“Captain Talon’s going to be pissed when he finds out,” Marcus warned.
Meara lifted an eyebrow. “Since when is a big bad Marine afraid of an Army guy? Thought you all were only afraid of Peyton.”
“I’m merely stating the inevitable consequences of your actions,” Marcus said, defending himself as he stood guard near the open door of the research lab.
Eric smiled as he typed in commands to move the satellite he’d rented to aid his search for King’s wife, Seetha. It continued to be very useful in searching for missing cyborgs. “How did you get the info on Engineer Sanchez before I did?”
Meara chuckled. “Coms and workstations fecking love me now. Aja tells me I can do searches so fast and so randomly that it looks like a software glitch to most people. My search is under the radar. Someone will no doubt figure out yer part eventually.”
“There’s nothing wrong with taking a look anywhere I want.” Eric pointed the satellite at the area where Engineer Rio Sanchez allegedly disappeared. “I can already tell you there’s an above-ground facility of some sort at those coordinates you gave me but it looks like it goes down about three levels underground as well. I would say nothing exciting happens up top.”
“Can ya zoom in on those people outside in the yard area?”
“People?” Eric leaned forward to look at the tiny dots on the screen. “It would take some pretty intense calculations to get visuals on the grounds and them. How do you know those moving dots are actually people?”
“Just a hunch,” Meara said firmly because she had no other way of explaining it. But like the cyborg helping her, she trusted her instincts over all else.
Eric chuckled as he zoomed as close as they could get. “Hunches keep life exciting.”
“Indeed, they do.” Meara felt her network scanning processes kick in and start buzzing wildly. She put a hand up to her forehead where the sensation was strongest. What in fecking hell was her mad scientist neural processor trying to connect to now? She found the answer out when the satellite suddenly zoomed in for close-up shots.
“Whoa. What’s up with that?” Eric said in awe, leaning closer. “It’s like the coordinates for the entire grounds filled in automatically without me ordering any calculations. That saved us hours of waiting. And look there… those dots are definitely people. Good guess, Meara. Looks like some sort of training facility based on the calisthenics they’re doing.”
Meara breathed slow and deep while the buzzing in her head subsided and her brain relaxed at last. A dull ache was left behind to remind her of the exertion.
What the ever-loving hell just happened? She turned to Eric who was busy scanning the entire grounds now. “How complicated are the calculations for what yar doing?”
“Approximately seven hours manually and about three and a half by computer. The insertion of variables—basically all the guessing and estimating—is what takes so long. I don’t know how it happened automatically. Maybe my satellite got an upgrade to its firmware.”
Meara rubbed her aching forehead as she frowned. Something got an upgrade alright—her. “That would be some fecking fantastic luck, eh?”
Eric nodded absently. “Yes. Unless the UCN is using us as their eyes now. Maybe they wanted to see what we see so they gave us unlimited power to search. If that’s the case, it means they know about my satellite. I’m always having to watch for their infiltration.”
Eric’s concerns were valid. Confession seemed necessary and the fair thing to do. The man didn’t need to be giving up his most helpful tool for research. Meara sighed at her dilemma but feck whoever didn’t want her being honest.
“I don’t think it was UCN, Eric. I think it was me that did the calculations and the zooming,” Meara said firmly. “I wanted to look closer. My head started buzzing and then…” She waved at the screens.
Eric turned a grin to the unique woman beside him. “You’d still have to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of math to control the programming properly. I thought you couldn’t do the math.”
“Where in the hell did ya get that idea?” Meara demanded.
Snorting, Eric smirked and bumped her shoulder with his. “Sweetie, I know everything about every cyborg we’ve helped restore. Keeping track is what I do.”
“Ya don’t say,” Meara said, giving Lucy’s boy toy a more considering look.
“I even know what size bra you wear,” Eric said with a grin.
“Why does knowing every fecking thing about me automatically include the size of my tiny tatas?”
Meara glared when Marcus came over and dropped his gaze to her front. Afterward, he looked at Eric and grinned before walking back to the door to stand guard again.
“Do I even want to know what that look was about? Ya are both doing that silent talking thing again. If I scanned to find yer wireless communication channel, I’d be hearing it too, so ya might as well tell me what yar saying about me.”
Eric chuckled at her discreet bragging. “Marcus and I used to bet on the size of our date’s assets. It’s a harmless game and we were always discreet. I have to also admit that we got damn good at guessing correctly. And Marcus definitely thinks you’re in the acceptably adequate range… in case you were wondering.”
“Oh sure, I was dying to hear the man’s opinion of my boobs. I was planning to hang my complete self-worth on what Marcus thought. Do ya think adequate is ever any female’s fecking goal for her tatas?”
Eric snickered over Meara’s sarcasm. “Maybe you can use one of your new abilities to enhance your own breasts. You know… like our cybernetic pulses can control other muscle growth.”
“Feck off. I’ll not be using my talents on such nonsense. It’s not like I’ve been getting any complaints about them.”
“True,” Eric said in agreement, looking away as he smiled. “Captain Talon certainly wasn’t complaining last night—not from where I was standing anyway.”
“Fecking pervert,” Meara accused.
“Never denied it,” Eric said. “Think it comes with the Y chromosome.” He narrowed his gaze on the screen. “Why would women be doing exercises in three-inch heels?”
He moved the viewer down to their feet. Meara saw four women working out in what looked like stilettos. It was ridiculous… and cruel.
“Feck. Go back to their faces,” Meara ordered, watching as Eric did as she asked. “Look at them, Eric. Their expressions never change even though those heels have to be killing their damn feet. I’d bet my Irish ass those are New World Companions.”
“But none of the men in the yard are Rio Sanchez,” Eric said. “What now?”
Meara rose from her seat. “This discovery takes priority over helping Will’s wife. Lucy, Aja, and I promised ourselves to free all women from New World Companion programming that we could. Lucy’s not one hundred percent recovered yet, but nothing is stopping Aja and me from doing out our best to bust those four free. Lucy can work with us from back here. We still have our connection. I’m not the only one who can talk to satellites.”
“This was Sanchez’s last known location based on his UCN identity chip. It’s still possible he could be there even though we didn’t see him in the yard. Want me to tell Peyton about what we’ve found? I’ll need to at some point,” Eric warned.
Meara stopped her exit to look at Eric. “Do me a favor. Tell him after we’re gone. Peyton and Kyra don’t always agree with me and Aja’s independent thinking about the needs of the New World Companions. There’s no need for us to piss off the big guy before it’s necessary to do so.”
“I won’t say anything until I have to but don’t forget you’re not alone anymore. You have a whole bunch of cyborgs willing to help you,” Eric ordered.
“Oh, I won’t be forgetting,” Meara promised, nodding once to confirm. “And I don’t take the offer of help lightly either. We’ll be in touch about what we find, Eric, even if it gives me the fecking headache of a century to get back to ya.”
She stopped in front of Marcus. “If ya say a word to Peyton before Eric does, I’m going to tell Rachel about ya checking out my boobs. I’ll make damn sure she believes me too.”
Marcus grinned. “I’m many things, but a snitch isn’t one of them.”
“Good man,” Meara said as she laughed and patted his chest. Startled by what she was feeling, she moved her hand across one of his pectorals and squeezed. “Goddess, ya got some big knockers yerself. No wonder ya didn’t give me a better report.”
Leaving Marcus and Eric laughing at her, Meara went to find Aja and give her the news.
Nero was bent over his portable com while simultaneously checking it against the three screens running in front of him. He was studying the processor code for one of the cyborgs he and Kyra hadn’t been able to restore completely.
A breakthrough was close for this one, he could feel it just beyond his coding grasp.
His yelp of surprise had him splaying his body across his work. He swore before rounding on the person who’d startled him. She was dressed all in black with her glossy long dark hair drawn back and secured behind her with a cloth band.
“You startle like a child.”
“You made no sound with your steps,” Nero reported, defending himself.
Aja looked down at her feet. “No? Must be these shoes. I do like that about them.”
Nero’s gaze ran down Aja’s curvy and well-built body as she continued to look at her shoes. All that black fabric she was wearing looked like it had been molded specifically to fit her. His normal male reaction to her attractiveness kicked in and then his resistance kicked in as well.
The net of both made his tone sharper than he could control. “I have no time at the moment to listen to your death threats over Meara’s progress. I’m in the middle of something important. Did you need something from me?”
Aja frowned and glared. “No. Nothing. I need nothing from you.”
She turned to walk away and Nero automatically reached out to stop her. It was a foolish thing to do knowing how dangerous Aja was when she was mad. “Wait. I’m sorry. I know you wouldn’t interrupt me unless it was important. I was caught up in my work, just… please… tell me why you came. I am listening now.”
Aja looked at Nero’s hand on her arm. Her desire to have that hand move over all her body made her even angrier with herself. Never before had she left and cared about leaving. Why should she have ever cared? There had been nothing and no one for her to worry about leaving behind.
“I have to go away for a while,” she said sharply. “I…” Aja stopped to close her eyes and utter a swear word. She finally opened them and stared into Nero’s confused gaze. “I didn’t want to just disappear. I wanted you to know I was going away.”
Nero stepped closer, tightening his grip on the woman glaring at him. “I’m grateful for your thoughtfulness.”
“Grateful?” Aja repeated, smiling at the word. “No, you’re not. You think I’m an idiot.”
“No,” Nero denied instantly. “I think you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met, but that does not seem a wise thing for me to be telling someone who threatens my life almost daily.”
“I really could kill you without breaking a sweat,” Aja whispered.
Nero nodded. “Yes. But that does not worry me. Perhaps it should. Instead, I worry about other things with you.”
“Like?” Aja prompted.
Nero came closer still. “Like whether or not I can kiss you and find the strength to stop once I start. I also wonder about whether or not you want me to kiss you. Without a doubt, achieving the cooperation of such a dangerous woman is critical before going forward with such an intimate action.”
Chuckling over his confession, Aja lifted the gloved hand of the arm he wasn’t holding and rubbed the back of her neck. She was tense in every muscle. She was uncomfortable with her feelings. How did Lucy deal with this anxiety daily? How did any woman?
“For the first time in a long time, I don’t want to leave a place and it is your fault, Nero Bastion.”
“I accept that blame gladly. Must you go?” Nero asked.
Aja nodded. “Yes. But I hope to return quickly.”
“Is your wish to return so quickly also my fault?” Nero asked.
Her answer to his query was a hard push to his chest that broke his hold on her. His temper flared as he rubbed the center of his chest. “Everything with you is like petting a caged tiger. I’m always afraid of losing a major body part when I answer honestly.”
Aja found the metaphor and Nero’s agitation both equally appealing. “Will you think of me when I’m gone and genuinely wish for my safe return?”
“Of course. What kind of stupid question is that?” Nero demanded.
“Not as stupid as you think. I want to make certain you do so,” Aja said, reaching out and yanking Nero close. He had that startled look again, but the heat of his body against hers overrode her usual reluctance to shock him. She wanted to make him want her and then feel his desire all the way to her toes.
“Live dangerously, Dr. Cyberstein. Kiss me,” she commanded, rising on her toes to slide her lips across his first.
Nero froze against her mouth for a few heartbeats, and then his hands were under her butt and he was lifting her from the floor. His mouth found hers and showed her the true purpose her lips were meant for in this world. When his erection rose against her stomach, he bent her against it for relief. He hoped Aja found the answer to every question she’d had about her attraction to him.
He could feel her anxiety and her disappointment as he reluctantly set her back on her feet and eased slowly away.
“I hate myself for saying this but… please do not go,” Nero pleaded.
Aja shook her head even though she was both charmed and tempted to obey his wishes. “This time I must go. It’s a matter of duty.”
“Then swear you will return,” Nero ordered.
“Yes, I will definitely return,” Aja promised. She pulled off one glove to put her bare hand against his face. “I will return to you and explore the promises your body makes to mine. You better be ready to meet my needs when I come back.”
Nero swept in and kissed her again. There was male ownership in his mouth on hers. Aja didn’t even care. Nero Bastion knew every awful thing there was to know about her. She could never have any real secrets from this man—at least none that counted. It was liberating to get to be her awful, true self.
“Where are you going?” he asked when his mouth fell from hers.
“I’m not sure yet. I’m following a lead. When I get to a fixed location, I will send back coordinates.” Peyton would tell Nero where she’d gone later when Peyton found out. By that time, she and Meara would be at their destination and doing whatever was necessary. It was Aja who eased away from their embrace this time. She took a step back and put her glove back on.
“You make me reluctant to leave, but I must go.”
Nero bowed his head slowly and then raised it again. “Then may the gods I honor see to your safe return to me, Aja Kapur.”
“Thank you. Watch your back while I’m away, Nero Bastion. And don’t be wasting your man energy on those stupid sex bots you keep visiting. Save that for me. I need a lot of attention,” Aja ordered, smiling as a blush crept up his neck and face.
Laughing at his embarrassment, and feeling as wicked as Meara for once, Aja turned and ran out of the door.
When his visitor notification chimed, Will ignored it. He’d used a good chunk of his Army Captain back pay to buy the entire top level of this building. It was supposed to come with an increased level of privacy. Only one person could have gotten through those without setting off the alarm system Marcus had designed for every level.
“Go away, Meara. I don’t want to talk to you again today,” Will yelled from his chair.
He didn’t bother to get up when the door opened. Instead, he swore internally and turned the half-empty bottle up for another drink.
He’d never stood a chance of keeping her out. Her new neural processor—one just like his—could bypass any electronic lock.
He’d have to kill her to keep her out. It would probably be best to be drunk when he did it.
Maybe he could plead insanity and Peyton wouldn’t have him put down.
“I don’t blame ya for wanting a respite after seeing yer ex today, but yar not going to find much in that stuff yer drinking. I ended up throwing up the excess all over the bathroom last night before I could sleep the rest off. King’s Happy Cyborg Juice is wicked stuff.”
“Haven’t you fucked up my life enough for one day?”
Meara took the chair across Will. “It’s not my fault yer wife couldn’t handle the truth of what ya had to do to survive. But I do understand yer need to grieve her loss. Cassandra is beautiful.”
“I’m not grieving.”
Meara snorted. “Goddess, no. A stoic man like ya would never admit to being sad or depressed.”
“I’m not depressed either,” Will said, turning up the bottle again.
“Well, I am. Yer reaction depresses the hell out of me. It means ya still love her. That sort of dashes my hopes for more from ya.”
Will put the bottle on the table beside him. “Why in the fuck does anything about me depress you? You don’t even know me. I could be the biggest bastard that ever lived. Probably am one.”
Meara glared. “Hell, yeah, I know ya are… and it’s like looking into a fecking mirror. Ya think all ya’ve done is unforgivable. Ya think yer a monster. Ya think no decent person is ever going to want to be in yer life. Every truth that poor woman ya married shared today validated those conclusions ya refuse to turn loose of. I wouldn’t be a real friend if I didn’t come here and call bullshit on yer unproductive brooding.”
“Meara,” Will said, leaning elbows on his knees. “If you truly want to be my friend, fucking leave me alone. That’s all I want from you.”
She nodded. “Sure. As luck would have it, yer wish is about to be granted. I’ve got to go away for a bit. Hopefully, I’ll be back soon, but what I’ve got to do could take a while.”
“Go? Go where?” Will asked, surprised by the news. Then he finally noticed Meara was dressed all in black. She looked like a ninja. “Why are you dressed in stealth gear?”
“No wonder yer wimpy wife traded up. Don’t ya know a woman doesn’t need a reason to change her clothes? Maybe I was feeling in a black mood today.” Meara sighed as she looked down at herself. “I’m really glad Nero didn’t throw these away when he did my original restoration. This is what I was wearing the day we finally found Lucy. I’m a shorty as ya know and this is the best fitting shinobi shozoku I’ve ever owned.”
Will lifted a hand to his head. As usual, her chattering was giving him a headache, but the drink was making his confusion worse. Apparently, there was no escaping Meara’s particular brand of crazy. “How in the hell did you drink a whole bottle of this, Meara? My head feels like it going to fall off.”
Meara laughed at Will’s spontaneous question. “Alcohol was medicine in my household when I was a child. My tolerance came naturally and translated over to my cyborg self. It’s not exactly something I’m proud of, but the occasional bender still seems to calm me down a bit when I get restless.” She rose from her chair and walked to Will. “How drunk are ya?”
“I don’t know. I’m still hearing you so obviously not drunk enough,” he said morosely.
Laughing at his misery, Meara bent her head and lightly kissed his lips. “Yar such a sweet talker, Will. Did ya feel that zing between us just now?”
“Why are kissing me again, Meara? I didn’t ask you to kiss me. Maybe I don’t want you to kiss me. Do you ever stop to question your actions before you do them?”
“Shush now with yer lectures,” Meara said, pushing back his hair with one hand. “Yar tired and hurting and not able to be yer best self. It was unfortunate timing that yer ex came so soon after our redefinition. Yar probably still assimilating yer pissed-off, pent-up emotions about what ya endured all those years. I know I have been. And ya have a right to feel sad about all that too, ya know. Anger doesn’t have to be the only emotion ya allow yerself.”
She was beautiful and contrary. She was the light to his dark. Will swallowed and fought the urge to drag Meara down into his lap for a hug. It was the most irrational thought he’d had about her yet. Needing her strange brand of comfort made him feel vulnerable which he recognized as a very human reaction to all the stress of the day, but also one he’d promised himself never to feel again under any circumstances.
“What I feel is none of your damn business and never will be,” he said, hoping his harshness would push her away.
Meara ran her lips gently over his again. “Too bad, Captain Serious. I’m making ya my business for now. I’m probably going to be a rebound fling for ya, but I’ve had worse relationships. Yer leveling out from this shit is what matters to me, so there ya go. I can’t have my perfect cybernetic match drowning in despair over a fecking woman. Yar still alive, Will. Ya need to start living like it.”