Pre-order Freaks Under Fire now

FREAKS UNDER FIRE, the third book in the Freaks series (featuring teen cyborg Jay), will be released on 31 March 2015 (US time). Woohoo!

But… it’s now available for pre-order at a discounted price of US$2.99 — or foreign currency equivalent :)

(Please note that after release date, the retail price will increase to US$4.99.)

Here’s the blurb:

For a cyborg like Jay, life was never going to be simple!

Jay’s still reeling from an encounter with a rogue cyborg when she learns she has a twin—a severely damaged Beta unit. Jay’s determined to find the Beta. Now she all she needs to do convince Tyler to stay behind. But Jay’s not the only one searching for her twin. With enemies who’ll stop at nothing, and Tyler caught in the crossfire, Jay’s life just got a whole lot more complicated.

Here’s the pre-order links (Amazon & Google Play pre-order links available soon)

iBooks Stores Worldwide |
B&N US | B&N UK |
Kobo |
| Amazon |
| Google Play |

And, so you don’t have to click through and download a sample to see what Jay and Tyler have been up to, here’s an excerpt:

**WARNING: Contains swearing and themes more suited to older teen readers**

~*~

FREAKS UNDER FIRE ~ Excerpt

Prologue

 

The guard at the gate flashed a cursory glance at her ID badge before waving her through. She kept her expression pleasantly neutral, while inwardly sneering at his incompetence. At the very least he should have phoned through to Reception to verify that she was expected. The “hiding in plain sight” tactic meant there were a number of storage units available to carefully vetted members of the public, and if one of those carefully vetted people discovered what was in Unit Twenty-Six there’d be hell and all its minions to pay.

Before she’d even released the handbrake, the guard had resumed The Position—planting his substantial ass back in his chair and propping his boots on the desk, exactly as he’d been lounging when she approached the facility. Considering she’d had to blast the horn twice to get his attention, she suspected he’d been napping as well as lounging.

She drove off at a crawl, keeping her speed to a minimum until a glance in the rearview mirror confirmed the guard had remembered to lower the barrier arm. Hah. If Average-height Balding ’n Forgettable back there was an indicator of the caliber of the rest of the staff, just as well she’d been dispatched sooner rather than later. The whole place was a security leak waiting to happen.

Her stomach performed a lazy roll, acknowledging the true nature of the task she’d been dispatched to complete… and the toll it would take on what remained of her principles. She’d been required to do some distasteful things for Evan Caine—highly illegal things that would get her locked up for the term of her natural life if she were caught doing them. Some of those things bothered her in the dead of night when she drifted on the edge of sleep, but in the bright, uncompromising light of day, she found she could live with them. She could get out of bed each morning and stare unflinching at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, because she’d not crossed a personal line drawn in the metaphorical sand. The line that involved harming kids.

Until now.

She gave herself a mental smack upside the head, followed by a mini-lecture. Distance yourself from the task. Stop letting your emotions get in the way. Quit personalizing the target, and thinking of her as a kid.

The target wasn’t a child—wasn’t even human. “It” was a potentially dangerous machine that was incapable of empathy, didn’t have a conscience, and operated on severely flawed logic… if that recent display from Caine’s current pride and joy was any indication of typical core programming.

She stomped on the brake pedal, jerking the sedan to a halt alongside the main storage complex. Ingrained caution had prompted her to park where her vehicle couldn’t be seen from the reception area, and now she was thankful for the privacy the spot afforded while she took a moment to get her shit together. Her hands tightened on the steering wheel until her knuckles whitened. Bill had been a decent guy, one of the rare colleagues she’d wholeheartedly respected. In a rare moment, he’d confided to her that he was contemplating retiring because he was “getting to old for this fucking crap”. And then, against the advice of his techs, Caine had unleashed his shiny new pride and joy upon Bill and his team, and in the space of seconds it’d been all over bar the agonized screams of dying men.

That unholy thing had ripped through six men—Caine’s most experienced security unit—like a knife through butter, leaving them broken and bleeding. Poor bastards. A shitty way to die—and for what? To prove a fucking point?

She quashed that thought before it took root, forcing herself to relax and focus. She had a job to do. But she would miss Bill’s gruff manner and monosyllabic responses. Not to mention their sparring sessions. None of the other men had the guts to go one-on-one with her a second time after she’d wiped the floor with them, but Bill hadn’t given a shit about being bested by a female. He’d never fully recovered his peak fitness after being injured in the field, but he’d still taught her a thing or two.

Yep, she told herself, you’ll be doing the world a favor. This girl—it—is a ticking bomb, and it’s your job to defuse it before someone else gets killed.

Exiting the car, she grabbed her kitbag from the trunk and slammed it shut with unnecessary force.

She knew from security footage that the cyborg they called Beta was defective—incapable of moving, let alone defending itself. Beta could swallow food, but couldn’t feed itself. It responded to aural stimulation with a blink, but otherwise stared fixedly at nothing until one of its minders got around to closing its eyelids. It was the cyborg equivalent of a vegetable. And, according to Caine’s latest stable of techs, today’s task was simple: play the digital recording that Caine had entrusted to her, and get rid of the evidence.

She scowled, recalling how her boss hadn’t even bothered with a convincing lie. As he’d handed over the recording he’d looked her in the eye, curled his lip, and said, “I trust you implicitly.”

Yeah, right. They’d both known that was a crock of shit. The recording was of Caine’s voice speaking a command sequence to permanently shut the cyborg down. “Trust” had nothing remotely to do with anything, because it wasn’t like that recorded command could be scrambled to, say, recalibrate the cyborg’s programming so it would respond solely to someone else’s voice pattern.

Not that she would consider attempting such a double-cross—

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. If this cyborg had been functional, and she’d been handed the means to control it, she would have given serious thought to commanding it to locate Caine’s fully functioning killer cyborg and have at it. With any luck, both cyborgs would have destroyed each other beyond resurrection, and the world would be a much safer place….

Until Caine built another one of the godforsaken things.

Gravel crunched beneath her boots as she marched to the entrance. Putting on her “Don’t fuck with me” face, she shouldered through the doors into the small reception area.

No one was manning the desk. Voices drifted from a room out back—the break room, at a guess. Huh. Why did it not surprise her that security was so lax? Not that it mattered. She had a duplicate key to the unit, so there was no need to hang around waiting for anyone to escort her.

Get in, do your job, get out—good advice for people of her ilk. It was better this way, without any witnesses to her dismantling a thing that looked like a helpless young human girl.

A helpfully marked “This Way to Storage Units” sign on a side door led her to a concrete path running alongside each row of units. She took a right at the third row and halted in front of Unit Twenty-Six. A decent-sized sturdy padlock secured its roller door. At least some effort at security had been made.

Her key stuck in the padlock, and she had to wrestle with it to get it to turn… and then fiddle with the lock mechanism to coax it open. Hmm. Anyone could be forgiven for believing this unit hadn’t been accessed in a while.

She pocketed the padlock. Only idiots left an opened lock hanging outside a storage unit—it was just asking for some asshole to lock you in. She heaved the roller door up and squinted, adjusting her eyesight to the interior gloom.

Strangely, the unit was bare save for a large canvas bag dumped in the corner by the right wall. And from what she could see, both security cams were down. Whoever had set up the feeds reckoned there was no further need to monitor this unit.

She snatched a scant moment to dampen growing unease before fishing a flashlight from a side pocket of her kitbag. And she was about to thumb the switch when some deep-seated instinct prompted her to pivot on her heel and close the roller door behind her, blanketing the interior of the unit in darkness again. She’d learned to trust her gut, and if her gut told her it was prudent not to advertise the fact she was here, then so be it.

Switching the flashlight to the lowest setting, she approached the bag, playing the beam over the stained canvas.

Not empty. Whatever had been stored inside was lumpy, and took up the whole interior of the bag. The fine hairs on the back of her neck rose. Damn, but she was getting a bad feeling about this.

She reached for the zipper and, in one swift, decisive movement, opened the bag.

Her torch beam limned chalk-white, almost skeletal features, haloed with a tangle of limp dark curls. It—the cyborg—lay on its side, stick-thin limbs curled tight against its torso.

She swallowed the bile that had surged up her throat and flicked the flashlight beam over that gaunt face again, both hoping for and dreading a response.

Nothing. Not even the merest twitch of an eyelid.

Her hand shook as she reached out to check for a pulse. And the instant she pressed the cyborg’s carotid artery, those paper-thin eyelids opened.

Whoa. She had never seen such incredibly blue eyes—eyes that sucked her in and ripped through her defenses.

Horror warred with a wave of hot fury that stained her vision a bloody red… and all possibility of professional detachment died. The hollow emptiness she’d endured for so long it was now a part of her, filled with steely resolve, because she knew without a doubt that Beta wasn’t like Caine’s current pet. And there was no longer an “it” lying at her feet—some inhuman “thing” to be “dealt with”. There was only a defenseless, disabled child.

Sweet God Almighty. Beta was conscious and sentient and they’d zipped her into a bag, tossed her in a corner, and left her there to waste away, helpless, trapped in some nightmarish half-life. What they’d done to her…. It was unimaginably cruel. And Beta had suffered. Terribly.

Who were the inhuman monsters here?

Speaking the command that would shut this miraculous but flawed creation down, reducing this child to a lifeless machine, might be construed a mercy. But in this moment, right now, it smacked of murder….

And this time she didn’t have it in her to commit murder.

She stroked the cyborg’s hair. “Well, Beta, looks like it’s just you and me, and we’re up shit-creek without a paddle because that bastard Caine is gonna pin big-ass targets on both our backs.”

Her soft bark of derisive laughter bounced off the walls. And when the echoes of it had faded, she started making plans.

 

Chapter One

 

The cab driver performed an inept three-point turn and zoomed off with a wince-inducing screech of tires, leaving Sam Ross in Nowheresville. The jury of his peers was still out as to whether this was a good career move, but right now, as the sky blushed rosy pink with the birth of a new day, and some nearby feathered denizen warbled a cheery welcome, Sam told himself he didn’t give a crap what his colleagues thought of his decision. No one had said respite care was going to be easy and he’d gone into it with eyes wide open. But lately, the chinks in his armor had become gaping holes and he’d not been able to maintain the distance he felt he needed to perform his job. He was burned out.

Bottom line? When you glanced at yourself in the shaving mirror each morning and barely recognized the hollow-eyed stranger staring back at you, it was time for a change of pace.

He hoisted his pack onto his shoulder, inhaling crisp country air deep into his lungs, holding it until tiny glowing sparks zinged through his headspace. And, as he exhaled, he cast off the last of his doubts. He’d been right to make this change—he felt it in his gut and his heart and his soul.

Coarse seal shifted beneath his feet as he approached the gate barring the cobbled entranceway. He pressed the buzzer on the speaker and leaned in to announce his arrival. “Samuel Ross.”

As he straightened, a flash caught his eye. A tiny security camera, barely noticeable amid the thick foliage poking through the gaps in the fence bordering the property. Which drew his attention to the fence itself, its sturdy metal palings colored a shade so close to the deep greens of the hedge plantings, he hadn’t even noticed a fence until now.

The gates shooshed smoothly, almost noiselessly, apart.

Disquiet feathered Sam’s spine but damned if he’d turn back now. He walked briskly through the gates… and fought the impulse to glance over his shoulder as they shut behind him. It was hardly unusual for an affluent property-owner living in relative isolation to install some stringent security measures, right?

Rolling the tension from his shoulders, he marched up the meandering pathway, determinedly admiring the freshly mown grass and bright, cheery flowerbeds with their neatly clipped borders. He passed two bent figures, diligently plying secateurs to a bed of standard rose bushes. Fulltime gardeners, perhaps? Not surprising given the extent of these grounds. Right now, he could be forgiven for imagining he was taking a stroll through carefully maintained public gardens. Fingers crossed the house wasn’t some drafty old mansion full of dusty antiques, with generations of stern ancestors glaring down their noses at him from the walls. Still, given the salary he’d been offered, he could put up with small inconveniences like OTT security measures, clanking plumbing and uninviting décor.

Besides, money hadn’t been his primary motive for accepting this position—though it’d certainly helped when he’d weighed the pros and cons. This placement was long-term. His patient was young and healthy—physically at least. And if her mental state left a lot to be desired, well, he could deal with that. So far as he’d been able to ascertain she wasn’t suffering. And for Sam, that was pretty much a win any way he looked at it.

He blinked as he caught sight of the house.

Nice. More than nice, in fact. Another win, for sure. The modest two-story, built of cream brick with a red tiled roof, was almost eclipsed by the addition of a huge conservatory. Bi-folding doors had been pushed back to take advantage of the balmy temperature, revealing a substantial swimming pool. An undercover pool—heated, too, at a guess. With a bit of luck he could wangle permission to use it on his days off.

Sam’s gaze lingered on what he guessed was the garage. He’d bet his next paycheck it housed some seriously sweet cars. But as much as curiosity pricked him to be nosy and peer through the side windows, he ignored the impulse and continued up the path to the front door. There were bound to be cameras secreted here, too, their feeds manned by someone noting his every move, and it wasn’t a good look to be caught nosing around on his first day.

He was reaching for the plain brass doorknocker when the door was yanked open, leaving him confronting a tall woman with short-cropped white hair and cold gray eyes. She wore light, flowing black pants, a loose black tunic, and black sneakers. Sam estimated her age as anywhere between forty and fifty—a polar opposite to the housekeeper-cum-guardian who’d interviewed him a month ago, and professed herself delighted to offer him the position. That woman, one Sally Bridges, had been short and plump, with dimples and a kind smile. She’d worn a floral dress, a pink cardigan and matching pink low-heeled pumps. She’d chatted away, immediately putting him at ease. She’d appeared friendly and harmless, the kind of woman who would sit you down in the kitchen with a plate of fresh-baked cookies and a glass of milk.

This woman? She was all lean muscle and coiled strength. She possessed the sort of watchful stillness Sam recognized from a stint training with a martial arts expert—the kind that told you here was a person who could explode into motion, and take you down before you could blink. His spidey-senses warned him to proceed with caution. Apparently this job was not going to be as straightforward as it had appeared.

He met her cool, assessing gaze with his best bland expression, and waited for her to make the first move.

One slash of an eyebrow arched. “Mr. Ross, I presume.”

She didn’t offer her hand, so Sam responded with a curt nod.

The other eyebrow joined the first before returning to neutral. “If you’ll follow me, Mr. Ross, I’ll show you to your quarters.” She turned her back on him and strode away, obviously expecting him to follow like a good little lapdog.

Sam figured he might as well start as he meant to go on. “It’s Sam, not Mr. Ross,” he called after her. “And getting settled in can wait. Right now I’d prefer you introduce me to Miss Smith.”

She halted and pivoted, the full force of that steely gaze boring into him.

A lesser man would have backed down, stuttered an apology. But Sam was made of sterner stuff. “Please,” he added, keeping his tone firm and to-the-point, while making it obvious the effort at politeness was a token afterthought.

Her lips quirked ever so briefly, and as she strode toward him she stuck out a hand. “Marguerite Danvers.”

Sam noted the slightest nostril-flare accompanying that announcement, and hazarded a guess she was less than thrilled to be named after a flower—a fact he only knew because marguerite daisies had been his grandma’s favorite bloom.

“You can call me Marg.” Although she pronounced it with a soft “g” her tone was anything but soft, suggesting dire consequences if he dared call her Marguerite.

Sam managed not to wince when she gripped his hand so tightly it felt as though his bones were grinding together.

She released his hand and, when he manfully showed no inclination to flex his crushed digits, her gray eyes sparkled with amusement. She’d won the dominance challenge, and they both knew it, but he’d also earned a modicum of her respect. “You and I are going to get along just fine, Sam. Let’s go check what Bea’s up to.”

Sam frowned, mentally scanning his employment documentation, but could only recall his patient referred to as “Miss B. Smith.” Nor could he recall Mrs. Bridges mentioning the girl’s first name. He took a punt. “Bea as in… Beatrice?”

“Yes.” Marg’s lips compressed to a grim line. “Though it might interest you to know that Bea’s previous guardians referred to her as ‘Beta’.”

Beta. The second letter of the Greek alphabet.

Sam blanched, rocking back on his heels as the full import of Marg’s explanation smacked him upside the head. They hadn’t believed this girl deserved a name—only a designation, like she was some freaking subhuman lab-rat instead of a human being. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered.

Marg must have had exceptional hearing, for she folded her arms over her chest, and gave him some truly superb cold hard bitch that was at odds with her conversational tone as she said, “When Sally came on board, she decided on the name Beatrice. Sally adores the English royals,” she added by way of explanation. Followed by a little shake of her head and an eye-roll, as if to convey fond exasperation, but those gray eyes were still cold and hard and watchful as she observed his reactions. “Most of us think that’s a bit of a mouthful, though, and shorten it to Bea.”

Sam swallowed the myriad questions clamoring in his head and said quietly, “Bea, it is, then.”

Marg rewarded his ready acceptance and disinclination to pry with one of her clipped nods, and beckoned him to follow.

Sam trailed her through to what turned out to be a spacious kitchen, dominated by a huge, solid wood table that could have sprung fully formed from the pages of Country Living.

None other than Sally Bridges, resplendent in be-ruffled floral apron, stood at the counter, kneading bread dough. She glanced up as Marg and Sam entered, and greeted them with a smile. “Oh good, you’re here. How do you like your eggs, Samuel?”

“Please, call me Sam,” he said, his gaze sweeping the room. “And I like my eggs however you care to cook ’em. Thank you for the offer of breakfast, by the way. I’m starving.”

He shucked his pack and leaned it against the wall. Ignoring the glances Sally and Marg were shooting at each other, he visually assessed the girl seated in the wheelchair at head of the table.

Her head had tilted to one side until her chin almost rested on her collarbone. Her shiny mane of naturally curly hair hung over one shoulder in a loose, fat braid. Her complexion was clear and smooth, pale but healthy-looking. Good muscle-tone—no atrophied muscles that he could detect beneath the shapeless gray sweatpants and loose black long-sleeved tee she wore. Surprisingly, there were no support straps to prevent her slipping out of the wheelchair. A good sign. Likewise that neither her hands, which lay relaxed atop her thighs, nor the sneaker-clad feet resting on the footrest of the wheelchair, were twisted—

His gut swooped. He’d been told Bea was in a persistent vegetative state. PVS patients were awake but unaware of what was happening around them. Some could open their eyes, even track objects. Others could move their limbs slightly, though such movements were reflexes rather than reactions to external stimuli. Bea’s eyes were closed—nothing unusual in that; PVS patients had regular sleep-wake cycles. But instinct prompted him to approach her—the same visceral instinct that insisted he drop whatever he happened to be doing to check on a patient he’d left only moments before, because he knew something was wrong.

He needed to see her eyes—gaze into them to gauge what it was about her that disturbed him.

He strode forward, peripherally aware that Marg and Sally had stilled and were watching him like hawks. He dropped to his haunches before Bea and took her hands. “Hi, Bea. My name’s Sam.”

Save for the slow, even rise and fall of her chest, there was no response.

In the back of his mind, Sam noted her hands were cooler than he’d expected given the sun pouring in the windows and the warmth of the room. “Bea,” he said, firmly and clearly. “I need you to wake up now.”

Nothing.

“Open your eyes, Bea.”

He waited. Still nothing—not that he’d expected any response to his command… had he?

He mentally shook himself, trying to shrug off a sense of foreboding so powerful that the fine hairs on the back of his neck were standing at attention. He reached up, and with the pad of his forefinger, gently pushed up her left eyelid…. And was confronted by an orb of breath-stealing, far-too-intense-to-be-natural blue.

He inhaled sharply. “Whoa.” That was… unexpected.

There was a muffled protest—from Sally Bridges, at a guess—that was quickly shushed.

Sam ignored his audience of two. Interesting. Bea’s left eyelid had remained open after he’d removed his fingertip.

He carefully opened her right eyelid and eased his hand back.

Ditto with the right eyelid.

He backed off. “Well done, Bea,” he said, smiling to convey approval, even though all the approval and encouragement in the world wouldn’t make an iota of difference to a PVS patient like Bea. And then, as he gazed into those inhumanly blue eyes, the smile froze on his face.

What the—?

He cupped her face in his palms, tilting her head.

No. He hadn’t imagined it.

He watched the telltale moisture form in the duct of her right eye. “How long has Bea been PVS?” he asked, without taking his gaze from that glistening teardrop.

“I took over as her primary caregiver five years ago,” Sam heard Marg say.

With a bent knuckle, Sam oh-so-carefully caught the plump tear tracking down that perfect cheek and held up his hand, knowing in his gut both woman would understand exactly what he was showing them.

“PVS patients can shed tears,” Marg said. “It’s not unheard of.”

She was right, of course. But this? This was more than the spontaneous crying, moaning, laughing, and even screaming, considered within normal parameters for a PVS patient. Sam knew it absolutely. He knew it in his heart and soul and the very marrow of his bones.

And then, as if she’d read his mind, Bea’s pupils dilated and those remarkable blue eyes were focusing… on him. And damn him to hell and back if he couldn’t almost feel the emotion pouring from her in waves. Determination. To… to….

To make him understand that she was… she was… trapped? Inside in a physical shell that refused to function as it should?

Sam had to lock his muscles to prevent himself recoiling. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. There was awareness in those inhumanly beautiful eyes. “I understand,” he blurted. “I’ll help you however I can, Bea, I promise.”

If he’d hoped for some miraculous physical reaction from her, some acknowledgement of his outburst, he was sorely disappointed. He knew Bea had understood him, though—believed him, too—because a breath sighed from her body, long and slow, heavy with some unnamed emotion.

He stared at her, fascinated and horrified in equal measure, as that spark of awareness was extinguished, leaving only gloriously blue, chillingly blank orbs.

God— Sam caught the thought before it could fully form, for it seemed the worst kind of travesty to importune the very deity who’d condemned a thinking, feeling human being—a girl who’d barely begun to experience life—to such a fate.

As he straightened from his crouch, he distinctly heard Marg declare, “You don’t understand a damn thing, Samuel Ross. But you will.”

He turned to the two woman, questions bubbling on his lips, in time to witness Sally Bridges hug Marg, and for Marg to pat the shorter woman on the shoulder before extricating herself and smoothing her tunic.

Marg glanced up, caught Sam’s gaze, held it. “Sal,” she said, “you were right: He’s just what she needs.” And although Sam was one-hundred percent certain he’d caught the glimmer of tears before Marg strode from the kitchen—because from the stricken expression on Sally’s face, she’d caught them, too—well, neither he nor Sally were brave enough to broach the subject.

Sally cracked three eggs into a bowl and began to whisk them vigorously. Sam planted his butt on the chair nearest Bea and stared into her unseeing eyes, willing that spark of awareness to return.

 

Chapter Two

 

A human would have been overwhelmed by both the number and magnitude of the tasks ahead—not to mention the necessity of prioritizing them. So it was fortunate that Jay was not human.

Locating the Beta unit she’d recently learned existed sat high on Jay’s current list of priorities. Her self-proclaimed “bestie” Caro—fraternal twin of Jay’s boyfriend Tyler—would doubtless insist on referring to the Beta as Jay’s older sister. In truth, the term twin would be more accurate, given the same human genetic material used to construct Jay, a Gamma unit, had obviously been used during the creation of the Beta: Both Jay and the Beta had been created in the image of a woman named Mary Durham, their creator’s deceased wife.

Discounting the nature of any supposed “relationship” between Jay and the Beta for the moment, Jay understood the workings of Caro’s mind enough by now to know that Caro would consider the Beta family. Moreover, whether the Beta was labeled sister or twin, and proved fully functional or as defective as the wheelchair in the photo indicated, so far as Caro was concerned family should be at the top of any list—a fact Jay could easily prove by revealing the Beta’s existence to Caro and the rest of the Davidson family.

Uncharacteristically, however, Jay remained undecided over whether to tell them. Much depended upon Tyler and Caro’s mother Marissa, and her reactions to the events of the past two days. And Jay believed Marissa would hardly be in a forgiving frame of mind given their shared history, and the undoubted trauma of recent events.

Marissa would likely be even less inclined to forgive if she learned that, while she’d lain in a drug-induced slumber, her newborn infant had been kidnapped to use as leverage to get to Jay.

Jay parked the vehicle she’d hired—a hire vehicle had seemed a prudent precaution now that her SUV could be recognized by a certain party—and paused to rub her breastbone, where a too-familiar ache had lodged. Marissa had indicated that she’d liked Jay once upon a time. Before Marissa had understood what Jay truly was. Before she’d understood how deeply her son, Tyler, had fallen for the “glorified calculator” Marissa had once accused Jay of being. And to Jay, it was obvious as udders on a male bovine that, despite the lengths she had taken to keep the Davidsons safe, Marissa would prefer Jay vanished from their lives.

Logically, Jay couldn’t find it in herself to blame Marissa for that preference. Strange, therefore, to again experience this unrelenting, throbbing ache—a physical symptom of how much it hurt to know that Marissa, a human Jay had admired from the moment they’d first met, would rather she didn’t exist.

Jay snorted a sharp breath through her nostrils. Bah! as Alexander Jay Durham, the man she had called “Father”, had liked to say. Emotions, those complex human states that provoked often irrational behaviors, as well as disturbing physical and psychological changes, were at best distracting and inconvenient, and at worst, dangerous. They were insidious things that snuck up on one, and impaired one’s ability to make sound judgments. She would be better off without them. And yet….

And yet, even if she could somehow twist time and revert to her state of being before Tyler had wormed his way into her artificial heart and irrevocably altered her, Jay would not. Now she knew a little of what it meant to love, and to be loved, she would not willingly relinquish those feelings—difficult as they could be to live with.

Unfortunately, Jay didn’t possess enough data to ascertain whether Alex had designed her in the expectation she would evolve in such a way, or whether it had been a spontaneous, unforeseen development. If only Alex, the one human who might have accurately predicted the far-reaching ramifications of loosing an emotion-fueled cyborg on an unsuspecting world, still lived. If only—

Jay shut down the part of her brain that had begun to replay her role in her creator’s demise, and blotted the annoying moisture welling in her eyes with the heels of her hands. It would not be prudent to confront the Davidson family with watery eyes. Tyler and Caro would double-team each other to ferret out the cause of her tears. Marissa would likely believe Jay was doing what humans termed “turning on the waterworks” in an attempt to garner sympathy. And Marissa’s husband Michael would be torn between the desire to assist Jay, in the hope of making amends for his past deeds, and the desire to protect his family from further harm.

Jay inhaled, drawing oxygen deep into her lungs, and exhaled slowly, steadily, refocusing her thoughts.

A suitable lab was also a high priority, however any premises would have to be selected with a great deal of care, so as not to alert certain interested parties. Too, sourcing the array of equipment necessary to repair the Beta’s defects could prove problematic.

Jay was not programmed with a tendency toward paranoia but until she could personally examine Evan Caine’s remains, and personally confirm the covert team experimenting with self-aware cyborgs had been disbanded, she wasn’t about to take unnecessary risks. In fact, it might be more prudent to utilize the sole satellite laboratory she hadn’t dismantled, cleared out, and then sold off after Father’s death. It remained undiscovered to date, suggesting it was as safe an option as any—albeit a somewhat primitive one.

There was also the mystery surrounding the photo that had alerted Jay to the Beta unit’s existence. Or, more specifically, the identity of whomever had left the envelope containing the photo at her friend Allen’s studio.

The envelope had been addressed to “JAY”—the letters neatly printed by hand in blue ballpoint ink—and Allen had passed it on to McPhee, a mutual friend who’d planned on visiting Jay to drop off a painting. For now, that unknown party’s motives could only be surmised—a waste of energy and resources. Jay would act when more information became available.

There was one last priority to consider. Tyler. Her boyfriend. The young human male who professed to love her.

Would he still love her after all that had transpired?

Could he still love her after what she had put him, and his family, through?

Jay raised her hand to the door buzzer. And, even as a part of her brain noted that her chest felt tight and her heart rate had escalated, another part accepted the presence of these physical symptoms and suppressed the prompt to run an internal diagnostic. Apprehension, Jay decided, was a very uncomfortable human condition indeed.

She jabbed the buzzer in three short bursts and waited.

She heard the thuds of hurried footfalls, and through the hazed glass of the door’s window, spied a fuzzy silhouette. Not Tyler. His father.

Michael-who-preferred-to-be-called-Mike Davidson yanked open the door.

The expression in his eyes, the compressed lips and tight muscles of his shoulders, shrieked tension, however Jay hadn’t detected any raised voices that might indicate an argument taking place.

Observing Michael with all of the enhanced senses at her disposal, Jay concluded he didn’t appear overly upset, or distressed in the manner she had previously observed whenever he and his wife had a disagreement. Hmmm. If she had felt the need to pin a label on Michael Davidson—something Jay had discovered humans frequently liked to do because categorizing their peers made them feel more secure—she would have chosen harried.

Michael blew out a strong exhalation that puffed his cheeks. “Thank God you’re here. Quick—before he escapes.”

He?

Jay confined her reaction to a slow blink. At this stage of human development, Marissa’s not quite three-day-old infant son should barely be capable of the coordination required to suck his own digits let alone trying to escape out an open door.

Nor could Jay picture Tyler making a break for it. Her boyfriend wasn’t the kind of attention-seeking human who felt the need to draw all eyes by “making an exit”. Of course, if provoked, Tyler had been known to exit in such a way that no one would doubt his feelings—as Marissa had learned to her cost. But Jay couldn’t visualize Michael taking steps to keep his oldest son in the house if Tyler desired to leave. As Tyler might say, that wasn’t the way his father rolled.

Perhaps Matt, Caro’s boyfriend—

No. A scan of the interior of the house detected no extra male humans.

Before Jay could request clarification, Michael grabbed her arm and yanked her inside, kicking the door shut behind him. He sagged against the doorframe, snatched another breath and, inaudibly to a human but not to a cyborg, counted to five before meeting her gaze with a tilt of his lips. “Wait for it,” he said, cocking his head, obviously listening for some cue.

Jay was still analyzing Michael’s interesting responses when “it” careened through the kitchen doorway and darted across the passageway into the sitting room, disappearing from view.

She analyzed the visual snapshot she’d taken of the creature, comparing it to the other data her sensory receptors had gleaned.

Ah. She turned her gaze on Michael, and raised one eyebrow. Since Tyler’s father was most definitely human, and might well be too distracted to interpret the meaning behind the gesture, she added, “I presume you have an excellent reason for choosing this particular moment to fulfill the terms of our wager.”

By “this particular moment”, Jay alluded to what they both knew was going to be the polar opposite of a happy reunion. Jay had only to evaluate previous reactions from Davidson family members to past events to know there would be explanations demanded, less than satisfying answers offered for the sake of those directly affected, recriminations leveled.

Michael scratched his chin. His lips twitched, and the skin at the outer edges of his eye sockets crinkled as he fought to contain a smile that Jay identified as a perfect example of wry. “He wasn’t due for another few days,” he said. “The breeder screwed up the dates and arrived while I was giving Danny a bath. Marissa was napping so Caro answered the door.” He shrugged. “No way could I put the woman off and ask her to keep him a few more days once Caro laid eyes on him. She swears she’ll take him if you’re not keen, by the way.”

Jay directed a portion of her attention to the hallway. The scrabbling of claws and a sudden yelp indicated her prize had inadvertently introduced itself to a piece of furniture. Or perhaps a wall. “Hardly practical,” she informed Michael, “when Caro is sharing a rented apartment, spends barely any time in it, and hasn’t got a dime to spare after her myriad expenses are deducted.”

“Expenses” in Caro’s case meant clothes, and materials to construct clothes, followed closely by shoes and any other accessories deemed necessary to outfit a budding fashion maven.

Mike’s sigh accompanied an eyes-to-the-ceiling gesture that managed to convey both pride and exasperation. “Of course Tyler pointed that out to her. And they’ve been bickering about it ever since.”

The yelp had heralded a series of high-pitched whines that showed no sign of ceasing any time soon. Beside her, Mike winced and scrubbed a hand over his face. “God. If he wakes Danny again, Riss will kill me.” He brushed past Jay and strode off down the hallway.

Jay doubted Marissa would literally kill her husband, but a mother protecting her infant was certainly capable of inflicting serious bodily harm upon anyone she deemed a threat to the infant’s wellbeing, and Jay couldn’t imagine Marissa being the exception to that rule. Too, while afflicted by the post-birth hormones coursing through her body, Marissa might consider it quite logical to blame Jay for both the pup’s presence in her house, and the disruption it had caused, despite Jay not being privy to Michael’s plans. It would be prudent to take immediate action to prevent a ruckus that would disturb young Daniel Robert Davidson’s routine. “Wait,” she called to Michael. “Let me deal with this.”

Michael halted and flattened himself against the wall as though trying to make himself a smaller target. “Be my guest. And for all our sakes, I sure hope you have better luck than I’ve had calming him down. Once he gets going—”

“I understand. Time is of the essence.”

Jay accessed her databases. Perfect. Female canines nursing offspring secreted what was known in laymen’s terms as “appeasing” pheromones. These pheromones soothed the puppies, and provided reassurance and comfort. She tweaked the chemical balances within her body and began to secrete an appropriate pheromone concoction through her pores. She would of course train the pup to respond solely to her commands, but for now there was no logical reason not to “cheat” via the judicious use of pheromones.

The pup’s whines subsided, and then he gave an “Arroooo” that could easily have been interpreted as the canine equivalent of a question.

Komm,” Jay said.

Her command was answered by the sharp clicks of claws on wood, and then a dark-brown head crowned with floppy ears poked around the corner.

The pup’s eyes were yellow rather than the more common—and desirable—brown. Right now, those “bird of prey” eyes were eyeing Jay like she was some never before encountered, wholly unpredictable creature.

Hier!” Jay crouched and clicked her fingers, effectively wafting more “feel good” pheromones in the pup’s direction.

He crept from behind the wall and stood there, quivering, allowing Jay to get a good look at him.

A breeder would likely describe the pup’s coloring as solid liver head, ticked liver-and-white body with black saddles. Translation: Solid chocolate-brown head, and a speckled brown and white coat with black patches. And unsuitable for showing or breeding purposes due to aforementioned yellow eyes and black patches.

If the pup were capable of such emotions, he might well be grateful for his perceived shortcomings, given they had doubtless prevented the breeder from docking his tail—a common practice with this particular breed.

Jay stared at the pup, unblinking.

The pup cocked his head and stared back.

Jay slowly extended her hand. “Komm.”

The little canine yipped, and launched into motion, rocketing toward her and eliciting a startled grunt from Michael, who was still plastered against the wall.

The pup skidded to an ungainly halt and mashed his muzzle on Jay’s knee. He licked her hand, and then crawled into her lap to sniff her thoroughly. Jay remained perfectly still, allowing the pup to do as he willed. He obviously expected reciprocal attention, and Jay would bet a considerable portion of her monetary wealth that he had been getting a whole lot of it from the Davidson family—especially Caro. But he would have to learn that Jay considered attention a reward for appropriate behavior, not a right.

The pup finally ceased sniffing and licking and wriggling, and lay quietly across Jay’s thighs. He was a quick study—not surprising given the traits of the breed. German Shorthaired Pointers, also known as GSPs, were generally highly intelligent and bold creatures. This pup epitomized the often boisterous nature of the breed, and if care wasn’t taken, that trait could easily become aggressiveness toward owners. In other words, the dog would establish its dominance over its human owner and then treat that owner accordingly. But to Jay’s mind, given the ease with which GSPs could be trained, and their affectionate natures, any such tendency was the fault of inexperienced owners. GSPs were known to flourish with owners who were firm, confident, calm, and consistent. As humans liked to say, it wasn’t rocket science.

She dropped a palm to the pup’s head and fondled his ears. “Braver Hund.”

Braffer hoont?”

Michael’s pronunciation was close enough that Jay didn’t feel obliged to correct him. “It means ‘Good dog’,” she said.

“I guessed as much. Why give commands in German?”

Jay scooped the pup into the crook of one arm and pushed to her feet. “It seemed appropriate given the origins of the breed.” And would reinforce to the pup that Jay was the one it must obey without hesitation.

“Ah.” Michael emitted what his daughter Caro had labeled a snort-laugh. “And here I figured it was some super-duper secret canine training method known only to dog whisperers,” he said.

Jay extended the range of her sensors to pinpoint Tyler’s whereabouts, and headed for the staircase. Her heart rate had escalated. Her mouth had ceased to produce sufficient saliva, and her body was… was….

She sought a suitable descriptor. Vibrating. No. Thrumming—a sensation she had come to recognize signified eagerness and excitement. An all-too-familiar tugging sensation urged her to keep moving. And, if she had been a human fond of fanciful imagery, she would have described herself as propelled by need and want and desire for the object of her affection. Tyler. She craved his touch in the same way some humans craved their drug of choice.

Despite the need to give herself over to these disturbing inner drives, Jay had learned enough about parent/child relationship dynamics to comprehend that Michael would be discomfited and perhaps embarrassed by what she intended to do to his son the instant she saw him again. Michael accepted at an intellectual level that his oldest male offspring loved an inhuman machine, but seeing it in action, confronting the reality, was another matter entirely. Perhaps a distraction would be prudent. “You got me,” she said.

“Come again?”

“I refer to canine training methods.”

His eyebrows had furrowed and his lips had parted. His gaze focused on her, unwavering. He shifted, pushing away from the support of the wall so that his torso tilted slightly toward her.

These physical cues indicated curiosity and interest. Excellent. “I do indeed have a super-duper secret canine training method, and it is not one a dog whisperer would have access to.” Hmm. That wasn’t entirely true, Jay realized, recalling a past conversation with Tyler. Wall outlet plug-ins that released calming chemicals to assist in the treatment of overly nervous pets were easily obtainable.

“Any time you feel like putting me out of misery,” Michael said. “That’s a hint to spill your secret, by the way. Now, would be good. Especially if Caro’s going to be looking after that little monster. He’s barely slept five minutes since the breeder dropped him off, and now look at him. She’ll be beside herself trying to figure out how you managed it.”

Jay didn’t bother to glance at the pup to confirm what she already knew: He was asleep. “There is no need for Caro to take him. He was intended for me. It would be rude and ungrateful not to accept him in the spirit with which he was given.”

Michael opened his mouth—to voice a protest, no doubt—but Jay continued before he could speak. “If I’ve given you the impression that raising this pup will be an imposition and an annoyance, then I owe you an apology. If I had been given an opportunity to select a canine companion on my own, this little one is almost exactly the creature I would have chosen.” She held up a hand, pre-empting the response she observed bubbling to his lips. “I say ‘almost’, only because I would have chosen a female. Now, having interacted with this male pup, I am no longer convinced a female would have been the best choice.”

She cocked her head, observing Michael closely. “In fact, when it comes to selecting the perfect canine to suit my needs, I find myself wondering whether you are able to read my mind. Thank you, Michael. He’s a delight.”

He rewarded her attempt at reassurance with a crooked grin that reminded her so much of his son, Jay’s pulse ratcheted up another notch. Her core temperature rose, flushing heat through her body. Yet she chose not to dampen this physiological response. It was human. And Tyler deserved more than an analytical, unfeeling, inhuman thing that couldn’t comprehend his emotional and physical needs.

After what she’d put him through, Tyler deserved all the humanity Jay’s evolution made her capable of providing. She hoped, for his sake, it would be enough.

She sensed Michael waiting for her to elaborate and perhaps answer his request to reveal her “secret”. Likely he would appreciate the revelation all the more if she delayed his gratification, and so she remained mute until she reached the stairwell and had negotiated the first riser. Only then did she look back over her shoulder and say, “It’s all in the way I smell, Michael. Right now, I remind this pup of its mother. It’s that simple.”

Michael’s slow nod told her that he understood it truly wasn’t simple at all. And, since explaining the process would delay her reunion with Tyler, she was grateful he didn’t request further clarification. Instead, his eyes twinkled mischief at her, and he said, “I think I’ll keep that to myself and go with you being a puppy whisperer. I’d recommend you do the same. It’ll drive Caro crazy.”

Since Jay knew Caro well enough to agree with that last statement, she saw no need to linger.

She had taken but two steps when she heard Caro entering through the backdoor leading in from the yard. Jay inhaled, separating out and analyzing the scents. Caro had been picking apples. Meaning that if everything went well, and Marissa did not demand Jay leave the house, Jay could offer to bake an apple pie for dessert. But now was not the best time to discuss such trivialities. Best make herself scarce before Caro waylaid her.

“We’ll talk tonight, after everyone’s in bed.” Michael’s softly pitched words drifted up to her. “Go on up. He’s in his old room—not that you need me to tell you that.”

Jay sprinted up the stairs while Michael, mind reader that he was, strode off to intercept his daughter before Caro realized that Jay had arrived, and commandeered her attention. A bloom of warmth spread in the pit of Jay’s stomach. Michael, as humans liked to say, had her back.

She halted by the door to Tyler’s old bedroom. This was it. Make or break time.

As though sensing his mistress’s uncertainty, the sleeping pup whimpered. Jay soothed him back into slumber by smoothing the fur down his spine. Unfortunately, her own concerns could not be so easily soothed. As always, they centered on her illogical but painful yearning for the young human male currently hiding out in this room. Whether he still wanted her in his life once the pros and cons had been weighed. Whether he could forgive her for putting his family at risk simply by existing. Whether he still loved her….

Or had finally wised up to the insanity of a human loving a machine, and decided to move on.

Excitement and eagerness at the prospect of seeing her boyfriend again had been supplanted by another emotion—one that clamped Jay’s chest and squeezed like some giant vise, and made the back of her throat ache as she struggled to swallow a huge lump that she knew wasn’t real, but physically affected her just the same. And when she lifted her hand to the door handle, a part of her was shocked to see her hand tremble. The desire to run back downstairs and use Caro to avoid this confrontation was almost overwhelming.

Jay analyzed her physiological responses and searched her databases for information, determined to put a name to this debilitating emotion that had so thoroughly ensnared her. Names were powerful labels—hence her creator’s reluctance to bestow one upon her. Hence the irony that she had eventually taken his middle name for her own.

Yes. Naming this emotion would be the first step toward defeating it.

Data from countless sources poured into her brain and in a microsecond, she had her answer. Ah. So this was what dread felt like. It was a minor miracle that humans functioned at all whenever they fell victim to it.

Jay scrubbed the palm of her hand down her jeans, gripped the door handle, and opened the door to Tyler’s bedroom.

He lay stretched out on the bed, hands behind his head. A sheaf of the manuscript paper he used to notate songs and music sat in his lap. His eyelids were closed, highlighting the blue-black smudges of sleeplessness.

Jay inhaled sharply, locked her shaky knee joints, and wedged her shoulder against the doorframe to counteract abrupt dizziness. She performed a swift diagnostic scan of her systems, which only confirmed what she already knew: There was nothing that needed attention, nothing that required recalibration. Which of course meant her reactions were solely caused by him. Tyler. The young human male who meant so much to Jay that she would willingly sacrifice herself to keep him safe.

Too, she would let him go if he demanded it of her. Or, if the rational part of her brain deemed it the only way forward for them both, she would push him away, do whatever it took to make him hate her enough to excise her from his life and his heart… even if it meant she would spend the rest of her existence mourning his loss. And if Jay had possessed a soul, and believed in an afterlife, right now she would have prayed to every deity humankind believed in for that day to never come.

“God, Caro.” Tyler puffed out a breath, all the while keeping his eyelids firmly shuttered. “Can’t you see I’m working? What does a guy have to do to get some alone time around here?”

“It’s me.”

His eyelids shot open. He rolled off the mattress, scattering manuscript leaves as he launched himself at her.

As much as Jay wanted—needed—to have his arms around her, she fended him off with the palm of her hand. “Careful.”

He halted, the hurt in his expression swiftly morphing to concern. “What the fuck did Robot-Boy do to y—? Oh.” His tension visibly eased as he gazed at the sleeping pup.

“He’s exhausted. Do you have a box, or somewhere I can put him?”

Tyler glanced around his room. “Here.” He strode to the battered dresser beside the bed and yanked open the top right-hand drawer. “There’s a bunch of my old t-shirts in there—should make a pretty comfortable bed for the little guy.”

Jay carefully decanted the pup into the makeshift bed. Before she could turn, Tyler’s arms crept around her waist and he tucked her in close to his body, resting his chin atop her head.

He inhaled, and when he exhaled, she felt the shudder that coursed through him. He remained silent for fifty-three seconds—a span that Jay knew humans considered to be a significantly long moment.

“God. Jay. You’re finally here.” He murmured the words into her hair. “I should never have left you with him. If anything had happened to you, I swear I would have hunted Sixer down and—”

“Gotten yourself killed,” Jay said briskly. “It would be the height of stupidity for a human to pit himself against Sixer. Never make the mistake of thinking he’s anything like me, Tyler.”

She felt his flinch at her blunt words, and turned in his arms to meet his deep, chocolate-brown gaze. “You made the right choice, Tyler. There wasn’t anything you could have done to assist me. It was your baby brother or me. There wasn’t any other choice you could have made.”

Tyler swallowed, his gaze searching hers. Yet another significantly long moment passed before he nodded. “I know. Doesn’t make my decision easier to bear, though. I had to trust you could save yourself but it almost killed me, Jay. He shot you multiple times with whatever the fuck that weapon was, and God, you looked real bad. I thought….”

He closed his eyes and learned his forehead against hers. His hand crept to her nape, cupping it, infusing her cool skin with his human warmth. “I believed he was gonna destroy you. I thought I’d never see you again.”

There were a number of assurances Jay might have given but she doubted any of them would benefit Tyler. His emotions were too raw for platitudes.

Nor would detailing exactly what had happened between Sixer and herself alleviate Tyler’s obvious anguish. Such facts would only serve to highlight how helpless she had truly been. So Jay opted for humor—a well documented distraction technique that served humans well during stressful or unhappy situations. “Apparently, Sixer was programmed to be what is commonly referred to as an ‘ass man’, as well as a ‘chest man’.”

Tyler’s chin lifted and he stared at her through slitted eyelids. His fingers clamped around her nape. “What. The. Fuck?”

Apparently dark brown eyes could turn molten and fiery with repressed rage. Fascinating. “As you witnessed,” she said, “he shot me in the chest.”

Tyler’s lips compressed. “Three times.”

“That is correct. He woke me to assist him. However, when it came time to facilitate his escape, he mistakenly believed he had to incapacitate me again. So he—”

“Shot you in the ass?”

“As I was already in motion, his second shot missed and entered my thigh, but I believe he was aiming for the buttock.”

She waited for him to laugh. Or at least crack a smile. But her attempt at humor had missed the mark and Tyler was counting beneath his breath. He’d only reached three when he hissed from between tightly compressed lips, “Show me.”

Jay blinked. Even though there was no possibility she had heard wrongly, perhaps she had misunderstood some essential subtext in that terse demand. She decided it was imperative to request clarification. “Show you my buttocks?”

“Yes.”

No misunderstanding then. How… unexpected. “Now?”

He released her and stepped back, dropping his hands to his sides. His hands clenched and unclenched. Clenched again. Crimson blotches mottled his neck and throat. “And your chest, too. I need to see what he did to you.”

He noted the gaze she shot toward the door and swiveled on his heel. “Now, Jay,” he threw back at her as he locked the bedroom door to insure their privacy.

Jay healed with inhuman speed, and her injuries had been minor. In mere days, there would be no evidence of the five wounds she’d taken during her encounter with Sixer to distress Tyler. However, perhaps seeing the evidence firsthand, knowing absolutely that she had taken no lasting harm, would help him to shed whatever misplaced guilt and anger he harbored over his inability to protect her.

“Very well.” She shucked her t-shirt, kicked off her sneakers, and shimmied out of her jeans. She hadn’t bothered with a bra this morning so that was one less item of clothing to remove. The leg of her underpants could easily be tugged up to reveal the healing wound on her buttock, and after a quick internal debate, she could see no harm in leaving them on. There was no reason to remove her socks—that portion of her anatomy had not been injured. And so she stood there in her underpants and socks, waiting for Tyler to do… whatever it was he needed to do.

~*~

Freaks Under Fire by Maree Anderson
Copyright 2015

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