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Stone Cold Cyborg
Author: Cara Bristol


Chapter One


 “How many survivors are there?” Dante asked Lieutenant Commander Lucille Brack as she strode onto the bridge.

 “Two hundred twelve.”


 “Eleven hundred and fifty-nine New Utopians perished in the Tyranian attack,” his first officer replied.

 “You’re sure we rescued all the survivors?”

 “Yes, we did a thorough bio scan of the planet’s surface and identified and accounted for all humans, alive and deceased.”

 “What kind of shape are they in?

 “Some are handling it well, but others—” Brack shook her head. “Medical is doing their best to treat them, but the Crimson Hawk is a warship, not a hospital or psychiatric ward. Many of the colonists are exhibiting severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, others are displaying signs of paranoia.”

 “Of all the possible planets, why the hell did they try to establish a settlement on Verde Omega? What were they thinking?”

 “Probably that the natural resources offered tremendous potential. It’s a beautiful planet, much like Earth was once. If not for the proximity to Tyrania, it would have been colonized a long time ago.”

 “But it is close to Tyrania.” The outcome had been predictable.

 Verde Omega, while technically in Alliance territory, orbited on its far-flung edge, bordering Tyranian space. Everyone in the galaxy avoided it, but the idealistic, live-and-let-live New Utopians were too naïve for their own good. Pacifism offered no defense, mental or physical, against an enemy intent upon decimating entire populations.

 The colonists seeking to establish a homeland on Verde Omega hadn’t caused the massacre, but they’d deliberately put themselves in harm’s way by ignoring Alliance advisories. They should have known it was only a matter of time before the Tyranians violated galactic law and paid them a visit.

 When the Tyranians invaded, New Utopia had sent out a distress call, but solar storms had prevented the signal from getting to Alliance Command for nearly a month. The closest ship, the Crimson Hawk, had responded immediately upon receiving the message, but it had taken another two weeks to reach them. By then, most of the settlement had been wiped out.

 “Keep them comfortable until we can deliver them to Space Station Outpost Fifteen,” Dante said. “SSO15 has the best medical and psychiatric facilities of all the outposts.”

 The aliens had been vicious; killing hadn’t sufficed—they’d tortured the colonists. Recovery would be long and hard. Physical wounds were relatively easy to heal; psychological ones exacted the highest toll.

 “Where did you put them?” he asked.

 “We vacated the crew quarters starboard side over the aft engine bay. They’ve been assigned two to a stateroom. They’re allowed access to the observation lounge and the mess hall, but guards are posted to ensure they don’t go beyond those areas. They are under quarantine until we can verify they aren’t carrying any Tyranian diseases. Besides, we can’t have civilians wandering around a military vessel. It could be dangerous.”

 He wished more could be done for them, but Brack was correct in that the warship wasn’t equipped to deal with traumatized civilians. Nor was he, to tell the truth. Dealing with fragile humans was outside of his wheelhouse, but he couldn’t shake the notion he should do something.

 Dante stroked his chin. “Perhaps I should speak to them.”

 “Negative. You’re needed on the bridge,” Brack vetoed sharply.

 “Excuse me?” He turned a steely gaze on his first officer. He’d known her since they were academy cadets, and after his promotion to captain and being awarded a commission on the Crimson Hawk, he’d hand-picked her to be his second-in-command. He trusted and relied on her judgment. In private, rank ceded to friendship, and they spoke freely. But not on duty, not on the bridge.

 “My apologies, sir.” She held his gaze. “But ionic signatures indicate the Tyranians have not left Alliance territory. There is a possibility the Crimson Hawk could engage them. The civilian liaison and I have everything under control. With all due respect, sir, there is nothing you can do for them.”

 From the start, Brack had taken a personal interest in the colonists’ well-being, requesting to oversee their care on the ship, which he’d readily granted. “You have more important matters to deal with on the bridge. I can handle the colonists. You did delegate the task to me.” She paused. “Permission to speak freely?”

 “Wasn’t that what you just did?” he said dryly, but motioned for her to continue.

 “The colonists are emotionally brittle, terror-stricken. They must be handled with kid gloves. The smallest slight could further traumatize them.”

 Meaning he could traumatize them. It wasn’t that he didn’t care, it was that he no longer had the means to express his concern. His coldness intimidated many people. If he could have felt enough emotion to feel embarrassed, he would have. But any feeling, even anger, was rarely more than lukewarm.

 His cyborg brain excelled at military strategy, logic, and analysis. Hand-holding and hugs? Not so much. He’d never been a people person, but after the transformation to cyborg early in his military career, he’d lost the ability to feel and express emotion. Cybermed doctors had assured him the microchip brain implant and the robotic nanocyte infusion wouldn’t change him, but they had. He’d been one of the unlucky ones to suffer a rare side effect. He’d emerged from surgery with memory intact, body strengthened, cognition enhanced, and emotion erased.

 He’d become cold, dispassionate, his name a perfect descriptor of his manner: Dante Stone.

 Undistracted by feelings, he’d executed his duties with laser-focused precision.

 Enemies, detractors, and even friends, nicknamed him Stone Cold.

 What rank and file perceived as a flaw, his military superiors considered as an asset. He’d catapulted over those with greater seniority, and now commanded the most powerful warship in the Alliance Command Space Force fleet, with one thousand personnel serving under him.

 He’d watched on the view screen from his consult room as the terrified New Utopia survivors boarded the vessel. The colonists had sought to build a new Eden, but had been thrust into hell instead. Lives had been irrevocably altered. They could never be “normal” again. He identified with their plight. He would never be normal again either.

 He had nothing to offer to ease their pain. There was no reassurance he could give. They were safe now, but they couldn’t recover what they had lost, any more than he could.

 “You’re right, of course. I’ll leave the care of the colonists in your capable hands.”

 * * * *

 Dante knew he should keep his distance and let his first officer deal with the colonists, but the idea he should check on them himself continued to gnaw at him. So, the next morning, he decided to pay the New Utopians a brief visit and reiterate that he and his crew would do everything in their power to make them as comfortable as possible.

 He figured the best way to speak to them would be to drop in during breakfast when they were all together.

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