“I can lick your itchy belly.”
“Hmm?” Wiggling against the pillow propping up her back, Nell added another note to the tablet. A lot of species wouldn’t be happy with her taking over the administration arm of the Alliance. Too bad. The time from collection to input was a week or longer.
More than enough time to lose the war.
And give a traitor time to cover his tracks.
Blinking, she glanced at the Amarook.
Ash crouched at the foot of the bed. Spittle collected in gossamer webs on his fangs and glistened on her destroyed left boot. “My saliva has many healing properties.”
He thumped his tail, blue eyes pleading.
She rested the tablet screen against her chest. “I am aware of its abilities.”
She’d even used it to treat others. And come home from the sick bay reeking of blood and rancid meat. Maybe if the Amarooks brushed their teeth after eating their prey whole, the saliva wouldn’t smell quite so bad.
Then again, she’d tried adding floral scents and peppermint to the gelatinous goo with no success. Maybe the stench was part of its magic.
“No licking.” Reclining on the bed beside her, Bei set his hand on her stomach. His eyes were black as pitch as he worked inside the WA. “If her belly’s itchy, I will treat it.”
“It is my baby, too.” Ash’s eyes narrowed and he hunkered down and stripped the top of her boot from the sole.
Nell cleared her throat. If they started peeing to mark their territory, she was out of here. “My belly isn’t itchy.”
Bei’s lips twitched. His attention stuck to her left fingers scratching the side of her stomach.
“I’m tickling the baby’s foot.” She patted the small lump sticking against her belly. “They use my bladder as a trampoline, so I tickle their feet.”
“Except that is an elbow.” His palm pressed her flattened belly button. “One foot is up here.”
“Smartypants.” Here she was volunteering for the most boring job as his administrative assistant, and he was correcting her. She focused on the Amarook. “And I know your saliva has healing properties. That’s why the fermites leave it behind when they fix our shoes.”
“You leave it on purpose?” A muscle flexed in Bei’s jaw.
She shrugged. Technically, leaving the drool was against her orders, but Doc thought it might be a good idea, and the fermites had taken that as an order.
“But I have no need of it.” Blue crept into Bei’s eyes. “You could take it out of my boots when you repair them. Instead my systems spend time scrubbing the smell so I can’t be tracked by the odor.”
“Poor baby.” Leaning over, she pressed her lips to his.
Just when his lips softened, the rumble of the shuttle’s nacelles switched from a hum to a deep-throated vibration. They would dock with the mother ship, soon.
With a sigh, she pulled back. “Doc said Amarook drool is good for internal organs as well as external ones. And you still have a few of them.”
Besides, he was responsible for this pregnancy. He could smell like chickcharney heads for a little bit.
Abandoning the boot, Ash crept along her leg. The four fingers in one hand tapped against the others. “Human babies like to be tickled?”
“Yes.” Nell spoke over her husband. He’d been shocked when she’d first tickled him. Then annoyed that his upgrades and synthetic skin didn’t prevent the sensitivity. It was one of her favorite things about him. Other than the rest of him. Tickling was his Kryptonite. “But not too much, and only when they’re about a year or so old.”
Ash reached out his thin arms and caressed her stomach. “Where are babies ticklish?”
“The usual spots.” She sat up on the bed. In a swirl of glitter, fermites dissolved her mangled boot and reformed it on her foot. Cold leached the warmth from the ball of her foot when the atomic-sized machines reconstituted the drool. A chill traveled down her spine. Her babies had better be very healthy, or Doc was about to have his upgrades relocated to where the sun doesn’t shine.
Ash set his chin on her thigh. “Behind the ears and above the tail?”
His eyes widened in an innocent plea.
The base of her skull heated. Her husband was no doubt warning her not to give into such blatant manipulation. She scratched the Amarook behind the ear. “Human tickle spots vary from person to person.”
Leaning into her touch, Ash closed his eyes.
“Most babies are ticklish under the chin.” She moved her hand to scratch there.
The Amarook stretched out his neck, giving her better access.
Bei’s hold on her belly tightened.
He could be so jealous. She winked at him and mouthed, later.
His hand crept just a little higher. “I’ll hold you to it.”
Her breasts tingled. “You better hold more than my promise.” A lot more. She hadn’t forgotten their interrupted interlude in the corridor. His kisses had made her promises. Promises that hadn’t been kept on the way to the mining base. She sobered. More than administrative tasks waited for her back on the spaceship.
A soft whine filled the cabin as the landing gear deployed.
She tapped Ash on the shoulder. “Roll over.”
The canine obliged. “Babies know the best places to be tickled.”
“Most babies tend to be ticklish there.” Nell trailed her fingers through his silky fur before scratching along his ribs.
Ash squirmed until she hit the right spot on the soft part of his belly. His leg thumped, kicking Bei’s boots. Giggles bubbled through the room. “Stop. Don’t stop. Stop.”
Bei added his fingers to hers.
Both of Ash’s legs kicked in time to the rubs. “Yes. Yes. Humans are the best pets!”
She grinned at her husband. How would he like being called a pet?
He smiled back. “Everyone has their uses.”
The shuttle landed in a sigh of thrusters. A soft rap sounded on their cabin door.
“Enter.” Bei patted the Amarook’s belly, smoothing the fur.
When the door snicked open, Medic Brooklyn stuck his head inside. A first aid kit rested against his leg. “Everything alright in here?”
Ash scrambled to his feet and leapt to the floor. He snuffled Brooklyn’s shoes. “I was getting belly rubs. Do you give belly rubs?”
Brooklyn distracted the pup by scratching him behind the ears. “I could, if I had an Amarook of my very own.”
“I could give you my sister, Sidet.” Tail thumping, Ash leaned against the medic. “But she farts when excited. A lot. So she cannot sneak up on her prey. Perhaps if you repair her, she will stay with you and even allow you to hunt with her.”
Brooklyn opened his mouth and closed it.
The base of Nell’s neck tingled. Obviously, the Syn-En was trying to figure out how to take the offer of an Amarook with flatulence. “That is very generous of you, Ash. But I believe your sister wishes to bond with Ensign Richmond.”
The nineteen-year-old Syn-En didn’t mind the smell. She had her olfactory sensors tune it out. Her Human boyfriend was another matter and had forced the pup to drink all sorts of concoctions.
“I couldn’t take a pup from another soldier.” Brooklyn’s shoulders sagged in relief, then his attention stuck to her stomach.
“She’s been prioritizing her new duties as head of administration.” Bei scooted off the foot of the bed and rose. In two strides, he stood in front of her and held out his hand.
She set her hand in his. Her skin prickled with awareness. Maybe they could make a slight detour on the way to sick bay for her check-up. She wasn’t feeling the least bit sleepy, so there was no chance her brain would take a vacation without the rest of her body. “I would like to speak with Guenoc before we see Doc.”
“Are you unwell, Nell Stafford?” Omest’s pale face hovered behind Brooklyn’s shoulder. He had to be part vampire the way he moved so silently.
Nell mentally smacked herself. She should have expected the lanky alien to be skulking about. “I am well.”
“Ah. Then it must be your time.” His lips peeled back, exposing rows of sharp fangs. The better to eat you with, my dear.
Nell shook the Little Red Riding Hood line from her head. The Picaroon had been nothing but kind to her. He couldn’t help it if he looked like the stuff of nightmares. She opened her mouth to correct his misinterpretation of why she was seeing Doc Cabo.
“She felt a twinge on the mining base.” Tugging her to her feet, Bei hugged her against his chest. “There haven’t been any contractions since we returned to the shuttle.”
Great, now he’s making me sound like a Chicken Little, giving false alarms. She elbowed him in the side.
He held her a little tighter. “It’s just a precaution.”
Omest rested his pointed chin on his steepled fingers. “Of course. Of course. Perhaps if you tell me why you wish to see Guenoc, I could do this small thing for you and you could rest your mind.”
The vampire-like alien fastened his emerald gaze upon her.
Nell gripped Bei’s hand and clamped her lips together. If he was trying to glamour her into giving up her free will…
“My wife will be handling some administrative duties until the babies are born.” Bei scooted her closer to the exit. “As such she wanted the satchel of papers Guenoc picked up on the mining base.”
An unholy light blazed in Omest’s eyes. He stood straighter until his black hair nearly brushed the ceiling. “It would be my pleasure to tell Guenoc that Nell will be assuming these new duties. Whenever I complain about the rate their reports take to reach our desk, the Plenipotens always bluster about confirming data and such. I doubt they pass along half the information they record in their ledgers.”
Brooklyn studied his fingernails while Ash chewed on the buckle of his boots.
Nell knew the two species didn’t care for the other, but Omest had practically accused the pencil pusher of being a spy.
Bei nudged her hip.
And apparently, her husband was okay with it. Fine, but if things erupted into verbal sparring during the weekly Alliance meetings, she wasn’t going to attend anymore. “If you could talk to Guenoc for me, Omest, that would be great.”
Just great. Maybe she’d even get him some flair for his black shirt. She flashed him a thumbs-up.
After a small bow, he disappeared from her cabin doorway.
Bei fisted the back of her shirt, stopping her from leaving. “It will be interesting to compare the printed copies to the electronic transmissions.”
So her hubby did want her to play Mata Hari. Good to know her spying had his blessing.
The Dumbo-earred alien had taken a different shuttle from the mining base. After getting her super-freak on in the ancient Meek observation room, she didn’t blame him for avoiding her. Superpowers weren’t for wimps. “Guenoc had plenty of time to get rid of any damning evidence.”
“Exactly, but is he hiding anything?” Bei cocked his head before ushering her from the cabin. Ash bounded ahead.
Brooklyn clasped his hands behind his back as he waited to follow them. “I found a few discrepancies in the reports, but nothing major. Nothing that would make the Alliance vulnerable.”
Nell snorted. With the Meek on their side, nothing could make the Alliance vulnerable. They were the most powerful beings in the universe. She scratched her stomach. And she carried one of them. She took her place as the filling in the Syn-En sandwich. Her husband thought he was protecting her by always having her under guard. Little did he know that he was protecting himself. She knew he would die to keep her safe. Knew it, and would do anything to prevent it.
Including agree to an alliance with an iffy partner. One who’d shown her Bei’s death to coerce her into accepting their lopsided terms.
She pushed the thoughts aside. One thing at a time. “We’ll go after the discrepancies by chasing down the copies they keep of all their reports. Just send me a list of all the dates and times. I don’t want to waste time manually scanning duplicate data.”
Bei glanced at her over his shoulder. “When you see the report, it will automatically upload into the CIC. You don’t have to read or manually upload anything.”
“I don’t? Cool.” She’d loved her scanner at her long ago job back on Earth, except for when it didn’t work.
Bei held his arms against his body and dropped to the crew compartment below. He held up his arms to her.
Like she was going to jump. Gripping the railing, she descended the ladder. “That leads us to the second way to unmask the traitor. I’ll collect all the reports every night and upload them, eliminating all delays.”
Brooklyn landed with a soft thud behind her. “How does that expose the traitor?”
The medic had a computer for a brain and he hadn’t made the connection? Maybe she was suffering the after-effects of being brain dead. “Because if any reports of attacks on our convoys go missing or are delayed, we’ll know where to look.”
Bei kissed her cheek. “What movie did that nugget come from?”
“I do have original ideas, you know.” Although…. Had she seen it in a movie?
On their right, Mechanic Montgomery Smith stormed out of the engine room. A vein throbbed at his ebony temple. “You’re being ridiculous, Syd. Humans fought wars long before the Syn-En were created.”
Shang’hai stomped after him. Twisted wire held the Chief Engineer’s pink braids away from her face. “Dammit, Monty, you’re a mechanic, not a soldier. Drilling on a low gravity moon is not the same as fighting a battle.”
“Did I say it was? No, I did not.” Catching sight of Nell, Monty rolled his eyes. “Come find me when your circuits aren’t overheated.”
“My circuits are just fine, you…you two bit wrench monkey.”
Monty yanked his practice staff from where it rested near the bench seat and thundered down the aisle. “With that attitude, don’t expect my wrench anywhere near your bolts until you apologize.”
Nell winced. Oh, boy.
Bei ducked his head.
Shang’hai raised her chin when she spied them. She pinned Nell with a glare. “You should tell him Nell Stafford isn’t Human, so he stops thinking he can do what we do.”
“Oh! Hey, that’s not a nice thing to say.” Cold air washed inside Nell’s open mouth. Just because Shang’hai was upset didn’t mean she could take it out on Nell.
“Commander.” Steel clanged around the word when Bei snapped it off.
Shang’hai inhaled sharply then nodded. “My apologies, Nell Stafford. I just don’t want him getting hurt.”
Nell jerked her chin once and continued down the crew compartment to the ramp. She could be big about it. But not big enough to comfort the woman who just said she wasn’t Human. She didn’t need to draw any more attention to herself.
Bei paused at the top of the ramp, then swore softly.
Rising on tiptoe, she peered over his shoulder. “Just what did you say when you contacted Doc, Brooklyn?”
Doc stood at the bottom of the ramp beside a gurney. A large red and white first aid kit rested on the white sheets draping the bed. Ash’s parents, Iggy and Elvis, sat next to it. The pups lined up beside them. Aliens and Humans stood in clumps beside idling vehicles, raw ore in cars, and crates of supplies.
Everyone stared at her.
Silence reigned as they seemed to catch their breath.
Behind her, Brooklyn cleared his throat. “The Admiral didn’t want to alarm anyone who might be tapping into the transmission, so I said I’d detected an anomaly and that you should be inspected when we return.”
“So long as no one over-reacted.”
Neither man moved.
Sarcasm was wasted on logic processors. Taking a deep breath, she hooked her arm through her husband’s and walked down the ramp. “False alarm folks. The babies aren’t coming. I just overreacted.”
She patted her stomach for good measure, hoping their little ears got the message. Then she pinched his bicep.
“And for the record, dear. If I ever have to play the little woman again, you’ll wake from your next sleep cycle without your arms and legs, and people will call you Bob.”