Arms windmilling for balance, Nell slid to a stop. The welcoming committee didn’t seem very pleased to see her.
Aliens lined both sides of the street. A half dozen, ten-foot tall, green ones with rectangular heads, glittering bubble eyes and sharp spines on their front arms reminded her of praying mantises. If praying mantises wielded pruning shears and looked like they wanted to lop off her limbs.
Orange, red and yellow mop-head type aliens rolled back and forth in front of her, pausing long enough to snap their pointy beaks.
With mouths like that, they probably didn’t need weapons. Nell would feel more comfortable with a double-barreled shotgun. Or at least some back up. Mom? Elvis?
Mom she could understand. But Elvis was under the embassy’s force field with her. Had they gotten to him first? Is that why she couldn’t feel the amarook’s presence in her head? She took a deep breath. She could do this. She used to be an executive secretary for pity’s sake.
“Hello.” Her voice sounded high-pitched inside the helmet. “It’s nice to meet you all.”
The praying mantises shifted on spindly legs.
One hooked a forearm around a marble column and scrambled onto the curved balcony. Thin mandibles curled and uncurled like a living Fu-Manchu mustache when he spoke. “What is it?”
It? Nell stiffened at the deep baritone. She wasn’t an it; it was an it. “Perhaps, I should introduce myself. I’m Nell Stafford.”
Six mopheads rolled over to her. Half-inch thick, pink ropes slapped her boots before the raggedy creatures retreated and stacked themselves one on top of the other. The top fuzz ball could almost look her in the eye. “Armor. Shielding. Must be a scraptor.”
Unfortunately, Nell couldn’t see a single eye under the ropes. “A scraptor?”
Those ugly scorpion things? Why on earth would they think that? She propped her hands on her hips. Motion caught her eye. She blinked at her reflection in the picture window visible between the towering mantises.
Good Lord, she was such an idiot.
“This is a uniform.” Her gloved hands swept over her helmet then down her uniform.
“A sickly scraptor.” Fu-Manchu mantis gestured with his left forearm. the row of spines glinted in the sunshine. “I have never seen one so skinny.”
“I’m not a scraptor.” Neither was she particularly skinny, but she’d take the compliment and hope it wasn’t her last. Nell tugged on the straps of her helmet.
The crowd backed up a few steps. The stack of mopheads scattered like billiard balls.
Garden implements wavered in the Mantises’ spear-like hands.
Guess they were more afraid of her, than she was of them. Although, it was a close race.
“It’s okay.” A wave of sand washed down her back when she twisted off the helmet. Strands of her hair crackled with static electricity. Tucking her helmet under her arm, she smiled at the group. “See. I’m human.”
The welcoming committee didn’t move.
Was that a good or bad thing? “Do you know what a human is?”
She bit her tongue to keep from asking about the Skaperians. The group was enough trouble without borrowing more.
“Retrieve the one designated Pet.” Fu-Manchu leapt off the balcony and landed softly two feet in front of her. “You are deformed for a human.”
Two pink mopheads tumbled between the legs of the other mantises and bounced down the street.
Nell hoped who or whatever Pet was, he was friendlier than this bunch. “I’m not deformed. I’m covered in survival gear.”
Reaching up, she unhooked the first aid kit and slowly lowered it to the ground.
A trio of mopheads swarmed it, moving in a froth of orange and red dreadlocks.
“Medical supplies. Suitable for humans.” They chorused in squeaky voices before retreating.
Fu-Manchu stroked the box. “And your deformed back?”
Nell unbuckled the clasp under her breasts and shrugged off the pack. “This are my survival supplies.”
Setting it on the ground, she raised her hands to her side and backed up a step.
The mopheads surged toward it.
The helmet dropped to the street, bounced twice and landed right on top of a red mophead. It squealed like a pig, then the alien ran in circles. “Help! Help! I’m being eaten!”
Its friends trembled on top of the pack, while the rest of the crowd scuttled away.
Nell clamped her hand over her mouth. Laughter lodged in her throat and her eyes burned with unshed tears.
“Calm yourself, Idge.” Fu-Manchu flicked the helmet off the poor creature.
“I was going to die. I know it.” Idge, the mophead, flipped over. It’s beak parted as it panted.
Fu-Manchu set his hand on the traumatized mophead. “A helmet is for protection, not nutrition.”
Nell cleared her throat. Actually, the Syn-En gear could do both, but they didn’t need to know that. “Your friend is right. The helmet protects my head. It doesn’t hurt anyone. I am sorry that you were frightened.”
Bending low, she reached out to Idge.
He flipped over and scrambled backward.
So much for being nice. Her fingers curled into fists and she straightened.
Fu-Manchu rubbed his forearms together. “The padgows don’t appreciate being touched by strangers. Their tentacles are quite sensitive.”
Tentacles, not fur. She’d have to remember that. “I see.”
The padgows retreated from her backpack. This time they formed a double-stack. “We have found a weapon. Unknown design. Yet, suitable for human hands.”
“The Torp SK-7 is standard issue and shoots only energy.” Enough to stun or kill an enemy. Who knew if it would work on these guys. Nell held her breath. She’d forgotten about the weapon. Maybe it had earned her brownie points for not carrying it.
Fu-Manchu drew the spines of his forearm across the pack, slicing it open. His blade-like hands moved like chopsticks as they rummaged inside. Finally, he hooked the trigger guard and lifted the gun free. “Since when are humans allowed to carry weapons?”
The crowd parted and a human male walked through.
“Humans aren’t allowed to carry weapons.” No stubble clung to his rounded jaw and his black hair was bound rigidly behind his head. Brown eyes narrowed as they raked her from head to toe. Muscles rippled under his wooly tunic and leggings.
Nell resisted the urge to fidget under his scrutiny. “Look, I——”
Fu-Manchu clucked. “She is not one of yours, Pet?”
Pet shook his head. His mouth turned down for a moment. “No.”
Nell took a step toward him. If these guys would stop interrupting, she could tell them of her mission. “If you’ll just let me explain——”
Rising on his double set of hind legs, Fu-Manchu raised one serrated arm. “Then we have no choice.”
The dozen or so other mantises mimicked his posture.
“Kill the human female.”