled sweats and a pair of red shoes. Two-toed, like a ninja’s boot. I don’t know the brand, but I want them.
“So, you’re him,” she says.
I’ve been hearing that more than I’d care for. “Jason Yun,” I say. “Nice to meet you. Helena, right?”
“You don’t look like much,” she says.
I’ve been hearing that a lot too, but I smile. “Looks can be deceiving,” I reply with a smirk.
Her face already told me how totally unimpressed she is, but she goes ahead and adds another heaping helping on top. Guess I can’t win them all.
There’s a beacon flashing on the next roof. It’s one of those gumball lights that spins around, in a shade of pale blue that makes it look like police equipment.
“Ready?” she asks.
“Alri…” is all I get out before she takes off running, and I have to scramble to catch up.
She’s fast and agile, vaulting up and over obstacles as gracefully as… something less clichéd than a cat. I’m pretty good, but I don’t move much like that; I have to work harder to keep up, and that’s going to eat away at my energy reserves pretty fast. From the looks of things, this is going to be a contest of endurance as much as skill.
She drifts out to the side toward a wall as she approaches the next building. She gets airborne with one leg, kicks off the wall with the other, and spans the gap in an all-too-comfortable leap.
I’m not that classy. I dig in and charge forward, launching myself upward off the raised ledge. I’m in the air and there’s a thin alley far below, with sounds of traffic and murmuring voices echoing up through the gap.
And I make it. Toes find traction on the new surface, and I haven’t lost any speed. I’m closing in on her.
My confidence builds. I’m making better decisions, slicing forward and hopping nimbly over the exhaust stacks every fifteen yards, while she maintains her wickedly even pace.
She can hear me coming, and I see the slightest stutter in her step. That’s when I overtake her. I pass wide to her left as the roof clears out, and now I can see a parking lot across the way, the two buildings bridged by a rickety-looking wood scaffolding. I let my speed flag just a little, then stride out to one beam and then the next.
When I hit the last one, I feel the wood bend as my foot strikes down; I hear it creak under my weight but it holds. I’m only two paces further on when I hear a crack, the dull thump of a body hitting concrete hard, and a grunt.
I skid to a stop and turn back, seeing nothing of Helena but her fingers gripping the ledge. There’s no time. I rush forward, lean out and am instantly struck by just how high up I am. Since when do they make parking lots as tall as skyscrapers? There’s a cloud floating by beneath us, and Helena’s face is all grit. She’s pissed off.
I reach out, feeling my insides squirm at the sight of the street so far, far, faaar below… and I offer her my hand.
She takes it.
She’s back up in a few seconds, and she weathers the ordeal like a real pro. Just takes a few seconds to rest her hands on her knees and breathe, then gives me a subtle nod and starts to walk away. I’m breathing hard myself and I’m covered in sweat. I can still see the next beacon waiting in the distance, but I’m not much in the mood to chase it anymore.
So I pick a direction and set off until I find an elevator. I take it down (a surprisingly short trip), it drops me out downtown, and I head off toward my house.
I never did get that top spot on the scoreboard, and having seen Helena compete, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take it from her. Skill like hers deserves some kind of recognition. Instead, it very nearly got her killed… and for nothing more than bragging rights.
As for me, I was shaken and kind of despondent. I went on autopilot for the rest of the night, walking, sitting, eating, laughing hollowly while my family chatted and generally went on living around me.
As I drifted off to sleep that night, I wrestled with the idea of quitting. No more challenges. Not if Audition was dropping people to their death because of shoddy construction.
But when I woke up the next day, the decision wasn’t important anymore.
Coming up in two days, join me right back here for Earthian, Chapter 05: Exposure.