Meara flopped down on the couch to pout. She didn’t pout often, but today it seemed like the only reaction possible. She lifted her hand to wave at the giant com station she’d broken down and bought with her cyber soldier back pay from the UCN. Aja’s desire for a large screen had precluded her normal means of acquiring the lush furnishings of their shared apartment. A tiny woman walking off with something that large would have drawn all kinds of attention no matter how it easily she could have carried it.
Meara considered her acquisition habit to be liberating certain needed items from owners who couldn’t sell them anyway. Owners, she always reminded Aja, that would profit far more from collecting insurance on what had gone missing than any bargain or sale that showed a loss. Aja called what she did stealing and said they didn’t need to do it any longer. Meara thought that was sad because she’d always been fecking good at it.
“Will you stop pouting like a child? That frown makes it hard to look at your face.”
Meara held up both hands and then pointed to the seat. “Did ya not just see what I did, Aja? I haven’t moved once since I sat down. Yer Dr. Cyberstein turned me into a fecking com remote.”
Aja grinned at Meara’s complaining. “You’re being impatient. That can’t be all. The procedure was too dangerous to risk yer brain for something so minor.”
Meara pointed at the screen, turned it on, and scanned to find the cooking channel. Normally it soothed her to watch it. Today it only pissed her off. She clicked it off without no more than a thought.
“Aja, my brain is communing with a fecking com station. I feel its energy like I’m part of it. Goddess forgive me if I’m being arrogant, but I fecking know I was meant for more than this lame shit.”
Aja’s laughter normally delighted Meara. Like Captain Serious—which was a perfect name for Will—her sister cyborg didn’t smile often, much less laugh. Normally, she had to work her fecking ass off to amuse Aja Kapur.
Today though… she wasn’t feeling in the least proud of getting a laugh out of Aja.
“I’m glad ya think it’s so funny that I can do tricks for yer amusement. I’m depressed as hell.”
Aja’s larger butt landing next to hers bounced Meara on the new couch Aja had bought with her UCN blood money. Fecking bastards. The UCN chancellors and directors were all bastards.
They were the reason the world hated cyber soldiers. Everything the United Coalition of Nations did was to line the pockets of those sitting on the board—save Kyra who they kept waffling about making an official member.
Bastards, they all were. Meara knew she would delight in any opportunity to kill every one of them. If there was any justice in this world, that would be a mission she’d gladly take on.
“Chin up, Irish. Your whining made me so desperate that I called friends to come to see you.”
“Aww… tell me ya didn’t, Aja. I’m not in the mood for entertaining blokes… in bed or out.” Meara didn’t like the way Aja suddenly smiled at her. Shiva’s handmaiden wasn’t above carrying out her own amusing machinations.
“Hush, Irish. I have thanked my gods that you came out of that procedure today and stayed your contrary, aggravating self. It seemed appropriate to celebrate with friends and fun. It will make you feel more… normal.”
“Friends? What friends? Who the feck is coming?” A knock on the door sounded. Meara closed her eyes. “Oh, fecking hell, they’re here,” she whispered while Aja laughed again. Then suddenly Meara knew who was outside. “Lucy and her boy toy? That’s who ya called to cheer me up?”
Aja stopped on her way to the door. “Yes. You can actually tell who’s there?”
Meara nodded. “Nero and Kyra must have cloned Lucy’s ability to do it and gave it to me. I can access their identification and even get a quick scan of their cybernetic abilities. Not too shabby a trick, I guess.”
“See?” Aja declared. “You have many hidden talents, Dumbass.”
“See? Dumbass?” Meara mocked sarcastically, glaring at Aja’s back.
Lucy hugged Aja when they entered. Eric passed Aja two bottles of something which Aja took to their kitchen. Meara wondered if there was any oblivion in the bottom of either of them. It took a lot to get a cyborg drunk.
Lucy walked to the couch and sat. “Aja said you were depressed about today. I thought it all went well. Kyra and Nero seemed quite pleased.”
“I’m just fecking bummed that they didn’t tell us much. No worries. I’ll get over it.”
Eric came into the room and tossed a folder onto Meara’s lap. “Maybe this will help.”
“What’s this?” Meara asked, lifting the folder.
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing… and that’s going to be my story if you ever rat me out,” Eric said.
Meara looked at the twinkle of love in Lucy’s eyes as her friend laughed and made a kissing face at Eric. His satisfied grin had Meara wondering what favors Lucy had done for the man to merit such a sexy look. Eric was a natural rule bender like them, but only when it served his own purposes, not that Lucy seemed to mind being Eric’s motivation to bend things a bit.
Amusing herself with thoughts of Lucy and Eric’s sex life now instead of bemoaning her lack of one, Meara opened the folder and began to read. She leaned forward as she skimmed the pages. The third one left her gasping.
“This is unbelievable. Aja… come. Read this,” she pulled a page free of the folder to hand to the woman who was like a sister to her. “Can this be true?”
Aja skimmed the code, her eyes widening. “I don’t know.”
Meara’s eyes scanned the room. “It’s not instantly there. There has to be some trigger, right?”
Nodding, Aja went back to reading. “I can’t find the trigger in the code, but in Nero’s notes, he mentions concerns about overwriting and the potential loss of your newfound instincts. He’s installed a special chip that can potentially use your non-neural processor if or when needed for computations. He says the feature will hopefully function much like a real brain would in choosing to work out a complex task. The potential success of you being able to access it on demand is estimated at fifty-two percent.”
Aja lowered the paper. “That’s not very high in terms of coding success, Meara. Chances of malfunctions are huge at anything under ninety percent. Fifty-two percent is fairly random for programmed responses.”
“Oh,” Meara said, more disappointed than she had thought she could be by the news. “Guess I should be grateful he at least tried to fix my lack of math for me.”
Lucy put an arm around her and hugged. “Screw the percentages. Have faith in your human side, Meara. Good instincts have served you better than any cybernetic ability all the years you were on the run. Nero was right to make sure you kept your instincts. They kept you and Aja alive all those years.”
Meara nodded, knowing faith alone was not going to restore anything, but she didn’t want to bring her friends down with her worsening mood. She looked at both Eric and Lucy. “Thank ya for bringing this to me. Did ya get Will’s too?”
“Why in the world would I download data on Captain Army Rules?” Eric asked with a snort. “Anyone operating that much by a military book would rat me out for sure. When it comes to males, I only trust other Marines. They know how to flex and bend as needed.”
Snickering, Meara felt herself smiling. “I get yer reluctance and agree with yer opinions, but I’d have loved to know what Will’s capable of doing before he does. It would give me an edge on a man who I’m fairly sure thinks I’m daft as a loon.”
Eric grinned. “Well, I might have printed out a few pages on him too…. and maybe I slipped them behind yours.”
Meara flipped ahead and found them. “Wonderful. Thank ya from the bottom of my human heart, Eric. Yer a true friend indeed.” She smiled wide and lowered the folder again. Her mood was rising finally. She grinned at Eric. “Now what was in those interesting bottles ya brought with ya?”
Eric smiled. “It’s a little something King says will give even the most stoic cyborg a happy buzz.”
“Perfect,” Meara said. “Fecking perfect. A buzz is just what I need tonight.”
Lucy stared at Meara while Aja swore beside her. She’d seen a lot of strange things since she’d been restored, but this was surreal.
“Look, Lucy. This is called Step Dancing. It’s from the twentieth century when my homeland was still called Ireland. It’s the dance of working class people who were being oppressed by the Britons and forced to work in factories. I think all cyborgs should learn this. It could be our freedom dance after we get restored.”
Aja snorted. “I obviously wasn’t paying enough attention to her. Eric said he tried to slow her down but she drank nearly a whole bottle by herself. How could she possibly have retained anything she read in that condition? I had two sips and my head started spinning.”
“More than one beer and my cybernetics get wonky,” Lucy said, agreeing.
Meara’s merry laughter lit up the night, as did the housing’s security lights in the backyard of the apartment house where Aja and Meara lived. The other residents were all cyborg so they peeked out their windows, saw Lucy, and promptly returned inside. Lucy’s rogue reputation was well known among those cyborgs who taken jobs with Norton and lived in Norton properties like the one housing Meara and Aja.
Normally, they wouldn’t have even bothered to check. The building’s on-duty AI guards would have already taken measures to stop any illegal outdoor festivities going on this late, but that wasn’t happening tonight.
Meara currently had control of the on-duty guard bots and the two replacements who’d come off standby. All four guard bots were dancing with her while she hummed some strange tune as loudly as she could. The four AIs were the latest models off Norton’s most elite line—droids expressly designed to deal with cyborgs—at least sober ones without neural processors.
“The last time Meara got this inebriated, she had bought a black market hallucinogenic and smoked it before I could stop her. Can’t you do that super command on her that takes her out of action?” Aja asked.
“Already tried. Nero must have killed the capacity for it to work. Since it didn’t affect you either, I assume he did that during your restorations.”
Aja sighed. “Well, I guess that’s a good thing from one point of view. If you can’t use it on us, maybe no one else can either.”
“We could always knock Meara out physically, but…” Lucy looked around and sighed. “I don’t want to fight her in full view of all the residents. That’s only going to make them fear me more. And who knows how Meara will respond with her enhancements? She could end up kicking our asses.”
Aja shrugged and swore again. “I suppose she’ll tire and pass out eventually. Where did Eric disappear to?”
Lucy chuckled and grinned. “He’s carrying out my backup plan. I sent him to get us help.”
“Help? Knowing Eric, he’ll bring back one of Peyton’s cannon blasters to use on her. He thinks like a man.”
“No, I told him this situation needs to be handled carefully. We don’t know what Meara might do in drunken retaliation or even what she’s capable of. That list of features was pretty vague.”
Aja lifted a black eyebrow and studied Lucy’s unconcerned smile. “I know that look on your face, Lucy. You sent Eric to find a patsy hoping Meara won’t get mad at us and try to get even if we knock her out.”
Lucy broke down and laughed. “Why, Aja Kapur, do you really think I’d do that to a fellow Army Captain who is Meara’s only cyborg equal at this time?”
“If you mean the newly upgraded William 874X, I know I would,” Aja said with a smile. “Kudos, Lucy. That was brilliant thinking. You continue to live up to your rank.”
When two handsome men walked into the backyard, Lucy dropped her smile and sobered up as best she could before turning to speak. “Hi, Will. Thanks for coming. As you can see, we’re having a little problem with Meara.”
Will stopped to stare. “What the hell is she doing?”
“Meara calls it Step Dancing,” Aja said in her most serious voice.
Will stared at Aja. “I guess I mean why is she messing around with those AI guards?”
“She drank a whole bottle of Kingston’s Happy Cyborg Juice by herself,” Eric said, supplying the real answer.
“A whole bottle?” Will said in disbelief, running a hand through his hair. “Two sips of that stuff and my ass is on the floor.”
Eric nodded. “Yep. There are only two people I know who can drink a whole bottle and still function.”
“Peyton and King… but now there’s obviously three,” Lucy corrected, pointing at Meara. “She’s always had a high tolerance for pretty much everything.”
Grinning as he listened to Meara humming happily in ignorance of their plans, Eric crossed his arms to watch the show. “You’re right, Lucy. I guess now there’s three. What do you suggest we do to stop her?”
Loving Eric for giving her a natural segue, Lucy turned the most serious expression she could create in Will’s direction. “If we subdue Meara physically, it will freak her fellow apartment mates out. We’d like to do it a little more quietly. There are many interested eyes watching Meara’s little performance out here. They keep running to their windows.”
Will snorted. “Okay, I get the need for discretion, but what the fuck do you think I can do?”
“Don’t you have the same skills as Meara?” Aja asked. She waved a hand. “Send the AIs back to their duty stations. Maybe afterward I can talk Meara into going to bed to sleep this off.”
“I don’t know how to…”
Lucy put a hand on his shoulder. “Meara calls it communing with them. I think she means she can access and control their programming. You should be able to access their processors and order a reboot. They’ll fall to the ground and our drunken Meara will think they’ve run out of power. We’ll get her to bed and the AIs will recover on their own. No one gets hurt and we can pass it all off to Meara as a programming glitch.”
Will turned and stared. “Sounds pretty lame to me. That drunken woman’s a lot smarter than she looks and acts. Meara may not fall for it.”
“If she was sober, you might have a point, but she’s not sober tonight,” Aja explained. “At least try, Captain Talon. That’s all we ask. The alternative will get us all reported to Peyton. May Shiva spare us all another lesson on public displays of power.”
“Fine.” Sighing in defeat, Will walked a bit closer. “Hey, Meara.”
Meara stopped dancing and so did the AIs.
Will smiled and wave. “I had trouble sleeping so I thought I’d come by and see how you were doing.” He looked at the AIs—they were obviously waiting for further instructions. He stared hard at them, thought about what he wanted them to do, and hoped to fuck he was accomplishing something.
“Hiya, Captain Serious. As ya can see, I’m dancing with my friends here.”
Will cleared his throat. “How long have you been dancing? Your friends look a bit drained to me.”
Meara drew in a gasp and laughed. She turned to the AIs. “Are you all getting tired?” All four shook their robotic heads. Giggling, she looked innocently back at Will. “See? They’re not tired at all.”
William’s head hurt the moment the reboot commands took place. All four droids fell into metal heaps. “Uh… are you sure they’re not tired?”
Meara turned and stared at them all on the ground. “Well, feck me. I thought robotic men might be able to keep up better than human ones. I swear I have no luck at all.”
Will snorted. He still needed to pass it off… no, what he needed was a distraction. “Luck? Are you still upset about not getting the enhancements you wanted? Maybe you can talk to Kyra about getting bigger breasts. Being a woman, Kyra might be more sympathetic than Nero. That should fix your man problem once and for all.”
Meara huffed and fisted her hands on her hips. “I knew it. Ya lied to me. Ya do think I need bigger boobs.”
“No, that’s not what I said. If you recall our earlier conversation, I said yours were adequate.”
Meara marched toward him. “No. They’re too small. Feel them,” she ordered.
Will shook his head. “That’s not a good idea out here in full view of everyone, Meara.”
“Feel them or I’m going to call ya a liar until yer dying days, William Talon. If ya don’t do this, I will never trust a word ya utter again.”
Will sighed and lifted his hands to her chest. His touch was purposely light, but she was determined as usual to push his dignity out of reach.
“Fecking wimpy ass boob squeezer…” Meara muttered, grabbing his hands and shoving her breasts hard into them. “Get a good handful and then tell me ya think they’re adequate. I fecking know better. They’re small as hell.”
Will heard a chorus of choked laughter coming from behind him. They would all pay for this humiliation—every last damn one of them. When he got over being mad at the others for laughing at Meara’s drunken actions, he realized she was leaning her forehead against his collarbone. He also had the realization that she was a tiny thing compared to the other cyborg women he’d been this close to.
“Meara? What are you doing?” Will asked softly.
Her face tilted up briefly before she returned her forehead to his collarbone.
“I’m being patient and waiting on ya to tell me the fecking truth. Guess I’ve gotten used to Marines. Army men take too much damn time to find their fecking balls. A horny woman could get bored waiting so long, ya know.”
The combination of embarrassment and anger sent his processors spinning wildly. Will removed one hand from the far more than adequate breast it held and used it to lift her chin while the other hand tightened possessively on the one in the other hand.
“Your breasts are fucking fantastic, but dealing with the rest of you is a pain in the ass,” he said.
“Well, look who’s throwing stones. You’re a handsome man who’d rather play dead than take a chance on…”
William’s mouth covered hers out of self-defense. All the laughter behind them stopped. In fact, all talking stopped.
In fact, everything inside him fucking stopped too—including his rational thought processes.
He’d been captured by the enemy once during the war and given no water for nearly two weeks. Even cyborgs had a limit beyond which they would die of thirst. The moment he’d escaped he’d drank the first water he’d come across. It had been in a rusty bucket used for God knew what but he hadn’t cared. Water was life and it had tasted like ambrosia.
Meara’s hungry kiss tasted like that to him now. Blood rushed to places he’d forgotten he owned. Lust traveled like lightning through him. Her kiss literally turned his libido back on and he started to get hard for the first time he could remember since his tormentor had gotten hold of him over a decade ago.
Startled by his epiphany, Will tried to pull away from the moaning woman he held, but Meara’s strong arms slipped around him and kept him against her. God, Meara was stronger than most men he knew.
“See?” Meara said in a husky whisper. “I knew ya were going to be like this. No one with a smile like yours was meant to be a fecking eunuch.”
Instead of hugging him tighter as he expected, Meara backed away from him, reached up to pat his face, and walked around him to where a now speechless Aja and Lucy waited for her.
Will glanced down at the AIs guards. They were finally starting to come around. Soon they would return to their normal programming. He turned and watched as Aja led a stumbling, still humming Meara away.
Sighing, he walked back to where a still waiting Lucy and Eric stood with wide eyes and twitching lips.
“Not a damn word,” he ordered.
When they lifted their hands in surrender, Will walked away from them without glancing back.
This day had given him a hell of a lot to think about. Meara had just given him even more.