Aya soared through the air, her hand outstretched to make the catch.
The small red ball collided with her palm, and she squeezed, stopping its momentum. She grinned and whirled around, scanning the court for the Oz players in their distinctive green and yellow g-suits. She had a chance.
She pushed off the court wall, somersaulting to dodge two defenders. Their hands reached out but found no grip on her g-suit. She could hear her teammates screaming for her to throw them the ball, but any pass was a risk. There were too many Oz players.
But by diving for her, they were leaving the goal wide open. As momentum carried her to the far wall, Aya managed a slick tumble turn, angling her body toward the Oz keeper, kicking off to hurtle through the court toward her.
Aya had feigned to the left every shot she’d made so far. This was the time she would actually make the dive. Spinning in the air as the Keeper pushed off to defend her right, Aya spun, ready to hurtle the ball toward the goal and make the winning shot.
But then the goal was gone. Aya slammed into the court wall, the ball spinning from her grasp in the opposite direction as the Oz Captain kicked off the wall and dashed after it.
All Aya could do was watch as the Captain landed a roundhouse kick and the ball soared toward a teammate who plucked it from the air and imitated Aya’s own move, diving for the goal.
Hope twisted in her gut as the Tellus keeper, Kadie, barely recognisable in her g-suit and helmet, dived to stop the goal. But it was a feint.
The Oz player passed rather than taking the shot, and a second player swooped in from the other side of the court, slamming the ball toward the goal.
“NO!” Aya cried. But it was too late. As Kadie dived to the wrong side, the ball sailed into the goal.
A cold sweat broke out across her back. Aya spun around to check the clock, hoping they still had a few seconds, only to see the timer flashing red.
The match was over. The Tellus Tachyons were out of the tournament. Damn.
The Oz player was screaming with elevation as her teammates whooshed over to share the celebration. Aya glanced at her own blue-kitted Tellus players, scattered across the court, hovering in zero gravity. She couldn’t see their faces behind their helmets, but she didn’t need to.
The disappointment was written in the set of their shoulders, the way they floated aimlessly in the aftermath of the game and the way they were all directly facing her.
Aya kicked off the wall and pushed off, propelling herself toward the changing room. She was in no mood to face coach Zhao and the team. All she wanted to do was take off her g-suit, have a shower and forget this game ever happened.
She tapped the exit twice, and the doors slid open. She manoeuvred herself out legs first and descended the long ladder back to the grav-plated corridor below. Her feet thudded as she landed and she unclasped her helmet, ripping it off as she headed for the changing room.
Her stomach twisted, and she debated ignoring the call and just heading into change.
“Don’t you dare think of walking away from me.”
Aya turned slowly to face the middle-aged woman. The tatty, blue Tellus tracksuit gave her the air of a shabby schoolteacher. Her glossy black hair was pulled back in a tight bun, and her eyes were narrowed behind her glasses.
“I’m not,” Aya lied.
“Good. You’re coming with me.”
Aya followed the coach through the locker room, feeling as though she was being led to the Headmistress’s office. Her stomach was in knots, and she had no idea what Zhao was going to say to her.
“Explain to me what happened out there.”
Aya took a deep breath. “I lost the ball.”
“And we lost the game.”
“Yes, we did. But why? You were playing well out there. You were one point up. You didn’t even have to take the shot. What happened?”
Aya shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“You were the one in control of the game. And then you just… let it go. Why?”
“I don’t know,” Aya repeated, her fingers tightened around the helmet she clasped in her lap. People lost the ball in Zero-G, players took shots, and people got tackled. What did Zhao want from her?
The woman leaned back in her chair and stared. Aya held her gaze until she couldn’t. She stared at her helmet, wiping a smudge around and around with her gloved thumb.
“Why didn’t you pass?”
“I didn’t see a clear pass.”
“Why did you take a run at the goal?”
Aya shrugged. “I saw a chance.”
“And you didn’t think about playing for time?”
She looked up at Zhao then. “Oh, we’re not supposed to take shots now? I thought that was the whole point of the game.” Hot anger coursed through her blood. She’d taken a risk. That was what Zhao always told them to do. She’d spend half her time waxing lyrical about risk-taking being one of the greatest lessons of playing.
“The point of the game is to win, Turner. Now you have to go back to your team and explain to them why you sacrificed their victory for a chance of your own glory.”
Aya stared at her, stunned for a moment. “That wasn’t—”
Aya’s mouth opened and closed but she didn’t know how to explain something that had happened so instinctively.
“Don’t think you’re above being cut from this team, missy.”
“You can’t cut me.” Even as Aya said the words she realised what an arsehole she sounded like. She was some kid on a random team with a hand-me-down kit. She was hardly an a-list league player.
“I’ll cut you if you don’t give me a good reason to keep you.”
“But it’s halfway through the season—”
“Which means there’s still time to get someone else in.”
“But…” there was only one thing Aya was really worried about, and perhaps being cut wouldn’t be so bad. “Will I still get paid?”
Zhao shook her head. “Paid?” she asked, “You know we were given those funds to redecorate the locker room, did you know that? No one else on this team is getting paid. You said you couldn’t play if you still had to work, now you’re turning up and wrecking the game. Would you pay for that?”
Aya stared. All that time, all that energy and training, and now she wasn’t even going to get any money for it. “I’ll do better,” she promised weakly, “I’ll do better in the next game.”
Zhao sighed and leaned back in the chair. Then shook her head, “Fine.” She waved at the door. “Now, get out of my sight.”
Aya opened her mouth but Zhao gave her a look that could have withered a star, and Aya stood. Shame and rage twisted themselves in knots throughout her body. She spun on her heel and marched out of the office, slamming the door behind her, and coming face to face with her team.
No one spoke to her as she stormed across the room to her locker and pulled out her rucksack. It seemed to take her an age to remove her armoured g-suit. By the time she left the shower, the changing rooms were empty. She fumed as she replaced her clothes, slamming each item down on the bench, crashing her locker closed and replaying Zhao’s stupid talk over and over in her head. Maybe she should have just told that stupid witch where to go. Why was a middle-aged woman spending all her time around teenage girls, anyway? It was just a game. Why did everyone get so uptight about it?
By the time Aya was dressed she was about ready to scream at the first person who talked to her, and her teeth began to grind when she saw Kadie standing by the double doors to the gravity stadium, waiting for her.
“What?” Aya snapped.
Kadie looked taken aback for a moment, but then she laughed. “They told me I shouldn’t wait for you,” she shrugged, “but we’re all heading down to get some food at the market and I thought it would be mean to leave you out. Even if you do play Zero-G like you’re the only one on the court.”
Aya shook her head. “So you agree with Zhao?”
Kadie raised her brows. “Well, if that’s what she called you into her office to say, then yeah, I do actually. Why did you join a team if you don’t actually want to play in one?”
Aya opened her mouth to respond, but this time Kadie turned on her heel and marched out the doors. Great. Was there anything she hadn’t screwed up today?
“Would you like to sing the friend song?”
Aya had almost forgotten MAX was there. “No, MAX, somehow I don’t think that is going to help.”
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