Who-Hoo, it’ll go live on Friday and be on sale to boot.
They were going to kill her. Nell’s heart shrunk into a hard ball in her chest and her mouth dried. She didn’t come all this way to end up dead. “Now just a minute!”
Looming on her left, Fu-Manchu swung his forearm.
Nell dove for the pavement. Air stirred her hair from praying mantis’s slashing. “I come in peace.”
She mentally smacked herself. She just had to say the most overused movie line ever. One that was guaranteed to get her killed. She raised her chin.
A dozen mopheads rushed toward her, beaks clacking.
Bars of shadows crisscrossed her position.
Good Lord, all the big bugs where getting ready to strike. She rolled across the street.
Fu-Manchu chopped downward. The pointed tip of his arm pierced the asphalt.
Nell swallowed hard. Padgow ropes lashed her face, raising stinging welts. She hissed through the pain and jumped to her feet. “You don’t have to kill me!”
“Yes. We must.” Raising his other forearm, Fu-Manchu dropped the stun-gun.
The weapon clattered against the pavement.
She had to get that gun. It was her only option. Twisting sideways, she avoided another swipe.
The Padgows regrouped and charged. Each tentacle stood on end as the creatures zoomed across the ground.
The better to reach her, she’d bet. Nell booted the closest one.
With a high-pitched squeal, the red mophead soared over the sole human, Pet.
Too bad, she hadn’t hit him square in the face. The guy deserved it for not sticking with his own species. Jerk. She bent backward like an olympic limbo contestant, narrowly avoiding another swinging forearm. “This is not a fair fight.”
Not that fighting even one of the ten-foot tall, green slice and dice aliens would be a fair fight. Dictation, writing memos and photocopying were hardly lethal weapons.
Pet crossed his arms over his thin chest. “If you stop dodging, the end will come quicker.”
“No shit.” Why did he think she aped a human pretzel? For her health? Well, actually… Focus. She had to find that weapon.
A jolt of pain shot up her knee.
Looking down, she spied two mopheads clinging to her boots, using their antennae to crawl up her leg. Damn, the buggers were fast. Leaping to the side, she shook off one Padgow. The other, she kicked into the swarming mob of pink and red.
The balls rolled in all directions. Most stopped when they plowed into the legs of the praying mantises.
The big green guys yelped and hopped to free their legs.
Karma was a bitch. Doubled over, Nell sprinted through an opening. Metal glinted on her left. There. Two feet away. She dropped her arm. Her fingers skimmed the barrel just as something slammed into her side, sent her spinning through the air.
The breath left her lungs. Dark spots ate at her vision. She turned in time to see another green arm swinging at her. Don’t look. Don’t look. Her eyes refused to shut. She was going to die.
Elvis appeared in front of her. Teeth bared and claws outstretched, he latched onto the limb. Growling, he shredded and twisted, ripping it from the alien’s body.
Fu-Manchu screamed and cradled the injury close. Blue blood dripped from the severed forearm, sizzled where it landed.
Hitting the ground, Nell rolled unto her back, slid across the pavement. Heat burned up her spine from the road rash.
Elvis spat out the carnage and tore into the Padgows.
Their tentacles rained red, yellow and pink confetti on the road as they squealed and glided away.
Diving through the air, Elvis clamped onto another praying mantis. He twisted the alien’s knee at an unnatural angle. With one hind foot, he kicked the Torp SK7 at her.
Images of her firing on the alien lynch mob filled Nell’s head. Like she needed to be told. Catching the cool metal barrel, she thumbed off the safety. The stun-gun hummed to life against her palm. Setting her finger on the trigger, she raised the weapon.
Elvis lunged and spun, slashing and burning like a ninja with knives in each of his paws and hands.
The aliens howled and retreated. Pruning shears, hedge trimmers and scythes littered the pavement. The mopheads leap-frogged over each other, heading toward the topiaries near the marble porches
Pet’s brown eyes widened and his tightly bound ponytail stood straight up.
Nell blinked. The mean aliens were leaving. The gun wavered in her hand. “Elvis?”
Blue blood streaked the Amarook’s fur. Landing on all fours, he spat a wad of goo onto the street. “I do not know which tastes worse—the Padgows or the Ck’son.”
The praying mantises were called Ck’son. Nell filed the information away for later. “I think we won.”
He had tipped the fight in her favor. Amarooks were quite fearsome hunters. He could sing Elvis tunes at the top of his computer voice forever and she wouldn’t complain.
The Ck’son leapt onto balconies, then rooftops to scurry away. Trails of blood clung like blue silly string to the marble facades.
Elvis’s blue eyes narrowed. His hands stroked his fur, shedding it of the stinging tentacles while stalking toward Pet. “We should kill them all. Teach them not to mess with our alliance.”
Pet blinked. “It’s…it’s an Amarook.”
The guy wasn’t the sharpest Crayon in the box. Nell gathered her legs under her body and pushed up. Pain girded her torso, scattered her thoughts. This was why she hated fighting–it hurt.
“But… but they’re extinct.” Pet shook his head.
Elvis’s hind quarters dropped as he hunkered closer. The hunter was back.
“Obviously not.” Nell trained her gun on the man. He wasn’t smart enough to leave with the others, but he could still serve a purpose. He owed her for almost getting her killed. “Now, I want you to take me to…” She swallowed the words ‘your leader.’ That line never worked out well in the movies, either. “To the ambassador’s house.”
Pet swayed on his feet. “Amarooks have trained humans to look after them?”
Elvis rose on his hind legs, fisted Pet’s wool tunic and shook the guy. “Amarooks look after each other.”
“But…But, she…” Pet pointed to her.
Nell’s head started to throb. Did the Skaperian ambassador think stupid was an admirable trait? “Hey. I have the upper hand now, so stop ignoring me.”
Pet blinked. “I don’t understand.”
“Obviously.” Nell held her breath as she bent over and retrieved the first aid kit. The painkillers would have to wait. She needed to get to the ambassador, needed to get help finding and freeing Bei and the others. “I’m going to break this down into steps. Pick up my backpack.”
She kept the stun-gun’s muzzle pointed at him.
“Good idea.” Elvis trotted toward the corner. He flashed an image of his pack and a hedge of bushes at her.
Pet walked forward calm as you please. “You can stop pretending that is a weapon. No master arms his slaves.”
“I’m not a slave.” Nell dialed the Torp-SK7 to its lowest setting and pulled the trigger.
Blue light burst over Pet’s arm. Gritting his teeth, he slapped at the spot. “That hurt!”
“That’s the lowest setting. It can kill at higher ones, so don’t try anything stupid.” She smiled. Revenge had its merits.
After raking spilled packages into the sliced bag, Pet gathered the bag up and stood. “If the Amarook isn’t your master, why are you with him?”
“This too.” Nell nudged her helmet in his direction. The visor’s weight steered it to the right, away from him. “Elvis and I are part of scouting party.”
“Are you hunting all the slaves?” Holding tight to the bag, Pet fast-walked to the helmet and emptied the loose stuff inside.
“No.” Red tumbled in her peripheral vision. She straightened. The aliens were returning. Would training her weapon on Pet keep them at bay? “My team and I are making certain that the protocols for registering haven’t changed. I have a very large team. Well armed, too.”
She spoke loud enough for the Padgows and Ck’sons to hear.
The mopheads rolled under the hedges and hugged the foundations of the houses lining the street. Clinging to the roof peaks, the praying mantises watched. Neither attempted to move closer.
Elvis trotted onto the street, holding his saddle bags in front of his chest. “You may carry this as well.”
He tossed the bag at Pet’s feet.
Scooping it up, the man flung it over his shoulder. “The Amarooks were registered alongside the Skaperians.”
Nell rolled her eyes. The man was fixated on the Amarooks. “We’re registering humans for sentience. Since they’re our allies, the Amarooks are our sponsor.”
Pet dropped the pack. Pouches of rations, a water purifier, and a change of underwear scattered across the street. “You can’t.”
The mopheads popped like jumping beans, scattering leaves on the patches of tended lawn before the houses. Two Ck’son slid off the roof and crashed onto the balconies.”
“We can sponsor whomever we like.” Elvis smoothed his black feathers back then twirled one into a curl in front of his forehead. “And we like most humans.”
Stooping, Nell plucked her underwear from the mess and tucked it into her pants’ pocket. She caught the subtext. Elvis would still kill even Pet to protect her. “Thank you, Elvis.”
“Uh-huh,” the Amarook drawled.
“But to declare sentience humans have to have a home world to claim as their own. And it can only be theirs.” Pet raked everything into a pile.
The Skaperians hadn’t mentioned that little hang-up. Still, there was Earth, and Mars, and humanity had been rehabbing Venus when the Syn-En had been declared traitors by the powers that be. That made three home worlds. “We have two, maybe even three planets that are ours.”
He shook his head so vigorously, his ponytail slapped his shoulders. “But it usually has to be the one the species evolved on. Since the Erwar disaster, sentience must now include not spoiling your home world.”
“We have that, and a spare.” Given the man’s lack of understanding, Nell wanted another human guide. Heck, maybe she’d even settle for Fu-Manchu or Idge. At least then she’d know her translator worked right.
Pet hugged the helmet and bag. “But Earth was destroyed.”
Her mouth dropped open. No. That couldn’t be right. The Syn-En monitored the surveillance probes in the wormhole connecting Terra Dos to Earth’s solar system. Nothing indicated the ruling government were sending an army after the Syn-En or that the planet had been destroyed. She knew. She’d seen the reports. “When was Earth blown up?”
“Eighty rotations ago. A solar flare incinerated all life on the planet.” Pet hung his head. “All hope of sentience died with it.”
“Rotations?” What unit of time was that? She glanced at Elvis.
“Roughly one-point-one Earth years.” The Amarook’s ears twitched. He sniffed the air, then started down the street.
Nell rounded down and did the math. Eighty years. She rubbed the kinks out of her neck. “Earth is fine. My team walked on it not more than nine months ago. Three quarters of a rotation.”
Pet’s manicured eyebrows drew together. “But they said…”
They were in for a rude awakening. Not as rude as the aliens who’d kidnapped her husband and his men, but rude nonetheless. “They lied. Humanity is fine. And we’re coming to register.”
Then they’d kick a few aliens butts.
“We’ll be free!” The ck-son clicked their mandibles together and the Padgows tumbled out from under the bushes.
Nell stumbled back. Good God. “They’re human?”
Shaking his head, Pet bit his lip. “No, but…” He studied the cracks in the street.
Red dotted his checks. Finally, he squared his shoulders and looked her in the eye. “We pledged one another that the first species to declare sentience would claim the others as companions.”
Nell opened and closed her mouth. Words wouldn’t come. They had just tried to kill her. On his orders, and now they both wanted a favor? Unbelievable. But she needed their help.
What about Bei and the Syn-En?
Her husband would feel honor-bound to keep her promise. Heck, he’d probably make it himself, given how these aliens had been treated.
The aliens’ cheers faded. The mopheads huddled together near the curb. The mantises stroked one another.
“We, humans, would not have survived without the others.” Pet thrust out his jaw. “And with Earth destroyed, we were getting the better of the deal.”
She took a breath. How did she find herself in these messes? “Are companions slaves?”
Bei and the other Syn-En wouldn’t accept that. She wouldn’t accept that.
“No,” Pet set his free hand on the pile of goods. “They and all their children are free, but must live within their companion’s territory until their own species proves itself worthy.”
That didn’t sound too bad. Terra Dos wasn’t exactly over populated. “So we’d have to claim these two——”
“Three.” Pet flashed three fingers before securing her survival kit. “The Shish tend the underwater gardens, keeping us all fed.”
“Of course.” This whole surreal experience wouldn’t be complete without aqua-aliens. “The three species are claimed when…”
“You register humanity.” Pet finished the sentence for her. “It is the only time a species is able to declare companions.”
“Okay then.” There was far more to this registration than the Skaperians let on.
Pacing two houses away, Elvis shot her an image of Pet muzzled along with a side of impatience.
She shuffled to the Amarook’s side.
Pet didn’t budge. “Okay then. What does that mean?”
Sighing, she faced her recalcitrant guide. “It means yes. Everyone gets emancipated. Now, please take me to the ambassador’s house.”
Pet jogged toward her. “Yes, let us celebrate in splendor. We’ll even crack open a vintage bottle of Skaperian wine. They can’t complain since they’re all dead.”
Nell stopped in her tracks. “What?”
“The last Skaperian died nearly one hundred-twenty rotations ago.” Pet skipped up the road. “The Founding Five sealed us inside when the Surlat Strain broke out. Within a week, our masters were dead or dying.”
Fu-Manchu slid down a column and padded softly across the grass. “Nearly took out our ancestors, too. But some survived.”
Pet’s grin faded. “They watched the world outside die as the virus changed and changed again, until the whole planet was infected.”
Nell stumbled. That’s what happened to Erwar? Her nails dug into her palms. And the Skaperians had deliberately infected Earth. She sucked in a breath. “Are you telling me there are no Skaperians here?”
No one to help her rescue Bei.
No one to warn the approaching Syn-En fleet of the danger.
“Yep.” Pet increased his pace. “We’re free. And soon it will be official. Humanity is going to register, and we’ll never be slaves again.”
Elvis brushed her leg, slid his furry hand against hers.
Nell held on. She had to do something and soon.
The Syn-En delegation and fleet were heading into a trap.