Nell Stafford blinked awake. This wasn’t the safe room. She hadn’t made it before the crazy in her head had caused her to pass out. So where was she? Her breathing echoed off the metal plate in front of her. Laying in the fetal position, she was smooshed in the crawlspace.
The pulse of the engines rolled under her. Something warm and furry stretched above her.
Elvis. The amarook had shifted so his crystalline fur concealed them both. He sent images of fire, attacking bears and knife-wielding maniacs into her head.
Her blood pounded and her mouth dried. What was coming? She sent a giant question mark back to the amarook.
Shifting his weight, he returned a picture of a giant humanoid with a smooth head, spherical eyes, and its four arms and two legs broken into segments——like a scorpion minus the stinging tail. If scorpions stood six-foot tall, moved like humans and were really, really pissed off.
Nell managed to avoid wetting herself as the claws at the ends of the creature’s four arms ripped a Skaperian limb from limb before pinching off the head and tossing it like a basketball through the air. O-kay. She didn’t want to meet Scorpio on a bad day.
Footsteps clomped along the deck.
She bit her knee to stop from screaming. Not Bei’s measured steps, Keyes’s ballerina-light stride or Rome’s tantrum-esque stomp. This was someone new. Someone who had boarded them from space. Soon her husband and his men would begin to fight back, kick the bad guy’s butts. Nell curled into a tighter ball.
Any time now.
Elvis sent her pictures of Rome and Keyes’s unconscious bodies in the crew compartment.
The base of Nell’s skull tingled. Holy cow. An electromagnetic pulse had overloaded their cerebral interface. That’s why she passed out. Bei! She had to protect her husband. She tried to uncurl.
The amarook dug his claws into her arm and back. He unearthed the memory of Nell teaching her German shepherd to stay and replayed it.
She stiffened as the day unspooled inside her head. She hated it when the amarook used her own memories. It was so…so invasive. Worse, she didn’t know how to protect herself.
And the amarook knew it.
Which meant this was bad. Very bad, indeed.
“I’m certain the scan showed four humans on board.” The male voice was pleasant, almost lyrical.
Every muscle in Elvis’s body tensed.
Nell imagined his fangs bared and a growl swirled through her head. Was this Scorpio? He didn’t sound so bad. In fact, she might like to meet him.
Elvis’s denial imprinted on her psyche. He sent another image. Lanky and well-groomed, this humanoid looked like a lime-green elf.
“The three we have claimed barely qualify as human.” The other male’s voice rumbled like a distant avalanche.
Nell stiffened. She had half a mind to tell Scorpio that the Syn-En were human. Thankfully, the other half of her mind was still functioning. Bei wouldn’t be happy if she got herself caught. Again. And quite frankly, she never was the Daphne of Scooby-Doo fame type.
She preferred smart, resourceful Velma.
What would Velma do? Nell had no bumbling bait or any spare tires to lasso the villains. And she very much doubted they hid human faces behind alien masks.
The footsteps pounded closer.
Oh, God, they were entering the engine room. Could they see her wedged in the crawlspace?
Elvis patted her back with his extra set of hands.
Right. As long as he covered her, she was as invisible as he was. If she survived this, he was getting a treat. She sent him an image of his favorite food——severed chickcharney heads and feet.
A drop of drool plopped onto her sleeve.
“Yes, humans have changed.” The lime elf hummed. “We shall be able to make use of them.”
The guy sounded so nice. Why was he with Scorpio? Maybe if she talked to him…
Her cerebral interface crackled.
What in the world? What was with the self-induced shock therapy? Maybe there was a charge build-up in the deck.
Bei often discharged static electricity into the helm.
Nell raised her head a little, enough to see between the grills of the deck. Elvis’s fur fractured the world like a cracked mirror. The fusion reactor appeared in a thousand pie wedges instead of one large cylinder.
The deck bowed under Scorpio’s weight. “The species should not have been allowed to be alone for so long.”
She clamped her mouth shut to keep from crying out. Scorpio could give her nightmares.
The elf practically danced over the floor. “They were nearly wiped out by the Surlat strain. Even the Founding Five are not immune to the Erwar Ecoprovisions.”
“We should not be bound by anything. If it wasn’t for us, there would be no Erwar anything.” Scorpio stopped right over her.
Nell pressed against the floor. The man had spikes on his boots, for pity’s sake.
A tremble rolled through Elvis. Her protector would go for Scorpio’s throat if they were discovered.
Great! That left the elfin-magic for her. Somehow she doubted her self-defense classes from over a century ago would help her.
“If it wasn’t for the Founding Five, Erwar would not be in the shape it is.” The Elf shrugged then paused by the safe room door. Sapphire light shone from his palm and illuminated the biometric box. The door slid open.
Oh, my. It was a good thing, she and Elvis hadn’t been able to make it to the safe room. They would have been discovered for sure.
“Satisfied?” Scorpio creaked when he crossed his arms over his chest.
Elf checked his nails. “Just being thorough. I knew that if there was another human aboard, they wouldn’t be able to resist my voice.”
“You mean the chemicals you pump out through your glands.” Scorpio grunted.
Chemicals? Nell clamped her lips together. More like pheromones to make her compliant, bend to his will. Had her cerebral implant shocked her to dispel her body’s reaction to the Elfy boy’s scent?
The images of hundreds of perfectly even teeth sowed ice crystals in Nell’s veins. Appearances be damned, he was more dangerous than all of Scorpio’s encased muscles.
And he had her husband.
She boxed up her fear and slapped a ‘Do not open until Christmas’ sticker on it. Once the bad guys were away, she’d contact the Syn-En Fleet and rescue Bei, Rome and Keyes.
It was her only option.
Scorpio ran one claw along the side on the reactor. “What shall we do with the ship?”
“We can’t take it with us. Our workers still talk of being rescued. If word ever got out that humanity had made it two light years from Erwar, production would be disrupted.”
Production of what? And why would these Extraterrestrial freaks care if people registered as sentients? But deep down, she knew why. The Skaperians had used Earth as a Petri dish to find a cure from the Surlat strain. Ninety percent of all life on the planet had become extinct in less than two years.
If one species viewed humans as lab rats, another would just as easily see her family and friends as slaves.
Her hands formed fists.
Once she had Bei and the Syn-En fleet at her back, she planned to introduce ET to a little thing called Karma.
Elf glanced back into the room, stared at her position.
She held her breath.
Elvis did as well.
“I shall blow it up with my new weapon, then return to salvage the pieces. Unless…” Scorpio paused on the threshold of the engine room. “Unless, you’ll give me one of the new humans. I would like to test it against my skills.”
Elf patted Scorpio’s segmented shoulder. “Profit over pleasure, Groat. Profit over pleasure.”
God, they were hideous. When their footsteps retreated, Nell relaxed. Feeling returned to her fingers in a rush of tingles.
The Icarus shuddered around her, then the ship issued a warning. “Air pressure alert.”
The fatheads hadn’t bothered sealing the punctured hull.
Bulkheads dropped down and clanged against the floor.
Nell pushed against Elvis. “Move.”
“I do not think it is wise to move just yet, Nell Stafford.” Despite his words, Elvis shifted the grate over, rolled off her and onto the deck. “They are still too close for my comfort and could easily reboard.”
Could they? Elvis had sensed the aliens before the ship did. Perhaps another ten second delay wouldn’t hurt. Nell stretched her arms and legs under the safety of the fusion reactor. “We have to get this ship moving before they blow it and us up.”
“I do not think you have any technical weapons to harm their ship.” The amarook crooked his finger and flashed a green light inside her head.
“As much as I want to, we can’t attack them. Bei, Rome and Keyes are on their ship.” Wrapping her hands around the rail, she squeezed between the cylindrical reactor and the deck. The rough floor grabbed at her clothes, scraped her skin. That was going to leave a mark. Of course, dead left a bigger mark. “I’m going to honor my ancestors by running and hiding.”
Elvis’s nails clicked as he loped for the safe room. “We do not know if the crystalline coating will make the Icarus appear to have vanished.”
“Guess we’re going to find out.” Her muscles ached and a groan slipped passed her lips as she stumbled after the wolf-like creature. Sardines should feel lucky they were dead before being packed in those tiny cans.
The amarook disappeared into the room. By the time she slipped inside the over-sized closet, he was in his harness, had the keyboard down and the screens in front of him stuffed with data.
Throwing herself into the spare chair, she strapped in then opened a cabinet embedded in the wall. Wrapping one hand around the joystick, she moved it to the right then the left. Inertial dampeners prevented her from feeling the motion, but the starry image on the screen in front of her tilted this way then that. “How long do you think we have?”
Her grip tightened. “What kind of answer is that?”
She wanted a clock counting down. Bei would answer to the millisecond.
“It has been a century since my kind went to space.” Elvis’s ears twitched. “And the ships were much more advanced.”
“Well excuse me.” A red blob appeared on the left of her screen. She aimed for it. Just like in those video games her nephews like to play. Easy.
“Aren’t you supposed to avoid the red things on the screen?”
“Yep.” Holding her tongue between her teeth, she kept the course steady. Hopefully the doofus aliens will think the collision course was natural. “When I say so, I need you to hit the red button on your left.”
Elvis’s blue eyes widened and the black feathers on his head stood on end. “That will eject the fusion reactor!”
“Exactly.” Red was bad. Bei had color coded everything so in the event of an emergency, she could pilot the ship. “And it’ll explode, too. We’re going for a Hollywood ending.”
Good guys get away; Bad guys are fooled.
“Won’t we need the Helium-3 to power our engines, maintain life support and keep us hidden?”
“Oh. Um.” There was that little snag. She glanced at his screen. Bei had said something… Think, think, think. “Right. Open those pathways.” She tapped the screen. Green flooded the tube. “The Icarus has reserve tanks, one for each engine, for just such an occasion. Fill ’em up, then let’s dump that puppy.”
Elvis hunkered down in his seat. “I do not dump puppies.”
“I meant the reactor. Dump the reactor.” Sheesh, he was awfully moody. Small wonder the amarook males didn’t go into battle. Anxiety made them irritable. That was far worse than her nonstop commentary.
“You should have said that, then.” The ship shuddered. Red patches filled Elvis’s screen. “I believe they are firing.”
The joystick bucked in her hand. She clamped down with two to maintain her course. “What’s it doing?”
“The weapon appears to be cutting us into pieces.”
“That’s not right. Where are the phasers and torpedoes? And the shields are supposed to be dropping in increments.” Geez, how was Hollywood supposed to get them out of this if the aliens never saw the movies?
“The magnetic shields are ineffective but are fully charged.”
“Thanks a lot.” Nearing the asteroid, danger flashed in bright letters on her screen. Bei’s doing, no doubt. She sniffed back her tears and blinked to clear her vision. She’d rescue him. Removing one hand from the joystick, she set her finger over the cloaking switch. “Ready to eject the reactor?”
Elvis wrapped his tail tightly around his hind end. “Ready.”
“Now!” One. Two. Three.
A burst of light flashed on the screen.
She flicked the switch. Nothing changed. Yanking on the stick, she steered away from the asteroid. “Did it work?”
The blast wave slammed into them. Ripped the joystick out of her grip. The ship flipped head over heels. Faster and faster.
It hit Elvis on the side, speckled his fur in chunks of gray regurgitated rations.
She reached for the controls. Sparks sprayed from the connections. “That can’t be good.”
Her fingers brushed the side of the joystick and it careened over. Connected by a few wires, it whapped against the wall.
Elvis clawed at the keyboard.
The ship stopped spinning.
Her head slammed against the seat and the straps cut into her chest and thighs. “What did you do?”
“Autopilot. You were not the only one Beijing York trained.”
The program engaged, and the screen in front of her gradually changed. Fuel levels appeared. Dotted lines carved up space. Damage assessed. Then a course was set.
Her stomach condensed into a hard ball and fell to her feet. “Oh, no. No, no, no! We’re heading straight for Erwar.”