Nell Stafford blinked, clearing her swimming vision. In all her one hundred sixty-five years, she’d never seen anything so horrific. And she supposed to treat and heal people without getting emotional. A child lay on the gurney before her. A child. She could gladly live to be three hundred and fifty and be perfectly happy being ignorant of this cruelty. Heck, she’d even sleep for another century and a quarter, curled up next to her husband, if that would help. But it wouldn’t.
This was war.
Ugly, putrid war. With its deliberate infliction of pain and suffering on the innocent.
In the cavernous prep area of sick bay, Syn-En orderlies triaged the badly wounded. Stretchers lay side by side, creating rows of mangled flesh thirty beds deep. Human first aid workers offered drinks of water, changed bandages, and monitored vitals. Lumps of people gathered along the bulkheads like pebbles cast ashore from the backwash of battle.
Nell cleared the lump from her throat. Focus on healing those you can. I need to focus. She inhaled deeply. Her knees trembled from fatigue and she yawned.
The pungent scent of body odor and blood mingled freely with the sharp sting of disinfectant. A passing orderly brushed her back, then shuffled toward the surgical bays without stopping. A patient moaned on his gurney. More wounded groaned and bled out on the metal deck of the sick bay. The sounds of agony drowned out the hum of the engines of the NSA starship Nell Stafford. Across the receiving bay, a medic stepped back into a pile of severed synthetic limbs. An avalanche of Syn-En hands, arms, legs, and feet tumbled across the deck.
Most patients didn’t even notice.
The four year old on the gurney in front of Nell turned her head. A crooked index finger pointed to the severed limbs. “Uh-oh.”
“Uh-oh?” Some expressions must be universal. Or else the little girl’s parents had recently been abducted from Earth and sold to the Founders for medical experimentation.
“The Yea-Sayer will tattle.” The little girl’s hazel eyes widened, and the scar running across her forehead turned white.
Nell tried her best to ignore that scar and the scores of others. Four years old and the first time she’d seen the sun was on the starship’s view screens. Tears prickled Nell’s nose. Stupid, stupid Founders. She hoped the universe dropped a dungheap of bad juju on their collective heads. “What’s a Yea-Sayer?”
“A bad ‘un.” Dark circles ringed the little girl’s eyes and her cheeks were sunken. Malnutrition bowed her limbs and stained her baby teeth. One side of her head was shaved, revealing where the leads and the lines had fed her a trial drug cocktail. The sparse downy hair on the other side didn’t cover the barcode tattooed on her gray scalp.
The universe was full of bad ones. Most wore the skin of the Founding Five.
Time to get to work, to take away the little girl’s pain. Nell wiped her hands on her black uniform tunic then rubbed them together and hummed the theme song to Gilligan’s Island. Her favorite TV show from childhood didn’t comfort as it once had. Static electricity sparked blue between her palms before the fermites answered her call. A thin cloud at first, then it thickened. The air around her hands sparkled and misted with the atomic-sized particles. With a flick of Nell’s fingers, the fermites shrouded the little girl like floating lace.
Her gray skin glittered before the fermites disappeared inside her body. She giggled then clapped a hand over her mouth and glanced around.
“It’s okay.” Nell shifted her hand to the tot’s head. “You can laugh. You’re safe here.”
The girl flinched.
Nell’s fingers twitched and her stomach cramped. Touch should comfort, not bring the fear of pain. Clenching her teeth, she gently set her hand on the girl’s forehead then swept aside the downy brown hair. “Do you have a name?”
“Here.” The little girl pointed to the barcode. “Tahexa was learning me, but Odeha said no. I wouldna need it for long.”
“That’s because they knew you’d be rescued.” Curses exploded inside Nell’s head. The doctors had turned the little girl over to Nell because of all she had suffered. Nell’s fingers bucked and her skin tingled. Double dog damn, she detected an enemy’s passive sensor. As if using a child as a human lab rat wasn’t bad enough, the Founders had inserted a spybot in her abdomen to make sure the girl served them until the end of her short life. Nell would stock pile the radioactive material then shove it where the sun never shone, up the nearest Founder’s caboose.
The little girl blinked and cocked her head. Pink flushed her skin and her cheeks rounded. Little by little her bowed limbs straightened. Even her teeth turned white. “What is rescued?”
“Taken someplace where no one can hurt you again.” With their work done, some of the fermites streaked toward Nell’s hands. They formed silver rivulets writhing up her arms. An ache pulsed at her back and the pads of her feet.
“Oh. I dead?” The little girl bit her bottom lip. “You an angel to take me to my mother and father?”
Nell gulped cold air. When her knees wobbled, she braced her hands on the gurney. Cold metal leached the warmth from her palms. Death was synonymous with peace. Glancing at the patchwork of scars on the girl’s bare skin, Nell faced the ugly truth. She would have prayed for death if she’d spent her life as a lab rat.
Unfortunately, the Founders had a far worse fate in store for Nell, if the Syn-En lost the war.
And they were losing the war.
But that would change.
Maybe it already had. The few Syn-En soldiers who hadn’t been deployed to other posts walked a little lighter. Her husband, Bei, and his team must be making mincemeat out of the Founders’ convoy. She hoped he blew up one ship just for her.
And all the patients she’d seen today.
Nell had stopped counting at a hundred. Her back ached and her arms trembled from bending over patients all day. But her part was easy—the fermites did all the healing. Hearing her call, fermites left the little girl’s limbs and gathered in a haze around her hands. “You’re not dead, sweetie. And I’m no angel.”
Neither was she completely Human. Her skin and parts of her internal organs were made up of the same NeoDynamic armor that made up the Syn-Ens’ dermis. She even had silver patches when she became emotional. Which was… most of the time. Epecially lately, when the newest batch of refugees arrived. As for fermite commander—that superpower had manifested itself just as the Neo-Sentient Alliance declared war on the Founders.
Stupid move that.
The NSA wasn’t prepared.
And it showed in the hundreds of worlds lost to the enemy, and the faces of the refugees as the Syn-En had retreated again, and again, and again.
“Sweetie?” The little girl raised her hand as the last of her scars faded. Her bloated belly subsided, but fermites swirled around her belly button, visible above her cloth diaper.
Nell blew her blond bangs out of her eyes. How do you explain sugar to someone who’s never tasted it or anything sweet? “Yes, Sweetie. Because you’re a cutie pie.”
“OK.” The fermites repaired the little girl’s hair. Her barcode faded to gray. “I Sweetie Cutie Pie. It easier than…” She pointed to the disappearing numbers and letters.
Nell quickly tapped the code into the medical system. “And far more appropriate, too.”
She added the girl’s new name, Sweetie Cutie Pie and cross-referenced it with her details. If her parents were on one of the transport ships, they could find their daughter. Were they even looking? If she had a missing child, Nell would never stop until she found her. Her insides knotted. But she didn’t have a child, wasn’t even pregnant after six months of trying.
Perhaps it was for the best.
Now was not the time to bring a child into the world.
Nell’s shoulders bowed. Never might work. Could find the date on the calendar called never and pencil it in? She shook off her depression.
The fermites buzzed near Sweetie’s belly button where a black cube slowly emerged. Propping herself on her elbows, the little girl eyed her stomach. “What that?”
“It’s a spybot. The most despicable thing ever invented in the known universe.” And that included Tang. Nell shuddered. No way would she ever drink that stuff again. The astronauts could have it. She snapped her fingers and the spybot dissolved in a spray of fireworks. The fermites twinkled out to nothingness. But she felt them skitter along her skin.
Time for her reward. She reached under the gurney for the two chocolate shakes the first aid worker had handed as she passed. The pouches were warm, but it was chocolate. The all natural, all temperature treat. She handed one to Sweetie then wrapped her tongue around the straw sticking out of the other.
Sweetie accepted the silver pouch but kept her attention on the black cube. “What do?”
Chocolate and sugar flooded Nell’s mouth. Closing her eyes, she fell into the next best thing to Bei’s arms. Chocolate made everything better.
Too bad the magic didn’t last. Opening her eyes, Nell released the straw and finished her swallow. “It helps the bad guys.”
In so many awful ways.
She hoped the Devil created a brand new corner of Hell for the spybot’s creator. Nell would buy a ticket to see the jerkface suffer. Lots of tickets. And a pitchfork. The gift shop in Hell was bound to have some when she visited.
“Drink up.” Nell tapped the little girl’s pouch.
“No hurt, just goodness. Yum.” Nell rubbed her stomach.
Sweetie licked the straw, then wrinkled her nose.
“Not like that. Like this.” Nell demonstrated until her pouch collapsed. “Mmmm.”
“Mmmm.” Humming first, Sweetie mimicked Nell. Her cheeks tightened and the straw darkened. Then her hazel eyes lit up. “Mmmmm.”
“Mmmm.” Chocolate was its own special language. Lowering her pouch, Nell winked then glanced across the room.
A dark haired woman stood in the corner. Her green eyes locked with Nell’s.
The hair on her nape stood straight up, and her throat tightened. In the span of a heartbeat her hands flashed the same silver as her pouch. Yet it wasn’t fear that trickled through her but curiosity and familiarity. Was this Sweetie Cutie Pie’s mother? Nell raised a hand to wave her over. The pouch filled her vision.
“Nell Stafford!” Doc shouted behind her.
She jumped at the sound of her name and fumbled with her pouch. She caught it and squeezed. Chocolate bubbled out the straw. She licked it up. With the way the war was going, chocolate might soon be rationed. Keeping, she looked across the armada of occupied gurneys for Doc.
A green diagnostic beam shot out of the Chief Medical Officer’s wrist, heading for her. Doc Cabo frowned and a lock of black hair flapped against his forehead. The sclera of his brown eyes darkened as he merged with the Wireless Array.
Nell stiffened. Great. The rat fink was probably telling her husband she was in the sick bay. All the Syn-En tattled her every movement to Bei. Life sucked with two thousand over-protective mothers constantly hovering nearby. She held up her drink. “I ate lunch.”
Two bites before she couldn’t swallow anymore because of the pressing guilt. She could do so much more, and there was always something to do. Wounded were everywhere. She could help them.
Doc’s beam died and his lips pursed. “How much did you eat?”
“Enough.” She wiggled the straw to reach the drink pooled in the corners of the pouch.
On the gurney, Sweetie sat up, the motion transmitted through the gurney despite the locked wheels.
He stopped in front of Nell and planted his hands on his hips. “Two bites is not enough.”
Darn it. There hadn’t been a Syn-En in the lunchroom. So who else was spying on her? She resisted the urge to squirm. She was an adult. It was her lunch hour, she could eat if she wanted to. “I was full. And they were really big bites.”
“Your power cells are at twenty-five percent. You need to sleep for eight hours and eat, then repeat it before your next shift.” Black stubble dusted his rounded jaw, an effect he cultivated because his new bride liked it. Doc pointed toward the doors. “Out.”
She reached behind her to clutch the gurney. “I have patients.”
Sweetie’s warm leg brushed her fingers.
“And I’m out of patience.” Doc’s brown eyes narrowed. “Go. Now.”
Working on a preteen boy behind her husband, Davena Cabo dusted fermites from her cinnamon-colored hands. Ebony corkscrew curls bobbed around her oval face and her ever-present smile widened as she helped the boy down. “Come. We’ll take our patients to their rooms.” Her black eyes twinkled. “You two get to go to school and learn all sorts of amazing things.”
Her slender hand waved away her cloud of fermites before she helped the preteen down from the metal bed.
Flesh padded the boy and a healthy color flooded his cheeks. Although he slid off the gurney, he held tight to the edges as if not expecting his legs to hold him. They hadn’t when he’d been brought in. “Does school hurt?”
Nell raked a hand through her hair and tugged the tie from her ponytail. The edges brushed her shoulders just as they had six months ago. It didn’t grow anymore. A side effect of the fermites infusing her blood.
Davena blinked. “I don’t think school hurts. Nell?”
“Not usually. But peer pressure can be a pain.” Turning back to her patient, Nell mentally cast aside her thoughts and slid her hands under Sweetie’s arms.
The little girl hung limply in Nell’s grip.
Anger surged through her veins. Was Sweetie so used to be posed and moved around like a rag doll that she didn’t even try to help herself? The Founders had a lot to answer for. Once the Syn-En and NeoSentient Alliance started to win this war, she’d suggest holding the bad guys accountable. War Crimes at Erwar. She pictured the headlines and the Bug-Ugly Scraptors and the evil elves squirming on the stand.
“Is something wrong?” Davena cocked her head to the left.
“No.” Nell focused on the present and carefully lowered Sweetie.
Her bare toes curled on the metal deck and her diaper hung low on her thin hips. Sweetie bent over and raised one leg then the other. “Doesn’t hurt.”
The boy held out his hand to her. She staggered over to him and thudded against his side. He swayed a bit then set his hand on her back and laughed. “That used to knock me over. Remember?”
Nodding, Sweetie tucked her thumb inside her mouth. “I like this experiment.”
Nell’s mouth opened. Experiment, her aunt’s hairy tush! What she did wasn’t in anyway related to the Founders’ evilness. How could anyone even think such a thing?
Davena rose on tiptoes and kissed her husband’s cheek.
Doc glanced around the room. A few of the Syn-En orderlies smiled. He grinned and skimmed his knuckle down her forearm before holding her hand. Energy caused the synthetic hair on his arms to stand up straight. “Use your fermites and tie her to the bed to get her to rest. Bei will have my implants if anything happens to her.”
“I’m rather fond of your…implants.” Davena squeezed his hand before releasing him. “I’ll be back soon.”
Doc snorted and turned away from his wife. “Back to work, people. There’s nothing to see here.”
Medic Queens snorted. “That’s because all the interesting bits are in the WA.”
Davena ducked her head, using the curtain of curls to shield her blush.
Nell tucked her hand through her friend’s arm and dragged her toward the double doors. “You’ll get used to it. In about a hundred years.”
“Thanks. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what we do…”
Nell could almost feel sorry for those Twenty-first century celebrities. Nah, they volunteered to be recorded. “Yeah, but it’s not like you want that video out there for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to watch.”
“I don’t think I’ve met those Syn-En.”
Right. That was an Earth saying, and Davena’s people had been removed from the planet only God knew when and had been transplanted to Surlat. She was learning. Everyone was. Nell raised her free hand. Fermites sparkled on her skin like body glitter but a strip of silver remained. She peeked in the corner.
Drat the woman had left. Guess she wasn’t Sweetie’s mother. Nell yawned.
“Nell?” Davena lowered her voice to a whisper. The double doors opened.
Sweetie and the boy walked through and turned left.
“The other way.” Nell directed them. When they glanced back at her, she pointed to the right. “That way.”
Heads bent together, they swung about and headed toward the school rooms.
Nell held her breath and entered the corridor.
Skeletal Humans lined the hallway, three rows deep on each side. Those who could, stood. Most sat in tight fetal balls on the floor. Body odor, offal, and blood overwhelmed the air scrubbers. Most people gazed listlessly into nothing.
Nell shuddered. If there were flies, she’d have thought this was some commercial for a charity in a third world country. Save the Humans. For only a dollar a day, you can make a difference in the life of some man or woman lost in space. A dollar will buy freedom, two meals a day, and—
“Nell?” Davena squeezed her arm.
“Sorry. I was thinking.” Unpleasant thoughts. That seemed to be happening a lot lately. Maybe the fermites could perk up her thoughts. Nell snapped the hair tie around her wrist.
“I’m concerned about you. Your fermites don’t disappear anymore and Los Alamos says he can’t read you with his diag beam.”
They weren’t the only thing that were hanging around after the party ended. Nell stared at her hand and willed her skin to return to its normal peach color. The silver strip widened. Maybe she should embrace her inner zebra. “Los Alamos?”
“Right. Sorry.” That explained why she’d been given extra watchers. Nell’s cheeks heated in embarrassment. Doc Los Alamos Cabo was always Doc. All the Syn-En were named after places according to their regional identity, the ultimate way to dehumanize them. Bei rarely talked about his induction days. He didn’t remember his birth name, nor could he look it up. Only the Syn-En, their original civilian crew and Nell knew that they couldn’t return to Earth again.
God help them if their allies ever found out.
Ahead, the children paused at a tee. Sweetie bounced on her heels, looked both ways then glanced back at Nell.
Nell pointed to the right.
The children skipped away.
Nell didn’t hurry to keep up with them. The corridor ended in the elevator. Only crew members could access it.
“Are you feeling well?” Davena sent a wave of fermites toward Nell.
Nell’s fermites slapped them away. She hadn’t done that. “Whoa! Has that ever happened before?”
The last thing she needed was the fermites having a death match while inside her body. She was running out of flesh and blood parts to replace.
“No.” Davena shook her hand. Her red fingers glistened for a moment before returning to her normal cinnamon color. “But then there have never been two Oracles at the same time.”
“I’m not an oracle.” Nor had Nell ever played one on TV. “And to answer your question, I’m a little worried. You know how things are going.”
Davena pressed her lips together, then glanced left then right. “I know a little. Los Alamos says I’m better off not knowing.”
Some days, she’d give a million fermites not to know. Turning at the tee, Nell spied the children waiting by the elevator.
A bell chimed through the Public Address system.
“All staff, please prepare for the arrival of refugees.” The computer voice drifted down the hall. “All staff, please prepare for the arrival of refugees.”
More wounded. More lost people. More people to fill the overflowing ship.
Nell squeezed her eyes closed. “Where are we going to put them?”
They stopped at the end of the hall.
Like an earthworm swallowing, the rows of humans tightened in waves. Room would be found. It had to be.
“Don’t worry about that. You need to rest.” Davena pressed her thumb against the button. “Elevator, please.”
The lights chimed to life as the voice recognition acknowledged her authority.
Nell rubbed her neck. Tension made the skin tight. “I can’t just switch off the thoughts. I’m responsible for them.”
She’d been elected. She hadn’t even known she was running for the position. If she’d known, she’d have hidden better.
“On Surlat, we were responsible for each other.” Davena frowned. “Foxtrot-one-five-zeda-Romeo is taking care of Sweetie without being asked.”
God. The boy had his barcode memorized. Nell forced her arm down to her side.
The elevator chimed. “Code red arrivals for sick bay. Stand clear.”
Nell reached for Sweetie’s shoulder to move her away from the door. Static electricity jumped in a blue arc from her fingers to the young girl’s shoulder.
Sweetie squeaked and pressed closer to the boy.
“Sorry.” Dang. That had been happening a lot lately. Nell sucked on her tingling fingers. Maybe all her technologies weren’t playing nice together anymore. Heaven help her if it turned into an all-out sibling rivalry. She grounded herself on the wall, then clasped the girl’s shoulder. “Let’s scooch back a bit. Some hurt people need to get by.”
Davena pressed against the elevator button.
The boy squeezed himself back into an opening, dragging Sweetie with him.
Nell eased closer.
The elevator doors chimed again. “Code red arrivals for sick bay. Stand clear.”
“It’s as clear as it’s going to get,” Nell muttered.
The woman on her left chuckled. She cradled a splinted arm against her shrunken chest. “Having this much room to move is a blessing.”
The doors parted.
Ensign Virginia Richmond had her arms wrapped around two healthy-looking men. She wore her hair in a pony tail like the teenager she was. But despite her full cheeks and smooth skin, her eyes revealed the hardened Syn-En soldier she had become. Thanks to her prosthetic arms and legs, she carried them both with ease. Her gaze locked on Nell. “The Admiral says you are to rest, Leader.”
Admiral, not Bei. Leader, not Nell Stafford. As soon as the NSA declared war, all the Syn-Ens’ ass cheeks puckered. Nell understood, but she missed the down time.
“Aye, aye, Ensign.” She flashed her palm in an insulting salute.
Richmond winked before resuming her impartial mask.
On Nell’s right, the injured woman hissed through her teeth. “Yea-Sayers.”
The word echoed down the corridor.
The hair on Nell’s neck stood on end. Yea-Sayer. She’d heard that word before…
Medic Brooklyn hauled two more obese men behind Richmond.
Four walking wounded waited in the elevator, pressed against the back wall.
Nell stepped toward them. “It’s okay. You can come out. You’re safe.”
In unison, they raised their arms and pointed at the healthy-looking men. “Yea-Sayers!”
In the span of a heartbeat the hallway erupted into chaos. The three rows of people lining the corridor surged toward the obese men. Limbs flailed. Fists smacked flesh. Cries rent the air.
Richmond and Brooklyn disappeared under the writhing mass.
Nell’s heart leapt into her throat. The Syn-En protected people. They wouldn’t give up the men without a fight. A fight they would lose. “They’re going to be trampled.”
She headed toward the mound of people. She had to rescue Richmond and Brooklyn.
An elbow slammed against her cheek. A man backhanded her.
Stars danced in front of her. A foot hit her in the gut as the outside layer of Human skeletons body surfed over the others to get their ounce of justice. “Richmond! Brooklyn!”
A synthetic arm bobbed to the surface.
“Oh hell no! Stop it. Stop it this instance.” Nell swore. Like that had ever happened. Fermites swarmed, fogging the air. “Get off of them.”
Faces turned toward her.
Angry, twisted faces. Bloody fists were raised.
Richmond’s head poked through the seething mass.
Something collided with Nell’s temple. Warmth trickled down her cheek. She raised her hand to swipe at it. Instead, her hand disappeared and all went black.