Liberation’s Kiss – Chapter Three

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 THREE

Cressida followed the man-shaped android who had promised to cut her open keep her alive through the dim shaft, her throat clenching with blast powder. Her hands throbbed, rough and scraped, from when he had dragged her across the concrete. She had never been so terrified as that moment, believing herself safe and finally able to relax after three days, suddenly realizing that he was a representative of the very faction trying so desperately to kill her.

He had promised not to as long as she was “safe.” What if he figured out why the Robotics Faction wanted her dead and decided it was a legitimate reason? And yet, she still followed behind him, deeper and deeper into the unknown.

He ducked beneath a pipe, limping badly now. That was partly her fault for making him run across the street to stop her from accidentally exposing herself to the drones. But how could he blame her reaction?

Only days after her twelfth birthday party, her parents had intercepted a confidential leak that the Robotics Faction had slated her for execution. It was like an execution order from God. On Dinar IV, the Robotics Faction supplied everything from the nanobots that created the air she breathed to the smart chip that broadcast her health, needs, and preferences to the myriad life support and recreational devices that made life possible and pleasant on airless, irradiated Dinar IV. How could the maker of all things, whose name was branded across every surface she touched and inside even the clothes she wore, want her dead? And how could she argue that there had been a mistake, that whatever she had done, she was sorry? Who could she beg to be removed from a top-secret list that no one officially controlled, that no one was ever supposed to see?

Her parents had packed her up in the night and fled, leaving behind everything, even her two siblings. They had resettled as diplomats on Liberation VI, a small mining moon with a pleasant enough living environment that did not require the constant daily intervention of Robotics Faction technology. Most importantly, Liberation VI was disconnected from the galactic networks. Cressida had effectively dropped from sight. She was finally safe.

Only now that the Nar had invaded and reconnected the moon, her identity had transmitted across those networks. The Robotics Faction had come for her. Just as threatened fourteen years ago.

This robot, Xan, had already saved her. Several times over. The warmth of his wide hands on her head had been calming, soothing, like a child being hugged by a parent. It was a sensation she yearned to feel again.

Although at any moment, she could discover that once again she had made a mistake. And this time, her parents wouldn’t be here to whisk her away.

She cleared her throat. “Where are we going after we reach the transit hub?”

“Ideally, off world.” He paused at a crossroads. The way split into four directions, and he glanced briefly down each before turning confidently to the left. “Why didn’t your parents alter your ID chip?”

“You can’t,” she said.

“Sure you can.”

“I mean, you aren’t supposed to. It’s too risky.”

“It’s about the same as any invasive brain surgery. Go in with a backup.”

“Any backups were destroyed on Dinar IV.” That was how her parents knew the confidential leak was true. All citizens on technologically advanced planets received government-backed brain scans three times in childhood, so that if they should die before reaching majority, the government would fund their resurrection. Shortly after the leak, her resurrection points were all mysteriously erased. But no one “lost” a resurrection point. That was how they knew the Robotics Faction intended for Cressida to truly die. “Liberation VI has no resurrects. They’re so poor by galactic standards they’d end up indentured. And anyway, the point is that changing your chip ID isn’t allowed. I’d be an illegal.”

“Better alive on the black market than dead in a state funeral.”

Her palms sweated. She rubbed them on her dirty travel pants. “What life would I have if everything about me were erased?”

“You’d have a life,” he said, stopping briefly at a console and checking their location, then scrolling furiously through maps and keying in an indecipherable string of numbers. Transmission initiated…Success, the screen read, stamped with two different New Empire bank logos. He closed it, his arms flexed, and the console metal shrieked as it ripped off the wall, showering sparks and dangling wires. He tossed it into a corner and continued walking. “We’d waltz you onto the first outbound shuttle as a listed passenger rather than trying to stuff you in a freeze-dried carry-on. But you can’t smuggle an extra ounce on an outbound shuttle without the weight gyros freaking out. Your parents should have thought of that.”

In actual fact, they had thought of that. And that thought had cost her sister. But Cressida had no reason to tell Xan any of that. “So how am I going to get off world?”

“I have to think about it,” he said.

They wound through the heart of the capital city via its underground. Cressida had never walked it before, always chauffeuring intergalactic guests in official state carriages, and although she had thought the transit hub close, her legs ached and mouth gummed by the time they finally climbed into the hub ventilation and reached a drop into the men’s decontam room. Xan hung from the ceiling and examined the security cameras, but they were coated with old residue. He shook his head at their fortune and lowered her into the empty room.

She was too conscious of his hands as she dangled in the open air, again trusting him against her will. He dropped beside her. The access hatch closed and locked itself above them.

If there was one thing a mining station did right, it was clean-up stations. A powder bath dispensed grime-removing silicate, a vacuum wand removed any stray radiation, and stalls showered sterilizing light, bleaching tough stains to the same color as hair, skin, and clothes. She hurried to the silicate bath, eager to scrub herself free of the horrifying grit of the last hour.

A subtle red tint to the light fixture informed her that she was in the wrong room for her gender.

Xan swore softly and clamped his hands over her head. The shock of his sudden touch froze her in place. The indicators returned to normal. “We should’ve gone another couple feet. It wouldn’t have done anything if we dropped in the women’s.”

She struggled to remain calm under his touch. Not because she was afraid but because she desperately wanted to melt into him. No. He was a robot. She pulled back and tugged him toward the silicate. God, she could almost taste its sweet cleansing scent.

With him cupping her forehead, she coated herself in sand, wicking away the destruction of her former home and making her skin shine. She dusted her hair and her travel clothes, so dingy only bleach could repair the tarnishes. He studied her impersonally with his gray-green eyes, ensuring that she covered every visible inch, no matter how embarrassing.

After she finished enough to satisfy him, he lifted his chin. “Do me.”

She put her hand under the dispenser, received her palm-full of silicate, and swallowed.

The silver gash gleamed like a metal scar, jaggedly frightening against his otherwise human-seeming face. Concentrate on the scar. She dipped her fingers in the white sand and carefully brushed it against his cheek bones. They were wide and flat and so warm beneath her tips. She brushed sand across his wide forehead and down his long nose, to the sensitive divot above his lips, and across the indent in his chin.

His eyes focused on her, hot and electrifying, as the dirt adhered and fell away, revealing his clean, masculine beauty.

A pounding started in her center, just below her chest. Fear, she told herself, and not the memory of how safe she had felt after his kiss. He could break her in half if he wanted to. The gentleness with which he cupped her head was only a mirage. It hid his true danger.

She tried to ignore the deeper throb as her hands traveled down, embracing the wide span of his neck where it met his broad shoulders and the hot, hard, indelible chest. His tapered waist. His taut butt beneath the flight suit, his bulging thighs. His bony ankles, or his broad feet. She finished dusting him and stopped.

He met her heated cheeks. “You forgot a part.”

She swallowed. “You can get that.”

“If I let go, your position is broadcast across the station.”

She swallowed again.

“I can’t go out there with a huge dirt patch in such an obvious place.”

She powdered her hands and patted in a swift, downward motion that only touched the long, hard edge of what appeared to be an arousal she wanted to press herself against. Why was it that the first man she had ever found herself uncontrollably attracted to wasn’t a man at all but her enemy?

She half shook her head, forcing the improper impulse out. If he were a man, she would feel flattered by his arousal, but he was only programmed to react to her, or something. She swallowed all of her wrong feelings down, hard, and quickly dusted off her hands on her own throbbing thighs.

He was staring at her.

Heat splotched her chest. “I— What?”

The gray flared into green. His hard lips parted. He was going to kiss her again. And she wanted so much to taste it.

She gasped and jerked back, her hands pressed to his lips. “No.”

He nibbled her fingers. Sweet, sensitive bites. “Why not?”

“Because.” Desire throbbed through her. She wanted him, like she hadn’t wanted anything, and yet, the disappointment of her revelation echoed through her like a lament. “We can’t.”

“Says who?”

She shifted. “Why do you want to?”

“That was one hell of a come-on.”

Coolness seeped into her. “You’re the one who said that I missed a spot.”

“I meant my back.”

Coolness froze into shock. Her mouth dropped open.

His lips quirked. “Really? I said you missed a spot and you immediately thought of a four-by-six-inch wedge of my cock and not the four-foot target across the back of my torso?”

“I—I—I—” she stammered, quickly filling her palms and throwing her arms around him to dust his back. “I’m very sorry. Excuse me.”

He grinned, a teasing smile. “Hey, it all had to be done.”

“Yes. Um.” She patted him. “There.”

His voice dropped. “Cressida.”

“Y-yes?”

He stood, so solid and powerful, between her arms. His tapered waist pressed against hers, hard thigh to her soft one, pressure of his arousal undeniable against her leg. His voice was gently rough. “Thanks.”

Her breasts pressed against his hard chest, and she suddenly became conscious of exactly how closely she was hugging him. But even so, she didn’t move away.

His skin, ragged at the edges of the cut, wasn’t red. Not like a human’s. But he seemed so human in other ways. She touched it softly. “Does it hurt?”

He licked his lips. “Like hell.”

“It doesn’t bleed.”

“Because of the magnetese bonded to my blood cells.”

She touched the dry edge of his skin. Magnetese cost millions of credits per gram. Even rich interstellar crafts only painted a micrometer-thick veneer across the escape pods. Sometimes only across the captain’s escape pod.

He stilled beneath her tentative touch, scarcely seeming to breathe, as though afraid of chasing her away. “As soon as I detect a hull breach, a jolt binds the magnetese to the clot.”

“Useful if you get cut,” she said.

“It’s so I can still fight even if I get blown out a pressurization hatch,” he said. “I’ve got about fourteen minutes before depressurization fugue causes brain death.”

“So expensive, for such a short time?”

“I’m a gold-plated bot.” He maneuvered around her and peeked out into the rest of the hub. “And I’m done for any more physical stunts until I get my bolts oiled. Let’s see if we can get some use out of my logic processors before I blow a fuse.”

~*~*~*~

The high-impulse wave traveled across billions of light years in less time than it took to cross from one neuron to another. The android known as Xelia|Brae [x?96$5] was still booting out of cold storage when she became conscious of the message that had already arrived, whole and complete, in the black box portion of her brain.

Assignment: Retrieve rogue x-class [x?98$4] real name: Xan|Arch for dissection/analysis and assassinate target n81x real name: Cressida Sarit Antiata. Location: Navidi 4.a.17?x.

She opened her eyes and stepped out of the storage creche that had transported her body from its construction origin in the Mainframe Nebula to this remote way-station, an asteroid caught on the gravitational edge of a solar storm slightly closer to the gas giant Navidi and its moons than any other highly classified Faction null-storage site. The creche beside hers stood empty.

It had belonged to Xan|Arch.

She strode down the single corridor, her blood magnetically striving for the magnetic grav-belt beneath the floor and dragging her entire body at near g-force down with it. Only her tendrils of hair floated free of her face, the dead protein unencumbered by the material pulsing through her living pores. Her bones, like all x-class, were non-magnetic titanium alloy, but the hollows were filled with magnetese-saturated human blood protein. Her pressurization readings were perfect, but she swore it sloshed, just slightly, when she walked.

The details of the assignment filtered in for analysis and review. Only one stood out.

What are the coordinates of Xan|Arch’s body?

The answer came before she had finished formulating the question: Coordinates unknown.

That was odd. Usually androids that lost all connection waited, paralyzed, at their last connected location. What caused the rogue condition?

Unknown.

Again, an odd answer. She requested and received satellite footage. On pixels, Xan|Arch scaled a courtyard wall, strode across a garden, and disappeared.

She zoomed. But no matter how large she blew up the pixels playing across the inside of her retinas, he walked straight into air. The blind spot expanded as more troops entered the area, until the explosion that filled the sky with particulates accomplished the same blinding.

She asked another question. Is Xan|Arch visible to eyes-on?

Unknown.

So, she was to capture her predecessor without knowing whether she could actually see or sense him, and without knowing what had caused his rogue state.

Understood.

She followed Xan|Arch’s ghostly footsteps to the supplies room. The flight suit suctioned to her body, sealing along the seams, controlling her hair. In the armory, she removed the second fully charged shatter-pistol and pressed it to her right hip. She stepped into the drop-ship, closed the hatches, and navigated away from the station.

A fist-sized rock bumped the hull.

She paused for a structural analysis, but the thrusters were already engaged, and once burned, fuel would take a hundred years to re-accumulate. Well, if the hull had breached, she would burn up on entry, and the next x-class would be awoken. She pushed open the throttle. The drop-ship bucked and shuddered as its solar thrusters accelerated her up to light speed and dropped her into the Tube.

The important thing about the Tube wasn’t its concentric rings of accelerators. The important thing was that it was constantly patrolled by maintenance drones annihilating or pushing away anything that threatened to cross. The result was a near perfect vacuum that slid the drop-ship to its first destination like a pebble skipped across hot grease. She gathered speed, slingshotting around an uninhabited solar system, and rocketed into another Tube, angling incrementally toward Navidi’s system like a death-comet set on cratering a planet. Fuel exhausted, her craft hurtled helplessly into a wake pool of carefully calculated antithetical gravitation forces, a physics-created hard-braking net. Her human blood groaned against the perfect container of titanium. She gritted her teeth.

Approximately twenty minutes after the android known as Xan|Arch had disappeared from positive control of Central Command, his successor, Xelia|Brae, coasted into his old orbital pattern and accessed the network directly.

A column of smoke emerged from the crater of the former diplomatic residence, seeker-drones radiating out from it, sentries marching in spoked columns.

She switched systems, accessing the moon’s central error-malfunction reports. Of course everything within a quarter mile of the destroyed residence errored out, as did any systems wired through it. Moving farther out, a traffic signal had been error-malfunctioning since yesterday. Every few seconds, a new error ghosted up and then disappeared, all due to lags and hiccups in the system. Grit slowing down the inefficient human tubes.

A new error appeared: Central Transit Hub, men’s decontam room, wrong gender.

It disappeared moments later.

She flagged that location with the highest priority for investigation and centered her craft on the hub, overriding all other orders. Approximately eight seconds later, the security forces of the planet would ring this hub. She would land and lead the retrieval-assault.

~*~*~*~

Xan peered around the decontam wall and nearly ran into a miner in full hazmat suit and rebreather.

His goggles were deeply tinted with the harsh radioactive light of the raw ore, and he stomped past Xan and a wide-eyed Cressida without even a glance. His shoulders slumped from the heavy work and the long resurfacing restrictions during the bombing, when the integrity of the mine shafts could have been compromised.

The hair on the back of Xan’s neck rose.

A microsecond later, he processed why: reflected in the miner’s rebreather tanks were the converging forces of a security platoon. Not sentries but immigration forces. Humans.

His pistol was dead. His knees were blown. Cressida huddled against him, soft and vulnerable and trusting and completely puncturable by every type of weapon the force carried.

He pushed her back into the decontam room.

“Wha—?” she started to say.

The miner stumbled through the silicate, pushed the release on his suit, and stepped out. Bacterial-yeast stench clothed his naked butt. He hung the suit on the outside stall hook, tripped on the foot-tall frame, and tugged the door closed behind him. The stall sealed, containing his nakedness in privacy.

Above, the ventilation hatch was out of Xan’s reach, opened the wrong direction, and he had heard it lock. It would take several seconds to breach. Seconds they didn’t have.

There was no other way out of the decontam room.

No other way except through the security forces. Which he heard, even now, converging on the entrance.

“What is it?” Cressida asked. Her eyes were so deeply blue.

He cleared his mind. “Get in my suit.”

“What?”

He jerked her to the far end of the bathroom and yanked open the group stall. “Put your hands on my collar and pull.”

She hesitated.

Shit. He let go of her forehead. The room color tinted to red. He ripped apart his flight suit, exposing himself from collar to navel, and lifted her against his bare skin.

She gasped and stiffened.

The material edges sought to separate them. He stretched the fabric over her, forcing it to enlarge and form-fit the two of them. Her hands pressed against his chest, and her head rested unwillingly against his shoulder. No time for that. He pulled the stall door all the way open so it rested against the main room’s wall, gripped the outer stall hook, and lifted them both a foot above the ground. Even Cressida could hear the noise of the entering soldiers now. Xan held her perfectly still. They were hidden from every angle.

Until someone closed the stall door.

The hook strained beneath their combined weight. What was its tensile strength rating? How much torque were the bolts securing it to the door rated to hold? What about the structural integrity of the door and the strength of its hinges…

“Open it,” a woman’s voice said.

A crash broke the miner’s stall door. The man inside yelled. Xan wanted like anything to see although he was able to follow the noise as the miner was dragged out into the main room.

“Where is the criminal known as Cressida Sarit Antiata?” the woman asked.

Cressida stopped breathing.

“Whar is is? Whar tis is,” the man screamed. Something seemed to be wrong with his tongue; more than that was his indignation. This man thought he had rights. “Whar—”

The hot buzz of a shatter-pistol slightly increased the temperature of the room. There was a biological sound of something sliding to the ground.

A radio crackled loudly over the decontam fans. “Sensors indicate a shatter-pistol discharge. Did you get them, Miss Brae?”

“No,” she said. “Please run a sensory diagnostics on every square inch of this room.”

Cressida started breathing again. Her thready gasps were masked by the ventilation system—just.

A young officer’s voice asked from inside a security helmet, “You don’t think they’re still in here?”

The woman moved toward Xan’s open stall door. “I have received no data to the contrary.”

“Where would they be? Hiding in the air?”

“The room is still red.”

“You’re in here.”

She sucked in a breath. “I notice a slightly higher temperature than would be expected given the space and the average operant efficiency of the fans.”

“So someone’s hot-blooded?”

“Perhaps.”

“You did just discharge a firearm.”

“Yes. I did. Are you informing me of this fact because you are concerned that I did not incorporate it into my calculations?”

The young officer dropped silent.

In Xan’s taut grip, the door hook started to bend. He silently adjusted his grip. Cressida looked up at the strained piece of metal with widening eyes.

“In addition”—the woman shifted right, toward the crease of the hinges—“there is a slightly reduced echo of the sound vibrations in this room, exactly as though it were being absorbed by two additional bodies. I notice a mix of atmospheric exchange equivalent to two additional people breathing. In absence of external confirmation, my conclusion is that our two criminals are still in this room.”

“All the stalls are open.” The young officer must have looked down; the angle of his voice changed. “Why’d you ice the guy?”

“His excess verbalization interfered with my investigative abilities.”

The officer’s voice dropped low. “Better luck in your next life, buddy.”

The hook in Xan’s hand continued to taper like pulling a soft cheese. He pinched the bolt. His fingers slid on loose powder coating the air. The ventilation system abruptly shut off. In the sudden silence, they both stopped breathing. In Xan’s hand, the hook metal made a very light squeaking sound.

The security officer started to speak. “Hey, if they’re not—”

“Shh.” The woman’s voice spoke directly on the other side of the stall door.

“Huh?”

“Hush for a moment.” She had moved instantly and silently in a room built for echoes — something no human could possibly do. Fuck. Another x-class? If so, she was his exact equivalent, only less broken and with a fully loaded pistol. And now she was leaning close, possibly sensing Cressida’s body heat through the stall door, or possibly even hearing his internal cooling dampeners underneath his skin fighting their combined heat. Her voice gnawed in his brain. “I hear something.”

Cressida’s brows drew together. Her mouth opened.

A radio crackle. “We have completed the analysis. There is an additional heat signature of the room emanating from the wall beside the group stall.”

Shit. Shit. Shit.

Footsteps trooped toward the woman. Xan abandoned a hundred possible plans; all ended with him immobilized and Cressida dead. One had to emerge dynamically. The footsteps stopped. He tensed. As the stall door closed, he would leap sideways—

The footsteps trooped inside the stall.

“I do notice a slight temperature difference here,” the woman’s voice said from within the stall. The ventilation turned on again, making it impossible to tell by echo whether every troop was inside, but the muffle indicated a large number. He hated to be so goddamned blind. The woman helped him by continuing to talk. “My schematics are out of date. Can you tell me whether it’s possible to access this side wall from the ventilation system overhead?”

The hook in Xan’s hand bent lower. His feet dropped below the sight line of the door. No one shouted in the main room. Either no one was there or such a person was not an android. Either way, his best opportunity for their survival was to move.

“Negative,” the radio crackled. “They cannot access.”

“They could cut their way into a closed system.”

“But they couldn’t survive the pure thermal glycol. That’s a radiant heat pipe.”

Now.

His feet eased to the ground. He squeezed out from behind the stall door. An officer stood on the lip. The stall was filled with the rest of the force surrounding another x-class. Her head was turning and her shatter-pistol rising as Xan moved; of course she heard him. He slammed the stall closed, knocking the officer in, and hit the external privacy lock to execute a blinding light cycle. Shouting chaos erupted, bashing and clanking against the door. Striding forward with Cressida still crushed awkwardly against his body, her legs dangling in strange angles where they emerged from his torso, he stepped over the body of the dead miner and picked up his hazmat suit. Her gasp coincided with him passing the man’s melted face.

“Don’t look,” he murmured.

She couldn’t stop staring.

Behind them, the smoke of the shatter-pistol melted through the reinforced wall and curled toward the ceiling. An alarm began to wail.

Xan stepped into the thick rubber-alloy suit. The other man had been larger and taller than average, and so luckily it fit their joint bulk, although Cressida’s head gave him something of a lopsided shoulder. He fit the hood over top and sealed it as he walked down the corridor. Lucky for him, the suit didn’t begin shrinking to immobilize him (a common theft deterrent) or announce any alarm. He stepped out of the decontam room. The transit hub was bathed in yellow. Security forces shoved him out of the way as they ran past him.

To his right stretched the main exits to the city. In front of him stacked local rails, tourist shuttles to the nearest islands, grotty transporters to hub cities on the south and east continents, and the velvet-cordoned precision scales of the off-world escalators. Those, he most wanted to walk toward, but the stagnant lines stretched four deep with bored travelers in expensive fashions. Rich families stranded by the hostilities, still hoping to get off world before the Nar enacted martial law. He limped past them, into the corridor to the de-escalators.

Weaving in and out of the miners, Xan remained hyperaware of the uniform sea passing anonymously in both directions.

Cressida’s breath felt hot against his collar. Her warmth squished against him. He held her like a protective weight. She wiggled, her gasps elevated.

“Stay with me,” he said.

“I can’t breathe.” Her words came as a whimper.

The atmosphere indicator on the lower right suggested she might be correct. The tank was empty; they were essentially breathing whatever had gotten into the open suit in the decontam room. Which, according to his calculations, would allow approximately ten minutes before the oxygen was eclipsed by carbon dioxide and one or both of them passed out.

He calculated her likely response to knowing the truth. “It’s in your head. Don’t panic over nothing.”

She sucked in a breath and held it.

He was an asshole. But hopefully an asshole who would get them both out of here alive. “Good girl.”

They descended the ramp into the caves section of the hub. Below ground, the lights looked increasingly normal, color shifting from yellow to blue when they passed the superbrights. Even in the midst of a hostile takeover, miners reported for work. Without commerce, there was no income, and without income, there was no life.

Xan peeled off into the first tunnel and viewed the brilliantly lit de-escalator shuttling load after load of miners like so much luggage dropped straight down a hole. Xan didn’t want to go down there — it would be immediately obvious that he was in the wrong place — but going as deep as possible and turning around gave him the best odds for losing the station security cameras.

But even that ruse required a quick fix to the air situation.

He angled toward a horizontal stack of resupply oxygen. His hand closed over a tank.

An anti-theft alarm blared.

Shit. He jerked back his hand. Everyone was staring at him; the ones in front turned around and looked. Ah, double shit. The alarm had sprayed a big yellow splotch on his front. He was no longer an anonymous weirdly shaped man in a suit with similarly shaped men. He was a walking target.

And the station crew was coming for him.

~*~*~*~

Cressida fought to control her anxiety and struggled to breathe inside the thick, compressing miner’s suit. Everything felt damp, even though Xan’s skin was strangely cool. The desire to cry beat against her with increasing urgency. She had seen her first dead person today. A bloody, meat-colored mess in a stew of teeth fragments. Thinking about it again made her chest convulse. That was what the robots were trying to do to her. That was what they would do if they found her.

She pressed against Xan, her hands tracing the shape of his breast, his steady thud-thud-thud soothing her. He was one of them too. Yet his scent was masculine in a way that made her light-headed, and he was carrying her away from danger like a child in the pouch of his flight suit. Her mind drifted as though in a dream back to the last time she had felt so safe. A summer trip off world to the famous cloud oceans. One of the few trips afforded by her busy parents and her too-mature-for-family-outings older brother and her sweet little sister…

An alarm went off. Something puffed against her shoulder, on the chest of Xan’s suit.

“Shit,” he said.

She strained to see through the protective mask. The lower angle showed the tops of others suits. Miners crowded in.

“What is it?” she asked.

He stepped back and was jostled unevenly forward.

Ah, she recognized that alarm from news vids. “Did you steal something?”

“Not intentionally.” He angled another direction, but the other miners forced him back, against a wall. “Shit.”

The internal com crackled above her left ear. “Citizen, what is your malfunction code?”

He rocked forward. The other miner suits disappeared from her scope of vision. The com remained open, crackling, for his response.

A mine security helmet, clearly marked with a yellow hazard symbol, appeared at the edge of her vision. “Citizen, respond.”

Although she could not see, the usual news clip would show a stunner baton arcing toward an insane miner. If this security helmet were on a human, she had no chance, but if it were a sentry, there were a wide swathe of acceptable answers that would not result in a stunning.

A light shone from the top of the hazard gear. Although it was difficult to see under these conditions, through the thick glass, it was bright and probably red. Warning.

Xan tensed.

Her heart spiked. No. He would attack or run. Remote security would cut them down from above. They would not survive.

She cleared her throat. “Ex-81, 3, 17.”

The com crackled to silence.

“What the hell was that?” Xan muttered.

“An improperly formatted error code. Are you familiar with the Outer-Centurian upper-world dialect?”

“What?”

The light remained bright. Their com crackled. “Citizen, come with me.”

Xan edged sideways.

She hissed at him. “Go.”

“Citizen, repeat.”

She took a deep breath. “Ares seulia. Misaan tiyean dostrobrich ‘Upper Cave’ tia-analat.”

The silence was longer this time, although the com remained open. Finally, the sentry replied. “Citizen-anat, res oritilit.”

Dabrastich.”

The light atop the sentry changed to a darker shade. The com dropped out.

“Follow him,” she whispered.

Xan started to move. From the lack of immediate gunfire, she assumed it was in the direction of the sentry. His heart remained steady beneath her fingers, which was great calm, even though her forehead dripped sweat and she labored for her next breath. His voice sounded just a little rough. “Did you just say that you’re a tourist to the ‘Upper Cave’?”

“Diplomatic visitor,” she corrected. “And that we require a guide.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Not if it works.” Her chest felt as if she were breathing through three layers of woolen blanket. She closed her eyes to conserve her concentration. “We do have such visitors to the mines. And you can’t shoot all of them in the wrong area or you’d have a public relations nightmare.”

Xan stiffened and turned to watch something run past them in the opposite direction. “Holy shit.”

“What?”

“I just saw our opposition blast past us running the opposite way. This just might work.” He turned to the front. “So where is he taking us?”

“An interrogation lobby.”

Xan coughed. “And that’s good?”

“It’s not being shredded in a tunnel or stunned on suspicion of terrorism, so I think it’s a step forward, don’t you?”

He didn’t respond.

Another thought occurred to her, distantly, as though it had to travel through molasses to reach her brain. “You understand Outer-Centurian.”

“Only its language tree. It’s not exactly common out here.”

“I thought androids had infinite intelligence.”

“Off network, we have to preload what we expect will be useful, and an elite Old Empire dialect was not one of mine. I have to run what you’re saying through the same parser as the sentry we’re following, and damned if he doesn’t have a more complete vocabulary.”

“He’s probably connected via the station hub to the central databanks.”

Xan swore softly. “So fucking blind.”

They passed into a room with harsh yellow lighting, and Xan stopped abruptly. “What’s your plan?”

“I’m going to ask the sentry to assist us onto a shuttle.”

He coughed for the second time. “Do not fuck up. He’s stopped us in front of an execution squad, and there’s not a damned thing I can do if he decides we’re bluffing after all.”

The sentry filled their view screen. She began to sweat again, but Xan was so cool and calm beneath her that, despite his harsh words, she remained calm too.

“Citizen.” The sentry paused while his next orders went through the parsing and translation process. “Dira san tiyastalit.”

Her answers, because she had memorized them in her human brain, came as instantly as natural language. “Proyostolich ‘Take off the suit’ tinan sayanalit?

Anan sol.”

She began to struggle. Xan hesitated, then uncapped the helmet. Cool air bathed her over-heated cheeks and fanned the sweat. Almost immediately she felt better, more awake, clear-headed.

Tisanyit doblovay ‘my assistant’ osolovait,” she said as Xan stripped. “Ayana torovisa tiyean.

Xan stepped free of the suit. His hands rested on her crown, sheltering her brain chip from the wall of sentries in various states of consciousness in the recharging stations in front of them. The first hint of alarm and they would all come to instant wakefulness, the stunners, hole-pistols, and other tools of death hanging from their reinforced metal bodies.

Beyond them, gentle green light shone through the line of windows overlooking the familiar skyline, misting all the way to the horizon. This direction, away from her former house, hid that devastation. Only a few craters showed the targeted assault that had terra-formed the planet during the invasion.

And then it occurred to her that she was resting her cheek against Xan’s shoulder and taking entirely too much comfort from it. She struggled. Xan helped her free of his flight suit, which resealed around only his taut body, and then his arm snaked around her chest and pulled her against him as though he needed her closeness. His palm rested on her forehead.

The sentry asked after her intended stay and her sponsor. She gave appropriate responses, including that her sponsor was His Honorable Lord General Vardis of the export house of the fourth quadrant. “Can you please direct us onto a shuttle to his house?

His residence is closed to visitors at this time,” the sentry replied with stiff courtesy.

Well, oh, well. Xan nudged her, his gaze passing over the line of recharging sentries, every one that entered and exited the room causing him to tense in readiness.

May we have appropriate changes of clothing?” she asked. “With sun hoods.

The sentry clomped away and returned with two lengths of unisex traveler’s robe. She draped the long white fabric over herself and assisted Xan into his robe, tying the belts in the proper fashion for one raised on Outer-Centurian and cinching down the hood. He let her hood rest on top of his hand.

The sentry did not note Xan’s odd behavior. Their data on the Outer-Centurian allowed that some individuals had never been chipped. A human would have at least asked if she were feeling well, but a sentry only reviewed the health broadcast. In absence of such a signal, they behaved at the default, that all was well.

Your destination?” the sentry queried.

She rapidly reviewed her options. Although she really wanted to ask Xan, she couldn’t be certain which language he would know, and the sentry would surely have access to all of the familiar languages and their families via the central databanks anyway. Although an unusual conversation might not trigger the sentry to stop her, it would certainly record their conversation, and any review of this unusual circumstance would be flagged.

She longed to join her parents off world, but her chip would be read or she’d have to show papers. She took a deep breath and smiled at the sentry. “Can you please book us onto your most scenic island tour?

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