“Do you think they deserve to be down here?” Rice asked. She leaned back against the ladder rungs in her Hexsuit, the rifle held loosely in her hands. She sighed and, ignoring the dim, ragged figures that gathered at the edges of the clearing, her eyes traveled up the far Prison Pit wall. Far over their heads the Pit cap receded into darkness.
Ben glared down at her as she jostled his ladder. Heavily tinted goggles covered his eyes. He turned back to the glowing reactor, concentrating on the nanoblade tool he was using to replace the reactor core. “Doesn’t really matter what I think,” he said. “Erise thinks they should be locked up, so they are.”
Rice rolled her eyes. “What about you, Esh?” she asked the older man standing alert and ready to her right, watching the shadows carefully. Rice continued, “Don’t you think criminals deserve a chance to be rehabilitated? A chance to rejoin society?”
“Well, yes,” said Eshington, “but that’s a rather naïve notion. This is Erise we’re talking about.”
“It shouldn’t matter who, though, right? If they’re doing something wrong, they shouldn’t get away with it.”
Eshington glanced back at her, eyebrows drawn together in a frown. “That’s dangerous talk,” he said. He looked away again. “Very dangerous.”
“We’re not afraid of little danger,” Rice said. “Are we, Ben?” she asked, nudging Ben’s ladder.
He gripped the top of the ladder as it swayed until it settled. “Guess not,” he grumbled.
“Obviously, we aren’t,” Rice said. “I mean we enter places like this without too much thought. If I’m going to get eaten by prisoners, I’ll say what I want about Erise.”
Eshington shrugged. “I guess this is the best place to do it,” he said. “They can’t hear you down here. Comm dead zone.”
“Thank goodness for the criminally genius, abnormally scientific, and violently intelligent and the crimes they have committed,” said Rice, her intonation like a prayer. “Their suffering allows me to speak my beliefs in private.”
“Amen,” said Eshington.
“Here goes,” Rice said. “I believe the CEOs are assholes, and I believe Erise is the biggest, gaping-est asshole. My belief that the money we collect from them for jobs like this is blood money, dirty and filthy, makes me feel guilty, and I hate them even more for it. But I can’t refuse these jobs because my life is stressful and requires me to drink, and my independence forces me pay rent on a fucking closet barely above water level.
“I believe this prison is just a reflection of everything,” she said. “These prisoners are no better or worse than some of the people on the outside. Some of them maybe deserve to be in prison, but in a giant pit in the ground, wasting away?” She stepped away from the ladder and raised her voice, her eyes bright. “I believe the CEOs imprison all of us. I believe all of Earth is their prison, and they stand in their shining, tall towers with their wood paneling, fancy, well-made clothes, glass statues, their plush couches, and their fucking food. They stand up there like wardens and stare down at us, the starving masses, while we fight and kill each other. They charge us to use the ITG, to grow food, to drink their water, to breathe, while we swim in shit and scrape a living from the wreckage of the past civilization. While we eat each other and then tighten our belts, they feast on our tears. I believe we should be fighting them!”
Her voice had risen to a shout, but she stopped as if aware of her audience. Rice lowered her fist. The prisoners that surrounded them broke into a ragged but heartfelt cheer. A few of them shouted for her to help them escape. “What, do I look like a magician?” Rice grumbled, raising her weapon. She activated her helmet and it slid up from the bulky collar of the suit and over her head. After a few moments, the cheers faded and the prisoners filtered back into the stark shadows cut by the glow of the reactor. Rice turned back to Eshington. He stared at her.
“Woah,” Eshington said.
Rice shook her head, her helmet twitching. “Are you almost done with that thing?” she called up to Ben.
“Yeah,” said Ben. “I finished changing out the core a few minutes ago. Caught the tail end of your speech. Feel better?”
A pebble struck the back of Rice’s Hexsuit helmet. She spun around to face the gathering prisoners and raised her weapon. “No,” said Rice, her voice nervous. “I’m thinking maybe it was a bad idea.” Ben slid down the ladder, landing between the two Hexclad warriors. His gaze swept the prisoners, pupils dilating as his nostrils flared. Some of the prisoners wielded sharpened sticks.
“We should leave,” he said, his voice low.
“Yeah,” said Rice. She nodded, the movement a bare twitch in the Hexsuit helmet. Ben folded the ladder quickly and carried it under one arm.
“Stay together,” Eshington said. He led them out of the clearing and into the warren of cells. The prisoners parted and made a path reluctantly. After a handful of tense minutes, the maintenance crew reached the elevator. Rice breathed a sigh of relief as the clear plastic dome encased them and they rose back to the surface.
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