This is a preview of Liberation’s Vow, the third installment of the trilogy following the Antiata siblings (Cressida, Mercury, and Aris). Will they finally reunite after years of hiding from mysterious Robotics Faction assassins? Now the tables are turning and those robot assassins have discovered their all-too-human capacity for love and passion…
Publication date: July 1 2016
Did you miss the first chapter? Read Chapter One and learn what happened to Resa centuries ago.
Elite zero class android assassin Resa looked down the barrel of her sniper rifle at the street two hundred feet below.
Someone else was stalking her target.
Too much about this assignment felt eerily familiar, even though she had only been alive a few days and thus couldn’t possibly have experienced it before.
An airless planetoid making everything look startlingly crisp. The ghostly sensation of nanobots climbing over her rifle, skin, and clothes, turning carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. An abandoned warehouse district where no one could scurry for cover.
Staring down the barrel of a rifle at people who were already dead.
Three security guards sprawled behind vehicles and in shadows, their glassy eyes fixed on the atmosphere shield overhead, their mouths open in shock.
She searched for their killer, playing her sniper glass across the most likely route.
Who else stalked governor Aris Hyeon Antiata?
A shadow moved at the corner of her vision. The fourth guard slid bonelessly out of his chair. A flash of silver disappeared as the shadow melted away against the floating domes of the warehouse district.
Not a fellow agent of the Robotics Faction.
Resa adjusted the rifle. Most likely the governor’s greedy cousins had put a price on his head and smuggled in a chameleon-suited human assassin to pull off the execution. Aris belonged to a wealthy, grasping family more likely to stab than pat each other on the back. And the governor was campaigning to cut off Robotics Faction technology. More than one group thought he was crazy; some might hire an agent to do something about it.
If only they knew the truth.
Her aim shifted to the grungy district census office below.
One guard meandered around the dusty golden facade. He paused at the governor’s parked hover car and nodded at the personal guard waiting inside. Both humans eyed the empty street and the gently bobbing domes without seeing the dangers.
On the census bureau dome, curved doors slid open and golden steps descended to the street.
Both guards snapped to attention. The gorgeously bejeweled, heavily armored carriage door opened, and another guard stood at its side.
The governor’s personal security moved down the steps, their infrared oculars sweeping for any invisible threat. They missed the human assassin in the chameleon suit stalking them from above. So, the oculars were compromised.
Something interesting was about to happen.
Office staff emerged next. Obsequious and smiling furiously, they posed stiffly, forming an almost perfect funnel for an assassin.
The entire square seemed to drop silent.
The governor himself emerged and paused at the top step.
Aris Hyeon Antiata.
A light breeze ruffled his indigo-gray hair, shielding his mesmerizing blue eyes. Taut leather clothed his powerful physique with flashing gold threads, and he sparkled against the functional white uniforms of the bureau staff like a peacock amidst mourning doves. Jewels glittered in his powerful boots.
As if in recognition of his great status, he deigned to turn and speak with the lowly staff. He took each hand in turn, addressing them personally and playfully until they blushed. They would remember this day forever. The day the planetary governor visited their office, smiled, and shook their hands. But as soon as he let go of their hands, he had clearly already forgotten them.
She would not be sad to kill him. He deserved to die. Lords who used others as Aris did made her sick.
Except, her robot rebuked her, you are an android and don’t have feelings. So he can’t make you sick.
Sure. Whatever. It was a figure of speech. She felt fine.
She tightened her aim.
He bid the staff farewell and faced out. His smile dropped away like the facade it was. He cast his gaze up, up, up, skimming past her without seeing her. His features sharpened in her perfectly targeted scope. He shaded his eyes.
A frisson of awareness sizzled through her. Was he looking for her?
He had grown paranoid this week since she’d started watching him. It was like he knew she was here, just out of sight, never out of mind.
But she wasn’t a danger to him today. She was just an observer.
A deathly shadow moved across the brightly lit, curved dome behind and above him, getting into position to attack with the silver arc-blade.
Oblivious to the assassin almost within reach, Aris dropped his hand and started down the steps.
She rested her finger on the trigger, calculating angles and odds. The human assassin would slice him in moments, and for now, only Resa was authorized to execute the governor.
She hated to kill anyone—
Except you are an android, her robot reminded her, which means you don’t hate anything. Not even killing. Because you don’t have feelings.
Yes, yes, yes. She had heard those reminders often enough this week. Feelings led to evil, chaos, and death. Like her predecessor, insane zero class Zenya|Sen, who went crazy and got destroyed by her own human feelings.
Resa must not have feelings.
So why save the life of the man she was assigned to kill?
Aris Hyeon Antiata was the only known contact of a notorious techno-criminal. Until she caught the rogue, Resa had to protect Aris with her life. No matter how much he deserved to die.
The shadow sprang.
Resa pulled the trigger.
A ping-thwok-thud sounded behind him.
Aris Hyeon Antiata flinched and spun, his heart in his throat and a scared shriek only barely clamped back by his iron-trembling teeth. Nothing appeared on the steps behind him.
His security ran up the stairs and swept the platform.
The census operations director stopped smiling and stepped out. “What was that?”
Unfortunately, he wasn’t crazy.
“An odd noise.” He forced himself to remain upright, an obvious target from all angles. “Director, do odd noises often happen here?”
“No.” Her boots obscured the government crest of Seven Stars, a furious golden sandstorm marked with the immortal words of the first founders, We help ourselves or nobody does. “Are you afraid of a threat?”
“I fear nothing.”
She stiffened. “Oh, excuse me. I didn’t mean to imply—”
“Of course not. I meant there is no reason for fear because you didn’t tell anyone I was coming.”
“Er, well, no.”
The director cupped her elbows, realized her body language betrayed her, and reverted to the nervous tight smile she sheltered behind as he audited all her files and found no evidence of the corruption he knew was hiding in them. Somewhere.
“I mean, I’m sure it’s nothing. An odd squeak of a cable securing the dome.” She grimaced at the empty storehouse creaking next to their dome, clearly in need of battening down. “We certainly didn’t tell anyone you were coming, just like you asked us.”
Just like she hadn’t touched the strangely perfect files.
He turned away to disguise his grinding teeth.
His guards walked the platform, looking off the sides. The census building didn’t mesh with the street; for artistic reasons, it hovered between its tethers to create a “river” of space that flowed all the way down to the planetoid’s surface half a mile below.
Was that a flash beneath the building, clinging to a pipe below? He squinted.
Perhaps it really was nothing. The odd prickling sensation at the back of his neck that he was being watched by more than the sightless inhuman eyes of the recording satellites overhead burned more sensitive than usual.
He was used to being surrounded by people who wanted him dead. Ruling over his family was a son of a bitch. The fear, contempt, and judgment never eased. Most would happily execute him barehanded.
Especially since the promotions next week determined the prosperity of all districts for a decade, and his cousins were going to stuff the candidates with their own pro-Faction people. Darvin would bully Aris for the governor’s seat and eliminate him in any way possible, but clever Poyo was thankfully less interested in ruling atop Aris’s corpse.
What was a little accidental death between family?
Aris used to dream of being assassinated. A few weeks in hospital to be resurrected, followed by recovery on a distant beach where no one knew him or his father, tantalized like a forbidden dream.
But now, that dream had turned to a nightmare.
If he died right now, he ceased to exist. His restore point gone; daily backups, destroyed. He would die. Permanently.
His secret vulnerability was designed to lure out the Robotics Faction. The lady rogue assured him their plan had already worked. A nasty, brutal, terrifying robot watched him. Every move. While he worked, while he slept. Waiting until he made a mistake and contacted the lady rogue on an open network.
He rubbed the tingling back of his neck.
“Sir?” His security second moved to him. “Are you well?”
Aris dropped his hand and wielded his most potent fearless smile. “Just enjoying the scenery.”
The bureau director siding with his cousins smiled. “We invite you to enjoy the scenery any time.”
“I will certainly return the invitation.” Business. He forced his nerves aside and focused on the woman, smiling with his best natural grace. “Your whole office is invited to join me at the governor’s residence this week.”
She touched her throat and colored. Desire conflicted with worry. “So generous. My office will, of course, join you. Thank you for the honor.”
“I expect you as well.” If he couldn’t get incriminating information against his cousins from the files, he would get it from the people. “Treat yourself. You may bring guests.”
“Ah.” Her expression cleared. Resigned, yet still deeply pleased. “Again, thank you.”
“Until then.” He squeezed her fingers, tracing her blush, and then headed down the steps, into the hover car. Behind the thick armor, he allowed himself to relax. All he wanted to do was go home, bury himself behind the reinforced walls of the governor’s mansion, and count the days until this was over. The governorship. The promotions. Painting a target on his back. All of it. “ETA?”
“Forty minutes.” His driver communicated their route over his secure channel to the home team. “Unless you prefer the direct drive.”
He rubbed his temples. “Whatever you recommend.”
“I recommend an unpredictable circuit.” His driver leaned across the seat. “Unless your head of security disagrees?”
Aris’s head of security, Joensen, studied the upper curves of the domes suspiciously. He had been with Aris from almost the beginning and had kept him alive through more questionable incidences than Aris could count. He trusted Joensen with his life.
But not with the truth.
“Joensen?” Aris leaned forward. “See something?”
“No.” Joensen wiped sweat off his wide brow and folded his big frame into the passenger’s seat of the hover car. “Nothing.”
Aris patted the faithful man’s taut shoulder. “Great job, everyone. With the promotions next week, let’s keep our alert level up.”
The lips of his team curved up, accepting his encouragement without letting it distract them.
Joensen wiped his forehead again.
Aris rested his hands on his leather-clad knees to stop from balling them into fists. Reinforced leather woven with anti-gold protected his skin from fire, depressurization, and puncturing trauma. It was the subtlest protective gear he owned.
We help ourselves or nobody does.
He couldn’t die now. The Robotics Faction had to hunt him. Just like it had hunted his half sisters fourteen years ago. This time, he would turn the hunt on the Faction. By the time they realized their mistake, the lady rogue would have saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, more vulnerable lives. All because of him.
Just so long as his family didn’t kill him first and fuck it all up.
The driver finished their location call-in. “Sir?”
He should’ve told the lady rogue to wait six weeks. The promotions would have been over. His family would have given up trying to kill him.
But Aris wasn’t the kind of man to run from a challenge. No matter how wise or calculated.
“Go,” Aris authorized.
The car started forward.
It hovered onto a pressure mine and exploded.
There, Resa thought.
As soon as the governor’s car hovered over the pressure mine, the full extent of the ambush unfurled.
The concealed mine exploded beneath the front half of the governor’s car, knocking out the engine and cracking the body’s seal. The cab smashed into the street, shattering decorative tile and stunning the driver.
Primary target disabled.
In the abandoned storeroom dome next to the census bureau, an auto-turret activated. Bullets sprayed the armored sides and the street, threatening the occupants inside.
Primary target pinned.
From a hidden balcony in a warehouse at the top of the square, noxious vapor canisters toppled over and poured gas into the street.
Primary target soon to be euthanized.
The shocked security team struggled to cover the governor, firing blindly in the general direction of the auto-turret. The head of security erupted from the damaged vehicle, directly into a barrage of hull-piercing fire. Well, that was either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.
She lifted her gun to stop the auto-turret.
Her robot arrested her. Why are you intervening? That man is nothing to us. He is not the target.
Her trigger finger flexed and released, unable to pull. He was not the target, so they might as well save his life.
You might as well save your ammo.
She fought the order.
Auto-turret bolts ripped into his chest, dropping him in a bloody heap.
Damn. She released the trigger with a puffed exhale. Now it was too late.
Yellow gas roiled, a smoldering river hissing down the artfully curving street. The passenger door yawned, car gaping open. The vapors now had clear access into the vehicle to smother the occupants.
The governor crawled into the front seat. Had he noticed the pooling gas?
No. The strutting peacock hugged his dead security chief to his chest. The gas, if he saw it, was only another problem.
Instead of calling out to his team, who couldn’t do anything anyway, he looked up.
Another frisson of awareness tingled through her.
Grief yielded his features to fury. He was looking for her. Beseeching her help.
Not likely, her robot said. If he knows we’re here, he also knows you’re as likely to kill him as to rescue—
She leapt off her hidden balcony.
The dome curved steeply. Resa ran along the corniced edge of the building. Each footfall grazed the two-hundred-foot drop. Her mechanical legs pumped like pistons; her robot arms held the rifle in unfailing aim on the peacock governor. She leapt into air.
What are you doing? her robot inquired.
She was casing the street.
Because the Faction didn’t control the planetoid’s satellites yet, and she needed to measure the extent of the ambush to save the governor.
Your predecessor extracted information from dead bodies all the time, her robot complained.
I am not ‘complaining,’ her robot chastised. Don’t assign human emotions to a z-class processor. You’ll learn that when you complete your training.
Zenya’s memories leaned on Resa’s brain like a headache. A dull, constant ache just behind her eyes. Trying to get in. Trying to make her into the new Zenya.
She was not saving the governor because she had an unacceptable interest in him. She was saving him because she hadn’t learned how to extract information from dead bodies.
Resa landed lightly on the neighboring dome and slid, running sideways as she accounted for the gravitational pull of the curvature.
Once you complete the training, you will no longer possess a separate mind. We will operate as one. Your thoughts will be only my orders.
The storage dome floated against its tethering wires, not perfectly coupled to its mooring pikes. If she miscalculated and slipped, she would fall all the way down to the surface of the planetoid, and even her indestructible body might suffer a scratch.
Her robot dropped silent.
She leapt onto the abandoned dome and double-timed her steps. Her speed accelerated. Her aim did not waver.
Below, the governor rose and brushed his hair out of his face, streaking blood across his forehead.
She landed on the census bureau and slid her hand across the gouge where she had shot the human assassin’s climbers off. The assassin still dangled below the building; his silver knife flashed, helpless. Eventually, he would have to choose whether to fall to his death or to remove the suit and cry for help.
Not Resa’s problem today.
She reached the point at which all calculable angles had been visually mapped. Data streamed from her senses into the Robotics Faction processor. Once she completed her training, her split personality would integrate, and she wouldn’t have a quarter-second delay as the robot portion calculated her best response.
Below, the governor studied the rooftops. Dome after dome secured the city’s floating scape, tied to moorages and bouncing gently against each other. He traced the rounded rooftops to the census bureau building and locked eyes with her.
Her robot transmitted the orders. Perform the rescue.
She shot the tethering wires of the abandoned storage dome as she fell. Precise lasers lanced the lines and one, two, three tethers streaked past her face with sharp whistles. The final line creaked and strained as the dome rocked against the census square.
The dome creaked and shifted. Disoriented by the upheaval, the auto-turret lost its target and sprayed over the square, rolling destruction across the tile.
The governor’s gaze finally dropped to the noxious oxide and his eyes widened in grim surprise. Instead of listening to his team or doing anything useful, he balled his fists.
Did he intend to fistfight the unstoppable gas or the reorienting turret? Idiot.
Resa landed in front of the bloodied governor, in the center of the street. Cobblestone jutted from the plaster, dented by the force of her landing, and impact rattled up her joints, snapping her teeth together. If she were a human, ordinary enamel would have shattered.
But she wasn’t.
The governor startled. In his surprise floated shocking recognition. “You—”
She shoved him sideways.
Bullets smashed into her chest. Ball-marbles cut through her flight suit, smashed through her body, and flew out the backside.
Her skin tightened, capturing the bullets and absorbing their energy. Natural plasticity shot the bullets back where they came, blinding the auto-turret. Her flight suit hung in shreds. Her body returned to seamless perfection.
The governor struggled out of the car, holding his head where he’d bumped it against the doorframe. His security guards screamed at him to get back in. He ignored them. “You can’t kill me.”
She calculated they had approximately two seconds before the yellow noxious gas enveloped them. She stepped past him and knelt to the car. “I don’t have to.”
He started to answer.
She flexed her knees. The car, plus the two guards in the back, and the one driver still slumped unconscious over the front wheel, spun two hundred feet into the air and smashed into the balcony where she had been hiding.
Its broken engine remained on the shattered tile, coughing sparks into the street.
His answer changed to, “Wha—?”
The gas surrounded them, hissing death.
She punched her arm across his taut midsection. Although he was much taller, he folded over, clotheslined on her securely. She twisted and shot the final tether holding the creaking dome.
The tether cable whirled past. She tucked the rifle under her arm, flexed her knees, and she leapt for it. Her fingers closed around the corded metal.
The mass of the dome fought the inertia of their two bodies and declared a decisive victory. They launching high above the shrieking explosion, hundreds of feet into the air.
Her loosened elbows caught the bulk of the snap.
But he was only human.
His internal organs compressed between her arm and his spine, squeezing like jelly crushed in a fist, and his head snapped forward, straining against his taut neck and shoulder muscles, adhering his brain stem to his spine. The biological fibers groaned.
Noxious oxide pooled around the sparking engine and boomed, rattling the floating street. A chunk of collapsed. Abandoned vehicles toppled into the hole and fell to the planetoid’s barren surface.
They reached the arc of the tether and snapped like a flag in the wind.
The governor’s head jerked. Pain turned his breathing ragged. No human could survive another injury.
The lower pole of the residence caught on an adjacent arcade, and the entire floating residence fell. Shoppers ran screaming. Tile shattered and popped, archways crumpled, and marblestone crumbled to rubble and dust. The runaway residence ground to a halt.
They flew directly for the lowest level of the residence.
Resa released the cable and operated her rifle with her elbow, melting a hole through the wall. Extruded plastic blackened. She broke through it feet-first.
Inside, the household’s storage trunks, vases, freezers, and electronics bounced to the mass of gravitational forces like snow in a hurricane.
She rotated the governor so her feet touched the floor, wall, and tilting ceiling, dancing him across the unoccupied floor and through the shattering debris. Each place dented with her transfer of force. The feet of her flight suit ripped away like a cloth ground into a belt sander, exposing her skin. The pads of her feet super-heated and turned slick as a shuttle’s skin.
Splinters wicked past her indestructible skin. She twisted her dance to shelter his beautiful face from scars.
Why? Scars mean nothing. We intend to kill him.
Well, because…. She had no answer.
Their room abruptly ended. She hugged the governor and bent her knees, skiing backward across a wall. Metal curled beneath her feet.
His tendons strained against shaking human joints.
She shifted to the balls of her feet, stomping down on the force. They hit the back wall with a crushing thump and stopped.
In the distance, through the hole in the wall of the settling dome, a poison death cloud puffed up and out. Green health hazard lights and trauma sirens reflected from the arcade where they had rested. The cloud drifted slowly back down towards the census bureau dome.
She calculated a few minutes for the poison to flow into the arcade.
So she gave the governor a few seconds to recover.
The governor shuddered. His body, always concealed beneath some foppish robe, felt harder and more masculine than she had ever realized. Muscle rippled, taut and rhythmic, across his arms in his frayed clothing.
“Control your emotions and release me,” she ordered.
Instead, he opened his trembling fists and gripped her thin shoulders, hugging her hard with a man’s hands that spanned her blades. A strange shiver moved through her.
Her robot cataloged the odd sensation. A reaction to the stress of breaking her cover. Nothing to worry about.
Which was good, because no worry could compete with the sensations of the governor filling her mind.
He was taller than her, and wider. Broad-chested, in fact. Stripped practically naked and pressed against her, he stirred a strange recognition within. She felt something she had struggled against since awakening in the Robotics Faction construction factory as a pure metal thing, electric brain connected to titanium-alloy bones enclosed in plastic skin, and suppressed as too disturbing.
She felt human.
Resa pushed him a step back.
The security head’s blood still smeared his forehead, and a crust of cobblestone dusted his deep steel indigo hair. Sliver cuts marred his high cheekbones and fine features, artful eyebrows and firm jawline.
He blinked at her and, again, recognition flashed, unsettling as the first time she had seen it on his face. “You saved me.”
The same steel indigo of his hair matched in the fine-threaded irises. A hard strength. A resolute, ruthless, implacable determination.
Again, she felt something that she had not since taking on this assignment.
She felt respect. “For now.”
“How long is now?”
“That depends on you.”
The man retreated behind the playboy smile he paraded for watchers, the swoon-worthy daredevil expression she had heretofore taken as his actual identity. “Has anyone ever told you how beautiful you are?”
“No,” she said.
“You are. Sweet and genuine and honestly beautiful.”
Despite the fact he had probably used this line successfully on many women, she was unprepared for it to work on her. His lazy smile sparked a human interest in her, a sort of curling ache, undiminished by the split lips and purpling bruises.
Her robot cataloged the interest.
She struggled to understand it. “Do you mean your statement is honest, or honesty is beautiful?”
He reached to stroke her cheek.
She maneuvered around his reach. “Answer.”
His hand dropped. “Both. Honestly.”
Somehow, he was still playing with her. Despite knowing who she was and why she was here. Despite having recently survived an assassination attempt. Despite everything. His lazy smile disguised a calculating mind and an evaluating gaze.
Both layers of his personality interested her in a way she couldn’t explain.
Good, her robot said. We can turn this into a success. He is interested in you too. Use his interest and get him to contact the rogue. Then kill them both, quickly.
“I owe you thanks.” His mellifluous voice, dark in timbre, enticed her hunger. Not for food, but for other, deeply forbidden things. “For whatever impulse caused you to save me. Even if it was just a ploy to get me alone.”
She hadn’t intended to get him alone, even though now that they were alone, she felt things she couldn’t justify or explain. “I only desire information.”
He was still standing too close. She could feel his body heat.
She shoved him a step back. He put weight on his scraped leg and crumpled, catching himself on debris.
With distance, logic soothed her. The robotic underside of her brain read his sweating expressions and body language. Despite what an ordinary person would fear, the thought of being alone with his potential assassin didn’t frighten him. Which meant he was himself insane.
She pushed ahead. “Where is the location of the intergalactic killer known to us as the rogue?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“Because she is an intergalactic killer.”
“So are you.”
Yet he was still talking to her. “Do you have a death wish?”
His smile returned. “That depends.”
“Dying might be worth it if I get to spend the rest of my life with a beauty like you.”
Heat flushed through her. How did his words cause sensations that could not exist? She was not human. She felt nothing. The heat glimmered like a mirage.
I sense no heat, her robot confirmed. He is tricking you.
“If spending the rest of your life with me is your object,” she said, “I promise you a short life.”
“At least I’ll be the object of your desire.”
What was this trap? The waves of heat flushed through her again, even though it was impossible. Both she and her robot agreed.
“I don’t understand.”
He smiled, cavalier. “I’m the only one who can give you information. Doesn’t that make me the object you most desire?” He reached out.
She jerked back, thumping her head against the wall. His touch must be dangerous. Cold, hard logic only prevailed at a distance.
He stopped, examining the space between his outstretched hand and her cheek. And then, out of respect for her, he let his arm drop.
“The intergalactic criminal rogue has driven robots insane,” she said, her head still pressed against the wall. “An insane robot is a danger to everyone. Give me her location to capture the criminal before more are hurt.”
“Nice words. But you’re here to kill me.”
“Not right now.”
A brow raised. He winced and touched the bloodied scratch.
“You don’t believe me,” she said.
“I’ve always had a weakness for pretty girls.”
Somehow, this tossed-off compliment affected her more deeply than his declaration of her beauty. “Pretty” sounded closer to truth. The realization burned through her like the flickering of a match, burning into her center and stealing her breath. He thought she was pretty, and she liked him for thinking so. Danger. Danger. The word chanted in her head.
Be pretty. Use his weakness to extract information. Your untrained human persona is perfect for this chore.
“I am not a pretty girl,” she said, deliberately crushing her robot’s new idea. “And I’m not the organizer of the attempt to assassinate you just now.”
His non-reaction said he was already aware. “That doesn’t mean I’m safe around you, Zenya.”
She bit back the argument forming in her robot’s processor. When she finished her training in the Faction, she would accept her predecessor’s name and become the new Zenya. Fine. But she had not finished her training, and she refused her predecessor’s name.
“My name is Resa.”
Skepticism sealed his brow.
“Since you know about my predecessor, then you also know I could have killed you at any time simply by not acting. Instead, I have saved your life.”
He licked his lips. “Because you need me.”
The way he said those words, the way he moved and gestured, evoked all sorts of wrong ideas. Darts of pleasure, darts of need, digging under her skin. She didn’t need him. She didn’t need anything about him.
“That irritates you,” he observed.
She dropped all emotion from her body, squeezing it out like a liquid until nothing but the robot remained. And still, she felt like he could see her. See the empty shell, know that it was empty, and sense a challenge to fill it up again. “I don’t need anything.”
“Sure.” He squared his jaw. “The lady rogue knows you’re coming. The only way you could possibly hope to catch her is to stay close to me. I’ll let you stay as close as you like. For a price.”
Pay it, her robot ordered.
She shivered. “You do have a death wish.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
How interesting that he drew a distinction between her assignment and her intention. “Why do you think I will tell you the truth?”
“Because I already know the truth.” He coughed. “I’m testing to see whether you’re going to bother to lie.”
Fine. He thought he knew her answer. The rogue could listen in on the most private, highest encoded Robotics Faction transmissions and get away undetected. Somehow.
Lie anyway, her robot ordered.
His expression baited her.
The cocky arrogance wiped from his face.
Her robot screamed at her for her honesty, but it was worth seeing Aris’s surprise, even only for a moment. His resolution returned, steely and gray.
“I feel like we understand each other.” He lifted a measuring gaze. “I’ll give you the chance to search me and my home for the lady rogue.”
How unexpected. “You think I can’t find her.”
“I know you can’t. She’s not even on this planet.” The brazen look in his eyes told her he didn’t know whether that were true. “But you won’t believe me, so I’m gifting you a free pass to search for her anyway. In exchange, you—”
“I prevent your family from killing you while you have no restore point?”
He snapped his jaw closed. A half smile played on his lips. “I was going to say ‘if you’ll give me a lift home.’”
“No, you weren’t.”
The smile deepened, his interest piqued. “I might have said it.”
“It would have been a lie.”
Her robot remained silent, judging her handling of him, but not interfering. Her untrained human persona would remain near him, in his residence, touching everything he touched, and without any compromise of her own.
Aris cocked a hip. “You’re right about one thing.”
“Everything I spoke is true.”
“You’re not a pretty girl.”
“My first impression was right. You’re a beautiful woman.”
Damn his words. The dangerous sensation glimmered in her chest. He caused strange confusion without touching her. She needed more than to keep him at arm’s distance.
But to capture the rogue, keeping her space wasn’t an option anymore.
He tottered, strength leaving him.
“Then I will give you your lift home.” She caught him as he collapsed. “We leave now.”
Aris studied the blush, tinting the innocent cheeks of the woman holding him up, like an artist picking out her colors. Correction, the colors of the robot clothed in the skin of a female. Because that’s what she was: A robot pretending to be everything that any man would desire.
Her flight suit flapped around her ankles as she carried him. She dragged him across the sharp wreckage toward the gaping hole in the side of the dome.
Fair enough that she had saved his life. One of his cousins had challenged boldness in their public attack, and he needed to respond in kind to prove the attack a failure.
“I would love for you to take me home.” He put his hand on the hole and ignored the sharp pain of his split lip as he favored her with his smoothest smile. “But there’s a few more things we have to work out here, beautiful.”
She stiffened, which was not usually the reaction to his attention.
But after having lost at least Joensen, and perhaps three additional excellent employees, he wasn’t at his top form.
“You currently have a job opening. I offer myself as your new head of security.”
“I’ve seen your skills.” He played with her, waiting to see her reveal herself again. “Who do I contact for character references?”
“I speak for myself.”
“No one can vouch for your past deeds?”
“Those ‘deeds’ are past.” Something flitted across her face, gone before he could capture it. “They belong to another’s life.”
“Aren’t you made in exactly the same model as your predecessor, with all of her memories? Aren’t you essentially her restoration?”
“When my training completes, then yes. I will become the same agent formerly known as Zenya.”
But disagreement passed across her face. A fight within herself, perhaps. The same look had crossed when she corrected him about her name.
Zenya, he understood from his conversations with the lady rogue, had been a killer, happier behind a fortress of piled bodies. If he met her face-to-face, an emotionless mask would be the last thing he ever saw.
But this Resa wore a mask to cover a writhing mass of emotion. Their conversation had already lasted longer than the lady rogue had suggested any conversation with Zenya Sen ever did.
And he had felt her petite body pressed up against the wall. She reacted like a woman. Curious, cautious, hungry. Her skin might repel glass, but it felt soft and supple beneath his hands. Crinkly black hair curled around her face. The memory of her body burned in his fingers like match-flares. He wanted to coat himself in oil and dive in.
Of course, that was insane, which was why he liked it.
“Decide,” she ordered. “The noxious oxide is almost to the arcade.”
“I need to make a statement to the family I’m still alive.” He took a step across the tilted floor and collapsed.
She simply looked down at him, splayed out like a smudge on the gritty debris-filled floor. “If you delay, you will be dead.”
“If I don’t make a statement, my cousin Darvin will challenge my authenticity, and I might as well be.”
She regarded him stoically.
He dared her with the last of his strength and only the start of his indomitable will. “Your interview test is to ensure I make a statement without collapsing from gas poisoning.”
Resa accepted the governor’s conditions spoken in a half whisper from ashen lips. Being surrounded by household debris, too, was uncomfortably familiar. Deeper than Zenya’s memories, it resonated with an image that was older, deeper, and somehow more true. Something that she almost remembered.…
No. She couldn’t remember. Resa shoved it aside just like she shoved aside the doubts her robot voiced. She didn’t dare.
“How do you make the statement?” she asked.
“A broadcast station,” came his faint reply. “With the highest security. And satellite.”
So, he needed to be filmed outdoors with the noxious oxide to prove that he hadn’t succumbed to it. Excellent.
She lifted Aris, trying to ignore the white smile he bestowed on her and the murmur of something that was bound to have been flirtatious, but which ended up swallowed by a pained gasp, and carried him to the hole. Grabbing the tether cable with her bare hands, she slid to the ground. Friction heated her palm to a molten shine. She turned off her receptors, dumped Aris in a groaning pile beneath a broken arcade column, and flexed her hand. The shiny skin swapped chemicals within so the skin returned to suppleness. She turned on her receptors again.
Step one: Contain the noxious oxide.
Resa unsealed her second weapon, a shatter pistol, from her thigh and aimed at the storage dome. A thousand closely-pulsed charges sheared off the side of the giant building, opening the dome. The metal-glass round slammed into the ground, crushed the buildings around it, and rolled into the noxious cloud. It fell open and gas pooled into it.
She shot the power transformer within the dome.
It exploded outward. The dome lifted off the arcade and wobbled in the air. A boom echoed through the ground.
Metal siding rattled and slid off ruined domes around the arcade overhead.
She sheltered Aris.
Several hundred pounds of debris boomed against them, snapping her rifle in half. The force reverberated through her marrow, crackling in her bones. Chips expelled at the force of a bullet. Several smacked her shatter pistol, weakening and cracking the plastic.
She followed the path of each fracture, moving faster than physics to protect Aris. One splinter unexpectedly sliced through her cheek. The metal siding came to a rest.
She shoved the metal siding off. It clanged and crushed the opposite building.
Two guns destroyed. She threw them aside. No matter. She disliked guns anyway.
You do not dislike guns, her robot said. You have no preference. Although losing both at once is strange.
But not impossible.
And… she did dislike guns. For some reason, they had failed her when she needed them. Sometime in the past… but the memories were out of reach.
Zenya loved guns.
Yes. Without poking the dark morass of her predecessor’s memories, she imagined that Zenya did.
Blood gaped from the exposed hole in her cheek, reacting to loss of pressure and chemical atmosphere to immediately bond into a seal. Magnetese in Resa’s blood contained it. She pressed the sides of her cheek together. Where the skin overlapped, it adhered like tape and reknit her injury. Her scar melded and disappeared.
Out in the center, the whole dome rolled over, crushing everything in its path, and landed on the lip of the hole. Noxious oxide poured out the hole like a poisoned faucet. In minutes, the area cleared. The air flowed clean.
Aris leaned against the column; his legs splayed and his head thrown like he’d been gut shot.
He licked his lips. “Anyone in those buildings you just destroyed?”
“Did you bother to check?”
His judgment stuck her like needles.
“Yes,” she answered mechanically. “However, if I killed in error, I only accelerated the result of the gas.”
Emergency sirens filled the air as survivors crawled out of the wreckage.
He grunted. “Take me to the broadcast station.”
She dragged him past survivors, well-wishers, and emergency personnel over a mile to the nearest undamaged transmitter. It registered his ID chip and activated. He rolled up his sleeve, spoke, “Identity confirm,” and winced when the biologic needle stabbed into his bicep for a bloody DNA confirmation while the broadcaster confirmed voice print, hand prints, toe prints, eye scans, and earlobe depths.
“Identity confirmed,” the machine announced. “Voice transmissions out of order.”
He squinted at it, wiped blood across his forehead, and groaned. “Prop me up. Hit the video.”
She slid her arm under his, too aware of his heat against her torso. “What is your answer to my offer?”
“Sure.” He licked his chapped, split lips again and grinned for the video feed. “As everyone can see, we successfully survived a tragic accident. The victims will be compensated for their losses and resurrected according to their government contracts.”
She tilted her mouth away. “They can’t hear you.”
He nodded; lip reading would input the sound. His serious exhaustion gave way to lazy flirting.
Against her will, awareness of his sexy form pressed against hers and pulsed through her inhuman body.
It hitched a fraction with his next command.
“Now give me a kiss.”
Continue to Chapter Three!