If you’ve read my interview with the cyborg Leonidas, or you’re subscribed to my scifi newsletter, then you probably already know that I have a new adventure out. In case neither of those things apply to you… guess what? I have a new book out!
Cyborg Legacy takes place in my Fallen Empire universe, about four years after the events of End Game. I designed it to work as a stand-alone, so if you haven’t read the others yet, but would like to try this one, it can be a starting point into my space adventures.
For now, Cyborg Legacy and my other scifi is exclusive with Amazon due to the various promo perks that Amazon offers and the fact that they’ve decided to turn the Fallen Empire universe into a “Kindle Worlds” (other authors will be able to write in my sandbox). But more on that in April when things will be ready to launch. For now, here’s the blurb and first couple of chapters of Cyborg Legacy.
Former Cyborg Corps soldier Jasim Antar was relieved to come out of the war alive and looked forward to switching to a less violent line of work. But nobody wants to hire a brawny cyborg to do anything that doesn’t involve brutalizing people on a daily basis. Stuck working as a debt collector alongside an eccentric pilot who enjoys knitting gifts for her grandkids when she isn’t blowing people up, Jasim longs to find a more peaceful existence.
But peace is elusive when you have a violent past. While on a routine mission, Jasim comes across the body of a soldier he served with during the war. He soon learns that someone is murdering former members of the Cyborg Corps, men who should be extremely difficult to kill. And he’s next on the list.
Jasim steels himself to reach out to the one person he’s certain can help, his old commander: Colonel Leonidas Adler. Adler is strong, smart, and deadly, good traits to have in an ally. Unfortunately, he remembers Jasim as a misfit rather than a model soldier, and convincing him to join forces may be even tougher than finding and facing the killer.
A soft hiss-thunk sounded as Jasim Antar fastened his helmet, the final piece of his combat armor, and walked out of his cabin on the Interrogator. He headed for Navigation and Communications where his lone companion on the journey sat in the pilot’s seat. Knitting. Jasim grabbed a blazer rifle from the weapons locker on the way into NavCom.
When he entered, Maddy lowered her long needles and an amorphous purple and green blob that would, he had been informed, grow into a scarf to match the hat she had already knitted him. Her gray hair was swept back with a clip, and she wore a loose sweater of her own design, the sleeves pushed up to her elbows, the front featuring a cheerful orange bird perched on a twig. The weapons belt secured at her waist, a blazer pistol longer than her forearm hanging in the holster, contrasted oddly with the otherwise kindly grandmother visage.
“Ready for a tough one, big man?” Maddy asked.
Jasim snorted. Big man. Hardly. When he’d applied to join the Cyborg Corps, back when the empire had dominated the system and the imperial army had been a great entity with headquarters on every planet, he’d cracked his spine trying to stand tall enough to make the minimum six-foot height requirement. He was an inch too short, and he was fairly certain the recruiting doctor had only allowed him in because the war had been ramping up, and he’d had a quota to make. Few men had been crazy enough to sign up for the extensive surgeries and body alterations that came with being turned into an imperial cyborg.
“I’m ready,” Jasim said. He’d never thought he would miss the war and the killing—the sun gods knew he’d tried to get out of the unit more than once—but at least he’d had a purpose then. Now…
“I’ll do my flyby to make sure the ship is there,” Maddy said, turning toward the control panel. Her needles and project went into the yarn-filled knitting basket next to her seat.
“Don’t get too close to the compound. He’ll have enhanced hearing, just like me. I’d rather not warn him I’m coming by buzzing his living room window.”
“You needn’t tell me how to do my job, dear,” Maddy said, swooping low over the tents, metal buildings, and salvage yards that dominated this part of Temperance. Most parts of Temperance. Targos Moon had not been doing well since the empire fell, with the dozens of governments that had sprouted up too busy squabbling over resources to worry about their people, and Temperance was controlled by a mafia clan that wasn’t reputed to be any better. “I’ve been flying since before your mother was paddling your bare bottom.”
“My mother died before I was old enough to need paddling. I grew up on the streets of New Jerome with my older sisters.”
“Well, I’m sure paddling was involved. You have a naughty personality.”
Jasim arched his eyebrows. “I’m certain I’ve never done anything to suggest that to you.” Granted, he occasionally played a prank or two on those who deserved it, but even if Maddy had deserved pranks, he would be afraid to try anything on her, since she was his boss’s mother-in-law. Any woman who cheerfully allowed her daughter to marry a man known as The Pulverizer was not to be trifled with.
“I’ve read your record. Your last pilot complained about run-ins with something called a whoopee cushion.”
“Actually, it was a splat pad, and that was only one time. And he deserved it. He was smooching with a prostitute in NavCom when I was getting shot at and needed a pickup. I trust you won’t be unreliable like that.”
“I suppose that depends on how handsome the prostitutes here are.” Maddy winked at him.
“Pilots,” he grumbled. It didn’t matter how many children or grandchildren they had. They were all half-crazy. If not all crazy. He wouldn’t be surprised if Maddy came from the word mad rather than being a shortening of her name, Madeline.
He got another wink before Maddy returned her focus to the control panel. A three-legged dog roaming a street threw back his head and barked at them as they flew overhead. The cloudy green sky was clear of other spaceships. Few people had a reason to visit the unincorporated part of Temperance. Jasim wagered most of the citizens wished they lived somewhere else. Where else, he didn’t know. Most former imperial citizens who hadn’t turned traitor and fought for the Alliance now had trouble getting citizenship on their pretty core planets.
“There she is,” Maddy said, nodding toward one of several holodisplays, this one showing the ship’s port camera feed.
The sleek black hull of a ten-man star yacht rested on a dirt lot surrounded by a brick and barbed-wire fence. Less than a year old, the gleaming spaceship stuck out outrageously in the impoverished neighborhood. Jasim was surprised the locals hadn’t broken it down into pieces to sell, but supposed the presence of the man living in the squat cinderblock structure attached to the yard might have intimidated them.
“What a beaut,” Maddy said, eyeing the yacht. “I looked at the specs earlier. She’s got real showers instead of saniboxes, and there are auto-massagers and saunas in the lavatories.”
“You don’t think The Pulverizer would put a sauna in the lav on this ship for you?” Jasim asked.
“Please, he’s a scrimper. Besides, where would it go in that tiny lav? The toilet would have to be inside the sauna for it to fit. And an auto-massager?” She sighed wistfully and looked at Jasim’s arms. “I’d ask you to put those meat slabs of yours to work in a useful manner, but I don’t want to have my bones crushed.”
“What do you call them?” She waved to his arms.
The armor hid the thick muscles at the moment, but Jasim supposed she’d seen him in a T-shirt often enough in the few weeks they had been working together to remember them well. He’d caught her investigating other parts of him, too, usually when she didn’t think he was looking. It probably wasn’t appropriate to think of his boss’s mother-in-law as lecherous.
“I call them arms,” Jasim said.
“How insufficient.” Maddy whistled cheerfully and adjusted their course. “I’ll get within a half-mile, and you’ll have to rappel out. There’s no place to land, and I wouldn’t want to in this neighborhood even if I could. Probably wouldn’t take the hoodlums thirty seconds before they descended on us and tried to tear off the panels for scrap.”
“Just open the hatch, and I’ll jump out.” Jasim waved at the altimeter to indicate that he could handle the thirty- or forty-foot drop.
“Ah, right. I forgot. You’re like an android.”
Jasim frowned but didn’t bother correcting her. He’d tried numerous times in the years since the war ended, but he hadn’t had much luck changing people’s assumptions about cyborgs. At least she didn’t call him “mech,” the derisive nickname many people had for cyborgs. Not that many used the term to their faces.
“Just fly over one of the streets,” Jasim said, turning toward the exterior hatch that opened up from the ship’s single corridor. “Preferably not one of those alleys full of dog piss and potholes.”
“I’ve been to Temperance before. I don’t think that’s dog piss.”
Jasim walked the three steps to the hatch—the Interrogator was a modern ship with a fast engine, good shields, and impressive weapons, but it was definitely not luxurious or large. As he waited for Maddy to find a spot, he silently ordered his helmet display to turn on. The neural net touching his scalp in several spots read the command and obeyed, and readings that ranged from sensor data about his surroundings, to the suit’s integrity, to his body’s vital statistics appeared along the sides of his faceplate. They did not interfere with his vision, and it was easy to look through them instead of focusing on them during a battle. Everything appeared normal, and his heartbeat thumped along at a perfectly normal rhythm despite his nervousness about the target he would confront on this particular mission.
He checked his rifle and the smaller blazer weapons that could pop out of the arms of his suit on command. He doubted thugs would leap out at him as soon as he landed—most people fled from men wearing the distinctive red combat armor of the Cyborg Corps—but when he was operating on his own like this, he couldn’t be too careful. Maddy might provide some aerial backup if he got in trouble, but that wasn’t her job. She was supposed to fly him to the deadbeats, tow the ships they collected if necessary, arrange to have them transported back to headquarters, and fly him to the next mission. That was it. She also, Jasim suspected, reported back to her son-in-law regularly and would let The Pulverizer know if Jasim absconded with any of the goods he was supposed to be retrieving.
A boom came from outside, and the ship tilted alarmingly.
The stabilizers in Jasim’s leg armor kept him upright without trouble, but the litany of un-grandmotherly curses that came from NavCom was alarming. He’d never heard her denigrate the size of the reproductive organs of all three sun gods before, not all at once.
“Problem?” Jasim asked.
“Some idiot with a grenade launcher is firing at us from a rooftop.” Even as she finished speaking, the Interrogator banked hard.
This time, Jasim braced himself by pressing his gauntleted hands against the bulkhead. In space, artificial gravity would usually keep the ship stable, but down here, it was more akin to being in an airplane. An airplane that was under fire.
As the ship rose and looped back the way it had come, Maddy said, “Hold back on opening the hatch. I had to raise the shields.”
As the deck shifted and tilted, Jasim made his way back to NavCom and looked at the view screen. He was in time to see a pack of men and women in baggy, mismatched clothing pointing weapons at them from the flat rooftop of a three-story tenement building. There was more than one grenade launcher among the group, along with everything from blazer rifles to shotguns to a longbow that someone looked to have made by hand. Its owner couldn’t have been more than twelve.
Maddy wore a determined expression as she arrowed the ship toward the rooftop.
“You’re not going to fire, are you?” Jasim gripped her shoulder, careful, as always, not to squeeze too hard. In addition to having the strength that his cyborg implants gave him, combat armor amplified the wearer’s power.
“Nobody fires at The Pulverizer’s ships without receiving retaliation,” Maddy said, speaking it like a mantra. Maybe it was underlined in the company rulebook somewhere.
“You’ll blow up that whole building.”
“It might improve the neighborhood.”
“There’ll be people in it. Women and children, maybe. Grandchildren,” he added, since she had mentioned having more than a dozen of those herself.
She kept flying, looking determined to blow up the entire building, if not the city block.
“Maddy,” he said quietly, giving her a slight warning squeeze, even though threatening her would not be good for his career. He did not want to wrest the controls from her, but he would if he had to.
She growled, but did not fire as they swooped low over the rooftop. The Interrogator received more fire from the group of thugs, bullets and blazer beams pinging off their shields. Those weapons wouldn’t do any damage. The grenades were another story. Maddy banked hard to avoid another one that was launched from the rooftop. It blew up to their starboard side amid a cloud of black smoke. The ship rocked, but the shields remained near full power.
“What kind of cyborg soldier are you?” Maddy asked, scowling at him as she swooped left and right to make a challenging target.
“A retired one,” Jasim said, though it seemed an odd word to use. After all, he was only twenty-seven. He’d only been in for three years before the war ended. “And not one who ever targeted civilians,” he added firmly.
“That’s not what the stories about the Cyborg Corps say.”
Jasim pressed his lips together. “I know what the stories say.”
“I wasn’t just spouting nonsense back there. We have a company policy that anyone who tries to damage one of our ships or one of our people gets handled—like a straw bale on a rifle range. Our logo is on the side of the ship where anyone can see it. We can’t let word get back of our weakness. The Pulverizer has a reputation.”
“I’m aware of it. Drop me on the roof, and I’ll deal with them.” Jasim felt like a thug when he said such things, but he couldn’t object too much to using force on people who shot at him. He just didn’t want to take out innocent people lounging on their couches and reading news holos on the first floor. Not everyone who lived in this neighborhood was a felon. He knew all too well what it was like to grow up in a place like this and have no way to escape it.
“I’ll have to lower shields for you to jump out,” Maddy said.
“I’ll be quick.” He released her shoulder with a pat and headed back to the hatch.
“I’ll have Earl send the repair bill to you.”
“No wonder he goes by The Pulverizer.”
“No insulting the family, cyborg, or you might not get picked up again.”
“I’ll remember that.” Jasim returned to the hatch and touched the control panel on the bulkhead beside it, calling up the forward camera on the display. Between the shock absorbers in his armor and his mostly synthetic bones and joints, he could survive if he jumped and missed the rooftop, but seeing him splat against a brick wall wouldn’t drive fear into the hearts of their attackers. “Ready when you are.”
“Lowering shields,” Maddy said.
The people on the rooftop jumped and pointed, aiming their weapons eagerly. They probably couldn’t believe the ship was coming back so they would get another chance at it. Missing sauna or not, Jasim knew the Interrogator’s parts could bring in good money on the black market. Or maybe the farmers’ market—he doubted the authorities cared much about policing illegal salvage here, and it wouldn’t surprise him to see stolen fuel cells and tube couplers for sale in a kiosk next to tomatoes and asteroid fruit.
Jasim tapped the controls, and the hatch slid open. Maddy hadn’t slowed down for her approach, and wind buffeted his armor and tugged at the rifle slung across his torso on a strap.
He was about to jump out when Maddy shouted, “One’s firing,” and banked hard.
Jasim, already crouched to spring, had to adjust his aim. He jumped from the ship, leaping outward instead of simply dropping down. More wind railed at him but not enough to alter the descent of a two-hundred-pound man in full combat armor.
As he landed on the corner of the rooftop, he planned to charge straight toward the men and women and deal with them as rapidly as possible—his armor could deflect a lot of bullets and blazer bolts, but it wasn’t as impervious as the ship’s shields and would weaken eventually. But part of the old building gave way under his feet, and he had to react quickly to keep from plummeting through to the top floor. His charge turned into a roll away from the hole crumbling open underneath him, and crimson blazer bolts streaked past above him.
“Combat armor,” someone whispered, Jasim’s superior hearing catching the words from across the rooftop. “It’s worth a fortune.”
“Get him. Get him good!”
Jasim recovered from his ungainly landing, leaped to his feet, and raced toward the pack. Not everyone agreed with the speakers, and some of the smarter thugs were already scattering, eyes wide as they took in his red armor. Several, however, stood their ground, unleashing their rifles and pistols at him. There wasn’t any cover on the rooftop, except for an open trapdoor that didn’t look like it could take a windy day, much less weapons fire. Jasim didn’t bother dodging, but he kept an eye on the readout on his faceplate, reporting on hits and giving him armor integrity updates. He almost laughed when a crooked arrow bounced off his shoulder.
He crossed the roof in a second and leaped into the middle of his foes. Even without the combat armor, his enhancements gave him speed and strength that unaltered humans couldn’t match. He knocked two men off the roof and grabbed the grenade launcher from a third before the thugs registered what was going on and tried to run out of his reach. He gripped the grenade launcher in both hands, and metal squealed as the frame bent, then snapped. He threw the pieces to the ground and knocked more people from the rooftop, some flying twenty feet before they tumbled over the side and to the ground below.
Screams of pain came up from below, and he had no doubt there would be broken bones, if not worse. But he knew Maddy was right. They couldn’t let the company be a target, and a strong showing here might mean he would face less opposition as he walked toward the target’s house. Word traveled fast, especially in run-down neighborhoods like this.
He let the people who ran get away, even though he could have easily caught up with them. Only the fools who were determined to keep fighting sealed their fate. He knocked them across the rooftop or tossed them off the building with the others. When he’d first received his cyborg implants, he’d been delighted at his newfound strength, his ability to thwart all those people who had once bullied him, but years of war and killing and walking across the battlefields of the maimed and fallen had bled the satisfaction out of him. Now, there were far more regrets than delights. Still, he did his job, because it was the only one he had.
Soon, only one opponent remained on his feet. The boy with the homemade bow and arrows. Dirt smeared his grimy face and hands, but it did not hide the terror in his eyes or the shake to his hands.
As Jasim strode toward him, he expected the kid to drop his bow and run. But he held his ground.
“You keep coming, and I’ll shoot.”
His bravery surprised Jasim, and he admired it, even if it was only likely to get the kid killed around here. Jasim wished he could take him away from the neighborhood or impart some message to him, some advice to help him survive to adulthood and find a better future. After all, that was what Jasim had gone to school for after the war. Teaching children. Helping them. But how could he reconcile that with his current job, one that demanded he not allow slights against his boss—or his boss’s ship? If nothing else, he should offer a few tips on how to survive in an unfriendly world. That way, the boy might be wise enough to run the next time.
When he didn’t stop advancing, the kid was true to his threat and fired.
Jasim caught the arrow out in front of him, before the tip would have bounced off his chest piece. He gentled his grip so that he didn’t snap the wood. Finally, the boy seemed to get an inkling of what sort of foe he faced. He lowered his bow. Still, he didn’t run. He stared defiantly.
Jasim stopped in front of him. “I have a couple of suggestions for you.”
The boy blinked. Apparently, that wasn’t what he’d expected to hear.
“First off,” Jasim said, “I recommend that when someone in combat armor enters your neighborhood, you run. Far and fast. You can’t spend the money you think you could get from selling his armor if you’re dead, eh?”
The boy’s expression grew mulish.
“But if you can’t run, because you’re a part of one of the gangs and they’re putting pressure on you…” Jasim lifted his eyebrows, wondering if that was the case, or if the kid just wasn’t that smart. “You better have some rust bangs.”
The boy’s expression changed, his face wrinkling in confusion.
“They’re sort of like grenades,” Jasim said, “but when they explode, they spit out a kind of acid that can eat through spaceship hulls, combat armor, and just about anything with a metal component. It doesn’t feel too good on skin either.”
“You’d have to find a military surplus store to get some around here, I imagine, but I’ve heard of people making homemade versions out of local ingredients.”
“What kinds of ingredients?”
“Well, you’d have to study some chemistry to learn that. Can you read? Do you go to school?”
The boy hesitated. “I did. But my mom needs… stuff, and you can’t make money around here from what dumb things they tell you in school.”
“You sure? I figure it’d be useful around here to know how to make rust bangs. Smoke bombs too. Those aren’t that hard to make. A little chemistry…”
Now, a speculative expression grew on the boy’s face.
Jasim wondered if he was planting the seed that school could be useful or if he was just making the kid think about muggings and robberies his gang could commit with rust bangs and smoke bombs.
“Teachers usually have certain things they have to teach you,” Jasim said, “but if you show an interest in something else and ask for help with learning about it, they’ll be happy to give that help.”
Jasim’s comm beeped, reminding him that Maddy was waiting for him. He held out the arrow to the boy to return it. He accepted it distractedly, as if lost in thought. Maybe he was imagining himself hurling smoke bombs.
Jasim almost told the kid his own story, of how he’d survived a neighborhood just like this, if not one that was worse than this, until he had been old enough to enlist in the imperial army. But where was the happy ending? It had gotten him off the streets, and he’d finished his degree after the war, but only to learn that nobody would hire a cyborg to do anything that didn’t involve brutalizing people. Almost ten years after he’d escaped his childhood, he was a thug, working in the same kinds of places that he’d grown up in.
“Thanks,” the boy said, scampering away, his arrow in hand.
Jasim left, having no way to know if anything he had said would make a difference to the kid. He walked to the edge of the rooftop and leaped down to the street. The pained groans of those he’d thrown off the building drifted to his ears, making him wince.
Another comm beep sounded.
“Antar?” Maddy asked.
“You’re less than a half a mile from the target’s house. I’m transmitting a map.”
The map popped up on the side of his faceplate, showing his location and the target’s address.
“Be careful dealing with him,” Maddy said. “It’ll be a lot more challenging than those scrawny thugs.”
“I know,” Jasim said, turning up an alley in the direction the map indicated. “I remember him from the Corps.”
“Ah. I’d wondered if you might.”
Jasim said nothing else. He didn’t look forward to coming face-to-face with someone else in red combat armor. Sergeant Matt Adams, a man who’d referred to Jasim as “Shorty.” A man who would have the strength to kill him. Jasim hoped it wouldn’t come to that, that Adams would agree that he was a year behind on the payments for his yacht and accept that it had to go back to the dealership, but Jasim remembered Adams’s temper, remembered that he liked to fight and that he liked to kill. He doubted very much that this would be easy.
Jasim could feel eyes upon him as he turned onto the final street, old pavement crumbling underneath his boots. Ratty curtains shifted in glassless windows, and shadows moved behind partially boarded-up doors. Though aware of the watchers, he faced forward, not overly worried about them. His target was another matter.
Sergeant Adams’s home loomed at the end of a pothole-filled cul-de-sac, looking more like a warehouse than a dwelling. Jasim supposed a house wouldn’t have come with a large enough yard to park one’s luxury yacht in.
His instincts told him to leap up to one of the high second-story windows, work a shutter lose, and slip in that way, completely avoiding the target if possible. Indeed, he spotted a window where the shutter already stood open. Invitingly. But The Pulverizer, despite his ominous reputation, employed a system of collecting delinquent loans and valuables that obeyed the local laws on planets and moons that had them. Jasim first had to knock on the target’s door, inform him that his loan was past due, and ask for the return of the spaceship. If the target did not prove amenable, then he could use force. Murders were unacceptable unless they happened as a result of self-dense. Apparently, The Pulverizer had lawyers who could make charges disappear if the claim of self-defense was debatable and someone was left to press charges. Jasim had not tested that. He had no wish to test it here, either, and he eyed that open window with longing.
Bracing himself, he knocked on the wooden double-doors, the metal rivets lining the frame as large as his fist. The walls on most of the buildings on the street were covered with graffiti. Adams’s place was old and dirty, but there were no signs of vandalism. Everyone in the neighborhood likely knew who and what lived here.
After waiting for a minute, Jasim knocked again. It crossed his mind to slip around back, leap the fence, and use his lock-thwarting repo kit to simply take the ship, but he’d already walked through the alley behind the compound and heard the faint hum of a forcefield. The brick and barbed wire were clearly for show, with more deadly security measures waiting unseen. It would be safer to walk through the house, out the back door, and into the yard.
But nobody answered the door to let him in—or oppose his wish to come in.
Jasim tried the latch, certain it would be locked. He had a kit that could neutralize technological as well as physical locks, and was halfway to reaching for it, but before he could pull it out, the latch gave way and the door creaked open.
He waited for the telltale thud of footsteps from someone running toward him. All he heard was the buzz of flies. He sniffed before remembering that his helmet would filter out smells—along with any toxic substances that might be in the air. Still, as he walked into a cavernous warehouse-like room half-filled with stacks of crates, he began to suspect that he might not have to face Adams after all.
A metal door stood closed along the back wall—it should lead out to the yard—but Jasim turned toward a hallway off to the side, assuming it led to offices or maybe a living area.
The buzz of flies grew louder. Dim light filtered through the shuttered windows, but there were not any lamps on. There were not any lamps at all, or any sign that electricity was present in this part of the city. Adams must have a generator out back to power the forcefield.
Old wooden floorboards creaked under Jasim’s armored boots. Doors lined the hallway on both sides, some closed and others open. He passed a lavatory and an office, where a desk was piled high with what looked like bills, paper ones. He didn’t see a netdisc or any hint that the warehouse was hooked up to the sys-net. He opened two more doors, one to a kitchen area and one to an empty bedroom. The last door at the end of the hallway was open.
By now, he didn’t expect to encounter anyone. He was already feeling pleased, for The Pulverizer’s rules allowed him to take the yacht if it was present and the owner wasn’t, merely leaving a note that it had been repossessed by request of the title holder. When he walked into the back room, it was dark, and surprise jolted him when he almost stumbled over something on the floor. Flies flew up, one bouncing off his faceplate. Jasim barely noticed, his eyes focused now on the unmoving man sprawled before him.
Clad in nothing but his underwear, the man lay between the bunk and the door, bed sheets tangled in a heap near his feet. His gray eyes were frozen open in death, a pained grimace stamped on his face. Deep, bloody gashes had been cut all over his arms, legs, and chest. For a second, Jasim wondered if he had stumbled across some strange ritualistic murder—or sacrifice—to one of the obscure elder gods. But he didn’t have to look at the placement of those scars for long to realize what had happened. Someone had cut out the man’s—the cyborg’s—implants.
Though his stomach twisted, Jasim leaned down to push apart one of the gashes so he could be certain. Yes, a grayish implant responsible for strengthening a cyborg’s extensor digitorum muscle should have been in that spot, and it was gone.
Jasim leaned back, frowning. One of the man’s burly, heavily muscled arms stretched toward a corner of the room where a large, red metal box rested on the floor. An armor case, identical to the one that held Jasim’s armor when he wasn’t using it.
“Someone took your implants but not your armor?” Jasim muttered. Yes, the implants would be worth more, but the armor would be a lot easier to take and sell. Someone had to know exactly what he was doing to extract the implants without damaging them. Not to mention that someone had to be able to kill a cyborg, no easy feat, to gain access to them.
Jasim walked to the case and lifted the lid. The entire set of armor rested inside in pieces, neatly put away into the proper slots. Odd.
“Well, it doesn’t look like you’re going to object to me taking your ship back,” Jasim said quietly, looking down at the man’s face. Shaggy hair fell across the forehead, and a thick beard hid the mouth and jaw, but Jasim recognized him regardless. He hadn’t liked the man, but his squad had fought alongside Adams’s squad more than once. No question. This was Sergeant Matt Adams. His target.
All Jasim’s job required of him was to reclaim the yacht, and he could have headed into the yard and done that without looking around further, but he couldn’t help wondering what had killed the man. It was more than idle curiosity. Seeing one of his fellow cyborgs dead made him uneasy. He found himself looking around for threats, for something that might endanger him too. Even when they were clad in nothing but underwear, cyborgs weren’t easy to kill, and it was a foregone conclusion that Adams had been dead before the implants had been removed.
Jasim knelt to look at the body more closely. The pectoral gashes were long, but hadn’t gone through to bone and organs. Blood smeared Adams’s body and stained the floor, but there weren’t any bullet or blazer wounds, or any deep punctures.
Adams might have had a heart attack, but the man was only about thirty, so that seemed unlikely. Even though all the tinkering the imperial doctors had done to create their cyborgs had resulted in some metabolic oddities and a shortened lifespan—something the recruiting fliers hadn’t mentioned—they rarely dropped dead from heart attacks, at least not in their thirties. Few lived to old age, but as far as Jasim knew, that was because they were picked for dangerous jobs and met violent ends long before they were old enough to retire from service. The man who’d been the Cyborg Corps commander when Jasim had served, Colonel Adler, had been one of the oldest in the unit at nearly forty. Jasim wondered what had happened to him after the war. He would be closer to forty-five now. Was he still alive somewhere? What work had he found after the fall of the empire? Something more glamorous than repossessing people’s belongings?
Jasim rolled the body over, looking for deadly wounds on the other side. Adams wasn’t stiff, and it looked like rigor mortis had come and gone, so this must have happened a few days ago. He was surprised nobody in the neighborhood had been in to loot Adams’s belongings, especially with that window open and the front door unlocked.
Jasim didn’t see sign of broken bones or any suggestion that there had been a fight. He magnified his faceplate to examine Adams’s neck, ignoring the cuts on the sides. Was it possible someone had strangled him? It was hard to imagine someone even getting his hands around the thickly muscled neck. Even someone in combat armor would be hard-pressed to fight off the defenses of a cyborg long enough to actually finish strangling him. Could he have been attacked by a fellow cyborg? Maybe he’d rubbed more than the titleholder of that yacht the wrong way with his inability to stay current on his payments.
“What’s this?” Jasim murmured, leaning closer and touching the front of Adams’s neck.
There was a tiny puncture in the skin near a tendon. It almost could have passed for a pore, but the hole went deeper than that. If Jasim hadn’t magnified his faceplate and looked specifically at Adams’s neck, he never would have noticed it.
He leaned back on his heels. “Did someone poison you in bed, Sergeant?”
Once again, Jasim peered about the room, as if what or who had done the deed might be lurking nearby, but only flies buzzed around. Whoever had done this had come and gone. A stealthy assassin, or maybe even a drone that had been sent in with cutting tools. That might explain why the implants had been taken but not the armor. A drone would simply have orders to perform one duty, not loot a place for all its valuables. Usually, a cyborg would hear the soft buzz of something flying and wake up, but an empty bottle of vodka rested on the table by the bed. Adams might have been sleeping more deeply than usual.
Jasim sighed. If he were on a more civilized world, he could call the police, someone who could perform an autopsy, and he could find out what poison had killed Adams. But there weren’t police here. Just mafia thugs who enforced what passed for the law. And who anywhere would care that a former imperial cyborg had been killed? The Corps had been feared far and wide from its earliest inception, both by enemies and by loyal imperial subjects. They’d ruthlessly patrolled the empire, enforcing peace with violence, as they had been designed to do.
Jasim stood up. The word would get out soon enough, and the locals would swarm the place, taking Adams’s armor and anything else of value.
“An ignoble end, my friend,” he murmured.
He snorted softly. Friend? Surely Adams hadn’t been that. Jasim had avoided the man whenever possible. But somehow, death erased distaste, reminding him more of how they had been alike than how they had been different.
Jasim tapped the armor case in the corner, activating the hover ability. He didn’t like the idea of the locals fighting over it to sell it, so he would take it, along with the ship. The yacht had to go back to the dealership, but he would look up Adams, see if he had any living family, and return it to them if he did. Times were hard for most people now. Let his relatives sell the armor if they wanted.
Technically, the armor belonged to the empire, but after the final battle, there had been no supply sergeant left in headquarters to turn it in to—there had been no headquarters at all. As far as Jasim knew, all the cyborgs who had survived had kept their armor.
As he headed back through the warehouse, the armor case hissing softly as it floated behind him, Jasim commed the Interrogator. Chances were, what had killed Adams would remain a mystery, even if he tried to investigate it, but he knew someone who could find Adams’s family more easily than he could—assuming she didn’t charge a fortune.
“Everything all right?” Maddy asked.
“Yes… and no. Will you get in touch with Arlen McCall for me?”
“The weird skip tracer whose dog is more likely to answer the comm than she is?”
“That’s her. Just send a message, ask her if she can look up our target and find out if Adams has any family and if so, where they are.”
“You killed him?” Maddy asked, no hint of reproof in her voice.
“No. Someone else did. Three days ago would be my guess.”
“And they didn’t take his yacht?”
“I don’t think they took anything,” Jasim said, glancing at the crates in the warehouse.
“Give me a couple minutes.”
Jasim tapped the button to unlock the back door, and it opened without any security requirements. Apparently, if one got past the cyborg, exploring the rest of the compound was easy. He found the button to lower the forcefield protecting the ship and walked to the sleek yacht resting in the dust. There wasn’t so much as a dent. Aside from missing payments, Adams looked to have taken care of his baby. Maybe he had enjoyed the auto-massager.
As he approached, Jasim hoped it would be as easy to get into—it wasn’t uncommon for people to booby trap their ships when they knew the repo men were coming. If they couldn’t have it, they didn’t want anyone else to have it either.
But he boarded it without trouble. The hatch opened welcomingly for him, and the AI called him “sir” when he walked up the ramp. Already familiar with the layout and operations, he headed for the yacht’s version of NavCom. He sat down and fired up the craft. His piloting skills were limited, and he wouldn’t want to deal with the gravitational anomalies out in space between the system’s three suns, but The Pulverizer had sent him to a quick training course, and he could get most vessels through local air and to the transport stations where they would be loaded with other freight and returned to their originators.
“Antar?” Maddy asked over his helmet comm. “You have your netdisc with you?”
“No, but my armor can hook up to the sys-net if there are local satellites that don’t charge by the second.”
“No promises about that, but your buddy is just over at Bronos Moon, so there wasn’t much lag. Looks like she got your message immediately. Or the dog did. I’m not sure. But a text message came back through. I’ll forward it to you right away.”
“Right away?” Jasim asked. “Is there something alarming in it?”
“Only if you’re a cyborg.”
“Well, thank the sun gods there aren’t any of those around here.”
Maddy snorted. “You’re an odd boy, big man, but I’m still going to finish knitting your scarf.”
“The gods are shining triply upon me today,” Jasim said, while holding back a grimace. The hat she had made him, a gift she had given him after their first mission together, made his head itch. And other body parts too. Wool. Horrible stuff. He hoped whichever colonist had thought it would be a good idea to freeze sheep embryos and bring them on the voyage from Old Earth had fallen into a volcano and died as soon as he stepped out of his ship.
“Clearly,” Maddy said. “Meet you at the transport station?”
“Yes.” Jasim tapped the thruster controls and lifted the yacht into the air, hoping no more locals with grenade launchers would take pot shots at him.
His helmet beeped softly, and a message started to display on his faceplate. It paused after only a line. A polite flashing warning told him that he needed to pay to see the rest of it, and would he like to authorize charges?
“Authorize,” he grumbled, wondering if the effort—and expense—to find Adams’s family was worth it.
Yes, he decided. It was bad enough he was leaving the body behind, so they wouldn’t be able to hold a proper funeral. But CargoExpress forbade the shipping of corpses, as he’d learned on another occasion, and he doubted The Pulverizer would authorize Maddy to take him on a two-week trip to deliver a body. Knowing the boss, he would have another assignment ready for Jasim before he had this yacht secured and ready to ship.
After informing him that funds were being withdrawn from his account, the message displayed.
Sergeant Matt Aaron Adams, it read, originally from Zeta Colony on Sherran Moon. Surviving family, grandmother Jessica Adams, Zeta Colony. Possibly more pertinent information? Fourth former Cyborg Corps soldier killed in the last month.
Jasim blinked. “What?”
Of course, he did not receive an answer from the recorded message. But if McCall was on or orbiting Bronos Moon, he could get one soon if he sent the question to her. The message continued for a few more lines.
Others deceased: Mahir Abadi, Stefan Albrecht, José Luis Alvarado. I’ve attached a file with the reports. Most are just one-line obituaries. All of the cyborgs died of mysterious causes and in their sleep, and their implants were removed, presumably after the fact. Only Alvarado’s death was investigated. He worked for Senator Bondarenko on Perun. An unidentified substance was found in his bloodstream, believed to be a poison or venom. You better watch out. You’re an A too.
“I’m an A too?” Jasim asked, puzzling over that before it dawned on him. His surname. Antar. All of the dead cyborgs’ surnames started with the letter A. “What in the suns’ fiery hells?”
Was someone going down the Cyborg Corps duty roster? And if so, why? If they were being targeted so their implants could be sold on the black market, what did the order of deaths matter? Wouldn’t it be easier for the murderer to simply pick the closest cyborgs available?
A hollow chill went through him, and he was glad no thugs on rooftops fired at the yacht, because he was barely paying attention to his route. He had pulled a lot of guard shifts with Alvarado. They were next to each other on the roster. Did that mean he was the next target?
Jasim rubbed his face, not sure if he should flee to the far border worlds, go about his normal job while taking precautions, or try to find out who was behind this. The latter appealed to his sense of nobility, but where would he even start? McCall could perhaps help him with research, but who knew how much she would charge? He was surprised she hadn’t mentioned a fee already. The Pulverizer always paid her invoices when they needed her to find people who had gone off the grid with their stolen belongings.
A bump behind his seat made Jasim jump. For a second, he thought someone had stowed away, but it was just Adams’s armor case, still hovering where he’d left it after boarding. Seeing the cyborg armor jarred a new thought into his mind. An unsettling one.
Earlier, he had been wondering where his old battalion commander, Colonel Adler, had gone after the war. He was an A. Had he already been targeted? Already been killed? It could have happened somewhere remote and not been reported to the news organizations yet.
Jasim hadn’t known the man well—in fact, he was somewhat terrified of him, both because of his reputation and because he’d made a bad impression on the colonel early during his enlistment—but maybe he would know what to do about all this. At the least, he should be warned that someone might be after him. If they hadn’t already gotten him.
Trying to set aside that grim thought, Jasim recorded a message to send to McCall.
“Thanks for the help, McCall. Let me know how much I owe you for the information. And I have one more request. Can you find out where Colonel Hieronymus Adler is currently located?”
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