Bei pushed to his feet. His knees shook and his stomach roiled. Obviously the transition from hologram back to his real self had caused an anomaly in his systems. He ran a diagnostic check, focusing on his hearing.
On the mock triangular bridge, three of his command staff stared at him. Two ensigns hovered behind Rome, Shang’hai, and Doc. Both barely out of their teens, the two Syn-Ens had volunteered to assist in the sick bay. It was supposed to be simple work, but something had gone wrong. Richmond was missing patches of her brown hair, and Brooklyn’s right arm had been twisted backward at the elbow. Tears in their NDA skin and uniform slowly zipped together, covering the silver ‘bones’ underneath.
Bei’s systems flashed green. No problems. He locked gazes with Rome, his head of security. “Repeat.”
Rome swallowed hard. “Nell Stafford is not aboard.”
Bei’s lungs seized. His body switched to hypoxic conditions and slowed biologic functions. Anger prowled the Wireless Array and rattled the bars of his self-control. There was bound to be a simple reason behind his wife’s absence. One that they would discuss while he inserted a subroutine into her cerebral interface ensuring that she never left this ship without him at her side again. Ever. “Explain.”
Frown lines marred Doc’s tan forehead. The sclera of his brown eyes tinged gray. His avatar materialized in cyberspace and shot sedatives at Bei’s rampaging anger. “Nell Stafford was helping in sick bay, but she’d gone beyond her established time so I sent her back to your cabin for nourishment and rest.”
A reasonable request, but Nell was rarely reasonable. Biologics lacked the software in their logic processors, and his wife defied any attempts to program it in. Normal operations so far. Tension relaxed its grip on Bei’s shoulders. “Alone?”
“No.” Doc cleared his throat. The green diag beam in his wrist winked off and on. “I had my wife accompany her, along with two recently repaired refugees.”
Bei nodded. Despite being a pacifist, Davena shared one of Nell’s superpowers—control of the fermites. The atomic sized machines were capable of the most outlandish defenses, all courtesy of his wife’s imagination and Twentieth century movie clips. “Nell listens to your wife.”
As much as she listened to anyone.
His wife had a mind of her own and wasn’t afraid to use it. Even if it brought harm to herself and wore out his circuits.
Doc and Rome stepped back.
Richmond and Brooklyn marched forward. Standing at attention, the ensigns kept their eyes trained forward and stood ramrod straight.
Bei’s testicles drew up tight. Why the hell were they being so formal? Among the Syn-En there was no rank. “Speak.”
Brooklyn eased back a step.
Startled, Richmond glared at her co-worker. She raised her chin a notch and inhaled deeply. “We were transporting four critical refugees from the triage area in Docking Bay Six. All four were comatose with severe internal hemorrhaging.”
So the refugees were being carried. The gurneys would have been occupied and unconscious biologics wouldn’t feel pain. Bei clasped his hands behind his back. All standard operating procedure. “Go on.”
“We commandeered Lift alpha-delta-omega. The doors opened onto the sick bay deck and we exited. Nell Stafford, Davena Cabo, and two refugees stood aside as we passed.” Richmond exhaled slowly.
Bei’s sensors pinged from Richmond’s spiking blood pressure and the scent of fear on her breath. Brooklyn squeezed his eyes closed and clamped his lips together.
“We had traveled three-point-two meters when someone shouted yea-sayer.” Richmond’s avatar appeared in cyberspace. A black raincloud drenched her pixelated figure. She held up two soggy data boxes—hers and Brooklyn’s memory clips of the events.
Bei accepted the memory clips of the incident but didn’t open them. Instead he crossed referenced her words with the Combat Information Center. The archives rendered a definition from Earth circa Nineteen-Ten. “What is current meaning of a yea-sayer?”
Rome’s lip curled back. “A collaborator. Apparently, these slagheads snitch on their fellow Humans for favors from their masters, and their talking results in the deaths of one or more people.”
The worst sort of collaborator. Bei rolled his stiff shoulders. “Surely no one mistook Nell for one of these… these slagheads.”
The word fell short of describing the traitors and left a foul taste in his mouth. Enough enemies populated the universe, Humanity didn’t need to turn on itself.
Richmond’s teeth clicked together and the remnants of her pony tail slapped her shoulders when she shook her head. “No, Sir! Nell Stafford’s reputation precedes her. Even our allies are in awe of her superpowers.”
Bei’s lips twitched. Leave it to his wife to spread the word that technological advances were superpowers.
Brooklyn nudged Richmond out of the way. “Admiral, the refugees attacked our patients, not Nell Stafford.”
“But Nell tried to help you, didn’t she?” Bei swore under his breath. Of course, she did. His wife was always wading in the water without checking for sharks or piranhas. And her damned superpowers kept her safe or healed her. What would happen if they stopped? A glitch infected his cardiac subroutine.
Brooklyn’s hands clenched and unclenched. “I heard her calling and managed to work my way to the top of the dog pile. A female with a broken arm was reaching for Nell when she just disappeared.”
“Disappeared.” Bei couldn’t process the words or reconcile the meaning. “How does one disappear?”
No one just disappears. They go somewhere… Some place. In cyberspace, his avatar ripped open the memory clips and threw them up on the screen of his mind. He fast forwarded to the end. Both Richmond and Brooklyn’s optical implants had recorded the same event. Doc, Shang’hai, and Rome joined him in cyberspace.
Nell’s features had softened. Her outline blurred then a haze appeared around her. She faded like an old photograph exposed to direct sunlight. Her blue eyes widened. She raised her hand. Her mouth opened then she was gone.
Bei replayed it again and again. The ending didn’t change. “Son of a bitch.”
Nell had disappeared!
How the hell could this have happened? A third screen popped up. Groat, the Bug-ugly bastard clacked his mandibles. “…beg for your wife’s life.”
Bei’s armor locked and kept him from collapsing. He’d thought it was an empty threat… What if Nell died from his attack on the dreadnaught? Lightning bolts shot from his avatar.
The hair on Rome’s pixelated representation stood on end as he was repeatedly shocked. He slapped Bei on the back. “There’s no way the enemy could have gotten to her.”
The comfort of touch both in the WA and in person was a new development, one Nell had taught them. His wife had changed the Syn-En in so many ways… For the better, if she was gone…
“They’ll never get her.” Shang’hai set her ebony hand on Bei’s shoulder. “Every Syn-En would die first. And we’re not dead.”
An insidious idea infected Bei’s thoughts and rotted his hope. But there was a way. “A yea-sayer could have done it.”
They were Human and injured. What better way to get close to Nell? His Nell. Who thought everyone played by the rules. Who wanted to help everyone. His eyes leaked, distorting his vision. Storm clouds gathered over his avatar’s head and poured over him. God help everyone if Bei lost her.
“The only yea-sayers on board died in the corridor outside of sick bay. No one betrayed us. You’ll see. Nell Stafford will outlive us all.” Rome squeezed Bei’s shoulder. “Death’s probably afraid she’ll talk so much that all the lost souls will mutiny and return to the world of the living just to rest in peace.”
Shang’hai snorted. “The only technology that even comes close to what happened is in those movie clips Nell brought forward. None of the intel we have indicates the Founders have technology in development that can break someone into particles.”
Bei’s ears rang with silence. One of his lifelong friends wasn’t offering words of comfort. He turned around. “Doc?”
“I haven’t been able to get a good medical reading on your wife for over four months.” Doc’s shoulders sagged. “The instrumentation in the sick bay registers that everything is perfectly normal, and Davena says her fermites haven’t detected anything of concern.”
“But…” Bei braced himself for the worst.
Brooklyn and Richmond set their hands on Doc’s back, forming a snowflake of support.
Doc sighed. “It’s possible that the fermites dismantled Nell Stafford. We saw it on Surlat. When a person dies—”
“No!” Bei shoved them away and ripped his consciousness from cyberspace. He stormed across the mock bridge. A stool bent under his touch. He hailed her, opened the channel he’d sequestered for them. His words disappeared in a void. “My wife is not dead.”
Rome shadowed Bei around the room. He straightened the mangled stool and set it in front of the communications console. “I’ve scanned for her cerebral interface signal, but didn’t find it.”
Bei drew up short. Best friend or not, if he said the words Bei would dismantle the messenger.
Rome skidded to a stop and raised his hands. “But the fermites could be causing interference.”
Damn fermites. Bei hated the atomic pests. Small wonder most of the species in the universe eschewed technology. Hope flickered like a candleflame inside his breast. Not everyone needed technology. “Where’s Iggy?”
The Amarooks could find Nell with their telepathy.
Doc scraped his hand down his face. “Maintaining the link messed up the featherhead’s brain.” He tapped his temple. “Her mate, Elvis, carried her back to their pack and their pups for some alien mojo that will heal her.”
Mojo. Another word from a century long gone. Pain seared Bei’s heart. Nell couldn’t be dead. He gripped the console; the metal bent under his fingers. His back up systems clicked on. Air filled his lungs. His heart resumed a normal rhythm. The machine would continue to function. But what good was it without Nell at his side?
Shang’hai frowned at the damaged console. “We would have asked the Amarooks to find Nell Stafford, but they wouldn’t open the door. And we didn’t dare ask through the door. Too many ears.”
Rome nodded. “Nell Stafford is the connective tissue keeping the Alliance together. If word spread that—”
Bei wrapped his hand around his Security Chief’s throat and raised him on his tiptoes. “My wife is not connective tissue.”
“Feel better now?” Rome rolled his eyes. “I’d let you dangle me from your fourteenth generation upgrades for days if I thought it would help.”
But it wouldn’t. Bei set his best friend on his feet. If Nell could evade their technology, then they would have to search the old fashioned way. His wife would appreciate it. “I want Syn-En eyes on every inch of this ship.”
“Asshole.” Rome shoved Bei’s shoulder. “A security detail is nit-picking the Picaroon transport that carried the refugees here. It won’t leave the cargo bay until we’ve uncovered every dirty secret.”
Doc paced in front of the door to the hallway. “I’ve interrupted all Syn-En’s sleep cycles. They’ve searched decks one through three. No trace of her yet.”
It was a good start.
The door opened and Davena stumbled inside. Blue and gold robes fluttered around her willowy frame. A halo of fermites surrounded her bouncing curls. Her eyes were silver ball bearings in her cinnamon face.
“Davena…” Doc picked a path toward his wife.
“Stay away.” She raised her hand. An arc of blue light sprang from her palm, hitting her husband squarely in the chest.
The impact knocked Doc backward. He collided against Shang’hai. The pink haired engineer wrapped her arms around his waist then they both collapsed. Excessive energy danced along the deck like blue snakes and the acrid stench of burning NDA filled the room.
Davena blinked. Her eyes returned to their normal black color, and she raised a hand to her mouth. “Oh! Oh! I’m sorry. I was just so distressed.” She clutched the skirt of her robes, wringing it. “Nell Stafford is with the Meek.”
The Meek—Davena and her people’s version of God. Bei stiffened. It wasn’t just his fail safes talking. Nell Stafford wasn’t dead. He would know it. Screw his logic subroutines and the evidence. He would find his wife. And someone would be busted down to enlisted for tattling. He checked on his men’s progress on the search. No one else seemed to know that his wife was AWOL.
Doc coughed a cloud of smoke from the electrical burst of fermites. Shaking his head, he untangled himself from Shang’hai and rose. “Davena was with Nell when….”
How many other witnesses reported the same thing? Bei ground his teeth. His men were right, many of the alliance looked at Nell as a guiding star. There’d be plenty of yea-sayers if word spread that she’d disappeared. “Quarantine all witnesses of the event.”
Doc nodded and thumped his healing chest to dispel the last of the smoke from his lungs. “There’s always an outbreak of some disease or other.”
Shang’hai dusted her hands on her pants before standing. “I’ll see if I can configure the sensors to find a concentration of fermites. I’ll use Davena as my baseline.”
Bei nodded. It was a start. “I’ll talk to Elvis. Once the Amarook finish healing Iggy, he should be able to find Nell.”
Rome shook his head. “You’ll have to trust us to do that. The NSA brass want a briefing on how the mission went.” The Security Chief tapped an imaginary wristwatch. “You know they don’t believe anything unless it comes from you.”
Curse words blistered cyberspace. The Alliance leaders were bound to notice Nell’s absence. With a thought, Bei located the files of the riot in sick bay. He deleted them and scrubbed the recordings. Not that rumors needed evidence. “Inform everyone that Nell is under Doc’s orders to rest for a full twenty-four hours.”
He could buy the Syn-En time.
But if they failed, it would be every species for itself.
And the war would be lost.
With Humanity once more enslaved.