“It’s you,” a voice exclaimed as Rihka rushed towards The Crater. She was early and wanted to keep it that way so didn’t pay attention at first. “Hey,” came the unfamiliar voice again, louder this time, “Remember me?” Finally she turned, seeing the green-eyed boy from before. She rolled her eyes.
“I don’t have time for this,” she said and started to turn away, when he grabbed her arm. Rihka went to backhand him, her reflexes kicking in, but he held her offending hand, keeping her in place. “Are you serious right now?” she asked struggling, “Let me go, I don’t want to have to hurt you.” To her surprise the boy laughed, but he let her go. She walked away fuming.
“Look, I just wanted to apologise for my friends the other day,” he said, running to catch up with her. When she didn’t say anything he continued, “I came to see if you were here a couple times, but they said you didn’t come in every day.”
“So what? You’re stalking me now?” she asked, rounding the corner that would take her to the café’s back door. He appeared genuinely taken aback.
“No of course not, just didn’t want you to think we were all douchebags,” he replied. When she showed no signs of slowing he added, “Can you wait for one second? Please?” Rihka consulted her timepiece,
“You’ve literally got seconds,” his face lit up and she rolled her eyes again, not understanding his persistence and not trusting it either.
“Not sure if you remember but I’m Jack,” Rihka didn’t but nodded, “And I know you’re Rihka from the information on the table when you served us,” she nodded again. Jack dragged a hand through his dark hair nervously. It fell in thick waves to the back of his neck. “Look, let me make it up to you, I know this great place where we can . . .” Rihka laughed, cutting him off,
“Where we can what? Airskate and play freezeball?” she shook her head, “Look Valley boy, the Gifted and my kind don’t mix, you and I both know that.” She turned to head inside.
“Who said anything about mixing? Gosh your mind’s really in the gutter isn’t it?” An involuntary grin caught her face and she turned to look at him, not quite sure what to make of the exchange.
“Either way, I’m going to pass,” she said, pushing the door open.
“Okay I’ll wait,” he said, leaning his back against the wall. Don’t do it, she told herself, then gave in anyway, curiosity taking over.
“Wait for what?”
“Until your shift is over of course. A pass isn’t a hard ‘no’, not where I come from and remember, I’m supposed to be smarter.” Rihka shook her head and let his wisecrack slide.
“Stalker,” she said with a small laugh.
True to his word, Jack was waiting for her when she finally escaped her shift that evening. She’d had to stay an hour later, picking up the slack of two missing servers. She’d shed her work uniform for street clothes and now sported ripped jeans, a loose tank top and sneakers.
“You really are a stalker,” she said, not exactly happy to see him. He gave her a quick once-over,
“So this is what you really look like huh?” he asked as she dragged her ponytail even higher on her head.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she replied, pressing her arm so her timepiece showed up. She swiped right until the airbus schedule appeared and sighed when she realised she’d already missed hers by a few minutes.
“You know,” he went on, falling into step beside her, “You can never really tell, like for instance, you probably think I’m just some Valley boy with a bad attitude just by looking at my clean kicks,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh. She didn’t join him, giving him a wary side-eye,
“Well aren’t you?” she asked, pausing to let a vendor pushing a wooden trolley full of coconuts pass. Jack raised his arm as though he’d made some great discovery,
“Ah, but that’s just it. If I was dressed how I would when I’m at home or let’s say out on the town, you wouldn’t know the difference.” She considered this for a moment,
“I dunno, you’d probably still have that self-entitled walk you all seem to have, I should know my brother and sister have it down.” Jack’s face fell and Rihka, feeling a little bad about her comment said,
“Look, I think I get what you’re trying to do, but you can stop. You’ve apologised and I’ve accepted so there’s no need for us to be friends or, whatever this is.” She stopped at a book vendor, inspecting his selection. She’d been trying to source some for chemistry but had so far been unlucky.
“You accepted it?” Jack asked, smiling coyly at her.
“What?” she asked absently,
“You accepted my apology, couldn’t tell,” he replied with a laugh. Rihka slid her hand over the bookseller’s academic section,
“Oh yea, okay,” she said, still not really paying attention to him, then to the vendor, “Any science books at all? I’ll take whatever you have.” The vendor shook his head,
“Nah, nothing down from Sector 10 yet,” he said, reaching to rearrange the ones she’d been shuffling through. Rihka sighed,
“Can you code my arm then? I’d like to know as soon as you have them in.”
“Sure, five dinar,” he replied. Rihka looked at him shocked,
“Five? Are you kidding me right now?” The vendor shifted from one leg to another impatiently,
“Look, you take or leave, not my problem.” Rihka frowned and was about to push her hand forward so he could scan it for the agreed upon price, when Jack’s tan one nudged it aside.
“I can get that for you,” he said smiling. Rihka felt her anger rise, but kept it firmly in check. The last thing she needed was a scene with one of the Gifted.
“Thanks, but I barely know you and even if I did, I don’t need or want your help,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Sorry I just thought . . . you just seemed as if it was too much so,”
“So nothing and you thought wrong,” she snapped and pushed her hand towards the vendor. “Take my money and make sure your coding reads right, I’m not paying for nothing.” The vendor had been watching the exchange between the two of them with interest, but quickly took Rihka’s hand no doubt before she changed her mind. He let his coding machine hover over her arm and Rihka watched as his unique stall numbers were embedded under her skin. Merchants of all kinds were able to use this process to ensure that their customers always knew when they had new deals, stock and were up to date on the enterprise’s latest. When he was finished, she thanked him, turning to make her way in the other direction to the terminal.
“Look I’m sorry, it’s no big deal, I do that kind of thing all the time for my friends,” Jack said, still walking with her,
“Holy hell dude, we’re not friends,” she tried to keep her voice down, yet a few heads turned as they traversed the bustling streets of Ignis City. Workers and students alike made their way to and from homes and Rihka was glad that at this time of night most would have already returned to the island. She turned to run up the wide steps that would take them to Speight Terminal.
“You’re right, we’re not, I guess I thought maybe we could be. Won’t bother you anymore.” Rihka steeled herself against the sadness in his voice, noticing his absence as she hurried along though she had not turned when he’d stopped following her. I don’t have to feel bad, I’ve done nothing wrong, she told herself as she hopped onto the nearest moving platform. She keyed in her destination on the public screen and the tile she stood on separated, moving at moderate speed to the other side of the terminal. Others whizzed by her as it went, but Rihka wasn’t paying attention. She couldn’t help feeling that she’d been much harsher than she needed to be with Name.
“He’ll get over it,” she said to no one. He’s a Valley boy after all, what does he care if I hurt his feelings? As the tile slowed, Rihka jumped off, waiting impatiently for the airbus to arrive. Minutes later another tile pulled up with a mixed group of teens, dressed in a variety of ripped leathers. She’d been standing with just a few others waiting for the transport, but as the group stepped onto the platform, Rihka felt the air around her change.
The gang eyed waiting passengers wickedly, looking them up and down with barely masked malice. The obvious leader, a broad shouldered man with glowing tattoos along one arm, went up to a scared teen, took him by the shoulders and slammed his head into his. The group behind him laughed and Rihka winced, but said nothing. Engaging a gang member was never good for one’s health. She went completely still, as though that would somehow keep them from noticing her and urged the airbus to make its appearance so they could get on their way. Gangs tended to keep their violence to a minimum on the public airbuses. Too many strikes meant severe travel restrictions. Much to her chagrin, the leader spotted her and sauntered over, letting his gaze rove over her.
“I’ve seen you around,” he said, nodding his chin up at her.
“Oh?” she said, looking past him to the place where the airbus would arrive.
“Yea, yea, you hang with Majin and them yea?” Rihka nodded. Since the government funded Majin’s living arrangements, he was quartered in one of the more rundown neighbourhoods, home to numerous gangs and their activity. It was because of this that Majin often stayed with her or Vindia when he could. The gang leader continued, as his crew watched her with interest,
“I’m Neyro, heard of me yea?” he asked and Rihka nodded again. She’d heard Majin talk about him, but had never seen the six foot, well-muscled, fair-skinned man she saw before her now. “Don’t you talk?” he asked, placing a hand against the wall where she stood. Rihka started to nod, then, catching herself,
“Yes, of course.” Neyro looked back at his crew with an impish smile,
“So tell me . . .”
“Rihka,” she finished.
“You’re here all alone, no boyfriend then?” Rihka swallowed past the growing lump in her throat.
“No, I don’t,” she said slowly. Neyro looked back at his friends again, who were now laughing at some inside joke. He placed his other hand on the wall so that she was trapped between them.
“Want to be one of my girls then?” Rihka’s dark brown eyes stared out at him with rising fear. There were too many of them to take on and she knew better than to say no to one of the Tabor Isle gang leaders. She considered her options, then, thinking quickly, gave Neyro a smile.
“Well . . .” she began, then quickly ducked under his arm, immediately breaking into a run. She could hear their steps pounding behind her, but she was fast and her head start helped. Reaching another public screen she keyed in a new destination with shaky fingers. “Come on, come on,” she whispered to the machine, seeing some of the members closing the distance. With moments to spare the device accepted her destination and the tile pushed up and away from her pursuers.
Escape to the excerpt’s finale, Chapter 5…