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.”
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.”
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!”
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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”