“Our quarry is escaping.”
Admiral Beijing York bit his lip to keep from laughing at the Amarook pup’s words. They were on a starship, deep in space, and this corridor led only to one place: the cargo bay. “That quarry is my wife.”
A soft thud rumbled along the metal walls of the corridor. Shaking his feathered head, the invisible predator materialized. While the Amarooks resembled extinct Earth wolves, they possessed a slim set of arms attached to their chests between their forelegs. The canine used them to inspect the damage on his gray head. Black fur rippled over his gangly puppy body. Pink tongue dangling from his mouth, he scrambled along the deck grating. “She is close enough to the cargo bay to steal a shuttle and escape.”
The words echoed in Bei’s head and through the translator hanging around the pup’s neck, insistent but soft spoken. Far different than when the pup first developed his telepathy. “You’ve been watching too many video clips.”
Bei had his wife to thank for that. When she’d awakened from her century and a quarter slumber, she’d brought with her the history of Earth as Humans knew it at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Before aliens had nearly wiped out life on the planet. Before Humans had been Synthetically-enhanced, creating cyborgs like him.
“Since you will not allow her to be the fierce warrior she is, she spends much time watching them with us.” The pup, Ash, stared at Bei with ice blue eyes before he shook his fur and used his natural cloaking abilities to disappear. Not that there were many places to hide. Smooth walls lined the corridor. Bright orange doors appeared at intervals, each painted with black universal symbols designating the room’s purpose.
“My wife is carrying twins. She needs her rest.” Not that she looked rested. Bei set his hand on the nearly full-sized pup’s head. Despite being telepathically linked, he wasn’t as adept at determining the Amarook’s location as his wife, Nell Stafford. The crystals that provided the creature’s camouflage interfered with his sensors.
“She needs to challenge herself with the hunt.” Ash snuffled along the corridor, pausing by the sealed doors lining the hallways. He tossed telepathic images to Bei of the refugees the ship had housed not so long ago. The residual of cooking fires, of bodies broken from endless medical experiments, and impressions of the aliens forming the alliance currently housed on the flagship, the Nell Stafford.
The ship’s nacelles hummed under his boots. Connecting to the Combat Information Center, data flitted through the cerebral interface at the base of Bei’s skull. Everything was running optimally. At least all the technology was. Static electricity crackled across his skin. He stroked the metal walls, discharging the build-up. An image of Nell slammed into his skull.
Ash had refocused on her scent. His invisible, wagging tail created a breeze in the air. “I like the training clips. I will be the best at fighting the evil dead when they rise.”
Bei nearly swallowed his tongue. His wife had obviously not told the pup the difference between fiction and fact. He scratched Ash behind his ear. “Why don’t we focus on the current enemy? The Founding Five are just as much of a challenge as the evil dead.”
Ash shimmered into view. A downy feather dangled in front of his eyes as they rounded a corner. “I am not allowed to fight in this war. Besides, it will all be over soon.”
If only. Bei clasped his hands behind his back. The next battles would take place inside the Founding Five’s home territory. Things were about to get much, much worse. “Well, you aren’t quite a year old. Far too young to train as a warrior.”
Even the new inductees into the Syn-En corps had remained fully human their first year.
“Eleven months, twenty-nine days, in Earth years.” Ash’s floppy ears rotated on his head. “Mother explained that my job is to determine which of your twins is the true off-spring of Nell Stafford, and which is the duplicate.”
Compression sensors flared in Bei’s head and he shook out his fists. “Both babes are our children. You will not harm either one.”
He didn’t care if one twin came from the technology of the Meek. And it wasn’t because he needed the powerful ally to win this war. He was more machine than man, and his wife loved him. He knew she would feel the same toward their children.
“Of course I will not harm it.” Ash rolled his eyes, a gesture similar to Nell’s. “But we must know which is which. No one trusts the Meek. Do you?”
“No.” Bei had difficulty trusting any of his allies.
The last year of war hadn’t changed that. Many of the aliens still viewed Humans as their property, subject to their whims, and willing to sacrifice every man, woman, and child on board to secure their own freedom.
Ash tapped his fingers together. “One taste of the offspring’s scat and I will know which child to bond with. I recommended Nell Stafford expand the bed or get rid of it. The entire pack can fit on the floor, but I do prefer the mattress.”
Bei sighed. He would never be free of the Amarooks. “The babes will sleep in the adjoining room, in their cradles.”
He hoped the pups wouldn’t chew on his offspring like they did his boots, which had to be rebuilt daily. Unfortunately, the drool remained behind.
Ash emitted a soft wheezing sound and fangs gleamed in his downy muzzle. “We will not eat them. Humans have a nasty aftertaste and cause gas.”
Bei opened his mouth then shut it. He didn’t want to know how the pup knew about the indigestion. They rounded the last corner. The murmur of voices and the beep and grumble of machinery in the aft cargo bay penetrated the metal walls.
Nell waddled ahead. Her blond ponytail wiggled down the back of her black uniform. The fabric stretched across her round bottom. She paused but didn’t look back.
Bei’s chest tightened at the sight of her. His wife. The mother of his children. The Neo-Dynamic Armor comprising his skin hardened and formed razor-sharp ridges along his arms. He would kill to keep her safe.
Ash yipped and dashed forward. “I found her! I found her!”
“Yes, you did.” Bei’s lips twitched. He’d never tell the Amarook, he hadn’t needed his help to locate his missing wife. Through the CIC, he could track her anywhere, but the pup viewed this as an adventure. In the canine’s culture, only the females hunted and killed, while the males stayed in the den and cared for the young. He wished his wife would be content staying safe on the ship.
But she was a warrior in her own right.
And he wouldn’t deprive her of her purpose. They were fighting for their children’s future.
Squaring her shoulders, Nell set her hand on the wall and glanced over her shoulder. Dark circles lassoed her eyes. Fatigue hung heavy around her mouth. She sucked on her bottom lip. “You found me.”
Her beauty knocked the breath from his body.
Materializing two meters from Nell, Ash pranced on the metal deck. “I tracked you. I kept silent so you wouldn’t know it until I was upon you.” He unfolded the thin arms tucked against his chest and stroked her protruding belly. “You didn’t hear me, did you?”
“I thought I heard you a moment ago.” She scratched the Amarook’s head and played down the truth.
But she couldn’t fudge the truth more than a little. The sensors embedded under Bei’s cyborg skin noted the skirting of the facts.
Would Ash taste it when he licked her? The pup’s ear twitched then he pressed it against her belly. “Your mate speaks loudly. He gave me away. The babes are quite active today.”
Bei twitched with the need to move the Amarook and see for himself. This was his wife, his children. He’d never expected to have either. And he wasn’t too keen on sharing.
Nell stroked the side of her stomach before holding out her hand to Bei. “Come say hello, Dad-to-be.”
His long legs ate up the distance. Sandwiching the pup between them, he cupped her belly. An elbow jabbed his right palm. A foot kicked his left. He amplified his sensors and picked up the twins matching heart tones. “They are restless today.”
“I know the feeling.” Her sigh riffled her blond bangs.
His gaze locked with hers. Fear lurked in their blue depths. She was trying to outrun her demons. Ones she couldn’t name; ones she couldn’t share. Rogue code invaded his programming, shortening his breath and tripping his heartbeats. How could he fight an enemy he couldn’t see? “Out for a walk?”
“I want to go to the moon colony.” She bit her lip, creating indents in the plump flesh.
“Moon colony.” Ash squirmed out from between them. Leaping into the air, he twisted his body and landed on all fours, with his tail sticking straight out. “Yes! I’ve never been off the ship before.”
Bei pulled his wife against him—thigh to thigh, stomach to stomach. The babes drummed on her womb, sending the echo of movement through his body. “If you need a distraction, I can provide one.”
Red blossomed across her cheeks, and she drew in a shaky breath. Her fingers crept up his chest to toy with the fiberoptic cable tucked under his black hair. “You don’t say.”
Chuckling, Bei traced the curve of her spine then cupped her bottom. “It has been five hours, forty minutes, and six seconds since I last said so.”
Nell sieved air through her teeth. “My enhanced libido is your fault.”
She leaned against him.
Bei shifted his hand to her hip. “If I ever complain about you wanting me, you need to nuke my programming and upload new software.”
He kissed the top of her head.
She buried her face in his neck. “I don’t want to change a thing about you.”
Leaning away from her, he set his knuckle under her chin and tilted her face to his. “You already have. And every one has been a premium upgrade.”
“I love it when you talk cyborg.”
That sounded like an invitation. “Circuits.” He kissed her forehead. “Relays.” His lips brushed her closed eyes. “NeoDynamic Armor.”
He slanted his mouth across hers.
Opening to him, she stroked her tongue along his.
He tasted the chocolate rations she’d consumed that morning. She climbed him, wrapping her legs around his waist, shimmying up his body and clinging to his shoulders.
He gripped her bottom, sliding her up and down his body as he walked. Soft heat against unyielding prostheses.
Her eyes fluttered.
After nearly three years together, his programming still couldn’t compensate for her touch.
Breaking off the kiss, she nibbled on his ear. “You better find a maintenance closet, fast.”
“Only a bed will do.” He would rather die than hurt her, or the babes.
A loud groan echoed down the corridor. Ash flopped onto the deck’s grating, his paws splayed around his furry body. “I’m never going to leave the ship.”
Nell stiffened and rested her forehead against Bei’s. Her warm breath washed over his face.
Tilting his head, Bei kissed her nose. Once the twins arrived they’d have more interruptions, and he’d have to dig deep into the database to figure out how to get alone time with Nell. He lowered her feet to the deck. “Ash, stealth mode.”
The Amarook rolled to his feet then held himself perfectly still. An instant later, he faded from sight.
Excitement bubbled in Bei’s mind. His or the Amarook’s? He couldn’t tell them apart. “Clear the shuttle and secure our cabin.”
The pup’s nails scratched the deck as he tore down the corridor. Tail thumping, he trembled by the door to the cargo bay, waiting for it to open so his presence wasn’t given away. “Bombs?”
The growl prowled inside Bei’s skull, along with flashes of probable explosives. “Anything that doesn’t belong.”
“Yes, ma’am, er, sir.” The door snicked open and he darted through.
Images bombarded Bei. Aliens were sorted by type, preference as a food source, and whether they’d shared table scraps with the Amarooks.
Nell leaned against him. “You’re going to be an amazing dad.”
“I will try.” He stroked her back, comparing his sensor readings with her past health history.
“Stop that.” She nipped his right pec. “I’m just tired. Besides, you know that my brain box keeps everything chugging along.” She tapped the cerebral interface at the base of her skull. “And whatever it doesn’t do, the fermites take care of.”
The atomic-sized machines she commanded buzzed around her in a sparkle of glitter.
He loved the power of the fermites, but they had come with a hitch—the Meek. “You are tired.”
“Does that mean I can’t go?” Leaning back in his arms, she stared up at him. A frown tugged at her lips.
“You’ll go and sleep on the way to the mining base.” She was safe on the ship, but untouchable with him nearby.
She glanced at him from under her lashes. “Is that an offer to exhaust me until I pass out?”
His gut twitched from her scent. “Yes.”
“Then what are we still standing here for?” Taking a step toward the door, she tugged on his arm.
He pretended to stumble after her. “Are you using me for my body?”
“You better believe it, Pilgrim.”
Pilgrim? Bei referenced the word. The first referred to religious refugees, the other to a movie star in horse-centric entertainment. At least, he wasn’t the horse.
The doors swished open. Voices rumbled out of the cargo bay. Males and females, aliens and Human alike practiced thrusting and blocking with the staff in their hands. Light glistened on their armor. Ensign Richmond demonstrated each move at the front of the group. Her pony tail had been plaited into fifty brown braids. Dark brown stained the breastplate over her black Syn-En uniform, a memorial to Skaperian comrades slain in battle. She walked among the five rows of humanoids correcting their technique.
Mechanic Montgomery Smith stood beside the ramp leading into the bulbous belly of the Starflight-class shuttle. His dark skin, Syn-En support uniform, and armor bulked up his wiry frame and shifted as he pointed to the shuttle, then glared at the pink-haired engineer in front of him.
Nell groaned. “Trouble is brewing.” She rose on tiptoe and pressed her lips against his jaw. She lingered a moment before stepping back. “I’ll meet you aboard the ship.”
“Coward.” Bei rolled his shoulders. Why had she left dealing with his emotional crewmen to him? She was better at feelings than he was, than any Syn-En could be. Cyborgs weren’t supposed to feel anything.
Nell stuck her tongue out at him, then walked in the shadow of a forklift carrying supplies to the awaiting shuttle.
He shook his head. Did she really think she could hide? Her cerebral interface allowed him and his men to keep an eye on her. Every Syn-En knew she’d headed here probably about the time she decided to do it. His men had pinged him enough, his head had rung with machine gun fire.
Greetings erupted across the bay. Folks stopped walking to hail Nell, others rushed forward to rub her stomach for luck and offer advice.
Bei bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. He’d bet his wife regretted the solo walk across the bay. He synced his cerebral interface with hers and planned any intervention. A hard thump slammed into his skull.
Hands on her hips, his pink-haired chief engineer glared at him across the deck. Sydney Shang’hai’s almond-shaped eyes narrowed to slits. What are you thinking?
She threw a dozen lightning bolts at him through the Wireless Array that connected him and his men.
Bei arched an eyebrow. He was the highest ranking Syn-En ever created, commander of the flagship of the Neo-Sentient Alliance, and co-president of the alliance. Few dared question him. But few grew up in the same cohort as he had. His chief engineer was his family, closer than blood in many ways, and a pain in his prosthetic posterior.
Shang’hai snapped something off at Montgomery, then stomped across the deck. Your very pregnant wife shouldn’t be on this mission. She should be tucked in her bed until she delivers.
A forklift screeched to a halt to avoid hitting his chief engineer.
She glared at the driver, who slunk down in his seat.
Bei snorted. Nell isn’t going to do anything she doesn’t want to.
And tying her to the bed wouldn’t work; she’d command her fermites to release her. He’d only tried that once.
So you allow her to come on this trip? The beads at the ends of Shang’hai’s braids clacked together. You’re setting a bad precedent for the other biologics. This time, her glare speared her lover, Smith.
The mechanic blew her a kiss and fell in beside Ensign Richmond on the next set of drills. The man’s motions were smooth and practiced. Sweat beaded his forehead but he kept pace with his partner. With his prosthetic arm, he would be able to skewer his opponent with the strength of a Syn-En.
Unfortunately, beneath his armor, the rest of him remained flesh and blood.
I hate the idea of biologics fighting as much as you. Bei’s NDA itched at the thought. But this is everyone’s fight. If the Founding Five triumph, the best any species can hope for is a speedy death.
If Bei wanted Nell to have it, he’d have to do it himself. He’d seen the intercepted enemy communications. The bounty on his wife’s head rivaled the GDP of most planets. And they wanted her alive. His body switched into threat-mode hardening and forming razor-sharp ridges on his limbs before he ordered it to stand down.
We can handle it. We’ve only lost a handful of Syn-En since the Meek joined the alliance. Shang’hai fell into step beside him. Lightning bolts still flashed in their connection.
We’re heading into the Founding Five’s home space. You know the enemy will fight for every planetoid and meteor. The Scraptors are turning into Kamikazes, blowing themselves up to prevent our advance. Not that the alliance victories had stopped, but the casualties were beginning to mount. And the Syn-En had refused to make any more of themselves. These aliens didn’t understand the stigma. Bei paused as another load of rations headed toward a second shuttle. He mentally checked the manifest for the expedition. No changes.
So, who had authorized the cargo?
All the more reason not to allow the biologics to drill on the moon. Shang’hai flipped open the tip of her index finger, revealing the plasma cutter inside. They think they’ll be allowed to fight.
They will be allowed to fight. And they need the practice in low gravity with rebreather gear. If emotions hadn’t clogged his engineer’s logic processors, she would remember that.
Has fought beside us before. Bei cut her off before she could finish.
Beside us. The Syn-En. You know we protect our civilians. Shang’hai drilled her finger into his chest.
His armor dented under the pressure. Bei cleared his throat.
She fisted her hands at her side. A muscle ticked in her jaw.
I’ll assign you to his unit. It was the best he could do.
She stared at the ceiling. We both know I’m needed in engineering. And we can’t afford to lose any more mechanics.
Smith has requested the deployment. Bei set his hand on her shoulder, as Nell did whenever she delivered bad news. Honor his request, even if you don’t like or agree with it. That right to choose our destiny is what we’re fighting for.
Shang’hai shrugged off his touch and crossed her arms over her chest. I’ll get him to change his mind, and you will release him from this stupid notion.
If he asks me personally. To my face. Bei added. Video clips could be easily manipulated.
Pivoting on her heel, the engineer stalked off.
Bei scanned the cargo bay. Which shuttle held his wife?
She stood on the ramp of Starflight 1. Ash scampered around her, nudging aliens and Humans back. The feather-face had his uses. He strode after them.
“Admiral!” A gruff baritone boomed over the activity. “Admiral York. A moment of your time, please.”
Bei squeezed his eyes closed. He had to be nice to all aliens. He had to set an example. Especially with pompous windbags. Blanking his features, he faced the Plenipoten.
Guenoc’s gray, over-sized ears flapped around his thick head. White robes trailed behind him as he approached. “I’m so pleased to speak with you, Admiral. The request for manifest changes I submitted to you had not been approved, but you shouldn’t worry yourself, I’ve had the supplies loaded. They are almost finished. Humans can be quite efficient when provided with the proper motivation.”
Bei’s gut clenched. As one of the aliens who had enslaved Humans, the Plenipotens hadn’t quite grown accustomed to seeing Humanity as equals. Even Bei and the Syn-En weren’t immune to the condescension. He double-checked the manifest in the CIC. No change request was noted. “When did you submit the request?”
Tsking, Guenoc opened the leather bound ledger. He ran one of his three fingers down the hieroglyphic writing inked across the paper. He stopped a third of the way from the bottom of the page. “Four weeks ago, when the diggers first reported their initial findings.”
The room darkened. Bei merged part of his consciousness with the CIC. He pulled the notes from the miners on Micor-10.
The titanium veins had gone dry in the established tunnels on the moon, but they were hopeful about a source of rare Earth elements from the surveys on the dark side. He scanned the estimated amounts, more than enough for every humanoid conscript to have removable Neo-Dynamic Armor, impenetrable to their enemies.
Using the CIC, he translated the Plenipoten’s writing. “The supplies you’re sending to Micor-10 are enough for six weeks. I do not want any of our outposts cut off from the supply lines. Keep them on the current rotation.”
Every outpost within a hundred A.U. had an alliance ship within two hours jump. He wanted to know where the enemy was, and protect his people. If he found that the Plenipoten had been circumventing the rule to save credits…
Guenoc’s two antennae stiffened on his bald head. His bulbous fingers danced over the pages of his ledger. “I did not think you would want them to be without supplies for so long.”
Bei ground his teeth. Caution alarms flared in arcs of yellow inside his head. Despite speaking different languages, the translation took microseconds. It should not take him this long to retrieve verbal information. “The last supply ship was due two weeks ago.”
Guenoc wiped his hand on his white robe. His oversized ears flattened in irritation. “I sent a memo regarding the attack as soon as I learned of it.”
“Attack?” Forcing the word through his teeth, Bei cross-referenced the enemy’s activity with the moon base. Nothing. Not one blessed memo.
“Yes, yes. I was surprised you hadn’t reacted, given how important the mining operation is.” Guenoc rifled through the pink sheets at the back of his book before selecting one. “Fortunately, I always keep a back-up copy.”
“Thank you.” Bei plucked the paper from the alien’s hand. He scanned the page, uploading the original. Then translated the information and shunted it to his Chief of Security. The supply ship Enif had failed to appear two weeks ago. No sign of the crew since it last docked at the Becrux outpost. Paper crinkled in his hand. Two weeks. A lot could happen in two weeks.
And he hadn’t known.
His throat closed.
“Why didn’t you input the memo directly into the CIC?” The words shredded his raw skin. If he had known…
Guenoc ran his hand over his lumpy head. “As you know you assigned the Picaroons the task of uploading memos.”
His flat black eyes cut across to the bay to where an emaciated alien stood next to a pallet of rations. Black hair tied back from his widow’s peak, the Picaroon resembled a fictional vampire. His elongated incisors protruded from red lips as he flashed a thumbs-up at the forklift driver.
Guenoc’s long nose wrinkled. “If you wish, I could have my people take over all the administration duties. We, Plenipotens, are reknown for our skills. The Picaroons are better as garbage collectors.”
Bei’s armor hardened. It seemed the Founding Five weren’t the only ones having difficulty accepting that an individual had a right to walk their own path. “Given your astute administrative skills, I am amazed that you didn’t remember the memo to input each suspected attack into the computer personally.”
Inserting a finger under the stack of pink papers, he peeled them back and revealed a handheld computer. The sticker remained across the screen. The alien hadn’t even tried to use it.
“Yes, well…” Guenoc eased the ledger away from Bei. “Technology is untrustworthy. I’m sure the Picaroon will say he scanned the memo, but do you have any record of it?”
“Our technology is trustworthy. The Meek insure that it works properly, but it can’t work if everyone doesn’t use it.” Bei’s teeth snapped around the last word. This tech phobia applied around the galaxy, and for good reason. The Meek had sabotaged all technology in order to prevent one group from being more powerful than another. It had been their attempt to keep a balance of power. Not that it worked well.
The Founding Five had most of the galaxy under their thumbs for millennia. It was time someone gave them an attitude adjustment.
Guenoc eased back a step. “I had better see to the shipment.”
Robes fluttering in his wake, the barrel-chested humanoid trundled toward the second shuttle.
Bei headed for his wife.
Security Chief Rome pinged him through the wireless array. I’m not finding much information on the missing freighter. When do you want a debriefing?
Two weeks ago would have been nice. Once I return. Track the Enif to the last known coordinates. The Alliance’s fears hadn’t extended to the tracking devices his men had planted on the ships. Then again, he’d forgotten to inform the supply commanders of their presence.
You think this is the work of the traitor? Rome’s blond avatar materialized in cyberspace. He tossed a data package at Bei. I’ve cross-referenced the crew with those who knew the routes the ship would take.
I’ll compare them with the other attacks. Bei cracked his knuckles.
Take care of our fearless leader. Rome sent a picture of a pregnant Nell then signed off.
Opening the data, Bei shunted it to the back of his mind. He had other matters to attend. His boots whispered up the ramp. Keeping his arms tight to his body, he shifted sideways and walked down the aisle between the boxes filling the shuttle’s crew compartment. The ship’s nacelles hummed to life.
“Starflight 1 will be leaving for Micor-10 in five Earth minutes. All passengers should begin boarding.” Ensign Brooklyn’s soft voice drifted over the public address and echoed in the cargo bay.
Outside the shuttle, boots pounded the deck.
Bei hustled up the ladder to the second level. Crew quarters lined the corridor.
Ensign Queens guarded one door. A green medical diagnostic beam shot out of his wrist. His eyes were black coals in their sockets.
Bei closed the distance. His wife had better not be hurt. “Report.”
“Nell Stafford is displaying all the signs of being asleep.” Queens fell back.
Peeking in the room, he scanned his wife, curled up on the narrow bunk.
Ash lay at her feet. The pup whined softly and stared at her swollen stomach.
The hair on Bei’s neck rose. He reached out his hand. The air around her crackled and popped. Electricity filled his power cells to overflowing and shorted his diagnostics. He shook the sting from his singed fingers. Those who carried the fermites couldn’t be touched except by their loved ones. Nell loved him. So why couldn’t he touch her?
A blue lightning bolt leapt from her side and slammed against the wall. The lights dimmed for a moment. The ship’s engines sputtered.
Brooklyn’s curses blistered cyberspace.
“Admiral.” Queens raked his hand through his dark hair. “Something has taken control of your wife through her cerebral interface. Her consciousness is no longer in her body.”
Bei’s knees nearly buckled. The information was a fault in his logic processors. It couldn’t be true. There must be another logical explanation. “You’re saying Nell is brain dead?”
kobo-still waiting 😦