Lena thumbed through the pages, and found where she bookmarked the Operators section. It was divided into two sections. There was one section for Operators, and a separate one for Human Operators. She felt a bit discriminated against.
Size Allotment... Age Restrictions... Contracts... Safety Deposit. She stopped there. Safety Deposit? Zedd hadn’t mentioned anything about that. She read the section underneath.
…Teams who choose to have a human operator will also be subject to a contract deposit in the amount of 50,000 dollars. The deposit will be returned in full at the end of the season should the team not claim the death or incapacitation of a rider against the league. Any team that does not pay this amount, in full, at least thirty days before the official season start date, forfeits the ability to participate in any MRL event of that season.
Fifty grand. Her mind spun. Fifty grand. They had nowhere near that. Anywhere. She immediately felt sick. But Zedd had already signed the contract before the forum meeting last week. There was no way Zedd had already paid it. How did he expect to come up with that kind of money in the next month? She grew furious. She couldn’t imagine the embarrassment she and the team would face from Zarminian teams. Backing out of a contract because we can’t afford the deposit. What a great first impression, she thought. How could he be so irresponsible?
But another thought suddenly occured to her. He isn’t going to pay the deposit. He was going to hire a different operator. A synth operator. That was the only way he had been able to agree to the contract terms.
Lena felt her anger tweak and slide into betrayal. How could he do this to her? After all the promises, all the training. After his loss last week he couldn’t afford the deposit to keep her on.
Why did you have to pull that stunt in the final turn? We would have more than enough to cover it, even if you placed third. That move would ruin her career. Fuming, she stood up. Nico let out a surprised meow at the sudden movement. Lena punched a tall crate directly beside her.
“Goddammit!” she yelled. Leaving her apartment, she slammed the door shut behind her. Nico sat puzzled on the couch.
In fury, she shoved open a door to a fire escape on the opposite wall. She began to climb the stairs, unsure of where she was even going. Flight after flight, she climbed and climbed. Normally her legs would have ached by now, but she didn’t notice. She just needed space. It was all that was on her mind. Air. She needed air. Her celltab vibrated in her pocket. Again. A third time. She had asked Zedd to send her pictures of the new shop, but that was the last thing she wanted to see right now. What she wanted now was to take the celltab out of her pocket and smash it against the wall. She wanted to crushed it into tiny bits.
Her mind raced. Her life. Her career. What was going to happen? Nine flights up, the stairwell ended at a black, windowless door. In the poorly lit shaft, she could see the warm, red glow creeping in through a gap at the bottom of the door ahead. She pressed on the exit bar. It was heavy to open, and only budged slightly before closing again. She heaved her weight into the door and a strong gust of warm air lifted her hair. She swept the hair from her eyes as she walked onto the roof.
She gasped at the sight. Her animosity washed away in goosebumps. A vast, radiant sky extended beyond her peripherals. Never had she seen anything so huge. So overwhelming. To her left, the gleaming golden sun rested heavily just above the horizon line in a blush backdrop streaked by thin red and purple clouds. The keen peaks of Rhod’s skyline protruded through pink haze in the sunlight. All about her, metallic skyscrapers shimmered like hundreds of pristine, unsheathed blades raised valiantly into the sky. Opposite the sun, on the northern horizon, the atmosphere cooled to a royal violet, deepening to indigo in the far mountain range. Through the few, thin clouds overhead, a sparse array of stars sparkled in and out of visibility.
Looking around, she realized she was in the middle of a small rooftop flower garden. The scent of carnations mixed with lavender and rosemary danced in her nose. Bees and butterflies bounced from flower to flower, paying their new visitor no mind. A short set of metal stairs connected to a small balcony on the edge of the building where more flowers grew in small pots. She climbed the stairs and leaned forward on the guardrail, peering out over the city. Another gust of wind came. This time it was gentle. Her hair floated in the wind, softly pulling at her scalp.
She closed her eyes trying to concentrate on the scents and warm breeze but found it impossible. Tears began to brim in her closed eyelids. Her throat tightened. She pressed stiffened fingers into the inner corners of her eyes. Hiding her face in her hands, she couldn’t conceal it any longer. A sharp breath came and she began to cry. It was all too much for her. Tears ran down the length of her nose and fell onto her hands, leaving little dark splashes of mascara where they landed. She reached into her hair as she lowered her head. She began to tremble under the weight of it all. Sharp breaths came in between sobs. She watched her tears fall and break apart in the long drop below. Her head ached from the sudden rush of blood.
Birds on the rooftop chirped cheerfully, but even their songs did nothing to console her. At last, she gathered her hair into her hands and pulled it over her right shoulder. She combed it with her fingers, still sniffling, trying to regain her composure. The sleeve of her jacket did nothing to absorb, but it was able to wipe away most of the black lines that ran from her eyes. She blinked away the remaining tears and slid her hair back behind her ears.
She looked out over the city. A distant highway lay in a long, reflective band, peeled in a perfect curve that cut through the metallic structures of the city. Cars zipped silently both ways on it in smooth, silent motions. Following it towards the sun, the road disappeared behind buildings erected in front of the dominant pyramid structure of Fenix, Inc.
This is all my fault, she thought. If I transfer, everyone would be happy. She could race, securing her, Zedd, and Zark’s career. She felt selfish, disgusted with the way she had been treating her teammates. She was the one that made Zedd take the risk in the race. He had done it for her. Feeling sorry for herself, knowing it was wrong, added guilt to her sadness. Despair engulfed her. She felt betrayed by herself and her friends. Transferring. Has it really come to this? There’s no other way. Reaching into her jacket pocket, she grasped her celltab, intent on seeing how far she could throw it.
Looking down at it, she assumed she would see images of Zedd’s new shop. A shop that she would never be able to work in. Never be able to see its full potential. She was right. Almost. Zedd had sent her some pictures and cheerful messages. But there was also a message from an unrecognized contact. Curious, she opened it first.