Matt Doyle © 2016
All Rights Reserved
CONNOR FORD – 09:12
“Oh? A bloody summons is it?” I growl. “And the moment I get through the door no less. Tell me you little shit, did Carlston happen to tell you what it was he needs to see me about so desperately?”
“No sir,” he replies meekly. “If you could walk this way, please.”
“Fine,” I reply, lifting my upper lip into a sneer and following the quivering wreck that is my tour guide for this jolly jaunt through the arena. “The bastard probably has some more paperwork for me. Obsessed with the stuff, isn’t he? Bloody annoying is what it is.”
“I, um, I heard about your, um, accident yesterday. Are you sure that you’re OK to compete today? Sir?”
He’s worried. Looking around at the people we’re passing, they all feel the same. Every single one of them is on high bloody alert, and they’re all looking at me like some sort of phantom. At that I burst out laughing, and the more the people around us start to crumble, the louder I get. “Oh, I am more than ready for what today has in store, and believe me, now I know the sum incompetence of the staff here, I won’t be allowing accidents like yesterday to happen again, oh no.”
“Incompetence?” he sputters with a beautifully offended expression splattered across his face. “What do you mean?”
“He means we screwed up,” comes Sean Carlston’s voice as he steps out of his office. “It’s fine Carl, I’ll take it from here. Mr Ford, please step into my office.”
“Oh, with pleasure,” I reply, entering the office with a mocking bow. I throw my bags down beside the door and pull up a chair opposite the bastard, my chin relaxing into my hands as I twist my face into a vicious smile. “So Carlston, what was so bloody important that I had to come visit you before I even reach my dressing room, hmm?”
“You were right,” he says, mimicking my pose. “We aren’t going to see a repeat of yesterday’s accident. You see, I’ve been giving it some thought and I’ve decided that if you’re so Hell-bent on this suicide run of yours, who am I to stop you? I have no intention of making it easy for you though. I have a show to run, and I intend to see it come off without a hitch.”
“You bore me Carlston. What’s your point?”
“The way I see it, you never intended to die yesterday. No, you always had it planned for today. You want to go out in a blaze of glory at the top of the game. If we hadn’t messed about with the running order, the meds would have seen you through the match just fine and none of us would have been any the wiser about your condition until it was too late. Today though, the changes are going to work in our favour.”
He’s copying my tone now too. Oh, he will pay for that, mark my words. Wait … “What changes Carlston?”
“Well, Ford, it seems to me that if you want to play at the top, you’re going to need plenty of rest in between matches aren’t you? What with your condition and all? On top of that, you were so upset about not opening the show yesterday that I thought that we at Emblem should do our very best to make it up to you. And if in doing so, we can ensure that today’s show gets off to a flying start in the process … well, we’d be fools not to leap at an opportunity like that, wouldn’t we?”
“What are you saying?” I sneer.
“What I’m saying Connor,” he says, getting to his feet, “is welcome back the opening spot. Now go and find your changing room. Oh, and I checked with your doctor by the way. He was all too happy to e-mail me a list of the meds you’re on and confirm the timings for each dose. Someone will be along shortly to make sure that you take them.”
He got me. The bastard got me and now all I can do is sit here like an idiot while he walks to bloody door.
“You know what they say Mr Ford. Live every day like it’s your last. Enjoy yourself.”
I clench my teeth and wait until I’m certain he’s gone before slamming my fist against his table.
“Feels kinda odd getting here on time, doesn’t it?” I ask as we walk through the main gate.
A short, relaxed grunt makes its way out from under Carnival’s hood, followed by a flash of white as the light catches her smile. It’s not just arriving on time that makes this a first for us, it’s how we’re entering the building. Ordinarily, we’d split up just outside the E(E)SFC and Carnival would make her way around the back. I’ve never asked her how she gets in; I just leave her to it. My guess is that she usually vaults the wall and gives the back door an ever-so-gentle-in-comparison-to-a-stampede kick. Or possibly gnaws through the fence. And still kicks the door.
“It’s funny really. We’re here an hour and a half earlier than normal and I’ll probably still get to the changing room at the exact same time as normal because even more people than normal will stop me so that they can have a look at you and ask why you’re on already.”
I feel Carnival step a little closer, her hand briefly wrapping around mine to give a reassuring squeeze before retreating into her cloak. She knows I’m nervous. I’d worry that that worried her if it wasn’t for the light swishing of her tail. I doubt anyone can see the movement from under her disguise, and the rustling is quiet enough that you’d really have to listen for it to catch it. I’m just so used to all her little quirks now that it’s hard for me to miss them. When you spend your time communicating without words, your senses kinda tune into stuff like that.
Thinking about it, she probably doesn’t have to kick the back door. Given the security around here, it’s probably just left unlocked for most of the day.
Now, this is the problem with having a brain that likes free-running. I know that I need to be abnormally focused today, but it’s not that easy for me. Abnormally focused is quite a relative statement actually, slightly-above-normal-focused for most people is probably more accurate, but for me that’s an abnormal amount of standing still mentally. And caught myself. I could feel my train of thought hunting down partially hidden alleyways then, while cleverly disguising itself as something akin to rationalising my own thought processes. Bad brain. Today’s the day to walk straight.
Ah, now there’s nothing quite like a low, warning growl to pull you back to reality. I take a half-hop backwards to bring myself back in line with my already stationary companion and follow her line of sight to the big, glass doors that lead to the main desk. There, signing themselves in for the day are Lana De La Cruz and Finn McCourt, our two non-tournament opponents for the day.
To look at him, you wouldn’t think that Finn’s a Spark Form. What makes that dangerous is that we don’t really know if there are any others like him walking about right now. Well, apart from Meera, but I’m not really sure how she fits into this mess yet. Still, it wouldn’t pay to be too paranoid right now. We’ll just be careful-like-normal times ten with added keeping our guard up.
Just inside the arena, Finn gives Lana a quick tap on the shoulder and she looks back over towards him. He says something and the two of them turn their heads to look back out through the doors and in our general direction. Carnival responds with a heavy snort, then reaches up and pulls her hood back, sweeps her ears and hair out from within the cloak and flicks them off down her back. So much for being discreet. Ears hanging down to your waist are a pretty big giveaway that you’re not just another visitor to the arena. Obviously deciding that she may as well commit herself fully to blowing our cover, she fixes the two competitors with a big toothy smile and lets out as big a roar as I’ve ever heard from her. For added effect, she then drops into a ready stance as though she were about to start a match.
Inside the arena, the doorman looks absolutely flummoxed. Lana meanwhile simply straightens up, smiles our way with a nod and walks off towards the backstage, Finn following closely behind. I’m about to ask Carnival what she was doing when I hear a small but excited voice heading our way yelling, “It is! It is them!”
I look back towards the main gate and spot a young girl running towards us like her life depended on it, and an older woman following closely behind. “It’s really you,” says the girl, hugging a familiar looking cuddly toy tightly as she almost barrels into me. She finally comes to a stop in front of Carnival with a wide-eyed, drawn out “Wow!”
“I’m so sorry,” pants the older woman as she slows to a stop next to us. “She’s never been to a live show before. Chloe,” she continues, turning to the girl, “you’re not allowed to be in here yet. Only competitors and staff are allowed in the arena before midday.”
“But Mum …” Chloe protests, eyes welling up.
“It’s cool,” I say with a grin, dropping to one knee next to her and placing my bag on the floor. “We’re not technically in the arena yet, so I’d say you caught us just in time, wouldn’t you?”
“See Mum,” Chloe chides, eyes lighting up. “I told you it was OK.”
“So, Chloe,” I say, laughing. “I bet you’re … five? six?”
“Six,” she nods, then throws her arms out and yells, “And Carnival is my favourite Spark Form in the whole world.”
“I thought so,” I say. “The plushie gave it away. I bet you watch Spark Force too, don’t you?”
“Mm-hmm,” she replies, chewing on one of her toy’s ear.
“And what was your favourite episode?”
“Uhm …” she says, drawing the sound out before continuing. “I liked the one where The Torn and Carnival got stuck on the mountain and Carnival used her blue fire to make wings for The Torn so they could fly back down and stop uhm, Bal … Balfra … uhm …”
“Balthrak?” I try.
“Yeah, that one.”
“Well, I tell you what Chloe. We really do have to get into the arena now, but since you’re such a big fan, I bet Carnival would love to pose for a photo with you.”
“Really? Can I Mum?” she asks, giving her Mum a big ol’ dose of puppy dog eyes.
Clearly immune to such trickery, the Mum looks to me and says, “If you’re sure it’s OK,” then points to Carnival and asks, “Can you stop her moving though?”
“Of course,” I say, grinning happily as I reach into my bag and pull out my Mobile Loader. I could have had Carnival change pose already, but if she’s gonna risk blowing our cover, then she can help put it back in place by staying in foot-to-foot-bouncy-bouncy mode a little longer than necessary. I tap the screen a few times without actually selecting a card and right on cue, Carnival stops her stepping and moves into one of the poses from the TV show, sending Chloe into a fit of excited giggles.
“Do you want to be in it too?” I ask the Mum as she produces a camera from her inside pocket. Chloe answers for her by grabbing her by the hand and dragging her over to Carnival. I laugh and take the camera, take a few steps back and snap a couple of shots. Chloe and her Mum wouldn’t notice, but Carnival’s really enjoying this. Her eyes are almost sparkling.
After checking the photos came out OK, Chloe and her Mum say their thanks and depart quite quickly. Or rather Chloe’s Mum tried to depart quite quickly, but had to prise Chloe off Carnival’s leg first. Once they’ve made it out of the main gate, I turn back to Carnival and start tucking her hair and ears back into her cloak. “Cute kid. I reckon you’ve got a fan for life there. Still,” I say, pulling her hood back up, “I’m glad to see you’re back to keeping in character. Too much stuff like that roar and we’ll have more than just Lana and Finn to worry about.” I’m pretty sure that she knows that already. I’ve no idea why she decided to cut loose like that, but the moving into stance was most likely her way of covering herself in front of the staff and the kid.
Carnival, still in pose, responds by letting out a quiet snicker from somewhere under her hood.
I laugh and make a show of playing with the Mobile Loader, then start walking towards the arena again, Carnival walking calmly beside me like some sort of stereotyped TV druid.
I wonder if she picks the back-door lock with her claws?
All things considered, I’m surprised that I’m this focused. Since we made it to the changing room, it’s like every card I look at opens up possibilities in my head as to how I could use it against Forrester or Connor Ford. I feel kinda bad that I’m not planning too far ahead for the match with Meera, but I kinda knew how I was going to approach that one anyway. Meera said herself, she’s not expecting to beat me. If Dorian hadn’t pulled his walkout bit, she’d have probably been eliminated already. I just hope last night was as cathartic for her as it was for me.
“Do you think she’s OK?”
“Hmm?” replies Maria, stirring her tea on the kitchen worktop at the back of the changing room.
“Meera. Do you think she’s OK? She was really shaken when we left last night.”
“She was doing better when we left,” she corrects me, dropping her tea bag into the little bin by her feet and walking over to join me at the table. “You just didn’t notice because you were pretty shaken yourself.”
“Maybe,” I say, putting a small wad of cards down in a pile. “I was just worried because she seemed so shocked when I told her about what happened when she was with us.”
Maria scoots up onto the table, warming her hands on her mug as she idly crosses her feet next to me. “We both knew she’d be like that. She really doesn’t remember any of it, you could see that, so of course it was going to hit her. It meant that she had to really face up to how she deals with things.”
“I know, I know,” I say. “It’s just that I want to reach the end of it all, you know?”
Maria takes a sip of her tea and smiles down at me, her face softening with the gentle tone of her voice. “She’ll get there. She’s survived this long, and through far worse things than chatting with you.”
“It’s not just her though,” I say, catching my chuckle just as it starts. “Going through it all again … I feel like it did me some good. It’s selfish, and I hate that I’m looking at it like this, but if I can get her through it all, or even just get her to a better place, then I think it’ll help me too. I know I should be trying to help her, and I will, I am, but …” I pause. There’s no way to say this without hating myself for it, but there’s no way to back out of it now that I’ve started either. “I know that I can get something out of this. I want to fix myself and move on from The Halo too. That’s a really crappy way to look at it, isn’t it? She’s the one that suffered, all because of me, and here I am thinking about my own shit rather than focusing on her.” I shake my head. “Typical fucking Offland scum, only out for herself.”
I drop my gaze to my hands, realising for the first time that they’re shaking.
“Hey,” Maria replies, her voice soft. She puts her cup down at the back of the table and lifts her hand to the side of my head, reaching just under my hair. My face naturally moves in to meet it, taking in the warmth of her hand as she gently strokes my cheek. “You’ve needed this for a long time Fahrn. And you’re not being selfish,” she says, shaking her head. “You’re doing what you always do. Fighting to be a better person.”
“For you,” I sigh.
“Fahrn,” she replies, slipping her hand under my chin and tilting my face up to hers. “You could stay exactly the way you are forever and I’d never think any less of you.”
I lean in and our lips meet, my eyes closing as I feel Maria sigh deeply, her breath warm against my face. For a moment we remain still, the world softening around us until finally, I tilt my forehead into hers, letting myself smile briefly before saying, “I’m going to talk to Sean about the Dorian idea. There are a few things I’d like to change, and I need to know that I’m definitely going to get some time off after today, but overall, I think it could be good for us. We’ll be safer out in public, and I may be able to make a difference to other kids like Meera.”
Maria smiles proudly, pulling me into a hug while I choke back the tears with a smile of my own.
CARNIVAL (The Spark Form Chronicles #2): GameLit / Sci-Fi – Day two of the tournament begins, and Carnival’s fate hangs in the balance.