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.

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