Doctor Ilsa Blaine
Abilities: Designs programmable bioware, enhanced understanding of brain chemistry
Mission: Research, analyze and troubleshoot the team’s active microchips
On the cutting edge of neuroscience, Ilsa is developing microchips that can be inserted into the brain and deliver information. The applications are endless, but her current goal is just to get dogs to return to their owners should they ‘become lost.’ When her college roommate turns up asking for lunch, she’s hardly prepared for the chaos that ensues or the revelation her chip changed the world and the lives of five heroes from the future. And now they need her help…
Codename: The Viper
Abilities: toxins, poisons and assassination, he can kill with a touch
Mission: Protect Ilsa Blaine
One of five desperate men sent back in time to save the future, Garrett volunteers to be the doctor’s guinea pig as she studies their neuro-chips. It’s not his first time being a lab rat. In close quarters, the unthinkable happens, an attraction that could kill Ilsa. Drawn together by science, and on the fast track to destiny, Ilsa must prove to Garrett he isn’t toxic to everything and save his team from their chips before they can end them…
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. An alliance with Halo has given their leader a taste of hope. For these five lonely soldiers, the single emotion may prove their most dangerous threat.
Read An Excerpt
Michael Hunter stood in the middle of the room he shared with his…girlfriend? Mate? Neither word fit Rory Graystone. She was his. That was all that mattered to him. Only, instead of being present, she’d left. Again. He glanced at his watch. Five minutes had passed since he returned from meeting with the other Boomers. If she didn’t…the door opened before he could complete the thought.
The red on her uniform didn’t bode well for his temper. Nor did her extended fingers as she waved a hand at him. “Before you say anything, it was an emergency and you were cloistered away with the boys. I have a job to do, and I went to do it.”
Remaining still kept him from picking her up and examining every inch of her, followed by paddling her ass. Though he’d only ever spanked her once, she’d been less than thrilled with him for three days afterward. In play, she liked it, but when his temper snapped she responded in kind.
Aurora Graystone would be the death of him. “What happened?” He managed to get the question out on an even tone. Perhaps they were making progress. Four weeks earlier, he’d have already lost his temper.
“Some lunatic decided to go on a spree downtown.” She stripped off her white uniform top, then peeled off her boots and leggings. A splotch of reddened skin along her side betrayed the hits she’d taken. Two long, very hot red streaks told him she’d been shot.
The uniform’s sparkling exterior to the contrary, it was a tough fabric and could take most hits including slices. It wasn’t invulnerable, though.
“Ricochets,” she murmured, as though reading his mind. Maybe she had simply anticipated his question. Anticipation and probabilities were her specialties. “He wounded thirty people before I caught up to him.”
“So he was shooting up midtown and you had time to get there, track him and catch him but not enough time to call me?” He didn’t snarl or raise his voice, but he could feel the blood pounding in his brain.
Half-naked, Rory paused then made a face. “Fine, I was meeting with Josh and Curtis, and they wanted to strategize about Corkscrew and Dark Angel.”
Josh and Curtis—the other two members of her team of heroes. The latter pair was their missing members. Rory’s need to find them he understood and even supported.
“And before you rip into me about not telling you I was going to meet with them, I’ll remind you that you were meeting with your team. So, I met with mine.”
“This isn’t a contest, Rory.” Crossing to her, he pulled her into his arms and satisfied the need he had to check her over. Every delicate inch of her seemed unsuited for the work she did, yet, at the same time, she possessed taut, supple muscles and moved with an innate grace, power and confidence she’d earned. “The Boomers are as much yours as they are mine.”
“No, they aren’t. We keep everything compartmented. You do it, I do it.” Looping her arms around his neck, she rose on her tiptoes until he caved to his final need and lifted her so they were nose to nose. “You and me, we’re a team—but you have your people and I have mine.” She nuzzled him with a kiss, and one by one his vertebrae seemed to unlock from the tension holding him rigid. “The Boomers are a biomechanical recon unit from a far-flung and disastrous future I can barely imagine. You’re a fucking time-traveler, Michael. I’m a hero. You’re a soldier. You have your mission. I have mine.”
“That doesn’t preclude us from working together.” He would find a way to make this work for both of them. “I’m on your side.”
“You don’t trust Josh or Curtis.” She had a point.
So did he. “You don’t trust Garrett.”
“I have to find Amanda,” she whispered. “She’s my best friend. I have to find Ronan. He’s one of mine. I won’t stop looking. I won’t not help if my city needs me. It’s who I am.”
“What if I need you?” The words slipped out before he could stop them. They implied vulnerability, one he should have shielded her from. The world he’d left behind had no forgiveness for the vulnerable.
“That’s not fighting fair.”
“I’m not fighting,” he promised her. “I do need you. We all do.”
Her eyes narrowed, but she leaned her head back and studied him. “You mean that.”
“I do. I came in here to ask you to join us when you didn’t pick up.”
“We need to find someone…a scientist who can help us.”
The corner of Rory’s mouth curved. “You want to vague that up some more, lover?”
“Simon has narrowed the search to three he thinks can be of use. One is here in the city. Her name is Ilsa Blaine…we have a plan to kidnap her.”
“No, no no.” Rory shook her head. “No kidnapping. That’s a crime you know.”
“No, it’s not.”
He didn’t have time to argue with her.
“Seriously, lover, it’s not…I know Ilsa Blaine. We don’t have to kidnap her. I just have to ask her to lunch.”
Surprise chipped away at his temper, and he stared at the woman he loved. “Lunch?”
“Oh yeah, dangerous op, I know, but I think I can handle it…”
“Front doors covered.” Michael’s voice crackled in Rory’s ear. She was parked in the R.E.X. facility’s guest parking area. The campus for the scientific conglomerate laboratory boasted tight security including three patrols, an entrance and exit guard, and multiple camera angles. The electronic pass in her Lotus allowed her access to parking lot A, but that was more than 500 yards from the front doors of the facility. She’d pass at least four more security checkpoints before she could sign into the building.
“Roof access covered.” Garrett sounded bored. The poisoner got into position earlier than the rest, entering under the cover of darkness with the assistance of Rex, the Boomer’s shapeshifter.
“South exit covered. Rex is parked next to the lobby now,” Drake announced. The strong man stood out in a crowd, so they’d secured a uniform for him. It took some explanation for the guys to accept that, in a scientific facility, the standard blue uniform and silver piping provided ubiquitous camouflage.
“Security office covered.” Simon’s voice lacked any inflection. The eerie monotone gave her the willies, but Simon focused his telepathy on controlling one guard. He provided their eyes and ears inside the facility.
“You do realize this is overkill, right?” Rory murmured the words in a low casual tone. They weren’t sure just how much audio surveillance the facility used. The Bluetooth tucked in her ear gave her cover for the conversation as long as she watched what she said. Not that her argument would affect their decisions one way or the other.
Her heels pinched but, as an heiress, Rory Graystone needed to look the part of a dilettante. Her lips twitched at the memory of Michael’s upraised brows as she’d applied her makeup that morning. He wasn’t especially thrilled with any aspect of the plan, but watching her dress up might have changed his mind—if he hadn’t tried to strip her clothes off as quickly as she put them on. Just four weeks as lovers, and she couldn’t imagine her world without him.
At the end of the curb, she took a seat on the marble bench and crossed one leg over the other. The tram would be along to pick her up. She could walk it easily enough, but that wasn’t in keeping with her cover, a disguise she’d grown up cultivating, courtesy of her wealthy parents. The slim platinum watch on her wrist showed she was right on schedule.
“You’re covered, babe.” Michael’s husky, low voice sent a ripple through her belly, but she ignored the intense attraction. It was damned hard to shut it out when she worked, but at least his preference for heights and vantage points meant he wasn’t within touching distance. If they were always side-by-side, they might not ever get anything done.
“I’m fine. It’s a lunch date. Remember?” Convincing them took more persuasion than converting a die-hard conservative to a liberal candidate. She called ahead that morning to let Ilsa know she was stopping by via voice mail. Less than thirty minutes later, Ilsa sent her an excited text. She couldn’t wait to catch up.
The tram hummed to a stop and Rory stood, climbing in to sit on the very last seat. The cover blocked Michael’s view but, as the tram turned, she knew he would be able to see her. As tempting as it was to tweak his overprotective streak, she liked sex without all the yelling beforehand. Not that he stayed angry with her for long. She rode the tram alone since eleven-thirty, on a Wednesday morning, wasn’t a prime time for arrivals at the facility.
The trip took mere minutes and dropped her off at the dozen steps leading up to the revolving doors. Shouldering her purse, she took her time slipping out of the tram and smoothed her skirt. She’d chosen a sedate forest green combo over a white camisole. She probably should have worn hose, but she preferred the cool air on her bare legs and the heels were enough of a sacrifice.
Tucked back away from her face, her hair glittered with a pair of combs that would double as code breakers when she activated them. In a pinch, she would be able to use them to bypass their electronic key system. She’d turned down a camera in her sunglasses. They weren’t messing up her Gucci’s for anything and, anyway, the facility’s security system would pick up any active device as they rolled through the high-powered scanner. Cold air washed over her as she pushed through the doors.
Ten minutes later, she followed her escort into the maze of the research laboratory. Ilsa’s lab was on the third floor, well below the reportedly inaccessible eight through ten floors. The keycard pad next to the button and the keypad highlighted the rigorous controls in place. It made sense since R.E.X. stood for Research, Engineering and Xenogenetics. The facility was on the cutting edge of every major bio-metric breakthrough in the last decade. If their recent report to the board of the Infinity Corporation was anything to go on, their advancements were on the cusp of changing the world as they knew it.
“Simon is monitoring you, sweetheart. Proceed as planned.” Thanks for the update, Michael. I was hanging here with bated breath. But she didn’t voice the thought or allow anything but bland boredom to show on her features. The Boomers treated everything like tactical warfare. When was the last time they had fun?
The elevator dinged, announcing their arrival on the third floor. Rory preceded her escort, pausing to ‘adjust’ her badge and survey the hallway. The elevator opened onto a wide promenade exposed on all sides by glass. As if on cue, Michael murmured. “I have you.”
The bridge spanned the level and looked down into the marble atrium forty-five feet below. Four cameras tracked her movements with little to no obvious blind spots. Pairs of heavily armed, black-clothed security guards in flak jackets stood watch at either end of the bridge, a significant change in the two years since she last visited Ilsa at her laboratory.
“This way, Miss,” her escort urged her along. The open concourse, the glass walls, the heavy security and the cameras left her with the sensation of being too out in the open—no easy cover available. Her heels clicked on the tiled floors. If running were involved, the shoes would definitely have to go.
She touched the first clip in her hair, adjusting it and activating it at the same time. Her escort’s pass carded their way through a series of three doors in rapid succession. Each one added a new layer of security from pass card to code key to retinal scan and, finally, thumbprint. The hairs on the back of Rory’s neck stiffened. What the fuck is Ilsa working on? Most scientific facilities employed heavy security, but this bordered on the ridiculously paranoid.
Rory, did you obtain the key code the guard pressed in? Simon’s telepathic voice murmured across the rim of her consciousness. She nodded once, an absent gesture as the escort admitted her onto a bare, institutional hallway with only one door visible. Mentally reciting the number for Simon, she focused her thoughts on the present and not on the uneasiness icing her spine. Instead of just opening the door, he knocked on it.
A muffled command to enter whispered through the steel door—because wood didn’t clang when banged on—and the escort opened the door. “You have a visitor, Dr. Blaine. Miss Aurora Graystone of the Infinity Corporation.” Her credentials would hold up under any scrutiny. She actually did work for Infinity and possessed an office in their super-tower in midtown, even if she didn’t use it that often.
The visible laboratory space stretched out across a third of the space that made up the entire floor. Rory glanced around the desk space, the computers scrolling data, and spotted the dog cages with five of the most gorgeous golden retrievers she’d ever seen. The animals wagged their tails and barked excitedly. The leggy blonde stepping out from behind a large workstation topped Rory’s slender height by a good three inches. With her icy blue eyes and rich platinum hair, she looked more Norwegian goddess than scientist.
Then she squealed. “Rory!”
Her leather-soled shoes swished across the floor and the women hugged. The faint smell of Prada’s Candy wrapped around her and Rory returned the squeeze with true affection. “Hey, sister, how are you?”
“I should be cross with you—two years between lunch dates is horrible manners—but at least you called!” Ilsa leaned back, and they shared a private giggle. “I hadn’t even realized how long it’s been until I tried to remember where we ate last time.”
“At the duck pond.” Rory pressed a light kiss to the air near Ilsa’s cheek and drew back, letting her purse slide down her arm in the most casual of gestures. A slender PDA inside it would begin the remote decryption of the machines humming in Ilsa’s office. If they could download her research without involving her, all the better. The last thing she wanted to do was get her college roommate in trouble. “You had a presentation for Global and didn’t have time for a real lunch. So it was hot dogs and sodas with the ducks getting most of the buns.”
“Oh my God, that’s right.” Ilsa pulled off a pair of reading glasses and tucked them into the pocket of her lab coat. The light colored blouse and tan slacks she wore beneath it were as nondescript as they came. She also seemed to be lacking in any jewelry. The kennels bounced with the dog’s enthusiasm and Ilsa glanced over at them. “Shush. Sit.”
The absolute silence on the canines’ part and their obedient drop to their haunches was both impressive and eerie. The escort excused himself, but neither Rory nor Ilsa acknowledged his exit. “Nice.”
“That is the result of five years of research and two years of fine-tuning the applications. I think I’m finally ready to present.” Pride swelled in Ilsa’s voice.
“What did you do to them exactly?” The beautiful dogs were duplicates of each other, right down to the silken coats with their glossy sheen and the bright eager eyes.
Ilsa rubbed her hands together. “Okay, do you remember my theory regarding brain stimulation?”
In exquisite detail. But Rory didn’t say it aloud. “Something about application of stimulus to certain areas resulting in different reactions…maybe?” Playing dumb didn’t come naturally to her, but she didn’t mind the occasional airhead moment if it served her purposes.
“Close enough. Okay, so the frontal lobe is where impulse control begins. We actually have to learn this type of control, it’s not a natural behavior. We don’t just automatically hold our tongues and keep secrets but, by the same token, we don’t automatically prevent ourselves from taking what we want or doing what we want without learning.” Ilsa warmed to the topic, a flush warming her pale face while her eyes sparkled. Rory had to wonder how often she really got to talk about her work—even with a layman like herself.
Wanting to encourage her, even with a mission at hand, Rory spread her hands. “Okay, like when we’re kids and the teacher asks a question. We blurt out the answer even though we raised our hands.”
“Exactly. Dogs are similarly structured. They have basic desires and wants—the urge to bark, the urge to run, the urge to urinate on your favorite shoes.” The last statement carried enough sauce that Rory winced in sympathy. Her parents refused her a dog when she grew up for a similar laundry list of negative reasons. “Then there is the urge to dig or escape to explore—most dogs that go missing are not lost because they want away from their owners, but because their biological urges tell them to run, chase, play, and sniff.”
“Still following you, more or less. Why I can’t walk away from a shoe and purse sale even if I can’t possibly need more shoes?” That statement went against most of her personal beliefs, but it fit the parameters of Ilsa’s description.
“Rory,” Michael breathed in her ear. “You’re supposed to be leaving for lunch, not having a lesson in animal husbandry.”
“Exactly.” Ilsa bounced a half step and strode over toward the cages. She popped open one and the at-least-eighty-pound dog bounded out. “Sit.” The dog immediately sat. That in and of itself wasn’t remarkable. Dog training was a skill many humans perfected.
“Okay.” Rory didn’t disguise the questioning skepticism in her voice.
“Just watch.” Ilsa opened a small refrigerator and extracted a steak. The dog’s tail thumped against the floor. She peeled back the container lid and sat the bowl, rib eye and all, on the floor. She looked at the dog. “Stay. Do not eat.”
Do not eat is not a dog command. But Rory said nothing as Ilsa walked away and motioned Rory to follow her. Leaving her purse where it was, she trailed Ilsa away from the dog and the rib eye to a small enclosure against the exterior wall. Ilsa ushered her inside and flipped a switch. Cameras all over the lab turned on and displayed on the four screens. The dog Ilsa had ordered to stay sat where he was, two feet away from a juicy hunk of meat. His tail thumped, his mouth was open in a toothy doggy smile and his tongue lolled out, drool falling in a steady dripping motion.
He didn’t move.
Ilsa closed the door and the thump echoed in their little observation nest. Rory expected the dog to move forward and start eating. Most animals, unobserved, would. Even the best trained animals would move after thirty or more seconds. Folding her arms, a frown tightened her forehead. One minute stretched into three and finally to five. The dog never moved.
“That’s a hell of a trick.” Rory admitted.
“It’s not a trick, it’s a chip.” Ilsa grinned and she practically vibrated with pride. “We microchip dogs for identification purposes, but my chip doesn’t go in the base of the neck. Instead, it’s bio-mechanical and is implanted near the frontal lobe. It sends stimuli, electrical impulses that reinforce the command when the dog might normally let it go. It’s going to revolutionize pet care—no more missing dogs when you can simply program the chip with the address and mental command to return home. The dog escapes, the dog will come back, because the chip will tell it to.”
Rory rubbed a hand over her mouth, careful to not wipe away her lipstick as she studied the dog on the screen. “How long will he wait before he eats?”
“Forever. Unless the command is counteracted, the chip recalls the order and continues to inhibit that area. It’s crude right now and can’t remember more than a small amount of data. The most basic commands, for example, or the encoding of where home is. But can you imagine? Never having to worry if your Fido got out again?” Ilsa’s singular delight didn’t ease the cold stone resting in Rory’s gut. The implications extended far beyond Fido.
If human brains could be implanted with similar chips…
“We’re years away from a real human trial, but can you imagine the application toward human addictions? We wouldn’t have to chemically castrate sexual deviants anymore. We could implant and program the chip to avert that impulse. No more smokers, no more alcoholics—yes, I know, it’s a bit of a stretch from a dog who isn’t eating a steak, but I can do this.” Malice and power didn’t cloud Ilsa’s straightforward excitement. She was just a scientist standing on the precipice of a world changing discovery—it was probably how the nuclear physicists felt at Los Alamos before they dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Ten minutes in the little room and the dog still sat, patiently waiting. His tail stopped thumping, but he neither laid down to rest nor stood to eat the steak. He just waited. It was kind of creepy. Shoving the disturbance down, Rory pursed her lips. “So, I think I can tell Infinity your grant money has been well spent.”
Ilsa chuckled and opened the door. “Winston, c’mere boy.” She clapped her hands and the dog bounded to his feet and raced toward her. The animal’s natural boisterousness translated into sloppy wet kisses and barks of excitement. “Such a good boy.”
She scratched his ears affectionately and pointed to the steak. “Go eat.” She didn’t have to issue the command twice. The dog pounced on the steak and gobbled it up. “I probably shouldn’t give it to him, but I don’t really like tormenting the poor dear. Just because the impulse is controlled by the chip, it doesn’t change the desire.”
Which offered a small—very small—measure of comfort as far as Rory could see. Still possessing the urge and the want would conflict with the impulse to not act. The dog seemed to handle it well—but internal conflict that could arise from such a command in a person could stagger even the most balanced of minds.
“But you’re years away from human application?” Choosing Ilsa as an information source may have been better than she’d imagined, but it didn’t remove the unease coiling around her spine. In the wrong hands, this was potentially devastating. Soldiers programmed to ignore their fears and act only on the orders of their superiors? No, thank you.
“Well, there are ethical issues to consider. I like the idea of providing families and their pets with some security that the dog can and will come home again. I’ve toyed with the idea of storing data in a chip, technical data that doesn’t come readily to some people, but that’s still very theoretical. The programming, the delicacy of the interaction—”
“The fact that you have to stick it in someone’s brain?” Rory couldn’t help the mistrust that filtered into those words. Brain surgery was a tricky business to begin with. The last time she checked, they still didn’t understand how the brain fully worked or why some people possessed xenogenetic skills that set them apart.
“Exactly. Winston, kennel.” She sent the dog back to his crate and cleaned up after him before securing the door. She paused at each kennel door to scratch each dog’s head then to give them treats. “But I’m starving and you promised me lunch.”
“You are correct, and I’ll even resist the urge to tell you to stay when they put a steak in front of you.” Rory grinned and Ilsa’s answering laugh reminded her that, all science aside, the woman was kind, compassionate, loyal, and possessed good intentions. She needed to protect her friend.
All ethics of the chip aside, years away wasn’t the comfort it should be. Michael and the other Boomers were from a century or more in the future. Years and years away, and each of them possessed a chip.
“Let me grab my purse.” Ilsa stripped off her lab coat and retrieved her security pass from the lapel.
“Okay.” Rory returned to her own purse and opened it up. She checked the tablet’s status. Ninety-three percent complete. She extracted her lipstick and a compact. She took her time about checking her own appearance and touched up her make-up. But the camera tracking her from the corner stayed zeroed in on her. Three more cameras adjusted their angles.
Someone was watching them.
Not in the security booth. In fact, I’m counting eight cameras in that room. Four are linked here. The four watching you are not. Concern edged Simon’s mental voice. You two need to leave now.
She couldn’t agree more. Dropping the compact back inside the purse, she looked down the length of the lab. “What are you in the mood for? I was thinking seafood.”
Not that she particularly cared where they went, but the food choice warned the Boomers something was up. Her neck prickled under observation. Ilsa walked back toward her, blonde hair tugged back into a ponytail.
“Crazy as it sounds, I love the idea of the park. Hot dogs, pretzels, some sunshine, and catching up… I know it’s not the ritzy places you like, but would you mind?”
“Not at all.” She slung the purse over her shoulder. “I wanted to see you, not food, anyway.”
Ilsa bounced the last step and wrapped her arm around Rory’s shoulders. “Me too. I spend so much time in the lab. I miss seeing my peeps.”
Arm-in-arm, they headed for the door, so Rory faced the portal as it swung inwards and admitted four security guards in their head-to-toe black. The men wore neutral expressions like battle gear.
“Dr. Blaine, we’re sorry, but the director has requested we detain you.”
Ilsa’s steps faltered. “What?”
“Your guest needs to leave, and you need to come with us.” As if by prior decision, the four spread out with one guard reaching to take Rory’s arm.
“I don’t understand.” Ilsa pulled Rory back a step, shifting to stand in front of her in an almost protective gesture. “This is highly unorthodox, Mr…?”
“Dr. Blaine, don’t make this any harder than it needs to be.” A taser slipped into the man’s palm. Rory’s heart rate slowed as she examined their options. The four men stood around six to six foot three inches tall. They seemed to weigh between one hundred and eighty and two hundred pounds. The guard reaching for Rory’s arm favored his left leg, where the knee didn’t quite flex. They were balanced, controlled, and direct. Their expressions didn’t shift.
She could take down the man closest to her and intercede. Speed would be the key. She needed her shoes off. Without hose, they would fly off, and a kick and thrust with her right leg would send that shoe straight at the leader’s face.
“Rory, I don’t know what’s going on…”
You have more guards incoming. They just began initiating a lockdown. Simon’s mental voice went cold. Extract the scientist, Rory. Now.
Not one to debate when the pressure was on, she squeezed Ilsa’s arm. “No worries, I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding.” She gave Ilsa the barest of shoves and slammed her heel down on the closest guard’s foot. His yelp ended in a scream as her second blow collapsed his knee. She threw her purse up, intercepting the needles of the taser, and jerked it out of the lead guard’s hands.
Ilsa’s startled scream echoed in her ears, but she didn’t slow down. Her left shoe flew as she flung her leg out and then she was on the three guys. Up she went, catching the first man’s shoulders and using his own momentum against him. He hit the floor and she swept her legs out to take down the second man. The third guard seized her in a chokehold, but she twisted with him, wrapping her legs around his midsection and squeezing until his eyes bulged. She drove the side of her hand against his throat and his grip loosened as he dropped like a rock.
The second man staggered to his feet and Rory bounced, flipping up and driving a fist into the soft skin at the base of his skull. He went down like a tree falling. The four men lay in a pile and she glanced over at Ilsa’s shocked face.
“Time to go, girlfriend.” Guilt assaulted her conscience, but she grabbed Ilsa’s arm and retrieved her purse. In the corner, the dogs barked and banged their cages.
“I’ll explain everything once we’re out.” Rory jerked open the door and looked down the hallway. Four more men spilled through the three doors. “Michael? I need a hole.”
A blast echoed through the building and alarms went off as the four men racing toward them collapsed. A hole appeared in the wall, punched through by sonic bullets that detonated on impact. Blood trickled from the ears of the fallen group, but they were still alive.
“What the hell is going on?” Ilsa’s heels dug in, but they didn’t have time for explanations.
“We’re leaving. Now. Stay close to me, and I’ll get you out.” Another explosion rocked the far side of the building. The concourse was too exposed and the elevators could be locked down. She diverted away from the fallen men and pulled Ilsa with her.
“Head to the roof. Garrett’s waiting.” Michael’s tone brooked no argument. Behind her the door crashed open and booted feet echoed in pursuit. “Still think this is overkill?”
“Smartass.” But she grinned, palming a comb from her hair and sliding it through the keycard access. The door hesitated before it popped open. She dragged Ilsa in with her and shut it, tucking the comb into the jamb as she did so.
“Rory?” Tension and fear piled on top of each other in Ilsa’s voice.
“I’ll explain everything, I promise. But right now, we need to run. Okay?” She pushed her toward the stairs and pointed upward. The door sizzled behind her as the comb fused the door shut, buying them time. Three stories below, a door slammed open.
Too many. Run. He didn’t have to tell her twice.
Everything was happening too fast. One moment Rory was dropping in to take her to lunch and, the next, Director Chambers’ goons wanted to detain her. Ilsa dragged her heels as Rory all but shoved her up the stairs. “We can’t go this way. It leads to the roof.” And to the private labs in sections eight through ten. Not only could they not get into those labs, they stood a real risk of being shot on sight.
But her friend was implacable. “Up, Ilsa. Just keep climbing.” Below them, doors slammed and booted feet hit the stairs. For a dizzying moment, all Ilsa could imagine were the jackboots of Nazis marching, the images overlaying the surreal moment. She twisted to argue as a security guard lunged around the corner.
“Rory!” Fear ripped through her gut. The guard was huge, his expression a fierce mask and his arms, easily as big as her thighs, tried to lock around her sorority sister. The black-haired beauty, with her seeming delicate fragility, stunned her by latching her hands onto the railing and literally flying over it, legs wrapping the bigger man and spinning him. He slammed into the wall and Rory delivered three sharp jabs, two to his eyes and a third to the bulging vein in his neck.
He dropped and Rory snagged ahold of her arm and pushed her again. “Let’s go. We’ve got more incoming.”
“What are you?” Adrenaline surged through her system, and she tried to drag to a stop. Her mind couldn’t process everything happening at once. Rory spun away from her and she managed to look back as two more men flew down the stairs. It wasn’t possible. Rory never stopped moving. She barely looked at them and flew up, body twisting, fists jabbing, feet striking, and her opponents went down like dominoes. The smart skirt she wore was torn in strips, flapping around her legs like three banners.
Blackish bruises discolored her calves and two of her toes were purpling. “You broke something.”
“Don’t make me tell you to keep moving again.” Something cold infused that warning and Ilsa fled upwards, obeying her friend. Four more flights then they raced past heavy metal barriers on a stairwell remarkably different from every other floor—at Section Ten, Rory hesitated. Ilsa’s chest burned as she wheezed for air. Her idea of a workout was a brisk walk at lunch and hours spent on her feet in her lab. Her quadriceps burned and she was fairly certain she’d strained something in her ass.
Something crashed against the metal door and Ilsa flattened herself against the wall. Rory spun in a half-circle and stared at the door. A furred face appeared in the tempered glass window—a face that wasn’t remotely human. A roar of fury pounded against Ilsa’s ears and she shoved her hand against her mouth to keep the scream at bay. Keen intelligence shimmered in the creature’s eyes and hate surged in it as the beast ignored Rory and glared at Ilsa.
“What the fuck are you?” Rory’s murmured question, so obviously not directed at her, kickstarted Ilsa’s brain from fear to analysis.
“Section Ten—this is the no man’s land. We need to get out of here.” R.E.X. Labs experimented in any number of weaponized options, from super soldiers to super technology. But not all of their experiments were successful and some were downright dangerous. Section Ten required clearance on the highest levels—despite the Director’s one time offer to bring her aboard these elite projects, Ilsa had refused.
She was a pacifist at heart. She preferred working with animals.
The creature roared again. “Rory, we need to go.” Ice slithered along her spine. Bile burned her throat.
“Yeah, we’re going.” By mutual consent, they jogged up the last twenty-eight steps, the beast’s roars following them to an impenetrable looking steel door, crisscrossed by sensors.
“We can’t get out this way.” Ilsa sagged against the wall. She could barely catch her breath. Every shallow pant lanced more flame into her already oxygen-starved lungs. Fingers against her wrist, she shuddered at the rapid-fire speed of her pulse. One hundred and fifty beats per minute was too fast. She needed to slow it down. The heart murmur she’d been diagnosed with as a child pinched with every squeeze.
“Back up a step.” Rory pulled her away from the door and pushed her against the other wall. “Head down.”
Wild fear raced through her, and she ducked obediently. Ozone scorched the air and metal ground on metal. The sound ripped through the silence, halting even the mad pounding of boots and the creature’s roars below. Sunlight blinded her as Rory tugged her back into motion. A figure, bigger than the insane guard below, stared at them through the now melted door. Melted.
A heavy portion of steel flowed like slag, hardening into a shapeless blob against the frame. Jerking her gaze up, she stared into the most potently beautiful green eyes she’d ever seen. They shimmered in the too bright light—as though suffused from the inside out. Her breath clogged in her throat and her heart felt like it had paused mid-beat, only to thump again with more brutal force.
“Give the doctor to me. The captain wants you off the roof.” He extended a leather-clad arm, his fingers stretched expectantly. She would never want to meet this man in a dark alley—or anywhere there wasn’t a lot of light for that matter. Beyond the exquisite beauty of his eyes was a raw tension in his face, both fierce and frightening. Her insides went liquid with the most curious sensation, but a slam from below drove any analysis away. Maybe her mind had snapped under the pressure, but she trusted this man and she took the hand he offered.
Cool leather gloved fingers fisted around hers and tugged her forward. She let him guide her through the opening, Rory flattening a hand against her back—whether to offer comfort or to make sure she didn’t flee, she couldn’t really say. Outside, Ilsa blinked at the sunshine. The roof seemed so ordinary after the mad exodus up the stairs. The two hustled her toward the southwest corner. The rolling landscape of the R.E.X. complex swam up toward her and she dug in her heels.
“No, no…no, I can’t—what are we doing?” Panic jacked up her spine, but her escort didn’t release her. He didn’t even drag her. Instead, he wrapped a steel banded arm around her and pulled her right up to his chest. Oh my God. He’s so big. She was a tall woman, taller than Rory and most of her sorority sisters. Five foot ten was nothing to sneeze at and was why she preferred flats to heels. But she barely reached this guy’s chin.
She beat a hand against his chest as he continued to fast-walk toward the edge—were they going to kill her?
“Shh.” Brilliant green eyes clashed with hers and her heart hiccupped. “You’re not going to fall.” The warm scent of patchouli and sandalwood tickled her nose and she sucked in a deep breath, filling her lungs with his underlying masculine wildness. A sharp sting pricked her neck, then euphoria surged up, blotting out the fear, and her muscles sagged with relief. The pounding of her heart stopped bruising her ribs.
“What did you do?” Rory’s agitation barely scored against the bliss enveloping her mind. It would be all right. Everything would be fine. She opened her mouth to tell her sorority sister just that. But they weren’t paying any attention to her. Over Green Eyes’ shoulder, she stared at the men racing toward them. Rory would kick their asses, didn’t they know that? But instead of engaging them, they just blew back, one at a time—slamming into the roof as though punched by invisible fists.
Green Eyes climbed up onto the ledge and she turned to look over her shoulder. The ground raced up to meet them. She waited bemusedly for the pain, but it didn’t come. Green Eyes landed on his feet—like a cat—and the smooth motion gave way to a jagged race as he ran. Amazingly enough, the R.E.X. facility retreated over his shoulder.
Did he fly? Ten stories from the roof to the ground. Ten stories and they weren’t a splattered pile of goo. Where was Rory?
“She’s fine. Stop.” The whisky warm breath tickled her ear. She was wrapped completely around the giant of a man and beating on him. Her fists released obediently and her bloody palms swam into view. She’d clenched her hands so hard, crescent moon shaped cuts had formed against the skin. “We’re clear. Halo, out?”
Clear of what? She wanted to ask the questions but, no sooner did they form, they drifted away on a peaceful haze. A door opened and Green Eyes set her down on something soft. She rolled onto her side, cheek tucked against a raspy blanket. It didn’t smell as sweet as he did and she tried to protest, but her eyelids drooped.
She couldn’t wait to analyze this dream when she woke up.
“How much did you give her?” Rory glared up at him, her violet eyes sharp and fierce. He’d be more intimidated if he hadn’t seen her act like a cat in heat around Michael. That the Captain stood right at her back, calm as the eye of a hurricane, betrayed that the only one really upset about the scientist’s unconsciousness was Rory.
Garrett could live with that.
“Enough to calm her down. Relax.” He didn’t make the mistake of advancing toward her or even challenging her. Michael’s control, where Rory was concerned, remained spotty. The man literally couldn’t function rationally since she’d come into the picture. His cool-under-fire temperament took a swing toward the radioactive where his ‘girl’ was concerned.
He glanced down at the unconscious woman. Her blonde hair fanned out against the pillow. His impressions of her were few. She had a tall, curvy build with warm, heavy breasts. She appeared to be in decent shape, though her wild heart rate and shallow pants when they arrived at the roof could easily have been due to the fear she experienced on the way up and not the climb itself. Her panic, however, had been genuine. The black pupils in her eyes swamped the color, like two great gaping windows to space.
No way would she have gone over the roof willingly and restraining her could have hurt her or him or both. Instead, he had used an injectable beta-blocker. At worst, she would experience a mild anterograde amnesia upon waking, but that would pass relatively quickly.
Perfect for questioning and release.
His jaw tightened. The last time he’d helped a victim out, he’d jumped a much longer distance and the woman had literally locked up, every muscle going rigid. Newspaper reports indicated she had no memory of how she got out of the burning building or what happened in the two to three days afterward. His identity remained intact and he still managed to save the girl.
A win-win in his book.
“What happened, by the way?” Rory was speaking again. Of course she was. The woman rarely shut up these days.
He didn’t need Simon’s mental nudge to keep his thoughts to himself. He grunted and gave the telepath a bland look. The woman really didn’t shut up, but she’d turned out to be an incredibly useful ally, despite her dislike of Garrett. A feeling that was wholly mutual. Folding his arms, he leaned against the wall next to the cell’s cot. He’d keep an eye on the scientist until she woke. If there were any aftereffects, he might be able to administer a counteragent or deal with any potential fallout.
“What happened is you owe us an apology, chère. You know, for our overkill.” Rex, the lucky bastard, had no trouble tweaking Michael’s woman. He sat against the opposite wall, his right leg stretched out in front of him. The bare skin was interwoven with stripes of wood. The shapeshifter could become any kind of inanimate object and take on the properties of that material. His return to form from the bench he’d been at the labs had been severely impaired by the damage he took protecting Drake—the fifth and final member of their team—as the two of them blew out non-essential sections on the first floor to distract the security from their pursuit of the women.
“You guys may have been on to something.” A more grudging admission Garrett had never heard.
Michael wrapped his arms around the woman and leaned his face down to hers. “So, if we were right…”
“Does not mean I was wrong.” Her chin came up. “I got her out of the building, didn’t I?”
“With help.” Garrett tacked on with a tight smile. Rory’s violet gaze swung toward him and he waited for the temper.
But instead, she smiled. “With help, thank you.”
Garrett’s moment of triumph was short-lived as Michael kissed her. He rolled his eyes and slanted a look at Simon. Michael lifted Rory, then carried her out of the room, tossing a “call us when she’s conscious,” over his shoulder.
Simon rubbed his forehead, probably blocking the couple from his mental radar. Not that Garrett blamed him. The pair constantly disappeared to have sex. They’d only been able to convince Michael to stay in his sniper’s nest because he distracted all of them more than was healthy on an operation.
“Any idea on how long it will take her to wake up?” A long yawn punctuated Drake’s words. The big black man had stood sentinel the night before.
“It could be hours.” Garrett tugged at the wrist of his black leather glove. “It could even be tomorrow. I tried to control the dose, but she was already in shock and on the verge of a real breakdown.” He glanced down at the woman on the bed. “Rory may have done her more harm than good.”
“Fine. You mind keeping an eye on her?”
Garrett shook his head. “I got this. You guys rest.”
Drake didn’t need to be told twice. He grabbed Rex and hoisted the shapeshifter up. Rex’s ability to transform himself into inanimate objects served them beautifully in the field. But the consequences, such as his leg’s refusal to revert to its human DNA, troubled them all.
What would happen if he turned one day and could never turn back?
Another problem for another day. For now, let us hope Rory’s suppositions about Doctor Blaine’s work prove fruitful.
He waved to the telepath as the man closed the door behind the others. Grabbing a chair, he dragged it next to the bed and slung himself down. He could use a smoke, but he could wait. He felt bad for the scientist. Though the emotion might shock Rory, who seemed to dislike him on principle, he didn’t like scaring people. Enough fear existed in the world, why add to it?
Propping one foot on the edge of the bed, Garrett leaned the chair back. He took out a slender wooden figurine from his pocket and ran his gloved thumb along the grain. When he was done whittling and sealed the wood, he could touch it with his bare fingers. While he hadn’t transmitted a poison to his work since childhood, he didn’t want to take the risk.
One undeserved death on his conscience was enough.
A movement on the bed pulled his attention. The scientist rolled over onto her side, one hand tucked under her head, the other extended to rest against Garrett’s booted foot. Her eyes remained closed and her breathing, even and steady. She slept, dreamlessly he hoped. Yet her fingers tightened against his boot. A curious sensation tugged at his heart.
Target Acquired. The chip stuttered to life, the mechanical voice whispering into his mind. Garrett’s gaze narrowed on the tendrils of blonde hair brushing her cheeks. The urge to brush them away was as alien as the need to watch over her as she slept.
Target Identified. Images flashed across his mind, almost too quickly, and pain sliced behind his right eye. The chip’s initial design allowed them to control the information flow. After their recent reactivation, they spit out data when they saw fit. He’d never cared for his implant, much less the mind bending headaches it provided.
Target Acquired: Ilsa Blaine
Field: Neuroscience and related applications
Abilities: Designs programmable bioware, enhanced understanding of brain chemistry
Suggested defense: Protect her
Suggested offense: Do not harm her
His spine stiffened. The cascade of images froze on one. A close up of her saucer wide eyes when he blew the roof door and looked inside. Fear roiled in the air around her. Her face was white beneath the tan. Her hands had trembled in his, but when he’d reached out for her, she hadn’t recoiled. She hadn’t pulled away.
She had stared at him with an odd mixture of relief and gratitude.
Shaking his head once, he squeezed his eyes shut as though trying to wipe the image away. Pain stabbed at his right eye and the muscle in his eyelid twitched.
It didn’t make sense. His gaze landed on her fingers curving around his boot. Gently, he tugged his foot free and slid a gloved hand against hers. Her grip tightened across his. Of course, she wasn’t conscious, but the tug at his heart doubled. Regulating his breathing, he roamed his gaze back to her face and concentrated.
Target Identified. The chip’s mechanical voice reminded him and recited the exact same advice, right down to protect and do not harm her. In all their years of relying on the chips for data, he couldn’t recall a single time when it told him what to do.
Simon. He pulled his gaze away from her, but continued to hold her hand. It wasn’t her fault they’d busted into her life and turned it upside down.
I’m here. What’s wrong? The almost immediate mental reply carried just a hint of exhaustion. Garrett kicked himself. Simon had controlled a lot of guards during the operation. Of course he was tired.
Nothing. Sorry, I didn’t think you were resting, man. The chip’s bizarre advice could wait. Get some sleep.
Garrett, I was merely resting my eyes. What’s wrong? A sensation of ruffling breezed through his mind. He waited to see what Simon made of the message. The others didn’t like it when Simon poked around in their brains, but Garrett wanted his advice and he’d called him, not the other way around. Protect her? Odd advice.
Yeah, have the chips ever done that before? Each one was subtly different, more so since they’d reactivated during the Aurora Graystone operation a few weeks before.
Not that I have experienced. It’s different enough that I imagine the others would have mentioned it. Yeah, Garrett agreed with the thought. They were tight. Working together as an underground cell for fifty years, more than a hundred fifty years before any of them would be born, had a way of doing that. They didn’t have time for secrets.
The anomaly of Michael falling for his target aside, they made decisions as a unit, executed them as a unit, and lived with the consequences as a unit.
Did it give you any indications of what you should protect her from?
He considered the telepath’s question, working his way through the experience. The images it had scrolled across his mind were too many to recall, but the last one focused on her escape from R.E.X. labs. The rigid fear in her face relaxed into relief as he pulled her through the door—no one pursued them in that moment. Rory proved more than capable of eliminating the threat on their back trail. But something scared the hell out of her—something beyond the security guards, the alarms, and his fearsome expression. He was far from handsome and barely remembered the muscles it took to smile, much less practiced it.
The facility we took her from? All I see is the door, the fear, and her just before I pulled her out. He waited as Simon rifled through his mind.
Perhaps. I’m seeing little else. Rory dispensed with the last of their pursuers on the ninth floor. By then most of the guards were dealing with Drake’s chaos or were below on the second and third floors, too far away to get to them.
It really didn’t comfort him that Simon sounded perplexed.
Listen to the chip for now. Michael’s need to protect Rory turned out to be a positive for us.
But Michael’s primal need and a chip’s mechanical advice were two entirely different things. Garrett slanted a look back down to the sleeping woman. She wasn’t a threat. In fact, if anything, she was their victim. Rory’s invitation to lunch precipitated an—Simon?
Yes, I’m still here, just beginning the decryption on the data Rory took from Dr. Blaine’s computers.
Why did they go after her? It all went down rather quickly. Security didn’t object to Rory’s admission. The third floor laboratory was secured, but hardly classified top secret. Otherwise, why would they have admitted an “old college friend?” The most the women did was chatter about Ilsa’s work and squeal over shoes. Nothing in the interaction suggested a security breach, yet there were guards there to ‘take Dr. Blaine into custody.’
The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Corporate security could detain, but they didn’t have custodial powers unless …is R.E.X. Laboratory government funded?
His gut clenched. Where the Boomers originated, corporations ran the world, divided them into sectors, and people worked for them or were used by them. The villains had won, converting the world into pure capitalism, funneling their human projects—like Garrett’s mother—into prisoner camps. Heroes were a corny, unstable piece of history, and greed dominated all.
It’s possible, Garrett. They may not be fully funded, but they may have government contracts. It works differently in today’s world than it did in ours.
Maybe that was so, but greed started somewhere. What if R.E.X. was just another piece of the destructive conglomerates that destroyed his childhood?
Flexing his grip, he held her hand a little tighter. They wouldn’t be allowed to detain her or incarcerate her. He’d watched his mother wither and die under the heel of oppression. He would protect the scientist from the machine.
Even if it meant he had to snap her neck to do it.
Awareness returned with bone aching slowness. Cotton coated her tongue, and her eyelids weighed a ton. She rolled onto her back with a groan and stared up into the most amazing green eyes.
Memory crashed down on her. The guards coming to take her into custody and the flight up the stairs. Rory taking down guard after guard. What the hell was she?
The tenth floor.
The creature at the door.
Fear spiked up her spine and she lurched upwards. Green Eyes caught her as she nearly tumbled off the cot. She struggled with him, but her tongue wouldn’t unglue from the roof of her mouth long enough to say anything. She jerked again, twisting away from him as illness swamped her. Her head spun and she sagged against him. He lifted her as though she weighed less than nothing and sat her down on the bed. Cool leather brushed her damp hair back from her face.
As his face swam into view, she saw that his lips actually moved. Somewhere between recognizing that he spoke and that she wasn’t hearing the words, the cotton plugs in her ears seemed to give way.
“Dr. Blaine. You have to breathe. Slowly, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Your body is reacting to the toxin. Can you hear me, Dr. Blaine?”
“Yes.” She managed to croak the word. “Thirsty.”
The corners of his eyes crinkled. “I’ll get you some water.” He sat her more firmly on the cot, pulling his hands back with seeming reluctance.
Fortunately, she missed his shoes when she threw up.