Bei’s curses blistered the WA shocking cyberspace into silence. His outburst had shocked his men. The hieroglyphic writing on the tomb’s walls blazed with light. Under his feet, the mining base hummed with power. His wife had activated ancient alien technology. With each panel on the tomb that lit, Bei sensed the bounty on Nell Stafford increasing by a hundred fold, a thousand, nearly a million fold.
The base was supposed to be secure.
This expedition should have been safe.
Yet, now Nell would be in more danger than ever, if the Founding Five discovered her new ability. Not if, when.
A spy skulked in their midst. The new development would be relayed within hours. Bei glanced at the other occupants. Who was the traitor?
The two feather-headed Skaperian scientists gathered around the console rising out of the center of the square room. While an orange-feathered one poked the flat surface, the blue-feathered one recorded results. The Skaperians had fought the Founders before and won. There was certainly no love lost between the two species. But the Skaperian Empire was divided. Those seeking power might make a deal with the enemy.
Against the far wall, Omest, the Picaroon, traced the writing with long, bony fingers. The months of healthy eating hadn’t undone millennia of ill-treatment at the hands of the Founding Five. Still, the Picaroons were smugglers and knew routes through, around, and inside enemy space that no other species had considered. Would they form an alliance to gain a home that wasn’t rotting and poisoning those inhabiting it?
Two Plenipotens stood in the corner. Hunched over their bound ledgers, they scratched the paper with quills. Heads close together, their jug ears muffled their conversation as they debated what to record.
Any one of them could be undermining the Neo-Sentient Alliance. Allowing Nell off his ship was his error in judgment. The oscillation in the ancient power source caused his circuits to beep with static. He clenched his fists, adding yellow compression alerts to the scrambled code.
Admiral, you need to evacuate Nell Stafford before the others notice her presence activated the technology. Using the fiberoptic cable at the base of her skull, Shang’hai jacked into the tablet in her hand. She switched from scanning to sending, scattering any evidence of who flipped the switch.
Nell’s eyes widened, and she sucked air through her teeth. She focused on Bei. Fear bled healthy pink color from her pale skin. “I— I—”
“I think you should rest.” Bei activated the diagnostic beam in his wrist. Instead of washing over his wife and checking their twins, he used it to sweep the energy away from her. “You are two weeks from delivery.”
She swallowed hard and nodded. “Perhaps that would be best.”
Security Chief Frankfort Rome barged into the WA. His avatar tugged on his blond, stubby hair. What the hell, Bei. The whole planet is glowing like a star. Are you daring the bug-ugly Scraptors to come fight us? I’m not complaining. I just want to lay out some party favors.
Bei shook his head as weapons systems activated in the spaceship orbiting the mining base. Nell stumbled over some alien trip wire. Can you keep the power on for five minutes until I get her off world?
Maybe if I knew what the hell was powering it. The eyes of Rome’s avatar leapt out of his pixelated head then jumped back in. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Fermites are responsible. At least, they share the same energy signal. Shang’hai stooped near the control platform in the center of the room. She glanced around ensuring no one watched her before crushing the tablet in her hands and easing the bits onto the floor. Have your wife send her fermites to fix the tablet. Their presence should keep the energy humming for a minute. Maybe two.
Wrapping his arm around his wife’s shoulders, Bei reeled her against his body. He kissed her temple. “Send as many of your fermites to repair Shang’hai’s tablet as you can.”
She closed her eyes and rested her head against his shoulder.
Bei enhanced his optical sensors. The build-up of static electricity crackled across his skin. The atomic-sized machines streamed in threads of silver to the center of the room. The writing on the floor glowed brighter as the fermites passed. No one but Shang’hai noticed. Good. He turned Nell toward the exit.
She sighed. “Sorry about that. I was so happy not to be the center of attention that I didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late.”
“It’s not too late.” If he could get her far enough away in a minute, the others might not make the connection between her and the power.
A muffled shout echoed around the room.
Nell froze. Her nails dug into his chest. “Oh, no.”
“What is the meaning of this?”
Voiceprint recognition identified the speaker for Bei. Miss Mary Marple. One of their two liaisons with the Meek.
Nell pivoted about. Her body trembled from head to foot. Fermites created a golden aura around her body.
Turning back to the interior of the tomb, Bei stood a little in front of his wife. If the Meek tried anything… “Mary Marple.”
Just as Nell had conjured her from her love of British TV, the woman was an amalgam of two famous fictional characters: Mary Poppins and Jane Marple.
The emissary solidified. Her chip straw hat with its droopy blue silk flower perched on her upswept hair. The tailored navy suit with its snowy white blouse defined her stooped shoulders. In one hand, she held a carpet bag with red knitting needles poking through the open top. Sensible shoes encased her tiny feet. “Admiral Beijing York. Nell Stafford.”
Mary Marple’s attention stuck to Nell’s swollen belly—home of one of the energy-based Meek being reborn as a Human. Marple’s sigh stirred the steel gray curls at her temples.
The orange-feathered Skaperian scientist scuttled closer to the emissary. “You honor us with your presence, Mary Marple.”
The Meek pursed her lips and inclined her head regally.
Bei ground his teeth. Another species who viewed Humans as servants. His memory files were full of them.
Nell stiffened. Hands on her hips, she thrust her stomach at the other woman. “Why are you here?”
Mary Marple cocked her head to the left. The rose in her hat didn’t budge. “You summoned me when you activated the room.”
Five pair of alien eyes fastened on Nell, who shrunk against him. Leave it to the Meek to tattle everyone else’s secrets but reveal nothing of their own. Bei set his hand on his wife’s hip. His armor hardened.
Job stood on Nell’s opposite side.
Guenoc, the Plenipoten leader, transcribed the conversation.
Shang’hai eased into position at Bei’s two o’clock. Although her arms hung loosely at her sides, she rolled scenarios inside her head, shunting them to him as she completed each one. I’ve been working on a memory wiping device like the one used in an old Earth movie clip. It doesn’t work quite the same.
Not all of the memories are erased? Bei would leverage his implants this little turn of events would be common knowledge before they returned to the ship.
The subjects die, but the threat is eliminated. Her pink-haired avatar winked at him.
Bei grunted, prioritized her proposed scenarios according to his preferences, and lobbed them back to her. Time for some damage control. “What is this place?”
Setting the valise by her shoes, Mary Marple ran her hands down her lapels. “This is an observation post.”
The orange-feathered Skaperian eased closer. Tangerine lips curved downward as she glanced at the tablet in her palm. “What does it observe? There are no inhabited planets nearby.”
“There were two planets here once, a long time ago.” Mary Marple smiled benignly at the scientists.
Nell rubbed the base of her skull.
A ghostly shape drifted through the WA. Nell had switched off her isolation subroutine. What could be so important that she would give up her freedom to tell him?
Bei, she’s lying. I know it. Nell squeezed his hand. I don’t know how I know it, but she is lying.
He didn’t doubt her conclusion. Despite the interference from the fermites, he’d detected slight anomalies in the cohesion of the atomic machines around Mary Marple. This isn’t an observation post?
I don’t know. With her free hand, she stroked her belly. I just have a bad feeling about this place. And her.
Yeah, his processors wanted to throw up firewalls, too. He scanned the room, isolating the build-up of dust and debris shaken loose from the mining operations and estimated the time lapse. He’d use her answer as a truth baseline. After all, why would she lie about how long the observation post had been empty? “How long ago did you abandon this place?”
The lead Skaperian scientist smoothed her orange feathers. Her attention darted from Nell to Mary Marple. “This room is powered by fermites, isn’t it? Nell Stafford’s fermites.”
Bei switched to hyperaware, amplifying his sensors. His weapon charged at his hip. He would have a talk with Ugu, the de facto leader of the Skaperians, about how freely her scientists yakked in front of others. He identified the gabbing scientist as Icapm. The ambitious female had experimented on the Amarooks when the Skaperian pretender to the throne had challenged Nell to a battle to the death. He whistled for Ash.
Omest pinched his blood red bottom lip. “I’m certain it was just a coincidence. After all, Mary Marple is comprised of fermites. All Humans carry them. Perhaps the presence of so many diggers—”
“No.” Mary Marple arched a gray eyebrow.
The Picaroon was trying to cover for Nell. Why? Bei kept the Plenipotens in his peripheral vision. They ceased recording information in their ledgers.
Nell brushed Bei’s mind. Don’t read too much into it. I bet the vampire Omest just wants to suck my fermite-infested blood. As for the pencil pushers… If they’re anything like the elephants they resemble, then they don’t have to write things down to remember them.
“Nell Stafford is the physical embodiment of the Meek. She can activate all of our former observation posts simply by walking into them.” Mary Marple waved her hand over the console. Her fingers fuzzed around the tips and the top of the console glowed red, blue, and yellow.
Bei growled. Can you request a private audience with Mary Marple. I don’t want her telling everyone of your abilities.
You and me both. Nell cleared her throat.
Ash loped inside. Shaking off his cloaking ability, the pup plopped down on Nell’s boots. He yawned, flashing his fangs, then stretched out on his belly and rested his muzzle on his paws.
Bei knocked against their telepathic connection. Nothing. So much for sticking the Amarook on the scientists. Time for plan B.
Icapm kept the console between the Amarook and her body. She pressed the blue button and a star map overlaid the ceiling. “What weapons do you control from here?”
“No weapons.” Mary Marple shrugged. “This post was simply for observation of primitive cultures.”
And Bei was just a deluxe toaster. He scanned the projection of the heavens and compared it to known star charts in the CIC. Two whole solar systems had gone missing. And over fifty planets in the “M-Class” range.
Reaching up, Nell plucked a system from the map. The fifth planet glowed, revealing a molten surface. “Dalem.”
“What did you say?” Mary Marple snapped.
Nell jerked backward. The system sprang back into the chart. “Damn that, uh, looks like it should be a hot planet.”
Bei sent a pulse of static electricity over his wife’s skin to cover the deception. Not that he could do anything about that blush. She was a terrible liar. He sent the word Dalem to the CIC, limiting the search to Nell’s favorite source of references—old Earth movies. “She’s trying not to swear in front of the babies.”
Icapm flushed an ugly shade of orange. “I thought Human males could be warriors, too. Then why would you protect them from words?”
With a thought, Bei switched off the internal fan of the Skaperian’s reader. The device should be too hot to hold within minutes.
Shang’hai’s lips twitched. She started an internal stopwatch, timing when Icapm dropped the tech. Bets were placed in the WA. “So there are no weapons, here?”
“No.” Mary Marple straightened the flower in her straw hat. “Just maps, which are very outdated.”
Guenoc stabbed one red dwarf star with his feather quill. “Even the Syn-En do not have technology this sophisticated. We should study it, duplicate it.”
“You don’t use our unsophisticated technology. Why would you want this?” Bei would give his right arm to know what the other two buttons did. He could always choose another arm, but those two buttons…
Icapm dropped the tablet on the console and blew on her fingers. The tablet tapped the yellow button. “We may be able to incorporate the technology any number of ways.”
Rome cheered as he won the bet by a tenth of a second.
Bei detected movement in an asteroid field. He lobbed the memory clip to his security officer. Check for anomalies.
Mary Marple waved her hand. The console fell dark. The star chart shrunk to a pin prick of light then blinked out. “The notes will do you no good. The races we recorded were an evolutionary dead end. Let their ghosts rest in peace. Leave this place.”
Nell’s skin sparkled. She elbowed him in the gut. Mary Marple is going to destroy this place with the fermites.
“We can’t leave.” Icapm grabbed the tablet from her subordinate’s hand. “There is much to learn. I doubt even the mighty Syn-En can do what the Meek could thirty thousand years ago.”
Wow, someone’s jealous. Nell added her fermites to the mix. The engraving on the right panel crumbled to dust. Did you record everything?
Yes. Bei scanned the room one more time then sent the data packet to his communications officer for translation. Whatever the Meek were hiding, he needed to know before it returned to hijack his hardware.
Sticking his hands in his pockets, Job sauntered from the room. “I’ll get my diggers. We won’t waste any of those rare minerals.”
Omest stepped back as the engraving on the wall before him slowly dissolved. “You heard the emissary of the Meek. This is a simple observation post, and she doesn’t want us here. We need to respect her wishes.”
“What? No. Stop!” Icapm flushed, her skin turning a sickly shade of puce. “This is a historical find of great significance. With the Meek to translate, we can learn new paths to the Founding Five’s home space, technologies that can be used as weapons, and—.”
“No.” Mary Marple flicked her wrist and the console crumbled to pieces no bigger than the balls of yarn in her carpet bag. “We cannot allow you to have any more of an advantage than we’ve already given you.”
“Once you’re gone, you won’t be able to stop us.” Icapm hissed.
“Once we’re gone, you will all be at the same technological level.” Mary Marple’s feet disappeared to the ankles. “I suggest you use the point as a reason to cooperate, not to start a competition.”
“Humans are already ahead of us.” Icapm crossed her arms over her chest. “The Syn-En have technology none of us wield, and Nell Stafford….”
“Hey, now!” Nell sputtered. “I didn’t ask for these superpowers, and I’m sharing. I’ve healed more wounded Skaperians than Humans, and I’ve helped you to adapt the prostheses for use in your people.”
“We are not people.” The Skaperian bared her teeth.
Bei moved in front of his wife. If the female made one more threatening move, he’d pluck her bald and feed her feathers to her through her broken teeth. “It is better for all if this place is destroyed. We don’t want the Founding Five to learn of its existence. They could return and deprive us of the minerals. Minerals we need for armor. Armor that saves Skaperian lives.”
Shang’hai shifted near the other console. Her hand hovered near the grip of her TorpSK7.
Icapm notched her chin on her bloated pride and stormed toward the exit. “I shall make an official protest against this desecration.”
Blocking the exit, Bei didn’t budge.
Easy, cowboy. Nell patted his arm. “We understand. We will file our report along with the recording that the Meek instituted the destruction of their own temple, following their society’s principles.”
So there. I may not know history but I do know administration, you tangerine muppet. Nell waited until the scientists passed then rolled her eyes.
Ash shifted, disappearing, and followed the Skaperians from the room.
Guenoc hustled forward. Gray dust coated his white robes and ivory topped the knuckles as he gripped his quill. “You don’t believe the Founding Five will return here, do you?”
“They will if they think there’s a weapon.” Bei would. Any leader worth his synthetic parts would. “That’s why it will be destroyed. All of it.”
Mary Marple faded away as the last of the etchings were erased from the walls.
The mining base’s core strummed with power. Artificial gravity for a whole moon. Damn, he wanted it. The technology would solve many of their resettlement problems, as refugees continued to pour into NSA-controlled space.
“Bei?” Nell swayed on her feet. Do you want me to save the technology? I can stop the fermites.
Tempting. So very tempting. But what could be used for good, could also be weaponized. And he wouldn’t risk the minerals for something that they might not be able to make work. Order the fermites to finish what Mary Marple started, then rest.
Chewing on the nub of his quill, Guenoc hugged his ledger to his chest and hustled out of the cavern. His subordinate followed.
Omest ran his fingers through the pile of dust before wiping his hands on his black trousers. “Not many are like the Syn-En. I could count on my fingers the number that would destroy technology far more advanced than their own. Every species that struggled to register as sentient remembers those that enslaved them. Most would like to avenge the suffering and injustice. With victory so close at hand, I do not doubt some would use a new piece of technology to attack fellow Alliance members.”
Bei weighed the alien’s words. His own men still cried out for justice against the United Earth Council for killing so many Syn-En. How could he expect less from individuals without logic processors?
Great, the crazy is all around us. Nell eased out from behind Bei. “And your people?”
“My people need Humans in all their forms. Our world is lost. You’ve tried to help, to undo the damage, but when this is over, we will abandon Picaroo. Our hope is that Humans will allow us to live and work among their colonies.” Omest smoothed back his widow’s peak. Pointy fangs bulged against his red lips.
“There will always be a place for your kind beside Humanity, should you need it.” Bei sent search criteria for a world suitable for both Picaroons and Humans. No species should be without a place to call their own. He knew the hole it tunneled through the soul. He held Nell a little tighter.
Omest flattened his palm over his chest and dipped his head in respect before he sauntered out of the cavern.
Nell strummed her bottom lip through her teeth. “Do you trust him?”
Job steered an electric vehicle into the room. Healthy men and women miners chatted and laughed in the empty ore cars trailing behind him.
“As much as any of our allies.” Bei ushered her out of the walkway. Not that he trusted many of the newly arrived groups of Humans either. As Omest said, many joined the Alliance for payback. He’d heard rumors of the forces under his control murdering unarmed Scraptors and torturing their offspring. If he discovered proof of such atrocities, he would personally rip the offender limb from limb. “But the Picaroons have more to lose than anyone. Same with a dozen other allies. All have made similar requests, along with providing a cost-to-benefit analysis.”
Bei’s programming blipped at the logic. What kind of beings weighed doing the right thing against the bottom line?
Job parked the vehicle and turned off the motor. Laughing, he strode to the first ore car and removed a shovel. “Alright you slag heads, let’s load up this mineral ore and get it off world before our admiral leaves.”
Jostling each other, the men and women lined up. Shovels scraped rock. Dust billowed in clouds around them. Rebreathers hummed with each breath the miners took.
Manual labor. Bei shook his head. Even Humans didn’t trust the tech. “Job.”
Resting his shovel on his shoulder, Job swaggered closer. “The Deutsche clan will have your ships loaded before you return to the shuttle bay.”
“What happened to the earth movers I sent?” Bei double-checked his logs. The equipment would have arrived with the miners.
“We’re using it topside. Having machines do the heavy lifting is making us fat.” Job patted his flat stomach. “Besides, we don’t want to waste it on this itty-bitty amount of work. We’re chasing a vein of rare Earth minerals, and I have a feeling we’ll strike pay dirt sooner rather than later.”
Bei nodded. At least that information was correct. What else hadn’t been updated in the database? “When did you report the Enif as missing?”
Job scratched furrows in his scraggly beard. “The day the freighter didn’t show. The captain was always punctual. He’d send a message before he left his last stop and let us know when to expect him. When he didn’t show, I radioed the Esean outpost and checked if the captain had been delayed. The commander said he’d left on time, so I radioed the Quartermaster and let him know I suspected the rat bastards had attacked the ship.”
Bei verified the call to the outpost He played back the recording of the conversation. Everything was as it should be, except the notes in the outpost’s log. The captain had been reported tardy, not reported as missing. Did the fools not realize this was war? That every missing ship was suspect?
Hashmarks appeared between Job’s bushy eyebrows. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No. No, you followed procedure.” The administrators at the Becrux outpost had scrambled the circuits. And what could he do? All of the aliens had to help with this fight. Bei just wished they would help instead of hinder.
Nell pinged him. The Syn-En can’t do everything and fight, too. “There have been delays in transmitting data. Solar storms. Ion radiation. That kind of thing.”
Bei blanked his expression. Solar storms and ion radiation didn’t interfere with his technology, hadn’t for generations. What was she up to?
Job nodded his head.
Bei swallowed a snort. Was the miner humoring Nell, or did he really believe such fairy tales?
“That’s what the Plenipotens said.” Job rested his shovel on the stone floor and leaned against the handle. “That’s why they wanted back-up paper copies sent via the shuttle captains as couriers.”
Bei’s processors nearly leapt for joy. “Do you have copies of them?”
Job nodded then shrugged. “I handed them to Guenoc when he landed.”
Guenoc. The man stood at the center of the bottleneck of information. Bei clenched and unclenched his hands. That would end now. He might even be able to narrow down the list of possible traitors.
Easy, hubbinator. Nell patted his arm. I was an administrative assistant in my former life. Let me handle this.
Don’t Nell me. She kissed his cheek. I won’t get stressed, and I’ll keep my mind busy and still be able to help with the war effort. It’ll be a piece of cake. You’ll see.
Bei shuddered. Nell had baked him a cake for their one year anniversary. He was certain he’d need his stomach replaced after the experience and was glad when she hadn’t repeated the experiment. Although he would have eaten the whole thing. Again.
He’d wager every carbon fiber in his body that Nell’s assumption of the administrative duties would be worse than consuming an entire bakery full of her cakes.