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Copyright © CHANDRA RYAN, 2014
All Rights Reserved, Ellora's Cave Publishing, Inc.

Chapter One

Julian took a deep breath as the shuttle’s thrusters pushed against the asphalt of the planet’s surface. His heart raced and his stomach cramped with nerves but he refused to let them show. He was a modified soldier now—a super-soldier. His DNA had been reprogrammed to make him faster, stronger and smarter. And super-soldiers didn’t show fear.
The shuttle shuddered as it hit a patch of turbulence and he had to clench his hands to keep them from grabbing at his safety restraints. Apparently braver hadn’t been included in his package though. He would just have to continue faking that particular attribute.
He took another breath and closed his eyes against the tingling of weightlessness that fluttered in the pit of his stomach. The sensation was a lot like being on a ride at an amusement park. Only with an off chance he might die. And if not during transport, the mission itself could always finish him off.

A grimace tightened his face at the thought. He was making this worse than what it really was. He forced his muscles to relax as the shuttle broke free of the planet’s atmosphere. When he opened his eyes again, only the vast blackness of space was visible on the other side of the window portals. But after a few seconds he started seeing the pinpricks of light given off by distant stars.

“You doin’ okay, rookie?” Commander Gates’ voice filled his helmet and made him frown. He liked the man. What was there not to like? The guy was all muscle in a uniform. He was the stuff of Julian’s late-night fantasies. But as much as he liked Gates, Julian hated the fucking nickname Gates had given him. He might be new to the team but he wasn’t a rookie. He’d served his time before the military put him in the modified soldier program. But he knew better than to complain about it. That’d be the quickest way to ensure it stuck with him for the rest of his military career.

“Doin’ great, Commander.”

“It’s your first mission as a super. No one’s going to think any less of you if you’re a little edgy.”

Sure they wouldn’t. He smirked to himself at the thought. People loved finding reasons to think less of him. They’d been doing it his entire life. Hell, he could probably make a drinking game of it. With his luck, Julian would end up throwing up after his first shot and making everyone else a winner though.

Still, accepting it happened and encouraging it were two completely different things. He’d be damned if he handed them fodder on a silver platter. “With all due respect, I knew what I was signing up for, sir.”

And that was the bitch of it. He had known what he’d been signing up for. Modified soldiers were assigned the most dangerous missions. It was why they had to be super. And his father had made it clear that anything less than super wouldn’t be tolerated in his house.

One of the other men laughed. “Did you hear that, men? He knew what he was signing up for.”
Damn. It. Could he do nothing right? “What? You think I didn’t read the fine print?” When people were laughing at him, he kept them laughing but deflected the punch line. Geek survival 101. “I read every single word. Well, except where it said I’d be getting an injection in the ass three times a week for the rest of my life. I missed that.” Actually the military didn’t mention the metabolism-regulating injections anywhere in the contracts the soldiers signed. Nobody knew about them until after the procedure had been completed and it was too late to object. That was what made it funny. They’d all been through the exact same experience. “They were happy to educate me on that though.”

“Bend over and grab the bed. First order every super gets.” The soldier’s voice boomed through the helmet around bursts of laughter. It set Julian at ease. Now the men were officially laughing with him. He’d just started becoming a member of their group. He sat back and sighed at his success.

“But that’s why we’re on this mission, isn’t it?” Gates asked. “So we won’t have to get those fucking shots anymore.”

“Damn straight,” echoed through Julian’s helmet.

Some scientist somewhere had developed a way to fix the soldiers. And the military had held this mission, Covert Defenders, out like a carrot. As soon as they completed it they’d be put on the short list for the procedure. No more shots. And with every modified soldier clamoring for the procedure, the short list looked awfully good. Yeah, Julian had jumped at the carrot.

“And all we have to do is move some stasis chambers from point A to point B. Sounds a little too good to be true.” Julian had just been talking to himself. He hadn’t meant the rest of the group to hear him. But he’d forgotten about the sensitive microphone inside the helmet for a second.

“Huh. Would you look at that cynicism? I take it back. The rookie might actually have some clue as to what he signed up for.” And with that, he’d officially been accepted. He might be fresh to the team but he wasn’t some starry-eyed noob. Now he just had to shake the nickname and he’d be golden.

Julian leaned back in his seat and savored the victory. He was still flying through space on his way to a mission that scared the shit out of him but he was no longer the outsider. That was some measure of victory and he’d take it.

The other men continued to talk. Their voices filled his helmet and gave him some insight into each team member. But he didn’t add anything to the conversations. He’d learned long ago to quit while he was ahead in social situations.

Instead he closed his eyes and let chatter lull him to sleep. He was woken some time later by a gentle pat on his knee. “We’re here, soldier. Time to earn your keep.” Gates stood in front of him as Julian quickly came awake. And that was a sight he didn’t mind waking up to. The man’s powerful thighs were at eye level and it was all Julian could do not to lick his lips at the temptation. “The air is breathable,” Gates continued. Apparently the man had no clue as to what was going on in Julian’s head. Thank god. “No need for the helmet.”

Grateful for the diversion, he took off his helmet and stashed it under his chair for the return trip before unfastening the safety restraints. He stood and stretched as soon as he’d freed himself. It felt good to have the blood flowing through his legs again but the world seemed a little wobbly after the long shuttle ride. “So where are these stasis chambers?”