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.
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.
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?”
He backed toward the terrace.
She took a half step to follow him. “Where are you going?”
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“Hurry up. The longer we take, the more time they have to position weapons around the exits.”