GIFTS (A Spark Form Chronicles Novella)

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Excerpt

GIFTS
Matt Doyle © 2016
All Rights Reserved

 

DAY ONE

“And we’re done,” Sean says. “Now we just have to wait to see how the public react. Fingers crossed, they like it.”

I shrug. Sean Carlston was the lead organiser at the last tournament, and he’s been put through the wringer by his management team since. Meera Thorne’s death was a tragedy, but when you throw in Connor Ford needing to be revived, by Sean himself no less, it really does make him look complacent. If Fahrn’s attempt at transitioning to fan favourite hadn’t gone down as well as it did, he would probably have been out of a job by now. Luckily for him, her increased merchandise sales are raking in the money for Emblem, owner of all things Spark Forming. “It’s all good. It’s how they react to my first match back that’ll be the big test. They can hate the concept, but still enjoy the match itself if it’s exciting enough.”

“True enough. So how are you holding up? It’s a pretty big change for you too, right?”

I trot past Sean and nab one of the bottles of water spread haphazardly across the table behind him. “Ya know, today really hammered home what the biggest change of all is. Normally, I step in front of the camera, do my thing, wait for the filming to stop, and you tell me how awesome I am. Today though? Fingers crossed the fans like it. C’mon Sean, you can do better than that.”

I shoot Sean a cheeky wink and he rolls his eyes. “You never change, do you?”

“Sometimes I do,” I reply, and twist the lid off the bottle. I take a couple of big gulps and smile. “Still waiting for the praise though.”

Sean laughs. “In all seriousness, even with all this, you’re still far less trouble than most of the active roster. You, Fahrn, Dorian, and Slade. If I could run shows with just you four, I’d be a happy man.”

“Aww, is Connor not behaving for you after you saved his life?”

“Oh, he’s making me pay for that one. Did you see the first of his ‘Road to Recovery’ documentaries?” I nod. “When he said that he came to the tournament to die, he wasn’t lying. He told me as much after his first-round match, and he’s been reminding me of that every time I turn up for filming. Excuse me for thinking a life isn’t worth throwing away.”

“In fairness, he may not have viewed it as throwing his life away, at least not at the time. He seems pretty receptive on the docs though. I mean, it sounds more like he did want to die than he does want to die. My guess would be that Connor’s just being Connor, and he’s reminding you of his plight to get at you. That means he likes you, by the way. I’ve gotta say though, while I’m happy to see that he’s still about, suicide isn’t illegal on Earth, so he does kinda have the right to be upset.”

“It is illegal if the act has a high risk of causing widespread trauma, so his plan to die on screen was a no-go, even if they couldn’t really prosecute him afterwards. And I stand by my decision to revive him backstage. Anyway, you set for your comeback match?”

“I’m working on it,” I say, downing another mouthful.

“How do you mean working on it?” Sean asks, a hint of concern in his voice.

“Nothing to worry about,” I reply, hopping onto the edge of the table and waving my half empty bottle at him. I let my legs start swinging gently and continue, “I’m ready to go and everything, but I don’t tend to practise this close to matches, so it’ll be a bit of a culture shock jumping down in game speed like that.”

“Wait. You don’t practice at all?”

“I run through a couple of short test plays with a couple of  small sets of cards, mostly to test combo and interaction potential, but never with the full deck I’ll be using. My mind wanders far too easily, so if I have too many things to think back to under the influence of the gentle nudge of a handful of familiar cards, I’ll lose focus, crash and burn, and end up getting yelled at by Carnival.”

“You keep making comments like that and people are going to think that you think that Carnival’s real.”

I gasp in as over the top a manner as I can muster, and pour my entire store of mock shock into my voice. “You mean she’s not?” Sean doesn’t give me a proper response. He’s either learning or Connor’s beating him down too much for him to be a continuous source of amusement. I hop off the table and ask, “So, you want me here nice and early tomorrow, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Sean replies, his fingers flying over his phone. “You’ll be going straight from the morning press conference to the match, just in case the game overruns. Looks like the early comments are in on the promo. Nothing too negative, and plenty of well wishes. You want to look?” he asks, and holds the phone up to me.

“It’s cool, it’s cool,” I say. “I’ll check them out a bit later when people have had time to discuss it properly.”

“Fair enough. Oh, there’ll be a bag at the main desk for you by the way. You’ll find your show gear in there. Make sure that you’re changed and ready by the time you get here, again, just in case there are any delays.”

“Sure thing,” I reply, then down my drink, screw the lid back on and launch the bottle towards the bin in the corner. It ricochets off the front edge, hits the wall behind it, and only ends up inside the sack because the inside of the front edge is just high enough to knock it back again. I leap triumphantly, going full-blown fist pump, and turn smoothly back towards Sean. “Catch ya later.”

Sean smiles, and gives me a pleasant wave. “Yeah, see ya tomorrow.

I nod, spin on one foot, and half-hop, half-bound my way towards the door. It’s good to be back.

 

I kinda feel bad about the position that Sean’s in right now, especially because my own choices are part of what’s left him under scrutiny from the higher ups. That and I’m lying to him. Actually, am I lying? Sure, it wasn’t the strain of the heavy matches that have left me without a way to safely use the cabling, but it was all because I took part in the tournament. I mean, if I’d gone temporarily insane and pulled a no-show, we wouldn’t have met Lana, at least not immediately, Carnival wouldn’t have had a way to force my hand into telling her how I feel about her, and I wouldn’t have had a monitor hooked up to my heart that not only inconveniently prevents me from being plugged in at the arena, but also hits the kill switch on her if it detects that I’m no longer among the living.

So, it is kinda-sorta-maybe due to the stress, strain and general upheaval caused by Sean’s first run at a major show that have put me in this position, and my conscience is therefore clear. At least about applying a necessary filter to the absolute truth and definitely not outright lying. As to the ‘my own choices’ bit though? Guilty as charged your honour. They told me in the first consultation that the heart monitor would potentially end my career. The small electrical charges that the Data Wick inside Carnival’s projected form sends out to simulate feeling in those that touch her are nowhere near strong enough to affect the thing. The high amounts of power that pump through the arena cables during a match are a completely different matter though.

Once I told Carnival what had happened, she used a fantastic array of grunts, growls, sulking, and all my favourite tablet-typed-rage-words to let me know that I was an idiot and that I should have backed out there and then. I could have too, but I didn’t want to because I knew how important it was to Carnival that we had this. I’m getting better at it, but my subconscious remains forever stubborn about letting me show what I’m feeling, and going through with what is essentially a death sentence for Miss Long Eared and Snarky made a clear statement: yes, I do honestly believe that she is alive and has a right to die on her own terms, and yes, I do care deeply for her and can get on board with this being about as close as we can get to any form of legal commitment ceremony. And all without having to verbally say anything.

But was I right, and did it satisfy the ever so slightly twisted sense of romance in Carnival’s electronic soul? The tight hug that she gave me after she’d gotten her annoyance out says yes. Well, that and the not quite masked yipping sobs that I don’t mention outside my own head because she’d hit me if I did.

Oh, look. I’m home. That’s the wonderful thing about letting my mind go wandering; it allows the teeny-tiny parts of me that thrive on routine to work their magic in the background and do things like getting me home via a well walked and speedy route without the need for me to pay too much attention.

The building is a single-story dwelling of modern décor and full detachment from the neighbours. Oh, and a plentiful supply of beer because, while she no longer needs to use it as a coolant, Carnival likes the taste. Emblazoned on the door is ‘C17’, with the C standing for ‘Compact’. If my memory of high school history lessons and local cultural studies rings true, then way back when Quadro was formed, they tried calling these buildings bungalows. People being people, and the early people of Quadro being particularly attached to their Earth-dwelling roots, arguments soon broke out about the term. As it turned out, bungalow was used to mean slightly different things depending on the country that you were in, so while having the Colonies act as single countries was supposed to prevent petty squabbling like this, the past hung heavy and arguments broke out on a daily basis. The then Mayor decided that the ever-growing number of human interest stories on the subject could be stemmed by changing the name of the building to ‘Single Story Apartment’. Once again though, the past jumped up and made a nuisance of itself, reminding the Mayor that not every country used the term apartment. Finally, they settled on proclaiming the buildings to be ‘Compact Height Full Size Living Spaces’. Obviously deciding that conflict was fun, the people of Quadro rejected the full name and shortened it to ‘Compact’.

I use a good old fashioned key to open the front door. In a way, we’re lucky that we don’t live in Cothurn-Ragna because, according to the t-shirts, ‘CR hates retro-fit’, and so all the doors are key-card and thumb print combos. Carnival could handle a key card, but would struggle with the whole thumb print thing, so getting back into the building on the days that Lana and co drop her back would be an issue. Unless we gave Lana full access. But then we’d be reliant on her being able to make the drop off every time. Plus, as much as we both like Lana, I don’t think either of us would be comfortable letting her have that much freedom in our lives.

I walk into the living room to find Carnival luxuriating across the sofa and watching something on the TV. She spots me making my way across the room, grunts in greeting, and switches the screen off, but not before letting the current advert finish running. That’s the seventh time in the last two weeks that I’ve come home to the sounds of the call to arms to support the local ice hockey team, The Coyotes, in their final league game of the season. Her hearing and sense of smell being what it is, she totally knew that I was coming and queued the thing up.

“Anything good on?” I ask, heading to the kitchen and pretending that I haven’t gotten the hint and already bought the pay per view package for Carnival’s Christmas present. Carnival gives a non-committal grunt in response and pads softly behind me. “I think the first day back went well,” I continue, and retrieve the milk from the fridge. “It looks like I’ll have to head straight from the pre-show press conference to the match though, just in case the game overruns. It means that you’re gonna be on your own for a bit longer than normal, so if you have any message board massacres lined up, that’d be a good time to carry them out.”

Carnival reaches into the fridge and pulls out a can of beer, making a noise that I can only describe as sucking in a growl as she does so. I’ve noticed her adding a few more little sounds to her repertoire recently. It’s nice to see her amusing herself like that. I pour the milk into a cup, add a tea bag, and flick the kettle on. It feels pretty warm already, which means that Carnival probably pre-heated it for me when it got close to when I was due back. “It’s been a while since I played like this,” I say. “It’ll be weird not fighting with you with me too, but they’d only say that I was trying to psych Saul out if you were there staring at him the whole time. That’s my opponent by the way, Saul Rampart. He’s pretty good, but I should be fine. I meant what I said though. If I do lose, I could always switch in another Wick?”

Carnival blows a raspberry my way, and replaces her half empty can with her tablet. Her fingers fly over the screen at a speed that rivals Sean Carlston’s and, after a moment, she flips the screen around to show me what she’s written. ‘YOU’RE OVER THINKING THINGS BECAUSE YOU CAN’T SEPARATE LOSING TO FAHRN AND ALL THE STUFF WITH ME AND LANA. I NEVER WORRIED ABOUT LOSING BEFORE, SO WHY WOULD NOW BE ANY DIFFERENT?’

I shrug. “Because you’d know that it’s coming. Even if I didn’t tell you the result, you’d be able to tell the moment that I came back to the changing room.”

Carnival rolls her eyes and taps out another response. ‘IF YOU WIN, GREAT, BUT IF YOU DO LOSE, I’LL JUST SPEND THE REST OF THE DAY POINTING OUT WHERE YOU WENT WRONG. EITHER WAY I GET TO HAVE SOME FUN. IT’S NOT LIKE MOST OF THE MATCHES REALLY PUSH ME PHYSICALLY ANYWAY.’

I raise my eyebrows in a ‘yeah sure’ sort of way, and Carnival gives an exasperated sigh. ‘YOU KNOW THAT THE DAMAGE IS ALL SIMULATED. BESIDES, EVEN IF ANY OF IT CROSSES INTO REAL PAIN TERRITORY, IT’LL ONLY BE BECAUSE YOU’RE HAVING TROUBLE FOCUSSING AFTER THE CHANGE IN HOW YOU APPROACH GAMES. THAT’S AS MUCH MY FAULT AS ANYONE’S, SO ANY HURTING ON MY PART MAY AS WELL BE SELF INFLICTED.’

“Masochist,” I grin.

Carnival returns the smile and raises a middle finger my way.

I give my cup a quick stir and remove the bag, then lift the cup up to my nose and take a big sniff. “Ah … I am so glad we found this one. The smell is amazing.”

Carnival trots over and pushes her muzzle between my nose and the cup. She takes a couple of quick sniffs, then withdraws and lifts her freshly retrieved can to her nose. One deep breath later, she gives the can a couple of happy taps with two fingers and heads back towards the living room.
GIFTS (The Spark Form Chronicles #3): GameLit / Sci-Fi / Novella – John Forrester is wondering … What do you get an AI for Christmas?

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