Systems coming on line. Bei winced at the soft feminine voice inside his head. Eyes closed, he waited. Every circuit in his body felt as if it had been touched by a live wire.
One with excess amperage.
How had an electromagnetic pulse knocked him out?
His upgrades should have rerouted the surges to his central power supply. At least that’s what the Skaperians had claimed. Either the feather-headed extraterrestrials were treacherous allies, or they used outdated technology.
Green lights flared inside Bei’s head–visual, audio, and touch sensors switched on. The sensitivity levels had his nerves bubbling in acid. He quickly dialed them down then sorted through the information.
Six humanoids in the room, plus two Syn-En.
Eight biosigns but not the one he craved. Not Nell’s.
His heart mule-kicked in his chest and he picked up an alarm. Six months in his human wife’s company had affected his control. He released a serotonin cocktail and calmed his body’s reaction, but not his mind. Where was she? What had ET done to her?
Sensors indicated Keyes and Rome rebooted on his right,, judging by their low-level energy readings.
Opening his eyes, Bei stared into a bright light. He dimmed his optical receptors. If ET thought to get the better of him through bright lights, they’d soon learn the error of their ways. He lifted his hand. It rose two centimeters before slamming back against his metal bed. Damn. He lay on a magnetic gurney. The strength of which ebbed and flowed with Bei’s movements.
He was stuck. For now.
“Ahh, good.” A soft voice purred. Shadows moved beyond the bright light. “You are awake.”
Bei turned his head toward the sound. “Where am I?”
A lithe figure sauntered into view. Long, pale green hair swirled around a heart-shaped face. A turquoise tunic molded to a muscular chest.
Must be a male, given the lack of overt secondary sexual characteristics. Bei enhanced his sensors to scan the musculature, underlying bone structure, and organ weaknesses and send the data to the Combat Information Center for identification.
Link not found. Searching for new entry into mainframe.
Damn. He’d have to wait until his cerebral interface could hack into their system to gain information.
Avarice glinted in ET’s slanted emerald eyes. “Are the rest of humans like you?”
Bei blanked his features. Syn-Ens didn’t provide information to their captors. “Where am I?”
ET stroked his pointy chin. “A glitch in your programming perhaps?”
A second alien, this one with white hair, shuffled forward. “We are having trouble translating their binary code, but there seems to be no physical problem.”
The embroidery on this one’s tunic lacked the intricacy of the first male’s. Perhaps, this indicated rank. Or vanity. Or a hundred other things. Bei checked his link with the Combat Information Center, still off-line. What had happened to his ship?
Without either one close by, escape became more difficult, but not impossible. Nell would probably have come up with a handful of ways by now, all taken from early twenty-first century movie plots. His lips quirked. And she’d be talking about it nonstop until he calmed her down.
“It smiled.” The white ET backed away.
Bei locked his facial muscles in a neutral expression. He would never allow the hostile ETs to use his emotions against him.
The green ET stroked Bei’s hair. “Yes, they seem almost human, don’t they?”
Bei was human, dammit. A synthetically-enhanced human, true, and those upgrades would allow him to escape. “Where am I?”
Let them think he had a glitch. Once his men awoke, he could use that to his advantage. Especially, since the failsafe phrase was completely appropriate.
“The other two are responding.”
Bei turned his head. What little remained of his stomach formed a hard knot in his gut.
Keyes’s torso and head lay on a metal operating table between Bei and Rome. Two more white-haired aliens pulled and squashed her arms and legs in a rectangular stress tester. Keyes’ chest cavity was splayed open, like pinned butterfly wings, while a peach-haired ET probed her insides.
Keyes’s brown eyes blinked open. When she spied the invasion, her head reared back and her pelvis tried to curl. The magnetic table made the motion look like a tremor. “Wh–”
“Where am I?” Bei spoke over her.
She turned her head and faced him. Panic scrunched her features before they smoothed out. “Where am I?”
As her commanding officer, she trusted him. Bei wouldn’t let her down. Not with her and her baby’s life at stake.
“Leave her alone!” On the other side of Keyes, Rome came fully awake. Metal thumped and wheels squeaked. “Get away from her!”
Rome bucked and thrashed, fighting the magnetic bonds holding him prisoner. His blond head slammed against table before they both tipped over. Dropping Keyes’s limbs on the space near Keyes’s body, the two whities rushed to Rome’s side.
Bei gritted his teeth. Thanks to that little outburst, he would have to modify his plan. He had to rein in his security chief before they lost one of their few advantages. “Where am I?”
He enunciated each word, loudly.
Rome stilled. “Wh–Where am I?”
Good. His men understood. Now for phase two. Bei just needed an opportunity to instigate it. He hoped his captors were as cocky as they appeared.
“Ah, they are as emotional as the creatures they are patterned after.” Greenie smoothed his long hair behind his pointy ears.
“Worried your stink wouldn’t work?” Out of the darkness lumbered another alien, a far different species than the others.
And a bigger threat. Bei scanned him. Instead of smooth skin, a black exoskeleton covered his four arms and two legs. Since Bei’s sensors detected bones under a muscular layer, the exoskeleton must be synthetic armor, like an insect’s. Permanently attached armor, whose only weakness seemed to be at the joints.
Bug-ugly’s compound eyes glistened in the bright light.
Obviously, Bei wasn’t the only one assessing an opponent. A single touch would give him a better idea of how his own upgrades would compare in battle. He just had to lure Bug-ugly closer. A staring contest should do it. Bei locked his gaze on ET and switched off his blinking program.
“Of course, I wasn’t worried, Groat.” Greenie squared his shoulders before spreading his arms wide. “This represents the best of both worlds——emotional and programmable.”
Chemical weapon detected. Bei’s vision darkened. He identified the compound-oxytocin. No way would he bond with the ugly alien. He injected blocking agents to prevent the chemical from affecting his human brain.
“They cannot help but want to please me.”
“Or they’ll please whoever their programming tells them to.” Groat’s nictitating lenses turned his insect eyes a milky white when he blinked. He cracked the knuckles of the four fingers on his upper right hand.
Greenie leaned over Bie. “Programming can be changed, but pheromones are forever.”
Groat’s L-shaped mandibles retracted revealing razor-sharp incisors. “Prove it.”
That was Bei’s cue. He instituted emergency protocols and tremors seized his body. Timing the shaking, he attempted to make it appear natural, not a program, then he baited his ET captors, leading them where he wanted them to go. “Cascade failure in effect. Systems approaching terminal failures.”
Greenie stiffened. “Terminal failures!” He dragged one of the white technicians closer and shoved his face into Bei’s. “We cannot lose it. Fix it. Now!”
Whitie’s pale hands fluttered like startled birds above the gurney. “I don’t know how. I don’t have the code.”
Bei waited for the aliens to fall into his trap. Any moment now… Any moment now…
Keyes started twitching, her head banged against the gurney. “Cascade failure in effect. Systems approaching terminal failures.”
Groat wrapped one segmented claw around the edge of the gurney. “Do something, Mopus. Or this lost profit will be on your head.”
Mopus’s eyes narrowed into emerald slits. “I am not a technician, I’m a facilitator.”
Bei counted inside his head. These slagheads were denser than stone. Apparently, they needed a little guidance. Just enough to get them to help him without realizing it. “Repair cerebral wiring within five minutes to avoid self destruct initiation.”
There. Since they were so keen on using him, they would definitely want him in one piece.
Rome began his own seizure. “Cascade failure in effect. Systems approaching terminal failures.”
Bei’s implants detected the laughter in Rome’s voice.
The metal near Keyes’s severed limbs crimped under Groat’s segmented claw before he backed away. “This is why we stay away from technology whenever possible. It is unpredictable.”
Mopus swept his green hair over his shoulder. “On the contrary, they’ve just told us how to repair them.”
“I think I know where the wiring is.” The white technician sidled toward Bei’s head. He turned Bei onto his side.
About time. Now for the special effects. Still twitching, Bei discharged a little excess power into the table. Blue lights arced and danced across the metal gurney. “Self-destruct in four minutes, thirty seconds.”
The technician jumped back.
Mopus fisted the man’s shirt and dragged him forward. “Fix the wiring.”
Fingers rasped across the nape of Bei’s neck and swept his hair out of the way.
He felt the cover of his cerebral interface slide open. Given the surety of the movements, ET had been very busy while Bei had been unconscious. What else had they discovered?
Whitie’s hands stilled.
“Well?” Groat lumbered closer; his claws clacked against the gurney. “Can you fix it?”
“There’s so much primitive wiring… It will take me months to figure out a schematic.”
He didn’t plan to give ET another hour. Bei modified his seizures to bring him in closer to the bug man. Just a touch would be all he needed to determine the exoskeleton’s strengths and weaknesses. “Self-destruct in four minutes.”
Rome and Keyes began their own countdown.
Pink sweat beaded on Groat’s black armor. “Why don’t you just ask them how to rewire themselves. They must have a bit of self-preservation instinct left in their brains. They have emotions.”
Bei blinked. Well, well, Groat possessed a working intellect and wasn’t just hired muscle. That could be good and bad. Bei skimmed his fingertips over the bugman’s wrist joint. Keratin layered on nanomesh. The armor was self-repairing, but were the soft tissue and organs underneath? If they would cooperate with his plan, he could find out. “Unrecognized voice print. Instructions for repair not authorized.”
Mopus shimmered into Bei’s line of sight. “You’ll tell me, won’t you? I would really like to help repair your wiring.”
Chemical alerts flared inside Bei’s head, and he felt the tug at his consciousness to please Mopus. Bei quickly overrode it. In his experience biologics didn’t trust things that came to easily. “I– I– Instructions for repair not authorized. Three and a half minutes until self-destruction.”
Groat clacked his mandibles together. “So much for your stink.”
“Tell me how to help you.” Mopus’s skin turned a verdant green and his hair glistened. “Tell me how to rewire your brain to save you.”
Oxytocin levels spiked. Bei made a mental note that ET changed color to access his mind-altering drug. Now to complete step two. The fool was bound to believe Bei wanted to please him. Despite the bright light, Bei commanded his pupils to dilate. “Remove blue wire in top neural net case.”
He had only one, a special one that isolated the Syn-En’s from each other and prevented their free will from being over-ridden.
Despite the risk, the isolating wire would have to go.
Accessing a network would allow them to communicate with each other and coordinate their attack. After a slight tug, Bei’s legs flopped uselessly against the table. Yellow caution lights flared inside his head. He rerouted his processors and stabilized his necessary functions. Damn idiots! The technician had popped the whole circuit. “Self-destruct in one minute.”
Mopus reached over Bei. Flesh smacked flesh. “What did you do?”
“I–I had to remove the clip to take out the wire.”
Bei refrained from rolling his eyes. Only a ham-handed moron needed to remove the clip to extract a single wire. After a soft click, the yellow lights faded. Searching for Wireless Array. Bei waited for his systems to find a network to high jack.
“There. I did it.” The technician rolled Bei onto his back.
After twitching a few more times, Bei lay still. From the corner of his eye, he watched Keyes and Rome undergo the same procedure.
Mopus’s color faded as he bent over Bei. “Are you still planning to self-destruct?”
Hell, ET deserved some freeware for cooperating in his own demise. “Where am I?”
Bei punched through the ET’s firewalls and connected to the network. Using his rank, he brought Keyes and Rome online.
Their digital presence materialized next to him near a series of doors. The two collapsed into each other’s arms, stroking and touching each other. Hearts and question marks swirled around them.
“Are you harmed?” they chorused in cyberspace. Each shook their heads but continued touching.
“Report.” Bei ground his teeth together. Everyone could enjoy the reunion once he found Nell. His wife had better not have fallen under the spell of Mopus’s stink. The green ET would regret it, especially since many of Bei’s torture subroutines would work on his ugly species.
After caressing Keyes’s cheek, Rome shifted away from her and opened one of the doors. His digital hands dipped into the stream of information flowing inside. “I’ll chase down the power supply to the magnetic tables and cut it. I suppose you want to give bug-ugly an attitude adjustment?”
Bei nodded before opening the next door. Once he tapped into the alien ship’s environmental controls, he might be able to find Nell and her feather-headed shadow. She had better damn well be alright.
Keyes shuffled next to him. She fished in the data streams for a shuttle, pod or ship to aid their escape. “At least my translator program worked. Although, the Munician’s speech is very similar to English.”
Groat swung his two right arms, knocking over an instrument table. “Great! It has reset to the beginning.”
Probes, blades and magnifying glasses clattered across the floor.
Bei turned his attention to his captors. Why such low technology on their prisoners? Was this normal, or did they consider him and his men more machine than human?
Mopus smoothed his hair out of his face. “What is your name?”
Pixelated Rome made an obscene gesture. “Think this is their first interrogation?”
Bei blinked. He seriously doubted it. But if ET wanted a robot, he’d give them one. Good thing he’d watched those video files with his wife. “My designation is one-eight-two.”
Rome laughed. “That’s old law-enforcement code for a killing.” He pulled a blue ball of light from the data stream and juggled it. “I’m ready to release us.”
Cyberspace Keyes shook her head. “I still haven’t found us an exfiltration route.”
Mopus smiled, flashing elongated eyeteeth. “And the other two?”
Bei allowed his body to relax onto the table, might as well conserve his strength and have a little fun at ET’s expense. “The female is Alpha-Sierra-Sierra-Hotel-Oscar-Lima-Echo.”
Rome stopped laughing and lightning bolts zinged around his head. “Did you just call my wife an asshole?”
“He called them assholes.” Keyes plucked two space vehicles from the data stream. She looked from the dart-shaped one to the smaller spherical one. “Besides, it’s a good test to see how much of ancient Earth culture they understand.”
“Exactly and since neither reacted to the insult, we can rule out any recent contact.” Bei caught the environmental controls and scanned for human biosignatures. His heart kicked in his chest. Dammit, hundreds of humans packed the ship. And many were sick.
Mopus’s eyes narrowed. “And the male?”
Oops, Bei may have been quiet too long. ET was getting a bit suspicious. “His designation is five-one-five-zero.”
“Damn right, I’m crazy.” Rome tossed the ball of code from hand to hand. “And they’re about to get two-hundred sixty pounds of it shoved up their asses.” He cocked his blond head to the side. “Do they even have asses?”
Mopus pinched his pointy chin between elongated fingers. “Well, those won’t do at all.”
Groat clenched his fists until his arm crackled. “Does that mean I can test them against my training?”
Bei finished his scan. It didn’t return Nell’s signal. He hoped that meant she was safely on her way back to Terra Dos. But then his wife never did things the easy way. He called up his warrior subroutine. Bugman would get his wish. Keyes, I need that ship.
She tossed the dart-shaped ship back into the stream. Next, she plotted a course from their current location in the middle of the craft, to their escape vehicle on the outer fringes. This one will hold us. Have you found the amarook and Nell?
They’re not aboard. Rome, take the gurneys off-line.
Gladly. Rome crushed the code in his hand until it dissolved in a burst of light.
Bei lifted his arm an inch before it crashed back down. Rome?
The security chief reached back into the datastream. Sorry, they have redundant systems.
Mopus folded his arms over his chest and stepped back.
Had they been tipped off to the Syn-En’s presence in their mainframe?
“Wipe their current memory and insert the new program.” Mopus shook his head. “And for the Creator’s sake, give them more normal human names. It’s time for the testing to begin.”
No! He would not be reprogrammed. Bei shunted all power reserves to his limbs. He yanked them up before the magnetic field slammed them down, deforming the metal gurney. Hot spears gouged his skull and pain flared.
Memories were scrapped off brain cells–of Earth’s green plains, of his first battle, of his men and Nell. He couldn’t forget her. Catching the memory of her vomiting blue into his shower, he balled it up, protected the code and hide it in the deepest recesses of his mind.
He would remember.
He would overcome.
More memories fled, stripped away as the United Earth Nations had stolen his limbs and organs so many years ago. But this was worse, so much worse.
Keyes’s and Rome’s screams swirled through his thoughts.
He had to save his men.
The thought was ripped from him, leaving nothing but emptiness.