After making his announcement, the bug-ugly Groat severed communications.
Nell glared at the black screen banding the forward section of the bridge. Silver threads snaked along the veins of her hands and climbed her wrists. Great, she was a Human mood ring. She inhaled to a count of four then exhaled. The color didn’t recede. Probably wouldn’t until this threat passed. She tugged her sleeves down her arms. “The Founders and their minions can’t just say they’re going to board us, then do it. Don’t they need a search warrant or something?”
She knew the Syn-En were trying to contact him again. The brain box at the base of her skull tingled. Her husband had opened the Wireless Array to communicate internally with his men. And she’d been dragged along.
Bei’s almond-shaped eyes lasered on her. His blue irises darkened to cobalt as part of his consciousness merged with cyberspace. “According to the Erwar Codicils, the Founders can board any newly declared sentient species’ vessel.”
“How convenient.” Her fingers flew over the LED keyboard on the health hub embedded in the hull of the circular bridge.
Bracketing her, the nav and tactical hubs displayed innocuous schematics on the screen. But the light pulsing along the fiberoptic cables of their Syn-En operators gave away the deception. The Syn-En were girding themselves for battle.
Her stomach clenched. And her husband would lead the fight. Nell’s hands changed to silver gloves. She quickly powered down her station and clasped her metallic mitts behind her back.
A muscle ticked in Bei’s jaw and he arched one jet-black eyebrow.
He knew about her anxiety. Of course, he knew. Even if the color change hadn’t given her away, he sensed her mood swings before she did. Just as she did his. The whoo-whoo power had its uses. And its drawbacks. She flashed her shiny palms. “I still think the Founders should need a reason to board us.”
One, hopefully, that didn’t include the liberated slaves stowed around Bei’s starship.
He glanced at a spot near him. “The section cited is about the Founders’ moral obligation to guide new sentients.”
“Right.” Nell snorted. “Why don’t they just say they come in peace like all the other evil aliens from B-movies?”
Sitting in the bulky chair in the center of the room, Captain Pennig scratched the fringe of gray hair ringing his scalp. “They may not be familiar with Earth entertainment. Ergo, they do not know their expected lines.”
“That’s not exactly comforting.” She slogged across the deck. Her boots scuffed the metal grating. Underneath, lights and relays blinked and glowed.
“Admiral.” The ensign at the tactical hub shoved an image onto the forward screens. Youth filled out his dark features. “A shuttle has departed the Founders’ dreadnaught. Five Scraptors aboard. I’m detecting side arms and particle rifles. ETA in ten minutes.”
Bei held out his hand. “Not a raiding party.”
“Thank God.” She closed the distance between them. Her palm slid against his. Her skin prickled in awareness and memories flooded in—of him and her with nothing but skin between them.
Sucking in a breath, Bei squeezed her hand. “You’re not helping.”
Of course, she was. She’d masked the life signs of their unauthorized passengers.
Captain Pennig shifted on his seat. “I can delay their arrival an extra five minutes. Those thoughts are distracting.”
“Oh God.” She was broadcasting to everyone! Everyone.
The Syn-Ens at the hubs giggled.
Her face flushed. Instead of turning red, she knew her skin had changed to silver. Too bad the NDA wouldn’t just dissolve her and reconstitute her somewhere else. Siberia should be nice this time of year.
Wrapping his free arm around her, Bei kissed her forehead.
Her limbs filled with warmth. Her shoulders relaxed. The biting desire settled into a simmer. Bei was always calm while she raged. She clung to his black tunic and buried her nose in his neck. His spicy scent filled her. “Thank you.”
She pressed her lips to his jaw before straightening. They were in this together. “So what’s the plan?”
Captain Pennig straightened in his chair. “I have the Amarook shielding standing by. If they find our cargo, we can enable it.”
The tactical Syn-En zoomed in on the enemy dreadnaught. “Six missiles should punch through the hard points, then we can torpedo their fusion engines.” He pointed first to the cargo holds in the center of the fuselage then the glowing round balls of the reactors. “No witnesses, no cause for war.”
Nell stiffened. “Blowing up somebody’s ship is an act of war.” Geez, hadn’t they watched any of the Star Trek episodes she’d recommended? “If the Scraptors find our cargo, why don’t we just bash them over the head, cloak our ship with the Amarook shield, and split.”
Every Syn-En on the bridge stiffened.
She even felt the snap, crackle, and pop worm through her brain box.
Emotion smoothed from Bei’s wide cheekbones. “You want us to run from a fight?”
“No, I want you to advance in the opposite direction.”
“Retreat.” Pennig spat.
The Syn-Ens at the hubs glared at her.
“When you say it like that, it sounds bad.” Setting back, she clasped Bei’s hand in hers. The silver flowed from her skin to his, binding them in gossamer threads. “But it isn’t. Not really.”
Bei’s eyes narrowed. “We are Syn-En. We fight. We make a stand. It’s who we are. It’s what we do.”
If he said it was in their programming, she’d slap him silly.
His lips parted in shock.
Dammit. She’d forgotten he could read her thoughts in the WA. Too bad he couldn’t make sense of the jumble inside her skull. Then he’d understand. She had to make him understand. Unfortunately, logic had never been her strong suit. She inhaled a calming breath. “Destroying the Founders’ battleship would cause a war.”
The tactical ensign rolled his eyes. “Not if they never found the wreckage.”
Nell ignored him. “Groat is the Founders head Bug-ugly. If they didn’t send him here on an unrelated mission, then he’s bound to have reported in that his scans turned up something suspicious. The Founders will know where he is and with whom.”
“How will running away help?” Bei smoothed her cheek.
She leaned into his touch for a minute. This is why she married him. He was always willing to listen. “We tell them our bubble drive malfunctioned, cargo came loose and smacked ’em upside the head. While they’re out, we transfer our guests to another vessel. They can’t convict us without evidence.”
Captain Pennig swiveled in his chair. He rubbed his age spotted chin. “We can come up with something that would provide their scans with false readings.”
“Groat would be discredited. Again.” Bei’s lips pulled away from his teeth.
Nell shivered. Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother probably saw something similar before she died. “Couldn’t happen to a nicer Bug-ugly.”
Her husband’s death grimace softened into a smile. A real one. Even his eyes twinkled. “We can spin it as an act of aggression on the Founders part. Might even convince some of the undecided sentients to join the Neo-Sentient Alliance.”
“More allies would be helpful.” Captain Pennig grinned. “Tell me, Nell Stafford. Did you just share a movie line with us or is some of our Syn-En cunning rubbing off on you?”
She tossed back her shoulders. “I do have original thoughts, you know.”
And she wasn’t exactly keen on thinking like a Syn-En. She’d much rather look at someone and take their measure than think of a hundred ways to kill them.
Bei leaned forward. “A hundred and sixty-seven, now.”
She smacked his shoulder. “That’s not funny.”
“No. It isn’t.” He set her hand on his arm. “Let’s greet our guests.”
She wiggled her silver fingers. “Maybe I should bow out of this one.”
“Absolutely not.” He guided her to the elevators. “I want to remind Groat that there’s more to humanity that it appears.”
“More to him, too.” Even on maximum setting, their scans had barely penetrated the Scraptor’s hard shell. Her nails dug into Bei’s arm. “What do you think they are hiding under that armor?”
“Their vulnerabilities.” The doors swished open and he ushered her into the elevator. “We do know that under their exoskeleton, they are soft flesh and fragile bones.”
“Maybe that’s some kind of formless goo and under their helmets, there’s a giant cockroach working the rest of the body.”
Bei pushed the button to the docking bay.
“It could happen.” She’d seen it in a movie. “I kinda like the idea of squishing the real Groat under my shoe.”
“I could crush him as is.” Her husband flexed his arm. The small muscle belied the strength of his prosthetic limbs. “Just say the word.”
He would, too, if she asked. But she wouldn’t. The Syn-Ens’ fledgling alliance with the Skaperians and Amarooks couldn’t take on the Founders. Not yet. But everyone knew war was coming.
Everyone knew the Syn-En would be the first on the battle lines. Bei would lead the charge.
And she would be at his side. She smoothed her tunic over her stomach. Perhaps, now was not the best time to consider bringing a child into the world. The elevator glided to a stop. Perhaps, there wouldn’t be another opportunity. Rising up on her toes, she kissed his cheek. “I love you.”
“This is just the beginning, not the end.”
Nell fidgeted beside Bei. How could ten minutes last so long?
Two lone Starflight shuttles crouched like sleeping beetles in the far corner of the hangar. The Cardinals Stadium could fit in the rest and still have room for a handful of behemoth recreational vehicles. Gunmetal gray ribs arched over the space. Curvy Skaperian technology mingled with the harsh angles and planes of Earth technology. Security orbs hovered near the ceiling. Blinking green lights indicated they recorded the scene.
Stationed like fence pickets, two dozen security officers lined the inner bulkheads. The NDA in the clothes and skin camouflaged them and their weapons perfectly. With a whirl of gears, the hull peeled away. Boxy wardens punctured the sparkly energy barrier holding in the atmosphere, before they crawled on spidery legs inside. Syn-En crouched inside the repair drones, preparing to stun the Scraptors with a few blasts from their Torp-67 should the stowaways be discovered.
The com crackled, then Captain Pennig spoke. “Founders are on final approach. ETA in forty-five seconds.”
“Roger that.” Bei rolled his shoulders.
The double doors behind them snicked open.
“Sorry to be late.” Paladin Apollie adjusted her breast plate as she raced inside. Red marks spattered like blood on the dark green surface as it molded to her torso. The yellow feathers on her head were divided into cornrows, each braid a testament to her kills in battle.
“I think Groat waited until we were off duty before contacting us.” Nell smiled at their resident Skaperian liaison. With Keyes staying planet-bound until she delivered the first Syn-En baby, Nell slated Apollie to be her new best female friend. The fuzzy muppet with feathers seemed to appreciate the offer even as she kept her distance.
Of course, Apollie had tried to kill Nell and had taken Bei hostage.
Apollie extended her velociraptor claw from her middle toe and cracked her knuckles. Her lanky, white arms hung at her side. A Syn-En patch decorated her sleeve just below her Emp Shield badge. “Where is our resident feather-face?”
Nell closed her eyes. Sensations rippled through her. Elvis the Amarook’s sensations. His thoughts merged with hers. Cold metal under the pads of her feet. The pungent odor of ozone. The hiss of the oxygen scrubbers. The drone of the Founders’ shuttle. Pheromones and—
Bei gripped Elvis’s invisible muzzle, holding it an inch from Nell’s bottom. “Just because she lets you sleep on our bed doesn’t mean you have other privileges, feather-face.”
Shaking her head, Nell broke the telepathic connection with the Amarook. Good God, she’d almost smelled… She shut down the thought and mentally bleached it from her brain.
Elvis shimmered into focus. Standing on his four paws like a wolf, he used his third set of appendages to free his snout from Bei’s grip. Furry hands plucked at Bei’s fingers until her husband released the Amarook. Elvis sneezed then ran his furry hands over the black feathers comprising a trademark Presley do. His blue eyes stared innocently at her. “He would not have known I was here, if you hadn’t given me away.”
Bei grunted. “I recognized Nell’s scent.”
Great, they both could track her. But if one of them peed on her… She scratched Elvis behind one pointy ear. “I didn’t give you away.”
Her husband winked.
Her brain box buzzed. Ah, yes. When she merged with Elvis’s mind, she’d broadcasted his thoughts into the WA where her husband had picked it up. For some reason, the Amarook evaded Bei’s sensors. Which made the Amarook’s crystalline fur perfect for a cloaking shield.
Elvis squeezed his hindquarters between Nell and Apollie and plopped down. “You should select a new mate. This one has failed to impregnate you. Again.”
Nell sighed. No matter how many times she’d told Elvis about her decision to wait to start a family, he refused to believe it.
Bei cupped Nell’s arm and moved her to his right side, placing his body between her and Elvis and Apollie. “I found schematics for a dog house. It looked really uncomfortable.”
Elvis bared his fangs. “My mate had her first litter of pups before we’d been paired for a year.”
“I don’t want a litter.” Nell swayed against her husband. “One at a time is more than enough.”
She laced her silver fingers through Bei’s. He squeezed her hand.
The Amarook sneezed on Apollie’s sandals. “I think it is the poor company you keep.”
Apollie glared at the canine. Her velociraptor claw tapped against the metal deck. “Behave feather-face, or bad things will happen to your caprinae heads.”
An ache pulsed at Nell’s temples. “Remind me why you two are here, again?”
“We are the representatives of our alliance.” Apollie raised her chin.
Elvis nodded, his feathers bobbed and a lock draped over his eye. “This is a Neo-Sentient Alliance ship.”
Nell fought back a grin. Now that they’d walked so neatly into her trap, she sprung the steel jaws. “Then please act like allies not squabbling two year olds.”
“Two year old Amarooks have already made their first kill and mated successfully.” Elvis smoothed back a lock of hair. “Besides, allies don’t experiment on allies.”
“We were all experimented on.” Apollie hissed back before jerking her vambraces over her forearms. The jewel embedded in the gold glowed.
The Founders’ oval-shaped shuttle drifted up from under Bei’s starship. No portholes blemished the red craft. Unlike the dreadnaught mothership, no guns bristled from her hull. The engines emitted a whirling noise as it nudged through the energy barrier.
“That’s not right.” Nell frowned. “Shouldn’t it have come straight for us?”
Her husband smirked. “They detoured around us. Their scans came up empty.”
She shook her head. “You mean they were spying on us?”
Apollie nodded. “It is a fair tactic. Every soldier wants information about their enemy before going into battle.”
Nell’s arms and hands flattened into swords. “Is cutting off their eyestalks and shoving them where the sun don’t shine, a fair tactic?”
Because, if so, she’d like to test it.
The shuttle hovered over the deck. Air currents tugged at her hair, pulling strands from her pony-tail and slapping them against her cheeks.
Squinting, Elvis cocked his head.
If his tongue hung out his mouth, he’d look just like a dog with its head out the window.
The Amarook sent her a bundle of disapproval, then an image of himself higher on an evolutionary scale than a dog. “There are many places where the sun doesn’t shine, Nell Stafford.”
Bei’s shoulders shook. Bowing his head, he manhandled the smile off his face.
Nell elbowed him in the gut. Her sword points melted back into fingers. “Amarooks aren’t the only thing that can be confined to the dog house.”
Her husband nudged her back. “Glad to see a touch of humor is calming you.”
She seriously doubted Elvis was being funny.
The air currents died down, but the shuttle hovered a foot off the deck. A door-shape melted off the curved hull and a white ramp rolled down.
Groat appeared in the dark opening. Red armor glistened in the lights.
Nell lifted her foot. “Let’s get this over with.”
Bei stayed her. “Let him come to us. He’s an uninvited guest.”
Four other Scraptors fanned out behind him. Each cradled a rifle.
Apollie sucked in a breath. “Weapons are not allowed during a consult.”
Nell snorted. The Paladin was a fine one to talk. She carried her own set of chef’s knives on her feet.
“Stand down.” Bei glanced at the Skaperian warrior. “Their weapons are powered down. In the second it takes to charge, we could kill them several times over.”
Nell curled her hands into fists. She mustn’t touch him when he was in battle mode. He would need his arms to fight.
Groat clomped down the ramp and across the deck.
His guard protected his ship.
The hair at Nell’s nape stirred. What in the world?
“Passive sensors.” Bei set his hand on her back. “Since their scans picked up nothing on the outside, they’re trying it again on the inside.”
“They won’t get anything.” Elvis plucked wiry peach-colored feathers from his muzzle. “The insides are coated with Amarook crystals. Their signals will bounce right back.”
Groat’s pinschers opened and closed. Fists swung from his hand appendages underneath them. He stomped to within five feet of them then stopped. “The Founders demand the immediate withdrawal of three thousand Humans from their claimed lands.”
Nell blinked. Oh, thank God. The Founders were demanding more people relocated, not accusing the Syn-En of smuggling. Her gut clenched. But they had demanded boarding rights on a technicality. Why? She clamped her lips together. Bei was in charge. He would handle Bug-ugly.
“Why not send us a communiqué?” Bei stepped into the Groat’s personal space. “Why stop our voyage and board my ship?”
“I thought the NSA flagship, the Nell Stafford, would be more impressive.” Groat’s mandibles retracted. Spit glistened on his spiky teeth.
Nell squeezed her eyes closed. She hadn’t wanted the ship named after her, hadn’t asked for it.
Bei bared his own teeth. “Many have underestimated Nell Stafford and paid for it with their lives.”
Groat’s eye stalks looped down. He swung his arm and opened his hand. A red crystal skipped across the metal-plated deck and skidded to a stop near the toe of Bei’s boot. “The planet where the squatters live is slated for purification in ten days. The regulations require a verified contact. If you cannot remove the vermin before then, their deaths are upon you.”
Ridges erupted along Bei’s arm, tore open his sleeves.
Good gravy, her husband wanted to slice and dice Bug-ugly. Setting her hand on his arm, she calmed his NDA. The ridges slowly subsided. “What planet?”
“Surlat.” After a nod in Nell’s direction, Groat pivoted and stomped toward his ship.
Surlat? Nell cast about in her memories but came up empty. “Why do I know that name?”
Stooping, Bei picked up the crystal. “Because that is the name of the virus that wiped out over ninety percent of life on Earth.”
“Not just Earth.” Apollie dug her fingers into the feathers on Elvis’s head. “The Surlat strain nearly eliminated all life in the galaxy.”
Elvis clutched the warrior’s leg and whimpered.
Groat paused on the ramp. “If you’re foolish enough to attempt a rescue, you would do well to take precautions. Our information indicates the virus has mutated again. It’s deadlier than ever.”