Nell swirled her finger above the white goo. A soft vortex spun in the silver bowl. Flecks of NDA glittered before disappearing.
Beside her, leaning his hip against the workbench, Mechanic Montgomery Smith exhaled. “I think that’s about done it. “
She bit her lip. “They’re in the solution, but will this caulk create enough of a seal to keep the Surlat Strain out?”
It hadn’t in Doc Cabo’s simulations. Neither had the four batches before it. What was the point of being some freak of nature if she couldn’t use it to save Bei, the Syn-En, and everyone else in the universe? She yanked her finger away from the bowl and the stirring tapered off. Familiarity whispered across her senses. Bei.
“It will buy us time once we’re dirtside. Which is more than we had before.” Her husband skimmed his fingers down her spine.
She shivered as the touch evoked memories. Hours spent in their cabin. The tenderness of their lovemaking giving way to the frenzy of fear, of the need to survive despite impending death. Her nose prickled. She wanted another century in his arms. Two if she could get it. Anything longer than the last six hours they’d spent together.
The mechanic cradled the bowl and backed away. His black eyes flashed against dark skin. “I’ll just give this to Doc. He can patch everyone up en route to the planet’s surface.”
Nell watched until the automatic doors into the hallway closed behind him. She wiped her damp palms on her black uniform pants. A lump grew in her throat. The workroom reeked of oil, solder, and ozone. Mechanical arms and legs hung on hooks, several layers deep, from the ceiling. A heap of stripped shells lapped at a corner, metal buckets sorted the salvaged bits.
She hated the whole horror show patina of the place. Never came in here if she could avoid it. But she’d gladly move her bed in here, if she survived this trip.
Bei wrapped his arms around her, moulding her back to his front. “The shuttles have passed their final checks and the engines are firing up.”
“Did you grab my bag from our room?” She clung to his arm. If only… The price of ‘if only’ was too high. They’d said everything they needed to in their cabin.
“Shang’hai is bringing our kit to the shuttles.” His warm breath cascaded down her neck. “She wanted to make certain her upgrades were functioning optimally.”
“It wouldn’t dare do otherwise. I’ve heard her threaten to turn broken equipment into toasters.”
“She’d do it, too. And no one uses toasters anymore.”
With a sigh, Nell stepped out of her husband’s arms. “How many are going with us?”
“Twelve medics, four security officers, Apollie, and two biologics.” He caught her hand. Together they wove through the workbenches toward the door.
“Everyone volunteered to go.”
She replayed his words as the door opened. “Wait. Two Humans? Isn’t that dangerous? We know the virus is down there. That it’s mutated into a big, bad flu bug.”
“They’ve agreed to remain in quarantine until Doc cooks up a vaccine from your blood.” His lips firmed. “Since they’ve spent their lifetimes as lab animals, Karl and Erin feel they are in the best position to report the effectiveness of the vaccine.”
Soft white light illuminated the empty corridor. No one was about. Disappointment warred with relief. As much as she would like to say goodbye to everyone, this short walk to the shuttle bay might be their last time alone. She leaned against his solid frame. “What’s wrong? The fact that Humans are helping to save the Syn-En and the universe, or…”
No point in finishing. They both weren’t happy.
“I don’t trust these biologics. They are too eager to help with everything.”
The elevator doors opened at their approach. It always did when she wasn’t in a hurry. Apparently, the universe wanted them on the ground as soon as possible.
She retreated to the far corner. “You think something more than gratitude is motivating them.”
A statement not a question. She’d felt the burp in his subroutines during the meeting, but hadn’t identified the cause until now.
“My subroutines do not burp.” He smoothed the hair back from her face and kissed her forehead. His lips lingered for a moment.
She clutched his shirt front and buried her face in his neck. “I thought you’d shut down the WA again.”
“I left it open for us.”
Something of them would remain if they didn’t return from the planet. The knowledge helped to close the lid on her boxful of fears. “I hope nothing comes back to bite us on the butt when we return.”
The elevator slowed to a stop.
Retreating a step, he held his arms stiffly at his side. “I can always use my authority to delete the records.”
“Sometimes it’s good to be the king, or in your case, the admiral.”
“And sometimes it sucks.”
She couldn’t argue with that. The base of her neck tingled, then something tugged on her brain box. The WA had been disconnected. She was alone at her husband’s side. Raising her chin, she followed him along the short walk to the cargo bay.
The engines hummed, echoing throughout the ship. She glanced up and down the hall. Her stomach cramped. Shouldn’t she have seen someone?
The double doors on the right snicked open. Boots stomped as the Syn-en snapped to attention. The black-clad soldiers stood in neat regiments along the sides of the cavernous space. Humans straightened and faced her. Cheeks glistened. Some wiped their eyes. When the Syn-En saluted, the people copied their movements.
Nell bit the inside of her cheek to keep from speaking. They were saying goodbye. She plodded beside Bei. The soldiers created a corridor ten feet across leading directly from the beetle-shaped shuttles to the opening in the hull.
Everyone stared straight ahead. Many swallowed hard.
In his dress uniform, Captain Pennig stood at attention near the ramp leading into Starflight 1’s bulbous belly. Chief Engineer Shang’hai stood beside him. With his tail curled around his body, Elvis sat between her and her boyfriend, Montgomery Smith. The dark-skinned mechanic clutched a wooden box in his hands.
Bei halted in front of the captain and returned the salute. “You have your orders.”
“Aye, Sir. As soon as you punch through the atmosphere, we continue to Terra Dos and drop off our passengers. The America will contact you when she reaches high Surlatian orbit in thirty-seven standard hours.” When Captain Pennig lowered his arm, the other assembled Syn-En did the same. “The America is creating space for three thousand refugees as well as readying quarantine decks.”
Bei nodded. “Has news of our mission been sent ahead?”
Nell twitched. If they failed, steps must be taken to eliminate the threat to the rest of the intelligent world.
“The Skaperians are drafting a proposal to present to the Erwar Consortium.” Captain Pennig presented an epad, representing the official transfer of power to him. “Our allies don’t think they will have any trouble getting it to pass.”
Bei set his finger on the pad, authorizing the power transfer, then entered his command code.
“I would hope not.” Nell sunk her fingers into Elvis’s feathery head.
The Amarook rose on his hind legs, until he stood eye level with her. His black tongue licked her cheek, then he held out a vial of his saliva. His furry hands shook as they placed it in her hands. “It’s fresh and potent. It will keep you healthy.”
Wrapping her arms around his neck, she kissed his cheek. “Thank you. I’m sure it’s just what I’ll need.”
Sniffling, Elvis settled back on his hind quarters. “I do not like an enemy I cannot shred with my claws or rip apart with my fangs.”
Nell tucked the vial in her pocket. “I’ll be back. Everyone loves a sequel.”
He hung his feathery head. “Some sequels are never made, no matter how popular the original.”
She scratched him behind his flat ears. The lump in her throat blocked any words from escaping.
Mechanic Montgomery Smith cleared his throat. “Nell Stafford, we made something for you.”
He balanced a battered box in his hands. His fingers fumbled with the brass latch before he lifted the lid. In the center of a nest of uniforms, rested a silver tiara. A spidery copper scrollwork held jewel-toned circuits in place. Diamonds of gold were soldered at even intervals along the sloping band. Screwdriver tips jutted from the three pointed peaks of the tiara. Amarook fangs dangled like pearls in oval openings.
Plucking the crown from the fabric, Montgomery set the box on the ground. His hands shook as he set the tiara on her head. “You declared yourself the Queen of the Freaks and so we decided our queen needed a tiara. We figure you can wear it for your next meeting with the Skaperian Empress. Humans are just as good as anyone else.”
Bei cleared his throat and looked away.
The metal settled lightly upon her hair. Her NDA sized it perfectly. Nell covered her mouth but tears sprang to her eyes. Leaning forward, she kissed Montgomery’s cheek. “Thank you. I might just do that.”
Growling, Shang’hai slipped between her boyfriend and Nell. She embraced her quickly. “Take care of Bei. Despite what he may think, a Syn-En isn’t as strong as his upgrades, but the man wielding them.”
Nell hugged her back. “I’d die for him.”
“Dying is easy. Live for him.” Smoothing her black hair, Shang’hai stepped back into her place. “Live for us all.”
“Of course.” Nell followed Bei up the ramp. It started to raise as soon as she reached the crew compartment.
Doc Cabo and Paladin Apollie sat on the long bench along one side.
Nell sat on the bench opposite them.
Instead of traveling up the metal ladder at the front of the rectangular compartment, Bei sat down next to her. “Who’s at the helm?”
Doc Cabo looked up from the handheld. “Brooklyn and Queens. I think two of my best medics wish to become pilots.”
“You’ll always have me.” Nell tapped her brain box. “In my day, students had to spend eight, even ten years in college and beyond, to learn what I downloaded in five minutes.”
Of course, they didn’t have to allow a computer chip to take control of their body to use it. She shivered. She hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but she’d done it before to save a life. She would do it again. Especially if Bei’s life was at stake.
“I’m more concerned about you being the patient this time around, not the doctor.” Doc flipped open the flap on his left forearm. A white gel pack filled the compartment. He tugged out a needle and rose. “Let’s seal you up, Admiral.”
Shifting on the seat just as the shuttle rose, Bei presented his back to Doc. “Are our two biologics stowed safely away?”
“Yes.” Doc swiped the tip of the needle along the cerebral interface. “Completely isolated. I did give them access to Nell’s store of computer games and learning modules to prevent them from succumbing to cabin fever.”
The hair on Nell’s arm stood up. The ship had just passed through the energy barrier. Her stomach fluttered up her throat as they moved away from the ship’s artificial gravity and relied solely on the shuttle’s.
Downy feathers floated around Apollie’s pale face. “I did find something interesting in the Skaperian archives. It seems that the fermites inside Nell will fluoresce once the Surlat strain hits her system.”
“You mean I”m going to glow in the dark?” Nell touched her tiara. She should have asked for a bigger crown.
Apollie frowned. “It is possible, if the virus hits critical mass during evening hours.”
Sarcasm was lost on aliens, or maybe they didn’t have a funny bone.
Taking the needle from Doc’s hand, Bei motioned for Nell to turn her back to him. “Does this fluorescence indicate she is fighting the infection, or just that she is infected?”
Twisting on the cushion, Nell lifted her hair out of the way. Cold goo tickled down her neck. Jeez, why didn’t doctors think to warm the stuff up?
“Fluorescence could mean both. Usually recovery is within twelve hours after this symptom appears.” Apollie flashed a screen at her.
Nell rubbed the base of her skull. She didn’t understand wingdings, nor did she want to waste the last hours of her life teasing out the meaning. “So I guess we pray I light up like a beacon, instead of hang there like a burnt out bulb.”
The shuttle shook as it entered the planet’s atmosphere.
Stuffing the cable into his arm, Doc staggered back to his bench.
Bei braced his hands on the overhead compartments and lurched toward the ladder. “Looks like you won’t be losing your favorite medics to pilot school.”
“Admiral.” Queens’s deep baritone crackled over the com. “We’re getting interference from the atmosphere.”
“Altitude dropping. Forward impulse engine off-line.” Stress broke Brooklyn’s whiskey smooth notes.
The lights flickered.
Nell floated off her seat. Her blond hair drifted in front of her face. NDA streamed off her, lashing her to the bench.
Darkness swallowed the compartment, then emergency lights bathed them in bloody hues.
Bei shot up the ladder. His boots disappeared through the hatch just as a deathly quiet displaced the thrum of the engines.
An invisible hand yanked Doc from his seat and slammed his head into the overhead compartment.
Apollie threw herself against the bench and held on. A thud and cry rang out from the upper deck.
Nell’s stomach flopped into her mouth. The straps dug into her shoulders. Something told her she wasn’t going to like how this trip ended. She clung to her straps as her feet struggled to find purchase. No, please, no.
“Shit.” Queens shouted. “Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is Starflight 1. Cascade failures in all systems. We are going down. I repeat. Starflight 1 is going down.”