Wild Card comes out February 21st, but if you don't want to wait that long to get a glimpse of Dash and Mack's story, this is your lucky day.
Here's a sneak peak at Wild Card
“Lieksa! Where are you? Damn it, why aren’t you answering your comm?” Her boss’s bellows were loud enough to rattle the walls of her tiny workshop.
Officially, her workspace was Astek Corporation’s Small Robotics Repair Laboratory, but the only one who called it that was the half-Torski male currently braying her name at the top of his lungs.
“I’m back here, repairing the service droid you said was a top priority because the stars might all go dark if the senior staffers had to go more than a few hours without their beloved robotic barista.”
“Forget the fraxxing coffee-bot. You’re needed at the med-center. They need your help with a patient.”
Lieksa finally raised her head, sweeping back a few stray locks of her red hair from her eyes with a frustrated swipe of her hand. “A patient? You mean they need me to fix a piece of equipment, right?”
Zale’s voice dropped to a fraction of its usual volume. “No, not equipment. You’re going to be working on a cyborg.”
Her heart froze mid-beat and her stomach clenched. She didn’t do that kind of work anymore. She opened her mouth to remind him, but he cut her off with a wave of his four-fingered hand. “It’s you or nobody. You’re the only qualified engineer currently on the station. If you don’t help, they’re going to lose him.”
That got her moving. She had enough blood on her hands already. “What am I dealing with?” Her mind was racing at light speed as she cataloged what she might need to treat a damaged cyborg and filled her toolkit.
“I don’t know much. Patient was shot multiple times, and his cybernetic systems are damaged. His medi-bots and the doctor have patched up his body, but without repairs to his cybernetics, he won’t make it. He’s a Corp-Sec officer. They were doing a pharma raid, and things went sideways.”
“That’s it? No information on what components were damaged?” she asked, already falling back into old patterns. Assess the subject. Determine a course of action. Implement. The only difference was the last time she’d thought that cyborgs were nothing more than machines. Now she knew better. He was a human being, and his life was in her hands.
Zale shrugged his massive shoulders. “That’s all I know. Hell, I think that’s all the doctor knows. Everything about those poor bastards is still a carefully guarded secret. You probably know more about cyborg physiology than anyone in the Drift. This request came from the highest levels. It lit up priority codes I’ve never even seen before. According to the request, you’ve been re-assigned. Your only job for the next while is making sure that officer makes a full recovery. There’s a Corp-Sec vehicle waiting for you at the main doors. They’ll have more information for you, but you need to move your ass.”
She grabbed a few more things off the back shelves, slung the bag over her shoulder, and jogged over to where Zale stood, his big body filling the entire doorway.
He stepped aside and dropped a hand onto her shoulder. “No matter what happens, don’t blame yourself. You’re already carrying enough guilt to have your own gravitational field.”
She shook her head in denial. “Hardly.”
Zale waited until she was halfway down the corridor before continuing, his voice back to its usual volume. “No one with your credentials would be down here in the bowels of corporate hell if they didn’t have a reason. Either you’re being punished, or you’re punishing yourself. Since I know you’ve turned down two promotions, I’d guess it’s the latter.”
She slapped her hand on the call button for the elevator. “If that’s true, then what are you down here for, boss?”
The silence stretched for so long she didn’t think he would answer her at all. It was only as the elevator doors were closing that he spoke again. “We’ve all got our secrets. You tell me yours, maybe I’ll tell you mine.”
A bitter laugh tumbled from her lips as she rode up to the main level. If Zale ever found out her secret, she would lose her job. If her corporate employers ever learned what she had done, the only place she would find work was on the automated garbage scows or medical waste freighters making runs to dump their contaminated cargo into the heart of some distant star. Some secrets were never meant to be shared.
The door opened, and she took off at a run, ignoring the stares as she bolted through Astek Corp’s crowded lobby and headed for the flashing lights of the corporate security team waiting to take her to the med-center.
* * * *
“Why can’t you do it, Alyson? You’re the best doctor out here.” Mack Darian paced the worn tiles of the medical center’s dingy hallway and tried not to think about the fact his best friend lay on the other side of the wall, unconscious and broken. When Dash recovered, Mack was going to kick his ass for letting himself get shot…again.
Dr. Jefferies shook her head, her every move slowed by fatigue and worry. “I’d do my best, but it wouldn’t be enough. I’m a doctor, Mack. I’m studying everything I can get my hands on, but I don’t know enough about cybernetics or robotics yet to try and repair your partner. It would be irresponsible for me to even attempt it.”
Mack didn’t want to hear it. Re’veth, the last thing he wanted was for some clueless corporate lab-tech to get anywhere near Dash. They’d been patched up several times during their time in the Resource Wars, and only once had they been treated with any kind of compassion or skill. And then she had betrayed their trust.
He stopped pacing the grim, gray hallway of the medical center, his hands fisted at his side as he tried to keep his frustration in check. He avoided places like this: med-centers, robotics labs, anywhere that reminded him of the past. The antiseptic stink of this place had his nerves on edge and stirred dark memories he had no interest in revisiting.
“I don’t trust anyone else, Doc. Not when it comes to him. Dash is my best friend, and I don’t want one of those lab monkeys messing with him. They can’t help themselves, they always end up fraxxing with things they shouldn’t just to see if they can make it better.”
“I’ll be observing. I promise you, I won’t let anything happen to Dash.” Alyson fixed him with a pointed stare and squared her shoulders. “He might be your best friend, but he’s also my patient. You’re going to have to trust me, Mack.”
“It’s not you I have a problem with. It’s those fraxxing techs. They have no idea how to treat us. No one does, because the corporations won’t release our specs, and the ones who helped create us sure as hell aren’t hanging out around this stars-forsaken place.”
“You’re wrong about that. There’s at least one of us fraxxing techs in the Drift. Hello, Doctor Jefferies. My name is Lieksa Kiv. I’m from Astek’s robotics division, and I’m here about the cyborg in your care.”
He knew that voice. Soft tones, speaking Galactic Standard but with the accent of someone born on Earth. It was her voice. Denial and hope hurtled into each other with the force of a speeding comet.
Mack turned to find himself staring at a ghost. One look at the beautiful woman standing in front of him, and he was nearly buried under a tidal wave of memories and long-forgotten feelings. A different place. Another time. A face he never expected to see again, yet somehow, she was here.
“You’re supposed to be dead,” he blurted, half expecting the woman standing in front of him to disappear.
“So are you,” she whispered back.
She was staring at him like he was the damned ghost instead of her, her glacier-blue eyes full of confusion and shock. Veth, she looked the same as he remembered her. Those petal-soft lips that had tempted him into giving up his greatest secret just for a taste. Her fiery red hair was pulled back into the same messy ponytail, and she still wore too-loose clothing to hide the sexy curves he’d explored time and again in his dreams. She was here.
Alyson cleared her throat. “I hate to interrupt this reunion, but if you don’t get in there and repair my patient, he will be dead, unlike the two of you. I’ve stabilized him for now, but there’s damage to his cybernetics I can’t treat, including some to his cranial implants.”
“Is it Dash? Hasn’t he learned how to duck yet?” she asked.
“You don’t get to make jokes, Lieksa. Not now. Fix him, and don’t you dare tweak anything while you’re doing repairs. You got me? Not like last time.” He was torn between yelling at her and wanting to wrap her in his arms and never letting go. She was alive. Somehow, their angel was alive…and she had a lot to answer for.
Her eyes darkened with hurt, and she dropped her gaze to the floor between them. “I wouldn’t do that. Everything’s different now.”
“You say that, but here we are again. We’re still getting hurt in the line of duty, and you’re still fixing us up like a good little corporate citizen. So, tell me what’s changed?”
She started to protest, and he cut her off with a shake of his head as he pointed to Dash’s room. “We’ll talk later. Dash needs you.”
“I will save him. You have my word.”
He’d always liked the way she spoke, in soft, soothing tones that put everyone around her at ease. “You made me that promise once before, and you kept it. I want to believe you’ll do it again.”
Her lips lifted into a brief, bittersweet smile. “No, Mack. Last time I promised to save you both.”
For a moment he thought she might reach for him, but instead, her smile faded and she turned to Alyson.
“What’s Dash’s condition? Do you have imaging of the injured areas? How are his medi-bots responding?”
The doctor replied with an almost nonsensical stream of medical terminology that made Mack’s head spin. The litany continued until they entered Dash’s room and the door sealed behind them, cutting off their conversation.
With a weary sigh, he wandered back to the bench where he had spent the last few hours and took out his data tablet. He wasn’t leaving until he knew Dash was out of danger, but that didn’t mean he had to sit around doing nothing. He had filed his initial report while Dash was in surgery. Now, he needed to figure out how the Drojo Cartel had known about today’s raid.
First, one of his best informants had reached out to him, claiming to have important information, only to die of a pharma overdose mere hours before their arranged meeting. Now, they’d been ambushed. Only a handful of people knew about the plan, and every one of them was a vetted member of Corp-Sec. His gut churned at the idea that of one them working with the cartel. It was an unforgivable betrayal of trust.
Thoughts of betrayal brought his mind back to Lieksa. She was the first human he had ever trusted, and she’d abandoned them. How could she stand there and claim she had never broken a promise to him after what she did? He slammed a fist into the thinly padded bench, adding more bruises to his already battered body. His medi-bots would take care of the damage. That was their purpose. Microscopic nano-tech whose job it was to keep him healthy enough to go on fighting, no matter what.
Too bad they could only heal his body. When Lieksa had broken his heart, it had taken years to heal.
* * * *
Lieksa felt like her carefully constructed world had been shattered by a rogue comet strike. Her thoughts were tripping over each other, creating a bewildering tangle of questions she had no time to dwell on. She needed to stay focused. First, she had to repair Dash’s implants. Later, she’d worry about fixing the shattered foundations of whatever the three of them had once briefly shared. If that was even possible.
Dash lay on the bed in the middle of the room, unconscious and surrounded by machines that hummed and chirped as they monitored his status. His wavy blond hair was stuck together in bloodstained clumps, and she could see the bruising that spread from the wound in his right shoulder. The injury itself was already healing. That was one of the challenges of working on the cyborgs. Their nano-tech healed them so quickly that repairing them usually involved reopening their wounds. Any suggestions about creating medi-bots that could be temporarily deactivated had always been denied by the ones in charge of the war effort. Their logic was always the same. Why create a weakness the enemy could exploit?
She took in everything the doctor was saying as she reviewed Dash’s file, including images of the injured areas. There was definite damage to his implants, but it wasn’t anything she couldn’t repair. Once she did a thorough examination, she could have parts created by the 3-D printers back at her lab. Zale might not have her background in cybernetics, but he was a damned fine robotics engineer.
She had to put aside her emotions and do the job at hand. Later, though… later she was going to have a very large drink while she processed the fact that Dash and Mack were both alive, here on the Drift, and at least one of them was convinced she had betrayed their trust.
Re’veth. What happened to her simple, quiet life? She’d come to the Drift to start over, to live small. Out here, no one cared about the past. Only the present mattered. It should have been the perfect place to get lost, but instead, it had brought her back into the orbit of the two men she had sacrificed everything to protect.
The doctor put a hand on Lieksa’s arm. “Are you going to be okay to do these repairs? I don’t know what the story is between the three of you, but it’s obvious you have a history. As Dash’s doctor, I need to know if you can do this. I won’t put my patient in your care if you don’t think you can. We’ll find someone else.”
Lieksa locked down her roiling emotions and met the doctor’s gaze. There was no judgment in the blonde woman’s eyes, only concern for her patient. “There isn’t anyone else on the station that can do it. If there were, they’d be here instead of me. I don’t normally do this kind of work anymore, but as it happens, I installed some of the implants I suspect are damaged. I’m probably the best person in the galaxy for this job. You can trust me when I tell you I can do this. I’ll save him. I have to.”
Dr. Jefferies nodded. “I needed to ask. I’m going to observe. I’ve been teaching myself everything I can about the cyborgs since I got here. I have several of them as patients. The more I know, the more I can help them.”
“I’ll be happy to explain everything I’m doing.” Lieksa glanced toward the door. “Mack will want a full report afterward, anyway. You can update him after I’ve done an initial exam and determined what needs to be done. If I need new parts, I’ll have them made at the lab and brought over. It’s been a few years since I’ve worked on a flesh and blood patient, I’d appreciate your help when it comes time to make the incisions.”
She looked at Dash again and felt a rush of sadness at seeing him this way, so quiet and still. He wasn’t a quiet man. It wasn’t in his makeup, or his programming. He was designed to gather information, which meant he was gregarious, charming, and heartbreakingly handsome. She was determined to make sure he’d be all of those things again, soon.
It wouldn’t be enough to even begin to balance the scales, but it would be a good start.