Aricose Groat stood beside the stub of his captain’s chair. Wires bristled from the control hubs tipped on their sides on the dreadnaught’s bridge. His tail hooked through the twisted deck, pinschers clasped behind his back. Clouds of vapor leaked from the missing panels on his command deck and fogged his eyestalks. Under his boots, the old ship wheezed her death throes.
She just had to complete one last mission.
Then Groat would overload her fusion engine and drive her into the nearest Human base. Humans, the vermin of the universe. If they’d stayed in their place, his Command of the Scraptor army and head of the Founding Five Fleet wouldn’t feel like such a hollow victory.
If Humans had stayed as laboratory animals and free labor, the universe wouldn’t have risen up against the Founding Five’s rule.
And the Founding Five wouldn’t be on the verge of surrender.
He wouldn’t be on the edge of extermination. His mandibles clacked in annoyance. Four months of defeat after defeat. Territories lost. Now, they threatened the Scraptor world of Ngery Prime.
After all the Founders had done for them.
The ingrates would pay. The hatch to the bridge plummeted to the deck and crashed against the metal grates.
A Scraptor in white armor stomped across it. His left pinscher was missing, as was his right eyestalk. Dents marred his breastplate and soot stained his helmet from a particle weapon burst.
Groat couldn’t remember his name. There had been so many since his best friend Tridit had fallen four months ago. Bile soured Groat’s mouth. Four months had shown him the flaws in the Founding Five’s Commerce Board. The corruption in the system.
The enemy never had problems with failing technology. Their armor looked as clean as the day it rolled off the factory floor. Groat would bet his eye stalks the Syn-En never ran into budget shortfalls, or pay for performance evaluations before acquiring new technology.
Just another thing he hated about Humans.
“Report,” he snapped around his mandibles.
“Dricur has fallen, Fleet Commander.” The Scraptor held out a sleek electronic pad. Words scrolled down the scratch-resistant screen. The latest technology.
Groat knew because he’d stolen it from a conniving Munician. The stinky politico never wanted for the latest technology and comforts. He had the stolen ships to go with the pads. But they weren’t for this mission. They weren’t for any of the Founding Five to know about, until Groat decided to demand their unconditional surrender.
Not that he completely trusted the technology, but he wanted it. He’d seen the miracles the Humans had performed with it.
Even the Municians thought the Humans had stolen their warships.
To keep the secret, Groat killed most Humans quickly.
But if he ever caught a Syn-En, he would offer him death by combat.
Then dissect him while he still lived. Groat clasped his humanoid hands in front of his chest. He had yet to take a single Syn-En prisoner. Even the location of their corpses had stopped appearing in the dispatches from his spies among the Alliance. Still, one never knew. “Survivors?”
The Scraptor aimed his good eyestalk at the pad. “None.”
Groat nodded. He had expected such a result. He added the ten thousand new names to his tally. “Did we capture any prisoners before the Alliance took the planet?”
The worthless rock had been mined dry before Groat’s birth. Only a few Human diggers remained. The fools had refused to die like they should have, and his men had hunted them for sport until the Syn-En had shown up.
The pad buzzed in the Scraptor’s hand.
Mopus Argent, the stinkiest of the Founding Five’s stinky politicians, stared back from the screen. “Ah, there you are.” The lanky Munician adjusted his gold-embroidered cuff around a puny wrist. “The Fleet is falling apart under your leadership, Groat. I don’t know how long even my illustrious patronage can keep you in power.”
Groat wanted nothing more than to drive his fist through the lime-green politician’s face. “You’ll keep me in power, if you wish to remain in power.”
Snatching the pad from his subordinate’s hand, Groat waved him away. Not that the officer would go far. There always had to be witnesses to orders from the Munician. Mopus had tried more than once to sabotage Groat’s authority.
“Such threats are becoming tiresome.” Mopus flashed pointy teeth when he yawned.
“But they’re not empty.”
Mopus flushed a shade of emerald. “Keep losing to our inferiors, and the only thing the Commerce Board will demand from you is one final scream as your head is severed from your body.”
A chill snaked down Groat’s spine. That threat wasn’t empty either. The Board had muttered about results even as they slashed his budget. Without enemy worlds to plunder and hold ransom, he had a serious shortfall. “Should that happen, video clips will appear in each of their data boxes. Videos showing the Municians building warships and constructing weapons.”
He peeled aside his mandibles so the politico could see his two sets of teeth.
“Given your handling of this little uprising, I think the Board would applaud my foresight.”
The bastard was probably right, Groat acknowledged with a nod. “But will they also approve of you diverting funds from the tax revenue service for Munician coffers?”
Stealing money was never forgivable. Especially to the greedy, corrupt Board.
The color drained from Mopus’s face until he was nearly white. “The data breach. I thought the Humans had…”
“Proving once again how wrong you are.” Groat relaxed his eyestalks. Yes, the Humans had stolen the data from the secret weapons base, Sentinel. Groat’s spies had passed along the ledgers, the locations of other Munician research bases, and numbers of their fancy ships and weapons.
Mopus’s eyes widened in shock, then dark green flooded his face. “You stole my property?”
“Shall I go on? This channel is open. This bridge is being monitored by the Commerce Board. Who knows who is watching?”
No one. The cameras had been damaged. Sure new ones had arrived on time, but weapons hadn’t and Groat could be forgiven for losing such an unnecessary piece of equipment. Especially when records clearly showed all logs had been delivered to the Municians as required.
The stinky politico wasn’t the only one to gain his position with cunning.
Mopus’s eyes narrowed to slits. A soft beep sounded. “Give me a report on Dricur.”
“The planet has fallen to the Alliance.” Groat kept his comments neutral. His audio-implants had picked up the beep as the recorder was engaged. “We cleansed it of Human vermin before the enemy arrived.”
“And the new weapons?”
“No new weapons arrived.” Groat forced out between his clenched teeth. “My men had five rounds for each of their guns. It takes four rounds to dent the Syn-En armor, and that’s if the shooter hits the same spot each time. I—”
“Yes, yes.” Mopus waved a hand in dismissal. “I’m talking about the explosives.”
“The ones packed into the new breastplates you ordered my men to strap on and detonate when they ran out of ammunition?” The plan was madness. He could have saved five thousand soldiers and used the armor as a back-up.
No Scraptor would be taken alive.
They could expect the same mercy they showed the enemy—none.
“Yes.” Mopus leaned forward, filling the screen with his ugly face. Excitement danced in his turquoise eyes. “Did they take out the enemy?”
The bastard didn’t care about the Scraptors. Groat’s pinschers clacked. Calm, he had to remain calm. He couldn’t let the politico see any weakness. “Two of our men feigned surrender and worked their way into a Syn-En unit.” The inferior Humans had actually called for a medic to treat the Scraptors’ wounds. “They detonated within a pace of the Syn-En. None were damaged, let alone injured.”
Their technology was damn near indestructible.
If he hadn’t seen a dead Syn-En with his own eyestalks, he would think the Human soldiers couldn’t be killed at all.
“Your men must have done something wrong.” Mopus growled, sagging in a plush chair.
“I’ve sent you the video of the battle. You can see for yourself.” Groat lied, betting the Munician’s ego wouldn’t allow him to admit that he’d never received the file. A file Groat had no intention of sending. Ever. The explosives had taken out some of the lesser Alliance species. No one cared about them, and he refused to acknowledge any success to the purposeful killing of Scraptors.
He needed every soldier.
“Yes, yes. I’ll review the file later.” Mopus waved a green hand. “Now, I propose you fall back to Dysamium Prime. I’ll divert supply ships to—”
“No.” Dysamium Prime was far from the home space of the Scraptors. Groat and his men refused to protect worlds gutted of resources when Scraptor habitats lay unprotected. Especially when he’d begun to receive reports of predations on Scraptor women and offspring by the Alliance. “Your advice has exchanged men for bankrupt assets. Send me a list of supplies en route to our positions, and the transports’ locations. Once I have that information, I’ll contact you with our next move.”
“Do it. I am Fleet Commander, you are support. Do your job, so I can do mine. I’ve already sent a formal request to every member of the Commerce Board asking for copies of all shipments this last month, along with the manifests of the actual deliveries.” Groat terminated the connection. His heart pounded in his chest. The gambit had to pay off.
Mopus had many friends on the Board.
Friends who had lost property and assets when the Alliance advanced. An advance that Groat couldn’t stop, unless he received the promised weapons, weapons he believed Mopus was diverting for his own uses.
Groat’s men were dying for nothing, dammit! He wanted to smash the electronic pad, to root out and exterminate the whole greedy batch of politicos. The pad shook in his grip. The screen cracked.
He tossed the pad at the Scraptor before he broke it. “Report.”
“We are nearing Ngery Prime.” The Scraptor smoothed the edges of the crack.
The damage didn’t self-heal as Groat had seen the Syn-En’s technology do. Even the Founding Five’s best advances seemed far, far behind the Humans. But he would still lead the Scraptors to victory. They were superior to Humans, they couldn’t lose. He focused on the officer. “What do our long range sensors indicate?”
He had checked the ship’s sensors before heading out on this mission. He knew most of them worked.
“We’re picking up energy signatures similar to Alliance ships. We are too far away to count the numbers and types of craft.”
“Put our forces on alert. Prime weapons. If the Humans dare to attack Ngery Prime, we will slay them all.”
“Yes, Fleet Commander.”
Groat followed the Scraptor out of the useless bridge. His tail bounced with each step of his armored boots. He cracked his knuckles as he dropped down the ladder onto the lower deck. Two down. Three down. He arrived in the cargo bay and hurried to the boxy shuttle in the center of the empty bay. Scorch marks striped the sides. Scraptors cannibalized an engine from the shell of a shuttle to patch the damaged one. A jack substituted for the portside landing gear.
Groat crossed to the makeshift command center glommed onto the side of the bay. “Report.”
His pinscher clacked in anticipation. He hoped he arrived in time to fight the enemy. He had a few new weapons in his arsenal he wanted to try.
A new Scraptor in shiny pink armor looked up from the boxy communication station. “Seven Alliance vessels are currently strafing the population centers. We’re intercepting emergency transmissions.”
The Scraptor’s eyestalks drooped.
New recruits. In a month, carnage would no longer shock him. Groat and his men had killed plenty of defenseless Human females and offspring. Had any of them expected the enemy not to repay them in kind? Two Scraptor outposts had fallen. His men had killed the civilians to prevent them from being tortured by the enemy. “And?”
He wanted it to be bad. To show his men how much like mindless vermin Humans and their insipid Alliance were.
Another Scraptor in blue stepped forward. “The Syn-En attacked schools and gathering areas first.”
“Yes.” Groat nodded. “To maximize casualties, confusion, and fear. Every Scraptor knows this basic tactic.”
It was so rudimentary that even Humans could have developed it. Or learned it from their Skaperian allies. Although the Skaperians said it violated their code of warfare. The venomous feather-heads often lied.
“The enemy waited until the medical corps and the home guard responded before initiating a raid against the same targets.” The blue Scraptor returned to his console. Weapons systems flashed hot across the board. “In addition, they have razed all medical centers, fire brigade stations, and home guard bases.”
“Bring us in. All units prepare for action. Helm, destroy all enemy craft.” Groat crossed to the armory and selected the particle rifle. Two magazines fit under his breastplate. “Take no prisoners. Unless, they’re Syn-En. Then cut them to pieces but keep them alive.”