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The bag slammed into my body, and I hit the mat with a grunt. I flipped over, scrambling to my knees as I tried to find the weapon that just flew out of my hand. Four claws appeared at my throat. A loud buzzer sounded. Dead. I flopped back on the mat, letting out an annoyed huff of air. That was embarrassing. I didn’t even make it thirty seconds that round. “You have one more life,” the voice on the intercom said. “Do you want to take a break first?” I got to my feet and turned to where a large, skeptical man named Bubba watched me through the window. I considered telling him to forget about the last life. Surely I’d humiliated myself enough for one day. I shook my head. “No, I’m fine.” Bubba made a face like, wow, she’s an idiot. I was very familiar with this expression. He pressed a button on his computer, and the practice dummy retracted, squeaking as it zipped along the track mounted to the ceiling. I put my hands on my hips as I took a deep breath. Four lives, and I died within two minutes each round. I really was an idiot. Bubba was a good judge of character. “You sure you don’t want the body pads, Clara?” Bubba asked over the intercom. “You took a pretty big hit just now.” “No.” I shook out my shoulders. “I don’t need pads.” Pads were for football players. I’d never had padding to protect me from a hit. “The girls usually take the pads,” he said. “Especially . . .” He didn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t need to. Especially the girls who didn’t look tough. Especially the girls with their dark brown hair in French braid pigtails and breasts that were made to hold up dresses, not jump around fighting monsters. I really shouldn’t have been doing this in a regular bra. Sorry, boobs. “I don’t need pads,” I said again. “All right. Ready?” Bubba asked over the intercom. “Yeah.” “Sword.” Bubba sounded like he’d lost what little faith he had in me. I grabbed my sword from the mat. It wasn’t actually a sword, just a plastic tube that looked like it belonged on a vacuum cleaner. It had a light on the end that glowed green if I hit a weak spot. I’d only seen it light up once, briefly. The buzzer sounded, indicating that I had five seconds to prepare. I tightened my grip on my vacuum attachment. There were four practice dummies hanging from the ceiling, but I’d picked a level one session, so only one jolted away from the wall. It was made out of a large punching bag with plastic arms attached, complete with four-inch claws at the end. It looked cheap, and stupid. Until it started moving. The dummy flew at me, metal screeching as it zoomed forward. It was made to approximate a real scrab, and it moved incredibly fast. Claws sliced through the air. I stumbled backward, the mat squishing beneath my feet. The dummy’s body swung side to side as it raced along the track, claws outstretched. I ducked beneath its arms and darted around it. I’d clearly surprised it, because it took a second for it to swing around. I jumped forward, thrusting the sword at its neck. I saw the green light, but only for a second. I hadn’t put enough force behind the weapon for a kill shot. I barely pulled my hand back in time to miss getting dinged by plastic claws. I spun and ran, ready to swerve and surprise it again— The bag slammed into my back, sending me crashing into the wall. I hit it so hard that I could have sworn the wall shook. That was going to leave a bruise. “Whoa, are you—” Bubba’s voice cut out as I jumped away from the wall and dashed around the dummy. It swung to face me, all ten claws stretching for my face. I launched at it, throwing my sword into its neck as hard as I could. The sword glowed bright green. The dummy’s arms dropped. A pleasant dinging sound echoed through the room. I won. I killed it. “Congrats, darlin’,” Bubba said over the intercom. He didn’t actually sound all that happy for me. “You sure can take a hit. Last guy in here cried after round two.” I blew my bangs out of my eyes. I could definitely take a hit. One of my few talents. And I could kill a dummy pretending to be a scrab one in five times. I watched as the dummy retracted. If I’d had more money, I might have asked Bubba to give me another full set of lives. I wanted to pound the vacuum attachment into that fake scrab until it was thoroughly dead. “Meet me up front,” Bubba said. The dummy took its place at the back of the room, and I dropped my sword into its charger on the wall. I walked out of the simulation room and down the hallway to the front desk. Bubba’s Combat Training and Games wasn’t much to look at, inside or out. It was a squat, windowless building on the side of the highway, the kind of place that might be the last thing you saw before you died. The front room consisted of a few metal chairs, a desk, and walls covered in flyers advertising various services.
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The last one was a couple years old. There hadn’t been a scrab sighting in Florida for a long time. They were rarely spotted anywhere in North America these days. It had been three months since the last one, in South Carolina, and the National Guard had shown up almost immediately to whisk it away. Bubba must never have removed old flyers, because I spotted a bunch of old stuff—the announcement requiring Texas high school students to take combat class instead of gym, a seminar discussing scrab origin theories, even a newspaper article from 2013 about the attack in New Orleans, with a photo of President Obama standing amongst the wreckage. The walls were more history than advertising. “All right, Clara,” Bubba said as he walked through the door and sat down at his desk. He pushed aside a coffee mug. “That’ll be twenty.” I dug the bill out of my pocket, flattening it with my hand against the counter before handing it over. Bubba whisked it into a box in the top drawer of the desk. I swallowed as I watched it disappear. With the exception of a few quarters, that was all the money I had. I’d been saving that twenty for months. The television mounted on the wall above my head was silently playing the news, and Bubba glanced up at it. The words Grayson St. John and Elite Fighting Squad scrolled across the bottom of the screen, beneath a photo of three scrabs standing over a destroyed food cart in Beijing. The scrabs looked a bit different depending on the region—in Asia they were large, typically six or seven feet tall, with enormous bodies covered in spikes. They ran on all fours and mostly used their massive mouths full of fangs to fight. Scrabs in Europe and the UK fought on two legs and made better use of their front claws. North American scrabs were a mix of both, but everyone said ours were smaller and kind of sluggish compared to the rest of the world. I wondered which version Bubba had modeled his dummy after. “You thinking of joining?” Bubba asked. “Uh, I don’t know.” I was too embarrassed to say yes. He squinted at me, running a hand over his dark beard. “You got any special skills or anything?” “No.” I tilted my head. “Well, maybe. Is surviving a special skill?” “I guess?” Bubba said it skeptically, probably thinking of my four deaths he’d just witnessed. But Bubba didn’t know. Not really. “Yeah, I’ve got that, then. Not dying. That’s what I’m good at.”