Niyah’s death is unexpected and too soon. She barely gets out of the city, really letting the Jake open up into a good stride. But there’s an ambush, Martian katonas crouching behind the treeline who wait for her to get between them before hopping up. She knows she gets at least two of them, but the others gun her down. The screen goes blank.

“Game over,” it says.

She slaps the controls and strings out a vibrant curse. Swiping her token again means climbing out of the machine, and if there’s someone else waiting…

Right on cue, someone pounds on the outer casing. Niyah bites her lip and opens the hatch, pushing against its automatic sequence to make it go faster. She’s ready for a fight.

A girl stands outside, arms crossed over her ruffly shirt. Niyah glares at her, but the girl, who can’t be more than twelve years old, just a middle schooler, she glares right back and points at her own token resting on the lip of the machine, right up against the sharp-edged letters spelling out BONES OF STEEL.

“It’s my turn,” she says.

Niyah glares at her. “I only got a few minutes.”

“You got greased.” Now there’s a cruel upturn to the girl’s lip. She was watching on the external monitor. Niyah’s embarrassment from that is more upsetting than the girl’s attitude. She considers splitting the girl’s glossed lip with a good knock to her face. That would shut her up.

The other girl seems to know what she’s thinking. Maybe she’s seeing Niyah’s hand flexing on the lip of the hatch, her dark knuckles turning white. Her mouth sets into a hard line, and she drops her hands to her sides.

She’s not backing down.

“Should I call the arbiter?”

Niyah can’t resist looking around. Sure enough, one of the box-shaped arbiters is nearby. They’re faster than they look, and even if she managed to deck this girl and run, they could pull her record off the doorway, the cameras, even her token’s login at the machine. She’d be banned. Most people who fight here just take it out into the alley.

But this girl doesn’t care about her reputation. She just wants her turn.

Niyah lets her breath out through her nose. Slowly. Not taking her eyes off her opponent.

“Fine,” she says, pulling herself up and out. The other girl just nods, waits for her to climb down, and then she clambers up the side, swiping her token as she goes. Niyah waits outside, watching the monitor, hoping she’ll come to an early end. After five minutes, it’s pretty clear the girl knows what she’s doing.

She checks the time. Her classes start soon. She zips up her jacket and walks out into the cold air.

There’s a strong tradition of posting flash fiction on Fridays, or so I hear. This came out of a project I’m working on; specifically, this was the beginning before I tightened the story to start at the more interesting part. I decided to rewrite this little scene as its own thing, though it’s still dangling into a larger narrative. I’m not sorry.

Written by James

A paralibrarian by trade, James "Captain Raspberry" Taber studied story theory at UMass Amherst. His obsessive personality serves him well in gaming. If he approaches you, do not panic. Hold your ground and make noise. If all else fails, use your emergency banana.

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