“Are you sure you’re up for this?” Rice asked. She hefted her M-518 fully automatic rifle and stood back from the shuttle to stare at the massive hole in the tundra. Dark gray panels covered the entirety of her body in chunky metal. She strapped the gun onto her back next to her battery pack and munition box. Feeling the extra weight settle onto the suit’s assist system, she made sure she could still move comfortably.
Ben adjusted the hood on his thick parka and scanned the edge of the pit with gray eyes. The ice covered permafrost stretched to the horizon in every direction and leeched into the bleak white sky. He lowered anti-glare goggles over his eyes and nodded towards a covered stairwell that led down the side of the pit. “Boss said she’d cut my pay if I couldn’t do the work. Do I have a choice?” he asked. He began moving stiffly towards the edge of the pit.
“We could hit up that bar we passed a few hundred kilometers back,” Rice said.
Jonah Eshington stepped from the driver’s side of the shuttle. “On the return trip,” he said. “It’ll give you something to look forward to.” He strapped a Harvester Gatling gun to one of the artillery ports on the back of his suit, a decommissioned military model made of dark green panels.
They trudged over the bleak tundra, the Hexsuits impressing the hard snow with deep-ridged footprints. Ben’s boots left no impression. They neared the entrance to the stairwell, and Ben followed the two Hexclad warriors down the stairs, his movements stiff and slow. A shelter erected over the stairs muffled the sound of the wind, but trembled with every gust. He raised the goggles off his eyes and pulled out the handheld multi tab from the pocket of his coat. The screen glowed in the dim light.
“I hate prison maintenance,” Rice said, her voice a grumble from the Hex comm.
“Could be worse,” said Ben. He checked the time on his tab. “Could have won the contract for the Bastion Prison on the moon. I know how much you love orbital shuttles.”
Rice shuddered, her Hexsuit panels twitching in response. “About as much as I love prison maintenance,” she said.
“It’s good money,” said Ben with a shrug.
“If by good, you mean a lot, then yes. A lot of Erise money.”
“Technically, it’s Standard Maintenance money,” said Ben. “Since we’re the ones who pay you.”
“Alright,” said Eshington, stepping between their arguments. “Let’s get going or we’ll miss the maintenance window.”
“He’s just in a bad mood because he got his ass handed to him in his first fight at the Arena,” Rice said. “And he’s got to share the Standard Maintenance warehouse with the new business liaison.”
Eshington looked back at Ben. “The Arena? Is Erise not giving you enough work?”
Ben shrugged mutely. Eshington shifted the Harvester Gatling gun on his shoulder. “How’s the new business liaison?”
“Fine,” Ben said, looking away.
“Very fine for a robot,” said Rice, a smirk in her voice.
Ben shot a glare at the back of her Hexlcad head. “She’s an analog,” he said, his words clipped with anger.
“Sounds like Standard Maintenance is moving up in the world,” said Eshington. “What model of analog?”
“I-I don’t know,” Ben said shifting his gaze away.
Fifty meters below the rim of the pit, the stairwell ended at a concrete cap, a circular cover for the prison pit. It was ten meters thick and covered the three-hundred meter diameter opening of the pit. In the center of the cap stood a small elevator and a massive pulley system that would allow them to descend into the prison.
The maintenance crew approached and stepped into the cramped elevator. Inside was a folded ladder made of plastic and wood and a few other basic tools. “The last crew didn’t have a nanoblade user?” Rice asked.
“No,” said Ben. “They had four Hexers.”
“Can you imagine trying to get four Hexsuits into this elevator plus all the tools you’d need to replace the reactor core?” asked Rice. She grunted as she squeezed into a corner of the small chamber. “No wonder they didn’t last.”
Ben shook his head. “One of their crew died,” he said.
“Eesh, what happened?” Rice asked.
Ben shrugged. “There was a prison riot.”
“Gods,” said Rice, “maybe you should have worn a Hexsuit, considering how crappy you are at fighting.”
Ben glared at her, but Eshington said, “Enough,” and they fell silent as they waited in the cramped elevator, staring at the icy tundra outside the clear plastic walls. Rice cleared her throat and said, “I spy with my little eye, something white.”
Minutes passed and no one answered her. Finally Ben’s shoulders slumped and he said, “Snow?”
“Good job, Benjamin,” Rice said. “Your turn.”
“I don’t want a turn,” he said, looking away from her.
“That’s how the game—”
A clunking sound echoed over the cap and the elevator shivered. “That’s the maintenance window,” said Eshington, relief in his voice. “Everybody hang on.” The elevator shuddered as the gears built into the cap aligned and created an opening. Ben gasped as the elevator dropped and descended at a speed barely short of free fall.
“Whoo!” Rice shouted through her comm.
“Shit.” Ben grabbed onto her arm to keep from flying up into the ceiling.
“Guess this elevator is built for Hexers,” Rice said, laughing and pulling him back to the floor. “Are you okay?”
Ben nodded, the numbness of his own body preventing from feeling the pain in his ribs. They descended through the thick cap and into the prison. The claustrophobic tunnel through the concrete cap ended quickly and opened up into a huge, dark space.
Illuminated by the yellow light of a single reactor, a vast plain of honeycomb cells stretched out below them as the elevator lowered them into the pit. Thousands of tiny dark figures paused over their chess sets, billiard tables, and card games to look up.
Rice shuddered. “It looks like some perverse version of a casino.”
“I thought you liked casinos,” said Eshington.
“Yeah, but…” Rice stared down through her Hex helmet at the depressing yellow-lit cells. “Not when you can’t leave and everyone has beards. And it looks like they’ve sharpened the pool cues into spears.”
“At least you don’t have to worry about losing any money today,” said Ben.
Rice’s helmet twitched. “Yeah, I’ll have to worry about losing my life instead.”