Liberation’s Kiss – Chapter Four

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

3d bookCHAPTER FOUR

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

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

All because of his beautiful, capable human.

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

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

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

They changed onto the rail for the coast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re hungry,” he noted.

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

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

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

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

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

He choked.

She looked up in surprise. “What?”

“Are fucking kidding me?”

She blinked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked away.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s that?”

“Ideally, off planet.”

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

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

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

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

She bit her lip.

So, then, she had some idea. Interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is that?”

“I have no fucking clue.”

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

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

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

Xan stepped between them.

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

Okay then.

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

He eased back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He blinked. “Your name?”

“As guest, Vinitra Asada.”

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

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

“He is not on the list.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t reply.

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

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

She arched her brows. “You were saying?”

“That’s one hell of a cabin.”

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

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

~*~*~*~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The general’s a smuggler,” Xan said.

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

“Where are your parents now?”

“Off world.”

“You don’t know?”

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

“How and when?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He eyed the single bedroom. “Mostly?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does blood bother you?”

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

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

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

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

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

When she finished, he was still looking at her.

She felt that hot tremble again and turned away.

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

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

“Because your relationship was public.”

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

He remained steady on her.

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

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

“Forty.”

“Real age?”

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

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

“Oh, no. He’s helped us out so much—”

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

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

“I would.”

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

He stared.

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

“Or in your relationships,” he said.

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

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

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

He closed his mouth.

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

“Cressida—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, you do.”

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

“There’s nothing—”

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

“I would.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shivered. “What?”

“You need to reconsider altering your chip ID.”

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

~*~*~*~

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

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

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

“Is that your full report?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its blank eyes regarded her, soulless as glass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Forward the order to someone who does.”

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

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

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

Xan|Arch could not hide.

Posted in Excerpts, liberations kiss, robotics faction, science fiction romance