Kiera stared across the bridge of the enemy battleship Desolation into the cold electric eye of her captor, and swallowed salty fear.
All Dominion soldiers were big. Selectively bred for strength and agility, only the finest specimens chosen for cybernetic enhancements. But this one—the ship’s captain, from his imperious attitude—this monster was seriously massive.
And Captain Kiera Bo, brave hero of the Defiance, felt dwarfed. Outgunned. Vulnerable.
The cyborg captain stalked along the dark lower deck of the battlebridge, and halted in front of Kiera. Red combat lights gleamed on the black armour curving over his torso. She raised her chin, refusing to wince as the tight cuffs bit into her wrists behind her back. Sweat dripped in her cropped hair, only to be parched away in the dry chill. The slotted blackmetal deck cut into her knees through her flight suit. The tiny pain was ironic, mocking. A warning of worse to come.
“Just one?” The captain’s voice was deep, cold as space. Telescopic infrared optics were riveted over his left eye, sleek gunmetal plasma weaponry wired into one strong forearm. He had two out of four metalcore fingers on each hand—muscle and skin grafted to light alloy bone prosthetics with conductive cores, good for steadiness and reloading overheated guns as well as data transfer—and hydraulic joints hissed faintly as his limbs moved. “Is this all we got?”
This. He meant her, a human being. Prey.
“Sorry to disappoint.” Kiera kept it light, mocking. But the sight of that monstrous metal grafted to skin made her insides squirm like a maggot pit.
The battle was done, and neither Dominion nor Defiance could claim victory. The yells and stink on the burning deck of her frigate, Heartless, still echoed in her ears. A last-ditch effort at a decoy had sent her on a desperate solo mission, but Desolation had scooped up her shuttlepod like a toad swallowing a tasty insect.
Still, crippled Heartless had escaped, and Bishop, her second, had a fierce Defiance heart. Not afraid to walk alone. Without her, his crew would go on. Just as the Defiance would go on, until they’d blown the last Dominion ship to cold oblivion or died trying.
She could almost hear Bishop now, the gruff scorn that was his excuse for concern. Worst idea I ever heard, Bo. Damn fool heroes, always think they gotta lead from the front…
Well, here she was. On the twin-deck battlebridge of Desolation, as far into enemy territory as she’d ever been. Black metal everywhere, gleaming with tiny lights and readouts. Nothing like her rusted little ship. Glowing green data columns ebbed and flowed in 3D, showing weapons readiness, nav specs, damage reports from the battle. Dominion crewmen on upper and lower decks manipulated virtual displays, ran diagnostics. Jacked their cyberware into black metal panels to effect a neural link with the pulsating red system core that formed the vertical, central backbone of the…
She swallowed. Hive, she’d almost thought. Not ship.
“Pity,” the captain murmured. “I’d hoped to capture more alive.”
“My heart bleeds,” she snapped. “Just kill me, Dominion, and get it over with. Save me the sight of your ugly metal face.”
“Shut it, Defiance.” A second metal-clad brute shoved her, sending her sprawling to the deck. She swallowed a wild urge to laugh. Who was this guy: bad cop? A blackglass visor grafted to his face obscured his eyes—likely, he could ‘see’ an inhuman range of extra-visible wavelengths, from UV through IR and beyond. His long silversteel fingers arced with static. Both hands, off at the wrists and replaced. Greater dexterity and strength, as well as added conductivity for direct information processing. Probably he was a weaponspace jockey or a navtech.
Deliberately, Kiera spat on the deck at his feet and crawled back to her knees. His reddish hair had salt crystals in it. Dried sweat. As if that made him any more human.
This second monster made a crisp salute. “All sensors negative, Captain Thaarn. They’re gone.”
Thaarn. The name hammered cold spikes into Kiera’s soul.
The Dominion’s finest killer. The Butcher of Hodar, they called him, after a particularly ruthless episode of slaughter. Murderer of civilians, children, the sick and wounded, exhausted soldiers who’d laid down their guns. Anyone in his path. No quarter.
Suddenly, a swift plasma bolt to the head didn’t seem so bad.
Her stomach sickened. She’d expected such an inhuman beast to be… different. Marked out, somehow. The way Kiera felt when people stared and whispered, That’s her, isn’t it? That’s Captain Bo, who won at Takken Dar. Hero of the Defiance.
Thaarn’s cyberoptic glinted red, and Kiera forced herself to look at his human parts. Dark hair, grey at the temples and cropped like any soldier’s. Strong shaven chin, stern mouth, arrogant patrician nose. Beyond the shoulder plates of his carapace, his upper arms were massive, scarred with plasma burns, pale from too much time in space. He stood with his weight favouring his left side, like he’d injured something in the battle.
Inwardly, she sneered. Cyborgs couldn’t feel pain. He was faking it to trick her.
But his right eye—the human eye—was blue. Not wired or bionic. Just blue, like her long-lost ocean.
Kiera’s throat tightened. She wanted to squeeze her eyes shut, banish the memories of Takken Dar, that broken, bilge-stinking hole where she’d made her name. Blood, yells, the meaty smell of pain. She’d screamed afterwards, screamed into the dark until her throat bled. Hero of the Defiance. Saviour of the people. She’d won a great victory. But at what cost?
Be the enemy, she’d told her second, that night months later in his rusted quarters when everything changed, when she’d had to do something or lose her mind. Bishop’s hair had been singed, his blond-bristled face scorched from a firefight, and she’d patched him up, her fingers rough and businesslike. Bootleg whisky in plastic cups, a wild neon-blue nebula glittering in the tiny clearview window above his bunk. We gotta be as they are, Bish, or we’ll never win.
Bishop’s restless gaze had shifted, then, the wrong questions hovering on his flashburned lips, and she’d silenced them the only way she’d known. His scarred body was tough, his mouth bold and ruthless. They’d never revisited that topic.
And now, staring into Thaarn’s metal-marred face, Kiera silenced those questions again—but this time, inside her own mind.
One real eye didn’t make this Dominion thing human. Just an enemy to be defeated, hunted down, destroyed.
Be as they are. Encased in metal. Impenetrable. Unfeeling.
Thaarn’s mismatched gaze sized her up, and her skin crawled hot. She wanted to cringe, scream, spit in his face, rip that ugly metal machinery from his skull…
His cruel lips twitched. “See something you like, Defiance?”
The bastard was smiling.
Kiera’s guts knotted. Dominion liked to play with their prey, and rumours whispered that Battlelord Thaarn was singularly partial to the game. She didn’t have much time.
I’m gonna die, Bish. It sounded suspiciously like a prayer, though if Bishop was all she had to pray to, they were all screwed. We always knew it, soldier, one way or another we’ll go down fighting. But I swear to you, I’ll take this murdering monster down with me.
She let her head drop, hiding her face, and darted her gaze, hunting for anything she could use as a weapon.