Ten minutes after the Scraptor made his demands, Bei strode into the ready room next to the bridge. Electronics hummed. Human fear and Skaperian determination hung heavy on the rectangular room. Two-thirds of the command staff were already seated around the shiny Smart-Metal table and peered at the consoles embedded in the silver surface.
Bei had a decision to make—rescue three thousand potentially infected biologics or stand by while they burned during Surlat’s purification by fire.
Data packets rocketed through the WA. Lightning bolts of anger and steel rods of determination broadcast the sentiments of his men. As for the others…
Bei searched the streams for his wife’s presence. Razor wire blocked her thoughts. Elvis’s doing. Only an Amarook’s telepathy could sneak past the improved Syn-En firewalls. Even the doberman antivirals trotted past the protected zone. What would Nell say about his decision? She would tell him. When she was nervous, her conversation ran nearly nonstop. And she was still upset. Clasping his hands behind his back, Bei faced the crescent-shaped table.
A silver Nell stopped beside him. She raised her chin. Data streamed on the view screens mounted on the wall behind her.
A noticeable show of solidarity and trust. After more than a year together, he should have expected it, but it surprised him every time. He hooked his pinky through hers.
Her skin faded to a sparkly peach.
To his left, two pale humans nodded. The couple, Karl and Erin, didn’t bother glancing at the information provided to them.
Bei’s skin itched. The couple had been picked up five months ago from a Founders’ planet. Blotches marred their pale skin where the pterodactyl-like Decripi had experimented on them. Once aboard, they had needed new eyes, prostheses below their knees, and a handful of internal organs. Others had fared far worse. Twenty-two had died in transit. Yet only these two had volunteered to serve the Neo-Sentient Alliance.
Nell believed they wanted to right the wrongs done to them by helping others.
Bei looked for signs that they were spies. And he’d been forced to include them on this council in an effort to bridge gaps between Earthborn biologics and those who’d been enslaved. He hated it.
Twisting her hand, his wife laced her fingers through his. “They’re ashamed that they can’t read well. Not a necessary requirement for a lab rat, you know?”
Bei cocked an eyebrow. He hadn’t known, but he should have guessed. Even on Earth, education had only been offered to those who the government considered worthy. “Did you find someone to teach them how to access the young one’s learning modules?”
Someone discreet, who would allow them to keep their pride intact.
And Bei could monitor what they learned and accessed from the ship’s Combat Information Center.
“Yes, of course, I found someone to teach them.”
Next to the new humans, the ship’s chief mechanic, Montgomery Smith, flipped open the point of his ebony index finger. A radio frequency screwdriver emerged from the cavity. He pointed it at the human male’s temple. “Let me know when your vision clears.”
“Will do.” Karl bent his head and stared at the screen. “There, that’s good.”
Mechanic Smith’s white teeth flashed against his dark skin. “Next time they start acting up, let me know. A good mechanic beats a doctor anytime.”
The man shuddered. “I’ve seen enough doctors.”
“You’re safe here. The Syn-En will die before they allow anything to happen to us.” Smith’s smile collapsed. Silently, he performed the same repair on the woman.
She nodded her thanks then focused on her screen.
Nell squeezed Bei’s hand. “Montgomery is the one who told me. He wanted to make certain you wouldn’t object to giving them access.”
He glanced at his wife. “Why didn’t he come to me directly?”
“Apparently, everyone on board thinks we share a Borg hive mind. What I know, you know and vice versa.” Furrows appeared in her forehead. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“No. I should have thought of it.” He shot a query to the CIC. Seconds later, a data packet popped up. He opened the two biologics’ educational progress. Seventh level education in five months since they started. Whatever the Founders had done to them, it hadn’t affected their intelligence. Next, he browsed their search history.
Like all humans the Syn-En had recovered, Karl and Erin had scoured the databanks for information about Earth, Nell Stafford, and the Syn-En. Then they focused on the entertainment recordings his wife had brought with her into the Twenty-Third century. These two had a fondness for black and white Film Noir. Nothing suspicious, yet his circuits refused to settle.
“Sorry to be late.” Chief Medical Officer, Doc Cabo cleared his throat. His eyes were pitch black against his tan skin.
Bei sensed his frenzied whirl through the WA, glomming onto anything even remotely linked to the deadly Surlat strain.
Just as Doc picked a seat opposite the two Humans, the doors opened again. Captain Pennig marched in alongside Chief Engineer Sydney Shang’hai. The captain hooked his booted foot around the chair next to Doc and connected his cerebral interface to the ship. Light pulsed along Pennig’s fiberoptic cables. He clasped his hands on the table and waited. The ship’s engines strummed underfoot, and a subtle shift indicated motion. “We’re heading out of the solar system, awaiting an official heading.” The Founders vessel has parked its mammoth keister behind the gas giant. They’re watching us, Admiral.
“Very good.” Bei nodded. They both knew the ship’s inevitable destination, but their allies needed to have their say and their enemies needed to see the NSA’s unity.
Montgomery Smith patted the empty chair between him and Apollie. His black eyes flashed as he watched the engineer sashay closer.
Commander Shang’hai’s straight black hair brushed the shoulders of her uniform tunic. Color brushed her wide cheekbones. She sat in the reserved chair and set her hand on his thigh. Her attention focused on Bei.
In the center of the table, their Skaperian ally, Paladin Apollie jabbed at the screen to slow the scrolling. She rubbed her red eyes and flicked up the page.
Bei glanced at his wife. One ET ally was missing.
Nell sighed. “Elvis, show yourself or someone will sit on you.”
The Amarook shimmered into sight. “You have lost your sense of humor, Nell Stafford. I think it is because you haven’t any pups to call your own.”
“I have plenty of others to look after.” She dug her fist into her hip. “Now drop the subject before I pluck every feather from your head and change your name to Telly Savalas.”
“Humans can be so obstinate.” Elvis licked his palms before smoothing the black feathers out of his eyes.
After one final squeeze, Nell released Bei’s hand and moved to the side. She sent a burst of hearts and flowers through the WA from behind her cage of razor wire.
Bei’s avatar caught them and stuffed them inside his chest cavity. “As many of you have heard, the Founders have asked us to remove a population of three thousand Humans from one of their territorial planets known as Surlat.”
The view screen behind him filled with the grainy image of a blue and green sphere. Three other planets separated Surlat from its yellow star.
Bei shunted their destination’s particulars to the view screen by the picture of the planet. He didn’t bother reading the data. It was over a hundred and twenty years out of date. “The Founders plan to sanitize the planet in ten days. We can attain high Surlatian orbit within sixteen Earth hours.”
The screen blanked. A moment later, an icon of his starship appeared. A line of dashes led from it to the fringe of this solar system, where it twirled into a corkscrew indicating wormhole travel, and ended in another dashed line outside of Surlat’s solar system.
Apollie crossed her lanky, yellow arms.
Elvis’s disappeared in the fur covering his dog-like chest.
They were going to fight his decision. Tough. He knew his duty. Bei rolled a red crystal in his palm. The Scraptor hadn’t provided any intel, just a Trojan virus designed to infect the starship’s systems and transmit the information back to the Founders. Bei was insulted more than surprised. The Founders could not be trusted. “As you all know, the Surlat strain caused a pandemic nearly a hundred and twenty years ago. According to our Scraptor messenger, the virus is alive and well on the planet. He even hinted that it is just as deadly as before.”
He added the last bit for the biologics, Karl and Erin’s, benefit. Everyone else already knew.
The woman opened and closed the tool compartment of her index finger.
The man frowned at the screen. “But there are others like us,” he thumped on his barrel-chest. “that are living there. So this creature-thing can’t be that deadly.”
“There are usually some who are resistant to the virus.” Apollie’s fingers flew over the keyboard in front of her. A pie chart replaced the navigation map on the view screen. “Humans and Scraptors were the most affected by the initial infection.”
The slices representing the two species consumed nearly half the pie. The Skaperian wedge amounted to a third of the remaining portion. Four species out of the Founding Five amounted to a sliver. Had the Decrepi found a cure and not shared it? Or were these ETs special?
Bei pointed to the thinnest slice. “Why had the rest of the Founders escaped the Plague with so few casualties?”
Apollie glanced up. The beads at the ends of her cornrows clacked together. “Once the pandemic hit the third system, the Founders quarantined their ships and their worlds. The Accumla, Decrepi, Unadul and Municians didn’t leave their world for Earth decades. The Scraptors remained to enforce the Founders will. As the most exposed, they had the highest casualties.” A smile played with her thin lips. “They also brought the disease back to the Founders’ worlds. They did not escape unscathed. And given how much the Founders lie, these numbers could be severely underestimated.”
Given the hatred between the Skaperians and the Founders, Bei would process that statement with more than a kilobyte of skepticism. He glanced at Doc.
Doc stroked the black goatee ringing his mouth. “I concur with Apollie’s hypothesis. The Surlat strain is capable of inserting into any genetic coding, whether carbon or silicon based. It rips apart RNA, DNA and the silicon equivalent to turn the host immune system against itself.”
Leaning against the bulkhead by the view screen, Nell inhaled sharply. “Will the Syn-En be immune?”
Her gaze burned Bei’s skin. He refused to look at her. He wasn’t entirely mechanical.
Doc avoided her gaze but allowed his fears to broadcast through the WA. “It’s hard to say how it will affect the Syn-En. While we are primarily machine, we have a biologic core that is vulnerable to infection. And don’t forget, aside from our cerebral interface, our brains are untouched by technology.”
Throughout the WA, the Syn-En digested the news. Two thoughts later, suggestions for defending themselves sprouted and were snabbled up by the appropriate departments.
Most of them held promise. Unfortunately, the time factor eliminated ninety percent of them.
Shang’hai shunted an image of a Syn-En onto the screen. “The shortest routes to infection will be our joints and our cerebral interface.” Red outlined the small cube at the base of the figure’s skull. “I’d recommend the landing party remove all hard lines.”
Bei nodded. They could minimize response time by keeping the WA online while dirtside. Thankfully, no one had discovered a biological virus with the ability to infect cyberspace.
Nell rubbed the back of her neck. “Can we caulk the seams of our brain boxes and… and joints to prevent infection?”
Bei’s gut clenched. No, and Hell no. His wife was staying safe on the ship. She was the glue that held the NSA together.
“Brilliant.” Mechanic Smith’s dark fingers flew over the keyboard. “I can create just the thing. If you’ll loan me your NDA expertise, I should have it ready before touchdown. Easy.”
Nell nodded. Her skin had almost returned to normal peach tones. “Whatever you need.”
Bei pinned her with a glare.
She set her hands on her hips. “Doc, what magic up your cyborg sleeves will protect your biologic core better than my immune system?”
Bei snapped his attention to Doc and shot an order through the WA. If you answer that truthfully, Doc, I will unsnap your prosthetic arm and pummel you into a lumpy pudding.
Every Syn-En at the table winced.
Nell rubbed her temples. “Elvis’s block prevents you from reading me, not me from hearing your tantrum in the WA.”
Admirals do not have tantrums. Bei’s response elicited chuckles in cyberspace.
The feather-face flashed his canines. Thankfully, Amarooks didn’t make a sound when they laughed. Unfortunately, they could unleash large bundles of Smiley faces into the WA.
Compression alerts flared in Bei’s head. He uncurled his fingers. One day the universe would introduce Elvis to a bitch named Karma.
Nell stomped toward Bei. Anger and concern crackled in her blue eyes. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Syn-En have very few biological bones left, which means their immune system might actually become overwhelmed faster than say a relatively unaltered human.”
Bei crossed to meet her. “You are not going.”
His NDA prickled. Everyone in the room watched.
“Furthermore,” she pointed at him. “your brain box will minimize your immune response so that you can keep working, allowing the infection to grow to lethal levels.”
Doc leaned back in his chair. She is correct, Admiral.
Stuff it, Doc. Bei loomed over his wife, using his tenth generation and eight-inch height differential to his advantage. “You are not going.”
“I never said I was.” NDA gathered under her soles, lifting her to his eye-level.
Sometimes, he hated technology. “When the Plague finished with Earth, nearly ninety-nine percent of all life had been exterminated.”
“I know.” She set her hand on his arm. Her bottom lip trembled. “I was there. I survived.”
Her anguish and loss cast a long shadow in the WA.
The biologic male, Karl, sputtered. “That was more than a century ago. How is that possible?”
Nell’s gaze never left Bei’s face. “I took a very long space nap. Look up Rip VanWrinkle or Sleeping Beauty. I have the ability to protect you. Let me.”
Bei’s logic processors recognized the validity of her argument. His logic processors were obviously malfunctioning. “The virus has mutated. Your antibodies will be worthless.”
“Then so would yours.” She cupped his cheek.
But you would still be alive. Clasping her hand, he placed it between them.
Would I? I don’t think there’s a me without you. She shrugged and shifted away from him.
He didn’t want to let her go, but this wasn’t the time.
Captain Pennig cleared his throat.
The woman, Erin, sniffled. Her companion, Karl, patted her on the back.
Bei smoothed his uniform tunic. Biologics were damn proficient at reading body language.
Apollie gathered her braids into a single pony tail. “I realize you may not wish to hear this, Admiral, but Nell Stafford is our best chance of safely extricating those humans and preventing the Surlat strain from becoming a universal threat.”
Had his wife known this? He glanced at her.
Nell shrugged and flashed her palms. “You want me to remain on board as a reserve Petri dish in case the Syn-En bring the Plague aboard along with the refugees?”
Apollie’s nostrils flared. “Like all women, you are a fearsome warrior, Nell Stafford. I would not prevent you from joining any fight and would gladly face any opponent at your side.”
Bei stiffened. The Syn-En did not discriminate based on gender, but he damn well reserved the right to protect his wife. He’d pluck a feather from Apollie’s head, use it as a quill, and write it on her forehead.
Nell blushed. “I’m not exactly a warrior.”
Waving her pale hand, Apollie dismissed Nell’s doubts. “As we are not fighting an opponent we can see, that is neither here nor there. The fact is, Nell Stafford’s blood is different than most other Humans.”
Nell tugged on her sleeves to cover the streaks of silver. “That’s kind of obvious.”
Doc frowned at Apollie. “NDA doesn’t involve the immune system. And she is just like other Humans besides that.”
Except his wife wasn’t. Bei didn’t mention her cerebral interface, nor her effect on him.
“I am not discussing the silver sheen.” Apollie squeezed her red eyes closed for a second before squaring her shoulders. “I was there the day Earth was infected with the Surlat strain.”
The Syn-En around the table sat up straighter. The background noise in the WA faded to nil.
Bei decided against closing the communal link. Secrecy was poison.
Nell scrubbed a hand down her face. “I knew you’d slept for over a hundred years but…”
“I selected Nell for our…” Apollie studied her fingers. “For our repopulation experiment.”
Elvis sprang from his seat. “Skaperians and their experiments,” he snarled then wheeled a chair around the table. The Amarook tapped it against the back of Nell’s knees. “I wouldn’t eat you if I were starving, Paladin.”
With a weak smile, Nell sank onto the seat. “You wanted to use me to create a new slave race. A cross between Human and Skaperian.”
The woman hissed, but Karl kept her in her seat.
Apollie fidgeted on her chair. Color rouged her cheeks. “We needed antibodies for a vaccine. Humans are close enough to us that we knew we could get it from you. But then… Then the scientists discovered something different in one percent of the survivors. Something unique. Never before seen.”
Nell sagged in her chair. “Why not just give us tiaras and sashes and award us King and Queen of the Freaks? Why mess with our egg baskets and kidnap us?”
Bei set his hand on his wife’s shoulder. “You’re not a freak.”
Sitting on his haunches, Elvis stroked her hair. “You’re the best Human. Nearly perfect, except you lack a third set of limbs.”
Swallowing hard, Apollie sent a file to the view screen. The Skaperian equivalent of classified was scrawled under the name. Then came assurances of death if an unauthorized person opened it. “Survivors fell into three categories.” She typed in her password. “Possible candidate, unsuitable candidate, and candidate.”
Nell’s picture appeared under a banner titled Arizona Driver’s License. Given her birth date, she would be one hundred-sixty-four in three months. She looked younger now than in her picture—a gift from the Skaperians that would keep her ageless for another hundred years. She squeezed his hand. “What swung the vote to candidate?”
“Upon infection, these particles appeared.” Apollie tucked her braids behind her ear. “You recovered faster, you healed faster, you learned faster. You had been given the ability to adapt within a generation, not from one generation to the next.”
“That’s not possible.” Bei tightened his hold on Nell’s hand. “No species evolves that quickly.”
“I would have found these particles.” Doc shook his head. “I know Nell Stafford’s blood work better than anyone.”
Apollie tapped her keyboard and the screen changed. Molecules appeared then blew apart. “That’s because you weren’t looking small enough, and they change. It’s almost like they have some sort of intelligence.”
“On an atomic scale? Not possible.” Doc’s eyes darkened and the data flew in a blur across the screen.
Bei’s synthetic hair stood on end. Could it be true?
“Nearly an atomic scale.” Apollie raised her hands off the keyboard. “They measure one hundred one quadrillionths of a meter. We call them fermites after one of Earth’s great scientists.”
Collapsing against his chair back, Doc raked his fingers through is dark brown hair. “Shit.”
A data packet exploded in Bei’s head. Nell’s blood work did contain these fermites. In fact, they nearly outnumbered her red blood cells.
Elvis whimpered and huddled near Nell’s feet.
Nell slapped her free hand over her mouth. “How bad is it?”
“You’ll be fine.” Bei would make her fine. He would make certain of it. He wouldn’t lose to some fermite.
Apollie glanced at Nell. “We have never detected ill-effects from housing the fermites. We had you tested after registration. The Syn-En have had NDA for nearly a hundred years and yet none of them can manipulate it like you, Nell Stafford. Even when they use it to treat the injured refugees, it does not behave as it does with you. If the Surlat strain has mutated into a new virulence, you are our best hope for a vaccine.”
Nell tensed beside him. “And if I don’t survive?”
“Then for the sake of all the sentient species left in the universe, you may wish to stay for the planet’s purification.” Apollie’s voice cracked. “And the Erwar Consortium will force the planet to remain quarantined forever.”
Red warning lights lit up Bei’s skull. The thought of Nell’s death sent his systems spiraling toward a cascade failure. “No. Absolutely not.”
A tear slipped down Nell’s cheek. “If I’d have known how unique I was in the universe, I would have bought a lottery ticket.” She drew in a ragged breath. “Alrighty then, option one is to leave the Humans on Surlat, allowing them to be killed, and giving the evil Founders the idea that we won’t defend our own species, so as to prevent the Plague from returning to wipe out the rest of life in the universe.”
Apollie raised a finger. “The cleansing the Founders propose did not destroy the virus the last time.” She bent her head over her keyboard. Documents flashed up on the screen—memos from the Founders’ headquarters. “In fact, we think they traveled to other planets, knowing they carried the disease.”
The Syn-Ens’ fury consumed the WA. They demanded justice. They demanded Nell be kept safe.
Her shoulders slumped. “Evil happens when good men do nothing.”
Bei’s anger spiked. “The Syn-En will act.”
Nell sighed. “A hundred years have passed, hasn’t someone found a cure?”
Drumming her fingers on the table, Apollie sighed. “Most of the remaining Skaperian have been sleeping for the last hundred years. And Humanity has just achieved interstellar travel. The only ones who have a chance to find a cure are the Founders. Do you really wish to pay the price they will demand for a vaccine?”
Hell no, but neither would Bei sacrifice his wife.
Nell shivered. “Ask for the vote, Bei. This Three Musketeer moment isn’t an all for one, but a one for all. I need to be that one.”
In the WA, Elvis’s hold lost control over her emotions. A vortex of sorrow spun through cyberspace, touching all the Syn-En who were connected.
Bei crouched at her side. Her hands were cold beneath his. Who was he without her? Not half the man he was now, and no amount of technology would restore him. “All those in favor of rescuing the Humans on Surlat record your yes vote now.”
Beeps sound in his head. Everyone had voted in favor. Everyone but him. He couldn’t do it. Fuck his programming. Fuck his duty. He couldn’t send her to her death. He wouldn’t. He’d nix the whole mission.
She leaned against him. “I can beat a stupid flu bug, Bei. I can beat anything as long as you’re at my side.”
His wife was too damn clever. Bei cast his vote. It was unanimous. “Captain Pennig, set course for Surlat.”
He scooped up his wife and carried her toward the door. If he had to sacrifice her for everyone, then everyone could damn well give them the next few hours to themselves. Either they left the planet together, or they rode the same chariot from this world to the next.