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.