Ashland 131 Cover, Donna McDonaldAshland 131: the alien agenda

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Based on the Cyborgs: Mankind Redefined series.

LENGTH: 35,000 words, 150 pages

She was searching for her cyborg husband but found an alien instead.

The last World War ended a decade ago, but not all the soldiers got to come home. Global hero and Astronaut Dia Daniel’s love for the man she married goes on despite the passage of time and her failure to find him.

That’s why she never had her husband declared dead.

That’s why other relationships have never worked out.

Now the infamous Dr. Kyra Winters and her restored Cyborg husband, Peyton Elliott, have news about him. Dia knows there can be only one reason they’ve come to see her in person. Is she ready to hear Dr. Winters tell her that he’s dead?

**Previously published in the Loved In Space anthology as Ashland 297. This publication is no longer available.

Chapter 1

Despite new UCN initiatives to find Cyber Soldiers who fought in the last World War on Earth, they haven’t found all the missing cyborgs. This story is about one man who remains among the missing and the woman who refuses to give up looking for him…

Astronaut Dia Daniels stood at her sink and sipped her coffee as the shower down the hall shut off. Did she feel a sense of anticipation about who would soon join her? Or just a warm feeling of gratitude from not having had to spend last night alone?

She waited for a telltale burst of happiness to hit. It didn’t, but a tall blond male with broad shoulders and a bright blue gaze walked into her kitchen. Some part of her advised that staying open to the possibility might sway her to feel something more than she did. But another part of her warned not to hold her breath for it.

Instead, the moment her handsome companion walked across her kitchen’s threshold, Dia immediately imagined a shorter, darker, and comatose-in-the-morning male stumbling over to her. He’d press his insistent male body against hers, promising all kinds of sexual favors as he stole her morning coffee from her suddenly lax fingers. 

That unpredictable man would continue to lean against her as he drank what coffee was left in her cup. His favorite pastime had been luring her into unglamorous kitchen sex punctuated with talented tongue kisses and masculine groans of need when she made him work for her concession.

But that imaginary man was gone from her life. He’d been gone a very long time now. That’s why the other man was here. 

So why couldn’t she bring herself have Ash declared officially dead and simply move on with her life? She had no good answer. The legalities were simple. The process wasn’t hard to do, especially not with someone who’d been converted into a cyborg during the war. Many Cyber Soldiers never made it home.

Maybe memories of her and Ash together would finally fade if she gave herself some real closure on the matter. That’s what her shrink kept telling her.

The handsome blond smiling at her was not the first man she’d let into her life over the lonely years, but because he’d been smart enough to also become her friend, he’d lasted the longest.  

Her morning after etiquette sucked at the best of times so Dia was grateful this morning that her tall, blond lover was unaware of her internal debate. Sergei was open and naïve in the wonderful way all young men managed to be before they settled down and got serious. 

Since Sergei was still smiling at her, and because she was still feeling guilty about indulging in her memories while he was around, Dia poured Sergei a cup of coffee and put the four sugars in it that he always took.

Spasibo,” he said, thanking her in his family’s version of Russian.

Any time or way Dia studied her lover, she always concluded that Sergei Baranov was an amazing man. He was smart, a great bed partner, and the same age Ash was the last time she saw her husband alive over a decade ago. 

Like her, Sergei was a rocket rider, which meant he understood trying to talk your body into going much faster than mother nature designed it to go. 

They’d been friends for several years, and lovers for two now. Dia liked that she never had to explain the demands of her work to Sergei. It was a blessing to find such understanding in a companion—she knew that. 

Most women didn’t get lucky enough to find such a supportive life partner, and yet somehow she’d managed to find two of them in her many, many years. She could only be grateful for that fact. 

Outside of being a little overly fond of his portable com, Sergei was a pleasant companion as well as a very good man. 

Her problem was that Sergei wasn’t the right man. None of the ones who’d passed through her life after Ash were.

“What’s that?” Dia asked when Sergei set a small box on the counter and pushed it over beside her.

“It is a special treasure for you. I brought it from Mother Russia with me. You should feel honored, zvezda moya.”

Dia smiled at his accent thickening. Sergei always called her his star, but usually, he called her that in English. His change to his native language alarmed her in a way she couldn’t describe. 

To stall while she thought about it, she pretended to ignore his gift. 

“Do you have a time machine you haven’t told me about, Sergei? Last time I checked, Mother Russia was long gone and the entire continent is actually called the Unified Soviet Republic now.”

“Bah…” he said with a hand wave. “You and your facts, Dia. You ruin the romance of my gift. Open it now and let the weeping begin. This is real life, far more important than your facts.” 

Dia rolled her eyes at his dramatic command, set down her coffee, and opened the box. Inside it was a key card. She looked up at him. “At the risk of being trite, is this supposed to be the key to your heart?”

Sergei shrugged. “That is yet to be seen. Until we can be sure, that is the key to my apartment in New St. Petersburg. I want us to be exclusive, Dia. I want you to give up your quest for a dead man. There… I have spoken aloud my only two wishes in the entire world. What do you have to say about my offer?”

Dia stared at the key card and rolled it over in her fingers. Sergei—out of all the men she’d dated over the last few years—might actually give her a life that wouldn’t bore her or be a massive disappointment. The man’s offer was certainly one many women would have happily wept over. 

Wasn’t it time for her to move the hell on? Dead men were not helpful when a woman was horny or lonely or when she couldn’t stand her own company for a second longer.

Dia’s gaze raised to the very alive man who was drinking his own coffee and checking his com for messages. Sergei might actually give her a good life. But what could she give him? 

Dia thought about it and decided that what mattered most was what she couldn’t give Sergei, which was her whole heart. Part of hers still belonged to the man she married before the last World War. Sergei deserved someone who could commit to a whole relationship with him. At the moment, that simply wasn’t her. 

Dia put the key card back in the box and pushed it back to him. 

Sergei looked down at her action and then back up at her. He lifted one shoulder as he stared. “I knew the odds were against me, but I had to try. Unless this has ruined what we have, perhaps I will one day try again. Chto budet, to budet. It means a wise man knows he cannot force love.”

Sighing over his niceness, Dia stepped into Sergei’s arms to hug him. He felt good against her—solid and alive. Sergei kissed her hair and hugged her back. Miraculously, he did so without overwhelming her heart and mind with more remorse. If she was being an idiot about him, why couldn’t she see it?

Sergei groaned. “You wound me with your hugs and sighs, Dia. If I had known today would be only another goodbye, I would have never let you out of bed this morning. You have taught me a lot, but you did not teach me how to be happy in love. I was hopeful you would do so.”

“You deserve someone who will love you far more than I ever could, Sergei. You deserve to become a father and I know that’s what you want. Motherhood isn’t for me. I’m a broken woman.”

Sergei sighed as he held her close. “I disagree about you being broken. Though brilliant in many things, you are wrong about this, Dia. I deserve you, but the problem is that you won’t let me have you. An invisible competitor still owns your heart. How is that fair after all this time he has not returned? I will say for certain that it is not fair. I hope one day you say that too.”

Dia closed her eyes and didn’t answer as she slipped loose from his embrace. Sergei offered her a chance for a future when no one else had offered her anything except a few hours of company. 

What the hell was wrong with her?

Apparently more than she realized, Dia decided as she put some physical distance between them. 

Letting go had to be done gently, carefully, and with whatever fragments of caring you could offer a person who’d been a light in the dark for you. 

Though she would never toss her bald feelings in Sergei’s face, Dia also would not apologize for loving the man she’d married, nor for continuing to look for him even when seemed hopeless. 

It’s what Ash would have done for her if she’d been the one missing. She had no doubts about that at all. So until she took her dying breath, Dia would keep searching for her husband, the remains of his cybernetic body, or at least a story she could accept about Ash’s fate. 

Someone knew something. She was sure of it. And one day that person would find her and tell her. 

She refused to believe otherwise. 

But if her faith failed and she never found out what happened? 

Well, like Sergei said, life wasn’t fair.

Chapter 2

“Dr. Winters?”

“Yes,” Kyra said as she rose from the desk she hadn’t used in nearly a year. 

It was strange being back at Norton after spending so much time traveling the globe. So far, she and Peyton had shut down two more work camps that were hiding cyborgs. Combined with the broken cyborgs finally being released from military prisons, they’d accounted for all but thirty registered ones. Or at least that was Eric’s most current count. Sadly, the number changed frequently. 

“Dr. Logan can see you now. She wanted me to tell you that Nero—I mean, Dr. Bastion—will join you both for the UCN conference.”

“Thanks, Jake. It is Jake, right?” Kyra asked as she let the young man lead her down the hall. 

A lot had changed at Norton in the year since Rachel had taken over her old position. Many of the cyber labs had changed as well. Most of the restorations were being done with neural processors now instead of using replicates of older processors like the kind her cyborg husband, Peyton, had and refused to change.

“Yes, ma’am,” Jake said with a smile as he tapped the spot on his scalp that hid his panel. “I’m on my third tweak and feeling pretty sure of myself these days. Rachel says I’m as normal as a person can be, but I want it all back. Originally, I thought about going back to medical school when I discovered I could, but now I’ve stayed on in the program. I think I’ve found where I belong—where I can make up for what I did when Creator Omega had me under his control.”

Kyra nodded. She still wasn’t able to think clearly about her evil ex-husband, Jackson Channing, who’d faked his death and done his vile work for years while calling himself Creator Omega. 

She tried hard not to feel stupid for believing he’d been dead all that time, but the truth was that she still did.

Even when they’d at last cornered him, he’d once again nearly killed Lucy, aka Captain Lucille Pennington, who was the most dangerous and deadly female cyborg her husband ever made. 

Luckily, Lucy had killed Jackson instead. 

The video of their fight to the death was the only reason Kyra pushed herself to believe Jackson was finally dead this time. 

“I see you kept some of your musculature,” Kyra said to change the subject and to clear her mind. She would not waste the day dwelling on the past. 

Jake nodded and folded one white-coated, corded arm for her to see. “I kept most of it, but only what we deemed safe for my body size. I enjoyed working with Nero to find the healthiest limits for me.”

“Do you mean you enjoyed being his test subject?” Kyra asked, knowing exactly how Nero was.

Grinning, Jake shrugged a shoulder. “Yeah, I guess you could call it that. The time Nero spent on me allowed us to get the answers so we could restore both Tad and me before we lost any more of our original lives.

Kyra smiled. “Good then. How is your friend, Tad, doing these days?”

Jake’s grin widened. “Tad loves working with Seetha. He’s back in school part-time and getting an engineering degree now. His heart wasn’t really in medicine anyway. Mine never really left it no matter what Creator Omega did to me. I don’t understand how that was possible, but I’m proud of myself for keeping what I did on my own.”

When they stopped in front of the conference door, Kyra put a hand on Jake’s arm and turned him to look at her. “I have a lot of experience in wondering about what ‘might have been’ and living in ‘if only’ land. Let the past completely go, Jake. Give your time and energy to what you love today and let that be enough restoration. That human mind of yours is too precious to waste on regrets.”

Jake hung his head and nodded as he pushed open the conference door. “It’s kind of you to care and I’ll keep what you said in mind, Dr. Winters.”

“See that you do,” Kyra ordered before slipping inside.

* * *

Kyra’s hand flew to her stomach as she stepped to the table. Rachel and Nero stopped talking to stare at her. 

“It’s okay. I’m fine,” Kyra said, holding up a hand. “The sick stomach reaction probably will lessen once I’ve gotten desensitized to this room again. Few good things ever happened for me in here.”

Rachel reached a hand across the table. Kyra stared at Rachel’s hand then took it. Rachel smiled. “What you fear no longer exists as a reality, Kyra. The application of your theories truly have changed the world.”

“But we can’t fix how everyone thinks,” Kyra whispered as she squeezed Rachel’s fingers. “And we don’t have the right to decide who needs to become a nicer person. Conflict brings change to the world. The balance of good and evil is necessary. There are limitations to what we should alter, even when we know how.”

“I agree, which is why I applied your mental adjustment protocols three times only. You have my word on that,” Rachel whispered back.

Kyra nodded and squeezed once more before she released Rachel’s fingers. She turned and gave Nero her bravest smile. “You’re looking well, Nero. How are you and Aja doing in your new home?”

Nero lifted an eyebrow as he mock-glared. “There is no need for subterfuge, Nana Winters. I know you’re really asking about how your beloved grandchildren are adjusting.”

Kyra lifted a shoulder. “Perhaps I am, but I still admire the two of you for taking on the entirety of your cousin’s young family. Five children under the age of twelve would be a lot for anyone to raise. Despite being barely the oldest, Soriah sends me update coms every week about what’s happening to you all. She says she loves, loves, loves her purple room.”

“They each have their own color—some more discordant than the rest—but childhood is childhood.”

“Are their biological parents still cooperating with you?”

“The authorities are no longer involved or threatening to take the children into custody, which is a relief to everyone in my family. Aja and I allow my cousin and his wife to visit the children, but we do not allow the children to leave with them. It is quite obvious to everyone that Aja and I are far superior parents.”

“It never crossed my mind that you would be anything other than perfect,” Kyra said with a smile.

“Was that a compliment or sarcasm?” Nero asked with a snort.

“Whichever you like,” Kyra replied with a smile.

The conference call opened and interrupted their personal conversation.

Rachel cleared her throat and smiled at the screen. It took a moment or two, but all three UCN chancellors eventually mirrored her smile back to her. “Greetings, Chancellors. I hope the esteemed members of the UCN council are having a blessed day.”

“We are indeed, Dr. Logan. Congratulations on receiving your third official doctorate. I’m sure there will be many more to come.”

Rachel bowed her head respectfully. “Thank you for the well wishes.” She looked at Kyra and lifted a hand. “As you can see, I have lured Dr. Winters here as you requested. I believe you said you had something important to discuss with her.”

Chancellor Owens leaned forward in his chair. “Greetings, Dr. Winters. We have some information to share with you about some missing cyborgs. Unfortunately, it does not reflect well on some of the UCN’s previous actions. I wish we didn’t have to go into it, but we must address this old situation because we face an even more difficult decision that must be made about it.”

Kyra stiffened in her seat, not sure she was ready for their confession. She wished Peyton could have been with her. “I appreciate your willingness to give me any information that will aid our efforts to find those missing men. I will do my best to listen with an open mind and will strive to suspend judgment of the past.”

“Thank you,” Chancellor Owens replied with a head bow. “I will let Chancellor Lee explain the details. As a former member of the global space program, he’s the most qualified to do so.”

Kyra’s gaze shifted to the quieter man who cleared his throat and lifted a hand as if he wasn’t sure where to start. She let him off the hook. “Chancellor Lee, you’re looking very uncomfortable. We’re all aware that there may be no good way to explain any situation about the missing cyborgs. I suggest telling me about the circumstances as plainly as possible, no matter how unsavory they are to the UCN or any faction of our government.”

“That’s very magnanimous of you, Dr. Winters,” Chancellor Lee said with a nod. “We had honestly forgotten about this group until a request came through last week asking to set a departure date for them. Our visitors from the stars are finally ready to send their hybrid specimens off-planet.”

Kyra leaned on the table and rubbed her face. No, this couldn’t be happening. She raised her face and stared at the Chancellors. “Are you trying to tell me that some of those chosen for the hybridization program were cyborgs from the war?”

Lee dropped his head and nodded. “Some is not the proper term. What I’m saying is that all thirty cyborgs you’re still searching for were put into the program. While I can regret our former military’s behavior in doing that to them, I cannot undo what has come to pass, nor can we change our agreement with the off-planet visitors. They’ve been preparing the men for years and now they appear to have succeeded with their—alterations.”

Kyra sighed. “So much has happened since the war ended that I’d forgotten about the hybridization program. Last time I checked, cyborgs weren’t among those being considered. They were supposed to be carefully cultivated volunteers.”

“You are correct, Dr. Winters. Cyborgs weren’t originally to be considered. It was the military who decided that lone cyborgs without family were the perfect candidate. On a more positive note, the report about the program stipulates that they managed to physically restore all thirty men to full non-mechanical functionality before the more difficult genetic modification took place. In essence, the program focused on their complete restoration back to being completely human, except they did so with greater success than you or anyone since you has managed.”

Kyra lifted an eyebrow. “I think calling the hybridization process a success is debatable, Chancellor. I at least left the cyborgs human enough to stay on our planet. Can you say the hybridization program did the same? I find that doubtful.” 

Kyra straightened in her seat. She’d worked toward full restoration herself, but the genetic route to regrow a limb was still beyond Earth’s science. Cybernetics remained the only option for replacing body parts.

Chancellor Lee lifted a hand. “Regardless of anyone’s political views on the matter, the men have been successfully restored and genetically altered, Dr. Winters. On the whole, the hybridization process is a success from a purely scientific point of view.”

Kyra ignored Chancellor Lee’s statement to focus on the only human thing she could do for the cyborgs. “Very well—I need a copy of the report about what they have done to them and a list of their names and former cyborg identification. What remains of their families need to be told something before the men are sent off-planet. I think we can all agree that the soldiers deserve that much from the world they gave their lives for.”

Chancellor Owens bent forward toward the screen. “We can also all agree that this is upsetting news. However, our honest understanding is that the military chose these thirty men precisely for their lack of family connections. No one should miss them or care what’s happening to them. It will be up to the UCN to make sure we do not forget their sacrifices, which the three of us will do. You have our word.”

“I believe you will, Chancellor, but I still want to cross-check the list with our database of registered cyborgs. Despite the story you keep touting about them being lone cyborgs, I have never found that to be true about any soldier. I assure you some family members are still looking for their lost soldiers,” Kyra insisted.

Chancellor Owens leaned back in his chair and stared. “Dr. Winters, I’m sure we don’t have to remind you that keeping the hybridization program discreet is a matter of global security.”

Kyra barely held back a disgusted laugh. “How can we speak so calmly about those human men undergoing massive amounts of genetic alterations when it’s something our scientists can’t even do? Soldiers are not disposable commodities to be used as bargaining chips any more than other humans are.”

“The decision was a global matter. All countries decided this was strategically better than letting our visitors choose their victims.”

Kyra lifted a hand. “I understand that, but you’re talking about sending these former soldiers away from Earth forever.  Yet we’re not talking to the world in general about the fact that aliens have been on Earth for over a hundred thousand years. Like most of our global secrets, gentlemen, keeping this one does not serve our planet or the humans on it. I urge you again to reconsider your stance on informing the public of their presence.”

“The dissemination of the truth is being discussed far more frequently since the request to take the men off-planet came through, but you know we must handle it with great care. The foundation of most Earth societies does not allow for belief in the existence of other beings in the universe. We cannot constrain the chaos of bluntly stating facts without preparing the public first,” Chancellor Smith interjected. 

Kyra sighed in frustration. She didn’t know Smith as well as she knew the other two, but all three Chancellors had a ring of sincerity in their words. She reluctantly nodded. “Fine. I’ll play by your rules for as long as I can. Send me the list of cyborgs who were given to the program. The families of those men deserve to be told a story they can live with so they don’t think poorly of those soldiers for not returning from duty. And we owe it to ourselves as humans not to lie any more than necessary.”

“I think we can all agree with the need to honor their military past and their current service to Earth within the program,” Chancellor Owens said, folding his hands. “Perhaps you can find it in yourself to spare their loved ones from a story that the UCN may be forced to deny.”

“In other words, you want me to tell those men’s families that they died in the line of duty,” Kyra said coldly. She frowned when all three Chancellors nodded. 

“Since they will never see them again, it is close to being the whole truth. Surely, you can agree that sort of explanation is more kind than destructive,” Chancellor Smith stated calmly as he stared.

Kyra turned and noticed Rachel and Nero had their mouths open in shock. They might both be more intelligent than her, but she’d been alive and around the UCN long enough to know when she had to play by their rules and not her own. She had her hands full dealing with cyborg revelations and restorations. She couldn’t take on the world’s alien problems too.

Kyra lifted her face and nodded at the men on the screen. “Fine. Peyton and I will get in touch with the families and let them know their loved one is never coming back. I guess lying thirty more times in my life won’t kill me.”

“Thank you, Dr. Winters. It’s truly for the greater good, and you could send registered communications instead of verbally delivering the news. It’s official and a sanctioned method of delivering such information,” Chancellor Lee suggested.

“It’s not sanctioned for me. I prefer to contact the families personally so they know a real person cared about their loved one,” Kyra said, glaring at the three men. “Send me the list, gentlemen. You can deliver it to my private number since I’m sure you don’t want those names getting out.”

“It will be done. Be well, Dr. Winters. The UCN thanks you for your cooperation.”

Kyra frowned but answered. “Be well, Gentlemen. I will cooperate until such time as I see it is the wrong thing to do.”

When the com went silent, Kyra turned Rachel and Nero. “Before you ask… no, I can’t tell you anything more than what you heard. And no, there is nothing you can do to change this situation. Alien weapons, technology, and just about anything else you can think of make the people of Earth look like we’re still living in the stone age. Luckily for us, the aliens seem committed to seeing humans survive as a species. When we master space travel, the truth about their involvement will be shared with everyone. Or at least that’s the ongoing story…”

Nero pondered all Kyra’s words before asking the one question he thought she might answer. “What have they done to the cyborgs they’ve kept hidden in their program all these years?”

Kyra shook her head and frowned. “The group working with our alien overseers were supposed to be recruiting astronauts and scientists for their off-planet program. Since they were given broken cyborgs instead, I imagine they’ve done any damn thing they wanted to them.”

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