037 – Beaten

Ben stood outside Boss’s door for five minutes, clenching and unclenching his hands, before he raised his fist and pounded on her door. Boss opened the door, saw the expression on his face, rolled her eyes, and turned away leaving the door open for him to follow.

“Let me guess, if I hit the robot again you’ll be angry?” she said, plopping down in a cushy chair and facing a large screen. The screen displayed schematics. A glance told Ben it was of Arena. He blinked in surprise, but shook his head.

“It was an accident,” said Boss.

“Sure it was,” said Ben. He stood in front of her, blocking her view.

Boss took a swig from a bottle. She craned her neck to see the screen and zoomed in on a section of the schematic, her fingers tapping across an interface tab. “What do you want me to say?”

“Say you’re sorry,” Ben said.

“I already did,” said Boss.

Ben continued to block the view of her screen. “It’s not good enough,” he said.

She sighed. A chain of titanium snaked around his arm and pulled him out of the way of the screen. It wrapped around his torso and arms before he could react and dragged him to the floor. The weight of it compressed his chest. Ben gasped.

“Pathetic as usual,” said Boss. “You didn’t even try to resist. Where’s that crowbar you’ve been practicing?” She shook her head. “I think you’ve got too many distractions. Maybe I should put you in isolation for a few days. It’s been a while.”

The titanium melted and began spreading over his entire body. Ben struggled, but Boss increased the mass of it. He snarled and a heavy piece of tungsten carbide buzzed towards Boss’s head. She swatted it away with a piece of titanium.

His snarl turned to a panicked cry as the titanium completely encased his legs and arms, then abdomen and chest, leeching up towards his head. “No, stop, I’m sorry,” he said, breathlessly. “Please don’t. I’m sorry.”

Boss narrowed her eyes, but the metal retracted reluctantly. She shook her head. “Pathetic. Metal dispersal may be cool, but it doesn’t do you much good, does it? You can barely even fight back. Still just like a pathetic little boy.”

“Right,” Ben gasped, struggling to his knees. “All my methods of fighting back would kill you.” He glared at her, eyes snapping up angrily.

She returned his glare, the metal slowing, and he lowered his gaze. She released him from the titanium. “You need to learn some decent half measures.”

“I’m not the fighter,” Ben said. “That’s Rice’s job.”

She shook her head. “If the Arena wasn’t just violence theater, you could do well there.”

“I don’t want to do well there,” Ben said. “And I don’t want to hurt you. I just want you to stop being an asshole to Zee.”

“I lost my temper,” said Boss. “I’ve been under a lot of stress and she questioned my methods.”

“Your methods are sometimes questionable,” said Ben.

“How long has it been since you’ve had a time out?” Boss asked. Ben fell silent and looked away. She nudged him with her foot. “How long?”

“Three years, five months,” he whispered.

She nodded. “Sounds about right.” She looked back at the schematic of the Arena. “If I asked you to kill someone for me, what would it take to get you to do it?”

Ben stared at her.

“I used to be able to get you to do it for sweets,” she said.

“Why can’t you do it?” Ben asked, a tremble in his voice.

“I’ll be busy, and I want it to be untraceable.”

Through gritted teeth, Ben said, “I thought we were done with the power grabs.”

“This one is fool proof,” Boss said.

Ben glanced at the Arena schematic.

“Tell you what,” said Boss. “If you don’t do it, I’ll send the robot back.”

“You can’t—”

“I can,” said Boss. “And I will.”

“She does good work,” said Ben quickly. “This whole situation with Jun would not have been possible without her.”

“She’s an analog and replaceable.”

Ben gulped. “What do you want me to do?”

Boss smiled.

 

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036 – Bruised

Ben sat cross-legged on the floor of the hangar. He stared at the wriggling screwdriver in his hands, the metal freezing in place as he lost concentration. Boss and Zee entered the hangar. He looked up. Normal, them coming home. His eyes drifted towards Zee, as they always did. He stared at her. At her face. At the new, reddening bruise on her cheek.

He stood. But in the moment before he opened his mouth, shocked words primed, Zee’s expression silenced him. Fear in her eyes and a shifting glance towards Boss kicked him in the stomach. Zee hurried to her apartment, and Boss huffed and escaped to her private apartments below the hangar.

Alone under the bright lights, Ben looked down at the screwdriver in his hands. It had transformed into a jagged, spiked piece of metal. He dropped it and stumbled towards Zee’s door. He raised his hand to knock, but the door slid open. Zee stood there, and when she saw him right outside she turned her face aside quickly.

“I just forgot to set the security system,” she said. She shouldered past him, but he touched her hand, warm, gentle. She stopped.

“Are you—”

“I’m fine,” Zee said, avoiding his eyes.

He reached up and brushed away some loose strands of her hair that had fallen over the bruise. He winced. “Sorry,” he said.

Zee gritted her teeth and shoved his hand away. “What are you sorry for?” she snapped.

“I—”

Zee stepped past him. She moved to the hangar’s entrance and pressed a few buttons on the security panel. The panel beeped a confirmation and when she turned around, her face had set back to expressionlessness.

Ben looked at his feet. “Why did she hit you?”

“Because I briefly forgot that she owns me,” Zee said, her voice even. “You and Rice lull me into a false sense of reality.”

Meeting her gaze, Ben shuffled. “Maybe reality is wrong.”

“You’re the dumbest person I’ve ever met,” Zee said, anger flashing in her eyes. “And a hypocrite. You jumped to Cyntha’s defense because she didn’t like what was happening to her, but you don’t stop to think if I like what you’re doing to me. I don’t want to be your friend. I don’t want to be Rice’s friend. I don’t like either of you. I don’t want my freedom or to be human. I just want to do my job and stay out of trouble, and I’ve had a really bad day in that regard. Excuse me.”

She stepped into her apartment, but Ben stepped inside after her and the door slid shut behind him. Zee spun around to face him, a thrill of fear speeding her heart. “Y-you can’t come in here,” she said. It wasn’t true. He could do whatever he wanted.

“Well, you can’t just run away after…”

Ben blinked and looked around. He looked at her tiny mirror, makeup masks stacked neatly in clear boxes, the straps that held her vertically when she slept, a partially open panel that housed her folded clothes. Neat writing labeled each panel and button.

Zee backed against the far wall of the tiny cylindrical room, but in the small space, that did not put much room between her and Ben. “You can’t be in here,” she said, angry tears welling in her eyes. “This is my private space.” They never came in her cylinder. Never ever. Her lip trembled. “Get out,” she said.

Ben’s gaze settled on her face and her tears. His jaw dropped. “Gods, sorry,” he said, the words cracking. Zee pressed herself against the wall, as far away from him as she could. “Uh.” Ben fumbled behind his back for the door, then turned and frantically searched for the button to open the door.

It slid open and he stumbled outside. Zee closed the door behind him.

 

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035 – Church of Guilt

Boss watched Zee out of the corner of her eye and tried to figure out what Ben saw in the analog besides a huge pair of fake breasts and weirdly shiny hair. Zee stood with perfect posture, hands gently folded in front of her despite her injuries, business suit crisp. Her stance adjusted as the elevator shuddered to a stop. A few people filtered past them and exited through the elevator doors as they slid open. Boss and Zee remained.

When she pictured his future as anything other than a violent death, Boss had always pictured Ben with someone more…earthy. Zee was like a star, cold and remote, but like a star seen from a distance, she lacked power. She had no personality, no will. Like all analogs. Just a pretty toy. Boss shook her head minutely. She hadn’t raised him to be so shallow.

After another stop, the elevator emptied. They were alone. Zee turned to her. “I thought you didn’t want Ben to fight in the Arena anymore,” she said. Boss blinked in surprise. The analog’s stance had shifted, relaxed. Her face became less cold, more human, flat blue eyes grew depth. It was as if a different person stood next to her.

Boss stared. “Huh?”

“You said you didn’t want him to fight. You made it clear and told me to report to you if he did,” Zee said. “Why did you change your mind? He’ll get hurt.”

Boss rolled her eyes. “I didn’t want him to fight for a pittance, get injured, and miss work that actually pays.”

She watched as Zee sifted through her words. Emotions flitted across the analog’s face like bird shadows across a field, then finally settled. She met Boss’s gaze. A feather of fear drifted through her eyes before the emotions scattered and she was nothing but a pretty, vacant toy again.

All she said was, “Right.” But the word felt heavy, bearing down on Boss’s shoulders. “What are we doing here?” Zee asked, the words vacantly cheerful.

The elevator slid open and Boss shook her head as she stepped into the hall. Zee blinked. Crosses lined the walls, rusted crosses, wooden crosses adorned in moss, tiny crosses of silver and gold, crosses made of railroad ties and fence posts. A collage of crosses. She caught up to Boss and followed closely behind. Boss looked over her shoulder and said, “We’re going to see if the church is interested in saving some souls.”

 

 

Earnest Weaver wore black, as required by the Church of the Cross. But he also liked black. He fiddled with a stylus and drew two circles next to each other on the large tab built into his desk. The older woman across from his desk talked. The younger remained silent, perfect. Analog. He added one dot in the middle of each circle.

Breasts.

He waved his hand and the older woman fell silent. “The Church would be happy to help you with your project, Ms.—”

“Call me Boss.”

“Ms. Boss—” Earnest began.

“No, just—”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Earnest, ignoring the woman’s frustration. “How much do you want?”

“Fifty credits per body,” the younger woman said with blank eyes.

Earnest frowned, his jowls scrunching. “Thirty-five,” he said.

“Forty-seven,” said the analog.

“Meet me in the middle,” Earnest said, smiling.

“No,” said the analog. “Forty-eight.”

Earnest sputtered. “Fine, fine forty-seven.”

“That is acceptable,” the analog said.

 

 

Zee stared at the elevator door. Boss cleared her throat and shifted next to her. “They aren’t as bad as Schull and Sons,” Boss said. “They don’t condone necrophilia and they don’t incite the factions to fight as much as Schull.”

Zee nodded.

“They also don’t pay as much,” said Boss with a grumble.

Zee nodded again, but she didn’t speak.

“If we didn’t sign up with them, Harmon would, and she would create a lot more bodies than we possibly could. Schull would pay more, but it wouldn’t feel right. This is how it is done in Rust.” The volume of her voice increased. “We have nowhere to grow food, so this is the best way. Bodies make compost. Why shouldn’t I get paid for the bodies Ben and Hideki’s fight might happen to make? I could make more if I went to Schull, but I’m not.”

“You’re making a sacrifice,” Zee said, unable to keep her words from snapping.

Boss slapped her hand across Zee’s face so hard it drove the smaller woman into the wall of the elevator. “You don’t have the right to judge me, robot.” The word dropped into the silence like a dead body falling on the floor, thunking heavily, rotten.

Clutching the side of her face with a hand, Zee pressed herself into the wall. She’d been hit before. Lessors could do whatever they wanted to analogs as long as they didn’t cause permanent damage. No reprisals. No penalties.

She knew what to do. She lowered her gaze, hunched her shoulders. “You’re right,” she gasped. “I’m so sorry.”

Boss huffed and stepped back. “Sorry. Stand up.”

Zee straightened and lowered her hand. She went back to staring at the elevator door, barely listening to Boss.

“You’ll need to cover that up, of course,” Boss gestured at her face.

“Yes, of course,” said Zee, words dull.

 

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034 – Deal

15:23

BenH: Hi, I have a business matter to talk to you about

15:55

BenH: It involves a nanoblade natural. You probably already know the situation

16:27

BenH: Thought you might be interested in someone who can burn people with their mind.

16:28

BenH: The governor wants to kill him, so…I dunno…I thought you might want him for something else

MadHarm: Yes

BenH: Yes?

MadHarm: I want him, and I want you.

BenH: Not me

MadHarm: Final offer. You and him. One time. Quadruple rate for both of you. Quintuple if you come somatic. You keep him for a week while I market the event

 

Boss grabbed the tab out of his hand. She read the messages. Its glowing screen set a blue cast to her face. She shrugged.

“I don’t see what the problem is,” Boss said.

“Well, besides the fact that we can’t trust Harmon,” said Rice.

“We don’t have any other choice,” said Zee. “Unless you plan on fighting Municipal on this. Which, if they’re backed by the governor, doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

Jun sighed. “Dude, it seems like my options are die horribly, or make a lot of money and possibly die horribly.” He shook his head. “Can’t I just…go, leave? You can say I overpowered you.”

“I doubt they’ll buy that,” said Rice, her voice grim.

“Dude, but there won’t be anything they can do about it,” said Jun. “I’ll be gone. What, are they going to kill all of you? I doubt they’d be able to do that so easily, man. You guys are sort of badass.”

Ben turned to Boss, who had remained quiet, staring at the tab screen. She glanced up at him from the texts. His shoulders slumped at the triumph in her eyes. She bent to the tab and began tapping the screen.

 

16:30

BenH: We accept your terms.

MadHarm: Wonderful. See you in a week. I’ll send along the details as I know them

 

“You’re not going anywhere,” Boss said to Jun. “Quintuple rate,” Boss said, gleefully. “For both of you.” She squirmed with excitement. “Zee work out a proper rate for our…partner.” She nodded at Jun. “We’ll extend the sublet until this is over. Rice, you’ll train them so they can fight without doing too much damage to each other.”

Ben sputtered in protest, but Rice spoke up first. “I’m sure you didn’t forget you’ll be paying me double,” she said quickly.

“Whatever,” said Boss, waving her hand dismissively.

“Er…triple?” said Rice.

Boss paused. “Don’t push it. Double is fine.” She grabbed Zee’s arm and pulled her along as she walked away.

“Where are we going?” asked Zee.

“To see if I can make this really pay,” she said.

 

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033 – Frequency of Fire

“So,” said the older woman. She shifted in her folding chair and placed her hands on the cheap table. Jun blinked and shivered in the bright lights of the hangar. Around them, Hexsuits gleamed.

Zee, sitting to his left, cleared her throat officiously. “Boss, this is Jun Hideki. Ben authorized a sublet to him at my insistence about an hour ago. Jun this is Boss. We need to discuss—”

“Boss?” Jun said. He sifted through the frequencies, fingers dancing in front of him. “Weird name, dude.”

“My title,” Boss said, her voice a grunt. “What the hell are you doing with your fingers?”

Jun paused, looking at the frequencies of their faces. “Trying to figure things out.”

“By playing air guitar?” said Ashtin Rice. She sat to the right of Boss, arms crossed, leaning back in her chair with her foot on the table.

“Frequencies,” said Benjamin. He sat on the other side of Zee. Jun raised his eyebrows and stared at the gray-eyed man.

“Yep,” said Jun, tapping his fingers on the table.

“Are you a somatic?” Ben asked. “Your eyes aren’t—”

“Nope,” said Jun. “I can see them naturally.”

Rice’s leaning chair jerked and she almost fell backward. She caught and steadied herself. “What?”

“Dude, I’m awe-nat-yoo-rale,” said Jun. “No Soma.”

“How is that possible?” said Rice, glancing towards Ben.

“Even the specialists at Talas use a little Soma,” he said.

“It’s not without precedence,” said Boss. “Jonathan Core was rumored to have found some naturals, and that led to his research in somatic ability and nanoblades. The naturals were the originators.”

Ben shook his head, pain flitting through his eyes for a moment. He ran a hand over his face as if to wipe it away. He made a fist on the table. “But,” he frowned in confusion. “Fire. How can you use fire? It’s too…” his eyes got distant, pupils constricting, “too fractured.”

“Like it exists in a few places at once?” Jun asked.

“Yeah,” said Benjamin.

Jun shifted excitedly in his chair, leaning closer. “Fire’s, like, not solid, you know. It’s a way of effecting things, not the thing itself. It’s an adjective, not a noun. Can apply to many things.”

“Huh?” said Ben.

“Yeah. I just know the specific way things burn,” said Jun.

“How many things?” Rice asked, shifting uncomfortably.

“A lot of things,” said Jun.

“People,” said Zee, accusingly.

“Well—”

“I only know a few metals,” Ben said.

“Can you see the others?” Jun asked, his voice excited.

“Not all of them, but a lot. And only because of the Soma,” Benjamin said with a wince. “They used to be like one giant blurry thread, all the strands too close together to pick out. The more I used Soma, the more I could pick out individual strands of frequencies.”

“Dude, your senses must be like negatory,” said Jun.

“Useless,” said Ben. “I can only see and hear because of implants.”

“Dude, that sucks,” said Jun.

“Tell me about it,” said Ben.

“Soma wrecks you,” said Jun. “Like totally. Soma is, like, the space between sleeping and waking, man.”

“Yes,” said Ben fervently. “It’s horrible.”

“So totally rude, dude,” said Jun.

“How do you still have your senses and use the frequencies?” Ben asked.

“Dude, I don’t,” said Jun.

“Wait,” said Rice, “you can’t smell or hear anything?”

“Not the way you do, man. I know all I know through the frequencies,” said Jun.

Ben blinked. “Woah,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Jun. “Can only touch fire though. I understand it, you know. Fire is chill.”

“And very handy,” said Ben.

“Man, not as handy as metal,” Jun said waving his arms. “You can like build stuff—”

“I hate to interrupt this fascinating nerd session,” said Rice loudly, “but we really should talk about how we are going to keep the governor from executing Jun.”

“I’m still not sure why we even care,” said Boss.

“I saw an opportunity for profit,” said Zee. “I’m convinced someone wants him alive. We just have to determine who and negotiate properly.”

“Dude, do I get a say in this?” asked Jun.

“You don’t have many options,” said Zee. “I’m pretty sure when they say they want to ‘apprehend’ you, they mean they want to kill you. My goal is to prevent your death and that is all. Once we can be certain they won’t kill you, we can go from there.”

“I was doing pretty well on my own,” said Jun.

“What was your plan? Escape to the Wilds?” Rice asked.

“Well, yeah,” said Jun.

Rice rolled her eyes. “That’s a great plan. Ever been camping?”

“Camping?”

“You know, living outdoors, living off the land?” Rice said. “Know how to catch your own food and build a shelter?”

“I figured I’d learn,” said Jun. They stared at him in silence. “Well, it was better than being apprehended,” he said.

Zee exhaled. “So who do we know who wants a powerful nanoblade user?” she asked.

“Oh,” said Ben, frowning in distaste. “I think I know.”

 

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