Earthian — Chapter 10: Jump

Sorry for the lack of updates over the weekend, ladies and gentlemen.  A few things came up, and I didn’t make the headway I’d hoped for.  Nevertheless, it’s Tuesday and time for more…

Earthian Title Card

Earthian!

Today’s episode is called Jump, and I believe you’ll find the title apropos.  If you’ve missed any episodes so far, check out the Earthian Digest right here at the Oktopod Blog to get caught up!

On with the show…


Jump

Day three. Training continues here at Valiant Base and I’m not exactly thriving. We’re inside one of the Seelio’s weird portals right now–one of their instances, as they call them–and even if I know it’s technically safe, I’m still not a fan of eating this much dirt.

I’ve just bounced down a small slope while my teammates are bounding on ahead. It’s lowered gravity training to prepare us for different environments across the League… and I suck. I truly, royally suck at this. I suck harder than a jet engine.

Free running is the whole reason I’m here (unless there’s a big call for bicycle messengers in space), and I can’t even manage to walk. Embarrassing isn’t the right word.

I carefully get back on my feet while Adia waves at me. She yells, “Hurry up, Jace! It’s getting away!”

Her most athletic A Grade is hiking, and yet she’s prancing along like a baby deer. What the hell? And I don’t know why everyone’s calling me Jace lately, but it’s really not helping.

So I start to run. My toes push at the ground and I fly a few feet up into the air. At the top of the arc, it feels like slow motion; I’m in a highlights reel, but without a bombastic orchestra playing in the background, then gravity wins the battle and I begin to fall. I can’t get the timing of this right for some reason. My foot swats at the ground, my toes catch and slip, and I’m doing cartwheels.

My chin smacks soil that’s about as hard as packing bubbles, and I get up a little more slowly this time. I think I pulled something. At least, that’s what the faint dagger-like sensation in the back of my thigh feels like.

I hear someone shouting but I can’t really be bothered to pay attention. Instead, I flash a thumbs up, start (super gently) walking it off, and try to figure out what the heck I’m doing here. Why I can’t do this?

Gravity always wins. I hate her so damned much right now.

I’m staring at the ground in front of my feet, and I’ve got my brow knitted so hard that the middle of my forehead’s starting to sting. This really isn’t where I wanted to be on day three. I mean, I’m literally watching my team run off without me, and I still haven’t seen a single giant robot yet.

Alejandra’s ringtone plays, and her saccharine voice rapturously shouts, “We caught it!”

I spin my finger in the air, and realize I’m likely hitting peak bitterness. This isn’t a good pattern. It’s not a road I want to travel down.

At least my thigh doesn’t hurt much anymore, but before I can make any other lame attempts at walking, the sky begins to throb–a warning that the instance is about to eject–and we’re flushed back out into the gym. My belly doesn’t agree with the feeling too much, and I’m sure the nauseously curled lip really adds something special to my demeanor.

The rest of the team are suddenly there beside me; that’s how it works when an instance ejects. Everything that went into the instance is washed back out through the opening.  They’re all cheering and laughing, and Michael’s trying to teach everyone how to high-five properly, while I’m a sagging sorry mess off to the side. Man, I was never this unhappy at summer camp.

“Congratulations!” Owijer says sweetly, and I’m not sure how or when he got here. “This was no easy task, and you’ve all done so well!”

He’s blatantly lying. The other five peacekeepers managed to catch the target all on their own, while I was busy fishing my knee out of my armpit. I’m terrible.

They all cheer while Owijer looks up at me, and there’s a flash of sadness in his eyes. He sees me. This can’t end well.

“Alright,” he says. “Settle down. You’re all fresh still, and there are more exercises left on the schedule.”

The other five adopt a steely gaze of determination; it’s the exact same look, and they all do it at once. Well… Michael’s might be just a little more determined. He’s always a little bit more determined.

Meanwhile, I suddenly find myself in need of pockets to stuff my hands inside. It’d really complete my dejected shuffle-step.

“I think you’ll like this next exercise,” Owijer says while glancing at me. “Let’s begin!”

A smooth cylinder rises up out of the floor, milky white like most things at Valiant Base. We know the routine, so we walk around it until we find an open doorway on the back, and it leads us into the instance.

On the other side of the doorway is a bafflingly large chamber, like an old aircraft hangar with a vaulted ceiling more than sixty feet up. The floor is filled with squared-off spires in different shapes and sizes, like an obstacle course or a play park, and all of it leads up to some kind of structure in the middle, a monstrous thing with multiple levels and connectors, stretching nearly up to the top of the room.

I walk in trailing the pack, and from back here, I can see how much just three days of training has changed them. We acted like little kids let loose inside a museum exhibit the first few times, touching everything to figure out what was real, but now we know how to recognize the instance; there’s a lack of small details like everything’s just been polished, and the colors and smells are a little off. I wouldn’t know how else to describe it. They’re just off.

With all the wonder gone, the team instead looks over the area methodically, memorizing every last detail. They know they’ll need the information soon.

Our target arrives. It’s a small machine (at least, I think it’s a machine) called a simuloid. It’s made of a material that looks like frosted glass but moves like skin. The last one was shaped like a hare, while this one is more like a foot-high praying mantis.

Why do we spend so much time chasing woodland creatures? You’d think we’d have better things to do… and frankly, blasting a few hulking monsters could really lift my spirits right about now. Maybe just one hulking monster.

But no, we’re here playing chase the simuloid. Yay?

The glass mantis offers us a courtly bow, then he takes off running between the stone spires. The peacekeepers are off and running while I begin to jog. At least the gravity’s normal-ish.  After just a few paces, I’m surrounded by waste-high blocks laid out without rhyme or reason, some in rows and others in clusters. The entire setup reminds me of sculptures outside of government buildings. Abstract. Meaningless. Inoffensive.

The simuloid streaks by, followed a half-second later by my jumpsuited teammates. They’re whooping and hollering, but the little glass creature is going a heck of a lot faster, bouncing from one wall to the next.

I lose sight of them as they head into the taller spires, and I’m still jogging along keeping pace. Why am I not trying right now? It’s not like gravity is slamming my face into the ground. Have I given up?

Not yet. My jog turns into a sprint, and the spires grow higher around me to form a blocky, branching canyon. I can hear my breathing echo off the walls, while the Seelio shoes make my footfalls nearly silent.

I follow the raucous sounds until I catch up with them–Victor’s the slow-poke and I’m nearly on top of him now–but I still can’t see the simuloid. It’s up ahead somewhere, and all I’m catching are reflections of the red light it casts off.

Victor glances back and there’s that damn curled lip of his under eyes like stained silver. This isn’t the worst look he’s shot me over the past three days, but it’s still not a good one. Sometimes, I think he’d shove me out an airlock if there was one nearby.

I pick up speed, and I can hear my shoes squeaking quietly like happy mice. I see my shiny arms flashing in the light, and that’s the only reminder at all that I’m wearing a jumpsuit at all.

I come up beside Victor, and he’s now too busy tracking the simuloid to pay any attention to me. The tiny thing blasts ahead, glowing like an old glass lantern and and ricocheting like a bouncy-ball. This thing is fast.

But a moment later, it looks like Mike’s about to win the day. He unleashes this huge melodramatic leap, flying high up over the ground, but the simuloid accelerates out of reach.

And right into Alejandra.

Now, here’s the thing about catching a simuloid: it’s fragile, slippery, and warm to the touch, meaning you can hardly tell you’ve got hold of it, you can’t hang onto it, and it’ll shatter like your mother’s nicest vase if you’re too rough. When it breaks, we lose.

The simuloid doesn’t break but it does get away, sending Alejandra tumbling angrily away without her prize. She’s not the most graceful loser I’ve ever met, but I guess some folks don’t have a lot of experience with losing.

When the simuloid squirts away, it redoubles its speed. Panic. I can only see a faint blur as it bounces from wall to wall, then comes rocketing back in our direction.

I suddenly feel that moment approaching… the moment of glory. Between breaths, I’m watching this strange glass animal spiral through the air, and he’s coming right at me. My hand is out. I still haven’t inhaled. My fingers stretch, slide along its smooth belly, and it’s gone.

But hey, it feels good just to be in the game.

I lean back hard and stop, spin about, and take off running after it, now in hot pursuit. The mantis’s light is shining brighter, and he’s seriously booking it now. All the while, I’m trailing behind and breathing with a nice steady rhythm. I’m in the chase, but I’m cool. Just gotta stay cool.

The simuloid is leading me out to where the spires are shorter again, and it’s dodging about and cutting hard turns. It’s all over the place, and I’m struggling to keep up without bashing my nose into things. I fail at that more times than I’ll admit.

The situation changes once the spires get just a little shorter. The simuloid hops up on top of the scattered blocks and starts to leap nimbly from one to the next, and I follow, dancing across the uneven surface just as fast as my legs will allow. I’m able to make longer leaps than he is, and I’m starting to close the gap.

The landscape changes beneath our feet, from blocks only a few feet wide, to long ones that stretch for yards. I almost feel like they’re stairs made for giants, and it’s just about the most perfect parkour playground I could hope for.

The simuloid makes one immense jump, flying up into the air like a thrown baseball. His tiny hands catch the edge of an elevated walkway, he lifts himself up and takes off running .

I can’t follow that act; I just don’t have those kinds of hops. I need a different route.

Some of the structures rise up near the walkway but they’re a mess… nothing neat and direct like the giant’s steps, but it’s the only option I see, so I take it.

I run, take two steps running up the wall, and push for the last few inches until my fingers can grasp the ledge above my head. I get one foot up, roll forward, and then I’m up and moving again. My next few steps are alongside a wall, followed by two steps running up it, only to kick off and grab hold of a crossbeam of some kind.

I swing back then forward, back and forward again, release and grab onto the elevated walkway.

And I’m there… huffing and puffing like a St. Bernard in the summer. And that’s when I see the last part of the challenge. The walkway curves up ahead, only to end at a blinking red light. Blinking red lights are never good. I can’t let the simuloid get there.

A lightning bolt of pain streaks down my ribs, and I still haven’t caught my breath, but I gotta run. I can see my target up ahead, little arms and legs pumping madly, but it’s not so fast on flat land. And frankly, it looks exhausted too. I just have to put one foot in front of the other without falling on my face, and the game will be mine.

This is way more challenging than I expected. I think I twisted my ankle a little bit ago, and the idea of dropping face-first on the concrete actually sounds sort of refreshing. The simuloid is only a few jogged paces away, though.

I can do this.

I can do this!

My toe catches on the ground… and I trip… and I fall.

My hands shoot out, with puffy swollen fingers stretched as far as they can, and…

I’ve got it. I’m lying on the cool concrete with a little glass mantis in my hands, and I’m pretty sure I just won.

Yeah, I definitely feel like that just happened.


 

Coming up on Thursday, we’ll be reading Chapter 11: Kilovolt.  Hope you’ll come back for more!

~Chris

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