Unit 77 knew something was broken inside him…he just didn’t know what it was.
He crouched behind the door of the med shack, waiting for his quarry—a small, blonde female who was moving purposefully around the compound. She had serious, gray eyes and she was wearing a white lab coat, which couldn’t quite conceal her curves.
Watching her…did something to Unit 77—made the brokenness inside him worse somehow. But again, he couldn’t say exactly how or why.
His muscular bulk, concealed in the shadows, was more metal than man. The CyBRG device implanted in the back of his neck clicked and whirred quietly, feeding information to his brain and nervous system while throttling other less important things like emotion.
The CyBRG device—short for Cybernetic Brain Re-routing Gear—ensured that Unit 77 always had a clear head in battle. Its function, like his mechanical left arm and the retractable scope over his left eye, was to make him a stronger, better soldier.
Unit 77 knew this to be true—the knowledge had been with him ever since he had first woken to this new life. It was implanted in his brain along with the other directives—like the one that commanded him to obey all direct orders from his CO.
It doesn’t always work though, does it? whispered a little voice in his head. The directive to obey…the emotion throttling function…
Unit 77 shook his head the way one might shake a mechanical device that was malfunctioning. The little voice came sometimes, whispering judgments and inconvenient truths…sometimes it brought images with it. Shadows of a past he could no longer remember—didn’t want to remember. It tormented him and yet he couldn’t rid himself of it. It seemed to be a symptom of his inner brokenness.
Of course you’re broken, whispered the voice. Or you would have obeyed the CO’s orders and you wouldn’t be in this position right now.
Shadows rose in his mind’s eye—a picture of the past…
People working in the fields…harvesting crops. Their heads bent in the noonday heat, working tirelessly, not even noticing the elite unit of cybernetic soldiers surrounding them, preparing for the kill…
“All right, 77—you know what to do,” the voice of the CO crackled quietly through his headset. “All of these targets must be eliminated. Shoot them all.”
Even as his finger had tightened on the trigger of his pulse rifle, something inside Unit 77 had rebelled. Through the scope over his left eye, he saw nothing but red flickers—the heartbeats of the targets he was to eliminate. But through his right eye—the one unmodified by machinery—he saw people.
Women laughed and joked with each other, despite the heat and the sweat running down their faces. Men bent to their tasks, gathering the crop of long, feathery pink stalks with purple grain granules on their ends, working hard to feed their families on the land they had carved out of the jungle. Children played tag, running and laughing for the sheer joy of being young and free and outside on a summer day.
People…not targets. People.
“Did you hear me, 77?” barked the CO in his ear. “I said eliminate them all. Come on—look alive! We won’t get another chance like this again with the whole village gathered in one place. Go!”
Unit 77’s finger tightened on the trigger again…and then relaxed. Around him he could feel the other cybernetic soldiers under his command growing restless. He was their captain—their commander. They took their orders from him. So why wasn’t he giving them? Why weren’t they shooting the targets they had come to eliminate?
Because they’re not just targets, whispered that little voice in 77’s head. They’re people. Mothers and fathers and children—a peaceful village of colonists just trying to make a living on this little out of the way moon in the Vega quadrant. Didn’t you take an oath to protect people like them? Once, a long time ago when you joined the Space Corps?
Unit 77 shook his head, but he couldn’t clear the idea—couldn’t refute the words of his internal tormentor. He began to back away, despite the fact that the CO was now screaming in his headset.
“Shoot them, goddamn you! What the fuck is your problem, 77?”
“Negative,” 77 said, keeping his voice low. “Targets are not a threat. Colonists are to be protected—not eliminated.”
The CO cursed in his ear and there was a clicking from the CyBRG device. It shot a paralyzing pain down his spinal cord, making 77 feel as though his legs had suddenly been dipped in liquid flame.
“Do it!” the CO demanded. “Fire!”
But for the first time since he had awakened on the hard, cold exam table, to this new life, Unit 77 fought the command he was given. His disobedience went against the directives implanted in his brain and caused great pain and distress, but somehow he fought.
“Fall back!” he ordered the rest of his company, speaking in a low voice through the headset. “These people are not targets. They are peaceful. Colonists must be protected.”
A few of the other cyber soldiers repeated his words.
“Colonists must be protected…colonists must be protected…”
But most of the units under his command stood their ground, their fingers on the triggers of their pulse rifles—sights still trained on the oblivious colonists.
“I said fall back,” 77 barked. Suddenly a soldier beside him—Unit 89—spoke up.
“Negative, Captain. Direct orders from the CO—we must eliminate all targets.” He raised his rifle higher and 77 saw that one of the children was directly in his line of fire.
Some instinct buried inside him—inside the man he used to be—had taken over then. Unit 77 had raised his own rifle—and fired at 89, dropping the other cyber soldier in his tracks. Then he shouted to the colonists—amplifying his voice through the metal neck-guard he wore.
“Run! You’re all in danger—get away from here!”
There was one last burst of cursing in his earpiece and then the CO’s voice fell ominously silent. Suddenly, Unit 92 raised his pulse pistol and pointed it at 77’s face.
“Unit 77, you are relieved of duty. The CO says you must be eliminated.” He spoke with mechanical coldness—the emotionless certainty of a machine as his finger tightened on the trigger.
He would have died right there. 77 was sure of it. But behind 92 was Unit 78. Richard, whispered the little voice in his head. Corporal Richard Hardgraves—you used to call him Rich and he called you Drew. You were friends—remember?
Unit 77 didn’t remember but the little voice must have been right—or else maybe Unit 78 had a little voice of his own. Because before Unit 92 could pull the trigger, 78 put a bullet in his head and dropped him like a stone.
After that, it was a fire fight. Most of the cyber soldiers seemed to be obeying the CO’s orders. But a few, like 78, surrounded him and formed a defensive wall—a shield of metal and flesh.
Together they fought their way out. But 78 had been wounded—a shot to the torso that leaked both blood and the lubricating emollient that kept the cybernetic parts of the soldiers functioning smoothly. He was in pain too—a combination of the wound and the punishing agony waves the CyBRG unit sent through him periodically as a penalty for his disobedience to the CO.
Unit 77 got the waves as well—swells of piercing pain that were the result of direct insubordination. He got one now as he watched the blonde woman, his target. A spike of pure agony—like someone stabbing a dull blade between his shoulder blades, just under where the CyBRG device was implanted.
Grimacing, 77 gritted his teeth and kept his eyes fixed on the target. The agony waves were worse here, near his old base—maybe because he was closer to the source of the orders he had disobeyed—closer to the CO.
As the thought occurred to him, the man in question—the CO himself—came suddenly into view. He was an older male in his mid-fifties, iron gray hair buzzed short, stubby fingers, cold black eyes. His uniform was crisp and neat—his combat boots polished to a high shine by some subordinate no doubt. He was headed right for 77’s target.
“Claudia.” The CO’s voice was grating—the voice of a man who had smoked more than his fair share of hand-rolled cigars from Old Earth. It was an expensive habit, which he somehow managed to feed despite his supposedly modest military salary. He had one clamped between his long, yellow teeth now—a halo of dirty gray smoke ringing his head.
“That’s Doctor Chambers to you.” The blonde woman turned, frowning. “I don’t forget your rank when I address you, Colonel Pike. Kindly afford me the respect of using mine.”
The CO took another puff of his cigar and blew smoke in the blonde woman’s face but she retained her dignity, refusing to wave it away or cough.
“I didn’t come to fight about your fucking rank,” he growled, obviously rankled at her lack of response. “I need to know if you’ve made any progress in bringing in the rogues. These remote agony pulses we’re sending don’t seem to be doing the job. Where the fuck are they?”
“I told you pain wasn’t the answer,” the woman flared. “They may be cyber soldiers but they’re still men underneath. We need to talk to them—reason with them. I used to know their leader—Drew Fisher. If I could only establish contact—”
The sound of his old name seemed to stab Unit 77 somewhere around his heart. A pain sharper and more deadly than the agony waves sent by the CyBRG unit knifed through him but he remained quiet…watching.
“Fuck contact,” the CO snarled. “You know, for a doctor you sure as hell have a romanticized view of the grunts. They aren’t men anymore—they’re just machines. The CyBRG device makes sure of that. Why do you think we wait until they’re brain dead to implant it? It wipes the memory. Wipes the personality too. Leaves nothing but a mindless machine built to obey.”
“If that’s so, why would they disobey direct orders?” Doctor Chambers demanded. “And you never told me, Colonel Pike—what order of yours did Drew and his company disobey? I thought you said they were going out on a bug hunt. They’ve been on thousands of those before they…they died.” She cleared her throat and her gray eyes were suspiciously bright. “Before they were…Cyber-resurrected. Why would they refuse one now?”
“Fuck if I know,” the CO snapped. “If you ask me, you didn’t install the CyBRG device right in the ones that rebelled.”
Unit 77 felt another stab. So she had implanted the CyBRG device in his neck! Of course, he knew it was for his own good…it made him a smarter, stronger soldier…
Bullshit, whispered the little voice in his head. It makes you obey orders and sends you agony waves if you don’t! It fucks you up!
The two distinct and separate sets of information were confusing…distressing. 77 could feel the device in the back of his neck straining, trying hard to compensate for the increased stress levels—trying to squash the emotions that wanted to rise inside him. With an effort, he turned his attention back to the conversation playing out before him.
“If you’d let me take one apart and study it, I might have more of an idea about correct installation and exactly how the damn thing is supposed to work,” Doctor Chambers was saying coldly. She had an accent—soft but discernable. It sounded like something from Old Earth—from Britain that was, maybe.
You always loved that accent, whispered the little voice in 77’s head. You thought it was so damn sexy…
Shadows rose again—echoes of the past. A time that was and could never come again—the ache of it like a lost limb…
They were marching through the jungle on Hast. That was a laugh—the whole damn planet was jungle. Fronds and ferns and creepers…giant trees so big around you could fit a whole communal-living building from back home inside them. Everything was shades of blue—the chlorophyll the plants used to convert sunlight into food was different here or some shit. Drew didn’t care about that. His focus was on the Doctor—Doc Chambers they called her.
She was walking ahead of him, her thick sheaf of wheat-blonde hair pinned in a neat bun at the back of her neck. Petite but curvy—about ten years older than him and most of the rest of the battalion. Big, serious gray eyes. Fucking gorgeous in Drew’s opinion.
“MILF,” the guys called her jokingly, behind her back—though she didn’t have any kids that Drew knew of. Or any husband either—married to her job, apparently. They only called her that because she was older—but never to her face.
To her face everyone was respectful to a fault. They’d better be because the word was, Doc Chambers didn’t fuck around. She treated all of them with a cool confidence—kept them at an arm’s length. She wore her title like a shield, a barrier around her.
Drew wanted to get inside that shield, to get to know her better—but he knew his chances were fuck-all.
She had rank on him as well as years and she was capable of shutting anyone down with that crisp accent of hers and one eloquently raised eyebrow, conveying withering scorn. Not even the most foul-mouthed enlisted man dared to take her on.
Still, he had managed to make the good doctor smile a time or two when she was examining him. She had a degree in Cyber-robotics as well as an MD, but she functioned as the battalion doctor in between doing field research.
“C’mon, Doc, don’t be like that,” he’d joked with her when she’d ordered him to strip for his exam. “At least offer to buy me dinner first!”
“I’m sure you’re well aware that I have no interest in you personally, soldier,” she’d snapped in that cool voice of hers. “This is purely professional. Now please do me the courtesy of obeying my direct order.”
“What—you’re gonna court-martial me if I refuse to drop trou?” He looked at her appealingly. “What if I’m shy? You ever think about that?”
“A big guy like you?” She raised that eyebrow at him, elegantly sarcastic, but was there the barest twitch at the corner of her lush mouth? Drew thought maybe so.
“Just because I’m big doesn’t mean I’m not scared sometimes.” He looked down at his hands with mock terror. “Are…are you gonna give me a shot?”
“I’ve got a needle as long as my arm with your name on it if you don’t strip now, soldier.” But she was openly smiling now, amused by his little show.
Grinning, Drew had stripped down. He was all hard muscle, broad shoulders, and long legs. He could tell the good doctor liked what she saw by the way her calm gray eyes widened a little as they flickered over his physique. Damn, she was beautiful!
He wished there was some way to get closer to her—maybe even ask her out. Although there was no place to go on these colony worlds the Space Corps had them patrolling. And not like she’d go with him even if there was anywhere to take her.
Drew was thinking about this and wondering what she’d look like with her hair down as they marched through the jungle at the end of the battalion, when the bug jumped her.
Hoppers, the natives called them and to be honest, they didn’t look that different from a grasshopper from Old Earth.
Well, except for the fact that they were six feet tall and had a mouth full of four-inch fangs that could take a man’s head off in one bite. Which was their preferred attack.
The one that jumped Doc Chambers was a juvenile—only as high as Drew’s shoulder, thank the Goddess for small mercies. Also, it seemed to be playing—maybe just learning to hunt—rather than hunting in earnest. For whatever reason, once it had the doctor pinned beneath one massive forelimb, it didn’t immediately bite her head off.
Drew was grateful for the pause because it gave him time to pull his pulse rifle into place and put a smoking hole through the hopper’s nightmare of a head. The shot was silent and brain matter flew as it swayed, collapsing in a heap on top of Doc Chambers.
Through it all, she never said a word or let out so much as a peep. But when Drew pulled her out from under the smoking hopper carcass, she was shaking—trembling like a woman caught out in the cold for hours, unable to get warm.
It was the first time he’d seen her with her guard down and it did something to his heart.
“Hey. Hey, now, it’s all right, Doc,” he murmured, patting her shoulder. “Everything’s okay. You’re all right.”
“It…its teeth,” she got out at last, her own teeth chattering. “Those fangs. I…I’ve seen what they do to p-people. It would…would have b-bitten my head off. I…I…”
She seemed near tears for which Drew didn’t blame her one damn bit. The shoulder patting routine wasn’t cutting it. She needed comfort. Glad they were at the end of the battalion so the other guys in his unit couldn’t see, he pulled her close to his chest and wrapped his arms around her.
At first she froze, as though uncertain of what she ought to do. But then she wrapped her arms around his waist and clung to him, pressing her face to his chest and inhaling deep, shaky lungfuls of air. It was almost as though she was taking comfort in his scent.
Drew found her scent pretty intoxicating too. He dropped his face to the crown of her head and breathed in the warm aroma of her hair, as he’d always wanted to do. She smelled like some kind of floral shampoo—sweet, fresh and feminine.
At that moment he wished he could hold her forever, but he knew it couldn’t last. Finally, she stopped shaking and looked up at him.
“Thank you, Captain Fisher,” she said, her voice still trembling a little. “You saved my life.”
“Drew.” He smiled at her. “Call me Drew. That’s what all the pretty girls whose lives I save call me.”
That little almost-smile he was beginning to love quirked the corner of her mouth.
“Oh? Is this a long list I’m joining?”
“Just a few hundred,” Drew said carelessly, grinning at her.
“Well, I’m hardly a girl…Drew.” She arched an eyebrow at him, daring him to contradict her.
“You sure are pretty though,” he murmured. Reaching out, he brushed a lock of wheat-blonde hair out of her eyes and tucked it behind her ear. “Fucking gorgeous, actually, Doc Chambers.”
She bit her lip. “Claudia.”
“What?” Drew frowned.
“Call me Claudia. I let all the handsome men who save my life call me by my first name.” Her cheeks were pink, as though she wasn’t used to flirting—and not quite sure she was doing it right. Goddamn she was gorgeous! He loved seeing behind her shield—seeing that maybe she wasn’t quite so confident and self-assured as she liked people to believe.
“Claudia, then,” he said softly. “I like it.”
The name suited her—sounding classy, intelligent…sexy. Then he noticed the rest of the battalion was leaving them behind. The incident with the hopper had been so sudden and silent no one had even noticed.
“Come on—we’d better catch up with the others. Hoppers don’t travel in packs but it’s better not to be out here alone.”
“Oh, of course.” She shivered and they began walking quickly to get back to the end of the battalion. Drew noticed that she skirted the still-smoking corpse of the juvenile hopper with a little grimace of distaste, like a woman avoiding a roach in a strange kitchen. Then she threw a glance behind her, as though wanting to be certain he was right there, keeping close.
Drew liked that she looked for him—liked it a hell of a lot. And he more than liked the way she’d felt in his arms—so soft and yielding. The scent of her skin and the perfume of her hair still lingered in his nose.
He was halfway to being in love with the petite doctor…
More than halfway, whispered the little voice in Unit 77’s head, bringing him back to the present. Not that it matters now. You were human then—you’re not now. Now you’re a monster—more metal than man. You’ll probably scare her to death when you take her.
But it couldn’t be helped. Unit 78 (Richard—you called him Rich) needed a doctor—one who could treat both the man and the machine parts of him. Doctor Chambers was the only one 77 knew who fit that description—especially way out here in the outer rings where the base camp was.
He waited and watched, listening as she traded barbs with the CO until the older male seemed to get tired of it and left. Frowning, the petite doctor shook her head and walked over to the med shack.
Finally, she was alone and headed his way. This was what 77 had been waiting for!
As she stepped inside the door, he took her from behind, putting one arm around her waist to keep her still and a hand across her mouth.
“Doctor Chambers,” he growled softly in her ear. “Don’t make a sound—you’re coming with me.”