005 – Laid Out

Rice’s face came into focus first. Her slim eyebrows peaked with worry over her brown eyes. Ben had the sense that he was lying down, and his body felt strange. Nothing hurt, but when he ordered it to move, nothing happened. He sighed.

“You got beat,” Rice said unnecessarily. She stood next to the medical examination table. They had the locker room to themselves.

“How bad?” he asked.

“Well,” said Rice, “Ivan didn’t stop right away after you passed out. The crowd was just too into it. So he threw you and the titanium around a bit.” Ben grimaced and closed his eyes. Rice continued, “So you have a few broken ribs, broken arm, not to mention the cut on your arm, and probably a concussion. Do you feel…um…concussed?” Rice asked.

“A bit,” said Ben. “I can’t move.”

“I drugged you so you wouldn’t overdo it,” Rice said. “I’ve set all your bones and Hexed them, but you should rest for a couple of weeks at least.”

Ben grimaced. “Shit,” he said, lifting his head slightly and banging the back of it against the table.

“Hey look, you’re moving again,” said Rice, her voice cheerful. Her face was serious when she said, “Stop it though.”

“The Boss is going to demand a cut of my winnings,” Ben said. “If this interferes with my Standard Maintenance work, she won’t let me keep doing it.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t,” said Rice. Ben narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth to protest, but Rice cut him off. “I mean, you aren’t so great at the fighting thing.”

“Thanks for being gentle,” Ben said.

“You’re welcome,” Rice said, a grin tugging at her lips. “Is it really a net gain if it lays you out for two weeks?” Ben looked away from her. “You’d earn money faster robbing one of the Tower repositories,” Rice said, humor in her voice.

Ben’s face reddened, and he wouldn’t meet her gaze. Rice’s eyes grew wide. “You were—” she looked around the locker room and leaned close, lowering her voice even though there was no one there. “You were going to rob a Tower repository? Shit, Ben.”

“No,” Ben said the word forcefully, shaking his head. “I wasn’t going to do that.” He glanced at her and then away, embarrassment coloring his face. “I only thought about it briefly. The scope of such an operation—”

“Such an operation,” Rice repeated. “Do you hear yourself?”

“I’m desperate,” said Ben.

“I’ll say,” she said, straightening and narrowing her eyes. “Desperate and crazy. I don’t get it.” She shook her head. “I’d be pretty happy if I couldn’t feel it when someone hit me.”

Ben didn’t answer, but avoided her gaze. Rice pursed her lips and began gathering up medical supplies. She froze and her gaze snapped back on him. “Oh my gods,” she said, her voice quiet and intense. “You’re—” she stopped, clenching her jaw.

“What?” asked Ben, alarmed at her tone.

Rice leaned close to him and stared him in the eye. She stayed like that for a moment. Ben blinked nervously and tried to scoot away. Finally, Rice said, “Who is she?”

Ben sat up and put his hands up to fend her off. Dried liquid Hex encased one of his arms, making it feel clunky. “That’s not why—”

“Yes, it is,” Rice said. “Tell me who we’re doing this all for.”

He set his lower jaw stubbornly. “No,” he said, voice firm.

“What?” Rice straightened. “Why not?”

“Because I don’t want you to talk to her,” Ben said slowly, his eyes narrowing.

Rice raised her shoulders. “I wouldn’t say anything.”

“Yeah, you would,” said Ben.

A smile curled up the corner of Rice’s lips. “So I know her?” Ben sighed and put his head in his hands. “You won’t tell me?” she said. “Fine, I’ll just figure it out.” He stared at her, eyebrows peaked in worry as she thought. “Is it Zee?” Rice asked.

“What?” Ben said, his voice squeaking.

Rice sighed, turning away from him and gathering up her medical equipment. “Only you would be attracted to a robot you got in the mail—”

“The Boss got her in the mail,” Ben said. “And she’s not a robot.”

Rice twisted her lips, ignoring him. “No, I take it back, I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of people with that kind of fetish.”

“It’s not like that,” he said, lowering his gaze. His blush deepened. “She’s not a robot. She’s different.”

“An analog is a robot with skin and bones and shit,” said Rice, shaking her head. “Does she know?” Rice asked.

“No,” Ben said, looking at his hands in his lap. “What would be the point? I can’t feel it when someone hits me, let alone when…” He shook his head and grimaced.

Rice sobered and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Welcome to the dating world in the twenty-third century,” she said, her eyes steady and grim.

If you like what you’ve read, support me at Patreon. Your patronage gets you additional scenes, sketches, drafts, and notes. Continue with Chapter 6!

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