“Sir, the Human ship is moving out of the solar system.” Sitting at the helm of the dreadnaught, the Scraptor in pale pink armor sat in a metal chair that listed to the right. His primary claws, the pinscher’s, hung listlessly at his side while he manipulated the gears and knobs with multi-purpose hands. “Shall I pursue?”
Pink armor. The recruit was new, and Aircose Groat had to train him while spying on the Neo-Sentient Alliance. Some alliance. Only three species so far. The other inferiors wouldn’t dare join. The Founders were too powerful.
And he was the enforcer of the Founders’ will.
Like his parents and their parents before them. Stretching back to the great emptiness, when the Erwar had left a void in the universe with their departure.
“Hold position.” Groat rose from the commander’s chair. Scratches marred the metal sides. Remnants of plush upholstery lay like fallen pennants on the dust that had once been a cushion.
The Celestia had seen better days and had been old when Groat’s grandfather commanded her. A knock sounded at regular intervals over the purr of the Helium-3 fusion reactors. The dented deck groaned under his weight. Artificial gravity pulled on him. He massaged oil into his new armor, easing the sting as it meshed with the flesh underneath. The Syn-En scum had seemed impressed with his new sword appendages.
The vermin would think twice before challenging the Scraptors again.
“Holding position, Commander Groat.” The helmsman’s fingers prowled the control panel as if seeking something to do.
Beyond him, the star field visible through the forward portholes bobbed on the riptides of the solar winds.
Gears ground together. The door behind him squeaked as it lifted in the bulkhead.
Groat didn’t turn. He knew who it was. Mopus Argent, the Founders’ resident stooge. What was the point of having a groveling politician aboard? He’d seen the classified communiqués. The Founders wanted this new alliance wiped out before it became too powerful.
And the best way to accomplish that was war.
And war meant upgrades, meant the stingy Founders would open their sacred funds for new tech, new ships, new weapons. Groat glanced around the bridge. Cables and wires poked through worn conduits like hairs sprouting from warts. The lime green paint blistered and peeled off in giant scabs. Old electrical fires left soot stains along the bulkheads. Three quarters of the panels on the command deck no longer worked.
He bet a year’s supply of armor oil that everything gleamed and worked on the new NSA flagship, the Nell Stafford. Perhaps he would demand the ship as payment for eliminating this new threat to the Founders. Then he’d keep the chief scum, Beijing York, locked up in the bowels to rot. Groat and Groat alone would visit his prisoner but only to show him video clips of his wife undergoing the Decripi’s medical studies.
Leadership had its privileges.
“Open the door fully.” Mopus Argent snapped. “One cannot expect a man of my station to stoop.”
The metal screeched.
The new recruit at the helm shrunk in his broken chair.
Groat plugged his ear hole with his thick finger. Maybe he should demand one of the new recruits give up their supply of armor oil to grease the doors. But he wouldn’t. Growing into a new set of armor was painful. Armor oil was the only thing that made it bearable.
Fabric whispered. Light footsteps followed. Mopus. “You should demote that Scraptor, Groat. It took entirely too long to open a simple door. Such laziness. I thought you were preparing for war, not coddling budgetary waste.”
“My men are ready for war. The equipment is lacking.” Groat focused his eyestalks on the forward porthole. The starlight appeared to be distorting around the Nell Stafford. No doubt, the ship’s external sensors were malfunctioning. The Human vermin would need to travel for another Earth hour before reaching the mouth of the wormhole. “Magnify the image of the enemy craft.”
“Magnifying the image of the enemy craft, Commander.” The helmsman twisted knobs and pushed levers. The porthole blanked.
No image reappeared.
Mopus smoothed his green hair behind his pointy ears. A gold embroidered cuff slipped over his green wrists. More gold twined with the sapphire robe that brushed the dented deck. “Your men are hardly ready for war. He can’t even manage a simple task.”
“It is not my men; it is the equipment. Maybe instead of sending political liaisons to each ship, the Founders could send repair equipment. It would be more useful.” Crossing the six steps to the helm, Groat banged his fist on the side of the boxy console.
Static blitzed the screen. It cleared a second later.
“Stop complaining.” Mopus flicked a piece of lint from his sleeve. “We are issuing new armor, aren’t we?”
“And deducting the cost from the Scraptors’ pay.” Groat stepped closer to the forward screen. The stars around the saucer-shaped ship morphed into a halo. Others looked like flagean smears on a planet-bound windscreen.
Mopus milked his long fingers in front of his custom made robes. “What is wrong with your viewer?”
Groat’s insides condensed into a hard point. “I don’t think it’s my viewer.”
One moment the Human ship glowed as bright as a star. The next, it had vanished.
Where in the blackest holes of the universe had the vermin acquired such technology?
The air fogged with Mopus’s malodorous pheromones. The politician must be worried to emit such a stink. The Scraptors were immune to such chemical control. “Where did it go?”
Returning to his command chair, Groat shoved a lever on the arm, opening the air vents to full. His claws clacked in agitation. His tail swished. “Control your stink, Mopus, or I’ll ban you from my bridge.”
Mopus’s green skin deepened to a shade of infected snot. His coin-slot nostrils flared. “Where did the Human vessel go?”
“To Surlat.” Groat stilled his appendages. It wouldn’t do to give away the gaps in his intel. This war would need a Fleet Commander. He would be it. Two of his competition had already succumbed to unfortunate air scrubber malfunctions.
“Do you know this, or are you guessing?” Mopus’s tilted eyes narrowed to slits.
“They will rescue the vermin on the planet. I have studied the Humans’ behavior. I know how they act.” Groat clasped his pinschers behind his back.
“Scraptors did not evolve meaningful intelligence.”
Groat’s claws tightened, one nearly snapping the other in two. He forced them open. “Then you will be pleased to know, that on a pass under the Nell Stafford, we placed a homing beacon on her hull.”
The process had been so smooth, he doubted the Humans had realized it. He tugged out a keyboard. The keys clicked as he tapped in the signal frequency.
Four red dots flared on the stellar map.
His armor itched. How could the ship be in four places at once? It just wasn’t possible. Unless… Unless the beacon had shattered, and the remnants reported their positions. The screen fuzzed with static then cleared. The dots shifted on the star chart.
Mopus peered over the helmsman’s shoulder and frowned. “I will talk to the Founders’ board and see if we can jar loose some funds for repairs. We can’t destroy our enemy unless we can track them.”
“Thank you.” The words soured Groat’s mandibles more than fermented froce. But he would take the funds to repair his ship. And he would make certain all the Scraptors knew it had been him who eased the credit rationing.
“Lay in a course to Surlat, helmsman.”
“Surlat?” A chill penetrated Groat’s full body armor. The stinger on his tail flooded with toxins.
“Yes.” Mopus rested his pointy chin on the tips of his long fingers. “We need to observe the Humans in action.”
The helmsman’s armor glowed brightly. “But the planet hasn’t been purified. The Surlat strain…”
Groat couldn’t rebuke the new recruit even if he wanted. His father and grandfather had perished from the virus. So had nearly ninety percent of the Scraptor race. Only a quarter of the other Founding Five races had died.
Mopus dismissed their concerns with a wave of a lanky hand. “The Founders have given you the latest antiviral vaccine and embedded more in your armor. You’re protected.”
Groat’s mandibles remained sealed shut.
“The Humans will die, and then we can salvage their technology.” Mopus raised one green eyebrow. “Who knows, we might be able to save one or two of these Syn-En subspecies for you to test your new armor.”
There was that. Groat had heard the grumbling in the common areas. The Syn-En guerrilla attack had created doubts in Scraptor superiority. “Lay in a course for Surlat. Point three of maximum. I don’t want to arrive before the Nell Stafford.”
He didn’t want to arrive at all. Not when the Surlat strain still thrived.
“What other devices did you plant?” Mopus scratched his smooth chin.
Not as much as Groat would have liked. Arriving on a ship surrounded by camouflaged hostiles hadn’t urged him to ask for a tour. “I spread trackers on their docking bay floor. Every member of their landing party should pick them up as they walk to their shuttles.”
Turning a knob on his chair, he switched feed from the outside sensors to his shuttle’s recorders. The image showed two beetle-shaped Human shuttles huddled on the far side of a cavernous docking bay.
“Those are their ships? Grotesque.” Mopus shuddered. “Do your trackers include visual?”
“Some do. Most are audio and locational beacons.” Groat lifted his hand to massage his armor but stopped short. He would not show weakness before another Founder. “As you know, the full sensor trackers cost more, so they must be conserved.”
And he had used an entire year’s supply. Still, it wouldn’t be enough. He just hoped the Founders realized that wars couldn’t be won on tight budgets.
“Good.” Mopus folded his arms and tucked his hands up his sleeves. “I wish to watch when the Humans realize their fancy gadgets do not work on Surlat.” He cut his attention to Groat. “Then you will be thankful that the Founders make certain your ships have rudimentary technology, not the easily disabled advanced stuff.”
Mopus pushed the button near the door. A buzzer echoed deep in the bowels of the dreadnaught. Metal ground as the door began to lift.
Groat’s swords raised in a defensive position. His hands clenched. The Founders fear of technology was based on a myth, nothing more. The Erwar were more creatures of technology than actual biochemistry. Why would they unleash some invisible force that could destroy their world? He’d never bought into the superstition. Neither had his fellow Scraptors.
The Founders didn’t stint on technology when they created their comforts.
Just when the Scraptors needed it to enforce their will.
Then budgets and their streams of red and black ink came into the picture.
And the Scraptors always lost.
They wouldn’t lose if the Humans and their technology escaped Surlat unscathed.
Groat wasn’t certain whether he hoped they did or didn’t.
Yes, he did. He wanted Humans stuffed back into their rightful place—serving their betters, the Founders. His mandibles relaxed. Maybe he could help keep the anti-technology myth alive. Maybe he could send a code to the trackers to short-circuit their hardware.
And if it were strong enough, the Humans might never reach the planet’s surface at all. Eliminating both the Syn-En and the Plague in one fiery explosion.