All Vick Corren can remember is what she’s been told. A training accident took the lives of her team mates and left her with over half of her brain damaged beyond repair. The Fighting Storm, a mercenary group with deep pockets, a brilliant research team, and personal motivations turned what was left of her into VC1. Her humanity has been replaced with a processor, but she’s smarter, faster, and a better soldier. She’s just not quite … sane, any longer.
Kelly is an empath, and a powerful one, and even from their first meeting she can sense the despair, the anger, and the pain within Vic. No matter how often Doctor Whitehouse calls her VC1, or a machine, all Kelly can see is the human within. Meant to be Vic’s emotional support, to keep their prized soldier’s sanity in check, Kelly instead becomes her staunchest supporter and only friend, until the day they become something more.
Vic’s fellow soldiers call her VC1, denying her humanity even though she still thinks of them as her team, even knowing they despise and fear her. Only Kelly calls her Vic, refusing to think of her as a “thing” or a machine, and refusing to let the others treat her as one. Vic would like to think she’s human, but how can she, when the machines in her head won’t give her anything more than the illusion of free will? She’s an expensive investment, after all, and suicide isn’t allowed. There’s an abort code to kill her should she become dangerous, but she isn’t allowed to know it, and her own programming forces her to carry out a mission until she succeeds or until she is too damaged to continue. She can’t even say no to a mission or refuse an order from a board member, no matter what that order may be. She will do as she’s told until she dies.
This is as much a journey of self-discovery as it is a romance, a thriller, or an action story. Vic is trying to fight her loss of identity and trying to desperately hold on to what little humanity she still has inside of her. Kelly becomes her escape, her anchor, the person who believes in her when she can’t believe in herself; Kelly is something that is hers, Vic’s, not VC1’s. When she loses memories and is given those moments back — like restoring a lost file — she still has to figure out what and how to feel now. In her own words:
“I love you, but I have no choice. I want a choice. I want to choose you again.”
Kelly’s empathic gift allows her to feel Vic’s emotions — the emotions Vic no longer knows how to handle — and guides her through them. How to feel, how to express those feelings, and even how to let them go. The more Vic dams them up and allows them to build, the more it pains Kelly and the harder it is to work through the trauma associated with their lives. On top of this, Kelly also feels the physical pain when Vic gets shot, beaten, bruised, and raped. She feels it when someone dies, when someone else gets hurt, too, but it’s Vic’s emotions she’s tied in to. The two of them have bonded, forcing an emotional dependency on one another whether they like it or not.
Kelly may not be a fighter, but she’s not a fainting flower — an image that is quickly overshadowed by her own reactions to the emotional pain surrounding her. Even when she’s near comatose from the violence and rage and pain of battle and war, Kelly still manages to put others first. She is always thinking of Vic and worried for her, attentive to her emotional needs, and more than willing to put her own life and freedom on the line to preserve Vic’s humanity.
Even as, yes, Kelly violated that by deliberately removing certain memories and emotions from Vic without her knowledge or consent. She knows it is wrong — knew it even as she did it — but did it for, she thinks, the right reason. The trial at the end, when she is being held responsible for her actions, touches somewhat on this idea of consent and humanity, but didn’t go far enough to resolve the issue or deal with the consequences.
The bond between them means that Kelly and Vic will always feel an emotional closeness, whether they will it or no, and that’s something I hope is dealt more with in the next installment of the series.
I knew, in the first third of this book, that this was going to be a five-star read for me. The writing is spare and eloquent even as the author takes apart Vic’s soul and bares it to the reader, all of the pain and suffering and confusion on display. There is so much emotional angst and sorrow in this book from both characters, and both Kelly and Vic are beautifully broken. Even with that said, the ending — though everything was well-established and laid out — felt rushed, at the end, and some issues that I think should have been given more attention, weren’t.
One scene to note is the rape scene that takes place in the last third of this book. The physical experiences of the assault are almost clinical and removed with the emotional damage more the focus of the event. The aftermath and recovery of this isn’t instant, isn’t glossed over, or referred to in an epilogue. Instead, Vic is traumatized, suffers through flashbacks, and ends up being held by her lover and assured that the recovery will take time, and no matter how much time it takes, Kelly will be there for her.
The skill and care taken by the author over every painful, soul-searing moment made this a tiring book to read, but a good one. I relished every flare of anger or sullenness because I knew that when the time was right there would be joy and happiness given the same attention. I loved this book. I hope you will, too.
A review copy of this book was provided by DSP Publications.