a short story
Gary Baker, April 2013
(part 1 of 3)
Juskra reached his arms out to the sides, stretching his biceps and forearms.
“Three,” came an echo of the loudspeaker sitting at the apex of the arched ceiling. Lights set here and there flickered, then hummed to life with traces of a faint yellow glow left to streak across the placid slate flooring. “Two.”
Juskra grit his teeth and flared his fingers wide to bring about small globes of orange-cream light hovering like flies on his nails. His eyes shot to the speaker high, high above determining it to be about five stories up. Above that speaker hung the Gobosxes, a court of gods with infinite wisdom all sitting in throw pillow-covered divans drinking wine and ale, while watching the events below. These gods would judge him, they would sense his every thought as he completed the mission... and they would feel his cold embrace as he died at the end.
But that was why Juskra was here. He wanted to prove it was possible to do it without involving death.
He bit down on his concentration and reeled it in. He had to focus.
Silently he inhaled to bring the points of light over the backs of his hands in tiny rivulet streams of pulsating energy. While most beings to do this took the raw, godly power for themselves and covered their whole body only to unleash it at every last obstacle until it wasted away and died, Juskra had other plans, other hypotheses to test. If he was correct, the whole debacle would end well, though if he was wrong the first challenge would ruin him for eternity.
But no pressure, he mused.
The light grew faint as he breathed. Breathe in, breathe out; breathe in the wisdom of the ‘verse, breathe out the reality. Bring in what mattered.
Release the inhibitions.
Juskra opened his eyes and found himself in a jungle of molten magmatic plumes. Red, yellow, and black consumed his world like an odd drug-induced nightmare. Nothing was the same, slate gray Colosseum as before - but this was considered to be the easy part.
He set his eyes upon floating black stones, slowly melting in the unbearable heat, and unhesitatingly darted toward them. One solid leap brought him onto the first, soaring over boiling rock and gaseous clouds that would curdle the blood in his veins. The next sat just to his right, drifting toward a cliff where the magma had made a virtual Niagara look-alike.
That was when the stone under his feet began to heat at great intervals. Soon it would liquefy and slip in amongst the molten earth again, ever to coalesce with molecules ages old as though eager to be whole again. With a grin, Juskra lifted his feet and waved the light of his hands over his bare soles to leave a thin film of the same light like glowing translucent socks that suddenly vanquished the pain and kept him agile while he picked up his pace again.
He raced toward the edge of his stone and vaulted across paces of flowing rock just as the second platform passed by. He landed hard, having misjudged the distance only slightly, and found his right foot slipping to skim the lava just before he rolled onto the floating mass.
He shot his eyes to his foot out of instinct, sure the light hadn't worked, adamant that his foot would be burned beyond repair. Yet sure enough his foot had barely a bruise on so much as his toe-tips. Glad it had worked, though still uneasy at how easily he almost failed, he stood again and glanced around.
The falls were reaching ever nearer. He had to do this soon, had to figure out the course of the timed maze fast. He let his eyes roll back to better enable him to concentrate and found himself back in the bowl-like room. His task was to reach the opposite platform set directly across from his original entry-point, now merely a forty-five degree south west of his current relative angle.
So he had to go west to stay centered, and north to get across.
Eyes open again, Juskra directed himself to peer through the heat wave swirls, only to find a now-distant platform jutting from the magma more than twenty strides away. There was no easy way to get there; he couldn't jump, he couldn't fly... but he could run.
He had to, or else admit to defeat and let himself die.
Inhaling deep, the orange light pulsed with his heartbeat and began to glimmer. Then he bolted toward the platform, pumping his arms forward, backward, forward, backward. His legs pounded the stone, then the air, and finally the magma itself. Each step left a glowing disk of orange, slowly fading from existence as he raced on.
When he reached the stone high-rise, he leaped up and grabbed the edge. With a quick flex of his arms he tossed himself to safety and rolled onto his back where he lay for several heavy moments trying to convince himself he’d done it.
The raw energy pulsed within him, straining against the use while seemingly cheerful that he was conserving it. It felt like a child was riding piggyback on the very essence of his existence, the inane laughter crossing over the gap from one being to the other until he couldn't hold back an audible giggle.
His breath had become heavy, coming in jolts and violent convulsions, and it was clear his physical body wanted to give up. But he resisted the desire knowing he had no choice but to keep moving; this was only phase one of many and none before had lived to see the last one... yet. The one thing that was obvious to Juskra was that conservation was key. Somehow he knew the energy at play was more powerful than what anyone thought; it wasn't just a gift to help survive, the energy in itself was alive.
It was something to be protected, to be saved.
“To me,” he whispered aloud while clenching his jaw and cinching his eyes shut. With strong concentration he brought the still-unfaded disks of light back to him, filling him with sensation again as though he’d lost pieces of his very soul using it like that.
As it returned, his ears popped with the sudden pressure change, his tongue burned with the spicy aftertaste of fresh peppers, and his vision blurred in an ecstatic, joyous pain. When at last the sensation ended he took inventory; only seventy percent of what he’d used had come back to him... not good. Better some gone than all of it, he told himself though he hadn't really expected this trick to work - but it also meant there was that much less to use later. He’d have to be more careful with it.
Picking himself up off the slab, Juskra looked ahead and plotted his course to the visible end, then set about hopping, leaping, and sprinting his way from platform to platform using as little light as possible. It took only minutes, but felt like hours, and at long last he touched down on the final stone.
As he stood the world slowly darkened on a spectrum until at full height the room had returned to the Colosseum again.
“Phase one:” the speaker echoed, “complete.”
With a flick of the wrists, Juskra extinguished the lights on his hands and feet and felt the energy rise in response. Once more it felt like a living entity within him, where each time he chose not to use it the energy, itself, relaxed and regenerated little by little.
“Phase two,” the echoing voice came again, “begin in: three...”
Juskra turned to face the open room and the way he’d just come.
He flexed his fingers and light once again appeared at his fingertips... but this time it wasn't orange and it wasn't warm. Eyes wide in shock, Juskra looked to the yellow-green points hovering at the very ends to each and every one of his fingers.
“No shit,” he breathed.
The energy of the light pulsed happily within him, amounting to a greater sense of power hiding just under his nails, coursing through his veins, peering from his eyes. No one had ever seen this happen in all of history. Not one soul had ever seen the orange light change like this.
“What does this mean?” Juskra choked out.
He jumped, having forgotten about the countdown.
His heart raced with anxiety. What did this new development mean to the course? How would it affect his pre-planned actions? Resolving to test his most-sure fail-safe Juskra waved his right palm over his left forearm to create the shielding again... but nothing came. No energy held true to guard his body from harm.
Eyes wide, Juskra choked in his fear. This time he had no idea how to use the energy. “Oh, god,” he whispered with near-surreal unease.