Nell Stafford’s sandals whispered across the cut rock. She glanced down. A toga. She was wearing a toga. Her chest tightened. Oh, no, not this dream again. Her fingernails dug into her palms. Unease prickled her skin.
But this wasn’t her body.
She was seeing this world through someone else’s eyes.
Energy pulsed around her and flowed through the veins of the mountain entombing her.
The hair on her nape stood on end. She raised her hand to smooth it and encountered short curly hair. Memories flooded in, memories that evaporated as soon as she left this place: Aywed. Memories that she’d wanted to share with Bei but never remembered when she woke. The artificial gravity tugged on her heels, making her movements sticky like walking in fresh tar.
But she wasn’t really here.
She raised her hand and noted the fine dark hairs on her arms and across her knuckles. Muscle roped her forearms. She’d turned into a man. A Human man. Freud would have something to say about it. Freud could go soak his head. It was Bei’s advice she needed, his presence she craved.
Soft white light washed over the engraved wall. This one featured the octopus-like Unadul mutilated next to the ruins of their underwater homes. On the opposite wall, the elven Municians loped off each others limbs in a pitched battle.
Alien names flitted through her consciousness. Different names but she identified two to be the Founding Five species. A quick turn at the corner and the pictograms depicted new species, for whom she had no frame of reference.
Extinct. The man’s whisper chased itself around her skull. We did that. We had no choice.
She blinked back the tears and her steps slowed as she waded through the sadness. Can you hear me?
Billions. The numbers of dead tally in the billions on these walls alone. With no end in sight. He glanced over his shoulder. The corridor faded into darkness behind him. He peered closer, ever closer. The Grand Architects are always watching.
Frustration shredded Nell’s insides. Why did he bring her here, time and again, if he wasn’t going to interact with her? She wanted to smack herself. She wanted to punch him.
Fabric whispered ahead.
He paused. His heart thundered in his ears and his mouth dried. Have we been discovered?
Her panic mirrored his. She wanted to cover her belly. But her pregnancy didn’t exist. Bei! She called out for her husband and felt the abyss swallow her cry.
“Aeacus?” A Human woman called softly. Light glowed on the walls, brightening as she appeared. Her sea foam toga draped over her Rubenesque frame. Black curly hair tumbled from the knot on top of her head. A smile softened her round face and curved her full lips.
“Eanna.” Aeacus rushed forward, carrying Nell with him. Desire overrode the fear of moments ago. Warmth flooded his limbs and banished his doubts. Everything would be well with Eanna at his side.
Nell mentally rolled her eyes. Nice of you to have the love of your life at your side, buddy. I would have liked Bei with me.
Their hands touched first. Palms flat against the others. Then they pressed themselves together, chest-to-chest and thigh-to-thigh. Stooping, he rested his forehead against hers. Their breaths mingled, swirled, and became one.
Fidgeting, Nell closed her eyes to the intimacy. At least they weren’t kissing or…doing other things. She was so not into watching. Kiss her, and I’m blowing this joint, Aeacus, even if I have to take some of your gray cells with me.
Eanna’s fingertips grazed his cheek. “Devak is already here.”
Aeacus leaned into her caress before straightening. “Then we need to start. I’ve convinced the builders to relay my signal from my workstation. I do not know how long they can deceive the Grand Architects.”
“As did I.” Eanna dug her nails into his forearm. “The builders’ loyalties are divided between the two of us.”
Nell glanced down. She felt the grip but not the pain. How was this? A golden haze fuzzed the darkness. Fermites. The little atomic machines that she directed to heal, repair, and create were the builders. She snorted. What kind of name was builders? Really, they needed a better PR firm. They’re fermites. That’s what all the cool folks call them.
“Many of our own remain loyal to the Grand Architects.” Aeacus patted Eanna’s hand.
She eased her grip. “And if we try to convince our kind to join us, we run the risk of drawing the attention of the Grand Architects.”
Fear traced an icy finger down Aeacus’s spine. “We know the price for that.”
We do? Nell found a comfy place in Aeacus’s memories. She was going farther than she had before and yet she was still clueless. She hated being clueless, where was the foreshadowing, the creepy music? This obviously wasn’t a love story, or a film noir. More like a thriller or a horror movie. If there were zombies….
Soft light splashed the walls and floor. Clouds of fermites ground away the stone, cutting images of more species engaged in warfare or burying their dead.
Nell shuddered. What was this place? A tomb to some long dead Grand Architect. And just what was a Grand Architect anyway? She slouched in the memories. I wish this thing had Cliff-notes. I’d jump to the end and get back to Bei and our babies.
She just wanted to touch him. Make sure this Ghost of Confusion Past didn’t interfere with her happily ever after.
Aeacus set his hand on Eanna’s back as they ducked under a low post and lentil. Golden light bathed the huge space and left not an inch in darkness. Add seating, and it could double as the University of Phoenix Stadium. Galaxies swirled across the rock ceiling, a projection of fermites. Stone pillars rose from the floor and branched like trees into the heavens. Crisp engravings decorated the floor, walls, and pillars. Humanoid, insectoid, and aquatic life forms lived and died over the surfaces.
A lone figure stood in the center of the room. Hands clasped behind his back, he stared up at the field of stars. “Two more species have been eradicated.”
The projection tightened on a binary star system in the center of the galaxy.
Nell bit her lip. She recognized those swirling arms. That was the Milky Way. Where was Earth? Stars burst to life on the edge but none looked right. Too bad she was trapped here, she could tap into the CIC and find out. Her brain box had to be good for something.
Eanna leaned against Aeacus’s and swallowed a sob. “But the Dalem’s songs of sorrow had pleased the Grand Architects. And their art…”
“Wasn’t enough in the end.” The figure in the center shrugged.
“How, Devak? How did they do it?” Aeacus wrapped his arm around the woman’s shoulders.
“The usual.” Devak reached into the projection and plucked the solar system out of the air. Sixteen planets swirled around the twin red dwarf suns. He stuck a finger in the belt of asteroids between the seventh and eighth planet, sending a large rock hurtling toward the green marble, fifth from the suns. “I picked the biggest I could. I didn’t want them to suffer anymore.”
“Oh, Devak.” Eanna patted Aeacus’s chest before rushing to the other man and throwing her arms around his shoulders. “You’ll be punished. The planet will be uninhabitable for millions of years. If we lose you…”
A number appeared on the star field. The death toll. Trillions of trillions. Nell hugged her flat stomach. Surely not from one planet? No, from hundreds of worlds. That was just wrong. So wrong. Why don’t you do something?
“We must act. Quickly.” Devak’s blue eyes brightened. He gently tucked the solar system into the projection. “This…act by the Grand Architects has created rumblings amongst the Meek. Some are not being as quiet as they should be.”
Nell caught her breath. This was the Meek? This was who she was sending out into the universe by sharing her fermites with thousands upon thousands of willing females?
What had she done?
Eanna caught her breath. “They can’t get rid of us. We’ve served the Grand Architects for many millennia.”
“A blink in time for them. We’re disposable, like our predecessors. That’s why they made us physical beings instead of energy life forms like them.” Aeacus crossed to the corner and pulled another solar system from one spiral arm. A small blue planet with a single moon spun on his fingertip. “How is Earth?”
“I’ve arranged for our compatriots to meet us there, but…” Devak joined Aeacus, removed the Earth from his hold and returned it to the projection. “The Grand Architects have taken an interest. And they’re building something there.”
“And on other worlds, as well.” Eanna turned her face to the ceiling. Seven star systems glowed green, including Earth’s.
Nell knew those places. Recognized them from the war room on her husband’s starship. Those are pillar worlds. Their allies, the Skaperians, had said the Erwarians had created the pillars. Could the Grand Architects be the Erwarians? She mentally slapped herself. Why hadn’t she paid more attention during the alien’s historical ramblings. Okay, she hated history, tuning out anything that started with dates before she was even born. But really, who knew it would come back to bite her on the bottom?
“What are they building?” Aeacus folded his arms over his chest but leaned toward the planets as if to discover their secrets. “Something to create more species to enact their beloved death scenes?”
The Erwarians were mass murderers? Nell would have remembered that, wouldn’t she? What did that make the Meek? Reluctant collaborators, or enforcers? And just why was Aeacus interested? He should be repulsed by the thought. Nell wanted to slap some sense into him.
“They’re building it themselves.” Devak pinched his lower lip. “Well, their personal converts.”
“Traitors,” Eanna hissed. Red suffused her round face. “They exposed Icaer and Lenif.”
Shoulders slumped, Devak studied his shoes.
“We are sorry for her loss, Devak. You loved her well.” Aeacus brushed the back of his hand across Eanna’s.
She inhaled a shaky breath before hooking her pinky around his.
Nell paced inside the memories, piecing together the movie she joined halfway through. Devak had been married to either Icaer or Lenif, and she or he had been killed by the traitors who were loyal to the Erwarians. Yet all of the Meek served the Erwarians. But some wanted to change that.
For better or worse?
Devak swiped at the moisture on his cheek and raised his head. His blue eyes pinned Aeacus. “So we’re agreed, then?”
“Yes.” Eanna raised her chin. “There is only one way to deal with the Grand Architects.” Her attention cut to Aeacus.
Aeacus straightened. “Genocide.”
Nell slammed into her body. Gasping for breath, she sat up in bed. She slapped a hand to her chest then dropped it to her rounded belly. “What! What just happened?”
At the foot of the bed, Ash yipped then leapt to all four paws. Razor-sharp claws slashed the air at the end of the two thin arms attached to his chest. The pup’s gray ruff stood on end. “Where is the threat? I’ll rip them apart.”
The Amarook’s verbal and telepathic pledge resonated inside her skull.
“I—I—” Nell’s skin tingled. Fermites swarmed her in a cloud of golden dust looking for an injury to fix. She chased after a memory. She had to remember. She had to tell Bei. She—
Her husband and one of his medic’s Brooklyn burst through the door of her cabin. The deadly eye of the barrel shaped TorpSK7 swept the room, floor to ceiling and left to right.
The energy weapon wobbled in Bei’s grip.
Nell’s stomach clenched. Her husband didn’t wobble. His synthetically-enhanced parts didn’t know the meaning of the word. Oh, God, what had she missed while she napped? “Bei?”
Transferring her weight to her knuckles, she scooted across the bed.
Two green beams fanned over her.
“Nell?” Holstering his weapon, Bei knelt in front of her and set his hands on her knees. His palms traced the curve of her thighs before he cupped her hips. “Are you well?”
Something tugged at the base of her skull. The big doofus was monkeying with her brain box. She loved him for it. Tears sprang to her eyes. Stupid pregnancy hormones. “I’m fine. We’re fine.” The twins knee-bumped her palms. “I— I—”
She drew a blank. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Dang, she was becoming forgetful.
The green medical diagnostic beam in Brooklyn’s wrist blinked off. “She is perfectly healthy.”
Her mouth opened. They were going a little nuts over a nap. Weren’t they? “What’s going on?”
Bei’s lips thinned. “Do you have a headache? Stiffness in the joints? Anything?”
“Bei?” She slipped off the bed, until her belly bumped his chest. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“Answer my questions.” In one swift motion, he scooped her into his arms and sat on the mattress with her on his lap.
This was better. She snuggled against his chest, pressed her cold nose against his warm neck. Served him right for worrying her. “I feel fine. No headache or stiffness. Just tired of not being able to see my shoes to tie them.”
“Fermites tie your shoes.” He stroked her hair, then her shoulder and arm.
Heat flickered to life inside her gut. He may have been reassuring himself, but her body was seeking another kind of affirmation. One best experienced without witnesses. “You’re missing the point.”
She wiggled on his lap.
He pinned her hips in place.
Brooklyn cleared his throat. “Chocolate shake?”
He waved a silver pouch at her.
Now they were bribing her with chocolate? She wasn’t proud, she’d take it, but she wasn’t going to forget. Her hand closed around the cool drink. A beige bubble burst out of the straw. She lapped up the chocolate. Bei was holding her, her babies weren’t bouncing on her bladder, and she had chocolate. Life didn’t get much better than this. She drained half the drink in two long draws then smacked her lips. “Alright, guys. What’s up?”
Brooklyn smoothed his curly black hair and backed out of the cabin. “I, uh, have to give check-ups to the miners.”
Miners? The shuttle was silent around her. They had landed on the mining base. Holy cow, she had slept nearly three hours.
“Coward.” Bei growled at his subordinate then kissed Nell’s hair, then her forehead. He nibbled at her ear.
Tilting her head to give him better access, she tossed the chocolate shake onto the tiny table near the head of the bed. She liked these kinds of distractions. Bei was so good at them. And she could undress him with a thought. Her palms slid over bare skin.
Nails clicked on the metal deck. “Nell Stafford, what is the purpose of this frequency of mating when you are already carrying offspring?”
Nell squeezed her eyes closed. This could not be happening. It just wasn’t fair.
Chuckling, Bei blew warm air down her chest.
Her bare chest. Geez Louise. There was a child, er, pup present. The fermites quickly redressed her. She pinched her husband’s pec. She was pretty sure this situation would be listed in the dictionary under not funny.
Ash smoothed the black feathers on his pointy head then sat back on his haunches. “Nell Stafford?”
“Why don’t you ask your parents?”
“I have.” Ash’s tail thumped the deck in pride. “They said that Humans must practice often so they don’t forget how it is done.”
Bei choked on a chuckle. Releasing her, he flopped back on the bed and grinned at the ceiling.
Nell smacked his hip. If she had to explain to the Amarook about the birds and the bees, then he was going to have the ‘talk’ with their sons when they were old enough. “Coward.”
Her husband cocked a black eyebrow. “Retreat is a valid military tactic. I can provide references.”
She just bet he could. She stuck out her tongue at him.
He winked at her.
“Nell?” Ash tugged on her leg. “The mating?”
She blew her bangs out of her eyes. The Amarook was like a dog with a bone. She smiled at the thought.
Ash filled her head with images of him eating Earth dogs for breakfast, in a bowl like cereal. He loved commercials almost as much as his sire.
“Go on, Nell Stafford.” Bei ran his hand down her backside. “Tell the feather head why you can’t keep your hands off me?”
“Keep it up, and I just might forget.” She crossed her arms over her chest. Let him stew on that for a bit.
He pinched her bottom. Hard.
Fermites soothed the sting. She slapped her husband’s hand away and set her feet on the ground.
He grabbed her around the waist and hauled her against his chest, tucking her head under his chin. “Humans touch to communicate love and caring. It creates a bond between those who touch. I touch Nell because she is mine.” His fingers danced over her stomach. “I touch our children because they are mine and I want them to know I’ll look over them, keep them safe.”
Her nose stung and her vision swam. Just when she thought he was a king-sized jerk, he went and said something like that, and she fell in love with him all over again. “Human mating isn’t about producing offspring, but becoming part of something bigger. Something unique to just the two of us. It is reassurance, and joy, and love.”
Ash’s black nose twitched. “Is that why he lies next to you when your brain goes dead?”
Bei growled. “Ash.”
Nell blinked. “My brain went dead?”
Instead of looking at her, Bei glared at the Amarook.
“Beijing York.” She fisted her husband’s shirt. “You better tell me, or I will find the biggest magnet in the universe and feed your circuits to it.”
Maybe the feather-face’s translator was off. Maybe he meant something else.
“You’re fine.” His hold tightened. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Holy crap. She’d been brain dead? She rubbed her forehead. But she felt fine.
Ash scratched his ear. “Nothing has happened to her any of the other times. Why would something happen now?”
“What other times?” Bei’s question mirrored her own.
“Every night for the last four months.” A downy black feather drifted on an air current. The pup snapped it up then spit it out. “Mother said it must be normal for Humans as Nell Stafford has come to no harm, and the babes remain healthy.”
Months? Nell had been brain dead off and on for months? Had she turned into a zombie? Or a vampire? Or…. Black twinkled in her peripheral vision. “Bei.”
“Breathe. Just breathe.” He cupped her nape. “Your cerebral interface captures all your experiences. We’ll access it and find out what’s going on.”
Right. He had a plan. A good plan. If she wasn’t freaked out, she might have thought of it. Then again, maybe stupidity was a side effect of being brain dead. It certainly fit the Hollywood paradigm. Except, vampires weren’t stupid. They tended to be cunning and smart. She could be a vampire.
But they couldn’t stomach chocolate.
She squeezed his hand. He would take care of her, take care of them. “I love you.” Twisting on his lap, she combed her hair out of the way. “Do it.”
“Admiral.” Chief Engineer Sydney Shang’hai’s voice rumbled through the shuttle’s public address system. “The miners found something we might be able to use.”
Nell glanced at the speaker. Shang’hai almost sounded excited. That couldn’t be. Even after nearly three years of freedom, the Syn-En still revealed their emotions only in the Wireless Array or in the privacy of their own cabins.
Bei’s eyes darkened as he merged with the CIC that linked him and his men.
Her neck tingled. She could join the cyber party, but no longer felt like broadcasting her every thought to her husband’s family and friends.
Ash rose up on his hind legs. “I would love to see that, too.”
Puppy dog eyes fixed on her, pleading.
She tried to turn away, but they appeared in her head. The Amarook didn’t play fair. She sighed and pushed to her feet. “Bei?”
He double-checked his weapon in the holster, then the knives in his boots. “The mining base is secure.”
“And you’ll be there.” She wasn’t afraid of the enemy. She was afraid of falling asleep and dying. Great ,she was living her own Nightmare on Elm Street. “What have they found?”
“An ancient temple of some sort.” Bei wrapped his arm around her waist and guided her down the corridor. “I don’t know how that will help us, but it doesn’t hurt to look.”
Ash leapt ahead and disappeared onto the lower deck.
Her insides tightened. She’d rather he inspect her brain box, find her fatal glitch.
He kissed her temple. “Everyone knows you are here, and they are anxious to see you.”
Right. Time to put on her tiara and smile for the people. As long as she didn’t start craving their brains, everything would be okay. God, her thoughts formed their own Hollywood mash-up. Maybe an outing was just what she needed. Something to distract her. Too bad it was history. “The Deutsche clan are mining here, aren’t they?”
She’d met the diggers on Erwar. They’d taken her husband in after his memory had been wiped by the Founding Five. She really hated the Founding Five. This war couldn’t end fast enough.
“Yes, Job and his family are here.” Bei kept her tight against him as they descended the ladder to the empty crew compartment.
Down the ramp, miners in black uniforms divvied up the rations. An older man with a salt and pepper beard rushed over to greet them. The NSA emblem winked in the bare bulbs lighting the mouth of the mine.
Cool, dry air blew over her face. Her stomach clenched. Panic welled up inside her. The ozone taste of recycled air hit her throat. Her boots rasped over the cut stone floor. Nell plastered on a smile. “Job.”
“Mizz York.” He grinned at her, displaying healthy teeth in an almost chubby face. The thick New York accent sounded odd from a man whose family hadn’t lived on Earth in generations.
“You are looking well.” She offered her hand.
He by-passed it to touch her belly. “I didn’t realize your time was so near. Soon the Deutsche clan will grow by one more.”
“Two.” Bei stood straight at her side. “We’re having twin boys.”
Nell smiled. Her children, like her husband and herself, were apparently community property. Usually she didn’t mind. Usually, she didn’t know she died in her sleep.
Job whistled through his teeth. “You don’t say? Fine sons, like you or…” His brown eyes cut to her.
“Syn-En are made, not born. Our children will be Human.” Or maybe a little bit more. Nell was more than biology. In addition to her brain box, she had her Syn-En skin, the Skaperians had tampered with her egg basket, and fermites infested her DNA.
Then there was the Meek soul inhabiting the twin of their conceived child.
If her life were a movie, Hollywood would have rejected it for being too outlandish.
“Too bad. We coulda used more of ’em. Give us all something to be.” Stepping back, Job led the way through the stacks of supplies, the lines to see the medics, and the recruits practicing military drills between two beetle-shaped Starflights.
“Tell us about the find.” Bei laced his fingers through hers as they walked down the mine shaft.
A string of bare bulbs ran down the corridor and disappeared around the corner. White dust coated everything. Powder swirled around her feet and clung to her pant legs.
I’m here, Nell. Bei’s thoughts brushed her mind.
Ash popped up between them, squeezing between their legs. I can protect her.
Job scratched his bald head. “We’ve found similar structures. All the Founding Five worlds have them. Most, they allow to be destroyed for the rare minerals. Others, they preserve and study, then destroy.”
They turned down a short corridor. Instead of serrations on the wall, this stone was worn smooth. Glyphs etched into the rock. An unintelligible narrative.
She averted her eyes. The darkness pressed against the bulbs, shrinking the balls of light. She stumbled.
Bei caught her against him. Do you need to rest?
She fisted his shirt. “No. No.”
Job slanted her a questioning glance.
Her recently dead brain was playing tricks on her. There was nothing in the darkness that wasn’t in the light. But what was in the light? She shivered. Fermites wove a coat around her, wrapping her in warmth infused with Bei’s scent. She would face her fears with Bei at her side. And if they didn’t go away once she laid eyes on the tomb, then she’d have Bei deal with them. He was good at that.
Voices drifted down the hall. The Skaperian scientists lectured in their slightly snooty nasally twang. “Definitely, an Erwarian temple. Although much older than the ones on Erwar.”
Omest, the Picaroon, droned on in monotone. “The minerals in the walls are just what is required to fabricate more armor for our forces.”
“I need to know quantities. Quantities are important to keep the war machine running.” Guenoc, the Plenipotens, pontificated above the scratching of his ever present pen on his ledger.
Job led her and Bei around the corner. Statues of strange creatures formed pillars near the post and lintel opening.
Hands on her hips, Shang’hai stared at the tomb’s ceiling. “If I could just find the power source, I could determine the purpose of this temple.”
Nell’s knees buckled. She shouldn’t go in there. She needed to leave, now while she had the chance.
Bei swept her into his arms. “I have you. I’ll keep you safe.”
Her hand rose of its own accord and brushed the last pillar as they passed. The stone warmed under her touch. Energy pulsed through the rock as the moon’s core woke up from its long slumber.
The feather-headed Skaperian scientists glanced at Shang’hai. “How did you?”
Shang’hai covered her mouth. Her almond-shaped eyes widened in her tan face. Her attention skittered off Nell to stick to Bei. “No. No.”
The elephant-eared Plenipoten recorded the events for posterity.
Fermites. Fermites are the key to powering the ancient technology. And if the aliens figured that out, then the enemy would know soon enough. And the bounty on her head would become obscene. Nell’s tongue was thick in her mouth. She dropped her hand and the power ebbed. Cold crept into the tomb. And Nell controlled the fermites.
She was so screwed.