Bei grabbed the arm of the closest man and spun him into the charging group.
Five men went down.
More swarmed over the mud and rock hovels on the sides of the cavern, rushing toward him.
Bei dodged a fist, caught another attacker and swung him into a group of four. He resisted the urge to snap bones, cave-in skulls and crush windpipes. He didn’t want to hurt these people. They were scared. Of him.
The very idea.
A man on the right swung the handle of his shovel at Bei’s head.
He raised an arm, blocking the strike. Wood snapped in half when it hit him, spraying shards on the mob. He flipped someone over his shoulder. Tossed another aside. Blocked. Ducked. Shoved.
He felt no pain, wasn’t even winded.
Maybe they were right to fear him.
Bruised, dusty and bloody, his attackers fell back, circled him like vultures.
“I mean you no harm.” Bei eyed the leader, who wielded a sledge hammer with a broken handle.
Blood drizzled down the older man’s scraggly beard, roping the long strands. “Then you shouldn’t have come here.”
A rock sailed through the air.
Bei feinted left. Another rock cut his cheek. Warmth trickled down his skin. Obviously, they had no problems hurting him. “I just wanted to return the girl.”
“Why? You ain’t Deutche?” The leader twisted the head off the sledge hammer. “No clan helps another.”
Grim faces nodded. Dirty hands adjusted their hold on their weapons.
Bei’s clan helped others. It was their purpose, why he didn’t kill his attackers. But they would not believe him. Hatred ran deeper than the mine they lived in. He raised his hands. “Let me pass, and I shall leave.”
The leader flipped the broken handle around. “No.”
The crowd charged.
Shit. Bei lashed out, hitting flesh, shoved and kicked. A few went down. More took their place. If he kept this up, they would end up hurt, maybe fatally. That would be wrong.
Surrendering was out.
Which left him one option——being taken prisoner. His stomach cramped at the notion. Incapacitating one or two guards was better than, harming two dozen.
But he had to make it convincing.
And minimize the damage, least they decide to kill him.
Bei allowed a few strikes on his arms, a kick to the knee, then a blow fell across the base of his skull.
Systems coming on line.
“What?” Bei felt his legs being swept out from under him. He landed on his hip, ate dirt. Who had spoken? There wasn’t a woman close enough.
Bare feet and hard-soled boots kicked him.
Raising his arms, he shielded his head from the blows. Had he made a mistake? Were they planning to kill him?
Temporary paralysis initiated while diagnostics running.
Bei froze in place. He tried to draw his legs in, but they didn’t move. What was that voice? Was it God? Then why didn’t the others hear it?
“Enough.” The leader yelled.
The kicks stopped. Dirt rose in small puffs when the mob shuffled back.
Bei remained still. Maybe the voice was trying to help him.
Mobility restored. Anomalous code detected, placing in quarantine. Memory access will be restored in five. Four.
The leader squatted in front of Bei, grabbed his hair and yanked his head backward. “Tie him up. Maybe we can ransom him for extra rations. A digger like him should be worth a week’s worth of food.”
Rough cord slipped around his ankles, tightened, then wound around his legs. More rope bound his wrists behind his back then a loop was placed around his neck.
One. Access restored.
Images and sensations flooded his head. People’s faces. Young faces. Old faces. Laughing. Smiling. Killing. Bei jerked as he tried to process everything. His eyes fluttered. A green place. Space. Ships sailing through the stars. Weapons. Friends. Black uniforms on everyone he saw.
Arms looped through his, lifted his torso. “Damn, he’s heavy.”
Bei’s head lolled backward. A green world with frolicking animal life. And her. The blond-haired, blue-eyed woman. Grinning at him. Touching him. His wife. “Nell.”
He nearly snapped his bonds.
Where the hell was she?
“Eh?” His captors dropped him in a pile of slag in the center of camp. “What did you say, slant-eyes?”
He moaned and allowed his head to drop back. If the fools thought he was unconscious, they might leave him alone, give him time to work. Status of Keyes and Rome.
Welcome back, Admiral. Searching for others. Shall I begin the self-repair subroutines?
Negative. His captors were already short-circuiting over his Asian heritage. God knew how they’d react if they watched his skin heal and the drops of blood be reabsorbed. Find my men. Find Nell.
We are out of range of the Icarus, Admiral. But I have found an access point in the corner of this room. Attempting to connect.
Peering through his lashes, he scanned the encampment. Using his enhanced optics, he mapped each house, window, doors and entry points relative to his corner. Fifty-nine humans. Thirty adults, twenty-nine children. All semi-malnourished. Two females were pregnant. A man ran up to the leader standing near the two-story shack in the seven o’clock position.
One water tap in the center of the makeshift village near a series of electronic cooking plates. In the ten o’clock position, two basic toilets with built-in plumbing stood behind metal walls. A five-foot wall enclosed a tub. Laundry soaked in the basin made of rocks and mud.
Everything was crude. Everything except the electronic device in the far right corner. The thing resembled a soda machine from one of Nell’s video clips. Given the lack of a garden, Bei would bet his best circuit that thing dispensed food and medicine.
The United Earth Nations had used similar measures to control its unruly population.
Or to eliminate them slowly.
Bei’s hands fisted. The movement tightened the rope around his neck. He would not be party to mass murder. He would free these people.
Then he’d hand-deliver a little payback to Bug-ugly and his stinky green friend, Mopus.
Admiral, I have detected Security Chief Rome’s signature on Level Nine, among the Freedman clan.
Which meant nothing, since he hadn’t a clue where he was in relation. And Keyes?
She is assigned to the pleasure rooms.
Fuck. His Communications officer would kill someone if her memories returned in the middle of coitus. Hell, she was probably going to hunt down anyone she’d been with, after she remembered her vows to Rome.
As for the Chief, Rome would kill everyone who looked at his wife.
Block their reintegration until I can reach them. Bei didn’t blame either of them. If it was Nell… My wife.
Not registering Nell Stafford’s bio-signature.
He relaxed a little. She wasn’t here. She didn’t need to be rescued. Good, Bei could focus on his duty. The first duty of a captured Syn-En is to escape. Time to do his duty. Show me a schematic of the mine, highlighting our positions.
Closing his eyes, he watched the labyrinth of tunnels form in his mind, with caverns and blind ends. A red triangle marked his location in the middle of a long chain near the bottom. A blue circle identified Rome, six levels above. Near the top of the image, a red heart with Keyes’s name walked along a corridor.
She wasn’t alone.
He’d have to get to her first. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be a direct route. In fact, he’d have to go down into the mines to go up to the pleasure level.
Admiral, I believe you and the others are being monitored. Purple blossomed on every level of the schematic. Two dozen or more. Energy signals indicated the presence of weapons. According to the Skaperian database, they are Scraptors——the enforcers of the Founding Five.
Of course, he’d be watched and surrounded by ET thugs. Good thing he liked a challenge. Find me any weakness in their armor and blind spots in the surveillance.
Gravel crunched nearby.
“If he’s not a Ming, then what clan does he belong to?”
Bei compared her speech patterns to those in his memory banks. He had not met her before.
“Abraham must be mistaken. All the slant eyes belong to the Mings.”
That voice he recognized. The leader of the red hash tag clan. The one who ordered Bei attacked and trussed like a pig. He rewound his memory to the man seen talking to the leader and tossed the image into his cerebral interface for identification.
The information snapped back. Abraham. Deutche clan. Informant for Scraptor Eadse.
There was a spy in Bei’s midst. Compression alerts flared yellow, and he forced his hands to relax. Traitors should be punished.
“Abraham gets his information directly from that bitch, Eadse.” The woman huffed. “You know what he has to do to get a little extra rations for us. You may be our leader, Job, but he helps to maintain our numbers, too.”
Bei suspended Abraham’s death warrant. The man might just be doing what he needed to do to help his clan survive. As for the leader, Job… Bei classified the attack. Protecting loved ones was not a crime. Humans on Earth had done the same thing, and they had known what the Syn-En’s true nature.
Now, the fear and distrust arose from the shape of his eyes.
A very Human trait.
Funny, how it didn’t make him feel better.
Nell would probably use some movie analogy to explain it. His artificial heart jumped over a beat. His wife had to be alive and getting into trouble. And Elvis the feather-face was probably encouraging it.
“If all the Mings were killed in the cave-in on Micor-Five, then we should have him swear allegiance to the Deutche.”
Job sighed. “Mariam…”
“He is young, strong, and healthy.” Mariam cleared her throat. “Well, he was before you beat him senseless. And with ten of our strongest killed in the cave-in, we need workers. We have two pregnant women, we need those rations.”
Bei opened his eyes to slits. The man and woman debated his fate, not even three meters from where he stood.
Job scratched his chin through his beard. “What makes you think he’ll agree to join us?”
“He carried Beth to us. He didn’t have to. And Ruth said he took a lash for her and Silas.” Mariam set her hand on Job’s shoulder. “He must be looking for a clan to join. No one survives this Hell alone.”
Nodding, Job shuffled closer. “Wake him.”
Miriam clapped her hands.
Ruth, the little girl from the shuttle, scurried over carrying a bucket of water.
Bei closed his eyes and braced for the drenching. Water splashed over his body, saturating his clothes and filling his ears. He sputtered and shook his head. His hearing cleared immediately. The rope tightened around his throat, nearly cutting off his oxygen supply. He opened the pores in his synthetic skin and kept his levels up. Good thing his hardware was fully enclosed.
The bucket dropped with a clang, and Ruth ducked behind Miriam’s legs.
Bei made a show of gasping for air. If they wanted something from him, they needed to make an effort. He was tired of being used.
Job pulled a knife from the sheath tied to his legs. “Try not to move. I wouldn’t want to accidentally slit your throat.”
Bei stilled. The cold press of steel touched his cheek. For a moment, the ropes tightened then they fell away. He shifted his wrists. Cords bit into his flesh. Obviously, this wasn’t the clan’s first hog-tying. “What do you want?”
Job stepped back. “The Mings were all wiped out in the cave-in. You are without a clan, without protection.”
Bei pushed with his hands and rolled to a sitting position. “So?”
Bending slightly, Job tucked the blade back into its sheath. His brown eyes never shifted away from Bei. “So, solitary people don’t last long down here.”
Bei wasn’t alone. He had two men in the upper levels of the mine. But to get to them, he’d have to play it smart. Which meant, he needed to go along with the role he’d been programmed for. This might be his opportunity to gather more intel to refine his plan. Bei’s gaze drifted over the leader’s shoulder.
The clan gathered behind Job. Most no longer brandished weapons.
Job shifted in Bei’s line of sight. “If you swear allegiance to the Deutche clan, we will share our food, medicine and water. Help you meet your quota when you are sick.”
Abraham sidled toward the door.
Preparing, no doubt to tell his handler. Bei allowed his doubts to show. Giving in too easily would be suspicious. “What’s in it for you?”
“The Mings are good diggers.” Job hooked his thumb through his waistband. “Everyone knows that.”
Behind him, a few people nodded.
“Your rations become our rations and help us feed Beth, the girl you saved.”
They could have his rations. He needed energy to keep his power cells charged.
Job’s eyes brightened. “If we work together, maybe we can survive another day or week.”
Week. It was a hell of a thing to count time in such small increments. Once he registered humanity, this slavery would end. But he needed to escape to do that. And, for the moment, he needed them. “And if I refuse?”
Job shrugged. “You’re free to join the rogues.”
Ruth inhaled sharply and clutched Miriam’s legs tighter.
Rogues must be the solitary diggers. And feared. Bei was tired of being feared. He was the good guy, and soon they would all know it. In the meantime… “I shall join the Deutche clan.”
“You so swear allegiance?”
Bei nodded. “I so swear allegiance.”
Shoulders relaxed. A few folks even smiled. Men and women disappeared into their shanties. Children sat on the ground around the electric cookers and accepted bowls of brown broth from the limping man tending the simmering pots.
Retrieving his knife, Job strode forward. He leaned over Bei and sawed at the ropes. “I’m sorry to hear about your clan. If the scraptors keep working us this hard, we’ll all be dead before too long.”
Once free, Bei rubbed his wrists like he’d seen his prisoners do. “Then who would work the mines?”
“Some other poor alien race. Once we heard Earth had been sterilized from the Surlat strain, we knew it was just a matter of time before we too were killed off.”
A bell sounded three times in the cavern. Four dozen men, women and children shuffled into a line by the door.
“I’ll never give up my dreams of being free.” Bei clasped his hands behind his back. Check the official story of Earth. A moment later two files popped up inside his head. One contained the Scraptor’s version of humanity’s demise. The other held the schematics of the guard’s armor. He pushed them aside for later.
Job offered Bei a shovel. “Freedom comes when our chests are still and our hearts cease beating.”
Not for much longer. Bei and his Syn-En would see to that. Accepting the shovel, he set the handle on his shoulder, mimicking the other diggers, and headed for the door. “Where do you want me?”
At the back of the line, preferably, so he could slip away and find Keyes.
Crooking two fingers, Job motioned for Abraham to join them. “Abraham will stick by you. He’ll let everyone know you’re one of us now.”
The newcomer was lean, yet muscular. His close-set features crowded together as if afraid they’d fall off his facey. “Unlike some other clans, we stick together.”
Bei forced a smile. Of course, the spy would be sicced on him. Escaping would take a little more finesse than he thought. “Glad to have you at my back.”
Abraham flashed yellow teeth. “Likewise.”
Something tugged at his shirt. Bei glanced down.
Ruth held a covered, lunch pail up to him. “I brought your dinner.”
“Thank you.” He hooked the handled in two fingers. Warmth radiated from the metal.
Instead of staying behind, she picked up a bucket and walked at his side. Ropes of muscles banded the harsh angles of skin-covered bone. “Mom says if we get ten tons done today, we’ll get flour. Do you think you can do it?” She blinked at him. “It’s been ages since we’ve had bread.”
Bei patted her head, smoothed her soft hair out of her face. So young to be forced to work in a mine. Even Earth wouldn’t allow it. “You’ll get your bread.”
Abraham snorted. “Don’t be making promises, you can’t keep.”
“I wasn’t.” Bei switched the man to the watch list. His negativity wasn’t good for anyone’s survival. Hope fed the soul, freed the spirit. Nell had taught him that.
He’d give them their ten tons, even if he had to dig it out himself. And while he worked, he’d finalize his escape plans.
And, if Abraham got in the way, Bei would kill the traitor.