“It’s not too late, Meara. You can still change your mind. Let them get one of the guys to do this.”
“One of the guys already is doing this. Ya know Kyra’s upgrading William Talon while Nero’s doing me.” Meara snorted and stared. “I have to admit that ya’ve surprised me, Lucy. I figured I’d be hearing this kind of nonsense from Shiva’s Handmaiden.”
“It’s not nonsense—it’s common sense,” Lucy argued. “Consider what this could do to your life.”
“What life?” Meara asked. “Would it be the life we all lead waiting for that Creator X bastard to capture and warp another cyborg so he can send him or her to kill us all? Would that be the life yar speaking of?”
Lucy paced away. “I’m not your captain anymore. I know I can’t tell you what to do. But I also know what it’s like to have your entire identity fucked with until you don’t recognize yourself.”
Meara laughed at the idea of it getting any worse. “They took away my ability to do math and no one’s been able to give it back to me, so I do have some idea of the magnitude of change we’re talking about here. I haven’t been myself in a hell of a long time.”
Lucy nodded. “Yeah. Maybe you do.”
“Yar worrying for nothing, Lucy. Aja oversaw the programming of a duplicate set of chips guaranteed to restore me to being just as dumb as I am now. I trust Dr. Nero Bastion’s fine ass will be restoring my scrambled Humpty Dumpty one if the neural implants fail. Whatever the risks though, I gave my word and I’ve not changed my mind. The obsolete, hacked-up base code that Aja tweaked in the two of us is precisely why I’m a perfect candidate.”
“Bullshit. You’re doing this so Aja won’t. You stepped up before she could.”
Meara grinned. “Ya always were sharp. We both know Aja has a chance with Nero if she’s brave enough to take it. Maybe ya could give her a shove or two in that direction if things don’t work out for me. I love her like a sister, Lucy. If Aja’s happy, I’m going to be as well. Goddess knows, we all deserve to be.”
“We do,” Lucy agreed, thinking of her life with Eric. “That includes you too.”
“Well,” Meara said, chuckling at the idea. “If I can get my girly parts to stop lusting for married men, my chances might improve in that area.”
Lucy ran a hand through her hair. She stared at Meara. “That reminds me. I need to tell you something. I should have told you before, but… I forgot.”
“That’s a simple enough fix. Ya need to get Seetha to give yer processor a tune-up and do a file sort. It stings like a fecking hornet for a couple of minutes, but yer processor runs like a race car afterward.”
“No,” Lucy said, laughing at Meara’s advice. “I’m not actually forgetting. I meant I lied to you, but only to spare someone else I cared about. I was going to tell you what I’d done afterward but…”
“Ya forgot,” Meara finished for her. “I believe we covered that already. To which lie are ya referring, Lucy? I may have some have repenting of my own to do after yar done.”
Lucy blew out a breath. “Cassandra Talon—William’s wife—was my college roommate. She saved money for years and waited for Will to show up in the Cyber Husband program. They eventually told her Will was an unrecoverable cyborg, and to prove it, they showed Cassandra a video of Will brutally killing someone. It destroyed her. When she told me what she’d seen, I decided to find out what was going on. The military had already cost me my husband at that point. I wasn’t going to let it take my friends too.”
“Ya never said a word about yer reasons for being converted. Aja and I just thought it was a brave thing to do. That’s why we followed ya down the same path.”
Lucy shrugged. “I was naïve and stupid. I thought I could change things for Will once I understood what being cyborg meant. All I did was get a whole lot of women killed. I quickly lost my goal of rescuing Will and had to focus on trying to save what was left of us. I never thought of Will again until I saw him here.”
“Beating yerself up for the sins of yer enemy is a fecking waste of time, Lucy. What happened to us would have happened to others whether we’d been involved or not. I tell myself all that time I spent in cyber hell spared some other poor female. Most days I believe it too.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Lucy said, nodding in agreement. “What I’m trying to explain is that I lied to you about Will being married to spare his feelings—at least what he has left of them. Whatever he’s been through, Cassandra was right, it’s dramatically changed him as a person. He’s nothing like the man I knew. I’ve been meaning to ask you to help me look a little deeper into his history as a cyborg, but then this shit came up…”
Meara nodded. “Yeah, I get it. The timing sucked all around. As for looking into things, ya best be asking Aja for help with that. She’s the happy hacker, but I’d be more than happy to assist with any distractions ya might be needing.”
Lucy sighed in relief. “Thanks for not being mad at me.”
“Go on with ya. Life’s too fecking short. We both know just how short—plus I can appreciate ya trying to be kind to an old friend.”
When pacing became boring, Meara plopped down into a chair. Nero was prepping for her conversion and the man was nothing if not meticulously careful. Unfortunately, waiting had never been her best thing.
“So I’m guessing from yer story that William Talon’s wife believed that shit they showed her about him being a mad killer. I know the recordings they made of most cyborgs were very convincing. Marcus and Eric have shown me several of them.”
Lucy lifted a shoulder. “What choice did she have but to believe it? By the time I saw Will was here, I was starting to remember my past before my conversion a little better. I sent Cassandra an email asking for a chance to talk to her. She didn’t respond back to me, but my communication with her was received. I think it was deleted without being read. Apparently, Will isn’t the only cyborg Cassandra believed bad things about.”
Meara crossed her arms. “Goddess help me… hearing that crap makes me want to go kill all those UCN peckerheads who sanctioned that negative propaganda shit. You and Will did nothing wrong except be in the wrong fecking place at the wrong fecking time. If his wife doesn’t get that, then maybe he’s better off without her.”
Lucy shook her head. “Things are never that black and white. I’ve learned that lesson well. Before I sent the email, I found out Cassandra had her and William’s marital relationship dissolved about four years ago. She legally remarried some full human engineer who used to work for the military. Now her new husband works for the UCN.”
Meara sighed. “Poor William. He lost it all, didn’t he?”
“Yes. Will refused to contact Cassandra when I suggested it, even after I told him that she’d waited for him and planned to buy him if she could. My gut kept insisting Cassandra had a right to know the truth so I persuaded Kyra to call and explain. Kyra said Cassandra politely thanked her for the information and hung up without any real response.”
Meara frowned. “Aja and I have spent some considerable time looking at the current lives of all the cyborgs Kyra and Peyton have managed to free. Very few managed to return to anything resembling their previous human life before being converted. Most cyborgs have had to start completely over. If I think about it too long, I get pissed and violent. The whole fecking world believes all the bad things the UCN ever said about us. No one remembers that soldiers got converted to cyborgs in order to help win a fecking World War.”
Lucy crossed her arms and rocked in place. It seemed to be some new habit she was developing. “Reminiscing and resenting don’t change the past and that certainly wasn’t why I brought up my lie while we’re waiting for Nero. The point I wanted to make with my confession is that Will isn’t legally married to Cassandra anymore. He’s as much of a free man as he will let himself be. Unfortunately, I have no idea how he feels about Cassandra these days. He knows she’s remarried. He won’t talk about it with me—or even to Kyra or Peyton.”
Meara sighed in sympathy and was grateful she’d had no man in her life to lose. “I think it’s sadder for Will to lock it all away so hard, but on the other hand, I’m glad to know my hot guy radar didn’t fail me after all. He probably hasn’t been with a woman in years. Nero told us once that they can turn a person’s sexy off just like they cranked it up in us. He said it was just a matter of manipulating hormones correctly.”
“Nothing they can do surprises me. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth sooner. I guess I was shocked to find out Cassandra had taken those actions. She loved him so much that I figured she’d be one of the wives who waited no matter what. In hindsight, I should have encouraged you to take a run at him. You and Will both deserve some physical comfort. ”
Laughing, Meara shrugged. “No worries, Lucy Gal. It’s not like I’ve never bent the facts before. I understand yer reasoning for protecting William’s cute ass from the crazy Irish woman lusting for him. Ya were just helping an old friend, right?”
“Right,” Lucy said. “But you mean as much to me as William does. I never meant to hurt any friend in the process.”
“Hurt me?” Meara chuckled at the idea. “What’s left of my human ego is pretty much bulletproof. If he’d wanted to correct my misunderstanding of the situation, Will would have told me himself. His silence probably means he’s still married to her in what’s left of his screwed-up head. Any way ya turn the details, the man’s still off-limits.”
There was a knock on the door just before Seetha stuck her head inside the room. She looked at both of them before her gaze landed on Meara. “Nero’s ready. I’m going to assist him so I can learn about the neural connections. Rachel going to be observing as well. Are you ready to go, Meara?”
Meara put her hands on her hips and nodded. “Yeah. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Let’s get this shit over with.”
In the hallway, a quiet Aja leaned against the wall.
“Eavesdropping on me again?” Meara demanded. “Ya know I hate that shit, Aja.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Eavesdropping would imply that you and Lucy might be saying something interesting and worth hearing. You can set those concerns aside, Irish. Given the conditions of both your broken minds, the chances of that happening are exceedingly small.”
“Goddess, I hope Nero’s changes fix me up good and proper. Yer spiteful brown ass is going to be the first one I kick when I’m improved.”
“Calm yourself, Irish. You don’t want to get all worked up before Nero starts tweaking your brain,” Aja said, straightening her spine. “I got here two seconds ago. I just wanted to see you before…”
Her speech was cut off by Meara hugging her tightly. Aja swallowed hard and hugged back with all her strength. “We’ve come through too much for me to lose you now, you red-headed devil. If you want to save Dr. Cyberstein’s fine brown ass from death and destruction, you better come out of this redefinition alive and being the same smart-ass you are now.”
“I’ll be better than alive,” Meara said brightly, pulling away to look into her friend’s concerned gaze. “I’m going to become the next evolution of us, Aja. And at least this time no one is dragging one of us down a hall to get upgraded in some cyber-hack’s lab. I’m actually walking to meet my upgraded cybernetic destiny all on my fecking own. Is this some strange shit or what?”
The three of them stared at Seetha standing a short distance down the hall holding open the door to the cyber lab where the procedure was going to be done.
Meara lifted her chin and looked at the two women she loved above all others. “Promise me something…” she began.
“No. I’m not sleeping with Nero Bastion just because you think I should, Meara. Let it go. That silly idea of yours is not related to the risk you’re about to take. Can you not take life seriously for a single moment?” Aja demanded.
Meara burst out laughing. She looked at Lucy who winked and smiled. She looked back at Aja. “I was intending to make ya and Lucy promise to always be there for each other if things don’t work out for me. What ya secretly want to do to the delicious Dr. Bastion is yer own fecking problem. Just don’t be distracting the man with yer perfect tatas until he puts all the nuts and bolts back in my head.”
“Sometimes I hate you, Irish,” Aja said.
Meara grinned and headed down the hall. “I know, and sometimes ya love me just as much I love ya back. Mind yer temper, Aja. And seriously… take care of Lucy. Eric tries, I know, but ya know how men are. They get ya off, get themselves off, and then go on about their business while forgetting about saving yer ass from the bad guys. We female cyborgs have to stick together.”
Meara disappeared inside the room and refused to look back. If she went to meet her maker today, so be it. She’d loved in this life. She’d lost more than most should. She’d fought the good fight to survive and managed to do so. In the end, wasn’t that the best any human—or cyborg—could do?
“Are you ready, Meara?” Nero asked.
Meara shrugged and walked to the chair. She slid up into it, willing her queasiness away. Across the room, a concerned Rachel looked away from her, but she couldn’t worry about the girl either. Climbing into a cyber operating chair was never, ever going to feel natural or like a smart thing to do. She was proud of herself for not puking out of fear.
“Ya better not damage me, Dr. Cyberstein. I’m all that’s keeping Shiva’s handmaiden from killing yer cute ass.”
Nero snorted. “Yes. So I’ve been warned at least fifty times today.”
Meara chuckled. “I love that woman like a sister and would kill for her in a heartbeat. Now ya know how we survived all those years.”
“There is no need for killing today,” Nero said as he fastened the restraint bands on his side of the chair while Seetha secured them on the other. “I’m going to exceed your expectations, Meara MacDonald.”
“Good. Maybe ya can give me a pair of perky boobs like Aja’s while yer making yer changes.”
“Your physical appearance will not change dramatically, but your musculature…”
“Shush with that kind of talk,” Meara said firmly interrupting him, mostly to see the stunned look on his face. She smiled as he stared blankly at her, but she heard Seetha and Rachel both quietly snickering. “Don’t be dashing my hopes, Nero. At least let a cyborg woman dream.”
“Very well. May you have all good dreams then,” he said, bowing his head to her.
Charming bastard, Meara thought, as she heard the shutdown command being issued—the one command no cyborg could refuse to obey when uttered by their human programmer.
For the first time since her original conversion, Meara let the cybernetic oblivion claim her without a fight.