“I hate space,” said Ben, his eyes never leaving his work. A tungsten carbide screw driver morphed into a pry bar in his hand. He gently pried off a panel on the back of the Hexsuit chassis. It lay on a table in a warehouse filled with Hexsuits. He had finally stopped puking, but it had taken being in a steady gravity with no view of space for over an hour. Zee hadn’t returned from the bathroom.
“Welcome to the club,” said Rice, her mouth twitching. “It was pretty funny though. You should have seen Zee’s face.”
Ben grimaced. “I did,” he said, his voice quiet. He set the panel aside. Rice twisted her mouth to hide her smile and patted his shoulder. Ben sighed and stepped back from the Hexsuit. “It’s never been so bad before.”
“Yeah, the deadening is getting worse,” he said. “Effecting my balance.”
Rice shrugged. “You don’t seem any more or less graceful than usual.”
“I think the only reason I’m not staggering around like a drunk is the Soma instinct,” said Ben. “But instinct doesn’t expect reduced gravity and a view like the one in the atrium.” He clenched his mouth shut and breathed through his nose for a moment at the memory.
“Well,” Rice said looking up at the rows and rows of Hexsuits awaiting Ben’s maintenance. “We’re going to be here a while. You’ll have to get used to it.”
The door at the end of the hangar clanged open and a large man in a crisp military uniform stepped inside, followed by Zee and Cyntha. A man and a woman wearing the simple black jumpsuits of security officers followed after them. Metal studs lined their earlobes and nostrils. The woman had a metal stud in her eyebrow and lip as well and wore shining bangles on her wrists. Metal gauntlets peeked from beneath the man’s cuffs.
“Shit,” Ben said under his breath. Rice looked at him.
“You know those two?” she asked.
“You do too,” Ben said.
Rice narrowed her eyes past the military man, Cyntha, and Zee. “Ah, shit,” she said. “Why are they here?”
“Standard Maintenance!” the man with the lapels said, his voice booming and echoing around the Hexsuits. “Good, you’ve already gotten started.” He held out his hand to Ben, and the younger man gripped it. The military man grinned widely, pumping Ben’s hand up and down. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Havoc,” he said.
“Or should I call you the Wolfblade?”
“Uh, the what?” Ben asked, looking mystified.
Rice rolled her eyes. “Remember that time in Lost Angeles?”
Ben’s gray eyes widened, and his cheeks reddened. He released the military man’s hand and glanced at Zee, and then dropped his gaze to the floor. “That, uh, that was an accident,” he said, stuttering.
“Don’t be modest,” said the military man. “Firenze and Tegan, here,” he pointed at the black-clad man and woman next to him, “have told me all about your exploits. You could call me a fan.” Ben frowned unhappily, his gaze flitting to them.
Rice nudged Ben aside. “And you’re Sheldon Baker, right? Or should I call you Baker the Butcher? Can I have your autograph?”
Baker smiled, showing his teeth. “You must be Ashtin Rice.” He gripped Rice’s hand firmly. “I’m not sure if you know, but we met once.”
Rice smiled winningly. “Oh, I know.” They traded a handshake that looked more like an arm wrestle and smiled at each other with snarling eyes until Zee cleared her throat. Rice released Baker’s hand first and stepped back.
“Your business liaison has made sure your contract is in order. We still have a few terms to discuss,” Baker said, his gaze glinting and scraping over Zee’s body. She looked away from him, disgust flashing in her eyes. Baker didn’t notice. “You may continue working if you wish after my security officers have made their assessment.” He gestured toward Firenze and Tegan.
Firenze, a tall dour man with silver hair and a scar across his nose, shifted his cold expression to Ben. “It seems like Standard Maintenance is moving up in the world if they can afford a business liaison,” he said, his voice cool and slightly raspy.
“Maybe we are,” Rice said, fists on her hips. “Is Talasc still puttering around in the desert, killing people? I’m surprised you could get such respectable jobs.”
Tegan sneered, her coppery ponytail twitching. “It’s not as respectable as being a janitor, right?”
Firenze placed a restraining hand on Tegan’s arm, and he spoke to Ben. “Aletha has increased the reward for killing you,” he said. “Your betrayal to the Conclave still irks her.”
Rice tensed, but Ben gave Firenze a tight smile and scratched his eyebrow. “Don’t hear too much of that gossip down at Standard.”
Firenze’s jaw clenched, but he didn’t move. Tegan’s hand twitched at her side. Metal flashed and widened, forming a long knife in her hand. “You’ll be hearing more of it if you continue at the Rust Arena,” she said, curling a strand of coppery hair around her finger, twirling the knife in her other hand.
Zee cleared her throat and stepped between the nanoblade users, putting her back to Ben. “You said you only wanted to complete an assessment,” she said. “Now you’ve done that. My crew poses no threat to Helioset.” She eyed the knife in the woman’s hand and glanced at Captain Baker. “If anything, it is your security officers who pose the threat. Maybe the corporations would like to hear about Helioset’s rude treatment of contractors and guests.”
Captain Baker pressed his chin to his chest and had the decency to look ashamed. “I see your point,” he said.
“But—” Tegan began, stepping toward Zee, the knife still in her hand.
Metal exploded from Ben and swirled violently in the air. A ring of tungsten carbide gripped Tegan’s wrist, bending her arm away from Zee and forcing her to drop the knife. A shard of diamond edged platinum materialized against Tegan’s throat. Firenze blinked, but a shard had materialized at his throat as well. Ben stood tense next to Zee, gasping through the effort of controlling so much metal. His pupils dilated to points, teeth bared at the two security officers.
Everyone stood frozen for a minute. Captain Baker and Cyntha stared at the scene, eyes wide with shock. “Uh,” Rice said. “Ben, buddy, what’s the plan here?” He didn’t move, but the metals tightened against Tegan and Firenze’s throats. Blood welled from the points of metal.
Zee recovered from her shock and rounded on him, eyes blazing. “What on Earth are you doing?!” she screamed at him. “Let them go this instant.” Ben turned to her, surprise on his face, but he didn’t have time to obey. She raised her bag and smashed it down on his head. The metal weapons threatening the security officers dissolved and Ben raised his arm to defend himself.
“Ow,” he said. Zee grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the door of the maintenance hangar.
“We need a minute,” she shouted over her shoulder at the stunned group. She dragged him to the door, yanked it open, and shoved him out into the hall.
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