“Alright, diggers, get your worthless carcasses out of here.”
Bei jolted awake at the gravely voice. His ears popped from the change in pressure. Around him, people staggered to their feet. The whirl of ship’s nacelles filled the cramped room. The air reeked of dirt, blood and sweat.
Something wasn’t right. He scanned the cluster of people packed into the space, looking for…someone.
Scraped hands pushed oily hair out of smudges faces. Young children clung to the ragged hems of older people. Dirt settled in wrinkled flesh, aging men and women, amplifying the terror on the boys’ and girls’ faces.
“Up, I say.”
A whip snapped in the air over Bei. A pop of electricity exploded over his head, raised the hair on his arm.
The dozen or so people around him cringed.
Charged whips. Inhuman overseers. Bei followed the black lash to its wielder. Red, segmented armor cut the man’s six limbs into joints. Spherical eyes protruded from under its helmet, and mandibles opened and closed like folding doors over sharp teeth.
The overseer wasn’t Human, but a Scraptor.
The word surfaced from deep in Bei’s subconscious. He knew the thing, knew he should fear it, and yet… Yet, he refused to cower before it. Was he tired of bowing before the ugly bug-like creatures, or was it something else?
“You deaf?” The scraptor lashed out again. This time, he hit Bei.
Bei jumped as the electrified strap connected, slashed his shirt sleeve. His body shook, but the pain… There was no pain. In fact, he felt better than before, not as run down. How could this be? He covered his flesh with his hand to stem the blood.
“Get!” Bug-ugly raised the whip again.
The other humans prisoners pushed forward, crowded the exit.
The hair on Bei’s neck stood up. Someone was watching. Rising off the metal deck, he glanced around him. Bars surrounded the cramped space, but cameras could hide on the dark spaces beyond. His gut told him to act like the others.
He trusted his gut.
Bug-ugly flashed his pointy teeth. The whip crackled around his feet.
Averting his gaze, Bei shuffled forward, following the group. In his peripheral vision, he spied two children huddled around a slumped figure.
Small hands caressed bloody, tapered fingers. Tears streaked the dirt on their bruised faces.
Bug-ugly turned to face them. “I’ll give you something to cry about.”
Dashing forward, Bei moved into the whip’s range. The lash curled around his raised forearm and discharged. His body jerked and his knees buckled. He landed with a thud and sat motionless for a moment. Energy surged through his limb, crackled across his teeth. Was he immune to pain?
Eyes wide, the two children scuttled backward.
Bug-ugly jerked his lash free.
Bei shook his head. What was going on here? And why couldn’t he remember? He reached for the slumped figure. As soon as his fingers brushed her skin, he sensed her slow heart-rate and… and another heartbeat.
She was pregnant.
The two children huddled near the stark metal walls, clinging to each other.
Bei slid his arms under the expectant mother’s legs and back and rose to his feet. He knew she suffered from multiple contusions, a sprained wrist and dehydration. But how he knew, he couldn’t say. He eyed the backs of the other humans. The cell was nearly empty. Pinning the children with a look, he cleared his throat. “Stay in front of me.”
He could protect their backs, while the group ahead provided cover from the front.
Mouths open, the children glanced from Bei to Bug-ugly. A charge built up in the air. The two youngsters scampered forward and slipped out the door. The whip hit the ground where they’d been standing.
Bei’s long strides closed the distance between them.
“Did you see that?” A soft voice asked.
He checked over his shoulder. Bug-ugly hadn’t said the words, yet he could have sworn it came from nearby.
“He is protective of the diggers. Many of his kind are.” A deeper voice this time, like rocks rubbing together. “It is useful when we are not making quotas.”
Heat flashed through Bei. He knew those voices. Knew them and hated them.
“Yes, but it wasn’t in his programming.”
Programming? The word burned like acid on his skin. Bei tightened his grip.
The woman in his arms moaned.
Walking down the ramp, the two children turned to watch him, concern deepened their brown eyes.
“It’s alright.” Bei forced himself to relax. She didn’t need him injuring her further. His long strides quickly closed the distance between him and the main group of people. They left the ship and stepped onto packed ground. Instead of blue sky and open space, a rock dome arched overhead.
They were underground.
Water dripped nearby. A mine, he knew. Yet, the space remained close, too close for a tunnel and had corrugated walls. A cattle chute. Humans were being herded. His ears strained. The voices had disappeared. His elbows brushed the sides of the metal walls, but he didn’t drop his hold.
As soon as he got to where they were herding them, he’d take time to think, figure out what the hell was going on.
Then he’d plan his next course of action.
And maybe a little payback.
Wonder if ol’ bug-ugly would like getting beat with his electrified whip? Bei marched out of the chute and into a four-by-four meter tunnel. Water dripped from the cut rock walls, gathered in channels along the side, and rushed down the sloping floor. Strings of lights illuminated the passage.
The group thinned as some rushed ahead.
The children slowed until he caught up. The older one eyed him from under blond dreadlocks. “This is our home.”
A girl, Bei guessed, from the pitch of her voice. Probably six or seven. “Will there be someone to take care of you two and…” He didn’t want to say mother. He had a feeling some women didn’t like being asked their age. Although the woman seemed to be in her early twenties, she could be their mother. “And her.”
The little girl pointed to red hashmarks on the tunnel. “Yes. This is where our clan lives.”
Clan? Humans often lived in communities. He lived in a community. He tried to grasp the name of it, see it in the colored symbols on the wall. A mist filled his head and prevented him from seeing his clan’s markings. The tunnel branched into three directions.
“Which is your clan?” The little girl grasped the younger child’s hand and dragged him down the one with the red hashtag.
“I don’t know.” Just one more unanswered question Bei needed to add to the growing list.
The girl’s eyebrows met over her nose. “You must know. It is very important to know.”
He couldn’t agree more. Yet, he felt a block wedged between him and the memory. “Why?”
The tunnel curved and a man stepped free from an alcove. He grinned when he saw the little girl, but stopped cold when his attention landed on Bei.
“Daddy!” The little boy tugged free of the girl’s hold and raced toward the man.
The Dad caught up his son, held him close then buried his face in his neck. A moment later, the two raced ahead of Bei down the tunnels.
“Because…” She bit her lower lip. “Because it is. It is food and clothing and everything.”
Bei blinked. Very important indeed, and yet he still couldn’t remember. He followed the girl around another bend. “I think I’ve lost my clan.”
“That is not good.”
“No. No, it isn’t.”
Rocks skittered behind Bei. He guessed two men followed him. Something told Bei he wasn’t going to like the welcoming committee. His skin tightened.
“Once I hand her over, I’ll see if I can find my clan.” He raised his voice, hoping the guys behind him heard. He didn’t want any trouble.
He wanted answers.
The tunnel opened up on a wide cavern. Mud and rock shanties filled the space. Black smoke from the cooking fires smudged the jagged ceiling. Women and children gathered around bubbling pots in the center of the space. Men armed with picks and shovels stood on the roofs of the buildings.
Guess trouble had found Bei.
He stopped three meters into the village. “If you tell me where she belongs, I’ll set her there then leave.”
A man rounded the corner of a building, holding a sledge hammer in a white-knuckled grip. Dark eyes pitted his oval face and moisture clung to his scraggly beard. “Ruth. Here. Now.”
The little girl sprinted to the man’s side. “He doesn’t have a clan, Father.”
The man pushed Ruth behind him. “And so you thought to join ours by impregnating my daughter?”
“I just met your daughter on the transport. The child she carries is not mine.” At least, Bei didn’t think so. An image flickered inside his head. A blond-haired, blue-eyed woman with a warm smile. He breathed through the pain. That was his woman. His.
Shadows danced along the ground.
More men had joined the three behind him.
Fabric ripped. Ridges appeared along Bei’s arm. He nearly dropped the woman. What the hell? In the blink of an eye, the ridges disappeared. What was wrong with him. “If you just take her, I think I should leave.”
He could hurt these people, would hurt them if they tried anything. And they were going to try. He could taste the anticipation in the air. Practically see them drawing off the pool of courage, the presence of each gave the other.
“And have it said the Deutche clan doesn’t take care of its own?” The leader thumped the handle of the sledge hammer in his hand.
Instead of hiding in the ramshackle buildings, the women and children behind him collected rocks and broken handle pieces.
“Ruth can tell you that she’s never seen me before today.” At least Bei hoped it was true. Craters hollowed out his memory. His gut said only the blond woman would bear his child. But why couldn’t he remember her name?
The leader snorted. “Ruth?”
Ruth sidled out from a building. She stretched her lids until they slanted. “I haven’t seen one like him, since the Mings.”
Did the motion mean something?
“Are you a Ming?”
Bei rolled the name around his head, came up blank. “I do not think so.”
Two more men joined the crowd behind him.
He had to end this and soon. Crouching, Bei set the pregnant woman on the ground. He smoothed the rocks away before lowering her head. “I will leave now.”
He had to find the woman with blond hair and blue eyes. She could help him find his clan. She could help him find himself.
Raising his hands a little, Bei rose.
The men charged.