Genres: Science Fiction, Romance, Paranormal, Urban Fantasy

 Nero 1000

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**Also Available to read in Kindle Unlimited

LENGTH: 72,000 words, 288 pages

Once he was a cyber scientist who restored cyborgs. Now he’s Nero 1000.

Locked in the cage of an insane cyber scientist who calls himself Creator Omega, Nero waits for his captor to decide his fate. Having seen Creator Omega’s horrific failed experiments, Nero knows his body is about to be cybernetically altered forever. Even knowing that, he’s not sorry he traded himself to free Aja Kapur. He would do it all over again.

Though Nero doesn’t know what Creator Omega did to the female cyborg to remove her memories and gain her obedience, he knows Kyra will fix her—if Aja finds her way back. One thing is for sure, Aja’s fellow female cyborgs, Lucy and Meara, will never stop searching and will fight to the death to save her.

Hell has no fury like an abused female cyborg seeking revenge. But who will save him?

Peyton will try. All of the cyborgs he helped restore will try. His captor may be a tipping point for the next world war. He prays that doesn’t happen, but the injustice of people being cybernetically without their permission must stop. Kyra is right about that. She’s always been right that the cyber soldier program failed humanity. And well his gods know that he played his part.

But Creator Omega doesn’t care about what anyone thinks of his evil. His madman captor wants a new right-hand man. He used Aja as bait to lure him there. Now he has exactly what he wanted all along.

For Nero, that means it’s already too late. He’s about to become something no one ever may be able to save.

 

Chapter 1

Meara marched to the chair. “Lucy needs a whole remodel and there’s no time. Kyra says I’m already wired to handle the compatible code. If this works, I’ll be able to find Aja… or at least ping her. Modify me so I can get on with it.”

Nero sighed. “No one wants Aja found more than you and I do, Meara, but you’re talking about using your cybernetics to control the movements of a satellite. This is not just bouncing a signal off it and it coming back to you. Lucy’s old processor underwent multiple upgrades to get that code to work. We also don’t know if that function damaged the rest of her when she used it. From what she tells me, it’s severely painful to run the code which means some physical price is being paid. When you last contacted Lucy, she all but passed out. Will said it hurt you to receive the communication too.”

Meara shrugged as she sat. “Lucy’s already warned me about her side of it. Physical pain I can handle, Nero, but every moment that crazy bastard has Aja is a mental and emotional torture that will break me if I don’t do something about it soon. If yer update messes up my cybernetics, so be it. I’ll find a way to deal with the consequences after we find my friend.”

Nero looked at the man leaning against the wall with arms crossed. “Do you have anything to say about her decision, Will?”

Meara grunted and mumbled a swear word under her breath. The scientist she and Aja secretly called Dr. Cyberstein tended to be offended by her swearing. The last thing she wanted was an angry scientist tweaking what was left of her brain. She glared and answered before Will could respond. “Why are ya asking Will? I’m the one being modified.”

“Because I know what it’s like to lose the woman I care about and this is that kind of risk,” Nero said to Meara sternly before looking Will’s way again. “Captain Talon?”

Will scrubbed a hand over his chin and carefully kept his gaze away from the volatile woman he was afraid of losing. There was no easy answer. Love wasn’t ownership. “I support Meara’s right to do whatever she wants.”

“Thank ya for the vote of confidence, Captain Cautious. It makes me go weak in the knees, which could prove useful for ya later. Maybe I can show ya how grateful I am when we get time,” Meara promised.

Will shook his head over her vulgar teasing like he always did. “Don’t read too much into my answer. That doesn’t mean I like the idea of what you’re doing, Meara. And Nero is right, this is not a joking matter.”

Meara sighed too. This entire debate was only slowing things down. “Don’t get stuffy with me. I don’t like this either but I’m still doing it. Aja’s trail is cold. We don’t know Creator Omega’s real identity so Eric’s search options are exhausted. Vincent said you got everything there was to get from the apprehension site. Kyra grilled the UCN Chancellors and got nothing. Even the mighty Peyton has no new ideas about where to even start looking again. It’s like that mad scientist bastard is a freaking ghost. If I don’t do this, how else are we going to find him? Lucy’s broken. If I can ping Aja, maybe we can go get all of them—bastard and victim alike.”

When neither male answered her rant, Meara leaned forward in the chair to stare at her reluctant brain hacker. Once upon a time she had ruthlessly killed cyber scientists who’d dare work on her. Now here she was begging Nero to modify her cybernetics even more than he already had. All she could was shake her head at the irony. Aja would be so furious if she were listening to this shit.

“Nero, ya need to stop weighing the value of potentially damaging me against the value of finding Aja. There is no equity that’s ever going to make sense to yer stellar logic. Ya don’t want to know how many hundreds of times Shiva’s handmaiden and I did things to save each other during all our years on the run. I promise ya on the life of every priest I ever tormented as a child that I won’t regret anything ya do to me that gives us an edge with finding Aja or Creator Omega. Fix me so Will and I can get the fuck on with what needs to be done.”

Nero nodded as he slowly walked to the chair. “Even in the short term, this modification might not give you the kind of results you’re hoping for. In the simulation I ran, the tracking code worked only sixty-seven percent of the time to ping a target with the other part of the code. I haven’t even studied it enough to estimate all the potential downsides of keeping it turned on. We can’t be sure that Aja’s cybernetics will even respond to it. Meara, the risks of this are ten times higher than the chances of success. I don’t like those odds. I want her back but destroying you in the process would be the equivalent to destroying her. I know how much she cares for you.”

Meara huffed and glared. “But aren’t ya forgetting that Aja and I had to hack the companion code that was driving us crazy? I volunteered for that shit too. We used a way less talented hacker than you to install the new code on our processors. At the time we had no idea if it would work or not. Aja bore the brunt of the risk because she was the one figuring it out. We accepted that code failure might mean my death before we installed it. For cyborgs, odds are always in the scary as shit range. So trust me when I tell ya that yer sixty-seven percent chance of giving me a way to find Aja is better than the big fat zero I have at the moment. I’ll be sure and report to ya about the downsides as I live through what yar about to do to my cybernetics.”

“I know you will.” Nero put his hand on Meara’s shoulder. “I’m going to tell you something that I should have told both you and Aja long ago. You are two of the bravest women I’ve been honored to know and restore. You’re both superior examples of the best of humanity. ”

Meara grinned and leaned back to get as comfortable as she could in the chair. Her insides were quaking like always, but that sort of fear always came with giving up control of yerself. “Shut me down and get on with it, Dr. Cyberstein. I don’t need yer pretty words. Save those for a woman ya can actually sleep with. William Talon barely lets me out of his sight. And by the way, he was my first cyborg, and I have to tell ya that the man truly is a sex machine in bed. Now I understand why all those desperate women were willing to spend millions of dollars for a cyber husband of their own. Talk about a satisfaction guarantee.”

Heat climbing his face always prompted Will to do whatever he could to stop Meara’s rambling. Will stepped away from the wall where he leaned and walked to stand at Meara’s side. He slipped his large fingers through Meara’s smaller ones and fought not to dwell on their size differences. “Damn right, I keep tabs on you. It’s a toss-up between you, Lucy, and Aja about who’s sneakiest. Right now, my vote is leaning toward you winning the prize.”

“Yar turning into a real sweet talker, William Talon,” Meara teased.

Will felt the corners of his mouth lift despite his face’s lack of practice when it came to smiling. “I don’t have any pretty words for you, Meara. Will you settle for hearing that I love you? Because I do. I love you.”

“Those are the only words a real woman ever needs to hear,” Meara said matter-of-factly, closing her eyes when Nero began shutting her down. She felt Will squeezing her fingers tightly as she went under.

* * *

Being an fourth year university engineering student, Phoebe Hunter was certainly no stranger to solving difficult problems. Learning that she’d been cybernetically altered without her knowledge should have been at the top of her problem list, but strangely it wasn’t.

All Phoebe had on her mind was finding her friend Anna who hadn’t been found among the victims who’d been terminated or converted. If they’d just let her out of this quarantined area and let her help them, well she might be able to do something they hadn’t been able to do.

Leaning her head on her hand, Phoebe pushed the portable com away that she’d been using and closed her eyes against the angry headache blooming from her frustration. Why wouldn’t the scientists they were working with let any of them out of this place? If she were free to move around, she’d also be free to do her own research. At this point, anything would be better than feeling as helpless as she felt every time she thought of her friend, Anna, being in the hands of that crazy guy who’d captured them all.

“I can’t handle this waiting shit any longer,” Phoebe muttered aloud as she opened her eyes and stood. She wasn’t a freaking criminal. They had no right to hold her against her will. She would find that Nero guy or that Dr. Winters woman and tell them so.

Her frown deepened as a handsome soldier in a drab brown uniform entered the room and looked in her direction. The guard wasn’t a cyborg, or at least, not one like most she’d seen. A long, gray stun baton hung off his belt and his swagger spoke volumes about how much confidence his weaponized penis symbol gave him. Phoebe snorted but couldn’t laugh at the guy’s compensation issues because her head hurt too much.

Cyborg or human, the guards changed every few hours. It had taken her a few days to notice the pattern since they all pretty much dressed and acted the same. Strangely, the newest soldier-for-hire walking toward her wore tinted glasses as he stalked through the dimly lit containment area. She couldn’t be sure, because her growing headache was making her squint now, but the guy appeared to her to be smirking.

Using what little focus she could muster, Phoebe studied the guard walking toward her. He looked about her age. The guy probably thought her pseudo-rescue situation was hilarious. What a jerk. Before this nightmare began, she’d would have pegged the smirking guy as some gang member… or maybe one of those survivalist types her parents detested. She’d admit the grinning bastard looked the part of soldier, but something about him still wasn’t right.

Her headache deepened the closer he moved to her. It had to be obvious to everyone in the room now that she was his target. Phoebe put a hand to her forehead and squinted up at him through the pain. The soldier narrowed his gaze as he stopped in front of her.

“Are you Phoebe Hunter?”

Phoebe nodded. “Yes. That’s me.”

“Someone left you a hand-written communication. It’s been checked and cleared for you to receive.”

The guard thrust out his hand that held an envelope. Wincing, Phoebe slowly took it from his fingers. Her head hurt so much now that it was hard to focus on being polite and doing the right thing. She wanted to glare at him, but her hurting head wouldn’t allow that kind of reaction.

The guard turned and started to leave before Phoebe remembered her own agenda. “Wait,” she called out as she rubbed her throbbing head. “I need to talk to someone about getting out of this place. Can you send one of the doctors to see me?”

The guy nodded without fully turning back to her. He tossed the answer over his shoulder. “Dr. Bastion is on his way. I’ll let him know about your request.”

“Thanks,” Phoebe said, clutching the envelope in her hand as she watched him exit.

Her headache eased instantly once the guard was out of her sight. It was like the guy had carried some sort of headache-causing device in his pocket. She hadn’t really gotten a good look at his face, but she’d probably remember his voice if she ever heard it again. Voices tended to stick with her. Was the headache yet another cybernetic side effect of whatever had been done to her? Stress was her constant companion at the moment. She didn’t yet understand what had been done to her brain.

Phoebe’s attention finally left the guard and came back to the envelope he’d given her. Her fellow prisoners were staring openly at her, probably wondering what she’d gotten from the guard. Her alleged rescuers—alleged because Phoebe couldn’t fully trust people who denied her freedom—had yet to allow her parents to see her.

Not that her parents would be fretting about her confinement. They weren’t like Anna’s parents. They’d paid for her education but hadn’t involved themselves personally in her life since she’d turned seventeen. Wealthy enough not to work normal jobs, they traveled to countries that had been nearly destroyed by the final world war. They were more than philanthropists. They were both engineers and lent their skills to rebuilding was the war had torn down.

Phoebe was proud of her parents for what they did, but she missed having a normal family.  Most of her school holidays were spent rambling around her parents’ house alone, except for those holidays she’d spent with Anna. Anna’s family was big, and messy, and no doubt frantic with worry right now. They were highly involved in their musical daughter’s life. If they’d just let her out of here, she could go see them and explain what had happened.

Brain fog clearing from her strange headache at last, Phoebe glared back until everyone else in the common area went back to his or her own business. Finally, she sat back down at the table and looked at the delivered envelope which had her name printed on it. Hand-written communications were only done for special occasions like birthdays. She was months away from that.

She cautiously peeled open the envelope flap and slid out the contents. She expected it to be a note from her absent mother and father about why they weren’t able to come to see her in person. Instead, she found a folded piece of paper and what appeared to be some sort of engineered chip that had seen better days. Visual inspection of the chip revealed no clue about what it belonged to, but maybe the note would say. Maybe it was a recording her parents made for her.

Phoebe slipped the chip into a pocket of her ugly medical clothes to hide it. Frowning over her parents not coming to demand she be released, she unfolded the note and felt her blood run cold as she read the words on it.

Attention, Phoebe 113.

You have heard that actions have consequences but so does inaction. Do keep this in mind as you read this.

The guard who delivered this to you is one of my creations. The headache you just experienced in his presence was a warning about my seriousness. By increasing the output frequency of the device he carried, I could have ended your life, and the lives of the others with you. If you fail to follow through on the task included in this note, I will take your life during my next visit.

Phoebe’s heart sped up. Her gaze flew to the doorway.

Something the guard had on his person had caused her headache. She struggled to remember what the guard looked like. The smirk she remembered, but his tinted glasses had hid his eyes. The rest was lost to the horrible headache.

The guy had been young—she remembered that—or at least he’d seemed young. The crazy scientist she recalled from her capture had not been young. But who else would be stupid enough to think she would blindly do what he told her to? Well, the scientists here were ordering her, but they weren’t threatening death if she didn’t comply.

Her eyes went back to her note.

Here are my orders. Do not deviate from them.

Give the processor chip to Dr. Nero Bastion and no one else. Tell him there is a recorded message on it that will explain what he needs to know. If you tell anyone except Nero Bastion about this note, your friend Anna will be punished severely for your disobedience. If you tell Dr. Kyra Winters, I will kill Anna 120 without a qualm and send her destroyed body back to you in pieces to prove I am not making an idle threat. As I just demonstrated, I can destroy your mind any damn time I wish, so do not think you can thwart me. I created you and I can end you.

However, if you obey my request completely, I will spare your friend’s life. I will also let you and your fellow escapees run free in the world until such time as I have further need of you. Choose your actions wisely. ~ Your Creator

Numb with shock, Phoebe lifted her head when Dr. Nero Bastion strolled into the common area. No alarms had sounded about the guard. Nero looked tired and ragged, but he did not look concerned about them or their safely. The note must be telling the truth. No one knew their confinement area had been infiltrated by the bad guys except her.

Phoebe clenched the note in her fist before shoving it into the pocket containing the chip. The bastard who’d changed her was giving her no choice except to obey him. At least Anna was still alive. Or at least she could hope that part of the note was as true as the rest.

“Good morning,” Nero said, nodding to Phoebe. “The guards said that you wanted to see me.”

Phoebe lifted her gaze to the man’s serious face and nodded as she swallowed hard. “Yes. We need to talk about something critical. But not here. This place is not safe.”

Nero looked around. “Not safe? Cyber Soldiers are guarding you, Phoebe Hunter. They won the last world war. You couldn’t be any safer.”

Phoebe rose while shaking her head. “You’re wrong, Dr. Bastion. I just had a visitor. He came in here posing as a guard. If you want to know what he said to me, you’re going to have to take me out of here.”

Nero sighed and rubbed his forehead in frustration. “I… very well. I suppose I can’t report this until I know what is going on.”

“If you tell anyone… or if I do… the crazy guy who captured me is planning to send someone here to kill me and the others.”

Nero’s eyes widened. He pulled two wrist restraints from his pockets and a collar just to be sure. He held them in the air. “These are restraints. We’re not going anywhere unless you put these on. If your cybernetics flip into a defense program, I will not hesitate to use them to incapacitate you. Still want to go?”

Phoebe pulled her hands from her pockets and held out her arms. “Yes. I’ll do whatever it takes. The note confirmed that he has my friend Anna.”

“Very well.” Nero frowned as he fastened the restraints on her. The other converted students in the room were now whispering. He inclined his head toward them. “I came here to talk to you, not to frighten everyone.”

Phoebe frowned and nodded as she answered. “And I’m doing what I was told to do so I can save their lives. They’ll get over themselves. They think I’m causing the delay in us leaving here because I keep asking to help you.”

Nero held out a hand and motioned toward the door. “Very well, Ms. Hunter. Let’s visit my lab. It’s been shielded from the majority of external devices. Perhaps you will feel safe enough to speak to me there.

Chapter 2

After helping restore many severely damaged cyborgs, Nero had learned the hard way that Creator Omega’s skills were only exceeded by the sheer audacity of his ego. The man redefined what it meant to be a narcissist. The insane cyber scientist truly believed his intelligence justified him creating a world full of cybernetically altered people programmed to obey his every whim.

If Peyton knew the man was luring him to help… but no, Nero didn’t have the luxury of seeking anyone’s help. Aja’s life depended on his absolute obedience. All he could do was leave a trail for Peyton and the others to follow.

Nero’s gut clinched in resolution. He hadn’t yet listened to the message he’d been sent, but he knew instinctively what the scientist wanted. They had destroyed his labs, stolen his creations, and now he was looking to recoup his losses.

Before he listened, Nero needed his mind to accept the reality that he was holding the restoration chip he’d programmed specifically for Aja in his fingers. And it wasn’t a replicate. He could tell by the slight alterations that had been made—alterations that would have taken several days to decode enough to create a brand new copy.

Giving Phoebe the chip was a brazen act. It proved beyond doubt that one of Creator Omega’s handcrafted minions had waltzed into the confinement area without anyone being the wiser. It was like Creator Omega had magical keys to all of Norton, which granted him and his minions access to any constrained area they wished to enter. If the messenger had employed one of the portable EMP weapons they’d seen used on cyborgs before, Phoebe Hunter and the rest of the recovered students would now be history. He and Kyra working together at top speed couldn’t have replaced nine destroyed processors fast enough to save the students.

Nero studied his hands as his mind looped potential images of nine young lifeless bodies. Phoebe Hunter had been wise to follow through on what had been asked of her. But what was he going to do?

If he said anything to Kyra or Peyton or Eric, it would definitely mean Aja’s death as well as that of Phoebe’s friend, Anna. Yet if he said nothing, Creator Omega could easily send someone back to kill all those who’d been cybernetically converted. He had to find a way to both save those remaining and those who weren’t recovered yet.

Despite the girl’s groaning, when he’d returned Phoebe to the group, he’d given orders to move the nine students to the basement level. The space was set up like an apartment but also like a medical facility. He was nearly certain their processors couldn’t be easily tracked that far below the surface no matter what kind of signal they were emitting. It had kept Captain Pennington safe for a while. Perhaps it would shield the students as well.

Of course, they couldn’t remain in the basement forever. Keeping them underground was inhumane and nearly as bad as their previous captivity. Someone would need to create a jamming mechanism for their neural implants… then upgrade the code on their chips to auto-activate in case of an EMP attack.

Nero rubbed his forehead. He had an epic headache blooming behind his eyes. There had been no sleep for him since he’d discovered Aja hadn’t returned from her rescue mission.

Worse—remorse owned him every time his mind replayed their last conversation.

He should have told Aja that he found her beautiful.

He should have spoke of love and how much he admired her for surviving all she had.

He should have asked how she felt about a woman taking a man’s name when they married because he’d been thinking about marriage to her almost since the moment Aja Kapur had awakened her after restoration. He’d felt her viciousness, and barely been able to restrain her because of it, but he’d also felt the passion behind her actions. That part of her nature had brought him a thousand feelings of desire that he’d never felt for a woman before.

He’d been an idiot to let his strong feelings for Aja frighten him into silence. Now he held Aja’s life in the palm of his hand. The time for hesitation was gone. Either he loved her enough to sacrifice himself or he should turn this all over to Peyton.

Not that anyone being right or wrong mattered, but Kyra’s views were right. It was so clear to him now. Cybernetic conversation was nothing more than a high-tech form of enslavement. The cost to the human being converted was far too big a price for anyone to pay for any reason.

He finally understood why Kyra was always so hard on herself. Without her original findings and her code, Jackson Channing wouldn’t have been able control cyborgs. It was Kyra’s code that turned the soldiers into human robots. That code had exceeded Channing’s capacity to write it. Even Evil Brad, as the cyborgs had dubbed him, had hacked Kyra’s original work instead of writing his own code. Next to Nero, Brad had shown the most promise in restoration work. Unfortunately, his college friend had chosen to support Jackson Channing’s side and Kyra had been forced into controlling him cybernetically.

That sin had not gone without punishment either. Creator Omega had eventually captured Brad and done his own cybernetic tweaking. If anything, Creator Omega’s work was the only work that rivaled Kyra’s cybernetic brilliance.

Still musing about how they’d all gotten to this place in cyber science history, Nero slid Aja’s chip into the programming slot and began inspecting it. Soon he found the stored vid file. No attempt had been made to hide the recording, which appeared completely organic.

The crazy bastard obviously wanted Nero to know that Aja herself had been his recording tool, likely before he pulled the chip from her. Whoever Creator Omega was, he knew as much about the cyborgs as Nero or Kyra did. The question was how. How did he know? Where had he gotten his training?

A neatly dressed man appeared on the screen, but he wasn’t facing Aja directly, so his face was not in full focus. Instead, the man walked some distance away before speaking. A white lab coat with giant pockets covered his unwrinkled clothes. As he moved around talking, Nero could see two other females lying on tables to one side of his pacing area. One of them might be Phoebe Hunter’s friend. Thankfully both females looked like New World Companions rather than anything like the abominations Meara and William had brought back in Creator Omega’s stolen shuttle.

How sick was it that knowing the females were merely programmed as companions was such a relief to him? Nero rubbed his forehead again and replayed the vid twice more as he took in the surroundings and the speaker. The third time through he made himself listen as closely as he could to the words.

Greetings, Nero Bastion. I have just received notice that you activated this recording. It is my understanding that you value the female cyborg my associates and I now have in our possession. As a sign of good faith, I have returned Aja 490’s original processor chip to you to prove the offer I’m about to make you is legitimate. I badly need an assistant, Nero Bastion, and you have the proper skillset. So I am proposing we make a trade—I am willing to exchange your very talented life for the Aja 490’s nearly useless one.”

Nero paused the recording when he realized he couldn’t hear anything except his own heart thundering in his chest with alarm. The man had used Aja’s onboard recording mechanism to make the video he was watching. It was absolute proof the bastard had her. Getting angrier would do no good. He needed to be rational—calm. He needed to make the right decision.

When his heat finally slowed again, Nero resumed his viewing.

“There are coordinates at the end of this recording. You must arrive within two hours of viewing this. Show up and I will release Aja 490 who will be programmed to find her way back to Norton. Failure to meet my deadline will cause me to destroy Aja’s new processor. The appearance of anyone else but you at the coordinates will also result in her instant death. Follow my directions and I promise you that Aja 490 will be set free. As I said, I badly need a new assistant. I look forward to your acceptance of my job offer and to making a trade. Do not disappoint me.”

Using the permanent marker he kept in his pocket, Nero wrote the coordinates on his hand and then pulled Aja’s processor from the reader. He wrote Aja 490 Original Chip Restoration on a protective case after storing the chip inside. Then he dropped the processor case into a large storage envelope along with Aja’s fingernail. He added the note Phoebe had received from the guard and one from him explaining why he could not gamble with Aja’s life after Creator Omega’s guard had so blatantly visited Phoebe Hunter.

Debating with himself for a few brief seconds, Nero plugged a new processor chip into his machine and keyed in the command to load it with the prototype code he’d been reluctantly working on at Kyra’s insistence. At first, they were intending to use the code to rebuild the companions that had not been able to be restored. They were two more of Aja and Meara’s military peers and had not been as lucky as Lucy. They’d both tried to destroy themselves and both nearly succeeded. Kyra had installed a stasis version in them, but what those women lived each day couldn’t be considered a life. It was only Kyra’s interest in testing the processor on Rachel that worried him. But if he didn’t return?

Decision made, he waited until the processor finished then ejected it. For a moment, Nero rolled it over and over in his fingers. In two minutes, he’d created a cybernetic processor powerful enough to grant a cyborg sentience and much, much more. In ancient days, this would have been seen as magic. As he looked at it, all he saw was the effort of mankind to harness the power of gods.

He snapped the prototype processor into a blank case and scribbled two words on the outside of it. Kyra would see what he wrote and instantly know what the processor was meant for.

In his personal note, he asked Kyra to do her best to restore Aja when she arrived home—something he had to believe would eventually happen despite knowing what Creator Omega had been doing to his latest round of victims.

Though he completely accepted that someone as insane as Creator Omega would likely have no problem lying to him about Aja’s release, Nero couldn’t think about that happening. The scientist had gone to a lot of trouble to deliver a personal message to him. For whatever the reason, Creator Omega wanted Nero to give himself up willingly. What choice did he have except to go along?

As far as Nero could see, he had no other options. If Creator Omega’s minion could sneak into the containment bunker and leave again without anyone knowing it had happened, Nero really couldn’t turn the crazy scientist down. He could just as easily decide to kill Kyra as well as the students. Where would all the cyborgs be without Kyra Winters?

Since Creator Omega hadn’t killed them yet, it likely meant the scientist considered them to be of some future use to him. His success in infiltrating the bunker meant the bastard knew he had an edge. Eric’s theory that the man was tapping into their restoration research was now all but proven by the fact they were all still alive.

So he’d go and make the trade. He’d exchange himself for Aja and pray the bastard kept his word.

The original cyborgs had sacrificed their humanity in order to save the world. Now it appeared it was time for him to make a sacrifice. He had no intentions of helping the crazy cyber hacker, but he’d play along. He’d managed to shield the reality of his work from the now deceased Dr. Jackson Channing who’d been Kyra’s counterpart. He’d find a way to shield his future work from Creator Omega as well.

As he sealed the envelope, Nero prayed to all the Gods he believed in that he’d somehow find the internal strength to kill the evil bastard the first chance he got to do so.

* * *

“When are you leaving?”

Will ignored Lucy’s question to watch as Kyra ran yet another test. Meara had stopped complaining the moment she realized that Kyra Winters wasn’t letting her out of the chair until she’d checked everything she possibly could.

Listening to Meara’s clipped one-word confirmations was getting on his nerves. Meara wasn’t giving Kyra anything but POW answers worthy of any soldier who’d been captured by the enemy. He wondered if the white-coated scientist had any idea about the fine line she walked with her torment of a trained soldier capable of killing her in less than three seconds.

Here was yet another time where Will realized that he preferred Meara’s blistering lectures and senseless chatter about stupid shit. It amazed him that he felt that way, but he did. His logic failed every time Meara opened her mouth but now he didn’t care about that either. Love drove everyone crazy, including logical cyborgs.

He shook his head about how he felt about Meara and turned back to face Lucy. “I’m sorry. I heard your question, Lucy, but I got distracted with the interrogation happening across the room.”

Lucy grunted. “Distraction is Meara’s middle name. Don’t worry, Will. She’s just pissed. I’m sure you’ll get an earful about Kyra’s torment of her later.”

“Yeah. There’s a hundred percent chance of that happening,” Will replied with most of grin. “And to answer your question, we’re leaving as soon as Kyra clears Meara to leave.”

Lucy nodded. “I’m sorry it came to her doing this. I wish I could have helped more.”

Will shook his head. “Meara told me about your research. You’re doing your share of the nasty work.”

Lucy dropped her gaze to her hands. “If my processor wasn’t so fucked up, I’d know the answer about whether or not I’m right. There’s just some nagging part of me that says I didn’t kill him. I don’t care whose DNA is in that report.”

“Jackson Channing was a vicious sociopath and narcissist. If you’re right, whatever escape route he took, you can bet the UCN Chancellors funded it. All those abominations Meara and I found? They probably funded those too. Just like they funded the work on me and the work on you. Our government is currently run by a bunch of sick bastards even if no one can prove it.”

Lucy nodded. “Maybe I can get to that. First I have to prove it wasn’t Jackson Channing to Kyra. Then I’ll look for a way to prove it to the world. Since I can’t be modified, finding out who the hell I killed or didn’t kill is the least I can do.”

“Meara was the right choice to take on this modification. She’s the only cyborg I know who won’t be tempted to use any level of power against people for no good reason.” Will grunted as he grinned. “God help all the droids we come across though. She keeps that step-dancing program ready for wireless delivery to anything robotic. Her pranks mean the world to her.”

Lucy chuckled despite the hollowness of her gut. Meara’s antics always made her laugh. “That’s more a truth to that than you know. I just hope one day you find her as funny as the rest of us do.”

Will snorted and lifted an eyebrow. “Her sense of humor drives me nuts, but I do love her, Lucy. I know you think I don’t but…”

“Not true, Will. I merely worry that you don’t, but I don’t think any one thing about it. If I honestly worried that you were stringing Meara along, I’d have to intervene. You really wouldn’t like me intervening. Neither would Meara.”

Will ran a hand through his hair. “Look, Lucy… Cassandra and I…”

“You don’t have to explain anything to me.”

“Yes, I do. I don’t want you thinking Meara and I aren’t serious because we are.” Will paused and sighed. “Let’s just say I got closure with my past. I understand now that I lost my wife the moment I got cybernetically converted because she never approved or understood why I did that. Still, thoughts of Cassandra kept me alive when I needed them to, and I’m grateful for that.”

Lucy nodded. “As any soldier would be.”

Will nodded too. “Right—and I get that completely. I also get that Cassandra is happier with her completely human husband than she was being married to a soldier who put the needs of his country before the needs of his wife and kids. Even if Cassandra had wanted me back, I couldn’t have spent the rest of my life with a woman who was afraid of me—and the truth was that I terrified her.” He lifted his chin in Meara’s direction. “That woman over there in Kyra’s chair is not afraid of anyone or anything, least of all me.”

Lucy grunted as she glanced in Meara’s direction. “Meara’s only fear is losing the people she loves. She longs for a simple life with fun times and happy friends. It’s a pity no one ever gave it to her before now.”

“I can give Meara a simple life, but fun times don’t seem to be in my wheelhouse,” Will said flatly.

Lucy laughed a little. “Well, that’s not what I hear. Meara says you can be a lot of fun behind closed doors.”

“Stop right there,” Will ordered firmly, holding up a hand and grinning when Lucy giggled. “I do not want to hear what Meara tells her friends about us. I haven’t recovered yet from her telling Nero things he should never have known about me.”

Lucy laughed. “Good Lord, William Talon. Are you actually blushing? You were never like this during our college days.”

Both their heads turned to Meara when she launched herself out of the medical chair. “That’s all I can stand of this,” she said loudly, glaring at Kyra Winters. “I’ve got a whopper of a headache from Nero’s tinkering and a ball of fire in my gut from my worry. I need to get out of here before I start pounding on things to make me feel better.”

Kyra sighed and threw up a hand. “Fine. I expect you to keep in touch, Meara. And I mean I want a report every hour. No more sneaking off and not communicating.”

Meara rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry. When I find Aja Kapur, I plan to make sure that ya and yer restored cyborg army are the first to know. That crazy scientist is not escaping again. I want him dead this time.”

“As do I,” Kyra said as she stood. “As do I.”

Chapter 3

Nero rented an airship because Meara and Will were using his. With any luck, Eric would track him here and be just enough of a heartbeat behind to keep Creator Omega from knowing he’d led a cavalry to his rescue. He left the coordinates on Eric’s workstation with no explanation about what they were, but Nero knew the curiously intuitive cyborg would plug them in just to investigate.

The rest of the info about his plans was in the envelope Kyra would get when Rachel delivered it later today. He’d told Rachel the contents were time sensitive and that Kyra was too busy to see it this morning.

He’d also left the prototype chip for Rachel that he and Kyra had been arguing about. If Rachel decided to add it to her cybernetics, it would allow her to learn virtually anything, including the coding for her own cybernetics and any others she wanted to learn. Seetha might end up losing her in the repair lab, but Kyra might gain someone else to assist her with restorations. He had been forced in those terms when making this decision because Creator Omega had proven to be unpredictable as well as lethal. Nero wasn’t naïve about his heroics. He knew doing this could lead to his death—or even worse.

His real concern about Rachel getting another upgrade was that the woman’s personality would likely shift with any growth in her intelligence. Extensive learning tended to do that to normal human brains. A few years of university study at a measured pace could turn a naturally intelligent person into a ruthless academic. He knew that because that was the story of his own life. But as with most cybernetic enhancements, no one could predict what the new learning chip would do to someone who was already part machine.

Nero was opposed because of Marcus too. Marcus loved Rachel and she loved him back. Years and years ago Kyra had taught him that it was always best to leave cybernetics that were working fine alone… and Rachel was working fine. She was restless, perhaps a tad unsatisfied with her mundane work, but nothing she felt was outside what every human on Planet Earth felt at one time or another.

Kyra argued it should be Rachel’s choice to get the new chip or not, but that stance was not normal for the scientist who’d mentored him. After Meara and Will returned with the merged animal-man abominations, Kyra had gotten harder and tougher. She was less inclined to debate now and more inclined to make radical changes—changes like what he’d gotten coerced into making to Meara this morning. Yet the slightest amount of brain damage could turn Meara into a devastating weapon, eclipsing even what had been done to Captain Lucille Pennington. Risking the creation of another Lucy just didn’t seem worth it to him.

And Will—his gods only knew that soldier was the most unstable cyborg Nero could remember working on. Will’s changes were as risky as Meara’s. It was more than reasonable to be concerned about both Will and Meara’s new abilities no matter how much he liked them and wanted them to thrive in their humanity.

Nero guided the airship down to a vacant space just outside a set of woods. The location of the coordinates wasn’t far from where he and Vincent had found Aja’s fingernail, which meant Creator Omega couldn’t be far away either. How could Eric keep scanning this area without finding him? Such subterfuge was beyond his comprehension.

Nero rubbed his stomach and the permanent ache that seemed to have settled there. Peyton once told him that even cyborgs felt that sort of physical apprehension and fear. With no one at the coordinates there to greet him, he saw no screaming need to act more heroic than he already was being.

Nero climbed slowly from the vehicle and checked his wrist com. His arrival was under the two hour deadline—barely—but still under it. He scanned the edge of the woods but saw nothing and no one. Surely, he wasn’t considered late. The note hadn’t said much but he’d been expecting an escort. How else could this exchange work?

He reached into the back of the airship and pulled a jacket from it. He walked a short distance away from the airship and spread the jacket on the ground. Kneeling on it, Nero took up a meditation stance and began to softly pray. It was a better use of his time than pacing and fretting.

* * *

Jake grinned as he lifted his wrist com and pressed a button to instantly connect. “Hey, boss. This is going to be a piece of cake. You have the guy on his knees and he’s mumbling to himself.”

“Anyone come with him?”

He hadn’t seen anyone, but Jake’s gaze swung in Tad’s direction. He smiled when Tad shook his head. Jake mirrored Tad’s head shaking even though the wrist com didn’t have visual support. Sometimes you just did what felt right to keep your brain from hurting. “Negative, boss. Tad circled the parameter twice and no one else is inside the vehicle he brought here. It looks like a very sweet ride. Can we take it?”

“No. It’s likely a rental, which will be traced eventually. We known he gave his personal airship to those two wrecked cyborgs that Kyra Winters has been hacking. I don’t understand why he’d save money all those years to buy such a prestigious craft and then simply give it away to people who are more machine than human. Dr. Bastion’s mind is just screaming for modification. What I intend to do to him is practically a public service.”

Jake listened for Creator Omega’s tone to escalate into anger. His boss’s meltdown from losing all the projects he’d been set to salvage and this own personal companions had resulted in the boss withdrawing from him and Tad for a couple of days. Jake sobered at the thought. The man was never scarier than when he was brooding.

“Are you talking about the cyborgs who stole your women and your work?” Jake asked, wanting to be sure he understood.

He winced as he waited for an angry outburst, but it never came. Apparently, he and Tad weren’t the only ones who’d taken their meds that day.

“Yes, Jake. I’m talking about those two wastes of cybernetics. Do not engage them. If you see them, put on your scramblers and engage the EMP device without delay. I want them both dead. In fact, I want all the originals dead. They keep disrupting my plans with their unpredictable machinations.”

“Doesn’t look like engaging the EMP device will be necessary today, but I will definitely do that if they cyborgs show up.”

“Good man. Now treat my new assistant nice when you pick him up. Ask him to wear the blind-fold. If he doesn’t agree to the request, just say fine, tell him the deal is off, and walk away. He won’t let you get far—trust me. And no rough handling. I don’t want him damaged. He’s an academic. There’s not much fight in him, but you never know what he might be thinking about doing.”

“Don’t worry. I’m good at talking people into being fearful,” Jake said as reassuringly as he could. “Phoebe Hunter didn’t question anything I said to her. She also didn’t recognize me. I’ll get this guy to go along too.”

“I know you will, Jake. Is Tad doing what he’s told?”

“Sure. Tad’s been great about taking orders today,” Jake replied with a grin.

“Hey now… I’m always good about orders,” Tad said, putting his mouth close to Jake’s wrist. “You can trust me, boss. I took my meds today.”

“Excellent, Tad. Now you two go get my assistant for me. I’ll program the hiring incentive for her return trip back. Don’t call me again unless there’s a problem because I’ll be working. Just bring Nero Bastion back with you.”

“Consider it done,” Jake said, closing out the communication.

Together he and Tad walked out of the woods to collect the cyber scientist who was slated to become the boss’s right hand guy. Creator Omega hadn’t said what his plans were for Nero, but Jake had a pretty good idea that the skinny academic was soon going to be replaced with new and improved model.

* * *

“My head still hurts. I’m getting real tired of people in white coats telling me what to do. I don’t care how much of my brain they’ve seen.”

Will nodded at her complaining while he steered the airjet. He and Meara had agreed to get halfway to their destination to do their waiting. If anything went wrong, their return would not take long.

“Only a few more hours. The worst-case scenario would be for you to have a processor malfunction during your first try. When we get to our location, you can run your calibration tests. Once you feel stable about your control, or you get a ping back, then we’ll head to the coordinates. If the modification worked, by then we’ll know which direction to take. Right?”

Meara lifted one shoulder and let it fall. “That’s the theory—unless Aja’s been taken too far underground or her processor is being jammed.”

“Then we have our plan worked out.” Will glanced at Meara taking quick note of her locked jaw. “Let’s talk about something positive instead of what we have to do. You need a break from worrying.”

Meara rolled her eyes. “I don’t believe what I’m hearing. William Talon wants to focus on the positives. Hell must be ready to freeze over.”

“Ha. Ha,” Will said.

“Normally, yar the one who wants to dwell on every little thing that could go wrong. Did Kyra upgrade yer happy chip while I was recovering from Nero’s tinkering?”

“No. I’ve been upgrading it myself by sleeping with you,” Will said, going along with the joke. “So… let’s talk about this… you never answered the question I asked you yesterday. Have you given it any more thought?”

Meara couldn’t stop herself from making a growling noise deep in her throat. “How can a woman not think about the first marriage proposal of her life? I’ve thought of little else and ya know it. I didn’t stop thinking about it until Nero put me under.”

Will waited a few seconds then turned to glare. “That complaining is not an answer. My divorce is a decade old. My closure on my previous relationship may only be a few weeks behind me, but since we don’t know how long either of us will manage to survive what’s been done to us, I don’t want to wait.”

Meara held up a hand to stop him. “I know, William. I remember yer pretty speech. Even if I wasn’t a cyborg, I would have remembered every word of it. Women naturally do that sort of remembering when it comes to their man popping that all-important question. Now I do have to protest about ya asking me while ya were showing me a glimpse of what heaven is like. That wasn’t fair of ya when ya know I have a weakness for the glory that ya give me.”

Will laughed and earned a glare for it. In this case, he didn’t care one bit. The woman beside him was the only creature on God’s earth capable of appealing to his nearly non-existent sense of humor. It didn’t surprise him in the least that she’d possessed what it took to yank his sexuality out of its early grave just so he could pleasure her.

The decade he’d served as some madman’s killing machine had just about taken all his humanity from him. Spending time with Meara had been drawing it back out of him for months. He’d gotten so hopeful that he found himself planning a future that included Saturday barbecues and arguments over what movie to watch after their friends went home. That combined with their innate chemistry in bed fueled his desperation to hang on to Meara any way he could.

To him, that could only be done one way. “I know I’ve been selfish wanting you to stay at my place. I know you don’t want to leave Aja alone so much. Maybe she could come live with us for a while. Would that make the transition easier?”

Meara grunted. “No. Living alone would be good for her. Maybe she’d start giving men a chance. Poor Nero’s been pining for her since she attacked him after her restoration. It’s taken her forever to even acknowledge she cares about him. I don’t know what it’s going to take for her to have a bloody breakthrough.”

William chuckled. “You never told me Aja attacked Nero. I’ve seen you two fight. How is he even still alive?”

“Because Dr. Cyberstein was clever enough to heed my warnings without making it seem like he was heeding anything. He fixed me first and when I woke up I told the man exactly what Aja would be like when she woke up. He barely managed to escape the cage he’d locked her inside of when Aja woke mad. Then she nearly came through the bars after him. Then she used our stealth skills to unlock the digital lock on the cage which shocked Nero way more than her putting his skinny scientist ass on the floor when she busted out.”

Will shook his head. “None of that surprises me. Dr. Bastion keeps himself in shape but he’s no match for a cyborg of any sort.”

Meara nodded. “True, but don’t underestimate how well the man’s mind works. That was Aja’s mistake. I wasn’t about to help her, though I could have done so. When he got back up on his feet, Nero took Aja down with some sort of stun weapon he was carrying in his pocket. He warned her about it before he used it on her, but Aja was still pissed about Lucy incapacitating us to take his little threat seriously. I have to say the man’s face was a reflection of pure agony when he had to carry an unconscious Aja back to her cage. I knew then they’d be perfect for each other. He wasn’t afraid of what she was or of her fiery side. Plus, they have that whole religion thing in common.”

“That’s something you and I have never discussed. Are you religious?” Will asked.

Meara shrugged as she thought about it. “I suppose I consider myself more spiritual than religious. In the orphanage where I ended up, we were all drilled in the beliefs of the New Universal Church. The priests and nuns were all about rituals. I went along when I could, but the stifling rules made rebellion a relief to my soul. Then there was the whole patriarchal view versus the matriarchal spin on God’s gender—I struggled mightily with that.”

“I bet I know which gender side you picked for your favored deity,” Will said with a chuckle.

Meara snorted. “I’m sure ya think ya know me well, but I’m not really a man-hater, despite what men did to me when I was wired as a companion. It was actually Aja Kapur who broadened my thinking. She prays to several powerful Hindu gods and some of the more vicious ones are female. Over the years, I think her views affected mine.”

“Well, I’m actually surprised you don’t worship the multiple gods of your ancient Celtic ancestors. If I remember my religious history well, the Tuatha de Danann were all quite bloodthirsty. ”

“The Tuatha de Danann weren’t really gods. They were a magical race with some god-like powers, which caused some people to treat them like gods, which in turn elevated their powers. Personally, I always pictured them as aliens from another planet or another dimension. Now the true Celtic gods were nearly a mirror of the Viking ones and all of them had a specialty. But I never got behind them either. No, I’m afraid the home country of my parents fell solidly in the ‘One True God’ camp complete with its Holy Trinity of two related males and one asexual spirit.”

Will grinned at the description. “So are you still in that camp?”

“No. My affection for Lucy and my determinations to find her taught me that I longed for a mother figure much more than a father figure. I’ve made my fair share of deals with the Goddess over the years, especially those times when death was staring me in the face.”

“So you pray a lot then,” Will concluded.

Meara grinned at his teasing. “More since I got restored than before it. Cyber scientists are mostly agnostic, but my worries about them know no end. I do a lot of praying that no one has done anything unfixable to my brain. But I don’t want to spend my time bad-mouthing Kyra or Nero today, so tell me about your religious leanings.”

“My leanings. Okay. My family was old school Catholic, but they weren’t what you would consider faithful practitioners of their belief rituals. Getting married improved my religious life for a time. Cassandra and I went to chapel on the bases where I was stationed. Until I was captured and put through daily torture, I honestly thought of myself as a fairly religious person. All that ended when I kept waking up in my nightmare over and over. Somewhere along the line, I stopped believing there was a higher power until I got to know you. You restored the faith my tormentor took from me. You gave me back my hope that humanity is worth saving.”

Meara leaned forward and looked out of front window up into the clouds. “Did ya hear that, Goddess? Yar in my debt now. We’ll call it even if ya help me find Aja. I know my sister cyborg prays to other gods than you, but this would be a real solid favor for me and I wouldn’t forget it.” She leaned back in her seat and turned to Will. “Thanks for telling me that. It made my day to know I can worrying about owing her.”

“And the best part is that it’s true,” Will teased. “But you still haven’t answered my question.”

“I haven’t answered ya because I don’t know how to even think about what ya want from me,” Meara said with a frown. “Marriage was not in anyone’s future plans for me when I was growing up and I never put it in my own. I was a heathen girl who slept with boys for the fun of it. Then in my early twenties, the military let some bastard turn me into a cybernetic prostitute. For most of my life, I’ve gone after sex the same way I went after getting a drink of water or something to eat. It wasn’t like I was saving myself or my virtue for just one man to enjoy. I only understand what’s that like because that’s how Aja and Lucy think. I was always wired a bit differently as a female.”

“Are you saying you don’t believe in sexual monogamy?” Will asked in shock.

Meara shook her head. “No, I’m saying I don’t understand it because I’ve never given it any thought. Well, not until you. I’m quite enjoying sleeping with ya every night, but it still feels strange and slightly unnatural to me to spend so much time with one male. Although I am starting to see some advantages from learning to satisfy one person’s sexual needs in-depth.”

“Huh,” Will said. “So do you think you can find someone better… uh… I mean, someone more talented than me in bed?”

“No, William. It’s not really about the sex. It’s about the trust and the companionship if ya will excuse that last horrible term. Remember that I watched ya pine for Cassandra. I saw love for her in yer eyes. Ya had children with the woman and I get yer commitment to her. However, I don’t think ya feel the same for me and we’ll never have children together so our bond will be looser. I’m sure Lucy told ya that they neutered all the female cyborgs to make sure they never conceived. I think ya want to marry me because ya think marrying me is the right thing to do. For me, I’m about us staying together until one of us feels the need to move on. I don’t feel the need to hang on quite as tightly.”

“So love and marriage don’t automatically go together in your head?”

Meara turned to stare out of a side window. “I guess I don’t get how marriage can mean anything to a cyborg except as a way of being unofficially owned. I don’t want to be owned, Will. I know ya don’t want that either. I’ve heard Marcus and Eric talking about their Cyber Husband days. It left scars on both of them that even the new women in their lives can seem to lift completely. It didn’t really surprise me that both of them ended up in relationships to other cyborgs who’d been treated similarly.”

“Aren’t Eric and Lucy getting married?”

Meara shook her head. “Not that either of them has mentioned to me.”

Will frowned. “Huh. Maybe I am old-fashioned.”

Meara turned back and reached out to touch Will’s arm. “Wanting what ya want is not a bad thing. Being married is just a different way of looking at life. And I am still considering yer proposal. I just…” Meara stopped and sighed. “Maybe if I could talk to Aja about it, I could get clearer on the matter. Saving her is all I can think about at the moment.”

Will nodded and then went silent as he worked on landing. It never occurred to him that Meara might not want to get married.

He had a lot of thinking to do.

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