This is a 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
Heat and cold flushed through her. “What?”
“For the broadcast.” He positioned his lips against the corner of her mouth. “Act passionate.”
She froze in rigid confusion.
His firm mouth pressed against her soft cheek, missing her lips on purpose. His hot breath teased her skin, his large hands splayed across her waist, and his body pressed against hers. Crackling sensations broke through her circuits, and her whole brain seemed to hang. Her body pulsed from his electric contact. He felt hot in her arms, so deliciously hot. His forbidden pleasure teased her, tantalized her. She had always wanted to enchant a powerful man. All she had to do was just slightly turn her head, and then her lips would press on his, and she would experience all there was to this kiss.
Wait. She had always wanted to enchant a powerful man?
In her memories, both the several-days-old ones that belonged only to her and the nightmares that belonged to Zenya, she had never desired a man or his kiss.
She lifted her hands to… what? Stroke his broad back? Shove him away? Mold herself to him? She left her hands in the air, a tangible question mark, a confusion of her body and her mind.
He ended the kiss, resting his forehead against hers and gasping. “That should confuse the bastards.”
Her voice sounded like it came from another person. “Why did you do that?”
“Proof.” He coughed and spat blood. “Only I would allow myself to be distracted by a beautiful woman while a city street fell in around me.”
Again, he caused a sizzling sensation deep in her body. Beautiful woman. He would say kind words to a career criminal, with as much apparent sincerity.
“I think,” his voice lightened as his grip on her faded, “it’s time for my new head of security to take me home.”
She battled the confusion pulsing through her hot body away, hefted his unconscious form, and carried him barefoot through the streets rapidly filling with emergency response drones and trauma sirens.
With all of these questions swirling in her head, caused by Aris, the last thing she needed was to join his house. But that was just where she was bound.
Because only he knew the location of the rogue. And as much as she disliked the idea of killing, she hated her predecessor Zenya more. The rogue was the key.
She had driven many robots insane with emotion.
Resa would not become one of them.
When the time came, she would dispatch Aris and the rogue without a single moment of doubt.
Aris lived in a cloud.
The floors, couches, and lower walls were all varying shades of white. Some laced with silver while others crackled with lines of gold; hard edges softened beneath pale peaches and grays. His carpeting caressed feet while seating areas invited sinking into and relaxing, and the domes overhead opened up to stars.
City residences floated below, and his governor’s mansion was one of three great domes that anchored their residences to the barren planet beneath and also soared up to the atmosphere shield above and interfaced with the stars. The other two great domes tinted their interfaces to pink mornings and cream afternoons. He left his as night. A land lit by sparkle after sparkle of pure white stars.
A hundred separate fountains tinkled around his residence, including fifteen waterfalls and seven hot springs, a project started by former governors and completed by him. That was how he always knew when he had returned home. On the airless planetoid, only the governor’s mansion afforded the constant serenity of burbling liquid.
The other way he knew that he was home was the mild scents infused into his thick, fluffy comforters and activated whenever his ID chip passed into the chambers. Coconut in his private rooms, sweet aprium in his kitchen, and sensual cinnamon throughout the public areas.
Scents that evoked comfort, richness, wealth.
Sometimes the price of secrets meant waking after too few rest hours and too many empty calories, his head pounding, his body throbbing, and his conscience ready to declare independence from one who clearly didn’t have a use for it.
That was how he felt right now. From the strength of the coconut scent and the pain digging into his backside, he guessed he hadn’t even made it to the bed; he must have collapsed on the floor.
He lifted his hand to his forehead. This form of espionage, he had intended cut back on, since his deal with the lady rogue made his life so precarious right now—
“I wouldn’t do that,” a woman’s voice said.
His hand arrested in midair. The whole mixed up day returned, starting with those damnable warning signs that his cousins were moving against him and ending with the death of his faithful security head, Joensen.
He opened his eyes.
The robot woman, Resa, sat across from him in the dark. Staring. With, he imagined, odd cat eyes and a frightening robotic grin.
Was this the kind of life he had to look forward to? Everyone he cared about cut down? His half sisters had certainly been dealing with fearful losses for decades, and only now did he have any appreciation for their suffering.
He groaned and actually opened his eyes. Resa stood across the room, and the area was dim, not dark. Her eyes certainly did not glow, and she wasn’t even looking at him. She was looking up, at the night sky, at the white spatter of stars.
“I assume I still have security,” he said dryly.
“I’ve eliminated the holes through which I snuck you in. Hundreds of alternates remain. Anyone could fire a single laser and wipe out half this city, and your residence with it.”
“That’s why the governor controls the satellites, and the solar system administrator controls the Hyeon fleet.”
“Unsecure,” she murmured.
He dropped his hand. It rested on the blood-smeared carpet; around it, lightening halos indicated where the residential nanobots lifted the stain, transforming his blood into pure moisture and a small amount of iron dust. It wasn’t the worst thing the nanobots had cleaned up.
“Why am I on the ground?” he asked.
“I thought that was your sleeping place,” she said. “I analyzed the body signatures of every inch of these quarters, and that particular section of carpeting held the most molecules.”
Great. Just great.
“More even than what appeared to be your bed,” she indicated the couch.
He groaned and pulled himself up to a sitting position.
Then he crawled over to the nearest chair and lifted his hand in the shape of a wine glass. His fingers interrupted the room’s particle waves, which triggered a signal to the nanobots. A glass goblet emerged as though by magic, excreted by the nanobot activities.
He dropped the glass to his throbbing knee, then lifted the rim to the edge of the particle beam, and said, “Pain level eight.”
A tranquilizer soporific began to multiply. A tiny droplet increased to a sloshing gobletful of liquid.
He dropped the glass below the beam and sipped the soothing medicine.
“You’re going to want more than a hangover cure,” Resa said, still from her position against the wall.
“It’s a start.” He rubbed his shoulders. It felt like his head had separated from his spine. “You could give me a healing massage.”
Silence graced his small joke. The female robot thing had no sense of humor.
“It’s not a very funny joke,” she replied, as though reading his thoughts aloud.
He glanced at her.
Standing silhouetted against the gentle cocoon of his private fountain, she seemed smaller and more delicate than ever before.
But it was simply his mistaken impression. Like imagining for one moment that she was a woman and not an undulating poisonous snake.
“Do you always trade insults with your targets before you kill them?” he asked.
She sucked in her lower lip.
A conscious gesture? An unconscious gesture? It abruptly made her more human, and more desirable.
“I did not mean to insult you,” she said.
“No offense taken,” he replied breezily. “You break into my house, leave me for dead on the floor, and then dismiss my real request for help as a bad joke. Why should I be offended?”
“I… am sorry.”
Fuck. The hesitant way she apologized, as though she weren’t used to it, as though only he evoked it in her, it did things for him. Things he shouldn’t be interested in. That must have been a hell of a knock to the head.
The recent trauma also explained the odd tightening in his cock, reacting to a woman who must have been formulaically constructed to tempt his interest. Her fragility, her fresh innocence, and her sweet caution were explosive ingredients in a cocktail that threatened to ignite all his desires. Especially since he’d just seen first-hand what she was capable of. His cock thought she was “fragile”? Even if she hadn’t orchestrated the death of his employees or caused the pyroclastic cloud of noxious gas that had been visible through the hole in the unmoored residence, she could certainly rip off both his arms and use them to beat him to death.
He downed another glass of painkillers and asked for her help to his comfy couch-shaped bed. Which she gave, willingly. He leaned on her the way an old man leaned on an iron cane. She was probably less breakable. He collapsed on the private couch, injuries pinching everywhere. If she hadn’t saved him, he wouldn’t be feeling much of anything right now.
Of course, she had only saved him to end his life later.
“I organized medical supplies.” She set out a neat tray of creams and pills, ointments to deaden the shrieking nerves and speed the regrowth of torn skin. “You should apply it.”
He gave her his best lazy smile. “I’m so injured. Won’t you rub it into my skin?”
Her expression flattened.
Then, when he least expected her response, she lifted the tube of nerve silencing cream. “I’ll apply this numbing cream to your waist region first.”
He caught the tube. His fingers covered hers. Her breath stopped, but she didn’t pull away. “I didn’t realize robots had a sense of humor.”
“What makes you think I’m joking?”
In the gentle dimness, her eyes looked so completely normal. Black pupils surrounded by innocent brown irises, wide and liquid, and framed with a thick fringe of dark lashes. Although thin, her petite frame still held itself well. A demure black flight suit deflected notice like a shadow racing the wind. Even though he had looked for her for days, he hadn’t seen her until he was holding her in his arms on the inside of a destroyed building.
The body pressed against his, he barely remembered. Only its general shape, and that he’d clung to it so desperately, and the fact he wanted to cling to it again. In the daylight. Or even in the night, against soft glowing candles and cinnamon sheets, while slowly unmasking the new Hyeon flight suit to reveal the creamy skin beneath.
Not that there would necessarily be creamy skin. She was a robot.
And for some crazy reason, that just made him want to tease her more.
“Very well.” He unfastened his under robe. “I accede to your medical opinion.”
“That was a joke.”
“Aw, how unfair. I believed you.”
“I apologize again.” She disentangled their fingers and shoved the nerve cream at him, rocking back on her heels. “I’ll refrain from misleading you with my more sophisticated responses.”
A smile chased itself into his jaw. “My last head of security was a lot more caring.”
“And look what happened to him.”
A jab. Joensen had been more caring, from his rough cadet apprenticeship to his more recent, distracted defense, even though he disagreed with Aris’s outlandish attempt to open the eyes of his family to the robotic threat, such as the one currently sitting in his bedroom.
He applied the creams while she politely averted her gaze, even though he felt perfectly comfortable displaying his full glory any time she desired a piece.
Which caused him to ask, “Is any part of you human?”
She walked to the fountain garden window. “Yes.”
She didn’t answer.
“It’s sure as hell not your legs. They’re fine legs, very shapely, but no human could’ve taken a fall like that.”
She rubbed her ankles together as though conscious of his words.
“It’s not your arms. You lifted me like a handful of paper, which is unsettling despite how much I would love to have your arms wrapped around me again.”
She brushed something from her bicep.
“It’s definitely not your beautiful eyes—”
“It’s not a part you can see,” she said quietly.
Well, how perfectly fascinating. His pulse pounded in his cock. Could she hear it?
She whirled to him. Although it was too dark to tell for certain, he swore her cheeks once again looked flushed. She strode to the doorway. “Sleep. I’ll patrol your residence.”
“You’ll guard me more securely with a more intimate patrol.” He patted the couch.
“Your body needs quiet to heal.”
“As if I can sleep after a come-on like that,” he complained, but he did so to an empty room.
He fluffed his pillows and relaxed into them. Good thing she wasn’t programmed to use her body to get what she wanted from him. He had yet to invite a woman to share this private couch; the others never moved beyond his public bed. Resa didn’t count. She wasn’t, after all, actually a woman.
Under the cover, he pulled out his last communication with the lady rogue.
Your half sisters were captured by the Robotics Faction and escaped with their lives. They will meet you in Seven Stars secretly. Have you convinced your family of the Robotics Faction threat? We can’t wait much longer. The Faction’s deadly Third Brigade fleet is gathering outside your solar system, and the zero class has already been dispatched to your planetoid.
Dispatched? Aris erased the memo and reprocessed the paper, disintegrating it to its constituent molecules. How would the lady rogue feel about the zero class sitting on his windowsill? He smiled.
Someday she would turn her weapon on Aris. Her mission would end and she would eradicate loose ends. Or try, anyway.
But until then, he would use her skills to push his agenda. He would figure out a way to make her open his family’s eyes to the truth.
Joensen had died so easily in his arms. He deserved justice.
When he identified the culprit, Aris would let the murderous robot find justice for him.
Resa patrolled the perimeter of the governor’s dome, forming a perfect map and noting all the gaps in the security cameras. She wore a pair of clear oculars linked to his security cameras inside, showing her interior rooms, and also downloading the important human data for perusal.
Multitasking like this took a lot of her attention, but not all of it.
Aris’s full staff printed inside the oculars. She looked through names, locations, heartbeats to the cityscape around her while she jogged along the ornate outer walls.
His gentle breathing, silenced under the duvet (she had checked via a video communicator she had secreted in his room), now filled her ears. He drifted trustingly into sleep.
His vulnerability disturbed her.
It wasn’t the first time she’d noticed his laxness, but now that she saw it from the inside, the impact struck her more forcefully. Satellites, so often used for surveillance and defense, could easily be manipulated with a few codes. The Hyeon defense fleet, so certain of its readiness, could easily be dispersed with a feint toward a more vulnerable target. Leaving this planetoid, and all inhabiting it, a fragile shell just waiting for someone to crack it open.
Someone like the Faction’s Third Brigade, a massive fleet full of soldier x-classes and the newest ship-to-planet weapons, only a single Hub away and itching to mobilize at the first real hint of the rogue.
She walked along the garden wall ledge. Aris’s city clustered around her.
Through the atmosphere shield’s thin places, the stars shone straight through, and distant vistas appeared as crisp as something at the length of her arm from her nose. The holes of the mines, from which the planetoid received its wealth and from which these domes had been fabricated like so many ornamental balloons, gaped, stark against the barren stone.
Morning tinted the far southern pole of the atmosphere shield, and evening sat at the far north. Night surrounded the capitol, and the main import/export freight elevator into space.
Individual domes, such as the abandoned storage warehouse she had unmoored earlier today, could select their preferred time of day and move at will.
Three governmental residences—Morning, Twilight, and Aris’s Night—formed fixed points holding up the tent of the atmosphere shield. The cities clustered around them contained nanobot-refreshed air and the bulk of the residences.
It seemed fitting that Aris lived in night.
Although he more than proved himself a playboy, flirtatious even to her, essentially an inanimate object in comparison to his biological humanity, and a deeper level of sincerity powered his tossed-off phrases. Even she found herself susceptible. Of course, she wasn’t entirely inanimate.
No, she had one living human part. Not a part that anyone could see. If someone cut her open to the core, they wouldn’t find a bit of skin or heart buried in the robotic case. Her fragment was a memory. A ghost, or a piece of a ghost, that had lived so long ago even she didn’t know her age. She brushed her hands across her human-soft metal skin. This body seemed to be a few decades old, perhaps as old as the governor. Her memory… it had an ageless quality. But even though she couldn’t open herself up and point to the living piece, it held as much sway over her as any metallic thump of her heart.
Her living human part craved his touch, his notice, his casual kindness.
A weakness, her robot pointed out.
As much as she hated the weakness, it existed. She acknowledged it so she could move on.
Not so she could consider how to protect him from his violent family. Her protection would mean nothing once she completed her reconnaissance, successfully discovered the hidden location of the rogue agent, and dispatched them both.
He called her beautiful. Again.
Her hands flexed for her missing guns.
Control your emotions, her robot instructed.
She knelt at the edge of the wall separating his inner gardens from the publicly accessible fountains. Any person could don rebreathers and swim through the sewer drain into his side. She made a note to systematically install drone-offensive grating.
Of course, with the rogue gone, perhaps there would be no need to dispatch Aris. The power would be gone, perhaps. He could live a long, normal life fighting with his family, leaving her alone.
She shouldn’t crave his compliments. Or his jokes. Or his rough hands on her body, pressing her tight against him, like the one good memory from the cascade of bad.
Below, movement in the public gardens made her pause. A street sweeper, simple and direct, vacuumed debris into its molecular reprocessor.
Goosebumps rose up on her arms.
She watched the small, hovering vacuum while the planetoid turned and turned. Something about it was wrong. An eyeless, earless, brainless street sweeper without even the logic processors to work out how to leave its area or the appendages to do so, yet contained a disturbing malevolence. She felt it. And for once, her robot shut up about feelings and gave her the peace she needed to figure out why.
It was watching the house.