“I beg to differ.” Bei’s arm tightened around her waist and he drew her close. His palm caressed her stomach. The light in his eyes had nothing to do with his synthetic parts.
Chuckles reverberated around the conference amphitheater.
God, she’d almost forgotten about the delegates. Her blood heated and her cheeks burned with embarrassment at this intimate moment in such a public place. At least they’d found a room with a locking door during her morning break.
Bei wiggled his eyebrows. “I could provide video clip proof.”
He had better not! Nell fisted the front of his shirt and rose on tiptoes to look him in the eyes. “Okay, I could be pregnant but it would be only for a few hours.”
She dropped her voice to prevent the delegates from hearing. They already watched her like an untrustworthy pet. They didn’t need to know everything about her.
Hashmarks appeared between Bei’s almond-shaped blue eyes. “There is a heartbeat already.”
Doc squeezed between the conference table and Bei. He set his tan hand on her stomach next to Bei’s. His eyes darkened as he merged with the WA. “I’m running a comparison to see if I can estimate the fetus’s age.”
Two more hands pushed her husband’s aside. Nell pressed her lips together. Why did she feel as if she was in the middle of some game changing huddle, but someone else was the quarterback? The Syn-En were family, but her belly wasn’t some Aladdin’s lamp to be rubbed for luck.
Rome grinned before removing his touch. “Finally, my son will have a family member to torture. And Bei will be more sympathetic to my complaints about snot and diapers.”
Shang’hai shook her head. The beads in her pink dreadlocks clinked together. A wistful expression flit through her ebony eyes. “The second Syn-En baby.”
And Nell’s first. She had an outrageous bounty on her head. How could she even think to bring a child into this world? They were at war. Ohgodohgodohgod. Her heart raced and sweat slicked her palms.
Bei’s touch was a soothing balm inside her head. “I would move heaven and hell to keep you and our child safe.”
Yes, but were his implants that strong? The silver stripes on her arms widened. Her stomach cramps lessened. Combining her superpowers and Bei’s might be enough.
A pale hand appeared next to Shang’hai’s dark one. Apollie’s red eyes blinked away tears and her swollen belly protruded from under her EmpShield uniform. “I would be honored to raise your child, Nell Stafford.”
Bei’s fingers spasmed against Nell’s side. “All our children will be in the same cohort.”
Nell gritted her teeth. These two had better not start debating the merits of a Syn-En cohort or Apollie’s Skaperian child-switching method. So far, nothing was confirmed. She could have a really bad case of gas.
Apollie shoved her long yellow feathers out of her eyes. “Such a privilege would strengthen the bonds between our two peoples. My mate, Gaug is blessed with paternal instinct. He will nurture your son or daughter well.”
The whites returned to Doc’s eyes. “I estimate Nell is four months along.”
Elvis materialized on the conference table. The Amarook’s black feathers were swept back in an imitation of the King of Rock and Roll’s trademark do. “Four months and three days. That is when her scent changed.”
Bei glared at him. “Why didn’t you tell us earlier?”
The wolf-like creature twitched his whiskers. “We couldn’t identify the source of that peculiar smell.”
“Oh, hey!” Nell added her glare to her husband’s. The Amarooks ate heads and entrails. That stuff produced a noxious gas when excreted in cloud form. “Besides, that’s not possible.” Nell swept her hand down her stomach, pushing aside the others. Could there really be a baby there? Joy and fear played leapfrog inside her. “I’ve had my period for the last three months. I can’t be that far along.”
Doc shrugged. “Your physiology is closer to a Syn-En’s than a biologic’s but with your fermites… This is unknown territory.”
Bei glanced at Rome. So did Shang’hai, Apollie, and Elvis.
The Security Chief’s eyes widened. “I don’t bleed monthly. And neither does my wife.”
Doc flipped open his arm compartment with his syringes, IV solutions, and tubing. “The interference started four months ago, and it’s possible her cerebral interface and fermites kept the ovulation process going.”
“So I could be pregnant and still get pregnant?” That wasn’t right. In fact, it was downright mean. Good God, she could be pregnant forever! Just keep popping out babies. Nell’s knees threatened to buckle and she clung to her husband.
Someone cleared their throat. Tapping her walking stick, Ugu shuffled forward. The old Skaperian headed her people’s empire and their branch of the military. Aquamarine eyes twinkled out of a moonpie face. “First, Nell and Beijing, congratulations on the impending arrival of your offspring.”
“Thank you.” Bei bowed in deferment to her position, not her society’s belief that all men were only good for raising children.
“Given what a strong warrior Nell is and that you could almost be her equal, I’m certain your offspring will grow to be a formidable warrior and leader.” Ugu pointed to the crowd with an arthritic finger. “But this is a convention of war. All of our children are at stake. We should return to the task at hand.”
“Indeed.” After bowing again, Bei released Nell and rubbed his hands together. “We have much to discuss.” He brushed his lips across hers before holding out her seat.
Nell sighed. He’d moved her chair between his and Rome’s. She hoped this didn’t set a precedent. She wasn’t giving up her work. She’d done just fine so far, and that was in the critical months of the first trimester. Hooking her boot around the chair leg, she pulled it close as she sat. Her hands dropped to her belly. A baby. A real baby. How could she not have known?
Guenoc, the elephant-human hybrid alien, rose from his seat. “I think Nell Stafford’s pregnancy is very relevant to our plans.” He consulted the hide-bound ledger in front of him and twisted his quill. “We all know that the Syn-En have lost over a hundred-fifty men. The alliance will need more to win this war.”
“I agree.” Behind the front table where Apollie and Ugu sat, a pale delegate rose. Lanky near the point of emaciation, the humanoid male looked like the historical representation of a vampire. Red rimmed his green eyes and two rows of elongated teeth flashed behind his raspberry lips. “But I was under the impression the Syn-En were assembled in a factory on Earth.”
Bei stiffened. Rome’s hands clenched into fists under the table.
Nell set her hand on her husband’s rock-hard thigh. The base of her scalp prickled. The WA was alive and crackling. A bright side for him locking her out.
When Guenoc nodded, his oversized gray ears flapped against his bulbous head. “Wherever they come from, we need more of them. Lots more.”
A computer-generated voice squeaked from the back of the room where the tanks sat. “We need a Syn-En army to serve us like the Scraptors protect the Founders.”
“That’s right.” An insectoid alien pounded two of his eight hairy limbs on the table in front of him. “Humans have always served us. Why should they stop just because they’re sentient?”
They wanted Humanity enslaved again. All of them. Nell’s stomach cramped. To them, Bei and his men were nothing but exotic goods recently brought to market. Would they try to break the Erwar codicils at the end of this war?
The WA fell deathly silent. The Syn-Ens’ anger was a bare, high voltage wire in the room.
Nell sucked cold air through her teeth. The insectoids had bought up old and injured Humans for feedstock. Her gaze slipped to the vampire-like Picaroon. There were rumors these aliens liked their prey alive and kicking.
Omest smoothed his brown hair back from his widow’s peak and bared his elongated incisors. “Certainly, we’ve seen enough Humans repaired with machines. What more could be required?”
All expression drained from her husband’s face. The others were equally stone-faced.
Nell cleared her throat. She’d have to intervene soon.
Guenoc addressed the assembly. “Being that this is a convention of equals, I say we put it to a vote. How many members vote that every available Human be converted into a Syn-En, to protect our freedoms and worlds?”
“They didn’t protect my world.” Shoved to the right side against the wall, a hairless, mole-like alien picked green stuff from between his enormous front teeth.
Bei leaned close to her. “Isea. Their world was the first the Founders conquered.”
And the last battle they’d faced the Scraptor Army on the ground. Nell stood, using the back of her legs to scoot her chair away.
Eyes dropped to her belly.
She raised her chin. Let them look. But if they thought her child was their property, she’d push the babe out of her womb to kick their assorted alien asses.
The aquatic member in the back spoke through his computer interpreter, “I second the motion.”
Guenoc’s quill slid across the ledger as he scribbled the proceedings. “All those in—”
“No!” Ugu whacked her cane against the tabletop and pushed to her feet. Scars marred her apricot cheeks and her white feathers curled around a partially missing ear. Despite her hunched shoulders, she stood tall in her green EmpShield uniform. Red nearly covered her moulded breastplate attesting to her kills in battle. “Skaperians and Humans founded the Alliance. We allowed you in, thinking you could be of service. Instead, you wish us to die while you keep notes and worry about your next meal.”
The Skaperian leader flicked a knobby finger at Guenoc and the insectoid delegates.
Guenoc’s elephantine ears folded against his head and he glanced down.
The insectoid stroked his mandibles. “We should all be worried about food with the number of worlds the Syn-En have lost us.”
“The Alliance lost.” Apollie stood beside her superior. “We are all to blame for the failures. This will not be like the Skaperian Wars. We will not allow any of you to take advantage of the Humans like you did us.” The albino warrior pointed at the delegates, each in turn. “You all benefitted from our victory, but didn’t earn your spoils.”
Omest tugged on his gold earring. “What do you wish us to do? The Erwar Codicils prevented us from building anything but a World Guard Fleet. And most of that has already been destroyed.”
“And that which survived is needlessly thrown away.” Guenoc flapped a skeletal arm at the wreckage on the screen behind the Syn-En.
“I do not see how anything was thrown away.” Nell marched out from behind the table. “The assembly voted to destroy the convoy in the hopes of undermining support for the Scraptor army by making life uncomfortable on the Founders’ home worlds. We did so.”
Omest smoothed his slicked back hair. “But will you the next time? Apparently, not all the delegates in the Alliance are equal.”
The raptor claws on Apollie’s middle toes extended like when she prepared for battle. “When you send us men and women willing to fight, then your opinion will carry the same weight.”
Omest bowed in acknowledgement of the greater service and resumed his seat.
Waiting until the Skaperian sat, Nell continued her report. “The Syn-En have tested our new weapons and have successes and areas of improvement to report.”
At least, she hoped so. She had kinda slept through the mission debriefing.
Guenoc tapped his quill on his paper. “How can you expect any of us to contribute?” He slashed the air with his feather pen. “None of us have technology as advanced as the Skaperians or Founders. And few have been able to achieve anything close to the Syn-En or Nell Stafford.”
Heads nodded around the sloping amphitheater.
And there it was—the prize at the bottom of the crackerjack box: Technology. The Alliance had new technology. One that hadn’t been sabotaged by gremlins. Human technology was reliable, working time after time. Nell rolled her shoulders. Not for the first time, she wondered if the fermites had anything to do with it.
Yet the fermites needed a controller.
If the Founders had mastered the little atomic pests, the Alliance wouldn’t be here.
The insectoids rubbed their arms together, emitting faint chirps. “If we’d known Humans were so adaptable, we’d have improved them centuries ago.”
Nell snorted. “I don’t think salting us is quite the same thing as prostheses or false skin.”
A few in the audience twittered. The insectoid chirped in outrage.
Bei’s presence ghosted through the margins of her subconscious. We do need allies.
Maybe not the kind that see us as a snack. Nell clasped her hands in front of her stomach and paced the dais. “You asked what you can do to help. The answer is everything. Where I come from, when war came everyone pitched in to help. And everyone here will contribute to maintain their membership in the Alliance.”
Guenoc scratched in his book. “How will we be paid for our service?”
Paid? Paid? There were more important things than money or credits. Nell debated showing him a couple of flightless birds. Him and the rest of the chicken heads bobbing about the room.
Bei met her halfway across the dais. “You will be paid with your lives and freedom, if we win. If we lose, you lose everything.”
Ugu thumped and shuffled her way to their side. Her old bones creaked until she stood beside Nell. “I hope you have one of those speeches ready. This bunch will need it.”
Apollie’s red eyes glinted. “She and I have been watching lots of war movies after her shift ends in sick bay. There are many inspiring ideas there.”
Bei arched an eyebrow. “During your rest cycle?”
Nell laced her fingers through his. “Research. Besides it relaxes me.” And takes her mind off the patients she’d treated. “And not all my ideas come from movies.”
Just most of them. Everyone should be grateful that Hollywood and history highlighted some very creative people.
The rest of the Syn-En officers lined up on Bei’s left. Elvis sat directly in front of her. Now, she just had to make certain the united front wasn’t wasted. Great, no pressure. Any minute now, she might turn into a diamond. No, she had her baby to think about. Nell squared her shoulders. “We’ll need production lines to manufacture our new weapons.”
Ugu pointed to the three delegations. “Revtos, Ancers, and Towls had assembly lines well behind the battle zones. We will assess your equipment, assign weaponry, and relay quotas.”
The insectoid blinked his compound eyes. “We have no workers since Human liberation.”
Nell’s grip tightened. They wanted Humanity back in the yoke. Over her dead body. “You have hands, er, appendages that can manipulate tools. You’ll make them.”
“We will ask for volunteers to work in the plants alongside your people.” Bei opened the door to the WA. “But your people will work and I will post a Syn-En at every factory to ensure the workers are not mistreated.”
Several of the delegates snorted.
“We’ll draw up guidelines as to the conditions, hours, and acceptable treatment for any Human volunteers.” Nell had treated many of the refugees from the delegates’ worlds. She wanted absolute clarity of her expectations and little wiggle room. “We need raw materials. Raw materials that your worlds can supply.”
Each of the delegates’ desks glowed as their glass tops changed to a computer screen. Several fell away and swiped at their skin as if something crawled on them. But more leaned forward, entranced by the technology.
“I’ve divided the needed materials between many of your worlds.” Bei’s eyes darkened as he manipulated and sorted data in the WA.
“And who will mine this?” Guenoc’s oversized ears wiggled as he hurriedly copied down the information.
“The Iseans.” Softening her interuption, Nell squeezed Bei’s hand. Everyone had to contribute. Without a world, the Iseans had little to offer in the way of material possessions, but they had mining knowledge in spades. They had survived the Founders’ occupation and risen up to register as sentient on a planet everyone considered worthless. “Humans will work with such skilled miners possessing an impeccable safety record.”
The mole-like alien leaned over his computer. “I see you haven’t an available source for Scandium or Neptunium. We found veins of these in one of the Skaperian systems during their great sleep.”
Nell bit her lip to keep from smiling. If the Skaperians nap had lasted a week longer, they would have lost their home world even though they survived the Plague.
Ugu hissed. A moment later, she shook her head. “See me after the meeting. We will discuss what you need to begin the venture.”
Like a baseball scoreboard, the Iseans’ name appeared next to the two elements.
Nell took a deep breath. The major hurdles were over. In theory, but there was another higher one that might cut the whole enterprise off at the knees. “Those species who don’t wish to offer soldiers to fight in battle, must contribute recruits to the Land Army.”
The words bounced around the room as the delegates tried to make sense of them.
Rome snorted. What the hell is a Land Army? One made of rocks and dirt?
Ping him, why don’t you, Bei? Nell set her free hand on her hip. “We’ll need food, of many varieties and many of you already have agrarian worlds whgarbageere our technology will increase crop yields and efficiency.”
The light flickered in the room as the screens switched to foodstuffs, clothing, and sundries the alliance needed. Necessary tonnage was listed beside the items.
Guenoc’s quill snapped and he chucked it onto his desk, disgust caused his noseflaps to quiver. “We could never produce so much even with double the Human harvesters.”
The insectoid leaned back in his chair and folded two sets of arms over his thorax. “Human labor was never very efficient, no matter the incentive. How do we know these machines will be any different?”
Nell wanted to punch the delegate in the nose. But he didn’t have one, he was too far away, and Bei had hooked his thumb through her waistband. The alien should be thankful, she was being held back from opening a big ol’ can of whoop ass on him. “Our tech works. And our people will work harder, smarter, and faster than ever because they’re doing it for themselves and their children. We’ll give them a number and they’ll deliver. Hope has lit a fire inside each of them, and it burns so bright it’ll incinerate you if you stand too close.”
Bei tugged on her waistband. Don’t be promising things we can’t deliver.
Yeah. Rome’s avatar shouted from cyberspace. Most of our people aren’t in the best shape.
They’ll do it. You’ll see. At least, they did in the movies. And Nell wanted that Hollywood ending.
“Humans have not shown us this so far.” Guenoc spread his gray hands on the open ledger. “In fact, we’re losing the war.”
Heads nodded all around the room.
Bei stilled. If the ETs don’t believe we can win this war, then we won’t be able to.
And they might sue for a separate peace, Rome added, exposing our plans.
“The good guys always lose the war at first.” Nell smiled at as many aliens as she made eye contact with, despite the need to vomit at the sight of them. She knew what they had done to her fellow man. In some ways they were just like the Founders. If the Alliance didn’t need allies… “And everyone here is a good guy. We all expected the Founders to play by the Erwar Codicils because we did. So they caught us unprepared and gained victories. But those achievements are a double-edged sword. They’re getting cocky and overreaching their forces.”
Rome jerked his head toward the screen behind them. “They left valuable cargo undefended. They thought our ship so broken they allowed it past their defenses and suffered for it.”
“Everyone, stand united, do your bit, do more than your bit.” Nell’s attention stuck on the vampire alien. “We will triumph.”
Omest rested his pointy chin on his fingertips. “There are minerals on the list that have no source. Cerium salts and Iridium alloys for example. I might be able to recover enough, if I have the right ship and crew.”
Asshole. Rome’s avatar rolled his eyes and lightning bolts radiated from his pixelated body.
“Speak to Rome after the meeting.” Bei inched closer to Nell. “Now, if there are no further questions, we all need to focus on our assigned tasks.”
Guenoc raised his hand. “Since we Plenipotans have so little to contribute, may I offer our administrative abilities, to help coordinate and report production levels?”
Doesn’t the elephant-man know that’s what computers are for? Rome’s avatar fizzled out of the WA.
“Everyone is welcome to contribute.” Nell glared at the Security Chief. “If anyone has any other skills that might be of use, please let me know.”
The delegates nodded then one by one began to rise. They clustered in groups, slated to provide similar supplies.
Ugu’s grin creased her moon pie face. A white feather escaped her cornrows. “For the first time in six months, I don’t want to kick them out of the Alliance and fight the enemy with just our two species. You have shown Skaperian cunning, Nell Stafford. You’ve even made them excited to help.”
“Thank you.” Nell bowed. The older woman shuffled toward the side doors.
Apollie made an okay sign, but with two thumbs on each hand, it looked almost like an obscene gesture.
Nell flashed her a thumbs-up, much better suited to her species.
Bei leaned down and whispered in her ear. “Do you think Guenoc will still want to help when we replace his quill with a keyboard?”
She jabbed her husband in the gut. Her elbow stopped cold on his armor and pain raced up her arm. “Be nice.”
His blue eyes twinkled. “I will, but you have to do something for me.”
She shivered. He had quite an imagination without seeing Hollywood movies. Best of all, he was scheduled for a four hour break after the meeting. Their bed couldn’t have gotten too cold. “Name it.”
He kissed her nose. “Let Doc examine you.”
Her jaw dropped. “Of all the rotten, no good…”
Bei winked. “I’ll make it up to you later.”
Oh, well, when he put it like that. Nell narrowed her eyes. “You’ll have lots to make up.”
Elvis slipped between Bei’s parted legs and wiggled his furry body into the space between them. Grabbing her hand, the Amarook licked it.
Nell tried to jerk her hand back.
Elvis held tight. His snout scrunched and his whiskers twitched. “It tastes…” He stuck his tongue between his fangs then shook his head. “It tastes like a boy. Healthy. Strong. Of course, I will have to sample other Humans to verify that.” He sniffed the air. His ears rotated, ruffling his feathery hairdo. “There is an aftertaste that is quite tangy.”
Doc held out his arm for her to take. “I don’t think I have tangy in my medical database.”
Nell touched him so her fermites wouldn’t shock his circuits. “Let’s get this over with.”
“You can learn much from tasting someone.” Elvis trotted close at her side. “But with your species deadened senses, perhaps it is best to stick with your software and sensors.”
A red bubble exploded in Nell’s head, blasting her equilibrium. She skidded to a stop. Bile surged up her throat. She quickly swallowed it down.
Admiral. Mechanic Montgomery Smith’s worry squirmed through the WA. The rescued Syn-En have arrived in Cargo Bay 2. They’ll confirm that we have a traitor in our midst.
kobo (coming soon)