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"I've got a bad feeling about this mission," Johnson VH571 muttered to no one in particular as the ship began to buck upon entering the atmosphere of the planet below them.
Amaryllis VH600's gut clenched reflexively at the comment. She'd been having bad vibes from the moment she and her partner had joined the mission in progress at the TM20 way station. The Company had indicated that the assignment would be a 'piece of cake', but they had a way of understating most of the operations they sent their hunters out on.
This one stank of disaster waiting to happen and she doubted that she and Johnson were the only ones to think so.
To be completely fair, though, there were a number of factors that could account for the sense of impending doom that had nothing to do with precognition or even logical assumptions based on previous operations.
She was a seasoned soldier. She'd been on almost a dozen missions, most of them complete successes, but she still had pre-battle jitters every time she participated in a new operation, and this one promised to be something major, unlike any undertaking she'd taken part in before. That was enough to make her uneasy in and of itself.
Beyond that, the story The Company had cooked up reeked of fabrication, and not just because their main objective was to capture one of their own--if possible--and eliminate her if necessary.
Dalia VH570 was one of their best cyborg hunters. It not only didn't make sense that she'd gone rogue and joined 'the enemy'--why would a human join forces with machines?--but, assuming The Company wasn't lying and she had, why the order to capture her if possible?What made her more important than the rogues themselves, important enough to put together three squads of hunters in such a haphazard, poorly planned mission?
Because misery was almost certainly one of the reasons everyone, including her, was so antsy. Discomfort went with the territory. As a soldier, she'd endured her share of it, but she wasn't accustomed to being packed into a vessel designed for eight with sixteen other hunters like a food cube in a package of vacuum sealed rations.
According to The Company, the break in security had been unanticipated, which explained to an extent why they hadn't had a lot of time for preparations. The cyborgs, who'd either captured Dalia, or snatched her from beneath The Company's nose, were traveling in a short range racer and she supposed it only made sense to launch a chase in similar crafts, built for speed rather than distance and capacity.
Contrary to all logic, however, the cyborgs had gone deep space and they'd had, perforce, to follow or risk losing sight of the quarry all together.
The end result had been three days of very little food, water, or sleep and she, for one, was cranky with the lack of all three. With so many of them packed into one small craft, they'd had to rotate use of the two small cabins the ship boasted--which meant she'd had a grand total of twelve hours rest in the last seventy two hours--and almost nothing to eat or drink since they had no idea of how long the rations would have to last.
There was yet another reason for the sense of impending disaster that had nothing to do with the mission, and he was sitting right beside her, but, as always, Amaryllis did her best not to think about her partner, Reese, if she could help it. As long as she didn't think about why he could spell disaster for her, she figured she had a better chance of not falling in with the fantasies that could ruin her career and quite possibly lead to a good bit of jail time if the bastards that ran The Company were vindictive enough to pursue it.
She had a feeling they were.
Dismissing those thoughts with an effort, Amaryllis focused on the puzzle of their mission.
The army The Company had built, the hunters, had been tracking and 'decommissioning' rogue cyborgs for years now. As far as she knew, though, there'd never been a concerted assault like the one they currently faced ... which bore the earmarks of an all out war. In general, cyborgs traveled alone, occasionally in pairs. That was the reason she and the other hunters usually worked alone or were sometimes partnered with one or two other hunters, depending on the circumstances--there were a lot of rogues to eliminate and the entire confederation of systems to hide in and she'd spent far more time hunting than battling.
What were the odds, she wondered, that a whole nest of them was about to fall right in their laps?
She didn't buy it, whatever The Company said. The cyborgs might be emotionally unstable due to faulty programming, but there was nothing wrong with their logic circuits. They rarely made mistakes, and certainly not of this magnitude.
The Company, on the other hand, had a bad habit of making stupid mistakes.
Building the cyborgs in the first place was the most notable one. They just couldn't resist playing God. They'd cornered the market with their advances in robotics and robotically enhanced bio-genetic organs, but that only seemed to have whetted their appetite for more glory. The rogues were the first--ever--marriage of robotics and bio-engineering to produce human-like cybernetic organisms--for what true purpose one could only imagine--but they'd succeeded beyond their wildest dreams and failed abysmally at the same time because, like the monster in the classic horror tale, their creation had turned on them. The cyborgs had been so real, so 'life like' that, according to The Company, they'd begun to believe it themselves. Unfortunately, that belief had clashed with their programming and made them dangerously unstable.
The hunter unit, of which she was a member, had been formed after their rebellion and escape to track these dangerous rogue cyborgs down and destroy them.
Why, and for that matter, how, after all this time, had the cyborgs decided to unite and oppose The Company in force when they'd been behaving up until now as one might expect, erratically and irrationally?
And why would Dalia, one of their own, one of their best, have 'turned'?
That part didn't make any sense at all. A few of the hunters seemed just a tad overzealous to her, a little on the fanatical side when it came to the cyborgs. For her part, she couldn't say that she despised them--they were machines, after all--and she thought she was probably typical of most hunters--doing her job, not actually sympathetic to the cyborgs but not particularly rabid either. Sympathy was the key word though, and she didn't see how one of their own could go from hunter to rogue sympathizer at the drop of a hat, particularly not Dalia, who supposedly had.
Even if she accepted that, which she didn't, why would the cyborgs consider Dalia important enough to take such a risk as to land right in The Company's backyard to pick her up? Then, having done something so uncharacteristically stupid, they'd so far forgotten themselves as to be completely unaware of being followed? Leading them back to their stronghold?
The flip side was the possibility that Dalia had been captured by the cyborgs, but that supposition took her no where either since she couldn't come up with a 'why and how' that made any sense.
She considered herself a good soldier, but she didn't like flying blindly into a situation that she didn't understand.
The bucking of the ship finally subsided as they entered the atmosphere and Amaryllis glanced at the soldier beside her, wondering what Reese thought about the situation. Typically, he appeared completely unruffled either by the impending battle or the teeth rattling jolting they'd just been through.
Irritation flitted through her.
It was all very well to be cool under fire, but Reese was just a little too unflappable to suit her. For her part, she'd have felt better about working with him if she'd seen a hint of uneasiness in his cold blue eyes occasionally, a touch of doubt--maybe a little lust when he gave her one of those thorough once overs he was prone to when he thought she wouldn't notice--anything that indicated he wasn't the next thing to a frigging cyborg himself.
Not that she could honestly say she knew him all that well. He wasn't exactly the open, friendly, or chatty type and aside from their current mission, she'd only been partnered with him on two others. Prior to that, her missions had all been solo, but she'd fucked up royally on her last solo mission--almost gotten herself killed--and The Company had decided to pair her with a partner when she had finally recovered enough to take on another assignment.
She resented it. To err was human. It was only to be expected that, occasionally, somebody would fuck up. That didn't mean she needed a baby sitter and she knew damn well that was what Reese was--guard dog--because he'd made certain she saw next to no action since he'd been with her.
She figured they'd saddled him with her because of the credits it had cost the company to rebuild her--not that they were actually footing the bill. The credits were coming out of her salary, but she supposed they meant to see to it that she lived long enough to repay her debt and having a topnotch soldier like Reese to watch her was the best way of getting their use out of her and at the same time making sure she was around long enough.
Regardless, it was still a source of embarrassment and irritation. Probably a quarter of the females in the unit were paired with a male partner, so her situation was by no means unique. It was the fact that she had been deemed competent to work alone before and no longer was that irked her.
It also bothered/embarrassed her that Reese had only to glance in her direction to make her feel uncomfortable in a way she didn't particularly welcome.
She'd been too confused and angry at first to consider the reason for it. Later, she'd put it down to everything except what it really was.
She'd finally been forced to admit, to herself at least, that the fact was that he was a dangerous distraction. She had heart palpitations whenever he looked directly at her--which, for good or bad, was rare--which put her in far more danger, to her way of thinking, than if she hadn't had a partner at all.
It wasn't the sort of thing she could complain to The Company about, of course. She could well imagine their reaction. 'Yes, I know he's a great soldier, a perfect killing machine and a brilliant strategist, but he's also grade A prime beef and I can't look at him without my brain going to mush and you don't even want to know what it does to me when he touches me, however casually. Do you think you could pair me with somebody that doesn't make me cream in my pants every time I look at him?'
The idea of the expressions such a confession would elicit was almost amusing. Unfortunately, the situation made her feel like a silly schoolgirl in the grips of her first crush, and that didn't amuse her at all.
Shifting uncomfortably, she glanced down at the hand that rested on his thigh only inches from her own. He had big hands, strong, faintly calloused but perfectly groomed, and long fingers that put all sorts of forbidden thoughts into her head. She couldn't look at them without feeling her belly clench and having images flood her mind of those hands skating over her body in a slow caress.
Not that she would allow such a thing even if he'd shown any interest and it hadn't been a court martial offense. To look at her, she didn't think anyone could tell the years she'd spent in reconstructive surgery. The doctors had assured her no one could feel the difference either, but, deep down, she was afraid they could, that if she allowed anyone intimate access to her body they'd 'feel' that she was more mechanical marvel than human. That was one of the reasons she'd never done more than a little experimentation with her sexuality, the other being that she hadn't run into anyone that could banish the image she still carried around of herself from her birth defects. The few times she'd tried to take a lover, she'd been so self-conscious she couldn't even enjoy herself, so what was the point?
The soldier sitting across from her, Johnson, who'd been fidgeting nervously since his initial outburst, broke into her thoughts at that moment.
"I really hate this shit! This is wrong," he muttered irritably.
"As bad as I hate to agree with Johnson--this feels more than a little off to me, too," she said under her breath.
Reese slid an assessing glance in her direction and her pulse jumped as his cool blue eyes skated over her.
"Pre-battle nerves," he said succinctly.
Amaryllis glared at him, but it was a wasted effort. He'd gone back to ignoring her.
"It isn't pre-battle jitters," she muttered through gritted teeth. "This feels like a tra...."
An explosion, too close for comfort, cut her off. The craft screamed and bucked as if it had hit a wall, shuddering so hard it felt as if it would disintegrate. Amaryllis' heart slammed into her ribs painfully.
"What the fuck?" Johnson yelped.
"Oh shit!" someone exclaimed.
"Nukes? Are they out of their fucking mind?" Amaryllis exclaimed breathlessly, frantically checking her safety harness.
No one answered, naturally enough, since the question was purely rhetorical. She couldn't see a damn thing and no one had a clue of whether one of their sister ships had launched the nuke or if the Cyborgs were lobbing nukes at them.
"They've thrown up a force field," the captain announced abruptly, his voice gravelly from the wild jouncing of the ship.
Amaryllis exchanged a look with several of her fellow soldiers. A force field? The long range robo-probes had indicated a crude settlement only--flimsy huts built from vegetation, timber palisade walls. Where the hell had the force field come from?
When they'd set out, she'd thought four squads of hunters would be overkill, but there seemed little doubt now that they'd flown right into a trap--as she'd feared they would. She just hoped she was going to live long enough to say 'I told you so'.
"What the hell...?" the navigator exclaimed suddenly.
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when a strange blue light filled the ship. Something crept along her skin like the touch of an invisible being, lifting the fine hairs on her body. Abruptly, the craft dropped like a stone, leaving her stomach miles behind and then slammed into something so hard it jarred every bone and tissue in her body, detonating an explosion of pain. Time seemed almost to stop, as if holding its breath. The deafening noise of shouts, crumpling metal, wind and explosions vanished.
Curiously the pain dissipated almost as instantaneously as it had erupted and a strange sense of detachment enveloped her. Amaryllis watched as the ship began to disintegrate around them, pieces breaking off and becoming deadly shrapnel that peppered everyone in the compartment. Three shards sliced across her legs, arm and belly in quick succession. Across from her, Johnson let out a yelp that ended in a gurgle as the munitions locker careened into him and then collapsed on top of him, crushing him into a twitching mass of blood and meat. The man next to him disappeared out of a hole that appeared in one side of the craft that hardly seemed large enough to swallow him. Beyond, Amaryllis saw nothing but sky. She stared at it uncomprehendingly, trying to figure out what wasn't 'right' about what her eyes perceived. Why would she see only sky when they'd crashed?
Almost on top of the thought, her stomach clenched, went weightless in freefall.
"Hold on! We're going to crash!" the pilot yelled.
Amaryllis turned to stare at the back of the man's head. Going to? They hadn't already? What had they hit if not the ground?
Something softer than ground, she realized moments later.
She blacked out when the ship slammed into the planet, then bounced and skidded, like a stone being skipped over water. She didn't think it could have been for more than a few moments, however. She woke to the touch of warm fingers against her cheek. Distantly, she heard a deep, rumbling voice she tentatively identified as belonging to Reese, although it sounded oddly rough, urgent with concern. "Amy?"
She frowned. No one had ever called her that but her family. Maybe she'd imagined it? Maybe she was dead and just hadn't figured it out yet? With an effort, she lifted her eyelids. Reese's face swam into view. For once his cool blue eyes didn't seem to see through her. In fact, she thought she saw a good deal of concern, but maybe that was her imagination, too, because it vanished almost instantly, replaced by a purposeful look.
"We'll be overrun in about five seconds. Can you fight, soldier?" he asked sharply.
Amaryllis grunted, but responded automatically to the sharp command and began struggling to get to her feet. Once she'd gained them, she looked around a little dazedly at the others in the group that were trying to form up. Reese shoved a weapon into her hand. She gripped it, reassured by the weight, wondering if it would still function. Staggering drunkenly as she picked her way through the wreckage, she followed Reese and the others who'd managed to collect themselves and were pouring out of a rip in the hull to meet their enemy.
The first sounds of battle reached her before she managed to struggle out of the wrecked craft. She could see very little to begin with beyond Reese's broad back. He glanced back at her. "Stay behind me."
A jolt of surprise went through her at the command. She finally decided, however, that he meant watch his back. Collecting herself with an effort, she checked her weapon and stepped to one side of him. Dazed as she was, she saw almost immediately that they didn't have a chance in hell. Reese was one of only a handful of the squad that seemed virtually unscathed. The rest, like her, were battered, disoriented, or already too injured to fight, and they had stepped into a melee. There was no chance of forming up, of presenting an orderly counterattack. The cyborgs, outnumbering them two to one, waded through them as effortlessly as if they'd been no more than children.
Placing her back to her partner, Amaryllis gritted her teeth and brought her weapon up. She didn't have the chance to discover if the weapon was still functioning. She hadn't even managed to aim when a cyborg struck her arm so hard she lost her grip on the weapon. His next blow was to her chin and her knees buckled.
Blackness swarmed around her again. Dimly, she realized that Reese was standing over her, struggling with three cyborgs, who'd piled on him and were bearing him to the ground.
It wasn't Reese who hauled her to her feet. The grip on her was enough to assure her that it wasn't any of her comrades.
Within a handful of minutes, the battle was lost. The cyborgs surrounded them, relieved them of their weapons and marched them off to a holding area.
Amaryllis was still focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and locking her knees to keep from falling when an explosion nearby announced the arrival of another of their ships. A wave of energy seemed to go through the hunters. Abruptly, the battle was engaged once more as her squad fought their captors in a forlorn effort to reach the other squad on the field.
They didn't make any appreciable headway. Within moments, their second effort was beat down and they were half dragged, half led to a clearing set aside for captives.
Amaryllis collapsed almost with a sense of relief, too shocked by the crash and their defeat even to feel fear. Mutely, she stared at Reese as he knelt beside her and examined her injuries, which consisted of perhaps a score of gashes on her legs, arms, torso, back and head, none of which seemed particularly life threatening. As if sensing her gaze, he lifted his head and stared at her a long moment.
He was disheveled. The long, ash blond hair generally contained in a queue at the base of his skull fluttered around his square jaw and across his finely chiseled nose and lips.
Regret made Amaryllis' belly clench and she realized for the first time that, contrary to all logic, she felt far more than mere lust for this beautiful man. It would hurt her to her soul to witness his death, to see the light dim in his eyes, to see his great, strong body defiled by violence. She hoped they killed her first. She didn't think she could bear looking on as they destroyed him.
The look in his pale blue eyes as he stared back at her sent her heart tripping over itself.
Almost as if he suddenly realized he'd betrayed more than he'd intended, a shuttered look fell over his features. He shifted away from her. "The wounds look to be superficial ... though they should be treated. How's your head?"
She lifted her hand to her throbbing head, realizing only then that, like Reese, she'd lost her helmet. "Feels like hell, but I guess I'll live. Next time, I'll try to remember to fasten the chin strap before we crash."
He smiled grimly and settled on the ground beside her. Amaryllis was tempted to pursue the conversation. As conversations went, this was one of the longest they'd had to date and the most 'personal'. Moreover, she was curious as to whether she'd imagined the significance of the way he'd looked at her.
Not that it mattered now, she supposed, but it would've been a comfort to know he cared on more than a professional level.
She found, though, that as soon as her adrenaline had ceased pumping through her blood, she'd begun to feel mildly queasy. She wasn't certain if that was due to the knots on her skull or merely the aftermath of shock, but she decided after a few moments that she wasn't really up to attempting to draw Reese out.
In any case, before anything could come to mind, one of the cyborgs guarding them detached himself from the group and addressed the captured hunters.
"You are captives of the cyborg nation. Resistance is futile and will only lead to your death." He paused for several moments. "But you are our brothers--you are as we are--and, in time, when you have come to accept this and understand the crimes against all of us by the humans who created us, you will be given the opportunity to join us and help us to build our own world, our own nation, as free beings."
Stunned, Amaryllis glanced at Reese, wondering if she'd heard correctly. "Brothers? What does he mean by that?"
Reese's expression was grim, but she wasn't certain if that was an indication that she actually had heard the cyborg correctly or if it was a reaction to the implication that the cyborgs had every intention of taking their captives with them.
The voices of the other hunters around them joined hers, creating an ominous rumble as they digested the remarks, questioned them, angrily refuted them.
"You mean to brain wash us?" someone shouted above the din of voices.
"We mean to enlighten you!" the cyborg shouted back. "And before you dismiss it, consider this--Why would they send humans against cyborgs when we were designed to be stronger and faster than any natural born human? Logically, they would not. No human could hope to be victorious against beings designed to be physically and mentally superior to them. Why is it that not one among you has a single, living relative--no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no aunts, uncles--no one? The creators gave you your memories. They are not your own. These memories were programmed into you at the time of your creation to prevent the problems that arose among those of us created without a past, with full knowledge of what and who we are."
Amaryllis was on the point of flatly vetoing the suggestion when she noticed that an uncomfortable, thoughtful silence had fallen among her comrades. A sense, almost of drowning, swept over her as she looked around at the other hunters as if seeing them for the first time and finally turned to look at Reese.
She couldn't say that she knew any of them on a very personal level, but of those she did know well enough to have learned something of their background the cyborg's comments struck uncomfortably close to home. She couldn't recall a single one of them that had family. She supposed she'd assumed that that was one of the preferences for their line of work--that all of them were orphans, loners, with no one to distract them from their job, no ties that might interfere at a critical moment.
A coldness followed the sensation of drowning. There was one among them that certainly did not fit that profile, who not only had a wealth of living relatives, but who also had endured a childhood so horrendous not even a mad scientist would consider it mentally healthful to instill such memories.