004 – Tungsten Carbide vs Titanium

The roar of the audience drowned out Ben’s scream. His blood splattered across his arm as the titanium shard sliced through his body armor, hitting bone. He stumbled away, but Ivan loomed in close, his brown eyes wide and wild, breath smelling so strongly of blood that it overrode Ben’s deadened senses. “You gotta do better, kid,” the huge man said in a low voice. But before Ben could react, Ivan’s fist loomed in close too. The meaty battering ram slammed into the side of Ben’s face, splitting the skin.

Gasping and stumbling away, his ears ringing, Ben regained his footing. He shook his head, flinging blood and spit, and put his fists up like Rice had said he should. He struggled to form the tungsten carbide shield. It clenched into solid form a moment before Ivan hit him again. Ivan’s titanium coated fist hit the shield and rocked Ben backwards. Ben stumbled, booted feet heavy in the sand.

Instead of dodging around the tungsten carbide shield, Ivan pummeled it with titanium. Sparks exploded off of the metals. The audience screamed its approval. Ben winced, gripping his arm and reforming the shield against every strike. He focused on the metal. Ivan could hurt him, but the metal could kill him.

His instincts trumpeted warnings, but before he could retract the tungsten carbide, Ivan left the titanium. The metal pressed Ben’s shield as the huge man ducked around and smashed a bare knuckled fist into the side of Ben’s head again. Ben crumpled to the sand, darkness seeping into his vision and muffling the roar of the audience.

He could barely hear Ivan’s words as the man crouched over him and muttered. “Soma doesn’t do you much good when you don’t have a fighting instinct.”

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003 – Rusted Heart

The small storage room had been cleared of everything but a large conference table in the center. At it sat a thin woman in a neat gray business suit, a baby blue tie draped from a crisp white collar at her throat, and silver cuff links at her wrists sparked in the abrasive lights. A matching circlet of silver adorned her blond head. Her tresses had been pulled back in a severe bun at the nape of her neck. Her green eyes snapped up as they entered.

Ben felt the weight of Madame Harmon’s gaze on him, and instinct screamed at him to run. Behind him, he felt Rice’s fear like a cold trickle of water down his neck. Her sputtering protests subsided to curses, and then she fell silent.

“Mr. Havoc,” said the seated woman. “Welcome to Arena.”

Ben nodded stiffly. “I’m not here for an interview. I’m here to fix boilers,” he said, but his voice held no conviction. Rice stared at him.

“Oh, I know,” said the woman, her lips pouting. “But I’ll pay you an additional ten percent if you listen to my pitch. It’s gotten better since the last time you heard it.”

“Last time it was ‘fight or die’.”

“Yes” said the woman, the corners of her lips curling. Her eyes sparkled. “It’s gotten a lot better.” Ben sighed and crossed his arms. He nodded once without meeting her eyes. “Please sit,” said Harmon, waving a hand at the single chair across from her. Ben didn’t move and opened his mouth to decline.

Rice slid into the seat before he could speak, placing herself between Ben and Harmon. “Gee, thanks,” she said, grinning. “Nice to meet you. I’m Ashtin.”

Rage flashed in the blond woman’s green eyes. “I don’t care.” The smile covered her anger a breath later, and she looked past Rice, completely ignoring her. But her eyes no longer sparkled and a crease had appeared between her brows. “Do you follow the games, Havoc?” she asked.

“You know I don’t,” said Ben.

“We recently acquired the talents of a man named Ivan Toure,” she said, and smiled when Ben’s eyes widened. “I guess you’ve heard of him.”

“He’s a nanoblade user,” said Ben, his words stiff.

Harmon nodded, her smile dimming. “The mob is fine with Somatics ripping the arms off of other Somatics, up to a point.” She sighed. “And then they want something more. They want sophistication.” She paused. “They want skill.”

“I don’t know how to fight,” said Ben, his voice gloomy. He looked at the floor.

Harmon placed her hands over the table and tapped the inlaid tab screen. An image appeared on the table. It was a distant shot of a dusty town, brown buildings, and a glaring sun. Ben looked away, and Rice raised her head to glare at the blond woman. Harmon gestured, and the image moved aside to be replaced by another. The new image had been shot from within the town, and had been framed around a pile of bodies. She swiped through more images, close-ups of the bodies, some of them cut clean in half. “That’s not what our source from Burmata says.”

“It was self-defense,” said Rice, her voice soft with rage. “And he didn’t have as much control back then.”

“Either way—” began Harmon.

“Either way, it doesn’t matter,” said Rice. “He’s not going to fight in—”

“Ten thousand credits per match,” said Harmon.

“What?” said Rice.

“I’ve been authorized to offer you ten thousand credits per match, win, lose, or draw,” said Harmon, a smile appearing on her lips once more. “With bonuses if you win.”

Ben stared at her. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. He rubbed his eyebrow.

Rice stood. “That’s it, we’re leaving. We heard your shitty pitch, so make sure to add ten percent to the bill.” She turned and pushed Ben out of the room before he could agree to anything.

Outside the door, Marsh waited for them. He said nothing as he led them to another access door. It opened up below the concourse, to a maze of halls and rooms. Marsh stopped in front of another door labeled ‘Boiler Room’. He left them there. Avoiding Rice’s gaze, Ben turned to the giant machines and metal swirled from the canisters at his hip.

“You were going to say yes?” Rice asked, her voice harsh. The tungsten shards shivered out of Ben’s control and fell to the floor. He bowed his head and hunched his shoulders, his back to her. After a few moments of silence, Rice said. “I didn’t know you were so hard up for cash.” Anger clipped her words. “Did you fucking come here so she would ask you that? Because if you did, you owe me more than a drink.” She crossed her arms and waited.

Finally, Ben said, “I can’t take it anymore.” His voice was soft. A shard of tungsten drifted up from the ground, and he grasped it. With a quick motion, he sliced it over his palm. The skin split and blood welled.

“Shit,” Rice said, taking a step toward him.

Ben turned to face her, a weak grin on his face. He showed her the cut he had made. It was deep, down to the bone, and it dripped blood. “I can’t feel it,” he said.

Rice sighed in frustration and searched her coat pockets. Finally, she extracted a small first aid kit. She grabbed his hand and smeared liquid Hex on it. The material foamed and then hardened over the wound, sealing it with a flexible layer. “Dumbass,” Rice said. Her eyes met his. “I knew that. You’re such a drama queen sometimes.”

“I. Can’t. Take. It. Anymore,” Ben said through gritted teeth.

“So your plan is what exactly? Get yourself killed in the Arena and then you won’t miss feeling anything because you’ll be dead?”

“No,” Ben said, his eyes sliding away from hers. “My plan was to win enough money to afford more implants.”

“Ben,” Rice said, placing a hand on his shoulder, “they don’t have implants for touch. It’s too much data—”

“Pay for the development then,” Ben said shrugging her off. “Or fund an expedition to one of the Foundations. They had to have found a solution in the Golden Ages.” Excitement seeped into his voice. “I mean, if they built the Towers—”

He continued talking and Rice watched the hope in his eyes. She gritted her teeth. “Fine!” she said, the word exploding from her. “If it’ll get you to shut up and work on the damn boiler so we can get out of here, I’ll help you.”

“Help me?” Ben asked.

Rice’s gaze slid away from his. “You shouldn’t come to this place by yourself. You shouldn’t fight in the Arena with no one watching your back, making sure they don’t poison your liquid Hex.” Her eyes snapped to his. “I’m sure you’ll be using a lot of liquid Hex,” she said, poking him in the chest.

Ben blinked. “Thanks, Rice,” he said.

“Yeah, well, now you owe me three drinks,” Rice said.

If you like what you’ve read, support me at Patreon. Continued in Chapter 4: Tungsten Carbide vs. Titanium.

002 – Rust Colored Red

“You owe me a drink,” Rice said. She shifted her stance on the rickety bridge extension. She passed a hand over the holster on her belt, her long black rain coat twitching. Her short brown curls had gathered dew on the walk over.

“You’re getting paid for the job,” Ben said, raising an eyebrow. He wore armor pads and a rain coat but no guns.

“I know,” said Rice. “But as your buddy—”

“More like coworker, I think,” Ben murmured, his voice almost lost in the angry growl of boat traffic below the bridge.

“As your buddy,” Rice said loudly, “this is a definite ‘owe me a drink’ scenario.” She looked up at the bridges arching over and around the dome like less-impressive rings of Saturn. Beyond the bridges, misty with distance and curved with the horizon, the Pacific Tower rose into the stratosphere and low Earth orbit, shuttles flitting around it like twinkling gnats. The hum of streams of humanity echoed in stereo around them, and the furious roar of a huge crowd filtered past the concrete walls of the dome.

“Why are you worried?” he asked. “The worst they’ll do to you is kill you.” He raised his hand and knocked, not too loudly, on the small access door in the enormous side of the dome. “Just stay calm.”

Rice shook her head. “Can’t believe Arlene—”

“She’s the boss,” Ben said, avoiding her gaze. Then he mumbled, “I do what she says.”

“Still though,” said Rice. “The Arena? You guys can’t be that hard up for money. Especially with winning the Kola Prison contract.”

Ben rubbed a hand over his eyebrow and shifted uncomfortably. “The new Hexsuit upgrades are expensive,” he said.

Rice frowned at him. “Not that expensive.” Ben shrugged in response.

A sound on the other side of the door alerted them a moment before it opened. Rice tensed. A man in a loose jumpsuit, tan canvas scuffed with mud and blood, greeted them as he wiped his hands on a towel. He wore no armor and no weapons, a flunky or an assistant, gopher. Rice relaxed slightly.

“You here to fight?” he asked, voice dull. His gaze lingered on Ben’s constricted pupils for a long moment, and then looked away quickly.

Ben opened his mouth but paused, the words catching. Rice cleared her throat. “Maintenance,” she said.

The man’s eyes flitted over the Standard Maintenance logo on Rice and Ben’s gray jumpsuits. His eyes drifted to Rice’s rifle. “Hard to tell sometimes,” he said.

“We’re multi-talented,” said Rice, white teeth flashing in the shadow of the dome. “We’re here for the boilers.”

The man nodded and held the door open for them. Ben and Rice followed the flunky into the darkened interior of the dome. Ben’s fingers twitched nervously to the canisters on his belt. He gritted his teeth, forcing himself to take one step after another. His eyes flitted from darkened corners as they followed the man. Unconsciously, Ben edged towards Rice, her familiar stance comforting.

The short hallway from the door opened up into a wide, empty concourse that led around the outside of the Arena. Thick concrete pillars held up the tall ceiling. The roar of a crowd thousands strong echoed through the concourse. Amplified over the cheers and jeers, a piercing scream and the sound of cracking bones popped over the speakers followed by groans and snarls. The crowd gasped collectively.

The flunky led them past a gate leading out to the Arena, and they glimpsed the combatants. There were four or five men and women fighting on the sand. None had weapons, but they seemed to be causing each other plenty of damage with bare fists and teeth. Blood flew on the sand. Somatics in the throes of somatic high.

Some of the crowd threw bottles and garbage down onto the field, but others screamed their support. The audience undulated, gathering swiftly in some spots like ants on a crumb of bread, fists and knives drawing as much blood on the bleachers as on the sandy field below. Guards with thick impulse rifles, portable generators glowing, and Hex panels on their arms stalked through, breaking up the fights.

“Glad they don’t need someone to clean up all the blood,” Rice said, grimacing.

The flunky glanced over his shoulder at Rice. “Ever been to the Arena before?”

“No,” said Rice. “I prefer gambling with cards, not with lives. Ben has a few times though.”

“Never willingly,” said Ben, hunching his shoulders and putting his hands in the pockets of his rain coat.

“I figured,” said the man. “You’ve got the pupil dilation of a Somatic. Most Somatics make it here at one point or another.”

Ben hunched his shoulders and looked away. The flunky edged toward the right side of the concourse hall and opened a door leading away from the Arena. A small sign marked the door as storage. Ben froze.

“This isn’t the boiler room,” Rice said, hand twitching to her gun.

The flunky shrugged again, his back to them. “You didn’t think you’d get out of meeting with Madame Harmon, did you?” Ben’s shoulders sagged, but the man continued, “She just wants to talk to you. You can go in and see what she wants, then go fix the boilers, and get paid. Or you can leave.”

Ben sighed and moved towards the door. He paused, his hand hovering over the door knob. Rice glared at the man in the tan canvas jumpsuit.

“Let’s just leave,” Rice said. “We don’t need this crap.”

Ben sighed, and his gaze slid away from hers. “I need the money,” he said. He opened the door.

If you like what you’ve read, support me at Patreon. Continued in Chapter 3: Rusted Heart.

001 – Rusted Sunrise

“Enough daydreaming,” Boss said, her words wrenching his thoughts from the platinum sphere warming in his hand, like a muscle warmed from exercise. Ben turned from the ruins, bridges, rain slick towers, and the mess of neon signs, glowing colored threads that tangled with the sunrise. She stood near the door to the roof a few paces from him, her gray-tinged blond hair and ruddy face darkened by her grim expression. “We won a contract at the Arena,” she said.

Ben tensed. “I don’t—”

“You’ll go,” Boss said firmly. “Or no Soma.”

“You know they won’t let me leave without fighting,” Ben said.

“Yes,” said Boss.

Ben clenched his hands to keep them from shaking. “When?” he asked, forcing a casual tone.

“Today,” said Boss. “They were very eager.”

Ben let out an even, steadying breath. “Am I going alone?”

Boss’s mouth tightened. “You’ll take Ashtin with you.”

“Hexclad?” he asked.

She jerked her head once. “They won’t pay if she is. Makes them feel threatened.”

“That’s the idea,” Ben said.

Anger flashed in her eyes. “Don’t forget you work for me,” she said. “And danger is part of the job.”

Ben held up the platinum sphere. It caught the light. Oxygen and nitrogen, hydrogen, trace amounts of cyanide and sulfur, the ethereal exhalation of the city fogged it like a dying breath. Boss flinched as the platinum melted, looking momentarily like mercury, and clenched into solid forms, a screwdriver, a wrench, a crowbar. Ben’s eyes watched the metal, running through the shapes he had practiced since young, shapes he knew better than his own body.

“I do my best,” Boss said, her voice quiet. She crossed her arms and finally looked old, old and tired.

Ben blinked and the metal burst into a cloud of platinum dust. Boss tensed but didn’t move as the platinum swirled around them. Blood dripped from Ben’s nose. Instinctively, he wiped it with his sleeve as the metal trailed back into a sphere in his other hand. Flexing the platinum sphere like his own muscles, Ben closed his eyes. “I know,” he said finally.

“Get going. You have work to do,” Boss said.

“Yeah,” Ben said. He walked past her to the door that led from the roof of the Standard Maintenance building.

Continued in Chapter 2: Rust Colored Red

If you like what you’ve read, support me at Patreon.