The flames grew on Zee’s hand. Ben stared, shocked for a moment. When she cried out in pain, his mind snapped into action. He disassembled the metal cast on her injured arm. He swirled the tungsten into a sphere around her hand. Platinum from the ring on his finger and silver from the stud on his ear added volume. He grabbed Zee’s arm.
“Hold still,” he said. He shaped the tungsten around the fire, shrinking the spaces between the molecules, replacing air with platinum and silver. He vented the fire’s oxygen, and the flames died on Zee’s hand. She cried at the pain of her burnt fingers and fell to her knees. Ben released the metal from her hand, and air stung her raw skin. Zee’s hand shook, skin bubbled and blistered.
Ben looked back at the young man. “Stay away from me,” the young man shouted, his voice a warning. Ben felt warmth grow on his own arm. He gasped and wrapped his arm around Zee’s waist. He half-pulled, half-carried her, and they backed into the darkness of the building. They slumped, gasping, against a moldy wall. Zee whimpered, her blistered hand shaking out in front of her.
“It hurts,” she said.
“Shit,” Ben said. Carbon swirled from his belt. He wrapped it around Zee’s hand like a glove. He closed his eyes and created vents that swept cool air over her skin. Zee gasped in relief.
“What the hell,” she said, gasping, “was that?”
Ben shook his head. “Not a drone.”
“What are we going to do?”
“Wait for Rice?” Ben said. “She’ll bring guns.”
Zee forcefully calmed her breathing. She shook out the pain and fear. “He was just a child,” she said.
“He was my age, and he somehow grew a freaking fire on your hand,” Ben said, his voice wavering. “He tried to hurt you.”
Zee turned her gaze on him. Mud smudged her face and sweat glued wet strands of loose black hair to her pale forehead. “He was afraid, wasn’t he?” she asked.
Ben looked away from her. “I don’t know,” he said.
“Yes, you do. You always know,” Zee said. Ben didn’t answer. Zee nodded. “He was afraid, and I’m just an analog. No harm done.”
Ben glared at her. “You can’t—”
Zee struggled to her feet. “Stay here,” she said.
“Wait. What? What’re you doing?”
“I’m going to try talking to him before we shoot him,” Zee said, turning. “I am the business liaison, after all. Negotiation is what I do.”
“Like you did on Helioset?” Ben asked, the dark words snapping from his mouth too quickly for him to stop them.
Zee’s back stiffened. “I do what I have to,” she said, her voice quiet. She covered the pain with coldness. He closed his eyes, wishing he could take back the words. The tectonic plates creaked apart, widening the rift between them. Everything he thought of to say in the seconds before she walked away felt like throwing a grain of sand into a chasm.
Still, he threw a muttered, “Sorry,” into it. The word echoed hopelessly as she stepped away from him and into the gray light.
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