“Same satchel, different planet.” Nell Stafford patted the medical bag at her hip. Not that she needed the bandages, sprays, and fancy doo-dads inside. Gold fuzz twinkled like glitter around her fingers. Her fermites prepared to treat whatever traumatized the beings beyond the shuttle door. She may be an ordinary Human, but she had some super-powers thanks to ancient alien technology.
Around her, the turbulence rattled the shuttle flying low over the rocky planetoid below. A planetoid where the defeated enemy had deposited refugees and left them to die.
A situation she and the others crowding the crew compartment planned to remedy.
She only hoped the former enemy was grateful.
And that among the Municians seeking help was the one that could end this war once and for all. All peace required was the signature of the Argent family matriarch.
Intel said the lavender elven alien would be on the planetoid below.
Intel had been wrong before.
Admiral Beijing York, Nell’s husband and leader of the NeoSentient Alliance, landed silently on the metal deck beside her. Despite weighing over three hundred pounds and standing six and a half feet, he never made a sound when he moved. Part of his stealth lay in being trained as a soldier since birth, the rest was due to the fact that he was more machine than man and designed for combat.
But Bei was hers. All hers, well, when she didn’t have to share him with the NSA. Which was too often lately. Shouldn’t they have more time together since the war with the Founding Five was all but over? Nell adjusted the strap of her satchel, freeing the blond lengths that always managed to get trapped underneath.
Humor crackled in Bei’s blue almond-shaped eyes. “You did not have to volunteer for this rescue mission.”
“Neither did you. Besides you know the rules, where you go, I go.” Nell checked their shared connection in the Wireless Array. Open. Drat the man. She fingered the cover of the cerebral interface at the base of her neck keeping her organs functioning and allowing her husband to read her thoughts. If there hadn’t been the possibility of danger, she’d have the brain box switched to receive only.
“The matriarch of the Argent clan may be on Icely prime. I have to get her signature. With the last Munician family capitulating, the war will officially be over.” A green diagnostic beam shot from Bei’s wrist and washed over her. “Are you certain you are well enough to heal the sick?”
Nell pushed his hand down, aiming the beam at the floor. Her skin prickled as the sensors in his hand switched on. Sometimes, she’d like to put a magnet in his circuits. “I’m fine.” Releasing him, she gestured to the crew compartment of the shuttle. “I’m living the Star Trek dream. Visiting strange new worlds, crossing the final frontier in wormholes, yada, yada, yada.”
“Ah.” Bei’s lips twitched. “This ancient video clip I remember you making me watch.”
Nell clamped her lips together. Star Trek hadn’t been ancient before her century long nap landed her in the middle of the twenty-second century. “I don’t recall making you watch it.”
Ahead of them, civilian recruits in light-blue stood in four orderly lines. Each carried medical supplies and food rations. Humans intermingled with multi-limbed aliens. Bipeds lined up next to quadrupeds. Hair, feathers, and scales disappeared under auto-sizing helmets. Side-arms hung on hips.
Burping bile, Nell checked her TorpSK7 holstered at her side. The pistol shot projectiles or energy beams depending on the threat. It wouldn’t be the first time, a mission of mercy turned into a fight for survival.
Bei’s forehead wrinkled. His eyes darkened, a sign that he tapped into the Combat Information Center to search for data. “The correct words to the opening of the video clips of Star Trek are…”
Nell rose on tiptoe and kissed his jaw. The synthetic skin was smooth under her lips. Her husband never had to shave or cut the thick black hair on his head.
Stopping mid-sentence, Bei blinked. “You missed my lips.”
“I just wanted to get your attention.”
Angling his body toward her, he cocked his head to the left. His hand skimmed her side to settle on her hip. Serrated ridges raised the sleeves of his black uniform. “You always have my attention.”
Warmth unfurled deep inside her belly. After nearly five years since he woke her from a hundred and twenty year sleep, she was still falling in love with him. She slid her hand along his cheek to cup the back of his head. “I am fine. Perfectly healthy.”
He leaned toward her, his attention focused on her lips. “You’re worried.”
A statement, not a question. “The children are fine.” Their twin boys were currently aboard the Nell Stafford being watched over by a pack of overly-protective Amarooks who sent her telepathic updates of the boys’ antics.
“I refer to the Meek.” He tugged her closer, holding her belly to his and pressing their chests together. “You have been feeling poorly since you assigned the last of the Meek to a newly conceived child four weeks ago.”
The Meek had once been Human but had ascended into energy beings and had spent millennia shaping the growth of sentient species in the universe. They were the reason Bei, his cyborgs, and the alliance had won the war. And now they were gone, cloning developing fetuses so they could rejoin the physical world to be reborn and eventually die.
Her sons were the first Meek rebirth.
Nell rested her forehead against Bei’s shoulder. “I miss Mary Marple. Sure, she was arrogant, powerful, pigheaded, and rude, but it was nice knowing she was looking out for us.”
“I think they knew we could look out for ourselves.” Bei kissed her hair, then her temple. He crooked a finger under her chin and raised her face to his. “We don’t need them anymore. Let them rest.”
“I want to. But I grew up in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I know the bad guys always get sequels.” And villains didn’t come any eviler than the Erwarians. Not that she would let the big bads steal away all her fun. Nell’s eyes fluttered closed.
Bei’s breath washed over her face.
She parted her lips, waiting for his kiss. And waited. And waited. She glanced up at her husband.
Bei’s eyes were completely black. His attention fully focused on whatever was happening. “Stay in the back. Don’t move without my order. Understand?”
“Y-yes.” Her heart stumbled over a beat. The shuttle’s nacelles revved and her ears popped as the ship gained altitude.
Then he was gone, sliding through the rows of medics like a shark through bloody water. He joined four other Synthetically-Enhanced Human soldiers near the back ramp. A soft hum drifted back as the Syn-En charged their rifles and formed a shield between the civilian medics and whatever threat lay outside.
A whisper of fabric brought the scent of wildflowers.
Nell turned to her right.
In Syn-En black, Lieutenant Virginia Richmond stood next to Nell. Her medical pack had been pushed to her back while both hands rested on the TorpSK7 holstered at her hips. “Scraptors are guarding the refugee camp. The Bug-Uglies are in full armor.”
Nell swallowed hard.
Scraptors had been the military arm of the Founding Five. Resembling man-sized scorpions, Scraptors had enforced the will of the Founders with ruthless efficiency, especially against Humans. When the truth of their origins had been revealed, most could not come to terms with the fact that they were Human themselves. Humans that had been brainwashed to hate their own kind. Few had been able to live with the truth.
As such, the Scraptors were nearly extinct.
Nell wished the Bug-Uglies would hurry up the process or fully commit to being Human. The universe could do without any more bad guys. Unfortunately, it looked like they’d have to deal with some determined Scraptors on this rescue mission.
“I thought the terms called for them shucking their armor and divesting themselves of their weapons.” Nell shifted on her feet. Since a Scraptor had nearly killed her before, she’d preferred her Scraptors shucked.
“They got the weapons bit right.” Richmond shrugged. Her auburn hair had been shorn at the shoulders and her jaw formed a hard edge. She’d been remaking herself, and not in a good way. If there’d been ice cream available on the ship, she would have eaten it all. “The Scraptors are what they are. Who are we to tell them to be otherwise?”
“Um, we’re the winners of the war.” The sarcasm slipped past Nell’s lips before she could recall it. Her friend wasn’t talking about the Scraptors, but her break-up with her long time boyfriend. The girl may have been inducted as a Syn-En soldier since birth, but she was just a year out of her teens. “Sanjay still isn’t budging from his ultimatum?”
Richmond snorted and double-checked her weapons. “I am a Syn-En. Built and designed to handle the dangers of war and peace.”
Nell cleared her throat. “Yeah, about that… You did kinda die on your last mission.”
Nell knew. She’d been there. Not even her fermites could revive the girl, but the Meek had. The Meek had saved Richmond and given her back to the Syn-En and Sanjay. Nell’s eyes still prickled with tears at the memory.
Richmond flapped her hand. “I’m fine. I won’t let them kill me again.”
“O-Kay.” Nell bit her lip.
The Scraptors hadn’t killed the girl the first time. Richmond had fallen under friendly fire; she’d died protecting the people nearly killed her.
“Give him time, Richmond. Sanjay will come around.” Nell leaned against the girl.
A tremor ran through Richmond before she shook herself and gathered her hair in a ponytail. “He’s had a year.”
Nell rolled her eyes. Even a brain box couldn’t override stupid Human behavior. “He’s had two days since you told him you requested to return to active duty. He was fine with you on the ship, helping with the refugees. He was fine with you on those missions to return stolen heritage items to their original species. He was—”
“He asked me to choose. I choose to be who I am.” The girl thrust her chin forward. “And that’s the protector of the President of the NeoSentient Alliance, Leader of the Humans, and the admiral’s wife. In short, your bodyguard.”
Nell ground her teeth. She would unplug her husband’s circuits one by one as soon as they returned to the ship. A furry body brushed Nell’s leg and bloodlust steamed through her veins. Reaching down, she watched her fingers disappear into the furry, cloaked Amarook body.
The air shimmered and Iggy appeared. Pink and green feathers quivered on the Amarook’s head while matching fur covered her body. The species resembled extinct Earth wolves except the Amarook’s possessed a set of humanoid hands, camouflaging ability, and a means to communicate telepathically. Iggy’s swollen belly stuck out from both sides.
Another litter to crowd Nell and Bei’s cabin.
“As Nell says, you should cut the boy some slack.” The collar around Iggy’s neck glowed as her thoughts were translated into words. “Sanjay is a male. You must accept his sensitivity as part of his nature, just as your lethal skills are part of yours. It is not a weakness.”
“Why should I? He’s not accepting my nature.” Richmond dropped her right hand from her weapon and swung her satchel to the side.
The threat must have faded. The shuttle banked. Nell’s ears popped as it began its descent.
Iggy smoothed her feathers out of her eyes. “You are a female. The stronger of the genders. You must set the example.” She extended her claws on her paws. “Besides, sensitive males make the best nurturers of the young. He will be quite busy raising them leaving you free to do your job.”
Nell choked on her tongue. She might need to talk to Iggy’s mate about male liberation.
Richmond pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. “The admiral doesn’t stay home to take care of his sons.”
Iggy cracked her knuckles before folding her arms against her chest and sitting on her hind quarters. “The admiral fights daily between his duty and his protective instincts. Besides, he knows my pack will protect his young.”
“As I will protect your children.” Richmond’s Amarook decloaked on her left. She slipped her hand in the lieutenant’s. “Your mate’s fear caused him to overreact. Such a bond is rare for many species. You must not lose the battle to keep his heart.”
Richmond blew her bangs out of her eyes. “Fine. I’ll give him another chance. Eventually.”
The shuttle landed with a sigh. Gears ground as the ramp slowly opened. Brown haze seeped into the cracks.
The Amarooks disappeared, then Iggy deepened her telepathic link, merging her vision with Nell’s. A forest of legs over-laid Nell’s vision as her four-legged protectors made their way to the ramp.
“Do you really think he’ll come around?” Richmond focused on the deck and chewed her bottom lip.
“Of course he will.” Nell nudged Richmond’s shoulder. The girl reminded Nell so much of the niece she’d left behind on Twenty-First century Earth. Nell’s eyes prickled with tears. Dang it. Why was she getting all misty-eyed lately? Perhaps she should get a check-up, or have Iggy lick her. Both would probably tell her she was fine. “Just give Sanjay time.”
Chatter drifted down from the deck above, and the scent of disinfectant wafted from the operating rooms. The lines of medics filed out of the crew compartment. Nell waited for her turn then fell into step behind the last group. The four rows parted around Bei and his Chief of Security.
A lavender Munician planted herself in front of the two cyborgs. The purple elf drilled her gnarled finger into Bei’s shoulder. “And I demand a private stateroom. I am an Argent, after all.”
“After you sign the peace treaty, I shall see what can be arranged.” Bei spoke softly, evenly. It was his I-can-gut-you-and-rip-out-your-heart-before-you-even-know-it voice.
Poor Bei, her husband hated politics. Nell trailed her fingers down his shoulder blades then swept along the curve of his bottom in a sensual promise as she passed him. Her fingers tingled from the contact.
His voice softened and he slanted her a glance as she walked down the ramp. He spoke through their private connection. Be careful.
Always. Nell stepped off the ramp. Puffs of brown dirt rose beneath her boots.
In the distance, the red dwarf sun poured pink light over the rocky landscape. Salts striped the exposed hills in lines of white, red, and yellow, attesting to the former presence of water. Armored Scraptors stood like red, pink, and green pickets around the camp. On the left, Municians rested on pallets and dined from bone white plates, attended to by putty-colored servants. Two Scraptors guarded a gurgling machine, extracting water from the air and soil. On the right, a fence of barbed wire penned in a hundred or more Humans. When one colorless Munician tossed food scraps into the area, three dozen Humans scrambled to claw the remains from the dirt.
Nell’s stomach cramped. “I’m really gonna have problems watching any Christmas movies this December.”
“Aside from the pointed ears, I have never seen the resemblance between Santa’s elves and the Municians.” Richmond turned between the rows of Humans. “Municians do not like chocolate or cookies. There is nothing good about them.”
The lieutenant spat and glared at a lime green one reclining on a padded chair.
Shaking off her camouflage, Iggy loped toward them. “And the stinky politicos taste foul. I am certain, they cause indigestion to my kind.”
Nell nodded. Although absolutes were dangerous, she hated the Municians as well. They were the ones holding up the peace. She wouldn’t put it past the pointy-eared freaks to be behind the attacks on the alliance ships occurring since the cease fire. “Let’s just find and fix our golden tickets and leave.”
Medics Brooklyn and Queens handed out partial rations to the starving and assigned coded tags, rating their injuries. On the periphery, Alliance soldiers checked the Scraptors for weapons. A gold banner rose in the distance.
One for her. Nell picked her way through the people shivering on the ground. Scars formed a lattice on most of their flesh. Some had their tongues cut out; others had their mouths sewn shut. The Municians considered themselves the height of civilization. They were simply barbaric.
“I might have to bite one or two Municians to calm the fever in my blood.” Iggy trotted beside Nell. Every once in a while, the Amarook fished in her saddlebags and handed out a cloth soaked in her spit to a victim with burns. The saliva would heal and soothe as it helped repair the damaged tissue. She bared her fangs at the Municians beyond the barbed wire. “You are lucky not to be as far along in your pregnancy, or you, too, would want to spill a little blue blood.”
“What?” Nell stumbled over the powdered dirt. The Amarook couldn’t be correct. She just couldn’t be. Bei would not be happy especially as she went on this mission. She tasted her energy bar from breakfast again. She wasn’t particularly happy.
“Oh, dear.” Richmond’s eyes widened. “I thought the admiral was just being his usual over-protective self. I didn’t know…”
Iggy smiled, baring rows of glistening canines. “I wager neither of the proud parents knew. But how could you not suspect? Aside from your frequent mating activities, you placed the last Meek nearly a month ago. You bore the first Meek; you will bring forth the last Meek.”
“Good God. I’m about to have two sets of twins under three?” Nell slapped a hand over her mouth.
But the damage was done. The Syn-En with their enhanced hearing stiffened. They carefully arranged themselves, closing in on her position.
Nell’s attention flew to Bei.
Shock loosened his features then a blank mask settled over his face. His thoughts were a caress inside her mind. Return to the shuttle.
When I’m done. Nell turned her back to her husband and ran a hand down her stomach. Golden fermites formed a halo around her belly. Well, sugar. She really was expecting.
Davena Cabo waddled closer. A loose black dress draped over her extended stomach. Fermites glittered around her stomach, an atomic shield of protection. “I see you are expecting again.”
“Did everyone know but me?” Nell ducked her head under the strap of her satchel.
Twelve Human shivered on the ground. Bones poked against their skin, practically providing an anatomy lesson. Dirt and scabs marred the stitching around their mouths. Insects feasted on their wounds.
“No one knew except the Amarooks apparently.” Doc hovered near his wife, Davena, sorting the injured while hooking them up to IVs.
With a grunt, Davena lowered herself to the ground. “Given the way they’re acting, I’m beginning to wonder if pregnant women on Earth aren’t stuffed in a padded box and kept there until they deliver.”
“They would be if they stayed.” Doc glared at his wife before shifting to the side to make room for another wounded with a golden ticket.
Nell searched for her assigned patient. “Our husbands are certainly acting like cavemen.”
Fermites created a glittering haze around Davena’s hands before blanketing the man on the ground in front of her. “I do not understand. We lived in caves in Surlat. Our men did not have an issue with women working until their birthing time.”
Richmond rested her hands on the butts of her pistols and eyed the stationary Scraptors. “I think I understand why so many species consider males the weaker of the genders.”
Doc’s head snapped up.
Nell’s brain box prickled. Oh, boy. The Syn-En chatter in the Wireless Array was spiking off the charts.
A moment later, Richmond winced and clasped her skull. “Apparently, they lose their sense of humor, too.”
Davena chuckled. Her black glossy curls bounced around her oval face and her cocoa-colored skin glowed as she healed the man at her feet. “I think your patient is behind Doc.”
Nell stopped next to her a young girl. Iron banded her chest, making it difficult to breathe. God. Children were the worst. At least Nell could help her. That’s why she was here. Her knees trembled before she dropped to the ground.
The girl couldn’t be older than twelve. Scars striped her tan skin and her blue eyes stared out of bruised and sunken sockets. She wiggled away, tried to slip into the dirt.
“Don’t be afraid.” Nell’s fermites shifted from gold to green. They would sedate her patient, calm her just enough until the healing was done. The subatomic machines reached out and disappeared into the girl’s skin. “I’m here to help.”
The girl clawed at the tattered tablecloth draped over her bony body.
“Shhh. It’ll be all right. No one will hurt you again.” Nell focused the fermites, felt them heal the girl from the inside out. Watched as the crushed bones in her hands and feet knit back together. Someone had stomped on her. Nell’s attention shifted to the Scraptor ten feet away. Bug-Ugly bastards. Sci-fi writers of the twentieth century really had a lot to account for.
Sure the scorpion-like Scraptors fit the Hollywood stereotype, but not the Municians. The elven race was hideously beautiful in a grotesque way. They should have been the good guys instead of the evil manipulators of the galaxy. If she could go back in time, she’d do some serious bitch-slapping of those writers.
“It won’t be much longer now.” Nell smiled at the girl.
Patches of brown hair sprouted from her scalp. Her scabs healed and flaked off. The stitching on her lips disappeared. Her attention jumped to the Scraptor in pink armor. The girl grabbed Nell’s hand. Her fingers dug into the small bones as her gaze bounced from the Scraptor to Nell and back again.
Golden gloves encased Nell’s hand, preventing further damage.
Richmond unholstered her TorpSK7. It hummed as it charged to a lethal burst.
“Don’t worry. The Scraptors can’t hurt you.”
The girl shook her head and opened her mouth. The interior glowed as her tongue grew back.
“Give it a minute.” Nell smoothed the girl’s short brown locks. “Then we can have a proper conversation.”
The girl tapped on Nell’s hand.
A pattern formed. Obviously, she was trying to say something.
“Richmond?” Nell gestured to her hand.
“Running it through the CIC now.” The lieutenant sidled closer, keeping the gun against her thigh.
Nell’s fermites twinkled red. Red indicated a spike of arsenic in the girl’s system. Nell froze. Only Scraptors built-up arsenic in their blood from the oil they used to keep their armor supple. She was treating a Scraptor.
Red tinged the fermites of Davena’s patient.
Nell tapped into her connection with Bei. I think we might have a problem. A big problem.
The girl gurgled as she struggled with her new tongue. Gritting her teeth, she pointed to the pink armor. “M-mine!”
She leapt to her feet. The cloud of fermites swarmed to follow. Leaping her fallen comrades, she rammed both palms against the Scraptor’s chest. “Mine!”
The Bug-Ugly didn’t budge.
Nell rose, slowly. “Scraptors don’t share armor.”
The girl grabbed the Scraptor’s claw, twisted, and yanked.
Nell held her breath. No arm filled the interior. No limb was ripped from the joint. A red glow filled the void. Electricity danced across her skin. Fermites molded themselves in a protective layer around her body. “Richmond!”
The lieutenant fired. Blue energy hit the Scraptor in the chest, crushing its armor.
The thing remained on its feet.
“Great, that’s all we need. Scraptor zombies.”
It raised its claw and snapped at Nell’s throat.
Syn-En: Home World available on pre-order for 99cents. Releases 8/15/17
Nook (coming soon)
Had I no already read the book, I would have been screaming for more after this cliff-hanging teaser. =)