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 had been hiding under her bed ever since the bombing had stopped.
Because after the bombing stopped, the robots would come.
And then she would die.
She shifted in the sunken room, stretching out first one aching leg, then the other. Her travel jumpsuit pulled tight in unfamiliar places, and her shoes pushed against her beloved inks, brushes, and papers. Although she had often retreated here for peace, savoring a steaming cup of plum tea over the meditative strokes of her ancient calligraphy hobby, now the room pressed in on her like a prison.
She shifted again. Outside, the silence was profound. A distant myna bird cried, its sad voice echoing tremulously through her open windows on the moon’s balmy, subtropical breeze. Despite her many wishes for quiet, now she would give anything for one more noisy, bustling, too-busy week juggling speaking engagements and hostessing the constant extraplanetary visitors to her parents’ diplomatic residence.
Was that distant murmur really the shiver of leaves in the vine-strewn trees? Or was it a shuttle creeping ever closer?
Cressida took a deep breath and hugged her legs tight into her chest, struggling to calm.
Three days ago, her parents had performed a highly publicized departure, shooting through the wall of Nar Conglomerate warships and hopefully convincing everyone that they had taken their beloved twenty-six-year-old daughter away with them. It was a huge risk. But not from the Nar. The Nar were not particularly interested in two diplomats, no matter how famous their lineage.
No, the real risk was from one of the Nar’s more secretive partners. The dark, mechanical underbelly that provided the Nar’s technological superiority. The “harmless” Robotics Faction.
Her stomach growled piteously.
She straightened and poked her head over the edge of the marble floor. A layer of sand dusted the spacious tile, and a few dried bougainvillea blossoms curled near the front terrace. Cressida rose, creaking, to her feet and clambered out, ducking her head as she emerged. She stretched with a low groan.
Stay hidden. Stay quiet. Stay put.
Cressida dropped low and crept to the serving table. She sniffed her dry wine goblet and pitcher, licked her finger, and dragged it through stale cake crumbs. The reprocessor in the kitchen could make any exotic food her parents’ guests desired, but she had been cautioned against using it. One of the Nar’s first actions would be to connect their backwater moon, Liberation VI, to the intergalactic networks. And then everything she did could be logged and used against her to cause her death.
She swallowed the crumbs on a dry throat.
Her parents’ publicity effort had been a tactical ploy. But it must have failed. Their trusted family friend, General Vardis, had not arrived three days ago and smuggled Cressida away to safety. What should she do? The question ached in her spine.
Even though she wasn’t supposed to, she crept toward the front terrace. Crystal domes, white terraces, and floating statuary stretched down the long street. No commuter shuttles congested the turquoise-green sky. Her view was filled instead with reflected light from the stationary gas giant around which Liberation VI orbited.
It was gorgeous and frighteningly empty.
She receded from the terrace, crossed her bedroom, and padded nervously into the colonnaded hall. She angled herself in shadow of the giant copperwood twining a tall arch.
Below, the diplomatic courtyard unfolded, abandoned. The memory of its lively outdoor concerts, with buskers, dancers, and games, was a lost dream. The massive fountain in the center had baked dry. Stone storks and fishes gaped open-mouthed at what had suddenly come down on them. Shadows crawled over the walls from the street.
Perhaps she was the only person left alive on the entire moon.
Oh, there was one person out. Two, actually. Across the courtyard, hidden in the street’s shadow, a man and woman kissed as if they had been drawn out of one of her historic ink-wash books. Secret lovers, meeting without a care.
That evoked a bittersweet longing. Lovers were not something she would enjoy so long as her name was on the Robotics Faction’s mysterious Kill List.
Cressida hugged her elbows and retreated. If those two were out, then others must be out as well, and if she had learned one thing from her shocking flight fourteen years ago, it was that she had to obey absolutely every rule. You never knew when you might accidentally offend an entity that you didn’t even know had feelings.
She rested one hand against her bed, drumming up the will to crawl underneath again.
How wonderful it would be to kiss someone like that. How wonderful to shelter in a man’s arms and not put his life at risk. How wonderful to forget the world and lose herself, lose everything, and drown in tender love. She still dreamed of a normal life, no matter how many years passed in exile.
But no one could rely on dreams. Otherwise, she’d be rescued and reunited with her parents already.
At least she could rely on her bed. The frame, built of Liberation VI’s famous crystal bonded with the Nar’s patented antigravity ore, would float through the collapse of a building just as smoothly as it had floated through the collapse of their lucrative trade partnership. Cressida descended to the safe hideaway underneath and hugged her travel satchel.
Rescue would come. In all her life, she had never lost to a contest of patience. Bravery, sometimes, rebelliousness, always, but never patience. It was her strength, her rock, her defining characteristic. So now, at the height of fear for herself and her family, she had to do the one thing she was best at.
She just had to wait.
Forty-eight seconds earlier, the Robotics Faction android known as Xan|Arch [x?98$4] scaled the compound wall and dropped silently into the courtyard. The diplomatic residence spread out before him, silent as a held breath; his target would be located in her bedroom on the second floor, fourth room from the left. He could feel her brain chip broadcasting its identification in the local area network, like a susurration on his skin, radiating her presence to every receptor within two blocks. Target n81x positively acquired: Cressida Sarit Antiata.
His left hand hovered over the shatter-pistol, magnetically deactivated and attached to his thigh.
After he killed her, a preprogrammed targeting malfunction of the moon’s obsolete orbital defense lasers would obliterate all evidence within a quarter-mile radius. A local contact assured the Faction that she was a timid woman too frightened to leave her room, but Xan’s assignment required absolute certainty of her termination.
He didn’t particularly enjoy this assignment. As an x-class of subtype ninety-eight, his usual method of human interaction was far less terminal. He liked people, and he liked getting along with them. But the order bored into his brain, clear and relentless. The target had to be eliminated. He had an assignment to complete.
Xan counted the colonnades and divided by the known rooms and average size. This backwater had no accurate floor plans, not even of its governmental buildings. Faction satellites were even now scanning the entire moon remotely and sharing their data with their so-helpful trade partners, the insatiable Nar, so that would soon change.
He kept to the shadowed wall, his boots making a quiet but noticeable sound against the crystal rubilum cobblestone. Odor sensors cataloged the wild orchids clinging parasitically to their host trees. A near-zero differential between the air and dew point temperatures meant the humidity on the moon was higher than comfortable and forced his internal regulatory mechanisms to produce cold-radiance. Otherwise, his largest biological organ, his millimeter-thick layer of human skin, would take over and evaporate sweat.
No one moved in the courtyard.
He centered on the estimated bedroom and stepped out of shadow. Reflected light momentarily blinded his optical sensors as he determined his approach: a leap to the branch of an enormous tree positioned against the colonnade, a grasp of the carvings jutting from the lower rail, a stretch up, and swing over the ledge into the hall. Then into the bedroom, one accurate head shot, and exit before the orbital malfunction reduced the entire street to ash.
His quadriceps tensed to run.
A voice to his lower right stopped him. “Now, what’s an x-class ninety-eight doing on a nice little moon like this one?”
He wheeled to face the speaker.
A woman was seated on a bench.
But no one had been seated here moments before.
She held a non-threatening posture, and her smile-to-eye wrinkle ratio indicated friendliness. And she accurately identified his hardware class and interface type.
But no one was supposed to know he was here.
Inconclusive error-conflicts forced him to rerun the analysis twice more. In the same time it took an ordinary human to start to blink, his interface type reverted to personal response 397-c3, gather information.
He stuck his left hand on his hip and lifted his chin. A boyish smile curved his lips, rueful, to invite trust. “Who wants to know?”
The woman’s brows folded. Concerned. “Oh, I don’t suppose they told you.”
He tilted his head. “They?”
“Your superiors.” She smoothed her flight suit and stood.
Her hair, shoulder-length and brown, had the grease buildup of a human, and she smelled like odor-producing bacteria too, a class of parasites including yeast and mold that would never truly be eradicated so long as humans lived. Yet her facial bones were wider than he’d initially measured, and her nostril-to-lip ratio narrower. His internal processor queried whether she was, in fact, a woman. The flat chest, elongated collarbone, and straight hips argued against his original assessment. She was exactly his height too; average for an adult male in good health raised in 1.8 gravity, and above average for an adult female.
He laughed softly and scratched his short brown hair. “And what are my superiors supposed to have told me?”
She walked right up against him and stared deeply into his eyes. No reflection in her pupils betrayed an android’s telescopic camera lens recording their meeting.
He did not step back.
Her lips twisted to the side. Sadly amused. “You’re still not fully adept at human-computer interactions, are you?”
“I passed my benchmarks.” Half conclusions whirled across his inner processor. She had access to his training records. She had come to intercept him. She was a human with a high clearance of classified information about the Robotics Faction operations. She was pressing her soft human body against his titanium-alloy rib cage as though she expected him to yield. “What’s the problem?”
She sighed. Her lips parted. “Xan, this is the look of a woman who wants to kiss you.”
In the split second his lids were closed, his internal processors revved up to maximum power, pulling resources from every other subroutine and scheduled function.
Her hand went around the back of his neck.
“This can’t possibly be relevant to my current assignment,” his voice said.
She pressed her lips to his mouth mid-word and stuck in her tongue.
Despite the fact that he had classed her as human according to every known measure in the catalog of human characteristics, the tip of her tongue fit perfectly against the operating system interface at the upper back roof of his mouth. A sharp shock zapped through his limbic system, paralyzing him. White letters emerged infinitely slowly against the black of his brain, even though his eyes were gaping wide on the giant green sky.
Somewhere overhead, satellites were silently recording this courtyard, this interaction, and transmitting it back to the Robotics Faction Central Command. In real time, since they had finished the faster-than-light relay. They would know what had happened. They would instruct him how to proceed.
Installing atfirstsight.exe, conquersall.exe, isblind.exe, true.exe…complete.
The woman pulled away, but Xan remained in place, his fingers and toes twitching as the aftershocks of the hard install forced a full system reboot. His biological organs could live for minutes without oxygen, but without the constant internal cooling, the skin cells quickly passed the maximum temperature allowance. His palms slicked, and sweat beaded up on his lip and forehead.
She laughed and wiped his lax mouth with her sleeve. “What’s this? It’s like you’ve never been kissed before. A girl who wants a kiss should never have to verbalize it to an x-class ninety-eight, Xan. It’s hard to believe your superiors considered you as passing.”
He blinked rapidly. System after system returned to full operation. Despite the few-instants blind spots, everything had been completely and fully restored.
But that feeling was fleeting. The additional programs that she had installed in his brain exploded into tumors behind his visual cortex, taking over circuits and repurposing them for a secret, sinister purpose.
He stepped back, needing the distance, even though he had never been the type to step back before. “What did you do to me?”
One brow rose. “Feeling vulnerable?”
Emergency override. All of his systems paused. The connection in his deepest, innermost protected brain, the “black box” next to his identification chipset, had turned off.
He had been severed from the Robotics Faction.
All of the satellite and operational data that had been live-streaming into the back of his brain, accessible should he need it, had ceased to download. His intimate knowledge of the Faction’s plans for this moon — wiring, drones, data dumps — had a timestamp set in the past. He was, at this instant, outdated. Everything he did from this point forward would be without the benefit of the network.
And the quantum particle that connected him with the central mainframe had flickered off. Meaning that in real time, across millions of parsecs, the Robotics Faction knew he had disconnected. He was, right now, off assignment. And there was only one word for a robot that had gone off assignment.
The woman watched his dawning awareness in her customary friendly silence.
His fingers flexed. “Why did you disconnect me? Are you trying to cause my death?”
She shook her head.
“Stopping me won’t save the target.”
The distant, high-pitched whine of seekers grew stronger, and shadows of drone-controlled bots landed up and down the street. They had deployed in reaction to his disappearance. Backup upon backup was being activated to complete his assignment.
Strangely, although he could no longer “feel” the other robots in the network, he could still sense Cressida’s smart chip, broadcasting her identity.
Why could he still feel Cressida?
The woman in front of him merely shrugged. Everything about her body language and response matched. She didn’t care what he did. Stopping his assignment wasn’t her purpose.
“Then…” He pressed both hands to his temples and squeezed. An irrational response, to physically simulate the constant, unswerving direction to complete his assignment, which was now absent and silent. All choices held identical weight, which was to say, no weight. He floated without purpose between the poles of possible futures, between the very poles of existence. “What am I supposed to do?”
She stepped back. Her voice came from farther away than it had moments before. “That choice, Xan|Arch, is up to you.”
He dropped his hands. “How the hell—”
She was gone.
He jerked back, scanning in all directions. She was gone as completely as though she’d been vaporized. Even the scent of her was absent, blown away in the wind of the high-pitched seeker-drones overhead, crossing his shadow and stirring dust.
Loud clacking on the courtyard walls advertised clunky bots’ positions to everyone with subsonic hearing abilities — primarily androids and certain types of sonar-enabled animals such as bats. Shit. Normally he would know their position by sound as well as by an internal representation of his world, fed into his brain courtesy of the network and now gone completely dark. It was as though all but one eye was poked out and all but two hands were cut off. And the voice, that oh-so-comforting voice that instructed him in every move with divine confidence, had gone silent.
His last orders echoed in the empty chamber of his head.
Were any of that woman’s words true? Or was she sent by his superiors as some kind of test? To see if he would complete his last orders or wait? The Faction collected all rogues for dissection. Was she sent by someone affiliated with the target?
There had to be something he was missing.
How had Cressida avoided death for fourteen years? It couldn’t be coincidence that the first android assigned to her newly discovered hiding place had been intercepted and disconnected. Or that now, blinded from everything else, Xan could still sense her presence. Cressida must know something. Xan needed her alive long enough to get his answers.
Bots clopped past him as though he were invisible, their heavy tread sinking deep into the mud, their thick armor covered in the bloody scent of crushed orchids.
He stood in front and stopped one with both hands. “Wait.”
It kept walking forward, churning the dirt beneath its boot treads. Its dead visage stared past him as if he didn’t exist.
Did no one see him on the satellites above? Had he somehow slipped off the visible spectrum?
The dumb sentries, controlled by low-level processors, were incapable of reasoning outside of their careful parameters. Currently, this one’s parameters instructed it to step laterally until it got away from the obstruction, then rejoin the platoons streaming past him, unstoppable in their mission of death. Orders issued from the Faction could change their operating parameters. So why didn’t even one stop?
He needed answers.
His assignment would have changed, surely, if he were still able to transmit the events of the past few minutes. The Faction needed to know about the mystery woman who had disconnected him and fatally changed his destiny. He needed to know. Not to save his own life but to save the others who would come after him.
Xan demagnetized his pistol.