“Do these patches make me look like a Guernsey cow?”
Admiral Beijing York disconnected his fiber optic cable from the communications port by his chair. He didn’t need thousands of years of warfare tactics stored in his cerebral expansion unit to recognize a trap. Swiveling in his chair, he faced his wife across their cabin. His completely naked wife. His gaze roved over the peach-toned skin. Neo-Dynamic armor glistened like a silver Phoenix up her spine. The NDA wings emphasized the curve of her firm buttocks and the damage done to her by the Scraptors.
His circuits tripped and his coding scrambled. He’d almost lost her six months ago, when humanity had visited Erwar to register as sentient. The NDA had saved her life. Bei refused to process what would have happened to him if she had died. He never wanted to eliminate the Nell Stafford glitch from his programming. Never.
Across the square cabin, Nell’s reflection scowled at him from the mirror attached to their wardrobe. “I knew it. I’m a big fat cow.” She plucked at the silvery NDA/skin patch on her left hip. “Do you want to break the terms of our marriage?”
His cardiac sensors malfunctioned. Obviously, something serious was going on in that blond head of hers. He searched his memory files for a clue while closing the distance separating them in two long strides. The starship’s nacelles hummed underfoot but barely penetrated the tension in the cabin. “Our marriage is for life. If you’d wanted a term limit to our union, you should have said so fifteen months, two weeks, three days, five hours and six minutes ago.”
Her eyes widened. “What no seconds? I really am—”
“Fifteen seconds, sixteen seconds.” Stopping behind her, he combed his fingers through her hair and exposed the column of her throat. The silky locks sifted through his hand. “You are mine, Nell. Mine.”
Lowering his head, he kissed the pulse point directly under her jaw. Sensors embedded in the NDA comprising his skin registered her rising body temperature, the stutter of her heartbeat, and her spiking pheromone production. His body responded to her biologic coding. Bei had no doubt his reactions would be the same if he were just a man, instead of a cyborg.
With a sigh, she leaned against him. Her bottom cradled his erection. One hand held his head in place; the other stroked the seam where his prosthetic leg connected to his hip.
He turned off the internal alarms caused by the sensory overload. He really should create a mating failsafe. Even though he shut down his emergency protocols and prevented cascade failures with a thought, it was one less millisecond spent focused on Nell. They had so little time to themselves as it was. He refused to waste any of it.
Her reflection’s eyes grew heavy. “So this,” she gestured to the shiny patch on her hip. “doesn’t bother you?”
Bei raised his head. His blue eyes locked with hers in the mirror. She wouldn’t let it go. Time to bring in the heavy artillery. “Does it bother you that I am more machine than man? That my legs, arms, hands, and feet can snap together or apart like Twentieth Century Legos? That I have circuits implanted in my head, and my chest cavity opens up like some battery compartment in an ancient gaming controller.”
“No, why would you think such things?” She spun about, plastering her body against his.
Tight nipples and soft breasts pressed against his chest. His sensors recorded each point of contact. Every time they touched was the same but different. And down lower… When he sank into her, he would be in heaven. He locked his facial muscles, revealing nothing. “We both have NDA for skin. Why would yours bother me?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Unlock your facial muscles, Beijing York. You are not allowed to use your cyborg mojo against me.”
Damn. How had she known? He unlocked his facial muscles. His lips twitched. “Cyborg mojo? I have basic programming, the same as any Synthetically-Enhanced human.”
“Don’t try to change the subject.” She poked his shoulder.
Tenth generation upgrades contained a lot of inertia. He didn’t move, but she did. Her body wiggled creating friction, heat, and a sensory overload. He set his hands on her hips, stilling the torture. “Changing the subject is a valid military tactic.”
She poked him again. “So is staying on point. Now, do these NDA spots make me look fat?”
That question was pure quicksand. He turned it around. “You are not fat. You are beautiful. Gorgeous.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Come to bed and I’ll show you.”
Without breaking contact between their hips, he walked backward, aiming for their king-sized bed.
She followed, clutching his biceps. “Then why didn’t you just say so?”
“I had just finished reviewing room assignments for our official and unofficial passengers when I looked up and saw you naked.” His heels hit the drawer fronts on the platform bed. “The rapid switch from one program to another created a lag in my physical response.” In all areas but one. That one responded eagerly and demanded action. “I couldn’t have spoken if my life depended upon it.
“As excuses go, that’s a winner.” A smile curved her lips. She set both hands on his chest and pushed.
Releasing her, he allowed himself to fall backward. He bounced twice on the mattress before sinking into the foam. “I’m willing to do anything to make it up to you.”
“Anything.” He crooked his finger. He would start with kissing her from the crown of her hair to her toes. As for the spaces in between, he’d— He cut his plans short. She hadn’t moved from the foot of the bed. He didn’t like this anomaly in the program. He didn’t like it when she was hurting and he couldn’t fix her malfunctions.
Sucking on her bottom lip, she smoothed the silver patch at her hip.
Bei scooted to the edge of the bed. “We’re isolated from the Wireless Array, Nell.” He could no longer join her in cyberspace and explore her intimate thoughts. “You have to tell me what is bothering you.”
“Does it feel different to you?”
He traced the curve of her ribs, brushing the soft skin under her breast. Her breath quickened. Moisture created a sultry fog over her belly. Closing his eyes, he stroked her hip. Her lower body advanced and withdrew with every touch. He called up the memory file containing frigid details to cool his body. This was about his wife’s needs, not his.
His hand drifted toward the juncture of her thighs. He locked his arm in place. “Aside from the lack of hair, your skin doesn’t feel any different.”
It should but it didn’t. His Chief Medical Officer hadn’t been able to figure out how the armor had merged so seamlessly with her body. She commanded it at will, reshaping it as needed, and her abilities didn’t stop there. She could interact with all NDA materials. He’d had synthetic skin since he was a toddler and could only perform a fraction of what she could.
Cupping his chin, she angled his face toward hers. “You’re not just saying that?”
He kissed the tip of her nose. “I mean it. I’d have to maximize my sensor sensitivity to the femptometer level to detect any change.” His hands glided off her hips to caress her bottom. “Given how attuned I am to you, the sensory overload would put me in an electronic coma.”
She pushed him back on the mattress. “Would there be a bed involved?”
“Yes.” He flopped backward and waited. Nell wanted to be in charge. He’d gladly let her. Even if her imagination threatened to short circuit his implants and upgrades. “But I wouldn’t be conscious.”
“We wouldn’t want that.” Bending forward, she planted her hands beside his thighs.
“No. Definitely not.” Bei curled his fingers into fists to keep from reaching for her. Compression alerts flared in his palms.
She set her knee on the mattress. “You have entirely too many clothes on.”
“What are you going to do about it?” It wasn’t much of a challenge. She’d mastered the task of stripping him fifteen months ago. Although now he didn’t have to move.
She cocked an eyebrow. Lifting one hand, she swirled her finger over his belly.
His clothes melted and drained like warm water over his groin, down his legs and dripped into a puddle under his bare feet where they reformed into tunic, trousers, socks and boots.
“How do you like them apples?” She blew imaginary smoke from her fingertip.
He eyed her breasts. “I know something I like better.”
“I bet I’d like it better, too.” She set her other knee on the bed. The mattress dipped as she crawled up his body
Lacing his fingers behind his head, Bei enjoy the view. The brush of her inner knees and wrists against his skin sowed rogue electrical surges through his system.
She straddled his waist, teasing him. “I saw Doc today.”
“About your NDA?” Perspiration dotted Bei’s upper lip. She was going to make him pay for not answering her question. Using an arctic subroutine wouldn’t work either. The one time he’d tried it, she’d figured it out. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
She rolled her hips. A devilish glint blazed in her blue eyes. “He gave me the all clear.”
Bei would have to replace a few cerebral circuits if she didn’t stop teasing him. He unclasped his hands. One more minute. Just one, then he’d be on top. She’d not last thirty seconds before she started begging him. “I could have told you, you’re perfect.”
Snorting, she braced her palms against his chest. “I love that you think so.” She leaned over him and nipped his ear. “But I’m saying no more alien eggs in my Easter basket. We’re a go for a baby.”
Baby? He froze. The word surfed inside his skull. Baby? Baby. The word sank in, made connections. Adrenalin spiked his system. Springing up, he wrapped her in his arms then flipped her on her back. His mouth wouldn’t stop grinning long enough to kiss her. “Our baby.”
She nodded. “Little bits of you and me and…”
“And?” He shored up his smile. What else was there to worry about?
“NDA.” She sucked on her bottom lip. Moisture shimmered in her eyes. “It’s merged with my cells. It will merge with the baby’s.”
“Oh, thank God.” Bei sagged against her. His elbows dimpled the mattress, his forehead rested against hers.
She pushed his shoulder. “What do you mean thank God? Didn’t you want an one-hundred percent biologically human baby? Aren’t you afraid of technology penalties?”
“Technology penalties are a thing of the past.” Raising up a little, he smoothed her blond hair off her face. She’d taken his fears and made them her own. That world was gone. They’d created a new one. A better one. “And the only baby I want is the one that combines a little bit of you and me. As long as the NDA doesn’t harm him or her, our baby can sparkle and glitter all he or she wants.”
She searched his face. After a moment, she sunk into the mattress. “We could name him Disco Ball. He’d be the hit of the party.”
Bei didn’t bother sending a query for the term disco ball. His wife always referenced obscure Twentieth Century culture. Of course, she understood the reference. She’d been born decades before the century ended. Then she’d slept for nearly one and a quarter centuries before waking up naked on his ship. He loved Nell naked or clothed. He kissed her forehead, then her closed eyes. “Why don’t we name our child after your parents?”
She stroked his bare back. “I would like to name our son after you.”
He snorted. “I was named after some ancient city. Two ancient cities, in fact, that identify my Eurasian heritage.” And his designation as a second-class citizen, a Syn-En. Their children would be free and enfranchised. “I want them to have regular names.”
“Stafford was the name of the area my ancestors came from.” She scratched her nails along his ribs. “How is that different?”
In more ways than he could count and in all that mattered. He rolled onto his back. Having children seemed to complicate things, when it should have drawn them together. “Stafford has been in your family for centuries. I was given my designation when my parents gave me to the United Earth government to pay their outstanding debts.”
They had kept their other children; only he had been thrown away.
Rolling to her side, Nell threw her leg over his thighs. Her pale hand settled over his heart. “So that you could meet me.” She kissed his jaw. “So that you could save the Syn-En and her support crew.” She sucked his ear lobe into her mouth and nipped it. “So that you could save two alien races from a megalomaniac, liberate humans everywhere from slavery and medical experimentation, and help other species find freedom.”
She trailed a lazy finger down his abdomen and circled his belly button.
He held his breath as she explored lower. “I’m beginning to see your point.”
“Good.” She shifted on top of him and inched down his body. “Because it’s our pasts that got us here. That made you love me and me love you. That makes us an unbeatable team.”
He clasped her hips. “You can name the children anything you want.”
So long as he could start making them now and for the next nine hours and thirty-five minutes.
“Enough foreplay. Time to—”
The com embedded by the door burped.
“Admiral York.” Captain Cassius Pennig cleared his throat.
God damn it. Ten hours alone with Nell was not too much to ask. Bei held his wife still. “Unless you’re issuing an abandon ship, Captain, I do not want to be disturbed.”
Even then, he would stay in his cabin and finish making love to his wife. They had survived the destruction of a ship before.
Nell buried her face in her hands and chuffed in frustration.
Captain Pennig sighed. “I wouldn’t have disturbed you and Nell Stafford for an abandon ship, Admiral. I simply would have ejected your cabin and had you rendezvous with the rest of us dirtside.”
Damn. Bei released Nell. Warmth lapped at his toes. NDA crawled up his body.
Groaning, she rolled to the side but clasped his hand in both of hers.
He clenched his teeth as her uniform crept up her body, covering some of his favorite bits. “Report.”
“A Founders’ ship shot out of a wormhole not more than five Astronomical Units from our position. They scanned us and are now demanding to speak to you, Admiral.”
Curses in a hundred languages filled Bei’s head. “I’ll be on the bridge in three minutes.”
“Understood.” The com fell silent.
Shoving off the bed, he strode to the nearest computer port and jacked in. A thought released his avatar in cyberspace. The pixelated version of himself unlocked the steel, padlocked door to the wireless array. Lightning bolts interspersed the torrent of data flying back and forth. Images of extinct Dobermans materialized. Black eyes and spiked collars glinted. He patted their cyber heads. “Protect us from attack.”
The dogs multiplied into hundreds and patrolled the perimeter.
Nell rested her head against his shoulder. “Do you think the Founders will attack?”
“We’re stealing their slaves when we pick up the humans from their planets. More than one have mentioned the Founders are grumbling about the effect it’s having on their profits.” Disconnecting from the port, Bei wound the fiberoptic cable around his finger before stowing it under his black hair. Her presence was a caress in his mind.
“And we happen to have a hold full of illegally liberated extraterrestrials.” She kissed his back before hooking her thumb in his waistband.
“There’s no reason to suspect they know.” Bei double-checked the ship’s internal sensors. Nothing indicated the Founders’ probe had penetrated the deepest recesses of his ship. Not that he was willing to bet anyone’s life on it. Crew, escort all guest biologics to their safety stations. This is not a drill.
Acknowledgements flew in cyberspace. Most of the guests were already tucked neatly out of sight. His men worked to remove all trace of them. So long as the Humans they’d picked up didn’t blab about the stowaways, the Founders should find nothing to expose the smuggling ring.
Bei strode out of the cabin, his arm around Nell.
“What do you think the Founders would do if they found out?”
“The Skaperians think they will simply ask for reparations and a return of their property.” Bitterness flooded Bei’s mouth. The Syn-En had been treated better right up until the United Earth Nations ordered him and his cyborg soldiers exterminated.
“Reparations in what? I didn’t think anyone used money anymore.”
In the corridor, crewmen stepped aside to let them pass. Most looked straight ahead, a few glanced at Nell’s flat stomach.
“In planetary resources.” Bei picked up a discordant ripple in the Wireless Array. Smiley face emicons mingled with storm clouds of worry. His crew knew of Nell’s clearance for pregnancy and feared the outcome of this encounter. He sent a salve of determination on the turmoil. Captain Pennig and Chief Medical Officer Los Alamos Cabo added theirs to the mix.
Doc Cabo also sent a red faced emicon. Sorry, Admiral. I thought my files would be safe since you locked the WA.
Locked, but not disabled. After a lifetime of hiding their emotions, the Syn-En still weren’t accustomed to displaying emotions only expressing them in cyberspace.
Nell rolled her eyes and punched the call button for the elevator. “It’s not like they wouldn’t have found out anyway. They are our family.”
“Indeed.” Although, Bei would have liked to keep it to himself for just a bit longer.
The doors opened. A woman looked up. She blinked at the pair of them before stumbling from the elevator. “Excuse me.”
“Not at all.” Nell smiled and sauntered inside.
Bei’s systems flashed a warning. What was his wife up to? Her stream of thought contained more lightning bolts and pitchforks than thoughts. Following her inside the elevator, he leaned against the wall and pulled her flush against him. “What are you thinking?”
An ensign drew up short as the doors started to close.
“Take the next one.” Leaning back, Nell stabbed the close door button. Her blue eyes narrowed. “I’m thinking the next time we have five minutes together, there will be no negotiating, no foreplay, no nothing, but you and me, naked and not talking, got it?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He slanted his mouth across hers. His tongue traced the curved of her lips. She fisted his shirt and climbed up his chest.
The door opened.
He swallowed her groan. Desire steamed around him. He initiated his arctic subroutine.
Her jaw flexed. “Cheater.”
“Sometimes, it’s good to be the Syn-En leader.” He winked before escorting her onto the circular bridge.
“Yeah, well, it sucks to be the piss boy.” Crossing her arms, she grinned.
Referencing one of her favorite movies always calmed her and watching them gave him something to do while she slept in his arms.
She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Bei smoothed his features. Banding the circular hull, the forward view screens displayed the stars, planets and moons in front of them. Syn-Ens manned the com, navigation and tactical hubs behind him. Each cyborg, hardwired into the ship’s systems through the fiber optic cable embedded in their cerebral interface, controlled their stations with a thought.
Captain Pennig rose from the chair in the center of the room. Gray fringed his round head. Age yellowed patches of his NDA. Despite his years, his movements were fluid thanks to his ninth-generation prostheses. “They’re standing by, Admiral.” Bug-ugly doesn’t like to be kept waiting for a bunch of inferior humans.
The official log recorded only what was spoken. Commentary lived and died in the WA.
Then let’s keep him waiting a minute longer. Clasping his hands behind his back, Bei stood next to the vacant chair. “Which of the species is it?”
“Scraptor.” Pennig resumed his seat and uncoiled the nest of fiber optics at his nape. Blue light pulsed through the line when he jacked into the Combat Information Center.
“The jack-booted thugs of the universe.” Nell activated the medical hub.
Personal comments in the WA only, wife. Bei jerked his head at the recorders, a new requirement of the Erwar Codicils.
Nell stuck out her tongue at him.
He shook his head. Technically, she was duly elected to act as liaison between Humans and their allies. She was supposed to obey his orders. Of course, as his wife, she outranked him. And he wasn’t about to let her out of his sight. Bad things happened when they were separated. And the Founders were responsible for the latest. He stared at the screen. Bug-ugly doesn’t even begin to describe the Scraptors.
Pennig snorted. It’s a start. Besides, there are young ones in the WA. Other words wouldn’t be appropriate.
No, but they would be accurate. Report, all stations.
Nell clamped her lips together. Anxiety reported from our rescued people. Authorized life-signs show readiness for whatever.
Bei sincerely hoped whatever never happened.
Navigation and com reported all in readiness.
The Syn-En ensign at the tactical hub clenched and unclenched his hands. His Adam’s apple protruded from his scrawny neck. Founders weapons are hot. Ours are on standby. The ensign’s lips twitched. I can still beat them to the draw, Admiral.
Obviously, Bei wasn’t the only one to spend his down time watching old Earth video clips. Excellent job. All personnel await further orders. “Hail the Founders’ ship, Captain.”
The com beeped. Pennig’s hands relaxed on the arm rests. “Hailing ship.”
A red Scraptor materialized on the forward view screens. Onyx rounds glittered at the top of his eyestalks. Mandibles peeled away from razor-sharp teeth. “Admiral Beijing. How kind of you to keep me waiting only five Earth minutes.”
Bei shunted the voice print to the CIC for confirmation, but he didn’t need it. He would never forget the gravely inflection or the arrogance. “Groat.”
“I am flattered you remembered me.” Groat raised one mammoth claw to his bullet-shaped head. When he shuffled backward, the com zoomed out. The Scraptors resembled Earth scorpions. Hardened armor gave their eight limbs a segmented appearance. An oversized tail allowed them to walk on two legs and could inject their victims with poison from the stinger. Claws formed the top set of limbs, then human-like hands, and lastly limbs, ending in sword-sharp points.
“You made an impression, Groat.” All of it bad. Bei cracked his knuckles. “Since I don’t think this encounter is an unfortunate accident, why don’t you state your purpose?”
Groat chuckled. His human hand massaged his claw. “Soldiers like us have no time for social niceties.”
The Syn-En have nothing in common with that scum bucket. Period. End of discussion. Nell activated subspace scans. She overlaid them with information from their previous encounters with the Scraptors. Humanoid. Bipedal. Their internal anatomy was hazy, but their vulnerable points had been protected.
The energy weapon at Groat’s hip was an upgrade. Guess the little encounter on Erwar had an effect after all.
The tactical ensign seized the data. Sending information to engineering now.
Not so much as a muscle twitched while Bei waited.
Groat’s mandibles contracted. “I am invoking Section Ten, Article Sixteen beta of the Erwar Consortium policies and procedures.” His hand dropped to his weapon. “Prepare to be boarded.”