Touching Ice – Laurann Dohner

The female voice had a high-pitched Southern accent that grated on Megan’s last nerve. Whoever the programmer had been who had last worked on the station had obviously been a man with a sick, twisted sense of humor since he’d given the computer the most annoying voice he could download. He’d also had a thing for teaching Clara—the computer that ran Folion— how to be a smartass. Because of the state-of-the-art, artificial-intelligence chips that made up the computer’s “brain”, it was capable of learning. “You have committed violations since the ship arrived at dock six, sugar.” “I keep telling you to stop calling me that. My name is Megan.” “Don’t get your panties in a bind.” “I could take you offline for maintenance, you know.” The computer went silent for a few seconds. “That would be another violation. I’m keeping track.” “Bite me, Clara.” “I don’t have teeth, sugar, or I might be tempted. Is it that time of the month?” Oh yeah, Megan thought.

If I ever meet the guy who had this job before me, I’m going to kill him for screwing up a perfectly good computer. She took a deep breath as she counted to ten. It didn’t help cool her temper by much but at least she wasn’t ready to try to escape the employee quarters and travel three decks to yank out Clara’s motherboards. Her attention returned to one of the screens where the sexiest man she’d ever seen slowly dressed. It should be a crime to cover up that perfect, dusky-gray body, she decided. He was unlike anything she’d ever seen and her one bright spot in a dismal job working as the programmer on Folion. She’d been desperate enough to transfer to a floating whorehouse in space four months ago since she’d needed the higher salary to pay off debts. No one had told her she couldn’t leave the employee quarters, couldn’t interact with other living beings, or that she’d have to put up with Clara’s annoying artificial personality. “It is against regulations to turn the cameras on in the client rooms. Master never did.

” Megan rolled her sky-blue eyes. “Stop calling the last programmer that. He shouldn’t have ordered you to do that. Why aren’t you bitching about him breaking the rules? Did you screech about violations he committed?” “He is incredibly handsome and sexy.” Megan snorted immediately. “He’s probably some pathetic troll who couldn’t get laid if he had a ton of credits.” 5 Laurann Dohner “He had sex with the bots.” “There’s a huge violation. How the hell did he do that?” “He changed my programming. I am forbidden to keep records or report the employees for making personal use of the bots.

” “Well, there’s one violation I’ll never commit. They are all female and I don’t do women robots.” “They are artificial-intelligence, sexual-aid androbots. That is the official title the company has assigned them but you may call them bots for short. Master always did.” “I feel a headache coming on,” Megan muttered, watching the sexy man put on his boots. His hair was wet from the fresh-water shower he’d taken—one of the many luxuries aboard the expensive Folion—making it appear darker. When dry, it became a beautiful white-ash color. Most people would have just called it white but the streaks of light gray were something that Megan didn’t miss. The sex bot moved across the room to smile at him.

Her lips moved as she spoke to the client but he shook his head. “The client has refused more service,” Clara stated. “The man you illegally watch having intercourse with the bots is preparing to leave.” She paused. “You will have to wait until he returns to violate company rules and infringe on his privacy again. You are making a habit of it each time this client pays for service.” “Shut up.” “Do you know the client?” “I wish.” “Clarify.” The man on the screen closed his shirt as he headed for the door.

Depression hit Megan hard. Three months ago, she’d accidentally spotted the guy on a security feed when he’d forgotten to remove a gun he wore. It had sounded an alarm and brought him to her attention when Clara had ordered him to return the weapon to his shuttle. Those few minutes of staring at that beautiful, burnished-gray face had done things to Megan that she didn’t want to admit. His image had burned into her mind. He was a cyborg, something that shouldn’t exist anymore. Everyone on Earth had been assured they’d been killed off but obviously that had been a lie. Is he alone? Is that why he visits a whorehouse staf ed with androbots who are programmed to never keep records or report who visits them? A real woman probably poses a threat to his secret existence. “Clarify,” the computer screeched. “Shut up.

I just meant that I’m lonely and the guy is hot.” “You are horny and desire to have sex with a client. That is a violation I am not programmed to overlook. I would have to immediately contact the company if you left these quarters. Not even Master violated that rule. Unless it is an emergency, the bulkheads are to remain sealed between this section and the rest of Folion where the clients have access.” 6 Touching Ice “Who made that stupid rule?” “Four years ago there was a hijack attempt and the programmer was extinguished when he refused to order me to pilot us into deep space away from help. Androbots would sell extremely high on the black market so we are always at risk of attempted theft. Company policy implemented the separation to protect you from harm and doesn’t allow the clients to know there is a human aboard to monitor all the bots and to adjust our programming if we malfunction. All clients are told that Folion is onehundred-percent automated to protect you.

” “I’m not leaving this section. I said I wish. That means it’s something I’d like but I’m never going to get. Besides that, he looks way too big. That bot is five foot ten and he’s taller by a good four inches. I like my men on the smaller side—not too tall, and definitely not big enough to pancake me if he rolls on top.” “That is physically impossible. The male would have to weigh―” “Shut up! It’s a saying, damn it. Can’t you be quiet for ten minutes?” “I am registering an incoming, large vessel.” “Ah.

Great. It’s going to be a busy day then.” “Welcome to Folion,” a sweet, female computer voice stated. “Please slow your speed and dock with port nine.” “Why can’t you use that voice with me, Clara? Huh?” It totally angered Megan that Clara always used a nice speaking voice with clients. She got to monitor all verbal communications and it pissed off Megan every time. “Hello, Folion,” the man slurred his words. “What dock did you say?” “Reduce your speed immediately,” Clara ordered the incoming ship. “You are coming in too fast.” The voice on coms laughed.

“We already started the party and now we just need some of your hot bots.” “He’s intoxicated,” Clara’s annoying voice informed Megan. She changed the pitch of her speech. “Reduce your speed immediately. Warning. Collision imminent. Reduce speed.” Fear spread through Megan. She adjusted her chair, her focus locking on the screen that monitored incoming space traffic. She saw the freighter heading right at them, not reducing speed at all.

The big C-class, long-distance hauler appeared as big as the Folion. “Move us out of their way,” Megan yelled. “Now, Clara.” The engines flared to life, the sound a dull hum with mild vibrations under Megan’s bare feet on the floor. “Collision imminent,” Clara said calmly. “Brace.” An alarm siren blared to life and the automated warning went ship-wide. “Brace for impact. I repeat, brace for impact.” A scream tore from Megan as the other ship hit them broadside.

The engines had moved them but not fast enough to completely avoid the hit. The impact sent her flying 7 Laurann Dohner from her chair to land hard on her stomach on the floor. The entire deck shook and the station groaned. Stunned, Megan lay there for long seconds. The alarm blared out sharp, loud whistles. Worse, she started to float away from the floor. Her fingers frantically clawed the smooth surface but she had nothing to grab on to as her body rose higher. “Clara! Restore gravity!” The computer had gone silent. The lights flickered on, off, on, off, but then stayed on. The alarm stopped as suddenly as it had started, followed by an eerie silence.

Everything seemed to freeze in time for Megan and then she heard a dull roar. She turned her head to stare at the screens but they were white static. Her leg bumped something and she twisted in the air, grabbing for the desk she’d touched. Her fingers curled on the edge, gripped it in desperation, and she managed to keep hold with two of her fingers and thumb. “Clara? Respond, damn it. Report to me. How bad is the damage?” “I am still evaluating.” Hearing Clara’s grating voice relieved Megan. “Restore gravity.” “I am damaged.

” The computer paused. “I can’t restore it. I’m reading hull breaches on four levels. Five. Seven.” Horror washed through Megan. The ship consisted of seven levels so the damage had to be extensive. “Send out an emergency distress signal.” “Already done,” Clara’s voice changed, deepening. “There is a fire in my mainframe, Megan.

” “Download your program to control now.” “I’m unable to transfer my data stream. The relays are damaged. Evacuate.” The alarm started to peal loudly again. Clara’s voice sounded the way a man with a damaged throat would—deep and gruff— as she opened ship-wide communication. “Evacuate. I repeat. Evacuate. Folion is unstable.

Evacuate immediately.” “Clara, suppress the fire and download your core programming into the control room servers. That’s an order.” The voice that came from the speakers had become high pitched, as if she’d sucked in helium. “I have control of the hull doors to open them. The employee escape pod isn’t registering and is in part of the heavily damaged section. I have concluded it was destroyed. You must reach the client emergency pod on deck three. Leave now, Megan. I am unable to suppress all fires and we are leaking oxygen.

There are explosions on deck seven.” The doors that separated the employee area from the client areas of the ship slid open. “I have regained some system control but more damage is presently occurring.” Megan dropped as gravity returned with a vengeance, yanking her down fast and hard. Pain shot through her body from her neck to her lower back then to her throbbing knees as she hit the deck with a grunt. 8 Touching Ice “Download to control now, Clara.” “Unable to comply.” The voice rasped. “System failure. Evacuate.

Life support is offline. There is a thirty-five-percent oxygen loss from my readings.” She paused. “I have missing parts of the grid without readings so my findings are inaccurate. It is logical to assume that number is forty-two percent with unresponsive sensors. Evacuate. Folion is unstable. There is a probability of complete destruction of all living beings aboard. Evacuate.” “Shit!” Megan pushed up from the deck and frantically looked around the control room.

Her private room was located behind a closed hull door and the opposite direction of where she needed to go. Everything she owned was in that room but it wasn’t worth her life to attempt to retrieve it. “Evacuate. Twenty-one percent of active sensors are reading fire and smoke damage in this area. You have a clear path to client escape pod but you must hurry. A client is attempting to activate pod but I have overridden until you arrive. My systems are failing. If I lose that grid I will no longer have override option.” Megan ran. She had to jump over a fallen chair but then she entered the corridor.

Smoke filled the air, an acrid smell that had her fighting a sneeze. She avoided the lifts, uncertain if they were working or not. Grateful to have gravity restored, she made it to a down hatch. Bending as she panted from her mad dash, she yanked it open. As part of her job, she’d learned every inch of Folion, so she knew where to go. As the hatch opened, clean, smoke-free oxygen met her. She quickly climbed down the metal ladder and found herself on deck three. The pod was just two long corridors down. A bot walk at the opposite side. Megan bolted for it and at the bend of the corridor she nearly plowed into a bot.

It turned to face her, a cold smile on its features. “May I serve you?” “Move,” Megan panted at it. She barely dodged the bot and ran around it, hitting the turn literally as her body bounced off a wall. She saw the emergency pod sign ahead, blinking red, fast flashes. The alarms were still blasting through the ship and Clara’s automatic evacuation statement filled her ears as she ran. An explosion tore through the end of the corridor with a flash of fire and a loud boom. Megan screamed, twisting around in mid run, and threw herself to the floor. A roar whooshed behind her as she lay there and threw her arms up as hot heat blasted above her. She turned her head, peeking up between her curved arms toward the ceiling. Flames licked along the ten-foot-high ceiling but then died.

She turned her head, staring in shock down the hallway where the pod had been. Twisted metal and charred scars marred the wall, the light no longer blinking. “Client has overridden pod.” Clara’s voice had become louder than the alarm, her annoying accent back. “He set a charge in the wall control pad and severed my connection to the docking clamps. Pod safely jettisoned.” 9 Laurann Dohner “Oh God,” Megan lay there, horrified. There were only two emergency pods so that had been her last chance at escape. “Megan, proceed to section four of level three. I have locked the clamps of the ship still docked in that section.

I am attempting to stall their ship from leaving. Hurry and attempt to board it. They are allowing bots passage. I negotiated with the captain to save as many units that could reach his ship before I lost the ability to communicate with them.” Panic gripped Megan as she pushed up from the floor and ran. She turned down another corridor, running as fast as she could. Two more turns and she saw three bots walking calmly through an open docking door thirty feet ahead. A gray-skinned cyborg stood there, looking grim. He had black hair and wore an all-black uniform similar to the one the cyborg she had spent months watching always sported. It had to be his ship and there was more than one cyborg after all.

She hoped her cyborg had safely made it back inside his ship. “Wait,” she called out, pushing her tired body to press forward. Her side burned from running and she panted hard. The cyborg faced her as she ran toward him. He frowned but he didn’t follow the bots into the docking sleeve to close the door and lock her out. He waited and moved back against the wall as she ran past him, through the docking sleeve, and continued the last ten feet it took her to enter their cargo hold. She stopped since at least twelve bots were standing there motionless, blocking her way. Doors slid closed behind her and she turned to face the large cyborg who had sealed them. He reached up and touched a control pad. “Let’s go.

I don’t see any more of them and I don’t want to be still attached when it blows up.” “Affirmative,” a masculine voice answered. “Releasing docking clamps now.” Megan leaned against the wall, bent, and grabbed her knees. The shuttle detached, letting her know that Clara was aware that she’d made it since she’d allowed them to release the clamps. The motion was noticeable but with her butt against the wall it just made her bump it. She slowly inhaled, trying to catch her breath. Her side still hurt. She’d kept in good shape, exercised daily, but running wasn’t her thing. “May I serve you?” Megan lifted her chin to watch as one of the sex bots addressed the tall cyborg.

He crossed his arms over his chest and a grin spread on his face. “How long do we get to keep them?” “I don’t understand your request,” the bot stated. “At least four days,” a deep male voice answered from the other side of the room. “We are to drop them off at the Hixton Station. We’re getting paid good money for saving them. I wonder how much each one is really worth if they are willing to shell out that much to us just to transport them?” “Probably a hell of a lot.” 10 Touching Ice Megan stood, peering across the small cargo hold and she forgot to breathe for seconds while she stared at him. The cyborg she’d become obsessed with inched his big frame around the bots, working his way to the center of the room to reach the other cyborg. A laugh burst from the dark-haired male. “I love the side benefits of this job if we get use of thirteen bots for four days.

” Her glance darted around at all the taller bots near her, counting them. There were twelve in all. The cyborg had said there were thirteen. She frowned, counting them again. Her attention returned to her fantasy man as he stepped near her, close enough for her to reach out and touch. He grinned at the other man. “I won’t be complaining, that’s for damn sure, Onyx.” “I bet not, Ice.” His name is Ice, Megan thought, as she stared up at him. He was a foot taller than her, putting him at six foot two.

He looked huge in person, bigger than he appeared on screen. If she reached her arm out straight, she could brush her hand over his molded, black leather uniform, which displayed his immense biceps. In person his hair was even more amazing—white with very light-gray streaks that were only noticeable from close up but she had discovered that already since she’d had the cameras zoom in on him a few times while she’d spied on him with the bots. The scent of leather, masculine soap, and wonderful male teased her nose. One of the bots, nearly his height, turned to face him as it smiled. The bots were all between five foot seven and six foot one and sturdy bodied so they weren’t easily broken. “May I serve you?” Ice’s eyebrows arched but he grinned. “It’s a hard job but someone has to do it.” Onyx laughed. “The men are going to be thrilled with this job.

” “We thought we were going to spend a lot of money using bots but now we’re getting paid for four days of unlimited sex. I’d call that a good day for us but a bad one for Folion. What the hell happened?” “A ship came in too fast. We were monitoring their communications and it sounded as though they were drinking a little too much to celebrate time off and slammed right into it. Good thing we were on the starboard side. The damage was really bad when it hit. Damn. Do you know what this means? Folion won’t be available to us.” The grin on Onyx’s face died. “Shit.

I guess we’d better really make the best of the next four days. Maybe they’ll send out another ship to host these beauties.” Ice turned his head and looked directly at Megan. She froze, her breath catching again while she stared into his beautiful light-blue eyes with silver streaks in the irises. He tilted his head, his full lips curving downward slightly as his gaze left hers to slowly travel down her body.

.

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