.002

Maurice didn’t remember much about Earth, but she did, for some reason, remember fries. Thick cut with crinkles and some kind of spicy tomato sauce that haunted her dreams. While plenty of other humans on LD-42 offered a selection of different fries all around the planet, none really hit that salty-spicy goodness of a faint memory. It didn’t help that tomatoes were banned on the planet as three-quarters of the population had negative reactions to the hotly debated fruit. Or was it a vegetable?

But! Zo’s foster dad did a bang up job at his Earth themed burger shack near the mines on the outskirt of their dusty town. Which was funny to Maurice considering Zo’s foster dad was a 7 foot feathered alien with three eyes, a curved beak, and had never been to Earth. His shop could maybe serve fifteen folks (with some willing to stand). It was decorated in the “Americana” theme inspired by old vids. Whiiiiiich resulted in an odd mix of retro 1950s ice cream parlor booths and counter, and the 1990s garish colors and mascot menus that made no sense on this planet.

Floating monitors with the day’s game blared different stations with different odds of which Pilot and Roboter combo would win along with random trivia and stats. Maurice’s favorite was the undefeated Nia Conté, head Pilot to the Monarchy. Nia had been chosen by her Roboter as a young teen, which was practically unheard of in the Kafka Galaxy. Most Roboter chose their Pilots when they were older- like Zo who was chosen mid-way through her studies at the Academy. However, unlike most Pilots on LD-42, she had opted out of the Monarchy’s military recruitment, not wanting to be tied to the life of a soldier. It still didn’t stop them from their yearly attempts at trying to change her mind.

And Maurice? She had been rejected from the Academy three times, and they stopped sending her rejections after that. She would do unspeakable things to find out why LD-42 had so much against her- from the Academy to making it difficult to get a Mind’s Eye to getting a library card. Both she and Zo were refugees from Earth, some dying planet in another galaxy. Yet Maurice faced difficulties with the Monarchy since setting foot on the planet some twenty years ago.

So instead she worked every odd job that would take her while helping Zo with the occasional repairs while also going to every free class offered to learn a bit of everything in lieu of a proper Academy degree. In her spare time, she was almost finished repairing an old motor bike from the dump, which would expand her job opportunities, and she had a place at the warehouse. Sure, it was an old converted office only slightly bigger than a storage closet (and not really the best place for potential dates) but it was her place and close to Zo.

Zo Iwata. Best friend since elementary school and crush since middle school. They had been close ever since meeting on the swings and inseparable since sharing that Maurice liked girls and Zo was ready to transition from oversized hoodies and a body that wasn’t hers into the Zo of confident prints and cocky confidence.

And Maurice? Well… nothing had changed much after sharing she liked ladies other than a slightly above average growth spurt and multiple ear piercings. She had tried to date in high school, but not many girls wanted anything to do with someone who could only communicate through a tablet on a planet-given data limit each month. Plus, she wasn’t the sort to like the starlight or the glam to outshine all the negatives hurled her way. It was too much work. She had high hopes that her Mind’s Eye surgery next week would start opening other doors. But if not, she was… she was totally fine to continue saving for a proper light bike and pining for her best friend.

Totally fine.

Not.

Uncle Wareho slid the thick red plastic cups her way, its bubbly soda-flavored liquid hissing almost like true carbonation. “I never thought I’d see the day that she would finally compete,” he chuckled. His wings crossed across his chest in a vague human gesture. “Yet here you two are, prepping for her first Game.”

Maurice’s gaze drifted from monitor to Zo mindlessly munching on this planet’s version of fries (made with a genetic mock-up of potatoes). How she ate without ruining her lipstick was a feat. Maurice always managed to muck up any attempt at makeup in the blink of an eye. But Zo did it effortlessly.

Stars above. She looked away knowing she was a big mess with this big crush. A big obvious mess. How they hadn’t had that conversation yet was beyond her. Was Zo just that oblivious? Or was she just sparing her feelings? 

“I owe Joey a hundred credits,” Wareho continued from behind the counter.

“Oh yeah?”

The Scip nodded, closing his three eyes. “He and I had bets on what would happen first- Zo finally competing, or you confessing.”

Blood rushed to her face as both he and the cook in the back howled with laughter. Maurice took their drinks with an embarrassed huff and hurried back to the booth. She couldn’t sink into the bright red plastic seat fast enough. Lucky for her, Zo was too focused on the pre-Game chatter.

“They’ve got a whole different set up,” Zo sighed, pressing her face onto the table. Maurice sipped her fizzy drink. “They’re doing combat matches today, not aerial,” she groaned.

“Makes sense if Nia is competing. She tends to stray from aerial to keep her record”

Games varied to test Pilot and Roboter skills, but Pilots tended to have a preference. From speed trials to combat to aerial proficiency to straight up racing around the planet with a few other skill tests sprinkled in for seasoning. Pilots from all over the Kafka Galaxy and some neighboring galaxies competed for fame, credits, or to represent their planet. All someone had to have to compete was a Roboter and enough for entrance fees. Zo, being a newer competing Pilot, would have to win various leagues to get recognition from sponsors for better parts. And with her eye for style and skill? She could easily be the next celebrity Pilot in ads and virtual reality games and whatever other promotions that would bring in the credits.

Even better? It would be all without the Monarchy’s help. No percentage having to be given back. No strings attached. 

Zo looked up from the table, a faint red spot on her forehead. “What was taking Uncle so long with the drinks? Was he pushing you for more shifts again? I told him we were busy with prep.”

Maurice fiddled with her straw and shrugged, looking up to the screen. “Just the usual.”

Hmmm.” Zo narrowed her eyes and Maurice did her best to be very interested in the advertisement for fiber cereal for Lumni jellies. She didn’t like lying to Zo, though she could easily argue it wasn’t exactly a lie. Uncle Wareho had guessed (and confirmed) her crush on his niece long ago, and refused to leave her alone about it. Mainly because he insisted she would have a shot if she would just work up the courage to say something. But Maurice didn’t want to ne the wrench in Zo’s plans. She was fine with how things were. Things right now were good and not complicated.

The fiber ad changed back to the Game. The dramatic zoom across the field came with music swelling. The slow anthem of LD-42 played to mark the start. The cameras shifted to pan over each Pilot standing on their Roboter’s hand, their faces serious and various uniforms and jumpsuits sharp. Cut to Princess Rahima Hakimi alone in her private viewing booth. It stayed there on the planet’s temporary leader until the anthem ended. Rahima’s posture on the only chair in the room never drooped, her eyes steadily focused ahead of her.

“Stars she’s gorgeous,” Zo sighed dreamily. “What I’d do to master eyeliner like that.”

Maurice sipped her drink until it was only ice. While Rahima was unquestionably gorgeous, there was something about her being the head of the Monarchy (who, in turn, was the head of whatever bureaucratic nonsense that was keeping Maurice from many things) that kept Maurice from truly appreciating her sharp style and beautiful features. She did, however, allow herself to appreciate Rahima’s tailored suits and beautifully paired headscarves, because the clothes were innocent. 

Today’s style was a flowery headscarf and blue suit with a white blouse, the collar crisp enough to draw blood. There was no angle she couldn’t rock. It was odd to see the Princess in Arms attending the game. It was customary that royalty didn’t attend most Games except when entertaining ambassadors or to show support at the end of the season finals. Something about not showing favoritism for certain Pilots. Ironic considering that it was no secret that Rahima and Nia had a very public on-again, off-again relationship. So that meant something about her being there-

Before she could speculate too much, Rahima was standing and a hovering bot with what looked like a prompter floated ahead of her. “Happy days, all of LD-42,” she began. The crowd roared. “It brings me great joy to see so many here at our grand Arena to support the planet’s finest.” The cameras panned over the audience cheering and waving, some clamoring over each other to get on screen. “I will keep this short to avoid delay. Some may remember today marks the one year anniversary my beloved sister, Kalila, fell in space. It has been… a long year for the Monarchy.” Rahima’s voice faltered just the slightest. Her fingers fluttered over her cheek to wipe a non-existent tear like a butterfly gently touching a flower petal. “My beloved citizens, it is with a heavy heart I announce that my parents, the Queens of LD-42, will be stepping away permanently from the Monarchy as they grieve.”

A wave of silence flooded over the Arena. Even the kitchen went quiet other than the faint sizzle of the grill. Maurice sat up in her seat, the plastic sound way too loud. An uneasy feeling was beginning to twist in her gut, the hairs on the back of her arms and neck standing on end.

The camera focused on all of Rahima once again. In the corner of the shot stood someone in a slim black suit, but the camera zoomed in just enough to cut them out before Maurice could focus on them. She felt like… she had seen someone she shouldn’t have. Had it been a shadow? No… shadows didn’t wear suits.

“This heavy news does have a brighter note. I have agreed to officially lead in one year’s time, from Princess in Arms to Queen of Arms. In celebration of this transition, the winner of the end season finals will win twice the winning credits along with an official invitation to become the Roboter ambassador of our planet and tour the Kafka Galaxy. All LD-42 Pilots will be given an opportunity to participate after proving themselves in a required amount of leagues and tournaments. Please feel free to access the Network for additional details.” Rahima flashed a brilliant smile and waved her hand towards the Arena grounds. “And with that, let our beloved Games begin.”

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