Chat-your-own-Adventure #6: Points for Context

Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story.  The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways.  Stop by if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.

Draft Scrawny                                 Draft Brawny                                        Draft Old

The numbers didn’t look good. They didn’t sound good either. Reggie could hear the numbers, the multitudes, just outside the locker room. There was a whole stadium out there, sweaty, drunk, and riled up by what they’d only been able to see on screens up to that point. Some of them probably shelled out ten thousand dollars for their seats, and it wasn’t even the middle of the season yet.

He sat there, alone, with a towel around his shirtless shoulders, drying his hair. They would call him out to the field in a few minutes and he would be expected to face the numbers and all their angriest dimensions. His phone was hot in his hand, barely able to keep up with the scrolling scrawl of the numbers that couldn’t attend directly. They would be sat on innumerable couches, watching on innumerable holo-fountains while they picnicked with friends and rarely-seen family, and catching glimpses of his performance during coffee breaks.

The internet’s reaction to Reggie being drafted had not been positive. His whole pitch to the team, the coach, and the world was that he was an underdog. People were supposed to like underdog stories. The internet wasn’t full of people kicking dogs after all, at least not on its warm surface. Reggie mulled it over as he scanned the insults and threats. What didn’t they like about him?

Most of the complaints were centered on his physique. He had to admit that he was scrawny enough to be hung by the neck and killed with fishing line, but that was supposed to be part of his goofy charm. If he’d been out chugging protein powder and grunting over hurdles he never could’ve developed the skills to be worth drafting in the first place.

He moved to his locker and pulled his jersey on. That was it. No helmet. No pads. No mouth guard. Lifetry hadn’t become the number one sport in the world by obscuring its players’ faces. The numbers loved to see the emotions swell and bloom on their faces: pride, shame, determination, and sorrow. Sure, they had even more concussions than American football back in the day, but the numbers out here were far greater than those complaining about that.

The logo on the jersey was a muskrat with blue fur and a shark’s fin. It didn’t exactly match the mascot style of the other, struggling, sports, but that was because the internet always had a hand in the designs. They were the shark-rats, and according to the data they were not favored to win today’s game, even with the home field advantage.

Everyone said it was his fault. His drafting didn’t make sense. He was too small to compete. Reggie was always compulsive about the negative comments. He even translated the ones from other languages, just to brood over them hours or days later. This was game number one for the shark-rats’ new recruit. His chance to prove them all wrong. There was nothing to carry him up the hill but his stubby thin underdog legs.

Reggie squeezed his bottle, squirted some neon pink sports drink down his throat, wiped his face with the towel, and headed for the field. He didn’t know what he would find, but that was what appealed about Lifetry: no two games were the same. He stood behind the doors, waiting for his cue. He would be the last player to hit the field, mostly because the coach had lost all confidence in his decision. The loudspeakers crackled to life. Reggie remembered he still held his phone, so he ran back to his locker and stored it away. The doors opened and he swore under his breath, rushing back to them.

A Dark Alley                           A Circus Prep Area                              A Water Slide

Reggie was immediately thrown off his guard by the swipe of a lion’s paw. He backpedaled and ran into the doors as they closed. Luckily, the beast was caged. The safety regulations for Lifetry were just strong enough to put a padlock on the cage door. He remembered his practice sessions. Hundreds of hours. He couldn’t let them all fly out of his head at the first strange sight.

It was the live animal that threw him. Such things were rarely integrated into the ‘life-like’ arenas for the sport. The staging was different every time, but it always mimicked a real location. First step of practice: observation. Where were they playing? His eyes danced about, drinking in the details: red and white stripes, giant tents, caged animals, peanut and popcorn husks all across the patchy ground. There was a clown with running blue make-up smoking a cigar and leaning up against the wheel of a cannon.

The circus. Not the circus everyone knew. It was the area out back. It was the place where employees could cry and think about going back to school. It was where the clowns and trainers sucked on their vices and prepared their fake smiles for their next shifts. Reggie let a few scenarios play out in his head. Lifetry was all about figuring out the drama inherent to a location. There were players built-in, neutral as referees, with stories and actions memorized.

He had to figure out what character he played in this scenario and what that character was supposed to do. For that, he needed to find either his teammates or an audience terminal. He knew neither of them were keen on his participation, but he thought teammates would be less vindictive. He had to find one of them before a member of the opposite team stumbled onto his location. If they tagged him before he’d established his character’s context, he would be out of the drama and out of the game immediately.

A tent flap opened in front of him. Already, his worst fears were realized. There was a member of the enemy team: the Fox-jets. She had long legs with sculpted thighs and Reggie immediately knew she could outrun him. He was drafted for his skills with the audience terminals, not the more physical parts of the game. She already had her context, written electronically across the front of her jersey: drunk father, cheated on.

She saw he had no such tag, no such place in the drama, and so immediately ran towards him and forced him to flee. Reggie was entering late in the game, so she probably already knew the entire circus prep map. He had to do something unexpected. The only tool he had was his slender body, and the enemy fox-jet’s thighs were large enough to choke a great white. He used that, slipping into a gap between two animal cages. She was right behind him and reached in after, but had to pull back when a zebra nipped at her arm.

Reggie tumbled through the side of a tent, skinning his knees on the dirt floor and getting popcorn husks and corn dog crumbs embedded in the moist wounds. Somebody pulled him to his feet. His spirit sank, for he immediately assumed he’d been tagged. The person flicked him on his chin to get him to look up. A teammate! It was Denny; he was their forward thespian. It was a very technical term, sometimes also called the tension anchor, for the center of the team. They stored as many dramatic story elements into his character as they could. Reggie thought he deserved it. He never got flustered, no matter how many arcs and inciting incidents were passed to him.

He had a balloon in his hand, something full of glittering light. He shoved it against Reggie’s chest, popping it. The device completed its purpose by writing a context for Reggie across his jersey in its light.

Runaway Daughter                            Family Dog                                   Guilty Twin

Reggie looked down at his context, analyzed it, and looked back up. By the time he did, Denny was gone. An encouraging word would’ve been nice, but perhaps it was part of his strategy. Reggie smacked himself on the forehead. He forgot to read Denny’s context! Every clue helped put the story together and determine the climax.

The tag he now bore was family dog. He breathed a sigh of relief. Now that he had context he could no longer be removed by a tag from any enemy player. They had to have at least two more drama points on their uniform for it to count. The drunk father chasing him didn’t have a single point yet. She was still barely worth mentioning in the story of the game.

He had to accrue as many drama points as possible to help the team. His projections before the game had been zero. The context Denny had scavenged for him was something, but it wasn’t the easiest thing to work with. Drama points were generated by an algorithm based on the field’s setting before each game. They were hidden about in places deemed most dramatic, but could only be claimed by the character associated with them.

So where did a dog go if it was looking for trouble? At the circus no less… Reggie decided it was time to actually put his skills to use. The internet was against him, but he could change that if he had a terminal. He snuck out from under the tent the same way he had come. The drunk father was still patrolling, but she didn’t have the power to do anything about him now. She had to worry about her own points.

Terminals had their own context and they were often difficult to reach because they were guarded by other players. They were dressed up as important things, but not intimate ones. They would not be any of the characters that wound up crying, snapping, or laughing raucously by story or quarter’s end. Reggie had the most obvious idea: the ringmaster.

He cautiously made his way towards the largest tent and slipped under its side. There were plenty of neutrals about, pretending to be the audience. Some of them were likely just fans, vetted to make sure they wouldn’t interfere. Reggie could only imagine how much they shelled out to be on the field. It was probably more than his contract, and, should he win a game or two, that was going to be extremely generous.

He slipped into the bleachers and scouted the surroundings. Yes, the ringmaster was in fact a terminal. It looked like an ATM, but they had dressed up in a giant top hat and waistcoat. Trained dogs in tutus marched around it. Everything was colorful, but Reggie had sharp eyes. There was a balloon tied to one of the dogs’ tails. It matched the color of his context. Of course, drama for a dog would involve the butt of another dog. He could snatch it on his way over to the terminal, but there was a problem.

1 enemy, 1 Teammate                  3 enemies                   2 Enemies, 2 Teammates

Two fox-jets hovered around, already clad in context and two drama points floating above their heads as glittering orbs. Normally hanging about wasn’t the best strategy, nobody really succeeded in life by hanging about, but they knew what they were doing. Reggie’s draft was no secret. They had all his stats and knew he could only do his work effectively if he got to a terminal.

Luckily, his team hadn’t abandoned him. All their paychecks did ride on the team’s performance after all. He spotted two shark-rats hiding next to the bleachers opposite him. They gave him several hand signals to fill him in on the plan. One of them had an armful of enemy drama points. It was a perk of his role on the team that he could move them to confuse their enemies.

In this case, they would make excellent bait. Reggie’s team counted down with their fingers: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… They both bolted for the center of the circus, scattering the dancing dogs as they did so. The fox-jets had no choice but to respond. They were all within each other’s drama points, so nobody would get tagged out, but the armful of points was just too enticing.

The players collided, wrestling with each other, trying to smash the balloons against their uniform to activate them. This was the best chance he would get, while they wrestled. There was no rule against pinning another player down, so as long as they could hold the fox-jets at bay, Reggie was in the clear. He jumped down the bleachers two at a time, leaping over excited fan heads. He ignored the flashes of phones snapping pictures as his groin flew over the audience.

First, he snatched the trained chihuahua and pulled the drama point off its butt. He turned his nose away to avoid smelling it and popped it against his chest. One point down. He was in the story. He was in the game. He stopped in front of the terminal and clicked around its touch screen as fast as his fingers could fly. He jabbed at it like the needle of a sewing machine. The numbers were against him now, but he just had to write one heartfelt post.

The terminals allowed participation of anyone across the world, assuming they’d paid the Lifetry League subscription fee. That meant there were literally billions of people he could sway. Using a terminal was a double-edged sword. You made a plea, submitted it, and then waited for the results. Just like begging in real life, you could get all sorts of responses. If the audience liked you, something on the field would change in your favor. If they didn’t… perhaps a padlock would open and fall from a lion’s cage.

Look everybody. I know. Why add the scrawny guy to the team? At first, I felt bad just for trying out. In the end though, I loved the shark-rats more. I know this is my dream, and it’s conceited to ask for your help, but I need it. I was in your spot last year and I knew how good it felt to aid the team. I knew the pain you’ll feel later tonight when you go to bed and think about your regular life being there in the morning. There won’t be a score. It won’t be fair. That’s why we have this sport. That’s why Coach gave me a chance, because in Lifetry everything is more than fair. I ask that you help me not as a person, but as a shark-rat. Help me build the image of life the way it should be. The field can’t hold all of us, but it can hold your will. I can wield it, if you’ll let me.

Flood of Points                                   Dogcatcher                                 Trapeze Trap

The terminal’s screen lit up. It played a song simultaneously delightful and horrible. It jangled and beeped and clanged, like a rusty slot machine asserting that it still lived and still had great odds. It startled Reggie so much that he had to back up. They never got that loud in practice. Check marks flooded the screen. They flowed like water. Approval. Sweet approval. He knew there was a whole network of people helping him succeed: sharing, adding, convincing, cajoling…

The combination of his few diehard fans, probably equally scrawny, and his impromptu words earned him a reward. Something broke overhead. The players from both teams were forced to look straight up. A net at the tip of the tent had given way. Hundreds of balloons drifted down slowly, like it was new year’s eve.

It was a point stash. It was supposed to be for the forward thespian. They had the hardest time achieving the best context, and so had opportunities to garner massive points. Reggie guessed the right context to access them was trapeze artist, or, perhaps depressed trapeze artist. It didn’t matter though, because the numbers had spoken. One by one the balloons changed color, to Reggie’s shade. Apparently, they’d decided the dog was the central character of this story.

The fox-jets wriggled free of his teammates and ran for it. They ran like the balloons were a literal avalanche. The other shark-rats thought he was showboating, so they quickly abandoned the tent as well. It was fine. He could convince them he was a team player later, the same way he’d convinced everybody else.

The shower of balloons bounced around him, the trained dogs nipping and chasing them. He grabbed them frantically, eager to show gratitude for the thousand cameras that were likely on him, and popped them against his jersey. One by one the balloons converted to holograms over his head. They had no weight, but he was certain he felt every one. His heart felt like it was going to burst, like it was a chest full of spontaneously reproducing stuffed animals.

He’d studied a lot to get where he was, and he knew for sure that no player of Lifetry had ever had this many drama points at once. He considered the possibility that he was breaking the game. They might have to change the rules over this incident. He could be a footnote in an actual book, and they barely ever printed those anymore.

When he left the tent the orbs over his head illuminated the whole stadium surrounding the circus. Thousands upon thousands of faces stared back, mostly clapping. He saw some of the fox-jets skitter away, but it would do no good. All he had to do was find them and tag them. With so many accrued points, it had become literally impossible for them to win. They were fighting their characters’ destiny, and it was a fight even the rules of Lifetry had not circumvented.

Reggie cried as he leaned up against one of the tents. There was another smoking clown there, but he couldn’t keep in character. He could only stare at the tower of wiggling lights over Reggie’s head and let the cigarette drop out of his mouth.

Hero Dog                                          Escapee Dog                                            Silly Dog

Aaaaaaaand we’re back folks. Once again this is Jameson Carvo coming to you live from the LTLTV studio. I’m here with my esteemed co-hosts Lana Shane and Ricky Dack. We have so much to talk about. Wow. What a game. What a game-breaking game. Have we ever seen a play like the one Reggie Batasur just made? Have we ever heard a story that focused on a simple family pet?”

No we haven’t Jameson. Never. I’m stunned. Floored. I voted for those points and I still don’t believe it. Your take Ricky?”

Let’s recap. A family visits the circus for its final show before closing down. A man, his wife, his twin brother, his two daughters, and their loyal golden retriever. Naturally, the father gets drunk. He was hoping this trip would save them all from therapy and court. The look on his face when they noticed the final act was as sad as they were… no wonder he drank what he did.

His brother was there, eager to make up for the actions of the man with his face. The sexual tension was there. We saw it in the scene between the fox-jets’ #34 and the shark-rats’ #12. Naturally they kissed. Naturally that was going to be our conflict. Those two already had seven drama points built up.

Then we all realized what an asset the dog was. He kept the children from crying. He distracted them with slobber and wriggling. When that father saw how happy a lousy dog made the kids, he just snapped. Chased after him with a broke bottle. None of the clowns saw any reason to intervene. They were no strangers to mistreating animals.

That dog though. He ran and ran and ran no matter how the father slurred the word ‘stop’. Nobody could stop him. He escaped. He wasn’t just a plot point, he was the whole show! How he got out of that one I’ll never figure out. I hear there’s already meetings scheduled to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I’ll tell you one thing. I’m heading to my local animal shelter tonight and getting a Reggie of my own. Let’s make it so that dogs never have to think about escaping ever again.”

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