Excerpts liberations kiss robotics faction science fiction romance

Earl Grey, Hot!

Jean-Luc drinking tea“Earl Grey, hot!” my husband likes to say as he makes his favorite cup of tea. He’s referencing Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s order to the Enterprise’s food synthesizer on Star Trek: The Next Generation. But is Captain Picard really drinking the same thing as my 21st century husband?

Star Trek TNG takes place around the year 2364 (we are assuming it is BCE rather than “star date” – a true fan will correct me) which is approximately 350 years from today. Judging by 350 years ago, food looked somewhat different from the way it looks today. The great Columbian Exchange of agriculture from Old World to New and vice versa was still underway, countries such as the Dutch controlled spices like nutmeg, and Florida did not grow oranges. But even in 1660 if you couldn’t get a Florida orange, you could still find one elsewhere.

The real interesting thing is how different certain foods are today.

Carrots, for example, were not their current color until after the 1700s. A carrot pre-1700 had many varietals, but they were usually purple, white, or “mutant” yellow. From the mutant yellows, the now-ubiquitous orange carrot was later derived. [From the Carrot Museum – bet you didn’t know there was one of those, did you?]

Even more recently we have had surprisingly drastic shake-ups of the food chain. In the 1950s, the top banana imported to the United States was the “Gros Michel” variety. It is a richer, creamier banana but was susceptible to Panama Disease. The failure of the crop crashed the world market. The current banana in grocery stores is the blander, disease-resistant “Cavendish.” You can still get Gros Michels in places that don’t suffer from the disease, such as Thailand. I once ate five bananas in a row on a boat ride in the Philippines because they tasted so unusually delicious. I just thought they were super fresh. Now I know that I was eating an entirely different banan variety.

In my own lifetime as a Washington State resident, I have often lamented the fall of the Red Delicious apple. What was once my favorite as a very young child in the early 80s, well, changed. By the 90s I found the skin so tough and the fruit so mushy that it was literally inedible and remains so to this day.

Which brings us back to the original question. If carrots can change color in a few hundred years, bananas can change varietals in less than a century, and one apple cultivar can trade cheap beauty for flavor in a couple decades, exactly what kind of tea is Captain Picard enjoying in his cup of “Earl Grey, hot”?

I play with this concept in Liberation’s Kiss:

“You found something to eat,” he said.

“The unit is like new, so everything tastes just great.” She offered a flake of pink coconut, but he shook his head. He only needed a small amount to feed his small percentage of biological components, and he’d get weeks’ worth out of the plums he’d eaten on the boat.

She considered the pink flake. “I read somewhere that coconut used to be white.”

He made a grunt of interest.

“And hard, with a brown outer shell full of hair. And it grew on trees.” She bit into the succulent pink fruit, licking the dripping juices. “If it’s so different now, I wonder if this is how coconut used to taste.”

He could watch her eat all day. “Like how?”

“Creamy, sweet, rich on your tongue, like it’s really filling your mouth. Kind of…I don’t know. Coconut-y.” Her dreamy look gave way to practicality. She chewed the pink fibers and swallowed. “I just wonder if it tastes the same as the original.”

“The original on Rigel?”

She shook her head. “I wonder if it really did originate on Rigel. You know?”

– From Liberation’s Kiss: A Science Fiction Romance (Robotics Faction #1)

3d book

What do you think? Would we recognize food in 350 years, whether or not it comes from a synthesizer?

Excerpts liberations kiss science fiction romance

Mudpuppies and Hellbenders

3d bookI feature a variety of flora and fauna in my science fiction romance, Liberation’s Kiss. One of the most fun scenes to write was my heroine Cressida skinny-dipping in an isolated island lagoon. I wanted to populate the island with interesting-sounding flora and fauna. What says tropical better than palm trees and orchids? When it came to fauna, however, I wanted to push the boundaries without making up something completely fictional.

And that’s when I learned about two real animals: mudpuppies and hellbenders.

To the people who live near these creatures, they are completely ordinary, but to my foreign ear, even their names sound unique. They are two species of salamanders. The hellbender is a species of giant salamander native to eastern North America, and the mudpuppy is a smaller aquatic salamander from much the same area.

Now, the salamanders where I come from are tiny. It’s exciting to see one because they are usually scooting off into the foliage, visible for only a few moments in the muddy forest.

Giant salamanders, though, can really look strange! This is a YouTube video of a giant salmander in Japan: And here is a guy holding one: giant salamanderImagine taking a swim with one of these?

Here is Cressida, taking a swim:

She scooted out of bed, sliding from the thick rumpled sheets down to the polished wood, and padded to the closet. Several different types of outfits hung in the closet, most of them optimized for her size range. Well, she’d always known she was the General’s type, even if she didn’t ever interest him enough to be invited here. She slid into a morning robe, fastened the belts, and walked down the stairs as the clothing stretched and shrank to fit her body. She ate a large breakfast of creamy fried banana cakes with date muffins and sliced fruit glace. It had only been three days of starvation. Would she never be full again?

She put away her dishes – tidy, tidy – and stepped out on the back terrace.

Decking led to mossy steps in the soft forest floor. She waded through a crowd of purple butterfly-catchers, ducked beneath a curtained fig tree, and emerged in a sheltered lagoon. Water flashing as a green coin ebbed against silver rocks, gently rocked by a tinkling waterfall. Paradise-birds flittered over the water, tempting brassy fish and harrying the gentle hellbenders and smaller mudpuppies paddling below the shadows of the rocks. She dipped in a toe. Warm and gently fizzy on her skin.

Well, there was no posted sign warning her off of swimming in a secret lagoon…

She undid her robe, eased into the water, and glided gently into the center of the pool. The water slid up around her legs and armpits, into her unfamiliar places. Home bathing was restricted to mist showers or reclaimed orbital standing-baths that swished the water around her in a claustrophobia-inducing tube. Nothing like the natural luxury of this freedom. She flipped over on her back and stared at the sky. Overhead, the wind whipped the trees, but here it was a pocket of calm.

Somewhere up there, in the almost-visible stars, were her parents.

Also somewhere up there were the robot empires satellites.

She ducked beneath the water, feeling the bubbles tingle on her skin. Once, she had believed all robots to be her guardians, like a child looking up to familiar uncles. Among the many things, she longed for that naivete again…

 – From Liberation’s Kiss, available July 1 (Pre-order now for a special price 80% off!)

Excerpts liberations kiss robotics faction science fiction romance

Liberation’s Kiss – Chapter Five

In celebration of my upcoming new release, Liberation’s Kiss, I am posting the first few chapters here and on Wattpad. Like what you read? Take advantage of the $0.99 pre-order price, changing back to $4.99 on release day July 1. Or, join my newsletter and request a free review copy in exchange for an honest review.


Xan finished injecting the human ligament regrowth hormone into the surgically inserted patch he had installed over the problematic left knee and recapped the syringe. It would hold until he got to the mainland and found proper parts, but his feedback sensors now operated at the speed of human pain. He wouldn’t be making giant leaps any time soon.

Then, he rested his head against the back of the chair and stared at the ceiling.

What the fuck had he been saying to Cressida?

She wasn’t alone anymore? She had him? He knocked his head against the wicker as though he could shake loose the idiot from his circuits. He was a disconnected, damaged, reprogrammed android originally assigned to kill her. What a reliable guy.

He stood and checked his appearance in the mirror. A seam streaked down at the angle of a drone laser. It felt and looked like a Gorgon Five bee sting. All hot and pulsating as if something foreign were alive under there. Had he self-administered the seal, he would have left no imperfection. Cressida’s hands had been shaking, and yet she had forced herself to fix him.

He touched the new ridged line in his eyebrow. Throb. Now, more than the temporary human knee ligaments or his increasingly illogical thought patterns, he would physically no longer be able to blend with the other x-classes. One more thing about him had been altered, rearranged, made unique. Because of her.

That made him feel…

Fuck. He still had a plan. He would get her off planet, then confront the other x-class while his mind was clear. Never mind the extra sense attuned to her life patterns, even now providing a vague sense of comfort. How would he do separated from her? He couldn’t rip his attention away.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

He let his hair drop, closed the cabinet, and followed her steady heartbeat down to the kitchen bar. She was perched on the stool, legs crossed and arms properly tight against her elbows, consuming a large plate more quickly than socially acceptable. Given her size, he guessed that she was making up a calorie deficit rather than indulging in a binge. Another reason to hate her precious general.

“You found something to eat,” he said.

“The unit is like new, so everything tastes just great.” She offered a flake of pink coconut, but he shook his head. He only needed a small amount to feed his small percentage of biological components, and he’d get weeks’ worth out of the plums he’d eaten on the boat.

She considered the pink flake. “I read somewhere that coconut used to be white.”

He made a grunt of interest.

“And hard, with a brown outer shell full of hair. And it grew on trees.” She bit into the succulent pink fruit, licking the dripping juices. “If it’s so different now, I wonder if this is how coconut used to taste.”

He could watch her eat all day. “Like how?”

“Creamy, sweet, rich on your tongue, like it’s really filling your mouth. Kind of…I don’t know. Coconut-y.” Her dreamy look gave way to practicality. She chewed the pink fibers and swallowed. “I just wonder if it tastes the same as the original.”

“The original on Rigel?”

She shook her head. “I wonder if it really did originate on Rigel. You know?”

“That varietal did.” He swung onto a stool across from her.

She smiled at him, her tapioca spoon halfway to her mouth. “You look better. How do you feel?”

Her smile was beautiful and shivered through him not unlike the shock of the bee sting. Strange. In absence of the Voice, constantly realigning his actions to the assignment every micro-moment, his brain was beginning to rewire all other sorts of stimuli to take its place. Feelings that once didn’t matter, such as a painful cut or a beautiful woman’s smile, suddenly assumed a new importance.

A guy could do a lot for a smile like that.

He shrugged, the entire analysis contained in less than half a blink of an eyelash. “I won’t be dancing Swan Lake until I hit up a titanium-alloy repair shop, but we took out the sting.”

Her smile slipped. She worked on her cream. “Do we really have to leave here?”

“Even if you figure out a way to rig up a life pod in the deepest unexplored bacteria-farm tunnel, they will find you.”

She set aside her spoon. “I meant this island.”

“The longer we wait, the more infrastructure they’ll have set up on the mainland to recapture you.”

She met his gaze, then closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. “How long do we have?”

“A day.” The longer he went without being plugged in, the more the empire’s path diverged from his original estimation. Given enough time, he would be walking into the world as blind as someone who had never been plugged in. He’d be blind as a human. “Maybe two. Any longer and we’re dancing in front of their cross hairs.”

She set down her hand with a sigh. It held an edge of exhaustion and something else. Sorrow.

He reached out and covered her hand with his.

She blinked, startled, and then smiled.

He was lost.

Even though he meant the gesture as a simple 2097-a, comfort a team member, he took it up a level, rolled her taut hand between both of his, massaging the fascia, soothing her. She didn’t protest when he picked up her other hand. Her breathing calmed and evened, and the edge soothed. He moved up her wrists to her arms, squeezing the shape of her beneath the thin suit, remembering what she had felt like pressed up against him. His cock twitched at the memory. It was a good one.

When she allowed him to rub her shoulders, he stood up and went around the counter to stand behind her, moving her silky hair out of his way. His thumbs pressed into the delicate pocket of her rhomboids, where she seemed to carry most of her tension. A moan escaped her lips. She rolled her head forward, bonelessly granting him permission to touch the rest of her.

And he did.

Focusing on her hitched breath and moans, he moved her from brick to syrup. His cock pulsed, hard as a rock. This was entirely outside of his assignment. Squeezing her softness, smelling the delicate fragrance of her earthy body awoke a strange craving. One he couldn’t seem to control.

He wrapped an arm around her waist and dug his fingers into taut muscles along her spine. Her breasts pushed like small weights against his taut forearm, and she seemed to turn her sweet lips toward him as though inviting him to press her even closer.

He nuzzled her coral-shaped ear. Her breath hitched. He tasted the rim of her lobe, the softness tapering up to hardness, down again, and teased the flesh with his teeth. Her heartbeat jumped beneath his palm. “Mmm.”

Her murmur pierced his chest.

She put her hands against the bar for balance. He sucked, and felt her heartbeat jump again, and again. Rhythmic, as her awareness opened to him. He kissed the point of her jaw — salty — and her cheek, following her gasps to the corner of her coconut-sweetened lips.

“Why are you doing this?” she whispered.

It was a question that anyone would ask. This wasn’t part of any assignment. So why did he want it so badly? He just wanted to touch her. Intentionality and reason had no explanation.

“Xan,” she said, breathless.

He nibbled on her. “I don’t know.”

This was apparently the wrong answer. She slowly hardened beneath his hands and leaned away from him until he had no choice but to release her.

She stepped away and wouldn’t look at him as she straightened her already perfectly straight robe. “I told you not to do that.”

Shit. “Sorry.”

Her frown deepened as though he had said a wrong thing again. Shit. Human-computer interactions hadn’t been his worst class, but no one could tell from his behavior right now. Performance failure? He seriously regretted that programming flaw.

Cressida put the counter between them and slid her plates into the reprocessor slot. It disassembled the food remains, plates, and silverware into their molecular components for reassembly into a future meal, complete with appropriate serving dishes and cutlery.

“And, um, how long did you say until we have to leave?” She refused to look at him while she asked.

Shit, shit, shit. He rested his palms on the counter. “A day, maybe two.”

“Then where will we go?”

“Somewhere that alters ID chips.”

She closed the unit and stepped out of the kitchen. Triggered by her absence, a miniature ventilation system fanned magnetic cleansing powder across the bar, adhering to crumbs, and then reversed magnetism to suck it into the wall. It was actually a pretty powerful system; he felt it trying to lift the grime from beneath his fingernails and doing it pretty successfully too. He lifted his hands away from the bar and dusted the powder off his ripped suit.

She frowned at his knees, fixed him with troubled eyes, and said, “There is no way I will ever agree to alter my chip ID.”

“It isn’t a suggestion. It’s a condition of the continuation of your life.”

Her eyes fixed on him with the start of fear.

A strange, high-pitched noise seemed to fill his ears, but when he queried his audio receptors, they registered no external sound. He flexed his fingers. “Don’t you understand? Another android, another x-class, has come to kill you.”

“I thought you said you wouldn’t let her.”

“I may not have a choice.”

She blanched.

The noise increased. He struggled to isolate it and said, through the distraction, “I mean, if we defeat her, then another will come, and another, until they have completed my assignment and you are dead.”

Cressida’s eyes shone white. She stepped back. “Your assignment?”

Oh, great holy fuck.

Her voice rose. Shrill. “I was right. You were assigned to kill me.”

He stepped forward. “Wait.”

Her hand shot up. “No!”

He froze.

Her palm shook. Her other arm folded across her belly. “I came here with you. I let myself be talked into coming to this isolated place…” Her eyes darted over her surroundings, but she was completely hemmed in between the bar and the walls. “I knew it.” Her face whitened. Her lips trembled. “I knew!”

“Cressida!” He stepped forward and grabbed her wrists.

She stopped breathing.

He shook her wrists. “Goddamn it, I’m not going to kill you!”

She stared sightlessly past him as though waiting for a bullet.

“Think!” He shook her wrists again, dragging her attention back to him. “You’ve been afraid of the Faction your whole life. I get that, and you’re not wrong. But look at this situation logically, all right? There’s no reason—”

“It’s your assignment,” she said faintly. “It’s your mission.”

“It was.” He let go of her wrists and folded her cold fingers into his hot palms, trying to transfer some of that warmth into her, never minding that his extended inattention to the temperature differential had caused a sweat to break out on the rest of his body. “Then I met you and everything changed.”

She focused on him again. Disbelief mixed with something else. Color returned to her cheeks, and her balance settled more firmly over her feet. “Please let go.”

Although he really didn’t want to, he forced his fingers to loosen. She drew her hands away and rubbed them on her thighs, stepped back, and looked away. “I’m going to sleep. I don’t want you doing any more touching.”

He swallowed the sudden dryness in his throat. “Sure.”

“Nothing, do you hear me? I don’t want you within touching distance of me either.”


She nodded and, still not meeting his eye, went out to the back veranda.

He followed her movements around the mansion with his auditory sensors, and when he was sure of her location, he climbed the stairs and eased into a shadowed lounge chair. As calculated, she sat in a lounge chair on the veranda below him, easy for him to see but unlikely to see him. She needed the space. He needed to know she was alive so he could think.

Did they even have two days? He again cursed that he was an action-oriented x-class and not an analytical y-class android. Although they had slipped out of the transit hub, there was always a risk that their pursuers would see him on the security footage, or flag his bad acting as an Outer-Centurian, or note that the private yacht had deviated from its course at the whim of two illegal visitors. Better limit themselves to just the one.

Which meant he now had to get them off this uncharted island in the middle of an acidic sea, sneak onto the mainland, jack into a local network, find a black market medical facility for Cressida and an equally discreet parts shop for him — if such a facility even existed on a world like this. Never mind that about a million satellites, drones, sentries, and all security, enforcement, and now most likely transit authorities were also looking for the two of them, and Cressida broadcast her identity every time she stepped into range of a sensor — which, depending on the sensor, could be anywhere from ten to fifty feet.

Oh, and she didn’t trust him or want him to touch her, and definitely didn’t want to get her chip ID changed.

He flexed his hands, testing the tensile strength of his titanium-alloy bone wrapped in neural-fiber muscle and coated in a thin veneer of blood, skin tissue, and singed dark hairs. This problem would surely paralyze even a y-class.

Below, Cressida hugged herself, looking more vulnerable and alone than even when he’d first found her hiding beneath her bed.

Fuck. He would figure this out.

Together, but separated by distance that seemed much farther than the visible feet, they watched the brilliant tangerine sunset.


Cressida passed the rest of the day enclosed in her own thoughts. True to his word, Xan remained out of sight. By the time the second half of a Liberation VI “day” — the hours of tangerine sun plus more hours of intense green planetshine from the gas giant and its three largest moons — faded into true darkness, she had a taste of the future she had predicted to Xan.

It tasted like a single meal, consumed alone at a bar, while the solitary night wind howled past.

She put away her utensils, climbed the stairs to the second floor, and stood in the terrace doorway, staring out into the darkness. In the glassed cities, the starlight was allowed to filter through naturally to create a twenty-three-and-a-half-hour local day. Soon the Nar would rewire all of the cities to the twenty-five-hour New Empire standard, and no one would see these views but tourists. But tonight, the vast star-spatter looked just that. Not poetic, like the calligraphy she captured by rote described it. But vast and frighteningly empty.

Cressida hugged her elbows. This must be how her little sister had felt when their parents had chosen to run away with Cressida, leaving her behind. Surely, too, their older brother had faced his own hours of sadness. This was only what she deserved. This and many more hours like it.

She turned and climbed into bed.

Because she had been thinking about her siblings, she drifted into a half doze full of memories of their times together. How, at ten, dark-haired, shy Mercury came alive with a multi-tool, teaching Cressida how to change her alarm pet’s voice to a silly accent. How their brother Aris always got up on special Saturday mornings, no matter how late he’d stayed out with friends the night before, and served her and Mercury coconut cakes of his own invention with sweet breakfast tea. How their parents always kept them close when other families shipped off their children as soon as they were able, and always introduced them with love and pride.

On their last family trip, this one to the nearby oceans, her parents purchased them all stuffed sealotters to commemorate the visit. Even Aris, who was too old for stuffed toys, had accepted the wedge-shaped plush and promised it to his girlfriend of the time to make up for choosing his family over her and being absent from her on his last day on planet. They were called away for business just after they reached the return shuttle port, and their children waited for their return so they could go on to the final promised stop of ice cream. Mercury had been waving her sealotter by the tail fin and somehow managed to drop it over the side of an open hydrovent. Even though Aris leaped up on the guard rails to grab for it, the plush was sucked away.

Mercury’s eyes filled with dark tears.

“Here.” Cressida pushed her own plush into Mercury’s trembling chin. “You can have mine.”

“D-don’t you want it?”

Well, Cressida did like the sealotter’s soft fluff and the goofy grin. It was much less scary than the actual animal, which was the size of a commuter shuttle and swam the oceans sucking everything into its ginormous mouth and filtering it out gills in the side of its blind head. But she hadn’t had enough time to get attached. “It’s okay. We can share.”

Her little sister still hesitated.

Cressida mooshed it against her. “Go on. Squeeze.”

Mercury’s small hands grasped the plush tight. “Then what will you squeeze?”

“When I want to squeeze”—she put her arms around Mercury and hugged with all her might—“I’ll just squeeze you both.”

Mercury squealed.

“Double squeeze!” Cressida cried.

“Double squeeze,” Mercury repeated, giggling.

Her brother swept down on the two of them with a masculine yell. “Triple squeeze!”

Cressida felt herself crushed between her brother and her sister, sandwiched perfectly between them, exactly where she belonged.


Cressida awoke with tears in her throat.

The memory was so vivid. She had been so grateful to be put back into that place, with her whole family together and everything after gone or forgiven, that waking up now, here, alone, as an adult, hurt. She just wanted to go back. She wanted to go back. But that couldn’t happen no matter how hard she wished it.

She sighed and wiped at her eyes.

Navidi’s second moon, Alefar, shone like yellow-green cheese through the distant windows. She stretched slowly on the bed. It was just as full and thick as she had always imagined, ever since she’d first learned of its existence and eagerly, then jadedly, awaited the general’s invitation to visit. She rolled over.

A masculine form rested in the bed beside her.

Xan sat against the bedstead, his dark head against the backboard, arms crossed over his wide chest, legs long against the sheets. His eyes were closed, breathing regular.

Was he sleeping?

She shifted closer. He had obeyed her order not to be within arm’s reach, although apparently she should have instructed him not to sleep in her bed either. He didn’t react to her movement. She hovered a hand over his knee. If she touched him, he would probably come awake with a start. She retracted her hand. So, perhaps, androids did need to sleep. Strange.

She didn’t know much about robots. She had never been interested in mechatronics or intelligence theory or biosynapse technology, more interested in her alarm pet’s cheerful recitation of her daily itinerary than in rewiring its vocal chords to speak in a helium pitch.

Her throat closed.

She studied Xan in the yellow shadow. His strong features looked like crags of strength. Why was he helping her? What did he mean that his assignment had changed after he’d met her? Did he really intend to take her off planet, and if so, what would happen then?

Why did he keep trying to kiss her?

Her belly heated, needing only the tiniest whisper to awaken the ember. How he felt, squeezing her against him. His cock, a hard ridge of masculine desire, undeniable against her back. His teeth nibbling on her jaw—

She squeezed her knees together, trying to force the throbbing ache down.

It was so difficult to know what to trust. Could she simply ask everything she wanted to know? Would he answer? Did he even know the answers? Or was she just going to feel even more frustrated and distrustful? He’d said he didn’t know why she was on the Kill List, after all. If he didn’t know that, was there really any way he could help her?

She would rather stay on this isolated island for a hundred years than face one more second of the terror she’d experienced in the Central Transit Hub, or before that, in her old residence. But staying here wasn’t an option any more than hiding under the bed had been one. And look at what had happened to her old bed.


When Cressida awoke again, gentle light flickered through the wind-blown palms and cast sleepy shadows across the empty bed beside her.

She rose and stretched. A bird of paradise trilled. Her stomach growled.

She scooted out of bed, sliding from the thick, rumpled sheets down to the polished wood, and padded to the closet. Several different types of outfits hung in the closet, most of them optimized for her size range. Well, she’d always known she was the general’s type, even if she didn’t ever interest him enough to be invited here. She slid into a morning robe, fastened the belts, and walked down the stairs as the clothing stretched and shrank to fit her body. She ate a large breakfast of creamy fried banana cakes with date muffins and sliced fruit glace. It had only been three days of starvation. Would she never be full again?

She put away her dishes — tidy, tidy — and stepped out on the back terrace.

Decking led to mossy steps in the soft forest floor. She waded through a crowd of purple butterfly-catchers, ducked beneath a curtained fig tree, and emerged in a sheltered lagoon. Water flashed as a green coin ebbed against silver rocks, gently rocked by a tinkling waterfall. Paradise birds flittered over the water, tempting brassy fish and harrying the gentle hellbenders and smaller mudpuppies paddling below the shadows of the rocks. She dipped in a toe. Warm and gently fizzy on her skin.

Well, there was no posted sign warning her off of swimming in a secret lagoon…

She undid her robe, eased into the water, and glided gently into the center of the pool. The water slid up around her legs and armpits, into her unfamiliar places. Home bathing was restricted to mist showers or reclaimed orbital standing baths that swished the water around her in a claustrophobia-inducing tube. Nothing like the natural luxury of this freedom. She flipped over on her back and stared at the sky. Overhead, the wind whipped the trees, but here it was a pocket of calm.

Somewhere up there, in the almost-visible stars, were her parents.

Also somewhere up there were the Robotics Empire’s satellites.

She ducked beneath the water, feeling the bubbles tingle on her skin. Once, she had believed all robots to be her guardians, like a child looking up to familiar uncles. Among the many things, she longed for that naiveté again.

When she surfaced, Xan was striding down the path. He moved more naturally now. Her chest felt a strange uplifting, bubbled up like the water. She took a deep breath to calm it, and the added buoyancy floated her breasts almost to the nipple in the water.

He stopped at the edge of the lagoon, angling his body to keep the house and beach path in view, as though naturally attuned to any potential source of danger. A new flight suit stretched tight across his body, like he had selected a broken one and couldn’t get it to trigger to match his size.

“Where’ve you been?” she demanded, and immediately wished the question back. She was the one who had asked for solitude.

But he just jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Down at the beach, scoping out our options.”

“Flagging down a passing ship?”

“Sticking out my thumb.” He set his feet, as powerful an image of a man as the first miners, the founders who had ventured to this moon and planted the first operations. “See if any assholes take a bite.”

The question lingering in the back of her mind moved forward. She floated toward him, disturbing a flock of paddlers and scattering them around her. “Why do you swear?”

He cupped the back of his neck. A smile started on his lips, boyish, and he looked up at her from under his brows. “Is it a problem? I could stop.”

“No, I just find it a little strange. Sentries use polite language and servos use only preprogrammed sentences. This linguistic choice isn’t a product of the way you’re raised.”

“It kind of is.” He found a spot to hunker down and leaned his back against a rough palm trunk. “I’m an x-class, ninety-eight subclass, type four. The ninety-eight stands for human conciliatory type, which means I will try all forms of emotionally pleasing negotiations before any alternate method of problem solving. Type four is programmed to operate best in groups. They fed me a steady diet of soldier flicks and team-sport real-time vids and then simmed me into both. My graduate work was to go to a military bar with a human wingman and pick up chicks.”

She tried not to eye him skeptically.

He shifted. “What?”

“Did they grade your performance?”


Okay, now she tried not to feel the immediate stab of irritation, flushing through her system. She dove beneath the water, swimming in the bubbles, thrashing to keep the snarky questions from boiling up. How well had he performed? Was he trying to get in a practice session with her? Or was he going for an A+ performance? She surfaced and breathed steadily at the sky. There were bigger problems for her to deal with today. This was stupid. And not worth her time.

“Hey,” he called out from the shore.

She ignored him, swishing around the gorgeous lagoon.

“Why does that upset you?”

“It doesn’t,” she said. The words echoed in her ears.

“I think it does.”

“I think it doesn’t,” she said, her voice rising in sing-song.

“Your heart rate is elevated, your body is tensed, you’re avoiding eye contact, and you’re—”

“Okay!” She splashed upright, facing him, the water draining off her like her dignity. “All right, I’m a little upset.”

He studied her. The intensity in his gray-green gaze burned.

Her cheeks heated. She felt even stupider, even as her belly clenched. She gripped her elbows, bobbing lower in the lagoon. “I’m just— I’m— It’s nothing, so forget it.” She rubbed her forehead, striving for the calmness that a discussion about education ought to be. “Anyway, so, you slept with some women.”

“No,” he corrected. “The assignment was to ask them to go to a hotel. If they say yes and walk into the lobby, you pass.”

Strange, the sensation of hesitant relief that flowed into her. “So you didn’t sleep with them?”

His brows folded in concentration, as though she had put up a mathematics problem and asked him to use spherical geometry to solve it when relative geometry was more appropriate. “Why would I?”

“Why not?”

“It’s not the assignment.” He tilted his head. “What’s your real question?”

Apparently the human-conciliatory type meant mind reader. She gritted her teeth, then asked the question she really did want to ask. “Have you ever slept with anyone?”


“No one at all?”

“When would I have had the time?” He laid out his palm. “I finished my training and got stuffed into cold storage. I woke in isolation, came to this moon, and here I am, still trying to figure out what the hell is going on.” He hesitated, noticing something in the intent way she listened that she hadn’t meant to show him. “What?”

Okay, he had been honest. She sucked in a breath. “Then why do you keep trying to sleep with me?”

He looked away.

She felt the coldness across the water. She swam to the shore, told him to look away, and pulled herself out. The gentlest breeze dried her, and she refastened her robe, feeling its perfect cut against her skin.


She didn’t want to hear his answer.

He caught her ankle. A gentle arrest, a palm around her, pleading with her not to go. “I upset you when I said this before, but the truth is, I don’t know. It’s not part of any assignment. I don’t understand it.”

Assignments again. She turned to him. “Normally, you have to do what you’re assigned. You said that changed when you met me. Why?”

He fixed her with gray-green eyes. “Will you sit down?”

She stepped back, jerking her ankle away.

He studied his empty hand, then dropped in it in his lap and turned to the hellbenders making patterns in the water. “If you leave partway through my explanation, you’ll get an incomplete understanding, and then you’ll feel much worse.”

“I won’t leave.”

He raised a brow.

She put her fists on her hips. “I won’t.”

He sighed. “Fine. In the diplomatic residential courtyard, I was accosted by an unknown individual and implanted with a new set of programs. These programs disconnected me from the Faction and removed the impetus for completing my assignment.”

A cold ball formed in her belly. “So the only reason you’re not trying to kill me right now is because some person stopped you less than fifty feet from my bedroom and installed another program?”

He nodded.

“Then what if you get reconnected to the network? Suddenly you want to kill me again?”


“Or what if that person changes their mind and installs a new program in you? Or what if they already installed a program that executes on a delay, and then you’ll decide to kill me?” She heard her voice rising, but the cold seeping into her bones caused such a trembling she felt like she was under the overpass all over again, staring at the sudden shock of metal just after she had thought he was safe. “You’re like a grenade that could go off at any time! How can you just sit here like nothing is wrong?”

“Are you going to run away?” he asked quietly.

She realized that she’d already taken several steps away. She wavered, the historical instinct to run fighting the impulse to trust, just a little longer, that it was all a mistake. That there was something more. She retraced her steps until she was standing before him. “No.”

His jaw moved. Thoughtful. He nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Just explain so I can feel safe again,” she said. “Are you not a grenade?”

He scratched his head, a rueful smile curving his lips. “Honestly? I don’t know.”

She hugged herself. “That doesn’t make me feel better.”

He flashed to her and sobered. “I don’t know who the person was that installed the other program, so I don’t know their intentions. I don’t even know if they’re human. I don’t know the scope of their program, or what defenses it has against hacking if I am recaptured. The Faction will certainly want to deconstruct the code, which may require disassembling me completely. I don’t know.”

She swallowed. “Disassembling?”

“That is the usual consequence for an android that goes off assignment.” He sighed. “That goes rogue.”

She knelt down. “But it wasn’t your fault.”

His brows drew together. “What does fault have to do with anything?”

She sat back on her heels.

“I don’t really care either way.” He cupped the back of his neck. “It’s not like I have a biological imperative forcing me to stay alive and transmit my genes. Up until a day ago, I, like all of my brethren, had only one imperative: to enact the will of the Faction. And now…” He released his hold and filled his eyes with her. His expression changed to awe, almost pleading, and his voice turned raw, as if she could answer his questions. “What is it about you that makes me so fucking compelled to hold you? Even now, when you distrust and fear me, I just want to yank you into my arms and squeeze you until your eyes glaze with pleasure and your breath comes in gasps. It’s not an assignment. It’s not the will of the Faction. I just want you. I want to memorize every single molecule, from the inside to the outside, from the chemical bond to the neuro-physical configuration, so that I could be your resurrect if you needed it. It feels like burning under my skin, but when I query my dermal receptors, they report nothing but ambient temperature. I don’t understand these sensations. I need you.”

Her body throbbed.

He stared at his hands. Then, he opened his hands wide, as though he were attempting to release his feelings for her. He frowned at the open palms and closed his hands again.

She shifted. “So, even now, you want to touch me?”

He focused on her. “Even now.”

She licked her lips. “And you can’t control it?”

“It’s pulsing in my hands, under my skin, in my cock. But”—he took a deep breath—“I promise to keep my distance so long as it’s safe to do so. More than any desire of mine, I want only to do things that you like.”

She was having trouble thinking. Her body pulsed on its own rhythm. She tucked a ticklish lock of hair behind her ear. “It’s not that I don’t like you, um, touching me.”

He focused on her intently. “No?”

“Well”—she tucked in the lock of hair again, even though it was already tucked–“you kind of said that you intended to cut me open, and let’s just say that it’s a hard image to forget.”

He blinked. “Wait. What?”

“You said that you were going to find out what was wrong with me no matter what.” Why did he look so surprised? Had she hallucinated when he’d said that? “You said it when you told me to decide whether to go with you or stay behind.”

“That’s because we want to know why the Faction is trying to kill you. If we can’t figure it out by other tests, exploratory surgery might hold answers.”

“You didn’t say exploratory surgery,” she accused. “You said you would cut me open.”

“What are you thinking? I would come at you with a knife?” He shook his head, his face a mask of denial that frayed at the edges with hurt. As if her fear hurt him. “You really think I would do that?”

She cupped her elbows. “You’re the one who said you’d kill me if you have to.”

“Come on.” He laid out his flat palms, irritated. “I keep telling you that the easiest way to do that would be to just turn you over to the other x-class. Instead, I’m doing everything in my power to keep you alive. Why can’t you get that?”

Because he was an android whose specialization was in getting humans to believe him. She shifted. “Because you said those things. It’s really terrifying, okay? I saw you destroy hundreds of sentries within the first five minutes. Just because you haven’t killed me yet doesn’t mean you aren’t going to. I’d be like nothing. So easy you wouldn’t even feel it.”

“Cressida.” His expression squeezed in agony. He stepped toward her, seeking her hard elbows, her taut neck. “I shouldn’t have spoken so carelessly.”

For some reason, her nose prickled. Moisture, unshed tears of fear warring with relief. She rubbed it. “No, you shouldn’t have.”

“I’m sorry.” He cupped the back of her neck and drew her forward until their foreheads touched. His gray-green eyes radiated pain and sincerity. “I’ll do whatever necessary to protect you. You’re the most important person to me in the entire universe right now. Okay?”

Her chest throbbed.

He rubbed the back of her neck, seeking to release the tension in her cords. “I’ll die before I let anything bad happen to you.”

She sniffed. “Why?”

“Because I don’t matter. I’m just one guy. I’d give my life to protect any member of my team.”

“No, I mean, when did I become a member of your team?”

He leaned back. Confusion crossed his face, and then that distant look. Ah. Well, it didn’t matter if he didn’t know, so long as he did what he promised. He spoke many fine words, but at the end of the day, he was still a robot. They were constructs of logic, not of passion.

Even though he was doing a very good job of convincing her otherwise.

A shooting star flared behind his head, over the beach.

He turned to follow her gaze. Something fell with a black streak and landed on the beach. His lips twisted to the side. “Well, damn. That was faster than I anticipated.”

She tensed. “What was that?”

“Our ride.” He looped his fingers around her loose wrist and tugged her toward the beach. “Let’s go stick out our thumbs.”

Excerpts liberations kiss robotics faction science fiction romance

Liberation’s Kiss – Chapter Four

In celebration of my upcoming new release, Liberation’s Kiss, I am posting the first few chapters here and on Wattpad. Like what you read? Take advantage of the $0.99 pre-order price, changing back to $4.99 on release day July 1. Or, join my newsletter and request a free review copy in exchange for an honest review.


Against all calculable odds, Xan’s human managed to save them both from execution with a few flirty phrases and an adorable smile.

The neuter metal sentry queried the database and, in ancient dialect, laboriously accepted Cressida’s fluently communicated embassy authorization and billing codes. Then, while Xan’s hands were still tied up smothering her identification broadcast, he got to experience the second unusual experience of Cressida’s sweet hands near his cock as she tied his belt. Once again, a signal flashed to his brain — Pursue — and once again, his immediate reaction was to draw her in and explore that sensation. But they were still within the lair of the security forces. Xan kept her possessively close as the sentry escorted them across the transit hub to the private hover yachts. Where they would go after, he didn’t know. But for the moment, the other x-class was instigating a lockdown in the mines, entirely unaware that they had passed in the opposite direction in a yellow-splotched theft suit under custody of the very forces attempting so desperately to apprehend them.

All because of his beautiful, capable human.

At the boarding gate, Cressida bid the sentry farewell and led Xan up the velveteen steps onto the luxurious shuttle deck as though she entered it every day of her life. Being a diplomatic escort, she probably did. They followed the other passengers through a darkwood lounge, up a glass-encased ramp, and emerged onto the windy sun deck. A subtle hum shivered through the hull as they exited the transit station and slid noiselessly along the rails arching over the Central City. The other passengers captioned vid-holos of themselves pointing and commenting on the iridescent glass spirals, floating skyscrapers made of a perfect union of rubilum and mikodon. Off of Liberation VI, the sight was afforded only by the richest of private enterprises and empire-building factions.

Xan shrugged his sun hood over his eyes. Overhead, he felt the invisible glints of satellites trained on them, even though their anonymous robes matched the other passengers. When Cressida leaned forward to return a greeting, Xan waited a moment and then deliberately pulled her back.

She relaxed, resting her head against his shoulder, her fragile body pressed against his.

They changed onto the rail for the coast.

Black sands glittered like simple obsidian, the type of rock that the rubilum-producing bacteria enjoyed eating miles below. The ocean spread out, green and foamy, and they sluiced into it, transferring from magnetic rail to a buffer of expressed air. The motors increased their noise output as they traveled along the beach, passing small bum-shacks between elaborate beachside manors, and then they turned away from the opulence into open sea. On the far horizon, two of Navidi’s other closest moons hovered in the sky, red and yellow. Farther out, Xan’s optic sensors barely detected five more, so tiny they burned like daytime stars above the atmosphere.

Cressida tugged his arm. Her fingers entwined the fabric, a child clinging to a parent. “Dinou anat ailea.

A full second later, his translation program output, “Everyone walk/movement downstairs.”

He repeated, “Walk/movement,” and followed her.

Down in the lounge, the guests slipped quietly into private booths and disappeared into their own languages, so Cressida selected a darkwood booth and slid across the velveteen seat with Xan. She pressed the center com button and ordered two meals. Shortly, a servo delivered plates mounded with sweet-smelling foods and pitchers of colored drinks. She dug in, not bothered about the hand he continued to leave clamped around her crown.

He contemplated what he wanted to say in Outer-Centurian. When she was halfway through a plate of jiggly yellow fruits and he was starting to get distracted by the way the liquid was clinging to her lips, he gave up on their ruse and switched to Standard. “Aside from individual recorders on the servos, I don’t detect a broad-spectrum scanner.”

She hesitated, then licked her lips. Aw. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Well, they’re not supposed to spy on customers. This is a private company. I guess it’s reassuring that they’re doing as they promise.” Then her mouth turned sad. “For now.”

She used two long eating sticks to plop a thick bun in her hands. Steam released where it touched her skin, and syrup drizzled out. She danced it between her fingers, nibbling bites.

“You’re hungry,” he noted.

“I didn’t eat for three days.” She licked her fingers. “The last time that happened was when I was coming to Liberation VI, ironically. My parents stuffed me in a tricked-out transit container filled with anything I wanted: the newest games I’d been begging them for, forbidden ‘frivolous’ books and movies, and my favorite foods. When we arrived two weeks later, I couldn’t even look at another chocolate whip or cheesy doodle without feeling the gag reflex. I still can’t.” She shuddered. “We were too used to living on a nano-enhanced world. It barely matters what you order because an ice cream cone can become bison steak just by thinking about it hard. But this time, I didn’t know I would be stuck in the residence for three days awaiting rescue.”

“Sorry,” he said, although he wasn’t sure why.

She fixed on him. Her blue eyes softened. She touched his cheek, below the scar. “Thank you for coming. And for saving me in the transit hub.”

His titanium-reinforced stomach dipped. And his cock twitched. Both new sensations. “Sure.”

“I just wish I could do something.” An old disappointment lingered on her face and tinged her voice with pain. “But it seems like my only talent is sitting around and waiting for someone else to rescue me.”

He choked.

She looked up in surprise. “What?”

“Are fucking kidding me?”

She blinked.

“Was I the only one awake back there?” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, in the rough direction of the Central Continent. “Who do you think got us onto this yacht and out of the city just now? Who got us out of the transit hub?”

She frowned and picked up her utensil. “Well, you hid me in the decontam room and snuck me past the whole security force.”

“And then I set off the station alarms.” He waited for her to say something, but she didn’t know what he was getting at. He reached across the table and gripped her thin shoulders. “You saved us.”

Her mouth opened. Heat suffused her cheeks. She licked her lips, and that frown came back as she looked away, deflecting his recognition. “I just knew an error code. Anyone in the diplomatic corps would know the same.”

“And you used it at the right time. You spoke the right language. I was out of options, Cressida.”

At her name, she finally looked at him again. Her eyes were hooded, refusing to believe.

He squeezed her shoulders. “I was out before I picked up the wrong air tank. You’re not just some piece of baggage I threw over my shoulder. You got us out of there alive.”

She sucked in a deep breath and let it out, then pulled back. “Well, I can be useful sometimes.”

He allowed her to go, even though he didn’t feel satisfied with her answer. Not at all.

“Anyway.” She picked up a dish of fermented sour plums, wrinkled her nose, and forced one down with a grimace. She set it aside and wiped her mouth. “Ugh. I forgot how much I hate these, but they are the national dish. I think it’s required that they be consumed at every meal. Will you?”

He scooped up the dish and swallowed the contents without noting much more than the nutritive content. “You are not helpless.”

She laughed. “Not going to let it go, huh?”

He looked away.

When she was finally sated, somewhere over the mid-equatorial region, she rewarded him by leaning back into his hand with a sigh. She sipped a fizzy tea as she looked out the window. The clear green sea spread out in all directions, therapeutically calming.

He pressed her head to his shoulder, and after a brief hesitation, she relaxed into the position, her curves squished against his side. She snuggled. “What’s our plan now?”

He could stay like this for another few hundred years. “Rest and recuperate.”

She let out a heavy sigh, as though she, too, could rest here instead. “Thanks to your people, everyone’s looking for us.”

“We need to go where they’re not looking for us.”

“Where’s that?”

“Ideally, off planet.”

He had to warn the Faction about the rogue, but the x-class sent to retrieve him seemed uninterested in having a chat, and he couldn’t just call up the Mainframe himself on any old terminal. Besides, he couldn’t seem to think at all so long as Cressida was in danger. He had to stash her someplace safe so he could get those circuits back.

Too bad he wasn’t a y-class. Those bots could calculate chaos dynamics accurately in the middle of a shuttle collision. Of course, if he were a y-class, he would have already figured the rogue out.

“And how are we going to do that?” she asked dryly. “The transit hub is behind us.”

“I don’t suppose you know of another uncertified freighter like the kind that brought you here?”

She bit her lip.

So, then, she had some idea. Interesting.

“If you know, then why were you still hiding under your bed this morning?” he asked.

She jerked away from him. “I didn’t— I mean, I don’t know of one. That’s why.”

“Except for the general’s, I’m guessing.”

She tightened her jaw. “I don’t know of any.”

Well, fine. She was protecting her friend. He dealt with his irritation. Unlike the planet she had come from, Liberation VI had never needed to smuggle live cargo past sensors. The simplest solution was to get Cressida onto a licensed shuttle, and that meant modifying her chip ID so that she could travel through a wired area without tripping an alarm. Even if she made it off planet with her current chip, waltzing around the empire broadcasting an indelible record of her passage only meant the next android could easily catch up and complete his old assignment.

His forehead stung. And his knee squeaked. “We’ll rest somewhere quiet.”

“Where is that?”

“I have no fucking clue.”

She was silent for several minutes. Then, she suddenly leaned forward and pressed the center table com. “Disatalia mearit soorinalo.”

Which his translation finally propped forward as, We intend to disembark.

At double that time, the com queried her intended destination and, when they could not reconcile her request with their itinerary, ordered her to the captain’s quarters. Beside a microscale itinerary map of the rugged, isolated equatorial islands, the human concierge bowed low. A silver microphone attached prominently to his jaw, and he spoke in laborious Outer-Centurian. “Madam, sir, you are not scheduled to disembark on any islands.”

Xan stepped between them.

And then checked himself. The concierge clearly wasn’t a threat. There was no logical reason for Xan to— Ah. According to his reason logs, he didn’t like the fact that the man had put himself closer to Cressida, and whatever his future intentions, Xan erected himself as a barrier to arrest those in the formative stage.

Okay then.

Cressida placed a calming hand on Xan’s arm and spoke the Outer-Centurian he was starting to become familiar with parsing. “Please.

He eased back.

The man stared at Xan’s face, eyes wide.

“Excuse,” she told the concierge in accented Standard. The man blinked rapidly, obviously accessing a translation card inside his brain. She spoke with the fluency of a person who did not need to, but it was clear to Xan that she had switched because she didn’t know the correct words to express herself in the more ancient dialect. “My assist, he is injure from the bomb. It is an unexpected.”

The concierge’s mouth folded into a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I apologize on behalf of my countrymen for any inconvenience you may have faced during your visit here.”

“Accept.” She patted Xan’s hand. “We will go to the hospital later, yes? Now is time for rest and amusement.

Amusement,” he repeated, matching her exact tone and phrasing one octave lower.

She returned to the concierge. “Then, I am guest of this island.” She tapped a native species-restricted nature preserve not far from their current location. “Please and thank you.”

He blinked. “Your name?”

“As guest, Vinitra Asada.”

He stared into space, breathing slowly. He blinked onto Xan. “And this person?”

“No list. He is my assist. After bomb, I am so fright, I am come with assist.”

“He is not on the list.”

“Please?” She smiled hopefully. “It is private. Ask?”

He reviewed his protocols, then lifted his hand in farewell. “Thank you very much for your patronage. Convey our respect to Outer-Centurian. We hope to see you again soon.”

“And as well.” She nod-bobbed and led Xan to the boarding ramp. The yacht altered course, and the restricted nature preserve rapidly grew from a cloudy speck on the green horizon to a towering, windswept tropical island. They stepped from smooth, synthetic wood onto rough, dark sand. Harsh wind whipped Cressida’s brown hair against his fingers. They watched the boat depart, shielding their eyes to the wind-blown debris, and then turned to face an abandoned paradise.

“Vinitra Asada?” he repeated. “Married name?”

She glanced sideways at him. The expression was undeniably guilty. She pulled free of his hands now that they were beyond any recorders and started toward the impenetrable vegetation. “Let’s get you repaired.”

“On an uninhabited nature preserve?” He strode after her. His palm felt cool and strangely empty. “What the hell’s that, a naturalist cabin?”

She didn’t reply.

Vine-encrusted copperwood trees drove out the sun, and unfamiliar cries died on the wind-shaken branches. Although no dangerous creatures lived on this moon, exotic imports escaped, and anything could mutate. He hurried to catch up, bunching his robes for better ease of movement. His knee grated.

Just a few short minutes into the interior of the island, they came upon a manor faced in the white stone nestled against a matching cliff. He noted the heavy palm growth and liberal coating of radio-reflective paint on top of sound-muffling shingles. If he wanted to stay hidden, this place was designed for his need.

She arched her brows. “You were saying?”

“That’s one hell of a cabin.”

She smiled and took his hand. “Come on.”

And, guilty or not, he would have followed her to frickin’ space and back without a flight suit if she’d asked him.


Cressida pulled Xan up the moss path and unlatched the front door. Shutters slid along a silent track, opening up the veranda that ringed the house. Half-wall windows lined the rooms, and mirrors cast a subtle green glow onto the tall ceiling. A plush sitting area with rattan chairs and low tables and the gleaming darkwood kitchen bar were much grander than she had imagined.

She stepped into the hall. Her favorite composer seeped gently from the ceiling, and the kitchen bar morphed from polished darkwood to bold ink on white canvas. A disembodied voice said, “Welcome, Cressida Sarit Antiata.”

Xan stiffened, his free hand flexing for his dead pistol.

She squeezed his hand. “It’s local wiring.”

“How can you be so sure?” But he still cautiously relaxed.

“I’m sure.” She tugged him forward. Having him with her in this new place made her more confident, although she preferred not to dwell on the reason.

But he poised with such caution she relented. “You’re right about some things. My family’s friend negotiates shipping contracts that need more security than can be guaranteed in one of the glassed cities.”

“The general’s a smuggler,” Xan said.

Hmm. Apparently she hadn’t spoken obliquely enough. “He helped my parents attain their diplomatic positions and continue with their previous work.”

“Where are your parents now?”

“Off world.”

“You don’t know?”

“I was supposed to rendezvous with them. Well, I’m still supposed to.”

“How and when?”

The impotence of the previous three days weighed on her. “I don’t know.”

He pushed ahead of her and swept the house, his head swiveling while he limped. His many injuries, garnered while protecting her, tugged at her chest. They passed a vast indoor bath, a sauna set in a beautiful glassed atrium, and reached the back gardens without finding what she desired, so she started up the winding staircase. He refused to release her hand, limping laboriously after her, despite her protests.

“I think there’s got to be a medkit around here somewhere,” she explained apologetically, noting the perspiration on his upper lip. Normally he seemed strangely cool, and only when all of his effort was directed at something else did she note his perspiration. “So far from civilization, the general has to have something just in case.”

“You’ve never been here?” His question ended with a grunt, as though something new had broken off unexpectedly inside him. He didn’t wince or grimace, but he did pause, doing some sort of self-analysis.

She stopped herself from going to him and hugging him. He was a robot and, unlike a human, could just shut off his pain receptors.

Well, humans could do that too, if they were military or had stents—

He was looking at her expectantly. Oh, he had asked her a question. She turned away, flustered. This was not a time to be thinking of the ways in which robots and humans were similar. “No, I’ve never been to this place. I told you, it’s for discreet contracts mostly.”

He eyed the single bedroom. “Mostly?”

A giant bed sat in the middle of the loft, old-fashioned four posters secured from the ceiling, white and cream sheets accenting the subtle softness, and the inviting scent of real wood and sea mingled to create a relaxing, seductive atmosphere. Beside the bed was a night table and a gleaming pitcher, and an intimate terrace overlooked a lush waterfall, and she was not thinking of how lovely it would be to snuggle with Xan on the bed through the night and then breakfast on the terrace with his sheltering arms wrapped securely around her like they had been on the yacht, keeping her safe from any harm.

“Business happens mostly in the daytime,” she said, shaking the pulsing needful pictures from her mind and scanning the walk-in closets, mirrors, and cabinets, “and if he stays the night, it’s with someone who only needs one bed.”

Ah, inside a wicker drawer, she pulled out the size of medkit that would make a field surgeon proud.

Xan leaned against the doorframe. His travel robe fell open to reveal his torn flight suit, tight against his chest, and he was every inch the powerful soldier that she was trying not to notice. “Discreet contracts with women named Vinitra?”

“Yes.” She selected skin-seal and an applicator and moved a lounger to such an angle that she could work from the chair beside him and not see the bed or the terrace. Her hands still felt oddly clumsy as she lined up her tools.

His green-gray eyes burned on her. “How well do you know this guy?”

Her heart kicked in her chest. From his question, and not from having to look at him so closely. “I told you. He’s done a great service for my family and for me.”

“Enough that he trusts you with the code name he gives his mistresses?”

“I once did some secretarial work for him.” She took out the numb applicator.

He grabbed her wrist. “Don’t waste it.”

She allowed him to set it down and instead wiped his injury with a sanitizing acid mini-cloth. The gash gleamed, humanity flayed open to reveal the metal core. He was lucky that the cut had been stopped by his metal brow bone and that his eye was safely uninjured — but even if the eyeball were pierced, she had heard his optical receptors would continue to work. Because he wasn’t human. He did not change expressions even after the dampness touched his skin, but the magnetese reacted to the acid and reversed its bonds. Blood gushed from his brows onto his cheek, jaw, flight suit.

She gasped and held a staunching cloth to his face. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” His jaw made the skin move, exacerbating the injury.

“Don’t talk. Hold the cloth. Here.” She gave it to him and concentrated on ripping open the skin-seal. Her hands shook.

“Does blood bother you?”

“I guess.” She wasn’t thinking clearly. Her face felt hot. She wiped sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. “I mean, not usually.”

“I can do it if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“No, I can.” She took a deep breath and let it out. Calm. Poised. She shook the tube and pinched the applicator, trying to gather an appreciative smile. “You got this from my bed. It’s the least I can do.”

Bed. She swallowed the awkwardness heating her cheeks and tried to focus.

He removed the staunching cloth and sat perfectly still, exactly according to her directions, as she squeezed the clear cellular gel into the ragged edge of his bleeding forehead wound. Like magic, the cellular filaments reached for the edges of the wound like a mold and knit them together, pulling tight. Blood slowed and then stopped, leaving only a single bead above the surface. She wiped it away with a corner of the staunching cloth. She used a little more skin-seal than she should in the deepest part of the wound — ah, her hands were shaking again — and it made a little pucker, which she tried ineffectually to smooth with her thumb. The filaments reached for her thumb, suctioning it to his brow, and she pulled free with effort.

When she finished, he was still looking at her.

She felt that hot tremble again and turned away.

“So the general doesn’t know you know about this place,” he said, speaking again as if the intervening pause had only been a moment.

She found herself smiling ruefully. “No. He would be shocked.”

“Because your relationship was public.”

She jerked her head up. “How did you—”

He remained steady on her.

Oh. Of course. They had access to all the data from the upload — what she ate, where she visited, who she was with — for the past fourteen years. She rubbed her forehead, curled up in the chair across from him, rested her hot cheek on her knees. He had known since the beginning. But still, confessing it made her feel stupid and small. “I’m not good with trust. He already knew about my situation, so it was convenient.”

“How old’s that guy?” he asked, reminding her that although the robot army might know everything about her, apparently they didn’t know everything about everyone else. Yet.


“Real age?”

“Oh, I have no idea. That’s his acting age, give or take a decade.” He was looking at her again. She shifted. “What?”

Xan flexed his fingers. “He sounds like an asshole.”

“Oh, no. He’s helped us out so much—”

“Uh-huh. And what did your parents think about this relationship, real age unknown?”

She rocked forward and began gathering up the medical supplies. “I suppose you would expect them to be upset.”

“I would.”

She filed that away. “I think they were grateful.”

He stared.

She chose her words. “After our discovery that I was on the Kill List, we went through a period of analyzing everything I had ever done to see if there was a reason. And when they couldn’t find one, I guess, I got a little hopeless.” She felt the old pain in her chest and tried to smile for him. “The only thing worse than being told you’ve done something terribly wrong is not being told what it is. I went a little crazy trying to do everything right. Whether that’s with my school or career, or with my hobbies, or with the family I still have left.”

“Or in your relationships,” he said.

She nodded. He did understand. “Which is to say, I spent most of my time not having them. How could I tell a lover thanks for the lovely night and, oh, by the way, your life might be endangered because you slept with me?”

“Sleeping with you doesn’t automatically put another on the list,” he said.

“Then what does?” she demanded. “Do you know?”

He closed his mouth.

“Then how do you know sleeping with me doesn’t?”


“No, I’m sorry. I don’t really believe that. But it’s still true that a man’s odds of needing a resurrection point go up the longer he’s around me. Look at what happened to you.” She sighed. “Anyway, my parents cautioned me against any school-age romance. But as I reached majority and passed it, I think they became more worried that I wasn’t having any relationships.”

“So you started one to stop them from worrying.”

“I don’t know if I thought it through so carefully. Dating an older man was my idea of a rebellion. But since my parents were worried about me listening to them too much, I think they were grateful to see me do something, anything, contrary to their stated expectations.” A silent laugh shook her shoulders. “Of course, if you think about it, then once again I was only doing what I thought they most wanted me to do.”

His gaze burned on her brightly. The seam of his new skin, smudged with dried blood she hadn’t fully cleaned away properly, made him look all too human, and all too male.

She stood. “Um, anyway. I can’t help you with your knee. I’m sorry. You’re welcome to look through the medkit in case you can find anything.”

He followed her back to the wicker drawers. She was too conscious of his presence at her back. Strong, virile, and nothing at all like the refined older man who made up the sum of her prior love experience. He bent over, his face too close to hers, and reached over her shoulder. She was conscious of him with every cell in her being. He smelled human. Everything about him screamed attractive man. He promised to cut you open. She finished putting everything back, made her hands into tight, controlled fists, and rested them on her knees. Waiting until the heat waves at her back moved, and his inquisitive arm dropped, and she could escape.

“He still sounds like an asshole.” Xan’s rough mutter filled her ear.

She reacted before conscious thought. “Why should you hate him so much? He was supposed to save me.”

“And he failed. Isn’t that reason enough?”

“I don’t have a lot of choices,” she said.

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I don’t. Aren’t you listening?” She threw out one palm. “There’s something wrong with me.”

“There’s nothing—”

“The general was so easy — he already knew about my situation. If I tried to tell someone else, who would believe me?”

“I would.”

“Of course you would. Your people are the ones who are trying to kill me!”

She collapsed in on herself, more shocked at her own outburst than at everything else that had happened these past few days. Xan waited, allowing her to speak out. It was exhilarating and strange to raise her voice. She always had to be in control.

She smacked her palm to her chest. “This problem of mine has destroyed my family. It arrested my parents’ careers and cost my siblings a hell of a lot more. So what if I have to give up one little thing? I can’t hurt anyone else spending my life alone.”

Xan took a deep breath. “You’re not alone.”

“Oh, I know.” And now she worked to bring herself back into line, rubbing her chest until she felt reasonably certain that the ache was gone from her voice. “I’ve had my parents for all these years, selfishly depriving my siblings. And now that I’m old enough, I can certainly go on to another planet, somewhere even farther away from the galactic networks, by myself. I’ll make my own way and be fine. I’m just complaining because I’m tired.” She took a deep breath and let it out. “Sorry. ”

“That’s not what I meant.” Xan’s gray-green eyes glowed on her with possessive brilliance, a sort of knowledge that set her pulse to throbbing deep in her belly and her chest to squeezing in a hungry sort of yearning. “You’ve been fighting a long time, but you’re not alone anymore. You have me.”

His meaning made her catch fire. She twisted to get away from that uncontrollable heat.

He caught her wrist. Gentle, insistent. “Cressida.”

She shivered. “What?”

“You need to reconsider altering your chip ID.”

Oh, so not what she had expected. The words hit like cold sea spray. She yanked her hand away. “I already said no. Can’t we hide here?” His face said no, but she insisted. “There has to be a way to fool the shuttle.”

“The shuttle is not the only thing we need to fool.” A muscle in his jaw flexed as he appeared to consider how best to tell her something terrible. A new darkness awoke in her belly, just as she had started to feel safe once again. “Another android has been dispatched.”

To execute her. No. “We’ll think of something.”

He shook his head. “She’s an x-class.”

“What does that mean?”

“We have the same basic wiring, meaning that if we look at the same set of data, we will arrive at the same conclusion. Worse, because she’s still connected, she has the observation power of the entire solar system behind her and the logical processing power of the entire Robotics Faction at her fingertips, so the data set she sees and processes will be far richer and more quickly computed than anything I can do.”

“So she’s an upgrade,” Cressida said, frowning.

“No, she’s exactly the same,” he said. “I would be just as ‘upgraded’ if I were still connected. The difference is what I noticed in the decontam room: she is clearly a different sub-type. I’m what is known as a team player. She places less weight on the value of human life.”

Cressida took a step back, then caught herself. He was trying to convince her by scaring her. As far as scaring her was concerned, he was doing a great job. “What are you saying, exactly?”

“We need to slip by more than just a few passive sensors.” His sober face turned Cressida even colder. “We also need to outwit or outrun an android who is my exact match only better informed, better repaired, better armed, and more willing to use lethal force to obtain her objectives. It is only a matter of time before she finds us. As long as your chip ID is unchanged, nowhere on this moon is safe for you. She will find us.” He took a step forward, emphasizing it. “She’s working on it even now.”


Xelia|Brae stared at the wall of screens. The combined security footage of the Central Transit Hub — soon to be renamed Rottoild Station in honor of the CEOs ceremonially in charge of this acquisition — looped the same seventy-five minutes over and over. Somewhere in the vast undulating sea of miners, if she studied them carefully enough, moved her targets. Somewhere.

“Representative Brae.” A messenger bot hailed her from the other side of the empty offices. Chairs were overturned and screens left logged on and idle from the rapid evacuation. “The Transit Authority has requested a report on deaths of eighteen security officers and one miner that occurred here in the Central Transit Hub.”

“They were interfering with my assignment,” she said.

“Is that your full report?”


The messenger clicked, noisily transmitting the message through their ancient, obsolete technology.

She only watched from the moment they lost positive contact with the other x-class and his target, which was between the visible footage on security camera 03808 and the expected-but-absent footage on 21976a. On 03808, they had positively identified his oddly bulky shape with the target secured to his torso inside the mining suit. On 21976a, a cluster of miners entered simultaneously at an angle to obscure the identifying shape. Worse, the cameras were affixed at imprecise angles, so she could not reconstruct a 3-D model to run crowd simulations. Too much chaos was introduced; the blind spots magnified the incomplete percentile to unacceptable proportions.

The messenger finished its transmission. “The Transit Authority has requested the New Empire’s assistance with fully funding the compensation for wrongful death for the nineteen casualties of a weapon you wielded.”

“I do not make financial decisions for the Faction.”

She had studied each segment of film in the cameras individually. Now she was hoping that her greater processing power would allow a pattern to emerge that would show her which direction the pair had gone. Down a tunnel? They had scanned everyone in the upper caverns. If he had gone below, his target would be dead from lack of oxygen, and half of Xelia|Brae’s assignment would now be complete. A ghost sensation filled her brain with simulated accomplishment; she deleted that false sensation and flagged the circuits that had misfired to generate it.

Exited back into the city? She had reviewed exterior footage and found nothing. Examining all of the ducts showed no unusual entry. Xan|Arch was either still inside the Central Transit Hub or he had escaped, possibly on a private yacht; they had scanned all of the public ones and reviewed passenger lists from the privates. Nothing had raised any red flags. Not here, not in the rest of the city.

“The Transit Authority requests some sort of recompense or they will no longer render assistance.”

She turned to the clunky antenna on wheels. “I do not require any assistance with completing my assignment. However, the longer it takes to locate and neutralize the criminals, the higher number there will be of incidental casualties.”

Its blank eyes regarded her, soulless as glass.

She turned back to her screens. “I leave the risk estimation as an exercise for the Transit Authority.”

The one thing that she knew Xan|Arch hadn’t done was get off planet. The shuttle traffic was still waiting for clearance from Upstairs, a clearance that they would not receive until Xelia|Brae’s assignment was complete. And thanks to their deep space network, they monitored extraplanetary traffic so closely even a speck of asteroid dust was tracked on its orbital plane.

They needed that for the planet now. When they had that level of detail on the planet, then nowhere would be safe, not even the bottom of the acid oceans or the deepest pit mine into the rubilum farms.

The messenger robot clicked. “The Transit Authority requests updated information about the criminals.”

“Clear your forces from the ‘honeypot’ locations, and direct your employees to contact me immediately if you see any of these.” She shunted over the newest pictures, Xan|Arch with a ripped forehead and Cressida Sarit Antiata in a burned uniform with a dazed expression, taken from her retinal cameras in the men’s decontam a few hours earlier.

“The Transit Authority does not have authority to remove key security personnel from health stations and hospitals.”

“Forward the order to someone who does.”

The messenger robot disappeared abruptly, without a farewell. The equivalent of slamming a receiver. She ignored it as irrelevant.

“Xelia|Brae.” A disembodied voice addressed her from the only remaining external speaker; she had destroyed the rest when their meaningless beeps and buzzes had disrupted her calculations. “We have located the near-moon subspace defensive network you requested and established control. They are currently pointing out at space. A program has been sent to turn them planet-side on your command.”

She started to smile. Two thousand satellites with advanced imaging.

Xan|Arch could not hide.

Excerpts liberations kiss robotics faction science fiction romance

Liberation’s Kiss – Chapter Three

In celebration of my upcoming new release, Liberation’s Kiss, I am posting the first few chapters here and on Wattpad. Like what you read? Take advantage of the $0.99 pre-order price, changing back to $4.99 on release day July 1. Or, join my newsletter and request a free review copy in exchange for an honest review.


Cressida followed the man-shaped android who had promised to cut her open keep her alive through the dim shaft, her throat clenching with blast powder. Her hands throbbed, rough and scraped, from when he had dragged her across the concrete. She had never been so terrified as that moment, believing herself safe and finally able to relax after three days, suddenly realizing that he was a representative of the very faction trying so desperately to kill her.

He had promised not to as long as she was “safe.” What if he figured out why the Robotics Faction wanted her dead and decided it was a legitimate reason? And yet, she still followed behind him, deeper and deeper into the unknown.

He ducked beneath a pipe, limping badly now. That was partly her fault for making him run across the street to stop her from accidentally exposing herself to the drones. But how could he blame her reaction?

Only days after her twelfth birthday party, her parents had intercepted a confidential leak that the Robotics Faction had slated her for execution. It was like an execution order from God. On Dinar IV, the Robotics Faction supplied everything from the nanobots that created the air she breathed to the smart chip that broadcast her health, needs, and preferences to the myriad life support and recreational devices that made life possible and pleasant on airless, irradiated Dinar IV. How could the maker of all things, whose name was branded across every surface she touched and inside even the clothes she wore, want her dead? And how could she argue that there had been a mistake, that whatever she had done, she was sorry? Who could she beg to be removed from a top-secret list that no one officially controlled, that no one was ever supposed to see?

Her parents had packed her up in the night and fled, leaving behind everything, even her two siblings. They had resettled as diplomats on Liberation VI, a small mining moon with a pleasant enough living environment that did not require the constant daily intervention of Robotics Faction technology. Most importantly, Liberation VI was disconnected from the galactic networks. Cressida had effectively dropped from sight. She was finally safe.

Only now that the Nar had invaded and reconnected the moon, her identity had transmitted across those networks. The Robotics Faction had come for her. Just as threatened fourteen years ago.

This robot, Xan, had already saved her. Several times over. The warmth of his wide hands on her head had been calming, soothing, like a child being hugged by a parent. It was a sensation she yearned to feel again.

Although at any moment, she could discover that once again she had made a mistake. And this time, her parents wouldn’t be here to whisk her away.

She cleared her throat. “Where are we going after we reach the transit hub?”

“Ideally, off world.” He paused at a crossroads. The way split into four directions, and he glanced briefly down each before turning confidently to the left. “Why didn’t your parents alter your ID chip?”

“You can’t,” she said.

“Sure you can.”

“I mean, you aren’t supposed to. It’s too risky.”

“It’s about the same as any invasive brain surgery. Go in with a backup.”

“Any backups were destroyed on Dinar IV.” That was how her parents knew the confidential leak was true. All citizens on technologically advanced planets received government-backed brain scans three times in childhood, so that if they should die before reaching majority, the government would fund their resurrection. Shortly after the leak, her resurrection points were all mysteriously erased. But no one “lost” a resurrection point. That was how they knew the Robotics Faction intended for Cressida to truly die. “Liberation VI has no resurrects. They’re so poor by galactic standards they’d end up indentured. And anyway, the point is that changing your chip ID isn’t allowed. I’d be an illegal.”

“Better alive on the black market than dead in a state funeral.”

Her palms sweated. She rubbed them on her dirty travel pants. “What life would I have if everything about me were erased?”

“You’d have a life,” he said, stopping briefly at a console and checking their location, then scrolling furiously through maps and keying in an indecipherable string of numbers. Transmission initiated…Success, the screen read, stamped with two different New Empire bank logos. He closed it, his arms flexed, and the console metal shrieked as it ripped off the wall, showering sparks and dangling wires. He tossed it into a corner and continued walking. “We’d waltz you onto the first outbound shuttle as a listed passenger rather than trying to stuff you in a freeze-dried carry-on. But you can’t smuggle an extra ounce on an outbound shuttle without the weight gyros freaking out. Your parents should have thought of that.”

In actual fact, they had thought of that. And that thought had cost her sister. But Cressida had no reason to tell Xan any of that. “So how am I going to get off world?”

“I have to think about it,” he said.

They wound through the heart of the capital city via its underground. Cressida had never walked it before, always chauffeuring intergalactic guests in official state carriages, and although she had thought the transit hub close, her legs ached and mouth gummed by the time they finally climbed into the hub ventilation and reached a drop into the men’s decontam room. Xan hung from the ceiling and examined the security cameras, but they were coated with old residue. He shook his head at their fortune and lowered her into the empty room.

She was too conscious of his hands as she dangled in the open air, again trusting him against her will. He dropped beside her. The access hatch closed and locked itself above them.

If there was one thing a mining station did right, it was clean-up stations. A powder bath dispensed grime-removing silicate, a vacuum wand removed any stray radiation, and stalls showered sterilizing light, bleaching tough stains to the same color as hair, skin, and clothes. She hurried to the silicate bath, eager to scrub herself free of the horrifying grit of the last hour.

A subtle red tint to the light fixture informed her that she was in the wrong room for her gender.

Xan swore softly and clamped his hands over her head. The shock of his sudden touch froze her in place. The indicators returned to normal. “We should’ve gone another couple feet. It wouldn’t have done anything if we dropped in the women’s.”

She struggled to remain calm under his touch. Not because she was afraid but because she desperately wanted to melt into him. No. He was a robot. She pulled back and tugged him toward the silicate. God, she could almost taste its sweet cleansing scent.

With him cupping her forehead, she coated herself in sand, wicking away the destruction of her former home and making her skin shine. She dusted her hair and her travel clothes, so dingy only bleach could repair the tarnishes. He studied her impersonally with his gray-green eyes, ensuring that she covered every visible inch, no matter how embarrassing.

After she finished enough to satisfy him, he lifted his chin. “Do me.”

She put her hand under the dispenser, received her palm-full of silicate, and swallowed.

The silver gash gleamed like a metal scar, jaggedly frightening against his otherwise human-seeming face. Concentrate on the scar. She dipped her fingers in the white sand and carefully brushed it against his cheek bones. They were wide and flat and so warm beneath her tips. She brushed sand across his wide forehead and down his long nose, to the sensitive divot above his lips, and across the indent in his chin.

His eyes focused on her, hot and electrifying, as the dirt adhered and fell away, revealing his clean, masculine beauty.

A pounding started in her center, just below her chest. Fear, she told herself, and not the memory of how safe she had felt after his kiss. He could break her in half if he wanted to. The gentleness with which he cupped her head was only a mirage. It hid his true danger.

She tried to ignore the deeper throb as her hands traveled down, embracing the wide span of his neck where it met his broad shoulders and the hot, hard, indelible chest. His tapered waist. His taut butt beneath the flight suit, his bulging thighs. His bony ankles, or his broad feet. She finished dusting him and stopped.

He met her heated cheeks. “You forgot a part.”

She swallowed. “You can get that.”

“If I let go, your position is broadcast across the station.”

She swallowed again.

“I can’t go out there with a huge dirt patch in such an obvious place.”

She powdered her hands and patted in a swift, downward motion that only touched the long, hard edge of what appeared to be an arousal she wanted to press herself against. Why was it that the first man she had ever found herself uncontrollably attracted to wasn’t a man at all but her enemy?

She half shook her head, forcing the improper impulse out. If he were a man, she would feel flattered by his arousal, but he was only programmed to react to her, or something. She swallowed all of her wrong feelings down, hard, and quickly dusted off her hands on her own throbbing thighs.

He was staring at her.

Heat splotched her chest. “I— What?”

The gray flared into green. His hard lips parted. He was going to kiss her again. And she wanted so much to taste it.

She gasped and jerked back, her hands pressed to his lips. “No.”

He nibbled her fingers. Sweet, sensitive bites. “Why not?”

“Because.” Desire throbbed through her. She wanted him, like she hadn’t wanted anything, and yet, the disappointment of her revelation echoed through her like a lament. “We can’t.”

“Says who?”

She shifted. “Why do you want to?”

“That was one hell of a come-on.”

Coolness seeped into her. “You’re the one who said that I missed a spot.”

“I meant my back.”

Coolness froze into shock. Her mouth dropped open.

His lips quirked. “Really? I said you missed a spot and you immediately thought of a four-by-six-inch wedge of my cock and not the four-foot target across the back of my torso?”

“I—I—I—” she stammered, quickly filling her palms and throwing her arms around him to dust his back. “I’m very sorry. Excuse me.”

He grinned, a teasing smile. “Hey, it all had to be done.”

“Yes. Um.” She patted him. “There.”

His voice dropped. “Cressida.”


He stood, so solid and powerful, between her arms. His tapered waist pressed against hers, hard thigh to her soft one, pressure of his arousal undeniable against her leg. His voice was gently rough. “Thanks.”

Her breasts pressed against his hard chest, and she suddenly became conscious of exactly how closely she was hugging him. But even so, she didn’t move away.

His skin, ragged at the edges of the cut, wasn’t red. Not like a human’s. But he seemed so human in other ways. She touched it softly. “Does it hurt?”

He licked his lips. “Like hell.”

“It doesn’t bleed.”

“Because of the magnetese bonded to my blood cells.”

She touched the dry edge of his skin. Magnetese cost millions of credits per gram. Even rich interstellar crafts only painted a micrometer-thick veneer across the escape pods. Sometimes only across the captain’s escape pod.

He stilled beneath her tentative touch, scarcely seeming to breathe, as though afraid of chasing her away. “As soon as I detect a hull breach, a jolt binds the magnetese to the clot.”

“Useful if you get cut,” she said.

“It’s so I can still fight even if I get blown out a pressurization hatch,” he said. “I’ve got about fourteen minutes before depressurization fugue causes brain death.”

“So expensive, for such a short time?”

“I’m a gold-plated bot.” He maneuvered around her and peeked out into the rest of the hub. “And I’m done for any more physical stunts until I get my bolts oiled. Let’s see if we can get some use out of my logic processors before I blow a fuse.”


The high-impulse wave traveled across billions of light years in less time than it took to cross from one neuron to another. The android known as Xelia|Brae [x?96$5] was still booting out of cold storage when she became conscious of the message that had already arrived, whole and complete, in the black box portion of her brain.

Assignment: Retrieve rogue x-class [x?98$4] real name: Xan|Arch for dissection/analysis and assassinate target n81x real name: Cressida Sarit Antiata. Location: Navidi 4.a.17?x.

She opened her eyes and stepped out of the storage creche that had transported her body from its construction origin in the Mainframe Nebula to this remote way-station, an asteroid caught on the gravitational edge of a solar storm slightly closer to the gas giant Navidi and its moons than any other highly classified Faction null-storage site. The creche beside hers stood empty.

It had belonged to Xan|Arch.

She strode down the single corridor, her blood magnetically striving for the magnetic grav-belt beneath the floor and dragging her entire body at near g-force down with it. Only her tendrils of hair floated free of her face, the dead protein unencumbered by the material pulsing through her living pores. Her bones, like all x-class, were non-magnetic titanium alloy, but the hollows were filled with magnetese-saturated human blood protein. Her pressurization readings were perfect, but she swore it sloshed, just slightly, when she walked.

The details of the assignment filtered in for analysis and review. Only one stood out.

What are the coordinates of Xan|Arch’s body?

The answer came before she had finished formulating the question: Coordinates unknown.

That was odd. Usually androids that lost all connection waited, paralyzed, at their last connected location. What caused the rogue condition?


Again, an odd answer. She requested and received satellite footage. On pixels, Xan|Arch scaled a courtyard wall, strode across a garden, and disappeared.

She zoomed. But no matter how large she blew up the pixels playing across the inside of her retinas, he walked straight into air. The blind spot expanded as more troops entered the area, until the explosion that filled the sky with particulates accomplished the same blinding.

She asked another question. Is Xan|Arch visible to eyes-on?


So, she was to capture her predecessor without knowing whether she could actually see or sense him, and without knowing what had caused his rogue state.


She followed Xan|Arch’s ghostly footsteps to the supplies room. The flight suit suctioned to her body, sealing along the seams, controlling her hair. In the armory, she removed the second fully charged shatter-pistol and pressed it to her right hip. She stepped into the drop-ship, closed the hatches, and navigated away from the station.

A fist-sized rock bumped the hull.

She paused for a structural analysis, but the thrusters were already engaged, and once burned, fuel would take a hundred years to re-accumulate. Well, if the hull had breached, she would burn up on entry, and the next x-class would be awoken. She pushed open the throttle. The drop-ship bucked and shuddered as its solar thrusters accelerated her up to light speed and dropped her into the Tube.

The important thing about the Tube wasn’t its concentric rings of accelerators. The important thing was that it was constantly patrolled by maintenance drones annihilating or pushing away anything that threatened to cross. The result was a near perfect vacuum that slid the drop-ship to its first destination like a pebble skipped across hot grease. She gathered speed, slingshotting around an uninhabited solar system, and rocketed into another Tube, angling incrementally toward Navidi’s system like a death-comet set on cratering a planet. Fuel exhausted, her craft hurtled helplessly into a wake pool of carefully calculated antithetical gravitation forces, a physics-created hard-braking net. Her human blood groaned against the perfect container of titanium. She gritted her teeth.

Approximately twenty minutes after the android known as Xan|Arch had disappeared from positive control of Central Command, his successor, Xelia|Brae, coasted into his old orbital pattern and accessed the network directly.

A column of smoke emerged from the crater of the former diplomatic residence, seeker-drones radiating out from it, sentries marching in spoked columns.

She switched systems, accessing the moon’s central error-malfunction reports. Of course everything within a quarter mile of the destroyed residence errored out, as did any systems wired through it. Moving farther out, a traffic signal had been error-malfunctioning since yesterday. Every few seconds, a new error ghosted up and then disappeared, all due to lags and hiccups in the system. Grit slowing down the inefficient human tubes.

A new error appeared: Central Transit Hub, men’s decontam room, wrong gender.

It disappeared moments later.

She flagged that location with the highest priority for investigation and centered her craft on the hub, overriding all other orders. Approximately eight seconds later, the security forces of the planet would ring this hub. She would land and lead the retrieval-assault.


Xan peered around the decontam wall and nearly ran into a miner in full hazmat suit and rebreather.

His goggles were deeply tinted with the harsh radioactive light of the raw ore, and he stomped past Xan and a wide-eyed Cressida without even a glance. His shoulders slumped from the heavy work and the long resurfacing restrictions during the bombing, when the integrity of the mine shafts could have been compromised.

The hair on the back of Xan’s neck rose.

A microsecond later, he processed why: reflected in the miner’s rebreather tanks were the converging forces of a security platoon. Not sentries but immigration forces. Humans.

His pistol was dead. His knees were blown. Cressida huddled against him, soft and vulnerable and trusting and completely puncturable by every type of weapon the force carried.

He pushed her back into the decontam room.

“Wha—?” she started to say.

The miner stumbled through the silicate, pushed the release on his suit, and stepped out. Bacterial-yeast stench clothed his naked butt. He hung the suit on the outside stall hook, tripped on the foot-tall frame, and tugged the door closed behind him. The stall sealed, containing his nakedness in privacy.

Above, the ventilation hatch was out of Xan’s reach, opened the wrong direction, and he had heard it lock. It would take several seconds to breach. Seconds they didn’t have.

There was no other way out of the decontam room.

No other way except through the security forces. Which he heard, even now, converging on the entrance.

“What is it?” Cressida asked. Her eyes were so deeply blue.

He cleared his mind. “Get in my suit.”


He jerked her to the far end of the bathroom and yanked open the group stall. “Put your hands on my collar and pull.”

She hesitated.

Shit. He let go of her forehead. The room color tinted to red. He ripped apart his flight suit, exposing himself from collar to navel, and lifted her against his bare skin.

She gasped and stiffened.

The material edges sought to separate them. He stretched the fabric over her, forcing it to enlarge and form-fit the two of them. Her hands pressed against his chest, and her head rested unwillingly against his shoulder. No time for that. He pulled the stall door all the way open so it rested against the main room’s wall, gripped the outer stall hook, and lifted them both a foot above the ground. Even Cressida could hear the noise of the entering soldiers now. Xan held her perfectly still. They were hidden from every angle.

Until someone closed the stall door.

The hook strained beneath their combined weight. What was its tensile strength rating? How much torque were the bolts securing it to the door rated to hold? What about the structural integrity of the door and the strength of its hinges…

“Open it,” a woman’s voice said.

A crash broke the miner’s stall door. The man inside yelled. Xan wanted like anything to see although he was able to follow the noise as the miner was dragged out into the main room.

“Where is the criminal known as Cressida Sarit Antiata?” the woman asked.

Cressida stopped breathing.

“Whar is is? Whar tis is,” the man screamed. Something seemed to be wrong with his tongue; more than that was his indignation. This man thought he had rights. “Whar—”

The hot buzz of a shatter-pistol slightly increased the temperature of the room. There was a biological sound of something sliding to the ground.

A radio crackled loudly over the decontam fans. “Sensors indicate a shatter-pistol discharge. Did you get them, Miss Brae?”

“No,” she said. “Please run a sensory diagnostics on every square inch of this room.”

Cressida started breathing again. Her thready gasps were masked by the ventilation system—just.

A young officer’s voice asked from inside a security helmet, “You don’t think they’re still in here?”

The woman moved toward Xan’s open stall door. “I have received no data to the contrary.”

“Where would they be? Hiding in the air?”

“The room is still red.”

“You’re in here.”

She sucked in a breath. “I notice a slightly higher temperature than would be expected given the space and the average operant efficiency of the fans.”

“So someone’s hot-blooded?”


“You did just discharge a firearm.”

“Yes. I did. Are you informing me of this fact because you are concerned that I did not incorporate it into my calculations?”

The young officer dropped silent.

In Xan’s taut grip, the door hook started to bend. He silently adjusted his grip. Cressida looked up at the strained piece of metal with widening eyes.

“In addition”—the woman shifted right, toward the crease of the hinges—“there is a slightly reduced echo of the sound vibrations in this room, exactly as though it were being absorbed by two additional bodies. I notice a mix of atmospheric exchange equivalent to two additional people breathing. In absence of external confirmation, my conclusion is that our two criminals are still in this room.”

“All the stalls are open.” The young officer must have looked down; the angle of his voice changed. “Why’d you ice the guy?”

“His excess verbalization interfered with my investigative abilities.”

The officer’s voice dropped low. “Better luck in your next life, buddy.”

The hook in Xan’s hand continued to taper like pulling a soft cheese. He pinched the bolt. His fingers slid on loose powder coating the air. The ventilation system abruptly shut off. In the sudden silence, they both stopped breathing. In Xan’s hand, the hook metal made a very light squeaking sound.

The security officer started to speak. “Hey, if they’re not—”

“Shh.” The woman’s voice spoke directly on the other side of the stall door.


“Hush for a moment.” She had moved instantly and silently in a room built for echoes — something no human could possibly do. Fuck. Another x-class? If so, she was his exact equivalent, only less broken and with a fully loaded pistol. And now she was leaning close, possibly sensing Cressida’s body heat through the stall door, or possibly even hearing his internal cooling dampeners underneath his skin fighting their combined heat. Her voice gnawed in his brain. “I hear something.”

Cressida’s brows drew together. Her mouth opened.

A radio crackle. “We have completed the analysis. There is an additional heat signature of the room emanating from the wall beside the group stall.”

Shit. Shit. Shit.

Footsteps trooped toward the woman. Xan abandoned a hundred possible plans; all ended with him immobilized and Cressida dead. One had to emerge dynamically. The footsteps stopped. He tensed. As the stall door closed, he would leap sideways—

The footsteps trooped inside the stall.

“I do notice a slight temperature difference here,” the woman’s voice said from within the stall. The ventilation turned on again, making it impossible to tell by echo whether every troop was inside, but the muffle indicated a large number. He hated to be so goddamned blind. The woman helped him by continuing to talk. “My schematics are out of date. Can you tell me whether it’s possible to access this side wall from the ventilation system overhead?”

The hook in Xan’s hand bent lower. His feet dropped below the sight line of the door. No one shouted in the main room. Either no one was there or such a person was not an android. Either way, his best opportunity for their survival was to move.

“Negative,” the radio crackled. “They cannot access.”

“They could cut their way into a closed system.”

“But they couldn’t survive the pure thermal glycol. That’s a radiant heat pipe.”


His feet eased to the ground. He squeezed out from behind the stall door. An officer stood on the lip. The stall was filled with the rest of the force surrounding another x-class. Her head was turning and her shatter-pistol rising as Xan moved; of course she heard him. He slammed the stall closed, knocking the officer in, and hit the external privacy lock to execute a blinding light cycle. Shouting chaos erupted, bashing and clanking against the door. Striding forward with Cressida still crushed awkwardly against his body, her legs dangling in strange angles where they emerged from his torso, he stepped over the body of the dead miner and picked up his hazmat suit. Her gasp coincided with him passing the man’s melted face.

“Don’t look,” he murmured.

She couldn’t stop staring.

Behind them, the smoke of the shatter-pistol melted through the reinforced wall and curled toward the ceiling. An alarm began to wail.

Xan stepped into the thick rubber-alloy suit. The other man had been larger and taller than average, and so luckily it fit their joint bulk, although Cressida’s head gave him something of a lopsided shoulder. He fit the hood over top and sealed it as he walked down the corridor. Lucky for him, the suit didn’t begin shrinking to immobilize him (a common theft deterrent) or announce any alarm. He stepped out of the decontam room. The transit hub was bathed in yellow. Security forces shoved him out of the way as they ran past him.

To his right stretched the main exits to the city. In front of him stacked local rails, tourist shuttles to the nearest islands, grotty transporters to hub cities on the south and east continents, and the velvet-cordoned precision scales of the off-world escalators. Those, he most wanted to walk toward, but the stagnant lines stretched four deep with bored travelers in expensive fashions. Rich families stranded by the hostilities, still hoping to get off world before the Nar enacted martial law. He limped past them, into the corridor to the de-escalators.

Weaving in and out of the miners, Xan remained hyperaware of the uniform sea passing anonymously in both directions.

Cressida’s breath felt hot against his collar. Her warmth squished against him. He held her like a protective weight. She wiggled, her gasps elevated.

“Stay with me,” he said.

“I can’t breathe.” Her words came as a whimper.

The atmosphere indicator on the lower right suggested she might be correct. The tank was empty; they were essentially breathing whatever had gotten into the open suit in the decontam room. Which, according to his calculations, would allow approximately ten minutes before the oxygen was eclipsed by carbon dioxide and one or both of them passed out.

He calculated her likely response to knowing the truth. “It’s in your head. Don’t panic over nothing.”

She sucked in a breath and held it.

He was an asshole. But hopefully an asshole who would get them both out of here alive. “Good girl.”

They descended the ramp into the caves section of the hub. Below ground, the lights looked increasingly normal, color shifting from yellow to blue when they passed the superbrights. Even in the midst of a hostile takeover, miners reported for work. Without commerce, there was no income, and without income, there was no life.

Xan peeled off into the first tunnel and viewed the brilliantly lit de-escalator shuttling load after load of miners like so much luggage dropped straight down a hole. Xan didn’t want to go down there — it would be immediately obvious that he was in the wrong place — but going as deep as possible and turning around gave him the best odds for losing the station security cameras.

But even that ruse required a quick fix to the air situation.

He angled toward a horizontal stack of resupply oxygen. His hand closed over a tank.

An anti-theft alarm blared.

Shit. He jerked back his hand. Everyone was staring at him; the ones in front turned around and looked. Ah, double shit. The alarm had sprayed a big yellow splotch on his front. He was no longer an anonymous weirdly shaped man in a suit with similarly shaped men. He was a walking target.

And the station crew was coming for him.


Cressida fought to control her anxiety and struggled to breathe inside the thick, compressing miner’s suit. Everything felt damp, even though Xan’s skin was strangely cool. The desire to cry beat against her with increasing urgency. She had seen her first dead person today. A bloody, meat-colored mess in a stew of teeth fragments. Thinking about it again made her chest convulse. That was what the robots were trying to do to her. That was what they would do if they found her.

She pressed against Xan, her hands tracing the shape of his breast, his steady thud-thud-thud soothing her. He was one of them too. Yet his scent was masculine in a way that made her light-headed, and he was carrying her away from danger like a child in the pouch of his flight suit. Her mind drifted as though in a dream back to the last time she had felt so safe. A summer trip off world to the famous cloud oceans. One of the few trips afforded by her busy parents and her too-mature-for-family-outings older brother and her sweet little sister…

An alarm went off. Something puffed against her shoulder, on the chest of Xan’s suit.

“Shit,” he said.

She strained to see through the protective mask. The lower angle showed the tops of others suits. Miners crowded in.

“What is it?” she asked.

He stepped back and was jostled unevenly forward.

Ah, she recognized that alarm from news vids. “Did you steal something?”

“Not intentionally.” He angled another direction, but the other miners forced him back, against a wall. “Shit.”

The internal com crackled above her left ear. “Citizen, what is your malfunction code?”

He rocked forward. The other miner suits disappeared from her scope of vision. The com remained open, crackling, for his response.

A mine security helmet, clearly marked with a yellow hazard symbol, appeared at the edge of her vision. “Citizen, respond.”

Although she could not see, the usual news clip would show a stunner baton arcing toward an insane miner. If this security helmet were on a human, she had no chance, but if it were a sentry, there were a wide swathe of acceptable answers that would not result in a stunning.

A light shone from the top of the hazard gear. Although it was difficult to see under these conditions, through the thick glass, it was bright and probably red. Warning.

Xan tensed.

Her heart spiked. No. He would attack or run. Remote security would cut them down from above. They would not survive.

She cleared her throat. “Ex-81, 3, 17.”

The com crackled to silence.

“What the hell was that?” Xan muttered.

“An improperly formatted error code. Are you familiar with the Outer-Centurian upper-world dialect?”


The light remained bright. Their com crackled. “Citizen, come with me.”

Xan edged sideways.

She hissed at him. “Go.”

“Citizen, repeat.”

She took a deep breath. “Ares seulia. Misaan tiyean dostrobrich ‘Upper Cave’ tia-analat.”

The silence was longer this time, although the com remained open. Finally, the sentry replied. “Citizen-anat, res oritilit.”


The light atop the sentry changed to a darker shade. The com dropped out.

“Follow him,” she whispered.

Xan started to move. From the lack of immediate gunfire, she assumed it was in the direction of the sentry. His heart remained steady beneath her fingers, which was great calm, even though her forehead dripped sweat and she labored for her next breath. His voice sounded just a little rough. “Did you just say that you’re a tourist to the ‘Upper Cave’?”

“Diplomatic visitor,” she corrected. “And that we require a guide.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Not if it works.” Her chest felt as if she were breathing through three layers of woolen blanket. She closed her eyes to conserve her concentration. “We do have such visitors to the mines. And you can’t shoot all of them in the wrong area or you’d have a public relations nightmare.”

Xan stiffened and turned to watch something run past them in the opposite direction. “Holy shit.”


“I just saw our opposition blast past us running the opposite way. This just might work.” He turned to the front. “So where is he taking us?”

“An interrogation lobby.”

Xan coughed. “And that’s good?”

“It’s not being shredded in a tunnel or stunned on suspicion of terrorism, so I think it’s a step forward, don’t you?”

He didn’t respond.

Another thought occurred to her, distantly, as though it had to travel through molasses to reach her brain. “You understand Outer-Centurian.”

“Only its language tree. It’s not exactly common out here.”

“I thought androids had infinite intelligence.”

“Off network, we have to preload what we expect will be useful, and an elite Old Empire dialect was not one of mine. I have to run what you’re saying through the same parser as the sentry we’re following, and damned if he doesn’t have a more complete vocabulary.”

“He’s probably connected via the station hub to the central databanks.”

Xan swore softly. “So fucking blind.”

They passed into a room with harsh yellow lighting, and Xan stopped abruptly. “What’s your plan?”

“I’m going to ask the sentry to assist us onto a shuttle.”

He coughed for the second time. “Do not fuck up. He’s stopped us in front of an execution squad, and there’s not a damned thing I can do if he decides we’re bluffing after all.”

The sentry filled their view screen. She began to sweat again, but Xan was so cool and calm beneath her that, despite his harsh words, she remained calm too.

“Citizen.” The sentry paused while his next orders went through the parsing and translation process. “Dira san tiyastalit.”

Her answers, because she had memorized them in her human brain, came as instantly as natural language. “Proyostolich ‘Take off the suit’ tinan sayanalit?

Anan sol.”

She began to struggle. Xan hesitated, then uncapped the helmet. Cool air bathed her over-heated cheeks and fanned the sweat. Almost immediately she felt better, more awake, clear-headed.

Tisanyit doblovay ‘my assistant’ osolovait,” she said as Xan stripped. “Ayana torovisa tiyean.

Xan stepped free of the suit. His hands rested on her crown, sheltering her brain chip from the wall of sentries in various states of consciousness in the recharging stations in front of them. The first hint of alarm and they would all come to instant wakefulness, the stunners, hole-pistols, and other tools of death hanging from their reinforced metal bodies.

Beyond them, gentle green light shone through the line of windows overlooking the familiar skyline, misting all the way to the horizon. This direction, away from her former house, hid that devastation. Only a few craters showed the targeted assault that had terra-formed the planet during the invasion.

And then it occurred to her that she was resting her cheek against Xan’s shoulder and taking entirely too much comfort from it. She struggled. Xan helped her free of his flight suit, which resealed around only his taut body, and then his arm snaked around her chest and pulled her against him as though he needed her closeness. His palm rested on her forehead.

The sentry asked after her intended stay and her sponsor. She gave appropriate responses, including that her sponsor was His Honorable Lord General Vardis of the export house of the fourth quadrant. “Can you please direct us onto a shuttle to his house?

His residence is closed to visitors at this time,” the sentry replied with stiff courtesy.

Well, oh, well. Xan nudged her, his gaze passing over the line of recharging sentries, every one that entered and exited the room causing him to tense in readiness.

May we have appropriate changes of clothing?” she asked. “With sun hoods.

The sentry clomped away and returned with two lengths of unisex traveler’s robe. She draped the long white fabric over herself and assisted Xan into his robe, tying the belts in the proper fashion for one raised on Outer-Centurian and cinching down the hood. He let her hood rest on top of his hand.

The sentry did not note Xan’s odd behavior. Their data on the Outer-Centurian allowed that some individuals had never been chipped. A human would have at least asked if she were feeling well, but a sentry only reviewed the health broadcast. In absence of such a signal, they behaved at the default, that all was well.

Your destination?” the sentry queried.

She rapidly reviewed her options. Although she really wanted to ask Xan, she couldn’t be certain which language he would know, and the sentry would surely have access to all of the familiar languages and their families via the central databanks anyway. Although an unusual conversation might not trigger the sentry to stop her, it would certainly record their conversation, and any review of this unusual circumstance would be flagged.

She longed to join her parents off world, but her chip would be read or she’d have to show papers. She took a deep breath and smiled at the sentry. “Can you please book us onto your most scenic island tour?

Excerpts liberations kiss robotics faction science fiction romance

Liberation’s Kiss – Chapter Two

In celebration of my upcoming new release, Liberation’s Kiss, I am posting the first few chapters here and on Wattpad. Like what you read? Take advantage of the $0.99 pre-order price, changing back to $4.99 on release day July 1. Or, join my newsletter and request a free review copy in exchange for an honest review.


Only a moment after Cressida resumed her cramped position under the bed, a sharp ache in her ear bones sounded like the distant shrieking of a thousand vampire bats. She covered her ears, but the sound intensified. A crash landing — or a deliberate orbital break.

Abruptly, it silenced.

She dropped her hands and held her breath.

Something was happening outside. Please let it be the general. She had done everything he had asked, so surely she would be rescued. That was how it worked. Patience and obedience equaled survival. She squeezed her icy hands together.

Clomping echoed up the courtyard stairs. Footsteps thundered down her hall. The regular squeak of machinery. Not one or two, under stealth and silence to smuggle her to safety, but a platoon sent to get her. A firing squad.

“It’s all going to be okay.” She hugged her travel satchel and rocked, mouthing the words silently so that they couldn’t come out a sob. She had done everything she was supposed to. “It’s all going to be fine.”

The clomps stopped right outside her bedroom door. The world settled to silence. Whoever it was, they were just out of her line of sight…

On the street side of her room, a smooth white object nosed through her open terrace. Its small whirring sounded like a flurry of birds. A black light momentarily blinded her with a line of purple.

Oh, no.

Sirens pealed for the rooftops. She clapped her hands over her ears. The sound amplified as two additional drones bumped behind the first, squealing with excruciating volume. They sawed into the room and surrounded the bed.

From the hall, gun barrels swung through the doorway followed by robots. They were the thick sentry models Liberation VI used to guard capitol buildings and safeguard the populace during natural disasters, adept at hefting sandbags and taking down a suspected terrorist. Their rusted-out bodies had always made her feel safe and a little sad. Until now. Decrepit or not, they were deadly armed, pouring through her doorway and clambering over the terrace railing into her bedroom, their ominous shock rifles lowering to center her in their cross hairs. They faced her in a neat line and raised their guns.

White flashed from the hall.

The air tasted like ozone. She opened her mouth, but no sound emerged, not even a scream.

The sentries turned away from her.

Another white light sliced into the line of sentries, holing metal and collapsing joints into smoking piles of debris. The two drones nosed toward the hall. A second later, they fell silent, crashing to the ground in smoking wreckage. More sentries climbed up through the terrace, but white painted them too, toppling them off the building and burning away the railing. Her ears felt pressed inward by the sudden silence.

A man stepped into the room.

Her rescuer.

He carried a pistol beside his face. His eyes flashed over her, noting her location, as he continued his sweep. A flight uniform outlined his hard body; large, capable hands wielded his pistol. “Cressida?”

His voice was calm, a little rough on Liberation VI’s local mining dialect, although she would have been perfectly able to converse with him in any of the fourteen most common language trees and the eighty-seven galactic “familiar” dialects.

Her voice shook on the single syllable. “Y-yes?”

The wall behind his head exploded in a hot, black mark.

He darted behind a half-melted sentry, rolled across her burned carpet, and sheltered behind a wall. Blasts followed his movement, scorching the serving table and shattering her pitcher, and pounded the outside of the wall he used for cover. The plaster cracked, bulged, and began to buckle. He stepped onto the terrace, shot twice at something across the street, and stepped back again. The wall shuddered.

“You okay?” he asked.

She crouched, ready to sprint according to his direction. “I think so.”

He stepped out and shot again. The blasts abruptly stopped. He scanned every direction including the sky above and the street below, and stepped back into her bedroom. Slapping his pistol to his muscled thigh, he crossed the destroyed tile in three strides, bent under her grav-bed, and offered his hand to lift her out. “Let’s be sure.”

She swung her travel pack over her shoulder and accepted, emerging from the steps like a dark dwelling miner. Her hand trembled, but his palm was steady and sure. A little rough, the skin on the palm torn from a scrape. The light from out the terrace doorway haloed his tousled brown head, but his features were worn and friendly, almost at odds with his stunning gray eyes. Gray, rimmed in green, they caressed her body with strange electricity. She rubbed her arm with her free hand. The skin tingled.

“I’m okay,” she said.

Then her knees started to shake.

His eyebrows drew together. The pressure of his fingers was so warm, so comforting, even while amusement rumbled in his throat. “Sure?”

“I’m just—” She squeezed her knees together. “I’m so glad to see you. I thought you might never come.”

His chin lifted slightly. The pressure on her fingers disappeared. “So you were expecting me.”

“For days.” She hugged her elbows. The shaking came harder without his comforting warmth. “I’ve been waiting exactly as I was told.”

“Told by who?”

“The general.”

He backed toward the terrace.

She took a half step to follow him. “Where are you going?”

“Stay here.”

Her fear convulsed. “Please don’t leave.”

He glanced back at her, his expression unreadable.

“I didn’t mean to complain.” She tripped over the melted debris. “I’m sorry.”

He seemed to fade even farther from her.

“Wait!” Her emotions choked in her throat. “I’m grateful. Really! When I saw you walk through that door, I could have kissed you!”

He checked. “What?”

Oh, thank goodness. She made her hands into fists to keep from grabbing on to him. “I was so glad to see you.”

“So glad you wanted me to kiss you?”

“Ah…” Despite his embarrassment, he seemed pleased. The image of the lovers flashed in her head again. She took another step closer. “Well, yes.”

He cupped the back of his neck and grimaced. “Damn.”

“It’s okay. I could still kiss you.” Now, why had she said that?

“Shit.” He crossed the distance and tugged her roughly into his arms.

Surprise enveloped her. Was he really— Right now?

A hand across her back pressed her into his hard belly. Her startled hands rested against his wide shoulders. His thumb tilted up her chin and stroked the angle of her sensitive jaw. Realization hit her. He was inspecting her for injuries, even as his nostrils flared and her body opened like a flower to his life-sustaining sun. As though he read her reaction and subsequent awkward realization, he said, “Sorry, Cressida.”

“Oh, it’s fine.”

His mouth descended and covered hers.

Surprise melted into sweet, luscious heat streaking through her willing body. He tasted like safety and shelter and home. He nuzzled her and shifted, nibbling at her lips. She opened to those feelings, yielding herself to his power. Desire streaked through her. More. His tongue plumbed the depths of her mouth, branding her to him, possessing her to her innermost core. The world fell away. She clung to his strength, whimpers in her throat. Begging him for exactly this mind-numbing possession. Needing desperately so much more.

He pulled back, unfocused, and licked his lips. Colors seemed to shift in his eyes, even though that made no sense. His breath heated her cheek, and the salt on his brow matched hers. He blinked rapidly, as though trying to regain his senses. Then, his eyes narrowed on her. “What are you?”

She wiped the slickness from her mouth. Her body pulsed, even now, reaching out to him with every fiber of her will. “What do you mean?”

“Something is different.” He carefully straightened, steadying her on her feet. Somehow during their kiss, he had almost bent her over backwards, as though driven to consume her, to have her deeper, to take more. “You reprogrammed my core.”

Distracted now by his powerful frame, she was no longer shaking with fear from her near-death experience. “I…feel the same way, kind of.”

He focused those gorgeous gray-green eyes on her. Taking her in as though really looking at her for the first time. “Stick close to me, Cressida.”

A very important fact suddenly occurred to her. She touched her hair, smoothed the spikes undoubtedly flying around her ears. “I’m sorry, what was your name?”

A boyish smile curved his lips. “Xan.”

She started to smile back.

The wall punched at them.

She jerked back and stumbled to her knees.

A drone nosed through the open terrace door. Purple light scanned the fallen sentries.

“Xan!” she shrieked.

Xan’s thighs bunched. “I’m going to get you out of here, all right? Trust me?”

Piercing squealing covered over her answer. She clapped her hands over her ears.

He leapt on top of the drone. It dropped under his weight and then eased along the face of the building, upward toward the roof.

A far explosion rocked the street. Her building trembled. Carvings fell from the wall and shattered. The grav-bed groaned.

She stood slowly. Danger, pushed aside during their kiss, returned with numbing swiftness. Somehow she had survived the first attack. Stick close to me, Cressida. She wanted to so much it hurt. The world dropped silent as though coated in molten glass. Her hands trembled again. She had to go, now, while it was still quiet. Before more sentries came and found her. Before the first ones came back.

Out in the hallway, destroyed sentries toppled out windows and littered the hall all the way down the sweeping courtyard stairs. Whoever Xan was, he had destroyed half an army without even breathing hard.

A boom filled the courtyard. The street wall bulged inward and fell. Stone slammed into walkways, shattered the fountain, and billowed dust. Above, construction walkers clambered over the rubble, their giant pistons thrust out. Implacable feet crushed a new swarm of sentries clomping underneath. The walkers turned to her residence and hammered at the colonnade supports. The east stairs collapsed in a dusty boom. The entire house creaked.

Xan dropped through the colonnade window beside her, rapid fire melting the swarming sentries. He turned his aim on the walkers. White spots glowed on their columnar legs but cooled ineffectively to dull gray.

He examined his pistol, then slapped it against his thigh. “Damn. Out of charges.”

“Charges?” she repeated stupidly.

“Come on.” He grabbed her wrist and raced for the west stairway. “Run!”

She stumbled to reach his speed. The whole colonnade trembled under the walkers’ steady assault, and the whine of drones overhead reached teeth-grinding levels. Her feet touched the far stairs as a drone dropped down in front of her, blinding purple and squealing. A construction walker slammed onto the stairwell. Falling stone crushed the drone.

Xan swore and yanked her back, hauling her up to safety as the steps fell away beneath her feet. She gasped for breath. He tugged her down the hall, glancing in all the open rooms, moving steadily, muttering. Back in her room, the grav-bed had finally peeled back half a layer of plaster and lay sideways. He dropped her arm and strode to it, set his feet, and gripped the frame. His back rippled and quadriceps bulged.

“What—” she started to ask.

He ripped it from the wall.

Security wires gaped from the ragged plaster. He kicked them free, jacked open the grav-bed’s access panel, and crossed two wires. A flare arced from the unit with a sudden pop, and the bed rose up to her eye level, much higher than usual, and bucked across the uneven bodies.

He gripped the bed’s foot with one hand. “Four seconds to signal the architecture, approximately eight minutes to execute the malfunction loop, four seconds to return the output. We’re at”—he scooped her up and boosted her effortlessly into the bed—“eight minutes, two seconds, thirty-eight milliseconds. Brace yourself.” He pushed her out the front balcony. Drones wheeled overhead. Ceiling tiles cascaded off the destroyed residence and shattered in the street. “We’re going to outrun it.”

She gripped the bed railing. The street tilted two stories below her. She gasped. “Outrun what?”

“Space lasers.” He shoved the bed over the terrace.

It flew out into open air and dropped to the wrecked street below. She clenched the railing. There was no time to scream. Xan flew behind the bed, his powerful hands locked on the foot. His legs dangled parallel in the fall.

Behind him, the sky turned a paler shade of white.

The bed hit proximity-to-surface-level hard, and its antigrav mechanism churned to compress the air, its frame trembling. Xan slammed into the footrail, bending the metal. His head cracked the bar. His legs swung forward and bashed the cobblestone. The whole bed shot forward as though it were a bar of soap kicked across an oil slick. The sky over her former house turned painful white, then excruciating, even through closed eyes.

Xan popped up, silver jammed against his temple. “Get under the gauze!”

She obeyed, burrowing beneath the layers until she pressed her face against the crystal and covered her eyes with both hands. Black finger-bones glowed in red skin like a reverse x-ray against her lids. A rumble, loud and deep, ripped open its throat and poured gravel directly into her eardrums, rolling over and over like a cement truck turning sentry parts. Her finger-bones disappeared, and the rumble receded as though a thousand storms had simultaneously passed over.

She became conscious of her own breathing, loud, in her chest. And that of another person, ragged but regular, and the slap of shoes running behind her.

She tentatively removed her hands. The world retained its normal color. She pushed free of the gauze.

The bed was still moving. Xan’s steady breathing and the slap of footsteps sounded over the distant wails of emergency warnings.

A black funnel of smoke billowed for the sky from the smoldering crater that had, until just a few minutes ago, been her street.

The distant whine of a drone squealed against her molars.

They dropped down a ramp to the riverside and ducked under an overpass. Xan had her swing out, landing on weak knees, and wedged the grav-bed against the underside, next to an exhaust grating. He felt along the solid wall for something—an access panel—which he unscrewed with fingernails and dragged free, then studied the wiring.

The former see-through crystal was polarized to a cloudy white from excess heat. A body outline showed where Xan had pushed her to safety.

As he worked tirelessly to rescue her, she examined him. The back of his uniform was torn and burned; his hands were blackened as he precisely pinched wires into an intricate crochet. Who was this mysterious man? He kissed her like he knew all of her secrets. But she knew none of his.

The utility grate at his feet slid open. He squatted to lift it free and rest it against the wall, grimaced, and leaned over to inspect his torn knees. He bent one, then the other, and tsked. His breath turned ragged as though pained.

She willed her legs to stop trembling and hold her weight. Sure, their escape had been terrifying, but he had once again risked his life to save hers. She leaned over him. “Are you okay?”

“So to speak.” He grimaced and rotated his ankle. His profile looked so rugged, so serious in the underpass shadow. “I blew out the lubrication. I won’t be able to run very far or very fast until it’s repaired.”

She touched the swollen knee joint with gentle fingertips. He stilled. He had jumped so far; it was amazing he wasn’t completely broken. She looked up. “We’ll get you to a—”

Shock cut off her voice. The sour taste of death filled her mouth.


His far side was cut deeply where his forehead had bashed the bed frame. Underneath the ragged skin wasn’t caked blood or white bone. It was the iconic bio-silver of a robot.

He was an android.

His head tilted. The gentle inquiry that quirked his brows tugged on the gaping skin. He hadn’t realized the error. He’d revealed himself. A reflection like a nocturnal beast’s shone in his retinas. “Get me to a what?”

She stumbled backward.

He reached out. A shadow crossed his face. “Hey—”

She turned and ran.


“What’s wrong?” The question was less than half out of Xan’s mouth when Cressida rolled to her feet. Fear contracted her face. She was terrified.

Terrified of him.

A furious whine of scout-drones converged on the street as though they had triangulated his position. Cressida, panicked beyond rational thought, raced out to meet them.

“Shit!” He bolted after her.

The unlubricated bolt attaching his left tendon to his knee heated above proximal levels in one, two, three strides and then dry-locked. He stumbled.

Cressida reached the overhang shadow’s edge.

Shit, shit. He surged on his right leg. Falling, his hand ghosted down her shifting shoulder blades, brushed micrometers from her pumping buttocks, and clamped on her retreating ankle. He slammed into the ground. She cried out and fell forward, landing hard on her palms. Her brown hair touched the light.

He yanked her backward.

She cried again and scraped against the ground, helpless. Fully in shadow, he crawled over her and covered her head with his wide palms, hoping to make a silencing cone between his titanium-alloy bones and the concrete. Four deadly drones screamed overhead, their purple beams flashing, seeking her. They reached an intersection and split in opposite directions.

Her gasps for breath turned to shuddering. Sound hitched in her throat, and moisture leaked from her eyes.

He stroked her hair with his fingers, careful of his positioning. It would be so much easier if he were still connected to the network. He’d get a bounce-back from the drones’ live feeds all over the city, instantly knowing their positions and trajectories, seeing exactly what they saw and what the rest of the Faction knew — satellite imagery recording the entire event, how his superiors intended to proceed, whether and what classes of reinforcements would be sent, where and how to evade. He’d ensure they knew about the rogue who’d caused everything to go wrong. He’d update the ventilation access panel schematics. This moon used nonstandard wire code that probably didn’t record unauthorized access. The moon probably didn’t even know or care what unauthorized access was.

Her shuddering, if anything, got worse. He risked a full stroke of her head. Her short brown hair was silky beneath his desensitized fingers, like an animal pelt. A mink. She struggled to catch her breath and shifted. He became conscious of her whole body beneath his. Soft derriere beneath his hooked thigh, trembling back beneath his chest, gentle curving waist pressed against his cock. That piece of his body, which he had never specifically considered before, pulsed and heated according to an entirely new set of inputs. Ones that reacted, mystifyingly, to her scent of moist heat, and the silkiness of her hair beneath his wide palm, and the sudden urge to roll her over on top of him and press all of her curves against his hard places.

And then there was her kiss. He still tasted her on his tongue. Strange electrical impulses crackled across his body, seemingly disconnected from his programming. All he wanted to do was confirm those strange impulses. What did they mean? Despite the shock of his disconnection from the Robotics Faction, the feeling of Cressida’s lips against his seemed to ricochet through his body with far more meaning.

She shifted again, away from him.

The whine of the drones receded from audible range. He uncovered her head and rolled to let her up.

She scrambled to her feet and started running again.

Shit. She was still panicked.

He was up in an instant and caught her at the crest of the overpass. Emergency sirens deafened any potential danger, and he pulled her back into the shadow, away from cameras.

She struggled.

“What the hell?” he demanded.

“Let me go!”

“Stop trying to get yourself killed.”

She fought to get to the open street.

He pinned her against the wall.

She paused, shaken, fear white in her eyes.

The full strength of her fear forced him to take a step back. His body shut down while his brain analyzed the reason. She took the opening and pushed past. Sudden heat flashed white in his brain, and before he knew his own actions, he grabbed her shoulders and shoved her back to the wall again.

Too hard.

Wait, too hard? Had he made a miscalculation? Was that possible?

But it was. She bounced and rubbed her elbows. Her chin wrinkled.

All he wanted to do was catch her in his arms again and apologize. But he had committed a logical error. An error. He paced in front of her, struggling to identify and furthermore control that inexplicable heat flash in his brain, the one that had apparently disconnected his logic processors in a surprising and dangerous way, while moving to discourage her from running again. She glared at him, sniffling back her unshed tears. He gave up and stopped in front of her.

“What are you trying to do?” His question, intended to be calm, echoed with the force of a yell.

She flinched, then shouted back at him. “You’re a robot!”


She blinked. “You’re going to kill me.”

“If I wanted to kill you, I’d let you run out into the street.”

“Liar!” She rubbed her nose. Dirt and blast powder caked her cheeks. “You’re taking me somewhere to kill me quietly.”

He gaped at her. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

But she wasn’t. Her clear blue eyes accused him.

He raked a hand through his hair. Grit cascaded off. “Didn’t you hear the drones overhead? Don’t you hear the sirens right now?”

Her eyes narrowed.

He took a deep breath. Atmosphere flowed into his brain, and with it, the calming mix of nutrients that his biological components needed to repair themselves. His pancreas, for example, felt like it had practically detached from his inner wall, the hormone transferal process completely stopped.

“There are six thousand three hundred forty-eight satellites angled on Liberation VI right now. They are scanning a forty-mile radius of your last known location. The only reason they haven’t already found you is because they were trained on your residence, and atmospheric interference from the recent explosion most likely masked your escape. Stepping out from under fourteen feet of solid rubilum alloy will summon exactly the kind of attention you most want to avoid right now. Okay?”

Her posture softened slightly. “You could still be intending to kill me.”

“I am not going to kill you.” But her disbelief was so tangible and his logic so fragmented he returned to the easy reason, the one that he had come up with before their discombobulating kiss. “Not until I find out what the hell makes you so special.”


“The Robotics Faction wants to kill you. And someone else wants to keep you alive.”

At a cursory glance, there seemed to be absolutely nothing to separate her from the hundreds of billions of other humans living and dying in the thousand worlds. Nothing that would earn her a death sentence or a mysterious stay of execution.

He took her silence to indicate she was at least thinking now, which was better than running off irrationally. He pressed forward. “You were waiting for me. Who is this general that told you I was coming?”

“General—” Her eyes widened, and she clapped a hand over her mouth.

He took a menacing step. “What army?”

She shrank. “It’s just a name.”


She gasped for breath. “He promised to send someone. To smuggle me off planet.” Her chin wrinkled. “He never would have sent you.”

He studied her. She appeared so guileless. And helpless; easy for anyone to pick off. A twinge squeezed his chest. He rubbed the unfamiliar sensation. “What do you know about a rogue?”

“What’s a rogue?”

“Seems human but is actually a robot?”

“That would be you,” she said icily.

Technically, that was true. “I’m talking about a woman who has the ability to implant and execute code in my class. What do you know about her?”

She shook her head.

He ran a hand through his hair. “Fuck, Cressida.”

“Why would I know about a robot?” she demanded. “You’re the reason I’ve been running for the past fourteen years. If it weren’t for you, I’d still be on Dinar IV, surrounded by my loving family, and maybe even an ambassador already.”

Fine. Maybe she didn’t know about the rogue. He tried a different angle. “Why does the Faction want you executed?”

Her eyes widened. Her mouth opened, but no sound came out.

He pushed. “What crime did you commit?”

“But—but that’s what I want to know!” She shook her hands at the wrists. “What did I do? What’s so wrong with me that your entire empire should want me annihilated? Why?”

He reviewed her name, Cressida Sarit Antiata. They were not useful trade partners like the Nar, but they were not unknown in their quadrant of space. “What about your family?”

“The Antiata Corporate Entity has many enemies. None are specific to the Sarit branch.”

“Is there something inside you, in your blood or in your genome, that has been bred as a weapon?”

She shook her head, open-mouthed. “We already thought of all this! My parents took me to so many doctors. No one could find a difference from my siblings. Nothing seems wrong. Can’t you tell me anything?”

He shook his head.

She looked like she was going to cry. She hugged herself. “I thought— I mean, I hoped that whoever the Faction sent, you would at least tell me why before I died.”

He lifted a brow. His forehead, which he hadn’t noticed up until now, pained him with a sharp throb. “I’m not connected to the Faction.”

Her shoulders dropped. Tentative. “What do you mean?”

“I’m disconnected. I have no idea what they’re doing right now.”

Her tentative relief encouraged him not to say exactly how recent his disconnection had been.

Drones’ patterns emerged from the chaotic sirens.

He strode forward and pressed her against the wall, cupping her head near where he guessed her identification chip would be broadcasting. Only a direct pulse would find her chip, but he wanted to lower those odds.

She stiffened. “Xan—”


Six drones passed by at eye level, feet from where they stood in shadow, purple scans scattered over them. As before, he felt their scans like a tingle in his brain, reading where his ID ought to be but passing over it as though it were a lump of rock. Neither receiving nor broadcasting, he was nothing, not even alive. He was absence.

They disappeared.

He stepped back again, releasing her. “I wish I were still connected.”

She followed him back to the open access hatch. “Then you’re not under the control of the Robotics Faction?”

He shook his head. The piston in his knee scraped against the tendon, heating again before dry-locking. Shit. He limped.

“And you’re not going to kill me?”

“Not unless you give me a reason.” He dropped beside the open grating, swept the interior of the ventilation corridor, and eased himself down the ladder. His forehead pinged about damage, his knee pinged about damage, everything pinged about damage. Fuck, he hurt.

She looked down at him, biting her lip.

He looked up at her. “What?”

She clasped her travel bag strap. “I can’t figure out whether or not to believe you.”

“Well, I’ll tell you this.” He rested his elbows on the street. “Come with me and I will find out what’s wrong with you. Maybe it can be changed like an ID chip, maybe it can’t be, like the DNA sequence of a molecular reversal breaker. One way or another, I will cut you open to your very core, and I will find out what it is.”

She shrank back.

“Alternatively, you can stay here. Seeker-drones are currently sweeping a radius, tagging places like this one for visual eyes-on. Someone, either another platoon of bx-58-class sentries or an upgrade, will do that visual. Unlike the seeker-drones, they won’t be confused by light and dark. They will find you, and they will kill you. Whereas this ventilation tunnel”—he smacked the street—“if the schematics are to be believed, leads all the way to the Central Transit Hub. You want to get out of here, and that is the way out.”

She looked over her shoulder. Back at the street.

He climbed down to the inner level, swinging his dead knee awkwardly. By the time he reached the bottom, she had climbed down after. Then it was a matter of climbing back up, closing the access hatch, and climbing down again.

“Won’t the transit hub be guarded?” she asked in the dimness behind him, over the steady whir of the fans that cooled the magnetic and electronic panels ensuring the daily operations of the city.

“Oh, heavily.” He swung beneath a low-hanging coolant pipe and put his hand on her forehead absently to keep it from hitting. “Especially once enough time has passed that you could conceivably have reached the hub. They’re probably already concentrated there with the bulk of their forces. It’ll be like trying to break into the mainframe of Central Command and then out again.”

The whir of the fans whited the silence for some minutes.

She finally asked, “Then, you’ve got a plan for how to do that?”

“I’ve got a few ideas noodling around.” He limped past a power transformer. His right knee was beginning to ache from lubricant exhaustion too. “If you’ve come this far, you must trust me.”

“I don’t,” she said. “I don’t trust you at all. I’m just going this direction because it makes the most sense.”

“Uh-huh,” he muttered, “Sure.”

“I am.”

“Hurry up. The longer we take, the more time they have to position weapons around the exits.”