“So the little Syn-En have teeth after all.”
Aricose Groat, Commander of the Fleet of the Founding Five Armies, dropped onto the captain’s chair of the Dreadnaught Lunaria. A puff of white shot from the pulverized cushion. His claw appendages thudded neatly into the groves six decades of Commanders had created. His Scraptor flesh itched under his polished red armor. Last year’s model. Yet, he was still paying on the upgrade he’d received six months ago.
Armor the Syn-En had destroyed.
He had yet to make the Human soldiers pay.
“Tiny teeth. Not even Scraptor baby teeth. But teeth.” Groat’s Second in Command, Tridit flipped and twisted knobs on the tactical station to the right of the captain’s chair. Arm-thick cables snaked across the dented deck and disappeared into the console. Tridit’s silver armor glinted in the pulsing emergency lights.
Good thing Tridit was Groat’s best friend. No subordinate should have armor an upgrade higher than his superior. Groat flipped open the side compartment and removed a bottle of oil. He opened the top and squirted a stream onto his upper arms. His stomach bucked at the sickly sweet smell. He didn’t like this new formula.
After admiring himself in his shiny armor, Tridit shoved a panel toward the ceiling of the circular bridge. The dented metal snapped off its hinge and skidded across the buckled deck. “I was afraid this war would end in another month.”
“As was I.” Groat massaged away the itchiness under his armor. Gumdrop lights glowed from the boxy tactical station. The other four stations were dark. They’d been dark since he’d boarded six months ago. Few things on the ship actually worked. His fingers dented his armor. He doubted the Syn-En had to deal with such stinginess. Saliva pooled in his mouth at their technology—cloaking devices, mechanized drones, and bubble-engines.
The Founders had believed such things were impossible.
Groat doubted the scientists had even tried to make them work. The Decripi believed in finding answers to prop up their fragile bodies and nonexistent immune systems. The Accumla cared only about items they could market to increase their revenue. The Unadul were happy to spend money on battle songs and commission portraits of the heroic victories, with their many-limbed selves leading the Scraptor Army. As for the Municians…
Groat hated the pointy-earred, stinky politicians. Especially the one he had aboard. The very one who had tried to blame Groat for starting this war. He rubbed his wrists, feeling the cold bite of manacles from his hours of imprisonment.
Mopus Argent would pay.
Groat just needed an opportunity. And fewer witnesses. His right eyestalk swiveled toward the camera dangling from an open ceiling panel. The red light at the bottom was off. But he didn’t trust that the thing didn’t work.
He’d underestimated Mopus once.
Groat would not do so again.
The double doors behind the captain’s chair squealed as someone turned the wheel to open them. Arcs of electricity danced along the bulkheads.
Groat’s nostrils twitched. A pungent musky smell invaded his bridge.
Tridit dropped onto the seat in front of the tactical station and fiddled with the knobs. The wreckage on the view screen faded out of sight.
“Can’t you hurry up?” Mopus’s deep baritone knocked a few extra ceiling tiles loose. The clatter of metal didn’t disguise the clomp of his hard-soled shoes.
Groat sealed his mandibles and counted to ten, then a hundred. He stopped at one hundred thirty—the number of ways he’d dreamed of killing the stinky politico.
In a swirl of gold-embroidered silk robes, Mopus stomped onto the bridge.
The Munician hadn’t even asked for permission to enter, standard procedure during times of war. Groat’s claws clacked restlessly at the sides of the chair. Many of his daydreams had featured him clipping the lime-green politico’s head off. In pieces.
“Why are you smiling?” Mopus’s skin deepened to emerald.
Groat settled his mandibles over his teeth. “I have confirmed that Beijing York is still in charge of the Human and Skaperian fleet.”
Mopus’s slanted eyes narrowed. “Is? As in present tense?”
“Yes.” When he leaned back in his seat, Groat’s armor creaked.
Spittle clung to Mopus’s worm-thin lips. “You let him live after he attacked the flagship of the Fleet of the Founding Five?”
Groat would pin metal on the Syn-En’s chest for destroying this heap of garbage. Lots of metal. Preferably molten metal. After the Human’s ability to neutralize pain was disabled. Groat cracked his knuckles. The emergency lights flickered off then on. “I didn’t let him do anything. You know that those abominations intercepted our fleet’s schematics on Surlat. I told the Commerce Board we needed to upgrade our systems, but they wouldn’t allocate the funds.”
Not one blessed credit.
Anger was a live wire under Groat’s armor. His muscles twitched. He would love to smash something. Preferably something green, fleshy, and smelling of pheromones.
Pursing his lips, Mopus adjusted his embroidered cuffs. “I have stood behind you, despite your numerous mistakes, but if it ever comes out that you deliberately endangered this ship, I will have to submit a vote of no confidence to Commerce Board about your leadership.”
Fear soured Groat’s mouth and ice formed a skin under his armor. He shook it off. Only five Scraptors knew of his plans. None of them would have betrayed him. They all wanted glory for the Scraptors, and an equal say in the running of the Board. Taking a deep breath, he rose from the chair.
He couldn’t lie to a Munician. The stinky politicos could smell a falsehood. Groat hated that about them. Hell, he hated everything about the smarmy, pointy-earred race. Raising his eyestalks to their full height, he stared at Mopus. “You never supported my nomination. So who would be surprised by the vote of no confidence?”
Mopus blinked. His skin faded from emerald to snot green. “But of course I supported you. That’s why I made certain you were present when the war started. The Commerce Board saw these new Humans as a threat. In a few years, they could dominate the universe, our universe. We arranged for them to stumble upon those crystals, so a war would start on our time table.”
Tridit covered a swear word with a cough.
Groat’s flesh crawled under his armor. It was too ridiculous to believe. And yet… The tactic had been used before. Against other races. “Commander Obko would have mentioned it in his briefs when he stepped down as leader of the Fleet.”
Mopus threw back his head. Laughter tinkled out of his slender throat. “Why would we leave a record of such a thing? If it ever leaked to the Board, we would all lose our heads.”
Groat’s claws trembled. The bastard had implicated him by relaying the conspiracy. “You did not support my nomination, Mopus. You had me locked up after the battle at Surlat.”
“That’s because you did not follow the plan. Thankfully, it worked, but it was a close thing.” Mopus shook a tapered finger.
Groat clicked a claw next to it.
Mopus jerked his finger away. “After that Skaperian vessel chased us through the wormhole, I made certain you had the opportunity to redeem yourself and prove yourself worthy to the Commerce Board. And you did.”
By running and hiding and ultimately scuttling his ship. Mopus’s answer made no sense, but political machinations rarely did. Groat’s eyestalk twitched. He preferred war, torture, and dismemberment. Straight-forward actions that yielded a direct result. His bridge stunk of lies. Lies he couldn’t prove.
But he could prove something.
He caught Tridit’s gaze. “Status of my ship.”
Not that he didn’t already know.
“All systems are offline.” Tridit straightened. His fingers hovered over the switch that would power the forward view screen.
Groat twitched his right mandible. He didn’t want his gambit revealed just yet.
“We have minimal life support.” Tridit’s hand relaxed on the panel but his pinschers clacked. “I hailed the Dreadnaught Sirius. She’ll be able to pick us up with an hour of oxygen to spare.”
Good. Their situation was dire. The flagship had been destroyed. Groat would put forward his request for the new ship’s design.
“What!” Mopus twitched like water on a hot branding iron. “You let them destroy our ship?”
“They invaded our systems. Their ship managed to slip past our outer shields.” The glitch had been timed so perfectly, Groat doubted even Beijing York had noticed it. Groat scratched his chin. It was a delicate line he tread—the enemy must appear strong, while he remained a match for them. “We managed to restore the inner shields but our systems didn’t recognize their intrusion and they overloaded our own weapons.”
Or at least that was his story until he and the Scraptors could figure out the new weapons the puny alliance had created.
Mopus’s nose twitched.
Groat locked his armor. Not so much as a twinge betrayed the lie under the truth. He just had to reel the stinky politico in a little more…
Mopus edged closer. A golden thread unraveled from his cuff. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“As political officer aboard, I—”
“Cut the crap, Groat.” Mopus sniffed through his aquiline nose. “You and I will either rise or fall together. You know it. I know it. Now tell me what you are hiding so I can begin to cover our collective asses.”
Ahhh, so that’s how it went. If Groat failed Mopus would pay the same price. He’d heard the rumors. The temptation to fail was almost too sweet to resist. Almost, but not quite. “The Commerce Board’s thrift is responsible for the losses.”
Mopus twirled about. His robes fluttered like tattered pennants behind him. “There was no reason to increase your budget.” An odd light blazed from his eyes, and he thumped his chest with his fist. “We are winning. We have taken hundreds of worlds. Hundreds, just waiting to be exploited.”
Groat snorted. Could he know something the politico didn’t? Excepting the most recent occurrence, of course. “Those worlds were abandoned. The Founders had plundered their natural resources centuries ago. They left them to the natives, believing they would become extinct within two generations.”
But they had survived. And those species had registered as sentient. Groat’s gut twinged. Was there a lesson to be learned? No, those inferiors hadn’t challenged the might of the Founding Five. But this new breed of Human might, especially when paired with the Skaperians. That threat assessment had come directly from the Scraptors.
And they had kept it to themselves.
Or had they?
“Groat.” Mopus snapped his fingers and tapped his polished shoe in impatience. “Aside from a slight rise in prices to finance bringing the new worlds up to snuff, we live as luxuriously as we always have. As we are entitled to.”
“Prices rose to cover the cost of purchasing pirated goods. Convoys of it.” Groat nodded to Tridit. “The Fleet stretched thin to cover our new territory and subdue the local population. We can’t cover every merchant’s pursuit of profit.”
Especially when it didn’t suit the Scraptors’ purpose.
Tridit flipped a toggle switch on his console. The forward viewer blinked awake. A few ships glowed like coals on a debris cloud of ash. The officer zeroed in on the emblem on one of the private yachts.
The Argent family crest filled the screen.
Mopus inhaled sharply. Covering his mouth with one hand, he raised the other as if to pluck the destroyed vessel from space.
Groat bit the tips of his mandibles to keep from grinning. He’d waited months to stage this. It had to be just the right convoy. Thankfully, his contact in the alliance had passed on the intelligence slip.
Mopus’s fingers curled into fists. “Overload the rest of the weapons batteries. Make it look like the Syn-En destroyed your ship, and I will personally see to it that you get an armada.”
“And I will personally see to it that Beijing York is brought to you.”
“No.” Mopus flicked his fingers. “You keep him. I want his wife. I will make certain Nell Stafford pays for a very, very long time.”
Groat shuddered. There was no honor in what the Municians did. He almost pitied the Human female.