With Enu’s threats still on his mind, Praxit joins Coda and Azza-lea for lunch. Does trouble leave him alone to have a quiet lunch? No.
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Episode 7 begins:
“Where’s Azza-lea?” I said, trying to get my thoughts together and hide my stress.
“Not here yet. You seem to have beaten the horde. Get to the line before the best goop is all gone.”
“Can I get you anything? Protein drink?”
“No, I’m all set. Alisdair has me well catered,” Coda said as he took a slender white box out of his spotless white backpack. He placed it on the table. It looked like a giant bar of soap carved out of marble. There was a metal lever countersunk in the top of it and he got a finger under it and lifted it. A hiss sounded and, I’m not kidding, when he took off the top mist spilled out of the edges, across the tabletop and drifted down to the floor. Inside were little compartments filled with rice, sushi rolls and sashimi. That fresh fish is expensive stuff. Coda waved the mist away with the lid.
“Grab one for the line. Keep your strength up. I know you love wasabi.”
He revealed a small pool of soy sauce and dragged a chopstick through it. Pale swirls of wasabi paste bloomed on the surface behind the chopstick. He didn’t have to tell me twice. I grabbed a roll, dipped it in the sauce and stuffed it in my mouth. I saluted him as the hot fumes, like delicious mecha paint solvent, barrelled their way up into my sinus cavities. Pungent. I nearly coughed out a spray of rice all over him.
I headed to the nearest food station, still chewing, keeping my head down and a wary eye and ear out for any cries of “Dim lord!”, but everyone was too busy grabbing food, eating and talking to their friends.
Food stations are large stainless steel boxes. Imagine a super giant fridge except it has open sections where you can grab pre-packs of drinks, dough pockets, desserts and stuff. You have to pay for those with your minitab. The free food comes out of the serving dispensers – fat metal tubes that dump portions of daily learner slop on your tray, whatever hydro salad or vegetables GLRC thinks you should be eating, and some kind of gelatinous dessert that was either milky and opaque or transparent and brightly coloured. Those dispensers are why kids give the stations names like “SpewTron 3000”, “PukeyMech” and “Regurgitation Station”. My favourite is “Upchuck Charlie”.
I grabbed a biodegradable tray and a bamboo spork from the stacks in the Upchuck Charlie and joined the line. I was still chewing and I hit a big wad of wasabi hidden between the chicken and the rice just as I was jabbed in the spine with the edge of a tray.
I turned around. It was Berko, and standing behind him was Harisa, grinning maliciously over his shoulder. Berko jabbed me again.
“Get moving, dim lord. You’re holding up the line,” he said. “Well? What are you wai-”
The edge of his tray caught me right in the guts, just as the wasabi was hitting me, the fumes rolling up and burning the back of my nose. I couldn’t help it. I coughed violently. Half-chewed rice, chicken and seaweed went everywhere. A few pieces even hit Harisa, but most of it splatted against Berko’s face and a bunch flew right into his open mouth.
“Ewww,” said Harisa.
The two guys in the line behind her started laughing.
I was coughing and Berko was spluttering and scraping his tongue with his fingers.
“It went in my mouth you basic micro,” he said.
I tried to apologise but I was still coughing. He grabbed a fistful of my shirt and raised his tray to batter me with it.
Then Azza-lea was between us.
“Save it for try-outs, Berko,” she said. “Hi, Harisa, you’ve got some rice on your shoulder. Could you pass me a tray?”
“He spat food in my mouth,” said Berko.
“Let go of his shirt,” said Azza-lea. She poked him in the breastbone with her finger. It made him flinch.
“He was choking (poke) because you (poke) pushed into him (poke). I (poke) saw it all. The drones (poke) did. Everyone (poke) did. Now (poke) let go (poke).”
“He did it on purpose,” said Berko, letting go of my shirt to rub the sore spot he now had on his chest.
“Yeah, over both of us,” said Harisa, handing Azza-lea a tray but not looking happy about it.
“I hit some wasabi,” I said.
“I can still taste it,” said Berko.
“Eww,” said Azza-lea.
“Would you hurry up,” someone down the line shouted. Azza-lea bumped me with her hip towards the food tubes.
“Deal with it on the field at Wednesday’s try-out,” said Azza-lea.
“You mean he’s going to try out again?” said Harisa.
“I’m going to try out again?” I said.
“See?” said Azza-lea. “He’s going to keep trying out until he makes the team.”
“He’s never going to make the team,” said Berko.
“We’ll destroy the big nosed cretin for real next time. No way is he taking one of our spots,” said Harisa.
“We’re starving back here,” yelled a voice.
I hit the buttons on the tubes and some kind of universal chicken and rice noodle stuff glurped onto the tray, followed by a green splodge of what could have been grass clippings and a dollop of beige gloop that slowly spread out to fill its section of the tray. It smelled like vanilla and had little brown balls floating in it that I hoped were chocolate flavoured.
I waited for Azza-lea, staring at my tray, watching green liquid seep out of the vegetables, ignoring everyone else.
“Why did you tell them I was going to try out again?” I said as we headed towards Coda.
Azza-lea looked at me like she didn’t understand what I was saying.
“Because you gotta.”
“But it’s pointless. The baby’s useless. I’ll just get humiliated again.”
“My humiliation doesn’t matter?”
“If you don’t try out, Berko, Harisa, Tien, Risto – they win. As long as you keep trying you don’t lose. And you’ve never been a loser.”
“Well, I’ve never had a loser mecha before.”
We reached the table.
“What was that altercation at the SpewTron?” Coda said as we sat down.
“They were unhappy that Praxit was going to try out again,” said Azza-lea.
“They should be scared. Praxit will take them.”
“And I kind of coughed sushi all over them,” I said and Coda rolled his eyes.
“Right in Berko’s mouth,” said Azza-lea.
Coda laughed. We all laughed, though I did still feel pretty embarrassed about it. We ate in silence for a bit. The chicken stuff was okay. A bit limey and a bit lemony, very tangy. It was probably GLRCs idea of what Thai food tasted like.
“You don’t really think I should try out again, do you?” I said.
“I said it, didn’t I,” said Azza-lea.
“It would be fantastic if someone showed up those brigands,” said Coda.
“You wouldn’t quit a sim if you lost,” said Azza-lea.
“I’d have a better mecha in a sim. I’d lose because a better opponent beat me, not because a basic mecha is making me lose.”
“Perhaps you need to treat the mecha as an opponent,” said Coda.
“Your mecha is supposed to be like a partner, not an opponent,” I said.