LENGTH: 60,386 words, 285 pages
Love is not logical. Neither is leaving her alone.
Restored Cyber Soldier, Marcus 582, thinks the chances of dating reluctant cyborg, Rachel 235, are slim. His cyborg mind can’t calculate the odds of her loving him back with any accuracy. His human side certainly feel Rachel’s resistance to his every romantic overture. Neither of those change the fact he’s compelled to protect her.
Marcus understands why Rachel doesn’t want to be a cyborg. After all, her conversion wasn’t voluntary like his. But she wants a life without any cyborgs in it, including herself. Too bad though, he can’t give it to her. He’s already lost all he can stand to lose in his life. He refuses to lose Rachel too.
Head down to avoid the curious stares his tats always drew from passersby on the pedestrian track, Marcus walked into the apartment building next door to Norton Industries. Even though he visited the location daily, the barely sentient AI bot sitting at attention behind the welcome desk always treated him like he’d never seen him before. Marcus found it difficult to believe the building guard unit didn’t come with enough memory storage to record and retain visuals for tenant recognition. Norton probably had some jacked-up reason for programming the front desk guard to treat everyone as a stranger, but their logic certainly wasn’t his. He dreaded seeing the abject misery on Rachel’s face every time she came home and the insufficient bot made her feel like a stranger. Her eyes loss all shine and her mouth turned into a frown which irritated him because he had to go home and leave her that way.
After seven months, Marcus well knew the routine to gain entrance, but waited until the guard bot’s programming kicked in enough to offer directions. If he moved too fast, the unit got confused and exhibited what could easily pass for ‘anxious human’ behavior. He wasn’t in the mood to linger in the lobby this morning while the guard bot slowly searched all its secondary codes to figure out the best way to handle him trying to rush. He might be tempted to throttle the lame ass unit until Norton had no choice but to replace it. Not that any AI bot was much better than any other. In his opinion, all AI’s seemed to have some sort of processor OCD issue. They all stretched his limited patience, which was a human trait most saw as a fault, but one his cybernetics barely constrained. Watching the nearly incompetent bot struggle to carry out the simplest of programs always made him wonder if he had functioned like that before Dr. Winters did his restoration. He had all the memories of his Cyber Husband contracts, but no feelings by which to judge how effective he’d been as a cybernetic unit. One wife had rated him poorly in all areas. Another had rated him high and he’d still been with her when Peyton had rescued him. There were some years where he remembered nothing and no records were available. But he’d stopped worrying about those in the last few months. Data was useless in answering his real questions. Marcus counseled himself it was worth being patient now with the bot in order not to cause his mind more concern. Concern seemed to tax what he considered his ‘human thinking’. Dr. Winters had called him a ‘natural worrier’. Regardless of the accuracy of her analysis, he was still uncomfortable with the descriptor. “Place your ID hand on the scanner,” the bot ordered. The unit’s tinny mechanical voice grated on his cybernetic ears—and human nerves—but Marcus complied without complaint or comment. “Your identity has been confirmed, Marcus 582. You are now cleared to enter this domicile. State your exact destination and I will inform the inhabitant.” “Rachel Logan. Domicile 37.” He watched the unit blink a few times as notification was wirelessly sent. “The inhabitant has agreed to your entry. You may proceed, Marcus 582. Walk slowly through the scanner.” Marcus walked under and through an artistic looking archway which tried unsuccessfully to mask its true purpose. He ignored the yellow caution lights flashing along the edges and so did the AI bot. Dr. Winters had made sure his ID information thoroughly rationalized his cybernetic soldier enhancements. In fact, AI guard bots—even the better programmed ones—no longer paid any attention to him. What he was in reality now matched the United Coalition of Nations official data about him which appeared on every scanner worldwide. For a short period of time though, when he’d first been restored, he’d had some very real issues with human guards at places like the bank. His very large deposit from the UCN had prompted them to manually amend their ID records for him. Fortunately, his kids’ school had eventually accommodated him as well, but he knew that was more about the irate phone call Peyton had made on his behalf after his always nosy friend, Eric, had informed their former captain about the trouble he was having. After he cleared the scanner completely, a tinny voice acknowledged UCN approval with fake well wishing. “Thank you for your compliance. Have a blessed day, Marcus 582.” As he walked to the airlift and stepped inside, Marcus shook his head over the platitude he damn well knew the unit didn’t have the capacity to understand. Hell, he barely did. “Floor 30,” he ordered gruffly, irritated by his caring as much as by the building’s shoddy security. The doors swished quietly closed just before the lift rose soundlessly. *** Rachel sighed when the monitoring system announced Marcus 582 would soon be standing outside her apartment door. She wondered if Marcus hated hearing her building’s ID system state his cyborg moniker as much she did. Her abhorrence of all such things had significantly escalated after Dr. Winters discovered her mad scientist torturer had labeled her with a number in all official UCN databases. Whenever her registration information was announced by bots or scanners, she just silently screamed in her head so she wouldn’t have to hear it. She was Rachel Logan—damn it. Having circuitry in her head didn’t change her freaking genus. “I am not a cyborg,” she said aloud, breaking a silence that had been a prison to her until last week. Her declaration hadn’t faded from the air before the irony of her mechanized vocal rebellion occurred to her. Shrugging her shoulders, she ducked her head until her chin touched her chest, an annoying and self-abasing habit she’d picked up since her conversion. While her Cyber Wife file had been expunged from her public records, nothing could completely remove the memories of what she had suffered at the hands of Dr. Bradley Smith who had—among other things—taken away her ability to speak. She had done therapy to rid herself of her two months of abuse at his hands, but had quickly given up trying to type every angry thought she had about him. Her best help had been working alongside the cybernetically, and also behaviorally, modified version of the man who had robotized her. Dr. Winters had done to Bradley Smith the very thing he’d intended to do to as many people as he could. Now cyborg Brad looked at her every day with no recognition of her in his gaze whatsoever. She told herself cyborg Brad had no memories anymore of picking her up at the coffee shop. She only wished it was as easy for her to forget it. It was the one and only time she’d voluntarily engaged in sex with him, and unfortunately the one she regretted most now. Cyborg Brad’s complete lack of personal acknowledgement went a long way toward letting her pretend nothing seriously bad had happened to her because of him. She preferred thinking of her cybernetic alternations as something medical, like the kind of parts replacement surgery a person might have if they were in an airjet accident. Her rational mind knew it wasn’t the truth, but she didn’t care about what was rational. Rationalizing did not help. She liked being able to sleep at night, and whoever said living in denial was a bad thing obviously had never been turned into a cyborg against their will. As she went to answer the knock at her apartment door, Rachel reached up and pressed a tiny button several times to turn up the volume on the small device Dr. Winters had installed in her throat. They had consulted many specialists but no one could find the physical switch to turn her vocal chords back on. Not wanting to replace them unnecessarily, in case they one day found a way to reactivate her natural speech, the next best thing had been wiring her with a device that obeyed her vocal mechanisms. She was finding it to be a great relief to finally have some way to talk to people, even if talking did come at a price. She opened the door and her mouth at the same time. “Hello, Marcus.” Rachel could tell from the flash of surprise crossing his gaze that hearing her computerized female voice had shocked him, but Marcus recovered quickly. If she hadn’t been seeing him five days a week for the last seven months, she might have missed it. The man was so reserved that she often had to remind herself Marcus hadn’t been stoic at all when he was first restored. No, the man had been weeping steadily, and with good reasons, given all he’d endured and survived. Like all of the original three hundred and forty-two Cyber Soldiers, Marcus had lost a decade of his life living in an AI processor induced trance. It was a small blessing, but because of Marcus, she was grateful Bradley Smith hadn’t taken away her awareness of time passing. And she was happy for the progress Marcus had made since he’d been restored, but couldn’t see that the human side had been made any more content by his chance to have an integrated life. In the last few months, he’d sought out his family and gradually gained back some of his children’s affection. Unfortunately in that same effort, Marcus had eventually had to accept the permanent loss of his former wife who had already remarried. From the stories she heard working for Dr. Winters, Marcus’s situation was pretty normal. Cyber Soldier reintegration into society was going like that for most of the men being restored. They were back from the war for real now, even in their own minds, but their families had all moved on without them years ago. Most, just like Marcus, were finding they had little of their old life left to return to. “Well, listen to you. You’re talking finally,” Marcus declared brightly. It took all his self-restraint not to blurt out how much she sounded like the AI bot downstairs. Blurting out his thoughts was one of his blips and something he never allowed loose around the woman in front of him. Rachel snorted at his comment, easily reading his appalled expression over the quality of her voice. “You can say it. I know I sound like the announcing bot at the international airjet facility.” Her reward for her disparagement was an honest grin. It wasn’t much, but she’d still take it as positive proof Marcus’s sense of humor was improving. Rachel barely fought back a sigh of resignation when his fake expression of delight over her speech changed to one of genuine worry. She wished Marcus didn’t worry so much about her. He had enough problems of his own to deal with. “Does it hurt to talk?” he asked. Rachel ignored him for a minute to finish pulling on her solar protection jacket. His soft-spoken question was thoughtful, just like so many others Marcus had asked her from time to time. “Only hurts when I laugh,” she finally answered. At his continued stare, she reluctantly gave up teasing. Marcus could tell when she was trying to bullshit anyway…and he always called her on it. “The vibrations make my throat sore, but talking beats typing every word on a com. I just need to practice being succinct.” She smiled when Marcus released a heavy sigh. “Good thing I was never a chatterbox.” She finally got a grin as she looped her Norton Industries sanctioned backpack over her shoulders. Though Marcus was no longer tasked with surveillance of her activities, he still showed up to walk her to work every morning and back every evening. He did this even though Norton was only a single building and a few steps away from where she now lived. No matter what she communicated to him with her typing, she hadn’t been able to dissuade him from being her personal escort service. Now at least she could verbally argue about it. She opened her mouth, thinking carefully of how to express it in as few words as possible. “Don’t make your throat sore arguing, Rachel. You’re my only job right now. Stop feeling guilty.” Closing her mouth at his firmly spoken comments, she fell back to her habit of expressing herself in body language. She sighed loudly, nodded, and then shrugged. She had no choice but to let him trail behind her as she opened the door and stepped into the hall. Wondering if she’d caved too fast, Rachel turned back to try another attempt while Marcus secured the door behind them. It was something he insisted on doing for her and she’d learned to let him. Not a sound came out though when she caught Marcus checking out her bare legs under the short, full skirted dress she’d worn. Her heartbeat picked up, which both annoyed and surprised her. She couldn’t decide whether it was out of nervousness about a cyborg’s potential masculine interest in her, or excitement to feel even a little like a normal female again. Needing some time to think about her reaction, Rachel decided it was best to pretend she hadn’t noticed. She ducked her chin and headed for the airlift, her booted feet eating up the short distance quickly. Of course, Marcus’s long legs brought him almost immediately to her side. The confined space of the lift shrunk with her new awareness of Marcus’s interest in her legs. She wanted badly to turn and meet his gaze—maybe see what lurked in the depths of his usually unfathomable gray eyes—but why did she suddenly care about his thoughts whatever they were? Until a couple months ago, she had viewed Marcus as her jailor. His daily presence made her feel punished for ending up some crazy cyber scientist’s victim. Why would she possibly care now about the thoughts of someone who was a prime example of all she feared becoming at the hands of someone like Bradley Smith? She still didn’t completely trust Dr. Winters, even though she now worked for the woman. “I hate being late,” she said aloud, covering up her real thoughts with the first inane one she found in her scrambled brain. She had just been trying to fill the silence, but Marcus interpreted her comment as being a problem. She should have known better. “Relax, Rachel. You’re not going to be late to work. It only takes us four point seven minutes to walk to the next building. Scanner clearance takes an average of one minute and twelve seconds. You will arrive in Dr. Winter’s lab approximately ten minutes and thirty-five seconds before you are due to be there. So you see—you will not be late.” Rachel rolled her eyes at the outpouring of so much precise data from Marcus. The next guy in her life was definitely not going to be a cyborg, not even one of the nicer restored ones. If—no—when she started dating again, the man she chose was going to be just a normal human. She would date no more cyber scientists. No more avid gamers. Definitely no good-looking geeks with hidden evil agendas. And no former soldiers with who knew what kind of prosthetic enhancements. No. Simply no. There were good reasons she had chosen to study arts and humanities in college…a decision made long before she had been abducted. With her singing voice gone now, and probably forever, it was heartbreaking enough that she was going to have to choose another career. She had already been an older student at twenty-six. She couldn’t give up work at Norton until she’d saved enough for school. Her daily work probably qualified her for some sort of medical field training. But every time she went into Norton all she could think was how it was a giant building full of sad. No matter what future career she chose, she’d be in her mid-thirties before her education was completed. Lost in thoughts from her rapidly occurring epiphanies, she and Marcus walked to Norton in silence as they always did. Yet just like she couldn’t forget Marcus looking at her legs, she also couldn’t push away the realization that this was just one more typical, boring morning in her monotonous victim life. She needed a change—and she was going to have one. Like every other person on the planet, her life had problems and challenges, but only she could really do anything about them. “Good morning, Rachel Logan. Please place your ID hand on the scanner.” Rachel smiled automatically in reply to the polite request, pretending as she always did, that the Norton guard was human. Unlike the bot in her apartment building, this bot was a self-aware version who always recognized her visually. He also called her by her real name, at least until she passed through the scanner. When the embedded ID chip turned the scanner archway green, she exited rapidly to avoid the guard repeating the clearance statement. If she was fast enough, he’d skip it and just wish her a blessed day. Usually the platitude annoyed her. Today she could really use one. Her self-preservation urges had always been strong which was how she’d survived being used as a sex slave, housekeeper, and general science lackey for two months. This morning she couldn’t fight the urge to be both impolite to her escort and outright disobedient to the Norton bot if it meant the chance to have a better life. Stopping in the middle of the scanner, she turned back to Marcus and calmly lied, using her new tinny mechanized voice to deliver it without emotion. “Thank you for the escort this morning, but don’t come to walk me home, Marcus. I forgot to mention that I have a date tonight with an old college friend. He is picking me up here. He will see me home afterward.” She waved and turned away quickly to finish being scanned, but was not quick enough to miss the flash of disappointment in Marcus’ eyes. Refusing to believe she had crushed some fledging human emotion in Marcus, Rachel stared defiantly at the AI bot who seemed more taken aback by her unusual actions than the cyborg with his mouth still open in shock. “You are cleared to enter the building Rachel 235. Please proceed through the scanner.” Hearing herself being addressed by the hated moniker, she lifted her chin and strode forward without glancing back. The scanning system could identify her however the hell it wanted, but she was never going to think of herself as a cyborg.
READ AN EXCERPT
“I have a date.”
Marcus repeated Rachel’s statement aloud to see if the words sounded any more believable when he said them. All the woman did was go to work at Norton and return home. How did she make a date without him knowing about it? Rachel had no more social life than he did—unless it was someone at Norton hitting on her.
Back when he was officially monitoring her for Dr. Winters, he’d had Eric set up some discreet surveillance on her living quarters. When the situation changed, he’d left the monitoring equipment in place. He’d done so for complicated and illogical reasons admittedly based on an inappropriate interest that kept getting harder and harder to fight. His reasoning—though it remained vague in his mind—was now causing a sinking sensation in his gut.
At the time he made the decision to keep monitoring Rachel, he’d had enough problems to deal with in his life. He had been working then and was still working to get his children not to be afraid of him. Thankfully their stepfather was a decent man who helped ease his way back into their life.
It had also taken him more time than he’d expected to completely accept he’d lost his wife. She hadn’t wanted him to have the Cyber Soldier enhancements done in the first place. They had fought often and bitterly about his decision long before his actual conversion, but he’d been unwilling to send his military unit off without him. In the end, he’d proceeded without her agreement.
Accepting the loss of his one real marital relationship had hurt badly and turned into a pain that had brought tears to the surface during many sleepless nights. The loss had revealed in a harsh way how much illusion had been behind what had kept him sane during the war.
In the last seven months, he’d had to shed many more ideas. The life he’d had back before the enhancements were done was nothing like the life he had now. The war had ripped his real marriage apart with no chance of him fixing it after being put in the Cyber Husband program anyway. Infidelity was infidelity to the mother of his children, whether consensual on his part or not. She had filed all the paperwork to divorce him and married someone else shortly after the war ended. It might even have happened before he’d been assigned to his first contract wife. He’d avoided looking at the dates.
Logically, he couldn’t blame his ex for moving on, but the reality of never again being with his family had still been surprisingly hard to accept. Unlike the memories of the four women who’d bought him—memories he had willfully relegated to data storage—the many wonderful years of his marriage before the war were permanently stored in his human recall.
Today it seemed like he was going to lose another woman. Rachel’s announcement about having a date meant he’d taken too long to make up his mind about acting on his growing attraction to her. Referencing his lingering shock as the most convincing evidence he had about having heard her words correctly, he conceded all incoming data pointed to only one conclusion. He had stayed longer in Rachel Logan’s life than he should have and now he was going to suffer as he watched her move on to other men. He rationalized his inaction as waiting for a sign she was healing from Brad’s abuse.
Eric had been on his ass about making a move, but he’d never figured how to approach Rachel about the possibility of the two of them dating. She was a lot younger than him and a lot less jaded. Plus, she hated him being a cyborg worse than his wife had. Hell, he was nearly a hundred percent sure Rachel still hadn’t accepted the fact that she was a cyborg. Maybe her processor lacked that level of logic circuitry. He had no clue what went on in her human mind or her cybernetic components. No one around her would ever suspect what Brad had done to her anyway. All they would ever see was a short skirt and long legs and…hell. He needed to stop dwelling on the image of having those legs wrapped around him. He didn’t need that kind of torture.
Having regained her capacity for speech, Rachel certainly hadn’t lost any time telling him to get lost. But her announcement about dating still irked him. When had she made the necessary social contact with other men which would have led to a date? It was totally illogical to obsess over her having done so, but it was going to nag at him until he discovered how it had happened.
Rachel had been traumatized by the worst kind of cyber geek. Now the woman abhorred most technology and refused to carry a handheld. How in the hell had the guy gotten into contact with her again if she no device? Even her parents were avoiding her.
There was only one conclusion that made any sense, which was that she was lying, but he couldn’t handle thinking Rachel could be so desperate to get rid of him.
Her announcement had to be a reaction to this morning. He’d slipped up and let her catch him checking out her legs in that damn short skirt. It had been impossible not to gawk like some lovestruck kid. Maybe he should feel more guilty about the discomfort he’d instantly sensed in her, but he didn’t.
Part of him wanted to make her aware…wanted to see how she would react to him. Unless his sensors were malfunctioning, Rachel had liked his masculine attention. Unless her heightened reaction was because he was the only male she’d been seeing on a regular basis. His cybernetics scrambled trying to analyze the situation, but conjecture about feelings wasn’t the same as hard data proven with action. Short of throwing herself in his arms and demanding a kiss, Marcus didn’t know how the hell he’d know if her feelings were reciprocal.
Groaning low in frustration, Marcus glared at the scanner arch Rachel had disappeared through. His cyborg side pointed out he had the clearance to follow her to her work area and demand an explanation, but his human side leaned toward leaving things as they were a bit longer. Her anger was not something he looked forward to having turned on him.
When the guard bot had addressed her by her registered cyborg name, Rachel had looked ready to dismantle the friendly and competent unit. What would she want to do to him if he tracked her down and demanded she date him?
Contemplating her possible reactions to such a confrontation caused his processor to send flashing lights through his brain. Too many of those would lead to a headache. Sighing in momentary defeat, Marcus rubbed a hand over his face, his human side breaking through completely as a purely male sexual frustration took over every cell in his underused body.
He hated internal conflicts—all cyborgs did. Truthfully, he’d not had one moment of peace since being put back in touch with his emotions.
With the prospect of watching Rachel date men other than him, he didn’t see his situation improving any time soon.