Freaks in the City – excerpt

Counting down to the release of the sequel to Freaks of Greenfield High — woohoo!

All going to plan, FREAKS IN THE CITY will be available from 31st August 2012 at Smashwords, Amazon & All Romance eBooks. So I thought I’d celebrate by 1) sharing the cover & blurb, and 2) sharing an excerpt.

Hope you enjoy the read!

FREAKS IN THE CITY

Freaks in the City 1600x2400 cover

True love isn’t a cake-walk when your girlfriend’s a cyborg!

The timing couldn’t be worse for Jay to take her relationship with Tyler to the next level—especially when her idea of “the next level” proves to be vastly different to Tyler’s. Building a life together and adapting to each other’s quirks is challenging enough without the secrets they’re keeping blowing up in their faces. Their relationship is tearing Tyler’s family apart. Worse, Nessa, the ex-girlfriend from hell, shows up on their doorstep, destitute and desperate for a place to stay until she sorts out the latest hot mess she’s embroiled in.

Jay’s not exactly thrilled about Tyler’s ex turning up out of the blue, but it’s better to keep your enemies close, right? Sure enough, Nessa has an agenda. But discovering who is manipulating her behind the scenes isn’t easy, even for a super-smart, computer-savvy cyborg.

Then a vulnerable member of Tyler’s family is threatened, forcing Jay to confront a ghost from her past who’ll stop at nothing to destroy her. And this time, the weapon he’s chosen to take Jay out with really could be the death of her.

 

Excerpt from FREAKS IN THE CITY

By Maree Anderson

Prologue

Mike Davidson slanted a quick gaze at his wife’s tightly pursed lips and ominous frown before turning his attention to the road again. “Let’s not jump to conclusions. Just because he’s staying over at Jaime’s, doesn’t mean he’s moved in with her.”

Marissa’s snort told him exactly what she thought of that line of reasoning. “I knew he was hiding something,” she said.

Mike winced at her acerbic tone. Now he was even less convinced surprising Tyler and his mysterious girlfriend with a visit was a great idea. But they hadn’t seen their son in months, so Mike had given in to Marissa’s wishes—as he always did these days. And, after driving all this way, turned out Tyler wasn’t home. They’d had to beg his girlfriend’s address from one of his roommates.

Mike tightened his grip on the steering wheel. Might be a good time for a father-son chat. Especially given the situation he and Marissa now found themselves in. If it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone.

He turned into Parkway and couldn’t help a stab of envy. Jaime’s folks obviously had money. And, as if to rub salt into the wound, the split unit brownstones soon segued to even more envy-inducing singles. Sure would explain Tyler’s evasiveness whenever Marissa had fished for information about Jaime. He was probably embarrassed as heck over dating a trust fund baby.

Mike slowed his speed to a crawl and pointed out Number 64 to Marissa. “That’s the one.”

Marissa twisted in her seat to peer back at the house. “Nice.” She didn’t volunteer anything more as they pulled into a parking space, but Mike knew from the way her gaze had lingered that she was impressed.

She linked her arm in his as they strolled up the sidewalk. Out front of Number 64, Marissa paused to smooth her hair and tweak the hem of the smart top she wore over her jeans. “Wonder what she’s like,” Mike heard her mutter.

“Knowing Tyler, she’ll be a sweet kid.”

Marissa gave him “You gotta be kidding me” eyes and Mike threw her a wry grin. She had a point. Nessa, Tyler’s first serious girlfriend, had been a disaster what with the lies she’d spread about Tyler, and that shocking business over her dealing drugs. Marissa had confessed to not liking the girl from the get-go, and being relieved as all heck when Nessa dumped Tyler for another boy she could lead around by her too-short shorts.

And as for Jay….

There’d been nothing remotely amusing about Jay. Tyler had been a mess for months afterward. And although Mike felt like the crappiest human being on the planet for even thinking this after everything Jay had sacrificed for them, it was probably just as well she’d died. There’d been no possible way her relationship with Tyler could have ended well.

“Here’s hoping the third girlfriend’s the charm,” Marissa said, obviously thinking along the same lines.

They both pasted smiles on their faces as they walked up the neat cobblestoned path to the front door. To the left of the entrance alcove was a discreet security pad and speaker. Mike buzzed and waited for a response.

A voice demanded, “Who is it, please?”

The hairs on the back of Mike’s neck rose.

He sneaked a look at his wife. Marissa was impatiently shifting her weight from foot to foot, grimacing, and probably wishing she’d worn more comfortable shoes. He wondered whether he should forewarn her, but before he could think of what to say, or how to say it, Marissa leaned over and spoke into the speaker. “Jaime? It’s Mike and Marissa Davidson, Tyler’s mom and dad. Is he there?”

“One moment, please.”

Mike squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping he was wrong.

When the door opened and he heard Marissa’s shocked hiss, Mike knew he hadn’t been mistaken. He slowly opened his eyes to stare into the inhumanly blue gaze of Jay Smith, the girl who’d turned their lives upside down, given Mike back his life and his family, and stolen his son’s heart.

Jay Smith. Jaime Smythson. Obvious now he thought about it. He should have known Jay hadn’t died in the explosion. She was a cyborg, after all. And as Mike well knew, cyborgs were very hard to kill.

 ~*~

Jay had warned Tyler of the high probability his parents would take matters into their own hands if he continued to be so evasive about “Jaime”. She’d considered claiming that Tyler wasn’t at home, making some excuse for not introducing herself to his parents at this particular time. But such prevarications would have only delayed the inevitable.

Far better to get it over with fast and quick to minimize the pain—like the human analogy of ripping off a Band-Aid.

“Well,” she said to her not-so-unexpected visitors. “This is awkward.”

Marissa opened her mouth but any words she’d been about to say were locked tight in her throat. Michael uttered a sound that didn’t quite succeed as a wry laugh. “You can say that again,” he said.

Not so long ago, Jay might have stated that she was indeed capable of repeating herself. Word for word. With the exact same intonation and inflection, in fact. Now she knew better than to take such statements literally. She stood aside. “Would you like to come in?”

When Marissa hesitated, Jay followed up with a gentle verbal nudge. “After driving all this way, it seems a shame to turn around and leave.” And she pretended not to notice when Michael made the decision for his wife by means of a firm hand to the small of Marissa’s back.

She closed the door behind her guests and ushered them into the living room. The staccato taps of Marissa’s boot-heels on the polished wooden floorboards sounded angry—rather like Marissa’s expression now she’d gotten over the initial shock that “Jaime” was in fact Jay.… And realized that Tyler had effectively been lying by omission all this time.

Not a small lie, either. This was big.

Jay nibbled her lower lip—a gesture she’d picked up from Tyler’s twin sister, Caro, that seemed to admirably suit this current situation. She’d been foolish to merely age herself a year to stay in step with Tyler’s natural human aging process, and make minor adjustments to her hair color and skin tone. It would have been prudent—safer—to have made more drastic alterations to her appearance to insure she could not be recognized by his family. But all logic had been overshadowed by her need for Tyler to instantly recognize her again.

He had that effect on her. He always had—from the first time she’d encountered him in his junior year at Greenfield High.

“Please sit down.” She indicated the leather couches and two matching recliners grouped in a pleasing arrangement around an old mahogany coffee table. Jay had restored the table herself, and then burnished its pitted and scarred wood to a high sheen. She’d even go so far as to state she was proud of it. At least, she presumed the warm glow she felt whenever she stroked a palm over its surface was pride.

Michael chose one of the couches. He appeared outwardly relaxed—unlike his wife. Marissa perched next to him, hands clasped in her lap. Her gaze darted around the room, lingering every now and then on furnishings or pieces of artwork. Jay suspected Marissa’s interest was more an excuse not to look her son’s girlfriend in the eye than any real interest in Jay’s taste in interior design.

Jay stifled a sigh. Given his parents’ reaction, she wasn’t looking forward to confessing the truth to Tyler’s twin sister. Friends didn’t fake their own deaths and then conceal their identities. Caro was going to be hurt and angry when she found out. And now her parents knew the truth, Jay guessed it would not be long before Caro became privy to the information. She wouldn’t blame Caro for never speaking to her again.

“Can I offer you refreshments?” she asked.

“I’d kill for a beer,” Mike said.

“I don’t keep alcohol on the premises,” Jay told him. “Tyler’s underage, and alcohol has little effect on me.” Although she could appreciate a fine wine as much as any avid connoisseur.

“Oh. Right. Of course.”

“Where is Tyler?” Marissa’s question came at the same time Michael said, “Your hair is different.”

“Yes. I’m told the color is chestnut.” Jay had grown in the new color gradually, subtly threading the new shade through the black. Afterward, she’d adjusted the melanin levels of her dermis to better suit her new hair color. Her lips curved upward, recalling Tyler saying she looked “sun-kissed”… and following up with a real kiss that had left her as breathless as it was possible for a cyborg to be.

“Suits you,” Michael said. “I like it.”

“Thank you, Mr. Davidson. Tyler likes it, too.”

Because it would be impolite not to, Jay then addressed Marissa’s question. “I estimate Tyler will make an appearance in approximately eight minutes.” She added the “approximately” because although she could extrapolate the time he would take based on previous data, habitual human behaviors were not immutable. Today, Tyler might decide on a whim to change his habits.

To cover the awkward silence that had fallen, Jay headed for the fridge to grab three sodas. She offered Michael a cola and Marissa a cream soda, before taking the kitty-corner easy chair and popping the tab on her own cola.

Tyler’s mother glanced at the canned drink and blinked. “How do you know I like—?” She pressed her lips together and then, after a long pause muttered, “Never mind.”

Michael read the ingredients list on his soda can.

Marissa twisted her wedding ring around and around on her finger.

Jay took another sip of her cola. Her enhanced hearing informed her the exact moment Tyler exited the bathroom, his bare feet softly slapping the floorboards as he headed toward the bedroom. She debated calling out to warn him, but some perverse, almost humanlike part of her insisted she hold her tongue.

What was that popular human saying again? Oh yes: Tyler had made his bed, now he’d have to lie in it.

Marissa shattered the silence. “We thought you were dead. You could have gone anywhere in the world. Why here, Jay?”

Jay cocked her head as she analyzed Marissa’s body language and expressions for clues about how best to respond. In the end, she opted for the stark truth. “I couldn’t stay away from him. I tried, but I couldn’t.”

“You should have tried harder.”

“Perhaps.”

“He was getting over you. He’d moved on.”

Michael shifted in his seat and carefully placed his soda on the coffee table. Jay appreciated him using the coaster. Otherwise, she might have been compelled to blot the condensation with the hem of her t-shirt and polish away any mark left on the wood.

“That’s not entirely true, Riss,” Michael said. “You only need hear that song he wrote for Jay to know he wasn’t getting over her any time soon.”

Jay’s hand crept to the thumb drive she wore on a silver chain around her neck.

Michael’s sharp gaze intercepted the movement. And, from the almost imperceptible widening of his eyes, Jay deduced he understood its significance.

Tyler had recorded the song he’d written for Jay on this thumb drive, and hidden it before he and his family fled Snapperton in the wake of Jay’s supposed death. By removing the thumb drive from its hiding place, Jay had attempted to send a clear message to Tyler that he shouldn’t lose all hope—that she had survived despite all evidence to the contrary. And that one day, she might come back to him.

“Rubbish.” Marissa’s tone vibrated with poorly concealed fury over Michael refusing to back her up. “It was a crush. All kids his age have them.”

Jay decided it was time to tender an apology to defuse the situation. “I wanted to tell you that I’d faked my death, but I couldn’t risk it until I’d insured your safety. And then Tyler asked me not to. I’m sorry if you feel betrayed.”

“Does Caro know?” Marissa asked, her expression promising dire consequences if her daughter had been in on the secret.

“No,” Jay said.

“Good. Keep it that way. She doesn’t need to be drawn into this mess.” Marissa’s face twisted into an expression that combined worry and anger. “If you’re so concerned about our safety you should have stayed away from Tyler. You should have left him to live a normal life, with a normal girl. You should never have come back.”

Michael leaned over to squeeze his wife’s wrist. “That’s hardly fair, Riss. You could say the same about me. Would you prefer I had stayed away, and never come near you or our kids again?”

She shook off his hand. “That’s different and you know it, Mike! You were forced to leave to keep us safe. You had no choice.”

“Neither did I,” Jay murmured, and Michael shot her a sympathetic glance.

They both knew how it was to feel helpless when the people you loved were threatened. And they both knew how easily one could be compelled to act in ways that ran contrary to one’s core beliefs. Michael had been forced to work for a ruthless, amoral man in order to keep his family safe. And Jay had been compelled via a core command she could not disobey to kill her creator, thus preventing his secrets from falling into the hands of that very same ruthless, amoral man. Such actions were beyond Marissa’s sphere of comprehension. She should be grateful for that.

Marissa seemed to sense the empathy oozing from Michael and she didn’t appreciate it one iota. “Don’t give me that. It’s bullshit.”

Jay knew Marissa didn’t approve of swearing, so her choice of words only highlighted her extreme agitation.

“You’re a cyborg,” Marissa said, “a superhuman machine. You can do what the hell you want.”

Enough. Even cyborgs had their limits. “Mrs. Davidson, that’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Marissa bristled, her hazel eyes sparking fury. “What makes you say that?” she bit out.

“Because only God gets to do what the hell he wants. The rest of us mere mortals must live with our limitations.”

Michael made a choking sound that he turned into a cough.

Marissa’s lips curved in a triumphant smile. “But you’re not a mere mortal, are you Jay?”

Tyler chose that moment to burst into the living room, wearing only a towel wrapped around his hips. “Have you seen my—” He stopped dead, his hands shooting to his waist to insure the towel was firmly secured. His gaze darted to his mom, to his father, then back to Jay. “Uh, hi.”

“I’m guessing you left your robe at your apartment again,” Jay said. “You can borrow mine if you like.”

The heightened color staining Marissa’s cheeks had drained away, leaving her milk-pale. She raised a shaking hand to her lips. “How can you be in a relationship with something like her? It’s unnatural. It’s… it’s… disgusting. She’s a thing, for God’s sake!”

“Marissa, that’s enough.” Michael’s voice cracked out, whip-like. He slanted Jay an apologetic glance.

It didn’t bother Jay to be called a thing. But to hear her relationship with Tyler—a relationship she treasured and nurtured to the best of her ability—labeled disgusting and unnatural…. That was more difficult to tolerate. She knew Marissa was lashing out from worry that Tyler would get hurt. But Jay would never intentionally hurt Tyler. Surely Marissa could see that she was only the one hurting him right now?

The impulse to protect Tyler pricked Jay’s nervous system and flooded her body with adrenaline. She clamped down on that impulse, locking her muscles and keeping herself very still. She knew from past experience that when her underdeveloped emotions overwhelmed logic, she reacted in unpredictable ways. She could not afford to “lose it” with Marissa. Not now. Any loss of control would only give Marissa more cause to poison Jay’s relationship with her son.

“Yes, Mom,” Tyler said, his voice sounding as cold and hard and inhuman as Jay knew her own voice could be. “That’s enough.”

“Stop thinking with your hormones and start using your brain,” Marissa raged.

She, too, seemed to find it difficult to stay still, for she pushed up from her seat to confront Jay, bristling and wild-eyed. A mother defending her young. “You’re doing something to him, aren’t you? Something to make him infatuated with you.”

“If you mean secreting a specific mix of pheromones that will make your son desire me sexually, then the answer is no.”

Marissa rocked back on her heels. The edge of the seat hit her in the back of the knees and she collapsed onto the couch. “God,” she said, the word sounding strangled. “You can do that?”

“Yes. I can also manipulate the chemicals manufactured by my body to produce a number of useful substances that I can excrete through the pores of my skin. Flea-repellent, for instance. Fifi benefitted greatly from this ability.”

“Fifi?”

“Your elderly neighbor’s dog.”

Michael rubbed a hand over his face, appearing at a loss for words. Jay suspected he’d reached his limit for drama.

“Please tell me you’re not sleeping with him.”

Although Marissa’s words were barely above a whisper, Jay had no trouble hearing her. “I can’t speak for your son, but I am what you would medically term a virgin,” she informed Tyler’s mother.

“Not that it’s any fucking business of yours.” Each carefully enunciated word sounded like it’d been ripped from Tyler’s throat. Jay didn’t need to examine his set features and clenched teeth to know how angry he was right now.

Marissa gasped.

A groan issued from Michael’s direction.

Jay felt a twinge in her chest and recognized it as sympathy. Poor Michael. Despite claiming otherwise, Marissa had not forgiven him for walking out on his family and vanishing without trace for five years. And Jay was in a unique position to understand Michael’s actions and reactions. If she’d been able to bring the man she’d called “Father” back to life, she would have spent a lifetime trying to make up for what she’d done to him, too. Guilt was a powerful emotion, and Marissa was using Mike’s to her full advantage.

Marissa sagged against the padded back of the seat, her entire body radiating relief. “So it’s not serious then. You’re just hanging out here because your apartment is a dump, and your roommates are pigs.”

Tyler raked a hand through his damp hair. After a tense moment he finally said, “Jay’s my girlfriend. For me it doesn’t get more serious than that. Get used to it, Mom.”

Marissa’s face crumpled and her lower lip wobbled. Jay watched her fighting back tears and felt…. Nothing at all. She rose to her feet and calmly invited Tyler’s parents to stay for dinner.

Marissa, of course, declined on Michael’s behalf. And when Michael protested, his wife struggled to her feet and cut him short with a sharp gesture. “I’ll wait for you in the car while you talk some sense into your son.”

“Riss—”

But Marissa was heading for the door, leaving Michael with the unenviable task of choosing between his wife and his son.

“You should go,” Jay told him. “She needs you. She’s not herself at the moment.”

Marissa whirled to glare at Jay from the doorway of the living room. “You don’t know me. Sure, you can analyze a bunch of data like some… some… glorified calculator, but you don’t know me. You don’t know what’s going on inside me.”

Jay arched her brows. If what she suspected were true, it might explain Marissa’s volatile temper. However, she could not be one hundred percent certain given the available data at this stage, therefore she did not dispute Marissa’s claim.

“And you don’t know Tyler, either,” Marissa was saying. “How can a cyborg, a machine, possibly understand what it is to be human?” Her bitter laugh infected the room. “You’re lying to yourself—and him—if you try to pretend otherwise. If you claim to care for him then prove it. Walk away and let him find a human girl he can make a real life with.”

“God, Mom. When did you turn into such a bitch?”

Marissa flinched as though Tyler had somehow reached across the room and slapped her. Then she pivoted on her heel and vanished into the hallway. Silence reigned until they all heard the front door slam.

“You might want to consider apologizing to your mother,” Jay said.

Tyler’s lips compressed to a thin, unrepentant line. He slanted a challenging gaze at his father. “Well, it’s true.”

Jay knew it was a waste of breath to try and convince Tyler to change his mind. She focused on his father. “I’m sorry, Michael. I wish this encounter could have gone differently.”

Michael managed a weary smile as he climbed to his feet. “Me, too, Jay. I never got the chance to thank you for what you did. Whatever you said to convince that bastard Caine to let me walk, gave me back my family—my life. I can never repay you for that. And for what it’s worth, despite what you are and all the problems that presents, if you make Tyler happy—”

“She does, Dad,” Tyler was quick to say.

“Then that’s good enough for me.” Michael patted Jay’s shoulder before venturing over to give his son a quick hug.

Tyler submitted to the embrace, but held himself stiffly. He wasn’t going to let his father off easy. Michael was between a rock and a hard place. Little wonder he’d done his best to stay out of it.

“Jay’s right,” Michael said. “Your mom’s got a lot on her mind. She’s not been herself lately. Don’t worry, I’ll talk her ’round.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

Given Marissa’s vehemence, Jay did not believe Michael would be successful in “talking her ’round”.

Michael must have read her doubt because he said, “From what I hear, she liked you well enough before she learned you weren’t human.”

“Yes,” Jay said, because it was true. But it was also true that Marissa’s previous “like” did not count for anything at present.

They both walked Michael to the door and waved him off. Jay shut the door after him and considered how best to broach the deafening silence. “That went well,” she finally said.

Tyler grabbed her around the waist and drew her in close, resting his chin atop her head. Jay cuddled into his chest. She liked this position. She analyzed her responses, her feelings, and decided it made her feel… safe. Loved.

“I was attempting sarcasm,” she felt compelled to tell him.

“I kinda got that.” His chuckle vibrated through his chest and Jay felt the tension in his muscles dissipate. A wave of contentment washed through her. She might be a “thing”, but she’d understood her human boyfriend well enough to make him laugh, and give a measure of comfort when he needed it. Even Marissa would have to concede that counted for something.

 ~*~

Mike got into the car, leaned back against the seat, and closed his eyes. The dull throb behind his eyeballs signaled the onset of a killer headache.

“I suppose you told them.”

He opened his eyes to confront his wife. “No, I didn’t. I promised I wouldn’t let the cat out of the bag because you wanted to wow him with our news. When are you are going to start believing I keep my promises?”

Her gaze slid away. “Maybe when we’re old and gray and you haven’t upped and vanished on me again.”

Mike exhaled a heavy sigh. “I’ve explained myself over and over, Riss. How many more times can I apologize for needing to keep you and the kids safe?”

He jabbed the key in the ignition, started the engine, and flicked the indicator. Once he’d safely pulled into the flow of traffic he said, “When are you planning on telling him, then?”

Marissa turned away to stare out the window. “I don’t know. When she’s not around I guess.”

“Make it soon, Riss.”

She jerked around to glare at him. “Or else, what?”

“Or else, nothing. He’s our son. He deserves to know. So does Caro.”

Marissa hunched down in her seat, trying to get comfortable. When she closed her eyes, the bluish shadows beneath them were more evident. She looked exhausted. Even the bright auburn of her hair seemed dulled. “I’ll invite them both down for a weekend,” she said. “Just the two of them. We’ll tell them both then.”

“Okay,” Mike said. Anything to keep the peace. Anything to keep his family together. He’d already lost them once. He didn’t want to lose them again.

~*~

Chapter One

The techs were intent on putting the cyborg through its paces— too intent to notice him slip through the security doors to take a seat in the topmost row of the viewing chamber. Another man might applaud his employees’ single-minded focus. Evan Caine, CEO of Goodkind Electronics, was unimpressed.

This sector of the Experimental Research and Development Department was located in an underground bunker. Only five people were permitted to enter without first being cleared by Caine. He owned all five, body and soul. The more senior of these two techs, Sloane, was one of the five. He’d been with Caine from the start, but that was no excuse to be lax. Not when the stakes were so very high. Not when another cyborg was at large—a rogue cyborg that had thus far eluded Caine and bested him time and time again.

If anyone—or thing, in this case—was capable of breaking into this facility, bypassing the stringent security measures, and sabotaging his dreams, it was the cyborg that called itself “Jay Smith”.

Caine curled his lip, contemplating how best to reprimand the techs for their inattentiveness so the moment would be emblazoned on their memories for the terms of their natural lives.

Safe behind the glass fiber-reinforced polyester resin composite window of the viewing chamber, Sloane, a grizzled, beefy man in his forties, thumbed his mic. “Cyborg Six-Point-0 confirm voiceprint Sloane, Goodkind Employee ID 7-8-3-1-2.”

“Voiceprint Sloane confirmed. Good afternoon Mr. Sloane.”

“Commence course on my mark. Three. Two. One. Mark.”

The cyborg exploded into motion.

Caine settled back to observe its progress.

The muttering of the two techs took on a note of excitement as Six-Point-0 neared the midway point of the Navy SEAL-styled obstacle course devised to test its physical capabilities. Apparently, Six-Point-0 was acquitting itself well.

Caine leaned forward in his seat. He had always been a betting man. If the cyborg beat its previous time by ten seconds or more, he would administer a private reprimand rather than hauling these two up before their peers.

Six-Point-0 launched itself over the hip-high vaults that comprised the last obstacle, taking them two at a time. It sprinted to the line, planted its bare feet and stopped dead, awaiting further instructions.

“Cyborg Six-Point-0, confirm course time.”

“Three minutes thirteen-point-four seconds.”

Despite appearing human in all the ways that counted, the cyborg’s voice lacked some quintessential human characteristic. If Caine had to describe its voice he would call it “flat”—an unscientific term, but apt.

The techs were irritated by this slight flaw. To their thinking, it marred the perfection of their creation. Caine didn’t care about barely detectable deficiencies in Six-Point-0’s vocal capabilities. Ultimately, Six-Point-0 wouldn’t need to speak. It would only need to destroy.

Sloane consulted a chart. “Looking good, Sixer,” he said, using the nickname a female tech—a hardcore Philadelphia 76ers fan—had given the cyborg.

Caine frowned. He’d stripped the woman of her seniority and reassigned her to grunt work for that misguided attempt to humanize Six-Point-0, but the nickname had obviously stuck.

“Eleven seconds off the previous time,” Sloane said.

“Incorrect,” the cyborg countered, its flat voice echoing through the chamber. “My time has improved by eleven-point-six seconds.”

“Cyborg Six-Point-0, enter standby mode. Confirm.”

“Standby mode confirmed.”

Sloane toggled the mic to off and exchanged a worried glance with his colleague. “Thought we’d sorted that damned glitch.”

The younger man—Williams—groaned, slumping lower in his chair. “Everything was fine during the last trials.”

“Better schedule another full diagnostic. If Sixer decides to correct Caine without prompting, the shit will hit the fan.”

“God knows I get enough backchat from my kid sister without putting up with this sort of BS at work,” Williams said, rolling his shoulders and tilting his head from side to side to stretch out his neck muscles.

“Pity we didn’t think to install a remote mute switch.” Sloane scratched the stubble on his chin.

“There’s an idea. Mute your kids or your nagging wife at the flick of a switch. Be a bestseller, I reckon.”

Caine stood and shot his cuffs. Enough of this banter.

Six-Point-0’s supposed “glitch” was inconsequential. Running diagnostics to pinpoint something that didn’t require fixing was a waste of time and money—his time and his money. The cyborg had been programmed to verbally respond to basic commands from a select group of people identified by their individual voiceprints—provided it was given a correctly sequenced, logical command. Only Caine could override any instruction or programmed behavior. He could compel the cyborg to do anything at all. It was his creature, his tool. And if its newfound tendency to backchat irritated him, he would merely command it to be silent in his presence.

Sloane had caught Caine’s movement. He nudged Williams.

Caine couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard Williams mutter something to the effect that their asses were toast.

Sloane pushed up from his chair and stood to attention. “Good afternoon, sir. Our latest results are promising. There are a couple of minor issues we need to work through but—”

Caine’s sharp hand gesture cut Sloane off. “It’s time for the next phase. We will see how Six-Point-0 copes when pitted against a group of fighters in a hand-to-hand combat situation. Six volunteers will suffice.” He paused to let his words sink in. “I have cleared my schedule for the next two hours.”

Williams slanted a panicked gaze at Sloane, who stood stony-faced, revealing nothing of his inner thoughts. The younger man visibly swallowed and foolishly decided to take matters into his own hands. “Mr. Caine. Sir, I would, uh, strongly advise against pitting Sixer, uh, I mean, Six-Point-0, against human opponents. We—” his nervous hand gesture included Sloane “—are not, uh, entirely confident that Six-Point-0 won’t see the men as a threat. And, uh, the chances Six-Point-0 will seriously injure the volunteers are high. Sir.”

Caine switched his focus to Sloane.

“I recommend we draw volunteers from our security forces,” Sloane said. “They’re sure to give Six-Point-0 a good workout.”

“Make it so.” Caine resumed his seat. He could have left the techs alone and returned to his office. The padded leather chairs were far more comfortable than these molded fiberglass ones, and his PA would be at his beck and call. He stayed because he enjoyed the discomfort of others, and wished to observe Williams’ reactions firsthand.

The young tech had an extraordinary mind. He was an asset to this program. But Williams had a regrettable tendency to voice his opinion unasked. Such outspokenness might be valued in the world of cybernetic research and development, where Williams had proven himself before succumbing to the lure of the big money Goodkind Electronics had offered. Now, however, Williams needed to learn to jump when Caine told him to jump, and only ask how high on the way up. Asset or not, Caine saw no benefit in keeping Williams around if the man didn’t know when to shut up and follow orders.

Williams seemed to realize he’d blotted his copybook for he abruptly became all business. Caine watched, evaluating the way the two men divvied up the tasks. Williams arranged for a cache of martial arts weapons, while Sloane co-opted volunteers from the available pool of security forces. Both men barked crisp orders into their mouthpieces. Satisfied, Caine pulled an eReader device from the inner pocket of his jacket and immersed himself in the latest edition of The Economist.

He finished scanning the business pages, and had just skipped to the obituary, when the men began filing in. A glance at his wristwatch showed forty-eight minutes had passed.

He pocketed his eReader, and cast his gaze over the volunteers. They were ex-military professionals—as were the majority of his security division. One, he recognized as a member of the extraction team that had so resoundingly failed to capture Gamma. The man had been injured by shrapnel in the explosion. Shiny puckered scars dribbled down his face and neck, vanishing beneath the form-fitting long-sleeved t-shirt he wore tucked into his khaki pants.

Caine stood, and made his way to the waiting men.

“Select your weapons from the cache,” he told the volunteers. “The aim, gentlemen, is to take your opponent down by whatever means possible. Anything goes.”

Scars narrowed his eyes, staring the viewing chamber’s window, assessing the lone figure standing in the center of the sparring mats.

Caine glanced at Six-Point-0, seeing the cyborg through the other man’s eyes.

“Sixer” stood with feet apart, hands clasped behind its back, staring straight ahead. The cyborg appeared to be in its late teens or early twenties. Average build. Average height. Even, unremarkable features. Lank brown hair, overly long for Caine’s taste. A boy on the cusp of manhood. Nothing special.

The techs had done an admirable job insuring Six-Point-0’s physical form would not stand out in a crowd. Only his unnatural stillness proclaimed he might not be what he seemed.

Caine flicked his attention back to Scars, eager to witness the man’s reaction.

It did not disappoint. The man’s jaw worked, and his hands clenched and unclenched, clenched again. When he caught Caine staring, Scars made a visible effort to relax and his expression smoothed into a cold, merciless mask.

Caine acknowledged the man with a brief nod. Excellent. Scars believed he had something to prove. He would not balk at inflicting maximum damage upon his opponent.

“Commence trial, gentlemen,” he told the two techs.

Sloane toggled his mic. “Cyborg Unit Six-Point-0 confirm voiceprint Sloane, Goodkind Employee ID 7-8-3-1-2.”

“Voiceprint Sloane confirmed. Good afternoon Mr. Sloane.”

“Cyborg Unit Six-Point-0, enter standby mode and await further instructions.” Caine read Sloane’s lips as he muttered to Williams, “Pays to be careful. God help these poor bastards if Sixer develops another weird-ass glitch.”

“Standby mode confirmed,” the cyborg said.

Williams punched in a ten-digit code. The locks on the door leading into the huge workout area disengaged, and the door slid open with an agonized hiss.

Sloane addressed the volunteers. “Thank you for volunteering your time and expertise. We’ve provided a range of weapons. If you have knives on your persons, feel free to use them. Otherwise, a selection has been provided. Firearms are not permitted. Those of you carrying firearms are to leave them here. Once you’ve selected your weapons, please form a circle at the edge of the mats and await instructions.”

A couple of the men—pulled from active security details at a guess—divested themselves of weapons. Caine noted one man slide a quick sideways glance at Scars.

Interesting. Caine didn’t push the matter. It would only make the coming confrontation more authentic.

The men entered the room and headed for the weapons laid out on the mats by the north wall. Only Scars hesitated, glancing first at the door as it closed behind the last man, and then up at the Caine and the techs, before striding over to the weapons cache. The significance of that heavily reinforced door had not escaped him.

Caine appropriated the spare seat next to Williams, giving him an unobstructed view of the action via both the monitors and the viewing window. He watched intently as the volunteers tested the various weapons for balance and grip, and made their selections.

Sloane thumbed the mic. “Cyborg Unit Six-Point-0. You are instructed to defend and disable only. Human life is to be preserved. Human safety is paramount. Do you understand?”

“I understand.”

“Confirm instruction.”

“I will defend and disable. Human life is to be preserved. Human safety is paramount.”

“Very good, Six-Point-0. Standby to engage.”

“Standing by.”

“Who’s up first?” Williams said into the mic, his tone oozing fake good-humor.

Caine leaned forward. “Volunteers are to engage en masse.”

Williams gave him stunned eyes, opened his mouth as if to speak and then shut it with a snap. He gulped, and then spoke into the mic. “Uh, slight change of plans. Make that six against one—the one being Sixer, uh, Six-Point-0, of course.”

Sloane hurriedly took over. Caine suspected he didn’t trust Williams to not run off at the mouth and start spouting reasons why pitting humans against the cyborg was a bad idea. “Gentleman, on my mark. Cyborg Unit Six-Point-0, await command to engage. Confirm.”

“Confirmed.”

“Three. Two. One. Engage!”

What followed was a melee of whirring weapons, punctuated by grunts of pain, shouts, and screams, as Caine’s pride and joy—the culmination of his extraordinary vision—disabled its opponents.

A grin split his face. It was surreal, as if he were watching some child’s cartoon where a superhero took on a bunch of villains, and dispatched them with ruthless efficiency. And, just like in a cartoon, men flew every which way. Those not immediately rendered unconscious, scrambled to their feet and retrieved their weapons before re-engaging, only to be disarmed and tossed aside a second time. And to Caine, it seemed as though mere seconds passed before five men lay unconscious, leaving only one man standing. Scars.

Caine glanced at the timepiece on the control panel. The countdown showed a little over two minutes had passed.

“Engage,” he muttered. “What are you waiting for?”

But Scars refused to play. Throwing up his hands in the universal gesture for surrender, he backed up.

Six-Point-0 stalked him.

Sloane yelled into the mic. “Cyborg Unit Six-Point-0, do not engage. Repeat: do not engage. Opponent has surrendered. Opponent is no longer a threat. Repeat: opponent is no longer a threat. Do not engage!”

Six-Point-0 continued to advance.

“Cyborg Unit Six-Point-0, this is Sloane, Goodkind Employee ID 7-8-3-1-2. I command you to standby and await further instructions. Repeat: standby and await further instructions. Confirm command.” A pause, and then, “Confirm command, damn you.”

Williams gabbled into his mic, his voice a shrill screech. “Cyborg Unit Six-Point-0, this is Williams, Goodkind Employee ID 1-0-2-2-1-4. I command you to shut down immediately. Repeat: shut down immediately!”

The retreating man’s gaze darted about the room. His angry expression morphed to fearful as both techs screamed instructions into the mic and the cyborg ignored them all, intent on its target.

“Shit!” Williams’ mutely pleading gaze fixed on Caine.

The tech knew Caine could access the cyborg’s core programming and override all commands. Of course Caine ignored the tech’s silent plea. Scars could flee, but the only cover was the obstacle course, and if the man chose that option his opponent would be on him in an instant.

But although bloodied and battered and disarmed of the weapon he’d chosen, Scars was not as helpless as he appeared. His gaze flicked upward to Caine for a couple of breaths, before fixing again on the cyborg.

Caine, carefully observing the man’s expression, spotted the “tell”—the fleeting hatred and despair twisting his scarred features. Scars had resolved to use maximum force to defend himself. He didn’t care Six-Point-0’s predecessors had all been failures, that only this one cyborg unit had been deemed a success. He didn’t care that this cyborg had taken billions of dollars and countless man-hours to perfect, and if it were damaged beyond repair it could set the company back a decade. He’d blow its artificial brain to smithereens if he could.

Caine’s lips curled into a sardonic grin. The man didn’t stand a chance.

Scars never took his gaze from the cyborg as he bent to snatch a small handgun from his right boot. “Stop right there, you freak,” he snarled.

To Caine’s surprise and disappointment, Six-Point-0 halted.

“I know you’re smart enough to understand what this is.” Scars made a slight motion with the muzzle of the weapon. “One more step and I’ll use you for target practice. Understand?”

Six-Point-0 appeared to be taking the measure of the man, for the cyborg cocked its head slightly to one side. Then it took one slow, deliberate step forward.

Scars didn’t hesitate. He pumped three bullets into the cyborg. His aim was excellent. Six-Point-0 took the first two hits in the chest and the third in the head, but the cyborg continued to advance.

Sloane shouted into the mic for the man to relinquish his weapon and lay facedown on the ground with his hands behind his head. Williams had resumed screaming useless commands at Six-Point-0.

Scars paid them no heed. His whole focus was on the cyborg, gauging its next move.

The cyborg launched itself at him. Scars emptied the clip at the blur of movement. And Caine watched, entranced, as Six-Point-0 ripped the gun from the man’s hand, picked him up and slung him at the nearest wall. The sickening crack when his body hit the unyielding surface finally silenced the bleating techs.

“Threat neutralized,” the cyborg said. “Remaining humans are no longer endangered, however, immediate medical attention is recommended.”

Caine turned his attention to the techs.

Williams was staring at the broken corpse, his mouth rounded into an O that proclaimed horror. Sloane stared at his hands, his expression blank save for a tic at the corner of one eye.

Caine toggled the mic. “Excellent work, Six-Point-0. Please stand down.” To the two techs he said, “Call in the medics.”

“Yes sir,” Sloane said.

“S-sir?” Williams had finally found his tongue. “Your instructions as to how we proceed with Six-Point-0’s, uh, glitch?”

Fleeting satisfaction quirked Caine’s lips. Williams was learning. “I will deal with it.”

“A-And the possibility the bullets have damaged Six-Point-0’s internals?”

Caine speared him with a look. “Have they?”

“Not according to the readouts but—”

“Do the bullets need to be removed?”

“Six-Point-0’s system will treat them like foreign bodies and eventually expel them but—”

This time it was Sloane who interrupted. “Sir, I feel compelled to reiterate that core commands must be carefully analyzed and verified to insure no errors of logic. Otherwise there is a substantial risk that—”

“Thank you, Sloane. Your concern is duly noted. That will be all. You may both stand down until further notice.”

“Yes, sir.”

Both techs bolted for the door.

The cyborg stood at rest, awaiting instructions.

Caine keyed in the override code that would unlock any door in the lab, before toggling the mic. “Cyborg Unit Six-Point-0, this is Evan Lawrence Caine. Analyze voiceprint and confirm.”

“Voiceprint confirmed. Good afternoon, Mr. Caine.”

“Follow me.” Caine turned on his heel and left the room. He did not bother to verify the cyborg was following. He expected to be obeyed by human and cyborg alike. And, as he strolled down the corridor toward his office, he whistled an aria from his favorite opera and contemplated his next gambit.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Caine did not believe Gamma-Dash-One had been destroyed in the Snapperton explosion. Gamma was still at large.

His whistle strangled in his throat as he recalled Gamma’s phone call to his private, secure line, just minutes prior to the explosion. The cyborg had demanded the immediate release of Michael White, AKA Mike Davidson, from Caine’s employ. That humiliating call had also insured Davidson’s wife and children could no longer be used to compel Davidson’s continued cooperation. The cyborg’s threats had been creative—so cleverly conceived that Caine had felt nothing but admiration…. Until the reality of having his secret research made public across all worldwide media outlets, and his precious company linked to known international terrorist groups, had sunk in.

Caine’s grudging respect for Gamma’s deviousness had been tempered by the surety that his extraction team would prevail—that Gamma would soon be in his hands. Its defects would be ferreted out and corrected, and Caine would command it as he willed. But the cyborg had eluded him, and not even Caine was arrogant enough to risk putting its threats of exposure to the test.

As the months dragged on, the simmering fury that burned his gut ate away at him. He hated that he’d been so thoroughly outmaneuvered by a glorified machine. But then had come the breakthrough that changed everything. And now Caine finally had his own cyborg—a far superior cyborg to Durham’s defective, crippled creation that had formed unnatural attachments to humans.

His techs were awed that Durham had created a cyborg with the capacity to empathize with humans—to feel. They’d love to get their hands on Gamma for research purposes. But such a groundbreaking scientific breakthrough did not matter to Caine. Such “enhancements” were anathema to him. He saw Gamma’s capacity to feel human emotions as a weakness. And in Caine’s worldview, weakness could not be tolerated.

Six-Point-0 would destroy Gamma. And, after the deed was done, Mike Davidson would be taught that no one walked away from Evan Caine.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Freaks in the City by Maree Anderson

© Copyright 2012,  Maree Anderson

www.mareeanderson.com/books/freaks-in-the-city

www.freaksinthecity.com

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