Metal parts. Warm Heart.

A devastating injury takes Titan’s arm and leg, but a chance encounter with a woman in the Wasteland sees them replaced with a bionic set. These are no simple metal limbs. His body speaks with him. The alien presence forces a bond that he struggles to accept. Changes him in ways he doesn’t understand, making him fear he’s losing sight of himself.

Riella has been looking for acceptance her whole life. However, certain skills make her not only valuable but hunted. If she were to fall into the wrong hands, or suddenly decide to fight back…she might hold the key to bringing down the Emerald Queen once and for all.

If they prevail, can a metal heart learn to love?

Excerpt:

“I can’t believe you brought him inside,” Alfred rebuked. “The number one rule is ‘don’t take in strangers.’”

“I know.” Riella glanced down at the broken and bleeding man, unable to explain why she had ignored a basic safety requirement.

She’d not even known the man was out there until the citadel was partially raised. She’d been impatient to be above the ground and maybe enjoy some actual air and starlight. They didn’t dare expose the citadel in daytime when they would be visible. Hiding only worked if no one saw you. Which meant, when she realized he was out there, she’d had a choice.

The easy one being to let nature take its course. Stupid man unprotected in the Wasteland at night. Dinner for the locals.

But then the stranger had glanced at the citadel, given it a good long stare, as if he could see her watching. Not only spot her but condemn her for doing nothing.

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What choice was there? How many times had it been drilled into her that strangers meant danger? The only good wanderer was a dead one.

Yet, instead of letting the tigber handle him, she’d gone on the attack and brought a stranger in. Now she felt the angst. Had she exposed them by rescuing him? Then again, she had to wonder, was keeping safe worth the price of turning a blind eye?

The man on the table wouldn’t think so. He’d probably whine she’d come to his aid too late when he should be thanking her for saving him at all.

Alfred ran digitized fingers over the man’s flesh. The sensors in the pads gave him an excellent ability to diagnose. He spoke aloud as he rendered the results in simple terms. They kept the technical stuff for the reports they could study later.

“Contusions on more than forty-seven percent of his body. Minor lacerations over seventeen percent. His left arm is severely mangled. Missing sizable amounts of tissue and all related components close to it. His right leg below the knee is in the same condition. His heart is struggling as well. The breakage of his ribs is causing stress, and I expect if he doesn’t expire of his wounds, he’ll have a heart attack.”

“In other words, you expect him to die.”

Alfred kept running his fingers over the man. He didn’t frown, didn’t do anything at all. One hundred percent efficient. That never changed. “He doesn’t have to die, but it might be kinder.”

“He’s young.” Close in age to her she’d wager. Not quite thirty but getting there.

“Young or old, those wounds will kill him.”

“You think infection will set in.” All the medical advances and equipment sometimes couldn’t prevail when an infection stubbornly claimed a human.

“Yes. We could excise more flesh to try and stop it, but then he’d have almost nothing left but bone.”

She sighed. “You can say it aloud. I won’t freak.”

The stranger needed amputation. A permanent exile for anyone living in Emerald City, where perfection was paramount. She rubbed her arm.

“Section from the shoulder down should be removed, along with the leg, at the very least. The heart, too, if we want to be thorough.”

Riella shook her head. “Arm and leg yes. Let’s hold off on the heart.” Because that was a dangerous one to play with.

“You can’t be serious. Why do anything?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do.”

“Have you been smoking the moss again?  This is most certainly the inanest option.”

Alfred’s wheels hummed as he went around the bed to the other side. His fingers ran along more of the stranger’s flesh. He didn’t actually clean anything or do much other than scan. The machines all around did most of the work. Alfred relayed what he saw and told the proper tools what to do. Right now, they cleaned the man, removing his clothing with the delicate slice of lasers that didn’t even singe skin. Warm water with a mix of antibacterial solution sprayed over him, sluicing away the blood and dirt, revealing his partially tanned flesh. Head and hands were darkest followed by his arms. Even his chest had some color, but the upper part of his thighs was pure white.

She blinked. “He’s two-toned.”

“He spends a lot of time outdoors, I posit.” Alfred lifted the hand and showed the fingers. “Calloused. Meaning he’s a worker.”

“Does he have the gene marker?” she asked.

“The test is still running.”

She eyed the unbroken parts of his body. “He’s very fit. And given his gear wasn’t dome-issued, I’m going to predict he’s a Wastelander.” She didn’t use the derogatory name of Rat so popular in the city. Nor would she call him Deviant, the other rude term usually given to those with extra parts.

Alfred moved away from the stranger. The machines stopped their task and returned to their bases.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Ceasing the wanton waste of our resources.” He waved a hand at the man. “You said it yourself. He’s a nobody. He’s not worth the effort.”

A callous thing to say, but no surprise. This was Alfred.

She pursed her lips. “He’s a person.”

“He’s a stranger.”

Stranger danger. It rang in her head like a warning bell. Yet she looked at him again, a man in his prime, a man she’d felt compelled to save.

“We are not letting him die. Remove his arm and leg.”

“If you amputate his limbs, you might as well take his life.”

“He’ll adapt. I’ve heard Wastelanders aren’t as stringent about appearance as the domes.” Picture perfect. It was why she lived out here and not in the domes.

“Even if they accept him, he will struggle to survive.” Alfred remained blunt.

If he were awake, she could have asked him. Do you want to live or die? But his eyes remained closed, his breathing shallow. The bleeding had been stopped by the machines, but the amount of repair that needed to be done…

“Fix him.” She glanced at Alfred. “Repair the body as best you can. We’ll fabricate the rest.” As in create a custom bionic arm and leg. Or co-opt a set already in progress.

His mouth pursed in disapproval. “It will take time to mend his injuries even with the amputation.”

“Time that can be used to make him parts.”

She eyed the whole arm and broke it down in her mind, seeing the components. Alfred would take measurements to ensure accuracy.

“You can make him the nicest bionic limbs in the world, but they still won’t replace his flesh ones.”

“Better than leaving him with nothing,” she muttered. “What are the chances he’s got an affinity for metal?” Because the right kind of Deviant genetics would make the bond between flesh and metal easier.

A long time ago, it was discovered that humanity had split. Some remained the same, unchanged by everything that had happened to the Earth. Others became something new and acquired odd skills.

Alfred shook his head. “The chances would be rather small. Metal psion wielders are rare. One that also has a hint of healing even rarer.”

Which she already knew. The difficulty of bonding flesh and metal explained why bionics weren’t in high demand. What was the use of a limb that would barely function? That didn’t stop some people from ordering attachments to replace their hands. The chef version with the mixer and knife proved popular, as did the hammer for the builders.

“You can’t know for sure he’s not a viable subject. Think of it. He’s a Wastelander who’s been breathing toxic dust probably his whole life,” she said.

Not so much toxic as a trigger sometimes. Scientists had theorized the radioactive components could turn on the Deviant gene and were intended to make Wastelanders resilient. Strength kept them from dying. A good thing, given most deaths in the new world were violent.

“You are arguing over much. Since you seem determined to save him, we’ll save him.” Alfred huffed and rolled to a desk where a tablet sat on the flat surface. A few swipes of his fingers and a holoimage appeared in front of him. It twisted as he fed information into it. Approaching, she looked at the rendered tri-dimensional image of the stranger. Seventy-six inches in height, a solid one hundred kilos.

The left arm and right leg were highlighted. She heard humming as the robot arms moved for the bed. With lasers, pinchers, and other attachments, they cared for the patient.

Usually she was the one requiring patching. The Wasteland was always testing her strength.

As the saws went after the limbs, she activated some of the more intense healing protocols to ensure the patient didn’t waken.

Alfred actually spun to stare at her. “You do realize that was the last of the pain meds.”

“Yes.”

“And that this man most likely won’t pay for it.”

“I wasn’t planning to ask,” she replied, eyeing the almost glowing colored fluid running through the tube inserted in his good shoulder.

“You’re giving him the treatment for free?” Alfred sounded quite appalled by the concept.

“Free is not a dirty word.” She turned a grin on him. “Think of it as advertising to a new clientele that we are available for business.” Because the Emerald Enclave in their protected bubbles might have the money, but they led very safe lives that didn’t usually require metal parts. Most of their business currently came from tradesmen in other kingdoms with looser laws on imperfections, seeking to make themselves more efficient to greedy lords looking to heighten their gladiators. Fighting for entertainment was popular, especially in the cities.

“It is kind of brilliant, I suppose,” Alfred mused. “However, keeping him on as a patient means rescheduling our visit to upgrade the Duke of Sapphire’s champion.”

“I forgot we were going on a business trip,” she mumbled.

“I really wish you would remember these things, because the duke was willing to pay extra to have it done quickly.”

A rub that meant they needed the funds. “We’ll reschedule the duke. He can wait a while longer for a champion with iron fists.” Literally. “Our guest won’t take more than a few weeks.”

“Weeks! Guest!” Alfred didn’t sound in the least convinced, but he went about doing his work.

She glanced at the craggy, relaxed features of the stranger, the shaggy cut of his hair. Perhaps she’d trim it.

The arm came off with the cauterizing swipe of a laser. Then the machine went back and neatly finished all the nerve endings and tied off blood vessels. Rerouted a few as well. According to the computer’s estimate, it would take one hundred and two hours to do all the needed repairs to the flesh. Then a few days longer for the natural healing to kick in and finish it.

While the robot arms did their work, she trimmed his hair, shortening it and making it straight. She shaved his jaw, working quickly with a blade, her movements efficient.

During the repair time, where she ensured his feeding and hydration tubes kept him replenished, she noted his size. It was one thing to see numbers on a holoimage, another to experience it. Despite him being stretched out, she could tell he was taller than her but only by a few fingers. Wide and muscled. The scans she’d run taking his measurements showed a body fit and hard. The musculature utterly impressive.

She’d seen muscled men before. The gladiators they upgraded tended to be fit. Yet there was something so intriguing about this man with his tan lines. A rugged man unafraid of the land.

What had he been doing in this part of the Wasteland? She lived here for the express reason it was out of the way. No one just came wandering by. If they did, she’d either handle them well before they posed a problem or ignore them, letting them pass blithely by.

She should have done that with him. Let him die under teeth and claw.

Instead, she’d taken a chance, and now she spent more time than usual checking the scanners that watched in every direction. Should it become necessary, she could escape.

The sensors registered nothing but the usual wildlife. Violent predators and the prey that fed them. She spent many a night watching them from the safety of an electrical dome on the citadel roof, her night goggles letting her see epic battles play out. But she’d never seen anything as deadly as this man.

On the fifth day after his arrival—the machines done repairing what they could—she roused him from the coma. It took him a few minutes before he blinked his eyes and stared at her with incomprehension.

“Hello there. I’m Riella. And you are?” She went for direct.

“Titan.” He squinted. “Where am I?” He turned his head slightly to look to his side.

“You’re getting treatment for your injuries.” She leaned over him and shone a light into his eyes.

“Too bright. Ugh.” He groaned and shut his eyes tight.

“Open them.”

“No.”

“I need to see your pupils.”

“Still no.”

She blinked at him. “Why not?”

“Don’t wanna.” He kept his lids shut.

“How am I supposed to examine you?”

“How about you don’t?”

“I’m going to insist,” she retorted hotly.

“If you must, then could you at least turn off the light first?” he demanded.

“It’s not that bright.”

“According to you,” was his rumbled reply.

“You can’t keep them shut forever.”

“Says who?”

“Must I grab an extractor and pry them open? I wouldn’t recommend it as I hear it’s extremely uncomfortable.”

“You’re not being nice.”

“I’m trying to help you. You’re the one not cooperating.”

“Fine.” He squinted one open.

She watched the pupil contract. Then she did the other. “How’s your vision?”

“Seems all right.”

“How do you feel?” she asked.

“Like I got run over by a herd of tigber. Wait. I did,” he complained, shifting on the bed.

“You shouldn’t have been out at night. It’s dangerous.”

“Don’t you lecture me on danger,” he growled, his glare intent on her. “ Any reason you didn’t let me in earlier?”

“Don’t you give me attitude. You’re lucky I let you in at all.” The plain truth. Albert would probably toss him outside in less time than it took her to finish the statement.

“Lucky.” He snorted. “Okay, if you say so. You’re obviously not the one who was getting chewed up. Feels like it wasn’t as bad as I thought. How many stiches did it take?” His brow furrowed as he patted himself with one hand. “How come I can’t feel my left arm?” He glanced down at the sheet. Pulled it down.

She tucked her hands behind her back. “Your injuries were rather extensive.”

He stared at the empty side of his body then turned an incredulous gaze on her. “You couldn’t save me before they ate my fucking arm?”

“They only ate parts of it.” Which were words she realized in retrospect were cringe worthy. “The remainder of your limb didn’t have enough left to salvage.”

“You cut off my arm.” He glanced at the nub then her again. “Who the fuck said you could decide that?”

“Medically speaking—”

“Fuck your medically speaking. It was my arm.”

“You were unconscious. Decisions had to be made.”

“For how long?”

“More than four days.” Most of was by induced coma. She didn’t mention that.

“Four days.” He closed his eyes.

It was probably time to mention it before he noticed. “We also took your right leg.”

He went still. “Any other body parts gone you’d like to mention?”

“I did trim your hair.”

“My hair?” That brought a low, nasty chuckle. “How kind of you. Wouldn’t want the cripple to look unkempt. You should have let me die.”

“Why would you want to die?” she asked. Didn’t everyone want to live?

“For starters, I’m now useless. I was left-handed you know.”

“I’m sorry.”

He opened one eye and squinted at her. “Sorry doesn’t bring it back.”

“If you train, your right hand will replace it.”

“Until I need two hands to do something.”

“I can replace the arm.”

“With what? A hunk of wood with a hook on the end?” he drawled sarcastically.

“I can do better than that. You’ll be outfitted with a bionic arm and leg.”

“A what?”

She frowned. How to explain to someone who’d never seen one? Bionics weren’t widely available given the intricacies involved in making them. “Think of it as a fabricated replacement for what you lost. Like a machine part, but finely tuned to work with the human body.”

“And, of course, you have a so-called bionic arm and leg just hanging around.” He rolled his eyes. “Do I look stupid? No one makes robot body parts. You’d need access to a tri-dimensional factory printer to even try. And the Enclave isn’t benevolent enough to allow it. Everyone knows the Enclave gets rid of those with imperfections.”

“The Enclave has nothing to do with it. We fabricate the parts ourselves.”

That snapped his jaw shut. “Parts?”

“There is a bionic arm and leg almost ready for you. The work began shortly after your arrival.”

“Ready in four days?” he scoffed. “I can’t wait to see this.” The sarcasm dripped.

“More like months, actually. We had one already partially built, so it wasn’t hard to modify it to suit your body instead.”

“Made of what? Metal? Plastic?”

“More metallic than anything else but not the kind you usually see.” She hedged. No need to mention the ore she found worked best came from the remnants of the meteor storm that caused the Earth’s Fall.

“Metal can’t replace flesh.” The words were flat and low.

“Depends on the metal,” she muttered.

“What if I don’t want a heavy metal arm or leg?”

“You’re difficult,” she replied instead.

“I have a right to be. You made important decisions for me.”

“To save your life. Which, by the way, you’re welcome,” she snapped. He could show a little gratitude. Bad enough she was getting lectured by Alfred; she didn’t need this jerk giving her a hard time too.

“And why did you save my life? I should have died.” He turned away from her.

“Are you going to keep whining and acting petulant, or handle the situation in a mature manner? Because if you’re going to be petulant, then maybe I will rid myself of you.”

He glared at her. “I don’t like you.”

“You don’t have to like me. And if it helps, I don’t like you either.” The next time she put a blade near his neck it wouldn’t be to shave him.

She snagged his sheet and went to pull it free.

He grabbed it with his remaining hand. “What are you doing?”

“You’re awake, which means you don’t need the catheter or feeding tubes anymore.”

His mouth rounded. “A catheter…You…” He glanced down at the sheet then yanked it over his head, peered under, and groaned. “That is just wrong. Please tell me you didn’t do this.”

She had, but given his level of discomfort, she didn’t mention that. “We have machines doing most of the work.”

“Then get a machine to take it out.”

“It will be quicker if I do it. If you’ll let me get under that sheet, I’ll remove it for you.”

His eyes peered over the hem of the sheet. “You are not touching my junk.”

The red flushing his cheeks took her by surprise. Was he embarrassed because she’d seen his penis? Most men offered to show theirs to her without even asking.

“I’ve been washing your junk since you arrived.” Not true, but she noticed the goading had brought a spark to his expression. A defiance to his tone.

“I will take care of myself,” he stated. “Starting with the tubes.”

“Do you know how to remove the—”

He interrupted. “I can do this.”

“Very well. You handle it while I fetch you something to eat.” She closed the door behind her, waited, heard his bellow and shook her head. “Idiot.”

When she returned with a tray, she found him sitting on the side of the bed shirtless, wearing only loose shorts. The smooth flesh that stopped only a few inches past the shoulder faced her.

His head hung, the picture of dejection. Did he so easily give up?

“I’ve brought you some broth.” Easy food to digest for someone just coming out a coma.

“I need to get out of here. Do you have a car or bike, something I can borrow?”

“You can’t leave.”

“Because I’m a cripple.”

“No, because you just woke up.” She set the tray on a table.

“No shit. But I need to get moving. I can’t stay here. If I’ve been gone four days, then my crew will wonder where I am.”

“Give me a message and I’ll send it.”

He snorted. “Nice try. I’m not telling you where they are. For all I know, you’re an Enclave spy.”

The very idea made her laugh. “I can assure you I’m not Enclave.”

“I think you are. You have the accent of a city citizen.”

“Whatever my past, I’m not a part of it now.”

“So you claim. We all know the Enclave can’t be trusted.”

“Are you always so paranoid?”

“All the time, especially when things don’t make sense. How is it you live out here? With medical equipment?”

“Why don’t you explain what you were doing in the middle of nowhere? Because I’m beginning to wonder if you’re suicidal.” He certainly appeared to be doing his best to tempt her into killing him.

“I was looking for something,” he grumbled.

“Did you find it?”

“Do I look like a man who found something epic?”

She folded her arms. “Standing right in front of you.”

 

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