“All systems go dark.” Bei clenched and unclenched his hands as the enemy’s dreadnaught shoved through the event horizon in front of them. A riptide of tension swept through the triangular bridge upon which his holoimage stood. He used his command codes and isolated him and his team from the rest of h is men.
“Weapon drones powering down to seventy-percent.” Seated in the station directly in front of Bei, Security Chief Rome skimmed his fingers down the LED control panel. On the forward view screens, the drones faded until they blended with the wreckage of the convoy.
“Taking nonessential systems off-line.” Sydney Shang’hai, Bei’s Chief Engineer, sent the power down signal via her cerebral interface. Lights on the command panels winked out. Air vents ticked as they stopped circulating oxygen to an empty ship.
In the forward station, Iggy shifted on her stool. Her pink and green tail drooped nearly to the floor. “Com systems at minimal.”
Bei stared at the view screens. The broken hulls of the enemy’s convoy were scattered like cracked eggs over the solar system. With a thought, he scrolled through the available sensors, scanning the space beyond his remote-controlled ship. Despite being located in another galactic quadrant, the remote controlled ship obeyed every command of his four-sentient crew. The pods with the Syn-En life signs melded with the glowing debris field. “Status of our people?”
“Minimal life signs.” Black filled Shang’hai’s almond-shaped eyes. Static filled her holographic projection before the image solidified. “I’m getting interference from the pods.”
Iggy’s tail curled around her hind quarters. Her pointy ears pricked and the feathers on her head stood on end. “It’s a human signal.”
“Patch it through.” Bei set course. His ship’s nacelle’s hummed as the small vessel skipped forward on an intercept course. He would retrieve his men and retreat. Bile flooded his mouth. After six months of war, he and his men were good at retreating.
He’d rather excel at advancing.
And he wasn’t alone.
The Syn-En hadn’t acquired a taste for defeat. It wasn’t in their circuits or their programming.
Rome’s hands curled into fists. The spherical drones zoomed across open space, heading for the cargo bay. “Stowing drones in the toy box. The bastard Founders aren’t going to know what they’re missing.”
The enemy better not. Retreat was a tactical strategy until Bei and his allies built up the NeoSentient Alliance’s defenses. Until they could stop losing battle after battle.
“Patching through.” Iggy cocked her head to the left. Her tiny four fingers drummed on the console. Fangs flashed in her muzzle. “Audio only. Visuals aren’t being transmitted.”
Static belched from the coms.
“Oh, thank God you’ve come,” a female voice rasped. “You’ve got to pick us up. Don’t let them get us again.”
A muscle flexed in Rome’s square jaw, and his short blond hair twitched. He pinged Bei. “What the hell? Sending message to Combat Information Center for voice recognition. Syn-En don’t cry.”
Syn-En kept their emotions in the Wireless Array, not out in public.
But the Founders were capable of atrocities Bei had never imagined. And he had access to a universal history archive full of atrocities. The room darkened as he switched part of his conscious into the WA. His avatar materialized, found the tail end of the message, and stepped on it. Data buzzed by his ears as he swept along the stream. “Identify yourself.”
“Oh, thank God you’ve come.”
Iggy howled. An instant later, she tackled him, knocking him off the data stream.
Bei rolled over and over in the blackness of uninhabited cyberspace. Catching the Amarook by the scruff, he kept her signal from breaking up.
She planted her paws on his chest and shook her head. Her ears slapped the side of her head. “Firewall. Gave me quite the headache.”
She leapt off his chest.
He held his breath, waiting for her to disappear.
Raising her muzzle, she sniffed the air then bounded toward the fluorescent green line in the distance.
Bei pushed to his feet. The emptiness sucked at his boots, snagging pixels with every step. Damn, he’d love to know how the Amarook’s telepathy worked. The void always left him with a migraine. Jogging, he closed the distance.
The SOS changed from a steady stream to a fuzzy line.
His avatar scattered like marbles then reformed. He swayed on his feet. “Report.”
“We’re taking fire, Admiral.” A pixelated Rome ghosted nearby. His nose wrinkled at the void.
Taking fire? Dammit! They were supposed to be cloaked. Bei stopped next to Iggy. “How are they targeting us?”
Iggy snapped at the SOS stream then sniffed the block wall that stopped her from tracking it to its point of origin. But in the air, she dug with her forepaws at the base of the firewall. Pieces of code formed a pile behind her. “Go. I’ll get through.”
Closing his eyes, Bei transferred back to the ship. “Rome?”
“They’re not.” Shang’hai’s holographic hands slipped through her console. “The Bug-Uglies are firing depth charges.”
On the forward screens, light burst from the Founder’s dreadnaught. Gun barrels bristled from nearly every meter of the hulking mass. Only docking ports and energy weapon batteries along her mid-deck remained smooth.
Bei’s synthetic skin prickled. It might be possible to locate the ship by searching for anomalies in the debris field. He slowed the vessel, keeping it clear of the hunks of smoldering hull. He’d have to find another way to salvage those life pods. He ordered the wardens to retrieve the lost men. Data showed the repair bots leaving the hull and skimming across space like black widow spiders.
An explosion blossomed on the screen. The deck bucked under his feet. Access panels popped off. One sliced through Iggy’s hunched over form. Sparks sprayed the metal floor. Static filled the forward screen.
“They’re damn accurate for guessing our location.” Too damn accurate. Was something giving away their position? Bei ran a quick diagnostic on the ship’s systems.
Shang’hai’s holoimage faded. “It’s possible that they recognize our engine signal.”
Bei swore under his breath. Such was the hazard of repurposing a ship. “Mask it.”
Another salvo punched the bulkhead. Alarms flared in Bei’s head, next to a scrolling list of damage to the vessel. “Rome bring out half your toys.”
Rome straightened and cracked his knuckles. “Let’s see how the Bug-Uglies like it to have my balls shoved up their bulkheads.”
“I think you might want to reword that.” Shang’hai snorted. “Bringing forward screens on line.”
“Fuck ’em.” Rome leaned forward as twenty-five spherical drones skipped across the space in front of their ship.
The image scattered.
“Dammit Shang’hai.” Rome glared at his companion. “Get your head in the game.”
Iggy rolled out of her seat. Four paws planted on the deck, she growled at the static.
An image formed.
Aricose Groat, Commander of the Founders Fleet, peered back at him. The Bug-Ugly Scraptor’s eyestalks twitched above his bullet-shaped head. His red, segmented armor glistened in the light of his bridge. “Hello little Syn-En. Are you too scared to come out of an play?”
Defensive ridges raced down Bei’s arms. His synthetic skin hardened into armor. “Groat.”
Iggy shook her body. “He can’t hear us or see us. He’s broadcasting on all Plenipoten frequencies.”
Plenipoten? This ship had been a Plenipoten vessel before its conversion. “How does he know we can recieve it?”
Iggy licked her furry hands and smoothed her pink and green feathers behind her ears. “All vessels are equipped with a Plenipoten receiver. They are the administrators of the Erwar Consortium. Or were, before the war.”
Another volley burst in the distance. Debris from the cargo ships fled before the concussive wave. The enemy was clueless.
“Any luck contacting the lost men?” Bei smoothed his defensive ridges. His uniform knit back together.
“The signal smelled of Scraptor.” Iggy spat up a furball. “I severed our connection so the enemy cannot use it to trace us.”
“Good thinking.” For a wolf-like creature. Bei’s men hadn’t considered it. But then, the Amarooks were natural predators and they knew the enemy.
Iggy sent an image of her and her pack annihilating a dozen of the extinct Earth animals. “We are not such pathetic creatures, even if we do harbor a fondness for Humans.”
A pulse of anger slammed against Bei’s temple. He released a shot of caffeine to ease the ache.
Rome winced. “Yeah. Yeah. We get it. You’re the Big, Bad Amarook coming to blow everyone’s house down. Now tame your wild side, Featherhead or my boot will plant itself in your furry posterior.”
Iggy plopped her hind end down and thumped her tail against the metal deck. “With the amount of time you consider posteriors, you could be part Amarook.”
Red tinged Rome’s Teutonic cheekbones. “You—”
Another salvo rocked their ship. Metal screamed. Bulkheads buckled. The fusion reactor breached its first level of containment. A coolant pipe burst and steam jacked up the temperature of the engine room.
Bei chucked the files at his engineer. “Fix it.”
Shang’hai turned toward the door leaving the bridge. She drew up short, pink dreadlocks slapping her back. Her curse words blistered the air. “I can’t fix the leaks, but I’ll try rerouting the coolant.”
Right. They were holograms and not physically on the ships. Bei jerked his head once.
The wardens confirmed they’d locked onto the lifepods. Each spun a Neo-Dynamic Armor cocoon around the vessels. Once activated the NDA camouflaged the pods, hiding them from the Scraptors’ attack.
Groat clacked the pinschers below the set of humanoid hands. “What’s the matter little Syn-En? Are you afraid?”
Rome shook his head. “I’ll teach him the meaning of fear.”
The Bug-Ugly’s image disappeared from the starboard screen. In his place, the battlefield came into view. Partial schematics overlaid the dreadnaught and crosshairs overlaid the vulnerable soft points. Twenty-five spheres plunged through the convoy debris field and circled back toward the hulking dreadnaught.
Bei smiled. The enemy would think the attack came from the wrong direction.
Groat’s eyestalks twitched “Are you a coward like your leader, Beijing York?”
Spittle drizzled from the Scraptor’s mandibles.
“This is almost insulting.” Bei placed his hands on his hips.
Sensors switched to green. Shang’hai had repaired the engine’s coolant system. “What that he thinks we’re two year olds vulnerable to taunts? Biologics are far better at insulting us.”
“Indeed.” Not that Bei would thank any of them. Their words had caused him to doubt his humanity, even tempted him to deny it and take revenge on others. He hadn’t. His programming was engraved on his hardware.
Rome’s lip curled back. “Does the man even know how ugly he looks? I mean, really that armor makes him look like a scorpion. I ate a scorpion once. It was as nasty as it looked.”
Iggy leapt back onto her stool. Her ears flattened against her head. “Admiral, I’m receiving a message.”
She materialized in cyberspace just as a ball of light shot through it. She leapt through the air toward it.
Bei sucked in a breath. “We’re supposed to be radio silent.”
A single transmission would give away their. He’d have the upgrades of whatever moron sent that transmission, then he’d beat the lesson into the Syn-En’s plated skull.
Iggy pounced on the ball, wrapped her body around it.
“Fire when ready.”
“I’m ready.” Rome’s fingers twitched. The drone’s blazed white hot on the screen. Black fissure lines appeared in the drones. Per their design, they splintered apart, heading toward the enemy battleship.
A bouquet of red blossoms filled the screen.
“They can’t penetrate the enemy’s energy shields.” Bei’s fists shook and compression sensors blazed in his head until he relaxed his grip.
“Ten made it through.” Rome crossed his hands over his chest.
Iggy yelped. The message bundle dragged her across cyberspace. Feathers and fur smeared a trail behind her.
Groat’s image tilted. A klaxon sounded before being switched off. His mandibles peeled away, revealing sharp incisors. “Ah, so you are there. Now we can play. For keeps.”
Bei shook out his fists. “Status on those pods?”
“Ten A.U. and closing.” Shang’hai opened and closed her fingernail, revealing the screwdriver inside the prosthetic appendage. “ETA to wormhole: five minutes.”
An eternity then. At least the Bug-Uglies didn’t know where they were. “Prepare next salvo.”
“Preparing next salvo.” Rome bared his teeth.
Iggy’s hologram stiffened then melted.
Bei stepped toward her last position. Had the strain of maintaining the hologram been too much for her? The base of his skull burned from the energy to maintain the link. What would happen to the Amarooks if their leader was brain dead?
The screen with the battlefield dissolved. Guenoc, the leader of the Plenipoten people stared back at them with all four of his black eyes. “Ah, there you are?”
“End message.” The ship’s computers rejected Bei’s orders.
“Well!” Guenoc’s nostril flaps quivered. “I simply want an update on the status of the operation. As the senior sentient of the alliance, I—”
“Desist.” In cyberspace, Bei mentally yanked on all transmission lines.
Shang’hai materialized next to him. She wrapped her hands around a large blue tube. “This one.”
The screen fell dark.
That had not been on his schematic. The Skaperian techs had a lot to answer for. Bei quarantined his anger. He’d deal with interfering politicians later.
“Admiral, we’ve been detected.” Rome rose from his seat. “They’ve locked on.”
“Abandon ship.” Bei snatched the controls of weapons drone from Rome’s hands. A clock counted down inside his head. Only two minutes twenty-nine seconds until the lifepods reach the event horizon. He’d give them two minutes, thirty.
Rome’s lips thinned. “You know if you die here or are cut off from your body, you’re body shuts down. Permanently.”
“I know the risks.” But they were his to take. He was in charge. Behind Bei, the elevator doors chimed and opened. Drones drifted through the holograms to fill the bridge.
“God, Bei, don’t leave me stuck explaining things to your wife. With her superpowers, I know parts of me will go missing. Parts I love. Parts my wife loves.” Shaking his head, Rome faded away.
Shang’hai shook her finger at him. “No chariot rides. Get out before the reactor loses containment in two minutes thirty.”
He would not die today. Neither would the enemy. But Bei would inflict some damage. Silence blanketed him. Tactics and his available armaments streamed through his head. He laid out his plan.
Twenty-three-point-six percent chance of success. It was better than Twenty-three-point-five. Bei shunted extra power to the forward shields.
Light burst from the side of the dreadnaught.
He checked the sensors. Twenty torpedoes. He unleashed an space age flashbang. The small missile streamed directly into converging barrage.
“At least tell me your name little Syn-En.” Groat picked a piece of meat from his teeth. “I’ll carve it into your carcass while the others dissect you.”
Dissect this. Bei detonated the flashbang. The electronic signature on the torpedoes flickered. Using the com, he amplified the Wireless Array and tapped into the guidance system while the weapons rebooted. One. Three. Six. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty-one missiles hacked. He overrode their kill codes and returned them to sender.
Four more torpedoes resumed course. He counted down. Less than a minute.
“Time for a little housecleaning.” He authorized the sloughing off of the crystalline structure that provided their cloaking. It wouldn’t do for the technology to fall into the Founder’s hands. He rolled his shoulders.
“Ah, there you are little Syn-En.” Grout threw back his head and laughed. The sound was sugar in a paper cut. “Such a tiny vessel. I wouldn’t have wasted so many torpedoes if I had known.”
Groat’s bullet-shaped head whipped about. “What do you mean we’ve been targeted? By whom?”
Bei braced his feet on the deck. The first three torpedoes exploded when they hit his energy shield. The concussive wave punched the bridge. Bulkheads crumbled.
The fourth torpedo slammed into his starboard side. Wind screamed through the elevator shaft as he vented atmosphere.
Bei threw energy reserves behind his ship. Accelerating, the vessel shook. Vibrations dislodged panels that clanged against the deck. The fusion engines approached critical mass. He charged across space, closing the distance between himself and the enemy’s torpedoes.
The dreadnaught’s guns barked fire. Projectiles strafed his hull. A torpedo exploded off his port bow.
He adjusted his course.
Groat pounded his humanoid fist into his palm. Beneath them, his pinscher claws trembled. “Not this time little Syn-En. We are wise to your tactics.”
Wise maybe, but that didn’t mean they had the defenses to stop it. Bei fully charged the drones hovering about him. He overrode the failsafes and splintered the warheads. Once his ship breached the dreadnaught, they would travel forward for five seconds before exploding.
Bei played his last card and opened a channel. Instead of displaying the full bridge, he projected his image back on the NSA flagship. “Here I thought you’d roll out the welcome mat for me, Grouse.”
He deliberately messed up Groat’s name. Would the Bug-Ugly know he was being compared to an Earth bird? Food?
“Groat, Beijing York. I’m not surprised you’re defective. Too much technology.”
“So are you going to let me in or are you chicken?”
Groat’s segmented armor expanded as he inhaled the insult. “Such a little ship. Have you come to plead for your pathetic race? Or maybe your wife’s life?”
Bei’s cardiac sensors broke free of his programming. He sent a dose of Serotonin to counter it.
Groat steepled his fingers. “Our scientists can’t wait to get their hands on Nell Stafford. They have many experiments planned. But that’s after we have a little… fun with her.”
Scraptor chuckles soiled the com system.
Bei hoped the fire he caused would cleanse it. The wormhole swallowed the lifepods. The wardens were through. His men had been rescued. Bei’s skin prickled. The idiots had let him inside their energy shields.Their pride was a powerful weapon for him. “I have a message for you.”
“I look forward to receiving it.”
“Go to hell.” He severed the connection. The ship slammed against another energy barrier. Shit. He hadn’t been so clever after all. The bulkhead crumpled. Black space appeared in the tears in the hull. His systems recorded the damage and the danger. The fusion reactor overloaded. Metal curled away from the fireball. The MIRVed drones pierced the hull, turning it into a colander.
Prepare for system shutdown.
Bei slammed back into his body. His legs crumpled and his eyes rolled back into his head. His systems tried to reconcile the damage it registered to this new reality. Shoving his command codes at his failsafe, he remained conscious.
Rome and Shang’hai stomped over to his.
Another set of boots shoved them out of the way. Doc’s face appeared. Concern lined his brow and a green diagnostic beam shot out of his wrist. “Are you shutting down, Admiral?”
“No. No.” Bei cleared his throat and blinked. It took a moment for his optic sensors to realign with the mock bridge on the NSA flagship. The contradiction were a vice squeezing his skull. He raised his arm to rub the back of his neck. His hand trembled. “Well, it worked, but the remote controlled ship will need some tweaking.”
Doc focused on the readouts.
Bei’s gut clenched. No Syn-En needed readouts. He sat up. “What’s wrong?”
Rome clamped a hand on Bei’s shoulder. “There was a riot in sickbay. Nell Stafford has vanished.”