“Outside of the constant buzzing in my head, I can’t really tell any difference in myself. Can you?”
Will studied the chattering magpie. Lucy had dropped her off with him to wait for Kyra and Nero to come to discuss their upgrades and report about how their procedures went. Meara had yet to stop talking. In fact, it seemed all the woman did was talk.
“Ya don’t have to tell me details, ya know. Ya just can tell me to hush. Aja does it all the time. I’m not offended. I’m mostly just trying not to dwell on whatever news Kyra and Nero have to tell us.”
He supposed it wouldn’t kill him to make conversation while they waited. He was a bit apprehensive too. “I can open electronically locked doors now.”
Meara laughed. “Lucy, Aja, and I have been able to unlock electronic doors since we were converted. Ironically, all it takes to restrain us is a good old-fashioned keyed padlock. Afraid that wasn’t an upgrade for me. Honestly, I don’t know what the hell, Dr. Cyberstein did. I don’t feel violated or anything though—not saying that. He’s not that kind of doctor plus Seetha and Rachel were in the room the whole the time.”
“It’s Aja’s pet name for Nero when she’s feeling urges she doesn’t want to be feeling for him. She insults him until they start calling each other names in their native tongue. Then it’s all filthy goat fucker and daughter of a dirty vagina insults filling the room. It’s highly entertaining, but way better if ya learn some basic Hindi so ya can translate.”
“I see.” No, he didn’t, but Will lifted his face to hers. All he saw was red hair, curious eyes, and lips that never stopped moving. Meara had the energy of a two-year-old and about as much self-control. “What kind of upgrades did you expect to get?”
“I don’t know,” Meara said, thinking hard about it. “I suppose I expected something grand that would make other cyborgs jealous of my new amazing talents.”
Snorting over her illogical answer, Will shook his head. “You’re probably a lot stronger. I’ve discovered I’m stronger. I was able to break my cyber operating chair restraints with very little effort.”
Dejected now, Meara didn’t bother sharing that she already had that ability too. Nor did she bother to tell him that she and Aja could each lift at least ten times their own weight. The somber Captain William Talon was dense and uninformed, but telling him so would just be mean.
“Yeah, William. That’s what every girl dreams of—being stronger than all the men she dates. Like it isn’t hard enough to get laid being a lady cyborg. The last thing I want is any male—human or cyborg—thinking I’m going to break him riding cowgirl.”
“You wanted upgrades that would help you with men?” Will asked, incredulous at the thought.
Meara chuckled. “Goddess no, I’m not that shallow—I don’t think. But why couldn’t Nero have given my tatas an extra size or two? That wasn’t too much to ask considering I volunteered for the neural enhancements, now was it?”
One corner of his mouth lifted in derision. She’d lost him again, but that was no real surprise. It seemed a normal thing for Meara to confuse people listening to her.
“Tatas?” Will asked while telling himself he was a fool for doing so.
“Sorry. Tatas was girl speak. I was talking about my breasts,” Meara said, cupping hers in both hands. “I asked Nero to make them a bit bigger. As ya can see, he refused.”
Will was speechless for a second or two, then found his gaze dropping to her hands and what she was holding. His mouth wanted to twitch. His hands wanted other things. Nothing in his pants jumped to life, but his mind went places it hadn’t in years. He wondered what the hell was happening, but at the same time, he didn’t want to know.
His confusion was epic. Had Kyra done something to intensify his human reactions?
“You’re adequate enough in the breast area,” he said with all the sincerity he possessed.
“Adequate enough,” Meara repeated, rolling her eyes high. “Well, thank ya Lord Smooth tongue for damning me with yer faint praise. Bet that gift of understatement ya got going on there isn’t very effective in the bedroom. I can explain why to ya if ya want to know. I feel like I owe it to the next lesser endowed woman and her small boobs.”
“I didn’t mean…” Will stopped his defense when Meara suddenly laughed at his extreme discomfort. Damn the chatty woman for emotionally baiting him. “What I said wasn’t meant as an insult and you know it. I was trying to make you feel better about your body.”
Meara giggled at his forlorn expression. “I guess I should be grateful yar being honest about my assets. As long as a woman is willing to drop to her knees, most blokes will tell her anything she wants to hear to keep her there—true or not.”
“I’m not most blokes,” Will said tightly, forcing the strange phrase out through clenched teeth and a nearly locked jaw.
“Yeah. I suppose I knew that without ya informing me. My instincts are pretty good. Aja says I’m too trusting when it comes to men, but if ya walk around being fearful of the opposite sex all the time, yar not going to get much pleasure from bedding them.”
Since he hadn’t followed what she’d said, and had no idea why she was telling him anything about her views on sex, Will saw no reason to even try to respond. The door opening to let Peyton, Kyra, and Nero into the room gave him a welcome reprieve.
“How are you two feeling?” Kyra asked.
Will met Kyra’s concerned stare head-on. “My diagnostic checks show no issues with the upgrades.”
Meara looked at him. “Really? That’s yer answer to her question about how ya feel?” She looked at Kyra and snorted. “Outside of the buzzing in my head, I feel about the same as I did before Nero tweaked me. What am I supposed to be feeling?”
Smiling to hear them still sounding like themselves, Kyra sat tiredly at the table and folded her hands across their folders. “The buzzing in your heads is your new neural network processor scanning and making all the connections it can. When you’re fully connected to everything electronically unique within its substantial half-mile radius range, the buzzing should subside to an occasional hum that you should able to easily ignore.”
“Everything you said is pretty vague to me, Doc. What exactly are we connecting to?” Will asked.
Meara turned to look at him. “Have ya been playing ostrich, William? Surely yer familiar with Evil Brad’s takedown.”
“I assume you’re referring to Bradley 360, the rogue cyborg sent to kill Lucy.”
“Yes. His neural processor let him wirelessly control over forty Norton AI guards which Evil Brad had turned into his own personal army. Though I’m sure when the new network in yer head gets done, yar at least going to be able to set yer alarm clock without going home. Now isn’t that exciting too?” Once again she turned to Kyra. “How do we filter out the things that aren’t necessary for us to be connecting to daily? I’m assuming there are limits of some sort.”
“Limits are unknown. You will be gaining that information for us as you use your new abilities. In the meantime, put connections you deem unnecessary into a long-term storage file with access shortcuts. Keep only the ones you want to maintain access to out in the front. You should be able to sort the data just as you sort data now. Your neural network is partly controlled by your regular processor.”
Will turned a glare to Meara. “How can you talk about nonsense nonstop and still know so damn much about everything important?”
Meara tilted her head and stared at Will until her mouth started to twitch. To keep from laughing at his irritated surprise, she turned to Nero and grinned. “Do ya think Will’s suggesting I shut the feck up? Help me out here, Nero. I’ve never been good at dealing with irritated men.”
“Oh no, leave me out of this particular debate, Meara. I know there is no logical way to win any debate with you,” Nero ordered.
Meara laughed and waved a hand. “Yer probably right, Nero. I’m sure Lucy and Aja would say the same.” She looked at the handsome man now glaring at her. “I’m sorry, Will. Please… ask yer serious questions. I’ll be as quiet as a library patron ya’ve shushed.”
Beyond the anger Meara’s snarkiness caused him to feel, Will saw Peyton working hard to hide a smile behind his hand. He knew the Marine captain well enough by now to know it was a sure sign the man thought he was being an ass, even if a funny one. “It was just an observation. Sorry if I sounded too emphatic. You’re obviously more informed about the details of certain recent events than I am.”
Meara grinned. “Whoa… listen to ya. That was nearly an apology. Don’t worry though, I won’t be telling anyone.”
Will held up a hand to stop her before she got wound up. “Explain Bradley 360’s takedown.”
“The details of those events are as clear in my mind as they were the day they happened. And I believe the reason ya might be missing a few of the details is that ya were lying on the ground incapacitated by that supersonic whistle Evil Brad used on all the cyborgs before I shot the fecking thing out of his hand with an arrow. Based on Lucy’s calculations and warnings, Aja and I had managed to put ourselves out of its sonic range. All we had to do after that was take down his AI army. We did that by taking down Evil Brad, the controller. Aja did the actual honors.”
Meara turned to Kyra and gave her the most serious look she could muster. “Will’s already figured out that ya gave him skills like the New World Companions got from the get-go. Tell us what we don’t know about our tweakings today.”
“Nero and I feel it’s best for you to learn them slowly. I will tell you both that I used the blueprint of your New World Companion neural processor to make Will’s. I wanted the two of you to be a match for ease of upgrades,” Kyra said.
“Fecking A—did ya hear that, Will?” Meara demanded, reaching out and grabbing Will’s arm.
She ignored his flinching and his attempts to draw away. Meara was a toucher and he needed to get used to it. Missions would be impossible if Will was going to tense up every time she got close. And from what Lucy had deduced, the two of them were prototypes created precisely for the purpose of doing what others couldn’t.
“I can’t believe we’re sharing code now. It’s like we got cybernetically married or something. But don’t worry, I’m sure sharing code doesn’t mean ya will be talking nonstop nonsense any time soon. Aja and I shared code for years and that never happened to her.”
Will peeled Meara’s surprising strong fingers away from his bicep. The chatting magpie was many times stronger than she looked. “Sharing code is not like being married. That’s ridiculous.”
Meara leaned back in her chair. “Well, of course, it is. That’s why everyone laughed when I said it… well, everyone except the humor-challenged person in the room. I hope I didn’t embarrass ya with my little joke.”
Knowing now that glaring wouldn’t slow her down, or change her warped personality, Will asked Kyra the one question that concerned him most. “How much of my past is going to continue to leak through?”
Kyra shrugged. “Cyborgs always ask that question, but all Nero and I see are files and bits. The data might offer a tiny label at times, but it’s not like we see everything. In simpler terms… your guess is as good as mine, Will. Time will determine it for you as memories return. Only then will you discover what you discarded over the years and what you kept. Peyton tells me you had some recall of the past immediately following the upgrade.”
Will nodded. “I did, but it was only two episodes. Since I have an instantaneous recollection of those details still, my conclusion is that they were stored as organic memories.”
“I would agree with you. Do you need to talk to a counselor about them?”
“Feck no, he doesn’t,” Meara said firmly, her hand on his arm again. “Will here is as rock steady as a cyborg could possibly be without someone mistaking him for a freaking statue. He’s put up with my nervous conversing and never even raised his voice.”
Meara’s instant defense on his behalf caught Will off-guard. The woman seemed to effortlessly unbalance him. But she was right about the headshrinker. The last thing he intended to do was submit again to a more civilized brainwashing by someone who would be looking for anything that could be used to declare him unstable. He got plenty of that sort of counseling right after Kyra did his initial restoration. He’d had to lie his ass off then—which was painful to do as a cyborg—just to keep the fucking psychiatrist from locking him away for good.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Meara, but I can handle this one myself,” Will said, gently peeling her fingers off him again. He turned to Kyra. “I was just wondering if those two instances would be all I recalled. I suppose I’m hoping they will be.”
Kyra nodded. “Quite understandable,” she agreed softly. She looked down the table at Nero. “Jump in here anytime. I don’t want to say more until we start their training.”
Nero leaned forward. “We are opting to slowly help you turn on each new feature you have received so you can master them one at a time. Some of your new abilities will cause you to experience a sense of euphoria that could easily lead to a corrupted human ego. There were extraordinarily high amounts of adrenaline and dopamine present in Bradley 360 at the time of his death. These amounts would cause heart failure, stroke, and other breakdowns in full humans. In cyborgs, they cause other problems. Given Bradley’s statements during the assault, his chemical imbalance probably felt normal to him, but in reality, we know it manifested as extreme egomania. That physical and mental state combined with the neural control of his environment made him a dangerous, reckless enemy.”
“Egomania? Is that what’s happening to Meara? It would explain so much.” The insult was out of his mouth before Will thought about how his words would be taken by the woman who’d just jumped to his defense. Shit. He ran a hand over his face as he considered how to apologize.
Meara crossed her arms. “Is that yer idea of a joke, Will? If so, yer comedy routine could use more polishing. Nobody laughed.”
Despite his mounting chagrin over his loss of control, which was manifesting as a creeping flush up his neck and over his face, Will surprisingly felt a genuine smile tugging at his lips. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d found amusement in his own irrational behavior, much less the last time he’d swapped insults with anyone he wasn’t in the process of killing.
Of course, the day wasn’t over yet.
“You’re probably right, Meara. Maybe you can give me comedy lessons.”
“Maybe I can,” Meara said sharply, arching a brow.
“If I could get your attention back for just a few moments more,” Nero said, interjecting himself in the middle of their debate.
Meara held William’s gaze as she inclined her head in Nero’s direction. “I don’t know what Aja sees in him. Nero just loves to fecking lecture and usually in words ya can’t understand. I have a file I keep just so I can look up all his big words later. I can pass ya the notes after this one if ya like.”
Will laughed out loud, surprising both of them—and from the looks of stunned shock on the surrounding faces—he’d surprised everyone else in the room too. Even Nero stopped glaring at Meara to stare at his reaction.
Meara’s smile was wide as she leaned closer. “Where the feck have ya been hiding the best of yerself all this time, William Talon? That smile of yers was certainly worth the work to bring it to light, Captain Serious.”
Will drew himself up to avoid the sudden urge he had to seal the smartass corporal’s mouth shut with his.
Seeing Will pull into himself, Meara realized she’d teased him too much—or been too honest. Whatever. The man was so sensitive. She leaned back in her seat and looked at Nero. “Sorry, Dr. Bastion. I was just having some fun with Will because he’s so easy to rile up. Go on with yer lecture now. We’re both paying attention. We really do want to know what Kyra and ya did to us.”
Nero nodded, still staring at Will. Finally, he pulled his gaze away. “As I was saying…”