Liberation’s Vow – Chapter One

I’m so excited! This is the first preview of Liberation’s Vow, the third installment of the trilogy following the Antiata siblings (Cressida, Mercury, and Aris). Will they finally reunite after years of hiding from mysterious Robotics Faction assassins? Now the tables are turning and those robot assassins have discovered their all-too-human capacity for love and passion…

Publication date: July 1 2016
Price: $3.99
Pre-order now!

Chapter One

Resalynne grabbed her brother’s Mach 8 cyber-rifle and squeezed the trigger. “Bam, bam, bam!”

A distant tumble-rock, which could have been five feet away or five hundred on the airless planetoid Seven Stars’ surface, stood dumbly where it started.

She pretended to aim at the rock next to it. “Bam, bam, bam! Another pirate dead.”

Her brother rested his gloved hand on the cold barrel, thumb on the safety. Behind exposure suit glass, his brows cocked. “Resa, what have I told you about guns?”

She released the rifle to him and toggled her in-suit mic. “Deep breath, center your shot, and don’t waste ammo because the next supply drop isn’t for a month.”

“And don’t play with my rifle.” He returned it to his shoulder holster. “You practice like you perform. Real practice, with the safety off. I’ll take you out tonight if you want.”

“It’s not like I really need to.” She bounced after him across the barren wasteland of North Frontier Outpost. “I’m the last person on base who’d ever have to shoot someone.”

“Preparation never hurts.”

She tripped into the yawning mine, flipped closed her solar charging cells, and tapped her exposure glass to lighten the polarized tint. “We’re going to be valuable any day now. If those Antiata raiders or Emperor goons try to jump our claim, Central will send their whole force to save us.”

They waited in the pressurization corridor, suits still on, because only a micrometer-thin skin separated themselves from space.

In comparison, a hundred thousand miles separated their outpost from Central.

Obviously thinking of that, her brother shook his head. “We help ourselves or nobody does.”

The doors popped open on the mine. The growl and roar of tumbling rock pulsed against her chest. A low-grade siren warned that they were entering a nanobot risk area, and to watch out in case the massive drills uncovered a trapped pocket. Nanobots were like invisible bees, collecting their preprogrammed mineral pollen and depositing it into a honeycomb of raw wealth. They were supposed to go inert after they stripped off the valuable minerals, but accidents did happen, and human blood contained minute traces of those same valuable minerals. Better safe in a suit than exposing a cut to a nanobot and losing half an arm before electro-scrubbers could shut it off.

Her brother nodded to the miners they passed, inspecting suits and machinery with a security officer’s practiced eye.

She ducked under a gigantic spring-loader mirror used for balancing space-bound loads. “What if pirates torpedoed us like they tried on Second Star?”

“They wouldn’t bother.” He hefted a heavy load of core samples, hopefully containing more valuable minerals than they had yet discovered. “Work on our economics problem, warrior.”

She dragged a smaller bag into the tunnels. Dust coated their suits in beautiful, worthless magnetized gold. “We could sell confetti at royal balls.”

He grunted. “Pretty hefty shipping costs.”

“We could design custom ship hulls.”

“Solar etching is more durable.”

“We could sell robots attractive, shiny body paint.”

He laughed and patted her helmet.

That night, after they’d logged their share of the day’s profits, studied the core samples for nonexistent valuable minerals, and eaten their evening meal—which, even limited to the starkest reprocessor solids, cost more than their share yet again—her brother headed out on patrols. And, she suspected, he secretly borrowed the outer perimeter network connection and searched survey-ship maps for more lucrative mines for them to apply for a transfer.

She bunked down with her holo viewer of Fantastical Alien Warlords. The romance between the main warlord’s renegade, amnesiac, brainwashed, secret half brother and his fourth-favorite physicist slave was really heating up in the 198th season.

Her brother propped an elbow on her makeshift bunk. “A marker’s out on the south second quadrant. I’m taking the maintenance guy.”

“Overtime again?”

He ruffled her hair. “Got to pay for dinner.”

“Stay safe. Keep in verbal contact.”

“Suits don’t hold enough charge.”

She knew that, but she wanted him to anyway.

He seemed on the verge of saying something else, but then smiled and hunkered down on his proper bunk below her to put on his suit again.

She rolled over on her side. “Hey, Evanni?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m not sorry I left Central and everybody behind. I didn’t think we’d strike it rich with our first mine. I mean,”—she hugged the imaginary fortunes in her frayed and patched blanket—“it would have been so amazing if we had, and I could buy a hundred living dresses and two spaceships and every-single-day resurrection points for both of us, like total emperors.”

He snorted.

“Maybe,” she kept dreaming, “we’ll invent something for that gold, like pretty dresses or houses or gold-plated domes.”

“Nobody’d waste their profits on something so useless.”

“Yeah.” She sighed. “But honestly, I’m just glad the supe let me stay, even though I’m barely starting my third decade, and they could have sent me home. I’m glad to stay anywhere so long as I’m with you.”

He was silent for a long minute.

Then, he popped above her bunk again. “I’m heading out.”

She made her hand into a gun. “Call if you see pirates.”

“Want to practice shooting them?”

“What do I have to practice for when you’re out there to protect me?” She rolled her eyes and put alien warlords back in her ears.

Her brother left.

Too many episodes later, she rubbed her eyes and shut off the viewer. Where was her brother? She set the holo viewer on its charger, pulled off her earphones, and got up.

Strange. The air was off.

She padded into the hall. Her grubby inside shoes squeaked on the mesh floor and her slim biceps shivered with coolness.

The solar grid was probably out again.

She searched the familiar, eerily silent rooms. Finally, she found people in the mess hall huddled around their single reprocessor. Unlike the ventilation fans, the reprocessor sat on permanent power. Almost the whole mine, minus the few out on patrols, clustered around tiny map screens.

Her older brother tapped the map. “We should get to Dome 2 and activate the emergency communicator to Central.”

“It could be dust,” a miner said, rolling her grimy sleeves over her powerful biceps. “We’re not little kids, crying home to Mama.”

“Alerting Central is the proper response when a perimeter outage—”

“What are they going to do anyway? We’re too far out. We fix it or we’ll be suffocated before they send a recon probe.”

“—and when we cannot reach the other mines. Proper protocol states—”

“Dust. It’s been storming since the second watch. Weather’s as miserable as the mines.”

“Hey, little princess,” one of the miners saw her in the doorway, and his wrinkled brow lightened. “Don’t you need your beauty sleep to catch your lord?”

“Warlord,” she replied, because they all knew her silly fantasies. “What are you all doing?”

The old miners looked at her brother.

He pointed back the way she’d come. “Suit up and bunk down.”

She stifled a yawn. “I’m not tired.”

The miners chuckled.

“I can help.”

Her brother nodded. His emergency oxygen rebreather swung gently from his neck. “We have a perimeter out and we can’t hail the other mines. Suit up and get to the safe room in Dome 2.”

“I want to help here.”

Her brother fixed her with a hard look.

Yes, she knew bickering caused the other miners to treat her like a child. She tamped down her worry—it was probably nothing—and went to the doorway. “When I get there, I’m going to call in an emergency.”

The miners groaned and complained.

Her brother’s tiredness lightened. “Follow protocol.”

She left the mess hall and sealed the door—following safety protocol already, look at her—and started to recite the call orders she’d read in the manuals.

The world roared.

The walls boomed and buckled, throwing her to the floor. Metal mesh rattled at her face. Low moans echoed deep below the building. Behind her, a horrid shriek screamed from the broken seals around the bulging mess hall door.

Oh no.

She pushed herself to her feet and ran to the door. It canted on its hinges. Through the cracked fist-thick glass, she could see the dome ceiling in shreds. It revealed billowing sand and a star-studded, no-atmosphere-crisp sky.

Oh no. No, no, no.

Bodies were strewn across the floor, some arching and gasping, others unmoving. Her brother…. Yes! Her brother gripped the reprocessor platform. He held the emergency rebreather to his mouth. He survived.

White-clad foreigners stormed into the shredded dome, heat lasers blasting. The few miners who had survived the first assault fell. Her brother lifted his arm. His chest disappeared in a barrage of sinister light.

Shock paralyzed her.

Her brother slumped onto the reprocessor. The rebreather fell from his lax mouth.

Her heart stopped dead in her chest. A strange hollow sensation filled her bones, and her ears floated next to her head.

No. This hadn’t happened. It wasn’t real. Her brother was still alive in there. This hadn’t happened. It wasn’t real.

The white-suits gathered around the console, pushing aside the dead, and exchanged signals. Most of them turned around and headed for the mines. One headed for the mess hall door.

She stumbled backward on numb feet.

Her brother’s voice echoed in her ears, straight out of all their drills. Move.

She backed away from the glass, turned, and ran.

The wrecked dome moved past her in a blur. Nothing registered. Only her brother’s last instructions echoed in her mind, guiding her numb body. Partial walls collapsed, and jutting floors knocked holes into the tunnels below. She banged into walls, lost her footing, and fell. Her forehead dripped blood. She felt nothing.

In their room, she yanked on her suit with shaking hands. No helmet—that was near the Outside door—suit battery low. She grabbed her extra battery pack, leaving her brother’s—no, she grabbed all the battery packs, including her brother’s spare.

Below the shelf, in the main portion of his locker, rested his gun.

She hesitated.

We help ourselves or nobody does.

She grabbed it.

Voices echoed in the hall. Harsh, foreign sounds between her and the safe exit to the planetoid.

A jagged opening gaped in the destroyed floor. Into the mine. Infested with nanobots.

Run, Resa!

She dropped to her butt and slid into the hole. Her indoor shoes slipped, and she banged her head on an exposed pipe. The voices grew louder. She huddled in shadow. They passed.

Dome 2 hid several miles underground, buried on the other side of the mine.

She started walking.

The miles passed. Reality of what the pirates stole from her turned to sober consideration of what she planned to do about it. Vengeance fantasies played in her mind, every one of them a white suit in the targeting circle.

She gripped the gun.

The caverns opened up and reflective gold dust gave way to generator floodlights and harsh shadows. Sirens had fallen silent, although the grit of the gold dust falling on her cheeks tickled like the whispered warning of unseen dangers. Any second now, she should see her first murderer.

Her suit mic hissed.

She stopped.

The pirates communicated over an open local channel. She tapped her wrist to lower the volume and slowed her approach.

“Is this all they’ve got? We knocked the place and risked our necks for a couple of bills?”

She emerged on the walkway. A white-clad group, suits open to their bellies, milled around the mining control console, arguing. One typed on the nanobot control panel. She knelt in position behind a milled boulder.

“Even one of those miners survives, we got the whole lot of them coming after us.”

“Relax. We wipe the whole station. No one ever knows we were here.”

“Fuck. For this tiny amount, I wish we were never here.”

She set her aim, rested the gun against the boulder, and placed the man’s head in the targeting circle. Deep breath. She pushed the safety off.

The tiniest click sounded beneath her ragged gloves.

The targeting circle glowed red. Live ammo.

The man finished tapping on the controls. “There. The nanobots are programmed to reactivate and swarm the bodies, turning them into an unidentifiable paste. ‘Biologic mode’ is on.”

One of them shivered. “Let’s get out of here.”

“We’ve got an hour.” The man stood, leaving her target circle.

What?

The red circle remained on the console. Oh, she had locked on the console. She unlocked it, wasting precious time, and locked on the man. Again, it centered on an inanimate object, a loader.

Reality intruded on her fantasy.

She possessed limited ammo and less experience. The white suits were armed, experienced, and ruthless. Some weren’t even here. If she managed to fully unlock the weapon and shot, even killed, a single man, the others would hunt and annihilate her.

It was hopeless.

Her mic hissed.

“Shuttle One, this is Away Team,” one of the pirates said, over her mic. “The miners are dead. Drop ship to pick up the payday.”

“Come and get it yourself,” their pilot responded. “We don’t have enough fucking men.”

“Shuttle One, don’t be a little girl.”

““If I bring down the shuttle, no one’s left on board to pilot the ship.”

“Let me worry about that.”

“Oh yes, sir, commander, sir.” Swearing ended the shuttle pilot’s transmission.

A drop shuttle flew to the surface, and the group emptied the mine’s meager profits into its hold. Disappointed the valuable super-magnetic mineral, magnetese, could fit in a single duffel, the pirates loaded everything else of value, stacking gold bars and mercury-alloy pistoles, sacks of dust and low earning gems.

Resa moved around the back of the dome, sighting and losing the murderers. Her brother’s teachings echoed through her. Deep breath. Center your shot. Don’t waste ammo.

We help ourselves or nobody does.

“All right, the load is almost balanced.” The leader turned to another pirate. “Call everyone in.”

The pilot grumbled as he fought the obviously unfamiliar loader controls, lifting and lowering the several-thousand-ton mirror until it reflected accurate mass and weight. “Maybe they got something out of the dirt-digger’s sympathy letters from their mommies.”

He moved the loader from one side of the shuttle to the other and, instead of taking the extra time to manipulate it around the vulnerable shuttle, he hovered the several-thousand-ton loader mirror directly over the top.

Classic mistake. One she learned about on her first week at the mines. Never, ever, let the loader mirror cross a more fragile load.

She put the loader control console in the target circle, locked on, and pulled the trigger.

The gun hummed beneath her fingers. Its electrified plasma charge burst out of the barrel and smashed into the loader control console.

Electricity skittered across the interconnected consoles, blackening screens and spitting fire. The loader groaned as power leeched from its arm and physics bent the extenders. Its gigantic mirror lowered to rest on the top of the shuttle, denting its shell.

It would not be going to space today.

Far above, in the sky, the unoccupied pirate transport ship hovered, patiently waiting for its owners to return.

The white suits jumped and ducked for cover. No one knew for sure what had happened. From an outside perspective, the console had simply exploded.

Resa stood up, put on the safety, and disappeared into the tunnel for Dome 2. On her mic, the surprise turned to confusion and rage. They couldn’t call back the shuttle and they couldn’t contact the ship. They couldn’t contact anyone.

Moments later, they realized a worst case: They couldn’t reprogram the nanobots.

That was when they started searching for her.

She reached the secret underground bunker of Dome 2, squeezed into the closet-sized space designed to outlast the bleakest emergencies, and sealed the doors. The comm system took forever to wake up and charge. She wedged herself between a box of reprocessor raws and a moisture cache. Every second, she imagined the pirates finding her tunnel, blasting in her door, and ending her fate.

If they didn’t come….

Sirens started, low and insistent, and the lights flickered to red. Warning of the imminent nanobot invasion, turning all of her cells into powder, vaporizing her to the bones and beyond.

Rescue. She needed rescue.

As soon as the comm console blinked on, she clenched the call switch. “Someone please help me. Someone, come quick!”

Empty space replied.

Oh no. The pirates had destroyed Central. They had—

No, wait. She had to move the communication switch to “receive”.

“Please come quick, someone!” Resa dropped the switch.

Hisses and squeals emerged from the speakers. Interference jammed the transmission, which jumped between snips of women shouting, men crying, and automated voices calling for help. One calm voice droned between hissing fits. She finally made it out. It directed everyone to turn to the alternate frequency and await a request for status reports.

Status reports.

Control. Protocol. She took a deep breath, read the instruction manual for the console, and switched to the alternate frequency.

“—survivors, thirteen casualties, and two hundred survivors, come and get us quick. We cannot hold. I repeat, we cannot hold.”

“Understood, West Plain Outpost Five. You cannot hold.”

“You have to help us!”

“Understood. Moving on. W—”

“Now, please!”

“Don’t jam the transmission. Moving on. Status report, West Plain Outpost Six… West Plain Outpost Six, status report…. West Plain Outpost Seven, status report.”

“Thirty survivors. This is West Seven. Three lost and thirty survivors, and fire everywhere. The pirates are gone, but the fires. Fire assistance is needed now.”

“Understood.”

“No, you don’t understand! We need assistance! We can’t wait!”

She slowly released the call switch.

We help ourselves or nobody does.

“…North Frontier Outpost, status report.”

There. That was her.

She scrambled for the switch. “North Frontier Outpost, um, reporting.”

“North Frontier Outpost, we’re glad to finally hear from you. Status report.”

“One, uh, pirate ship. So far as we know.” Report the enemies first. She calmed. “They breached the dome, killed pretty much everyone, and reprogrammed the nanobots to destroy the bodies.”

Central dropped silent for a long moment.

“You’re, um, going to want to bring something to contain them. I kind of destroyed the control panel when I grounded their shuttle.”

“…acknowledge, North Frontier Outpost. One heavy, which we still see over your location, a breached habitat, and biologic outbreak. I hope the survivors sheltered at a safe distance. It may be… it’s going to be a long time until we can organize a rescue up to there. A long time.”

The power blinked out. Dome fans ceased circulating life support. Her precious communications console flickered over to stored charge.

They found her.

She clutched the spare batteries, gripped the gun, and backed into the farthest corner of the tiny bunker, her aim on the vulnerable door.

“North Frontier Outpost, how many can we hope to rescue?”

We help ourselves or nobody does.

No rich alien warlord was going to swoop down and save her. No skilled older brother or proud, independent miner would pat her head and tell her to take a nap. There was only Resa. She was North Frontier now. Nanobots eating through the metal silently or pirates blasting through with deadly heat; she would give both one hell of a fight.

“One.” She stacked the batteries next to the gun. “And don’t hurry. North Frontier is holding just fine.”

###

Several centuries later…

The rogue walked up to the silent, dark underground storage facility deep beneath Seven Stars, heart of the Hyeon Antiata empire, and inserted her magic key—a stick containing her universal authorization code—into the locked front doors.

They rolled open.

Security bots instantly surrounded her, red lights warning intruders of termination.

No time to stick them all. She fumbled with her flash code emitter. The lipstick-sized tube slipped from her fingers and rolled on the sandy floor.

Shit.

The security bots closed, menacing. Their red lights beeped faster, counting down the moments until the facility registered her presence, shot an alert to the resurrection facility half a mile above and triggered an anti-theft explosion.

She dropped to her hands and knees.

The security bots milled, starting to beep the final countdown.

Her fingers closed over the flash code emitter.

The facility flashed red. Intruder alert.

She scrambled to her feet again and depressed the button.

Her flashed authorization stopped the nearest bots. Their lights turned white and they dropped quiet.

She pushed through the deactivated security bots, flashing the rest until they all relaxed and the facility lighting changed back to white.

Too close.

She wiped a drizzle of sweat off her brow—it was hotter so deep beneath the surface, aside from her near miss—and packed the flash emitter back into her utility belt. She selected one of the bots and inserted a local network connector. A few moments later, the data from her ship wrote across the security bot, inviting her to enter the name of the person who had recently died and needed to be resurrected.

Aris Hyeon Antiata, she typed.

The planetary governor of Seven Stars might be surprised to find himself dead since he was currently in a meeting arguing that the planetoid needed to reduce its reliance on Robotics Faction technology. Even though deadly mining nanobots no longer endangered the citizens, having lost his two half sisters to robot assassins, Aris was uniquely qualified to make the argument. Unfortunately, no one believed him. The Robotics Faction had given their technology too freely for too long; decoupling now was worse than unthinkable.

It was expensive.

A security bot carried the governor’s name into the facility. Deep within the interior, rollers pushed the gigantic armored box forward, easing out a single brick in a massive data wall. Reverse magnetization floated the several-ton box gently, past a thousand other bricks representing the important friends and relatives. The data box rested in the loading pedestal.

This was one of the newer restore points in the facility. Most would consider four centuries too little experience to govern a planetoid; the current governor barely possessed four decades. Barely an adolescent, as his rivals constantly crowed, meant he was in no position to quit their Faction contracts.

No one believed he was right.

No one but the rogue and Aris’s two half sisters. And, of course, the Robotics Faction.

The giant black box rotated to display all sides. Its claimed durability—the armor was said to survive the outer rim of black holes and partial solar explosions—was about to be tested.

The security bot signaled its inspection complete.

The rogue intercepted the signal.

Normally, the facility floated a data box up to the resurrection facility and staff ensured the new body’s memories—chemical predilections worn into brain grooves, electrical dendrites networking learning, and shapes and sizes all measured by precise interior phrenology—grew into the new brain and a whole man stepped forth from the recovery chamber, his entire self intact.

She recast the signal to remove the restore point from the pedestal.

The facility accepted the new signal and looped it back to the bot. The bot tethered the floating restore point and dragged it to the front doors.

So far so good.

She directed the bot to continue out to her ship.

The bot hovered through the gaping front doors and into the caverns. As it passed the doors, it dropped a physical wheel and rolled on the dust.

The restore point passed across the threshold and smashed into the ground.

Tremors echoed through the cavern and rattled the facility.

Full security powered on.

Uh oh.

Bots raced out. Sensors activated. Infrared pulsed over her and the restore point.

She stopped her bot.

The other bots queried the open door, the gap of the missing restore point, the signals and signs of something out of order. Problem. Alert. Enemy engaged.

She ran to the facility terminal and shoved in her universal authorization code. The terminal powered on. She intercepted every signal and added one code piece: as expected. The door was open as expected. The restore point was missing as expected. The signals and signs of something out of order as expected.

Enemy engaged as expected.

Everything calmed. Alerts dissipated. Lights returned to darkness.

Whew.

She had forgotten the magnetic floor ended outside the facility. What a silly error. One that had almost cost her entire mission.

Hilarious that she should outrun Faction assassins for several hundred years and then nearly get blown up by stupid human deterrence measures. Twice.

Someone had once said she would trip on her own boots if they didn’t sport compensatory gyros. She smiled to remember the ancient phrase, and the even more ancient technology, spoken by someone long, long gone.

Well, since the bots had reactivated anyway, she summoned the entire cadre to the grounded restore point. They put down wheels and lifted the heavy tonnage enough to traverse the lost mining caverns to her ship. The bots loaded the restore point block next to others and backed out. She flash-erased their memories and unhooked her network connector from the bot who had carried her, unknowing, through her entire plan.

She flash-erased its memory too.

As it rolled back to the storage facility, she calculated how long it would take until the Robotics Faction learned what she had done.

There were nine keys to the Robotics Faction kingdom, and she possessed the ninth. Each universal authorization key, against which no security could resist and no encryption could hide, always issued a command to phone home. The next time someone died and they activated the facility, which happened every few days, her key would find a network connection and broadcast itself out.

Like the calling card of an evil villain, her action would reach the Robotics Faction.

She sat at her ship’s controls and opened a transmission up to the planetoid’s surface. “It is done.”

On her screen, Governor Aris Hyeon Antiata grinned back at her.

Classically handsome, with pleasant features and intent blue eyes that bordered on gray, the governor crossed one trim knee with his ankle. His meeting finished; he spoke in the privacy of his personal hover car. Neatly trimmed blond hair threaded with fashionable silver highlights, and his well-muscled body strained pleasingly against his clothes. Regal indigo robes shimmered with gold patterns created from melting the dust mined within the planet, a now valuable material thanks to the artisans who worked it into fantastic designs denoting incredible luxury.

Only his adventure-seeking nature adorned his broad, white smile. “Bring on my hot date.”

She smiled. The cocksure governor had his heart in the right place and just about nothing else. He didn’t know her smile disguised a true, deep sadness. “She’s coming.”

“I can’t wait.”

When the Faction decoded her universal key, they would send someone to investigate. And that someone would be the most dangerous agent ever created: the zero class assassin, a stealthy crocodile clothed in the skin of a beautiful woman. The rogue didn’t expect the governor to survive.

“Be careful up there.” She looked at the powerful, resolute, kind man for what might be the last time. “You can no longer be resurrected. Don’t trip and break your neck.”

“A Hyeon Antiata would never do something so unfashionable.”

She smiled again.

He hit the end transmission button. The connection winked out.

She fired up her ship, navigated the caverns to the North Frontier Outpost, and deposited Aris’s restore point at their agreed-upon hidden location.

Aris’s half sisters both possessed a gene that corrupted robots and made them fall in love. Once the Robotics Faction figured out which gene his half sisters—and all the others the rogue had tried to save—held in common, they would declare war on all humans possessing that gene. Entire planets, entire family lines, entire galaxies.

Aris didn’t possess the gene.

When the Faction sent their best assassin to end him, nothing would corrupt or otherwise prevent the assassin from succeeding. But when they analyzed his resurrection data, the Faction would end up farther from figuring out the truth.

She swore to protect Aris as long as possible. But once the zero class arrived, only a miracle would save him from the Robotics Faction’s crosshairs.

Ironic that the one who tripped over her boots was the one destined to try to save two entire races from a needless war that was beginning to look inevitable. Ironic, and not what she would have chosen. Sometimes, she wondered if this crazy plan would work, or if she sentenced innocents like the governor and his half sisters to death for no reason.

She carried out the plan anyway.

The rogue would never disappoint the ones who invested all their faith in her. No matter the demand.

No matter what she lost or who she left to die.

###

In the deepest levels of the Robotics Faction, a slick bank of processors churned data feverishly into the night. Secretly and resolutely, steadily and inexorably, it parsed a million billion human genome combinations tracing a ghost.

Tracing a flaw.

If the human genome combination—the “super-nome” corrupting robot processors—was not identified, the processor bank would trace the end of all robots.

New data arrived from a distant star system. A man’s restore point had been stolen by the rogue agent. The data was flagged as the highest importance. He was a half brother to two known carriers.

The main processor consulted the archive data files.

Cressida Sarit Antiata (known carrier)—genomic data collected from remains in a melted incubation chamber at a bombed hospital.

Mercury Sarit Antiata aka Chen Antiata (known carrier)—genomic data collected from remains found at her last known residence.

The main processor eagerly fed the half brother’s specimen to the bank, churning and churning and churning, dissecting and inspecting. This living sample could determine at last which super-nome spread the flaw.

Disturbingly, the half brother’s super-nome expanded the possibilities. Exponentially.

The main processor returned those results to the authorized layers of the Robotics Faction: Either our entire question is poorly formulated, or the sample of the half brother misses critical genomes. We must review the half brother’s purified restore point to decisively identify the problem super-nome.

The upper layer returned its reply. We will dispatch the zero class agent to conduct a second test.

An assassin conducting a test? Superior to the bank of processors?

Not superior, the upper layers clarified, but, in the end, equally decisive.

Only the zero class could penetrate deeply into human space undetected. Only the zero class could operate off Faction networks, hiding her movements from the rogue agent and others who might be listening in to sabotage them.

But the old zero class, which had successfully executed the Faction’s assignments for six hundred years, had failed to assassinate Mercury and Cressida, and had, in fact, been destroyed by them. How could an indestructible robot have been destroyed by two humans? That costly and unexpected question still ricocheted through their processors. It was a question the Faction as a whole hoped not to repeat.

Is there time to create and train a new zero class?

No, the upper layers returned. We are sending an untrained model.

The shocking cost and risk of sending an untrained agent into this delicate situation stunned the bank of processors into momentary stillness. A whir of fans sounded across the atmosphere-filled, warehouse-sized cranium.

The processor bank finally churned to life. Won’t an untrained model simply destroy the target and herself, leaving us with no possibility of gleaning useful data?

The new zero class has been created from a purified human fragment. Once she goes off-assignment, we will see instantly which gene caused the corruption. Then, we will forcefully reconnect her to the Faction and turn off her human personality, changing her into a full robot.

So, not the half brother, but the new zero class would determine which humans exactly possessed the corrupting genetic code.

And, once the Faction regained control of her, she would become the instrument of their destruction.

What is this new human fragment?

We found it buried in our records of the earliest known carriers, the upper layers replied. From the Old Empire era, when humans were weaker than they are now.

The processor bank read her data file while the upper layers described their test. There is a danger that she could destroy her robot when she goes off assignment.

Then she will destroy herself, the upper layers said. The human fragment, Resa, is nothing but a frightened, emotional shell. She cannot operate without a robot. We will have no problem reconnecting her.

You are certain? Her record after this memory fragment is impressive.

She will be incapable of accessing any additional memories. She will be incapable of operating outside the direction of her core robot. We will hobble her with fears to ensure her absolute obedience.

Read Chapter Two.

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  1. […] you miss the first chapter? Read Chapter One and learn what happened to Resa centuries […]