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.

Read the next chapter. 

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