021 – Deadly Arts

Tegan’s titanium-coated fist struck Ben’s jaw, snapping his head to the side and nearly knocking over his chair. Ben groaned and turned slowly to face her, expecting to be hit again at any moment. He squinted up at her and spat a wad of blood on the floor, glad there was no teeth in it.

A mean smile quirked Tegan’s lips. “Oh, that’s right. I forgot Somatics can’t really feel. Let’s try…” She smashed her fist into his ribs, and Ben felt pain spike through his previously cracked sternum. Ben cried out and tried to curl forward to protect his chest, but the plastic restraints prevented him. Tegan leaned close to him. “Ooo, looks like I hit a tender spot. Did you feel that?”

“A-A little bit, yeah,” Ben said, the words wheezing through his lips.

Tegan hit his head again, a sharp tap that made his ears ring. Ben glared at her dizzily. “Did that one rattle your implants a bit?” she asked. Ben didn’t answer. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do this to you,” Tegan said, her voice wistful. “Not for any personal reasons, really. But I, like most nanoblade users, hate the name Havoc. You’ve taken our art and—”

“Used it for good instead of evil?” Ben said, blood dripping from his torn mouth.

“Sullied it,” Tegan said, twisting her mouth in disgust. She glared at him. “People are supposed to fear nanoblade users.” Tegan’s eyes lit with fervor. “We create the deadliest weapons that can kill with a single thought.”

“A waste of energy,” said Ben with a grimace. “When you could simply block someone’s arteries with metal and then disperse it, if you didn’t want to be caught, or cut them to shreds if you did.”

Tegan smacked him, and this time Ben spat out a tooth. “We aren’t all as willing to lose our minds to Soma as you are. We maintain our deadly art without being Somatics, without becoming animals.”

“Deadly art?” Ben said, his voice weak. A chuckle cracked to a sob. “I’ve used my nanoblade to unplug a toilet,” he said. Tegan screeched in rage and punched him in the mouth. Ben spat out another tooth through torn lips, head drooping onto his chest.

Tegan drew back her fist to hit him again, but paused as Firenze entered the tiny cell. “Time to go,” he said.

She lowered her arm and smirked down at Ben. “Looks like Baker has finished negotiating with your analog,” she said. Ben’s head snapped up, eyes wide with fear and worry. Tegan leaned close to him again. “Knowing Baker, I doubt she’ll be able to walk,” she said, “for a few days anyw—” She started as Firenze grabbed her arm and pulled her away from Ben. “Wha—”

“Careful,” said Firenze, the word snapping from his mouth.

She looked back at Ben in time to see the plastic chair and restraints shiver on a molecular level and disintegrate into a fine dust. Ben stood amidst the swirling plastic particles. “What—” Tegan stared, hands limp at her sides.

Ben’s pupils had constricted to pinpoints in his eyes. The swirling plastic fell to the floor around him. His gaze flitted to Tegan and Firenze. She stiffened, and the titanium coating her fist shivered into the half-formed shape of a knife.

“No!” Firenze grabbed her wrist and dispelled the titanium knife with a thought.

“What?” Tegan said. “He’ll kill us.”

Firenze gritted his teeth. “Our metals don’t matter, idiot. We’re made of carbon.”

Tegan swung her gaze back to Ben. “He can only manipulate pure carbon graphite.”

“Tell that to the polycarbons in that chair,” Firenze whispered. “What did you say to him?” They both looked back at Ben as he shuddered and expelled a forceful breath. His pupils stuttered back to their normal size. He swayed on his feet. Tegan and Firenze continued to stare at him.

“We’re done, right?” he asked them. They nodded mutely. Ben cleared his throat. “Sorry I lost my temper and broke your chair,” he mumbled through torn lips as he stumbled past them, his rumpled gray jumpsuit splattered in blood. He left them alone in the cell. Tegan and Firenze didn’t move until they could no longer hear him in the hallway.

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020 – Apprehended

Angry shouts followed after him as he turned from the screaming, slobbering man, but he ignored them. Ben walked past a sputtering Rice and exited the bar. He moved his legs. He didn’t stop until he blinked and realized he was running, lungs burning. His pace slowed and shuffled to a stop.

Breath huffing, Ben turned to see if anyone had followed him. He started, stepping back from Cyntha. She stood right behind him, blue hair electric in the bright lights of the hallway. “What?” he said, voice rough. She tilted her head and stared at him. He gulped. “What?”

“Why did you do that?” she asked.

“You didn’t like it,” he said.

Cyntha blinked. “No, why did you flinch when you saw me?”

“Oh,” said Ben. “Well, you were like,” he flashed open palms at her, “right there. Surprised me a bit.”

“Sorry,” Cyntha said. She stepped back from him and paused. She bit her lip and looked at the floor. “How did you know I didn’t like it?”

Ben shrugged his shoulders. “Instinct,” he said.

“I am a Model Five,” said Cyntha. “We aren’t programmed with one of those.”

“Instinct can be a hassle,” he said.

“Why?” said Cyntha.

“It often provides knowledge, but rarely provides understanding,” said Ben. Cyntha tilted her head, eyes defocusing as she thought about his words. After a moment Ben cleared his throat. “For instance, I know that you didn’t like what he was doing, but I don’t understand why you let him do it if you didn’t like it.”

Cyntha stared at him, a slight frown creasing between her eyes. “I’m a Model Five.” She paused, then nodded and continued, “It’s what we’re made for.”

“If it’s what you were made for, then don’t you think you’d like it?” Ben asked. Cyntha paused again, eyes defocusing as she thought. Movement at the end of the hall drew Ben’s attention. He looked up. Two black clad security officers walked cautiously towards them, impulse guns held at the ready. Ben looked over his shoulder. An additional five security officers waited down the hall.

“Are they here for you or me?” he asked Cyntha.

She glanced at the security officers, then raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re the one who attacked a prominent business partner,” she said. Ben nodded and winced, stepping away from her. Cyntha tilted her head as if listening to someone talking very softly. Her eyes widened. “They’re going to shoot—”

Ben heard the whine of the impulse guns’ energy cells. Metal exploded from the canisters at his hips, flashing and sparking. A shield clenched into existence in front of him. Thin as paper, it rippled when the impulse shot hit it.

“Lower your weapons,” one of the security officers shouted at him. The other murmured into a comm, requesting backup.

“I don’t have any,” Ben said. He did not lower the shield. “So stop shooting at me.” He glanced over his shoulder at the other security officers and at Cyntha. She had safely moved away from him to avoid being shot. The security officers fanned out and pulled her back behind their line. Ben sighed and dispelled the shield. “Please don’t shoot.” He raised his hands above his head. “I won’t resist.”

The security officers rushed him. Ben offered no resistance, but someone smashed a fist into his stomach doubling him. Another officer smashed something hard against the back of his neck, and darkness swallowed his vision.

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019 – Bar Fight

He liked the feeling of her small, firm ass in his lap. It made him wish they had found a table in a darker corner. His pants tightened. He grinned to himself and grabbed her breast to the roaring laughter of his partners.

Her blue hair smelled like flowers. He didn’t know what kind. He tried to think of what kind of flower, and he tried to remember her name. Chugging another glass to distract himself, he laughed with the rest of his partners. One of them filled his glass. Another passed him a fresh plate of food. Securing a contract with Lucian Ackermann ranked up there with marriage and the birth of his first child. He grinned at the smiling analog in his lap and relished the celebration. He felt powerful and wealthy beyond anything he had ever imagined for himself, like a king.

The laughter around him faltered. He looked up from the analog’s breasts. A young man in a rumpled gray jumpsuit stood next to their table, staring at them with Somatic gray eyes and the rough look of an Earth walker. The king raised his eyebrows and shrugged at his partners.

“Think he wants in on the action,” said one of the younger partners.

A partner to his right, a woman in a dark business suit, alcohol on her breath, threw a rind of food at the Somatic and stifled her laughter. The rind bounced off his chest and landed back on the table, causing some of the partners to dissolve into fits of giggles. The Somatic didn’t move and after a few moments the laughter faltered again, and this time anger colored the silence.

“What do you want?” asked the king, frustration leaking out of his voice. He wanted to enjoy his drink and his analog, his food and his friends. They fell silent at his tone and stared at the Somatic with hot or cold eyes.

In the hostile silence, the Somatic spoke in a soft voice. “Don’t do that,” he said.

The tension at the table increased. Some of the partners shifted uncomfortably. The king felt the warm buzz of rage behind his eyes. “What?” he said, spitting the word.

The Somatic tilted his head, a frown growing between his eyes. “Don’t touch her like that. She,” he said, nodding at the analog on the king’s lap, “doesn’t like it.”

The king’s gaze snapped to the analog’s. Her gaze, fixed on the Somatic, dappled with shadows of expressions. When the king’s eyes met hers, her face reddened and she looked away. The king’s jaw tightened. He stood, throwing her off his lap and onto the table. The partners gasped, bobbling their drinks and food.

“She likes it,” said the king. She had to.

“No,” said the Somatic, shaking his head.

The king took a step towards the Somatic and raised his fist. The Somatic’s eyes widened, and a grin ripped across the king’s face, but his opponent avoided his drunken fist easily. The Somatic grabbed and gripped the king’s outstretched arm and slapped something onto it.

The king pulled his arm back and stared at the small white medical patch on his skin. He looked back up at the Somatic, but the man in the gray jumpsuit was gone, along with the bar, his partners, the analog, the food, Helioset, space, Earth.

His awareness skittered from the blank nothingness of his new reality. Beneath the blankness, a swirling mass of knowing flowed like a river. Within the knowing, frequencies danced like delicate strings their patterns unpredictable and too fast. He couldn’t catch the strings, so he reached for the knowing, desperate for anything to stave off the blankness.

It washed over him, overwhelming and comforting at once. Helioset, Earth, everything still existed, but he couldn’t ignore the other things. People swirled around him in a kaleidoscope of impressions he could barely comprehend.

From the swirl, he gleaned that the Somatic spoke the truth. She did not like it. Their smells reeked so strongly they cracked through his mind. Rage and sadness, scents that felt rather than smelled, the king had to see it. He had to know it. He feared the blank alternative more than the slobbering knowledge. He welcomed the rush as it began to sweep him away, scour him with its too muchness.

He blinked at the ceiling of the bar, his vision fuzzy and dim. His gaze flitted left and right. The partners had pinned him near their table. One of them had swiped the patch off his arm. His face felt wet, tears and spittle. He could smell the vestiges of fear, his own fear, his own piss. They moved their mouths but he could barely hear.

And then their voices and the light rushed back to full intensity, so loud and so bright he could only clench his teeth and close his eyes.

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018 -Rotten Oranges

Atoms of metal shed from the new wire slowly, fitting it perfectly into the casing. Rice wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand and placed the last Hexsuit panel. Next to her Ben trembled, pupils constricted to points beneath a medical patch on his forehead. The screws tightened on the panel, turned by slivers of his metal.

“That’s it,” Rice said, stepping back. With a shaking hand, Ben reached up and removed the medical patch. They both stood, silently staring at the rows and rows of Hexsuits they had upgraded.

“I need food,” said Rice finally, her voice quiet. “And a drink. At least one. If I see another calorie or caffeine pill, I will murder someone.” She looked at him. “Probably you.”

“Do that…and you probably…won’t get paid,” Ben said, his voice rough. He hadn’t spoken in three days. His pupils dilated slowly as the Soma wore off.

“I almost don’t care,” said Rice. She turned and shuffled away, heading towards the door to exit the maintenance hangar. Ben followed her.

They dragged themselves to a tram and took it to the nearest eatery, a cafeteria with a bar. The bar stretched a long length of Helioset’s outer skin. People sat in groups or alone, huddled over their drinks or laughing loudly, the late night crowd. Leaning over the bar, Ben kept his eyes off the floor with its porthole views of space.

Rice ordered them some food and herself a drink. She leaned forward and rested her head on the counter. Ben shook off a little more of the remaining Soma high with a huge glass of water. Three days of nothing but calorie pills had left his stomach feeling as empty as the space below his feet. He didn’t mind the feeling; it trumped the numbness.

Laughter in a corner near the end of the bar caught his attention, drew his gaze. A woman with blue hair sat on the arm of a chair, and the man in the chair ran his hand up her leg. The other men and women at their table watched or ignored them to varying degrees. Some had their own analogs to distract their attention. Ben didn’t recognize the man, but he remembered the woman from their first day on Helioset, Cyntha. Ben watched, and the man pulled her down onto his lap, a grin lighting his face. Ben studied her face carefully, but no disgust or trepidation flashed there, and though she laughed, neither did joy or excitement.

Ben exhaled and closed his eyes. With the last vestiges of his Soma high, he let his instincts surface. He smelled her fear. The table in the corner reeked of rotten oranges and burning rubber. The cloying scent of confidence and power covered the reek like a perfume sprayed over body odor. He opened his eyes quickly and breathed through his mouth, though he could no longer smell anything.

“What would you do if that was Zee?” Rice asked. She had raised her head from the bar and watched the man tickle Cyntha and then grab her breasts, hard. Ben looked away and reached for his glass of water, but Rice pulled it away from him. “You can’t do that anymore,” she said, anger in her voice. Her eyes flashed up to his, then back to the scene in the corner.

“Do what?” Ben asked.

“You know what,” Rice said, her voice a hiss. She didn’t look at him, continued watching the man and Cyntha. Rice’s face pinched with disgust.

Ben clenched his hands under the bar. He imagined walking over there, imagined chopping the man’s hands off with the nanoblade. He wondered if Cyntha’s expressions would register horror. He tried to think of what he would say to that man if it were Zee. He could think of nothing but violence. “There’s nothing I can do,” he said.

“Stop being a fucking coward,” Rice said. The bar tender set a drink down in front of her and she reached for it, but Ben grabbed it before she could and downed it in a few gulps. Rice stared at him. He wiped his mouth and stood. He turned and stepped towards the table in the corner.

Rice grabbed the back of his rumpled jumpsuit. “Wait,” she said, “what are you going to do?”

Ben looked over his shoulder at her, then shifted his gaze away. “Make them stop,” he said, and pulled away from her grasp.

“Shit,” Rice muttered under her breath. She gestured to the bar tender for another drink. She shook her head. “Make it a double,” she said.

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017 – Liaison

Zee disentangled herself from the bodies piled on a rug near the foot of the bed. In the darkened room she searched blindly for her clothes, trying to avoid stepping on anyone. She bumped into a chair, scraping one of its legs against the floor and stubbing her toe, but no one woke. Baker sprawled naked on the bed and snored loudly, and the male and female Analogs asleep on the floor didn’t stir. By the glowing light of her tab, she found her bag and clothes crumpled in a corner. She quietly slipped on her skirt and shirt.

She headed for the door as quietly as she could, but heard someone stir behind her. Zee winced and froze. “Where are you going?” asked a low, feminine voice. Cyntha had woken. Her blue hair and pale skin glimmered in the light of the tab. She rubbed her eyes. “The captain wishes for us to be here when he wakes up.”

“I doubt he’ll miss me,” said Zee under her breath. Cyntha tilted her head. Zee shook her head. “My boss called,” she said, barely wincing at the lie.

“Oh, that’s right,” said Cyntha, resuming her curled up position on the floor between two nude bodies. “I forgot you aren’t an attendant.”

“Go back to sleep,” Zee said.

Cyntha lowered her head and closed her eyes, and Zee cracked open the door and slipped into the hall. The lights had been dimmed. Clear portholes in the floor, darkened without the Earth-reflected sunlight, revealed glimpses of a nighttime Earth when Zee walked over them. She didn’t pause to admire the sparkling cities or streams of glowing transportation or the deep darkness of the Wilds, but hurried quickly down the hall.

She passed few other people. Helioset’s mining operations remained active at night, crews of miners and their related services working near the poles of the great sphere, but except for a few workaholics the business sector slept near the equator. After consulting her GPS, Zee took a tram to the contractors’ quarters on level seven. A few minutes and a short walk later, she had arrived in front of the guest apartments for the Standard Maintenance crew.

Unlocking the door with a swipe of her badge, Zee slipped inside. Their shared living and eating common room radiated out to their tiny, but private rooms and bathrooms. Zee looked up as she entered and blinked. Rice sat on the couch in the dim light. She wore dark pants and a gray tank top, and she stared directly at Zee.

“Good morning,” said Rice.

“Umm,” said Zee. “What are you doing up?”

Rice shrugged. “I was curious,” she said.

Zee looked away, feeling the heat rise to her face. She dropped her bag and moved to a glass cupboard. She pulled out a mug and a glass bottle of golden liquid. She filled the mug with the liquid and took a gulp of it. It burned her throat, but she took another gulp. Fortified, she turned to find Rice continued to stare at her, eyebrows raised, a smile quirking her lips.

“You are very interesting for an Analog,” she said.

“I am going to drink this,” said Zee. “It won’t take long. And then I’m going take a shower. What do you want?”

“Ben was worried. I told him you were in a meeting,” Rice said, looking down at her hands in her lap. “What did you have to do to get him out of trouble?”

Zee walked to stand in front of her, taking another huge gulp from her mug. “I didn’t think you were as much of an idiot as he was,” she said. She hiked up her skirt and straddled Rice in a quick, smooth movement. Rice’s eyes widened.

“That isn’t really what you want to know, is it?” Zee asked, sliding one hand along Rice’s neck. She leaned close and whispered in her ear, her black hair falling in Rice’s face. “You don’t really want me to tell you the nasty details, do you?” Zee reached up and unbuttoned one button on her blouse with trembling fingers. “I can,” she said, her voice sibilant. She unbuttoned another, “If you”, and another, “want.”

Rice stared at her a moment, eyes wide with surprise. Then she winced and gently took the mug from Zee’s hand. Zee looked away from the expression in her eyes. Rice reached up and caressed the side of Zee’s face with tender fingers.

“Stop it,” Zee said. “What are you doing?”

“I wanted to know what your skin felt like,” Rice said, her voice a whisper. “It feels like skin.”

“I’m a Model Seven,” said Zee, her voice dull. “I have a body made of biological materials and even biological elements in my brain. Top of the line.” Rice’s gentle fingers traced Zee’s clavicle and then lightly down between her breasts. “Stop it,” said Zee.

“You’re the one who sat on me,” said Rice, pulling her hand away.

“I mean stop being nice. Stop looking at me like that,” said Zee. “Just take what you want.”

Rice raised an eyebrow. “Why?” she asked. “Would that make you feel better?”

“Why does it matter how it makes me feel?” Zee asked. She shook her head and sighed, turning her face away. “I was wrong. You’re both idiots.”

Rice touched her chin and turned it back, but Zee didn’t meet her eyes. “Look at me,” Rice said. Zee obeyed, lifting her gaze slowly. “Would it make you feel better?”

Zee clenched her teeth, holding in the sob that wanted to rip through her throat. She breathed and composed herself enough to answer the question. “I just want to forget.”

Rice looked away, pain in her eyes. “I can’t help you with that,” she said, her voice rough.

Zee nodded quickly. “I know. Can I just—” she wiped her eyes, “sit here for a minute?”

“Yeah,” said Rice. Zee leaned forward and pressed her wet face against Rice’s shoulder.

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