Melting Iron – Laurann Dohner

Not knowing what would happen to her was the worst. Dawn swallowed the water from the bottle she held in her hand, studying Cathy. They were the last two women left in the cage. Five women had been shoved into the large cell but in the past few days, three of them had been taken away one at a time. “It’s going to be fine,” Dawn lied. “They are ransoming us. That’s why they come and take us one at a time.” Cathy was young, just twenty, new to outer space, the harshness of it, and terrified. “You really think so? Earth will pay theses pirates for us, right?” Dawn hated lying, but she wanted to comfort the younger woman, so she just nodded. She couldn’t say that big of a lie aloud knowing damn well that Earth Government wouldn’t pay money for lowly, offworld workers. The men who had boarded their shuttle to take them weren’t pirates. Dawn was certain of what they really were. She’d heard the stories, had talked to witnesses firsthand, and their metallic-colored skin was a dead giveaway. “Okay,” Cathy sniffed. “Thanks, Dawn.

I’m really afraid. I thought those men took our coworkers away to kill them.” Terror ate at her. She couldn’t look at Cathy again without revealing it. Dawn looked away to stare through the bars at the small cargo area where the cage had been placed. It was a ten-by-ten-foot cage with solid bars. Sleeping bags had been tossed in, along with some food and water. The only other addition was a portable toilet in the corner. There was another smaller cage in the room, an empty one that had housed an injured woman not from their shuttle but kidnapped from somewhere else. They’d taken her away too.

The men who’d boarded the shuttle were all over six-feet tall, had varying shades of metallic-gray skin, but looked human. Some pirates were radiation-mutated humans who refused to live on Earth or the other governed colonies. Living in space on old ships was dangerous long term, and radiation leaks on them were common under those conditions, poisoning and mutating all life aboard. They weren’t really sane, for the most part, and in a civilized setting they would have been imprisoned for their unstable behavior. Space pirates were usually considered the worst of humanity. But the large gray men were something far worse. Dawn had worked at the Vonder Station for eight years. It was a deep space station that orbited Arian Nine, a carbon-based planet that was nearing humanoid life standards, thanks to lots of hard work. Arian Nine had low oxygen content so Dawn had overseen the maintenance of the machines that produced mass vegetation plantation on the surface. The oxygen levels had slowly increased and were now just a 6 Melting Iron year away from being stable for colonization.

For all that time Dawn had traveled back and forth between Earth and the Vonder and had heard the stories passed around by the crews of the many space vessels. And she knew a little of the history of their creation on her home planet. Those big gray men were cyborgs. Dawn almost whimpered as she eyed the cargo area again. The ship she was on was the Rally. Once, two years ago, she’d been on this very jumper shuttle, doing the welding. She stared up at the blast doors, knowing it was her work. The Rally had sent a distress signal to Vonder Station, saying they’d been attacked by cyborgs. For the three days they’d been aboard the station, the survivors had told horror stories they’d heard during their travels. It was rumored that the gray-skinned monsters were body-parts stealers who kidnapped humans to harvest them for spare parts.

They had been lucky to escape with their lives. The Rally had been crippled still when it had left Vonder Station but it had been patched up enough to make it back to Earth. Unfortunately it had disappeared in space. Now Dawn knew what had happened to it. Hot tears filled Dawn’s eyes but she blinked them back. She’d welded that very wall where it had been damaged, to seal the rupture and make the cargo area sound. The cyborgs had obviously waited for the Rally to leave Vonder Station to attack it again. She could guess the fate of the shuttle’s crew since the cyborgs had captured the Rally. Her fate would be the same as those men. She was destined to be killed for spare parts.

“Do you think we’ll be ransomed soon?” Cathy sounded less frightened. Dawn forced a smile while she turned toward the younger, clueless woman. “I’m sure it’s all going to be over very soon. Just think happy thoughts, kiddo.” Cathy nodded. “I’m going to get some shuteye. I’m wiped out.” Dawn watched Cathy settle down but then her attention returned to the weld scar of her repair. It was ironic that she’d patched the same shuttle that now held her prisoner. * * * * * The doors opened to the main area of the shuttle.

Dawn tensed, her gaze automatically going to the other woman, who still slept. Dawn stood to glare at the tall, black-haired cyborg who walked in. He met her anger-filled gaze before his focus fixed on Cathy as he reached for the keys on his belt. Dawn moved between the door and Cathy. “Take me instead.” The cyborg frowned and opened the door as their gazes met. The cyborg was a light-skinned male with hair chopped short to his head and dark brown eyes. He was at least six-foot-one, wide shouldered, and muscular. All of the cyborgs she’d seen so far wore black leather uniforms with heavy-duty black boots. “No.

I want her. Move aside. If you try to escape, you won’t get far.” 7 Laurann Dohner Dawn tensed in anger. At thirty-six she was in good shape. She’d had to be to do her job. It was very physically demanding. She worked twelve- to fourteen-hour shifts to keep the equipment going, spending months at a time on Vonder Station. Sometimes, if she’d needed the money bad enough, she’d spent six-month stretches working, then a few weeks on Earth for a break before she returned to her shifts again. “I said, take me.

This is her first time in space and she’s innocent. She doesn’t know what you are and she has no damn idea what’s in store for her. Please.” Dawn took a step toward him. “Take me instead.” The man ran his gaze up and down her body. “You’re too small for what I am looking for. Besides, one has already claimed you. He will come for you later when Doc has time to do your procedure. Move aside.

” A shiver of horror slid down Dawn’s spine. She could just imagine what kind of procedure some doctor was going to do to her, literally portioning out her ass. She wondered how many pieces of her would be divided up between cyborgs in need of fresh organs, tissue, and whatever else they used. She was going to die anyway and Cathy was too. Dawn had wanted to buy the girl a few more hours of peace before reality became a nightmare but that time was now up. The man wanted Cathy but Dawn wasn’t about to let him take the girl while she was still alive. Cathy was her new assistant and Dawn was responsible for her. She’d even promised the girl’s father over the vid screen that she’d take care of and watch out for her as if Cathy were her own. Dawn tensed her body, preparing herself for the worst. She’d keep her word to the end.

“Move aside,” the cyborg ordered her. Dawn nodded and turned, pretending to comply. She kicked out suddenly, bending at the waist to throw her foot back and nailed the unsuspecting cyborg dead in the crotch. She was grateful that they hadn’t taken her footwear when they’d captured her. She had metal in the soles and toes of her boots because some parts of the station had unstable gravity so they’d magnetized the hulls. She heard the man gasp. Dawn spun and kicked out again. Her boot made contact with his face as he doubled over and the blow sent him flying backward, out of the cage. Dawn moved fast as he hit the floor hard, not wanting to give him time to recover. She left the cage and used her boot to kick the man again in the head.

He rolled from the force of the blow and grunted. He was facedown, unmoving, out cold, as she stood over him panting. At five-footfour, no one ever saw her as a threat. As a supervisor, she’d had to learn to fight. Women could be as mean as men, and far out in space, sometimes the only way to handle insubordination was a good ass kicking. She bent over to grab the keys from his hand. Dawn glanced at Cathy and confirmed the girl still slept. Exhaustion, terror, and buckets of tears had made Cathy sleep as if she were dead. Dawn closed her eyes and mentally pictured the inside of the Rally. Two years ago was a long time but she remembered that the large shuttle hadn’t had an escape pod.

Most jumper shuttles 8 Melting Iron carried one but the Rally hadn’t because they’d lost theirs in the first attack from the cyborgs before they’d made it to the station. It would be in this cargo area if they had replaced it. There was no escape. She’d counted five cyborgs on board but the shuttle could hold twenty. It would be tight living quarters but it was possible. She opened her eyes to study the blast doors. Beyond them were the docking port doors. One wall on the other side of the docking port was all that kept the shuttle from being exposed to space. She walked to the blast doors and prayed that no one had changed the access imprints she’d been granted when she’d done the patch work. Relief was instant as the thick doors slid open when her hand touched the pad.

She stepped into the smaller room that contained the docking doors that led to outer space. She couldn’t take out the entire shuttle but she could end one cyborg’s life and she could save Cathy from being tortured while they cut her apart. It was a kinder way to die to have oxygen sucked out while the girl slept. A queasy feeling made bile rise in Dawn’s throat but she swallowed it down. She wasn’t a killer but she was about to end three lives. It was horrifying but the alternative was worse—to be cut up for spare parts. Making her decision, Dawn stepped into the room and turned to study the emergency cutting equipment stored on the wall. She gripped the handle of the crowbar and tore it down to wedge the blast doors open so they wouldn’t shut after she removed the cutting torch. She grabbed the torch and pushed the igniter button. A hot flame shot from the tip of the tool.

She heard a door open in the cargo area and turned, recognizing the redheaded cyborg as one of the men who had kidnapped her and taken away the injured woman from the other cage. He was a big bastard, at least six-feet-three with fiery red hair in a tight braid that reached his ass. His hair was starkly evident against his burnished metallic-colored skin and black clothes. He walked forward then froze as he frowned at the downed cyborg on the floor. The big man stared in shock at him then his gaze flew to the open cage door. He quickly scanned the area and she saw his blue eyes widen when they locked on her. She smiled at him. “I’ll see you in hell.” She lifted the torch. “Don’t,” he roared.

She smelled the metal burning as she held the hot flame to the outer door. In seconds the specialized torch would burn through the thick steel and all hell would break loose when the hull breached. The man started to move, but instead of turning to escape the cargo area, the crazy son of a bitch rushed at her. Alarms screamed as the sensors picked up the danger while the metal heated. The blast doors tried to shut from the docking port but instead they hit the metal bar that wedged them open. 9 Laurann Dohner She feared the torch wouldn’t cut all the way through before the big cyborg reached her. She knew she had breached the hull when the sound of a blaring alarm pierced the room. The big cyborg literally dove through the opening of the door to hit her body. Her thumb jerked off the igniter button as it flew out of her hand and she slammed hard into the wall when he tackled her. Pain exploded through her body and something heavy crushed her when she landed on the floor.

The heavy weight on top of her moved as the man roared out a curse over the alarm. Something gripped her wrist, the only warning she had before suddenly being out from under the crushing weight. She screamed as pain tore through her shoulder and arm. Her body was lifted and thrown. She was weightless for a second before she slammed hard into the solid, unforgiving floor of the cargo area. She hit the deck with a grunt and rolled. Her eyes opened to see the big redheaded cyborg jerk on the crowbar that kept the blast door open. The bar broke loose, the blast doors slammed shut and the alarms went quiet. The sudden silence was eerie. Terror hit Dawn.

The man had gotten them both out of the docking area and had closed off the cargo area in seconds. There was no way those doors would open now since the hull had been breached on the other side, even with access. It was a safety feature that couldn’t be overridden. The large cyborg turned to face her, rage in his eyes as he threw the bar away. It bounced off something metal, clanked as it landed and then his mouth opened. “What the hell is wrong with you? You could have killed us all!” His voice was harsh and deep. She blinked at him but said nothing as she evaluated her injures. Her shoulder hurt, her hip throbbed, her arm hurt from where the cyborg had gripped it to throw her out of the way and her body ached from the hard landing. She struggled to sit up, to give him the dirtiest look she could manage while in pain. “That was the damn plan.

” He actually growled. Anger turned the light metallic-gray tone of his skin darker around his cheeks. His full lips slammed together when his furious gaze went to the downed cyborg while he moved toward the man. The cyborg’s large boots boomed as he stomped across the deck to kneel and feel for a pulse. His head jerked up and his dark blue eyes glared into Dawn’s. “If you’d killed him, they would demand your death on Garden. Don’t ever take a risk like that again. You belong to me.” He straightened, his fists balled at his sides. “Do you understand me? You are mine and you will obey me.

” She stared at him in shock. “What?” “You heard me.” A sob broke the silence as Dawn stared at the enraged male glaring at her. Dawn turned her head to stare at Cathy. The woman was huddled in the corner, staring back 10 Melting Iron at her, making her want to flinch at Cathy’s terrified and horrified expression, both emotions directed at Dawn. “Why?” Cathy’s voice broke. “Why did you try to kill us?” Regret twisted Dawn’s gut as she studied the naïve girl. “They aren’t pirates, Cathy. They are cyborgs. I didn’t want you to suffer.

Please don’t look at me like I’m a monster. I was only trying to do the humane thing for us both.” “I don’t understand. You said they were going to ransom us. You’re insane.” Cathy’s tear-filled gaze flew to the cyborg. “Please put me in the other cage away from her. She’s lost her mind.” The downed cyborg groaned and lifted his chin, reaching for the side of his skull while rubbing the back of it. He shook his head and then tensed.

For a big man he could move fast. He was on his feet in a heartbeat. He glared at Dawn and then his gaze took in the scene in the cargo area. He turned toward the redheaded cyborg. “Iron, she attacked me. What happened after I was out?” “She opened the blasting doors, used the crowbar to jam them and then used the cutting torch to breach the outer hull in the docking port.” The redhead glared at the other man. “She damn near killed us all. How the hell did she get the drop on you? She’s tiny.” “She can fight.

” The man glared at Dawn. “Attack me now, human. I am prepared so you won’t fool me twice with your small body and weak appearance.” “Shut up, Vollus,” Iron snapped. “She got the drop on you and we all damn near died. The hull is compromised so the docking doors are useless until we repair them.” His focus landed on Dawn. “What I want to know is how you got those doors open in the first place. You aren’t big enough to drag his body to the scanner and you don’t have access to open the doors.” Dawn crossed her arms over her chest and pressed her lips tightly together.

She wasn’t going to tell him a damn thing. He could just— Cathy sniffed. “She repairs everything on Vonder Station and fixes the planting equipment that is sent down to the planet. She’s the mechanic. She is also good with electronics. She can get any door open.” “Be quiet, Cathy.” Dawn got to her feet, shrugging off her injures, sure they were just a few bruises. “They don’t care about that. They just care about how healthy we are.

They are cyborgs.” “I don’t understand,” Cathy whispered. Dawn turned to glare at the redheaded cyborg named Iron. “How about we make a deal? You make deals, don’t you?” The man cocked his head as his eyes narrowed. “You want to make a deal?” She nodded. “If you let her go safely and alive, untouched and totally as is, I’ll repair anything wrong on the Rally. I’ll work for you if you swear you won’t harm her. I’m really skilled.” She paused. “I can patch the hole I just created.

” 11 Laurann Dohner He frowned. “We do our own repairs. We don’t need a mechanic.” Dawn wanted to curse. “All right. How about this? You and I will fight. If I win, you let her go.” The big redheaded cyborg blinked. His mouth opened and a deep chuckle escaped his lips. “Is this a human joke?” Dawn shook her head.

“No joke. If I win the fight, you let her go unharmed.” “We have no intention of—” Iron cut the other cyborg off. “Shut up, Vollus.” He grinned, shaking his head. “I have no interest in beating up a fragile human in an unfair fight. One hit and you’d be in a med bed.” Frustration welled in Dawn. “Name what you want for her life.” “They are going to ransom us,” Cathy said.

“You told me that.” Dawn turned her head to eye Cathy. “I lied. I didn’t want you to know what they were really going to do to you. They are cyborgs. They…” She sighed. “It won’t be good, okay? I tried to prevent it but that plan didn’t work out.” She turned her head to glare at Iron. “Name what you want for her life. Is there any humanity left in you? Look at her, she’s only a child really and she’s a good kid.

She doesn’t deserve to die out here like this.” Iron wasn’t amused anymore. He arched a brow. “And you do deserve to die out in space?” Dawn hesitated. “I’ve learned all the risks out here and I stayed knowing what I was facing. She’s clueless and innocent. Name what you want if you don’t want me to do repairs.” Iron tilted his head, watching her closely. “I swear she won’t be killed or harmed if you become my personal slave.” Surprise tore through Dawn.

She hadn’t expected that. “Your slave?” The big man nodded. “My slave. You follow my orders and do everything I tell you to do.” He moved closer, looking down at her. “Everything I want.” “You’ll let her go free the first chance you come across another ship heading to a safe port, or Earth, if I agree?” “No.” He shook his head. “But she won’t be harmed and she’ll live.” Dawn shook her head.

“No. That’s not good enough.”

.

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