Nell braced her feet apart on the rocky ground. Holy crap! What had just happened? Her hand dropped to her flat stomach. Her skin tingled with fermites, letting her know the babies growing in her womb were well. She blew her bangs out of her eyes.
At the edge of the camp, the mound of Scraptor armor jiggled. A crushed helmet tumbled to the ground. Nell shivered. Zombie Scraptors. She hated to think about what was next.
Iggy’s tail wagged from an opening. She sniffed and growled but continued the hunt.
This planetoid must be one of Dante’s levels of Hell.
Swallowing hard, she flexed her fingers gathering her fermites. What other Bug-Ugly wanted a piece of her? She’d tear them apart, atom by atom. Damn. Not a single one remained. She gulped cool air into her lungs. Maybe her Amarook spirit guide was onto something, with the whole pregnancy making a female homicidal. Nell shook off her thoughts. Calm. She needed to be calm. A blanket of fermites lapped at her feet. Humans emerged from the layer of glittering atomic machines, healed and whole. NSA soldiers in light blue uniforms herded them toward the open ramps of the shuttles.
Why were they running? The danger had passed. Blue light arched from her fingertips. Between Bei, his Syn-En, and the Amarooks, the Scraptors ass-whooping was inevitable. Nell blew a cloud of fermites off her fingers. Her superpowers rocked.
Nell’s attention snapped to the pile of pink, white, and red armor.
Iggy’s head popped up between a crumpled torso and a thigh covering. Her pink and green feathers twitched with static electricity and the collar translating her thoughts into words remained dark. With drool running down her muzzle, she bared her fangs and disappeared in the heap below.
Nell groped in her mind for her connection to the featherface. Static buzzed between grainy images of pain and a bloodlust for revenge. She stepped toward the pack leader.
“Stay put, Nell.” Bei pinned her with a glance. His eyes were onyx.
Her chest tightened. What the hell? They’d kicked Scraptor booty, so why weren’t they celebrating?
Syn-En in black uniforms aimed rifles and grenade launchers toward the horizon. The missile tubes on the sides of the shuttles opened. Projectile weapons emerged from their hulls.
Nell squinted but could see nothing. No threat. No sign of the enemy. The fermites thickened and glittered against the dirt. They seethed and surged, still healing the injured but preparing for new orders. Deadly orders. Orders she was to give once she thought of something. And then. There…
Silver ships sparkled in the red light from the dwarf sun on the horizon. Their nacelles summoned a wall of dust, clogging the air with the brown powder. White eyes emerged from the billowing clouds.
Missiles. Her mouth dried. Hide. Run. No, dammit, she had people to protect. Her fermites expanded like a bubble, rising in a dome and spreading out from her epicenter over the entire camp.
NSA soldiers pressed their charges to the ground and covered their heads.
The air filled with the thump and whine of launched grenades and the rat-a-tat-tat of projectile fire.
The enemy missiles swerved then resumed their trek toward the camp.
Red flares serpentined across the sky.
The missiles didn’t take the bait. They plowed into the ground between the shuttles at the edge of the camp. Geysers of dirt shot into the air. Clumps of rock and debris hit the fermite shield, sparking bursts of light as they disintegrated. Men and women hunched over. Screams and gasps erupted from those on the ramps.
A troop transport listed to the right. Its nacelles blazed bright, seconds before the ship stabilized. Those still on the ramps hustled inside.
More missiles screamed in the pink sunlight.
Bei’s lips thinned. Countermeasures launched from the beetle-shaped Starflight shuttles knocking out two missiles.
A cheer rippled over the crowd.
Bei’s attention stuck on her. Can you hold the fermites?
Of course. Nell nodded. There wasn’t any choice.
Davena Cabo brushed Nell’s shoulders. Her black robes glittered over her pregnant belly. The healer raised her arms. Her fermites mingled with Nell’s, forming an atomic mesh overhead. “What is that song you sing?”
“It’s a theme song. From Gilligan’s Island.” Nell started the first refrain.
When Davena joined in, their fermites solidified into an impenetrable energy dome. Her husband and Lieutenant Richmond planted themselves in front and peered down the barrel of their Lassiters.
The shuttle engines revved and they hovered above the ground. Landing gear retracted.
Two pale, female Municians near the shuttles gathered their dirty robes and raced for the ramps. “They’re leaving without us.”
Nell glared at her husband. Deep down, she knew the shuttles wouldn’t abandon them, but she wouldn’t mind if he let her in on the plan.
Queens, a Syn-En medic, intercepted the two Municians, grabbing them around the waist and lugging them back behind the safety of the fermite dome.
“With your permission, Admiral, I’d like to kick some alien ass.” Rome punted a sliver of shrapnel then tossed his rocket launcher to Bei.
“Permission granted. But save the big ship for me.” Bei caught the weapon mid-air. “Everyone,” his voice boomed across the crowd. “Stay put until this is over.”
Now, he talks. Silver striped Nell’s arms. Iggy, maybe you can get your pack to ride herd on everyone.
The alpha Amarook emerged tail first from the pile of armor. Her butt wiggled as she pulled her head free. Her collar blazed bright. Shaking her body, she flung bits of armor in every direction. “Can we bite the Municians if they attempt to escape?”
Nell’s fingers turned silver. If she didn’t have to hold the shield, she wouldn’t mind throwing a few lightning bolts at the stinky elves. “Just don’t kill anyone.”
Iggy’s whiskers twitched. Static electricity crackled along the ends. “You spoil the sport.” She unfolded her arms. Red crystals dotted the brown dirt. “I found these inside the armor. They must be the power source. I shorted them out. There will be no more foul-tasting zombies.”
Images of the Amarook biting the red crystals flooded Nell’s head. A memory stirred then retreated as her stomach bucked and roiled. She spit out the bitter taste. “Thanks for that.”
Nell hoped she wouldn’t succumb to morning sickness. Or every-time-she-breathed sickness. Or what-is-that-taste sickness.
Iggy shimmered out of sight.
Nell felt her pack fall into hunting formation around the alpha as they headed toward the Munician side of the camp. Maybe she shouldn’t have said the Amarooks could bite. The evil elves really did taste nasty.
More countermeasures intercepted two missiles.
She flinched at the boom.
The Humans in the camp polished off their rations, many of them licking the wrapping. As former Scraptors, they ignored the battle raging around them.
The girl Nell had healed stared at the metallic stripes on Nell’s forearms. “Will my skin do that, now that I’m Human?”
“I would hope not.” Nell kicked the crystals in a pile and placed her foot over them. Her toes tingled and went numb. Guess Iggy hadn’t shorted the power source completely. She would hand them off to Bei later, let him deal with them. “The silver part is fake skin. NeoDynamic Armor that had to be used when my own skin got burned away.”
By a Scraptor. One who was now dead and incinerated. She wouldn’t miss the Bug-Uglies when they were gone.
A missile zoomed through the countermeasures. Bullets pinged off the narrow body.
Rome’s rocket missed a direct hit and tore off a fin. “What the hell? It’s like they’re being guided by thought, not coordinates.”
The missile slammed into the front of the camp, sending Scraptor armor rocketing into the air.
The ground bucked beneath Nell’s feet. She dropped to one knee. A pebble dug into her skin.
Davena stumbled forward, but kept her fermites in place. The dome twinkled overhead.
Doc, her husband, caught her before she hit the ground. “There you go, falling for me all over again.” He caressed her stomach before setting her on her feet.
Nell sniffed. That was so sweet. How she wished her husband would…
Dropping his smoking weapon, Bei landed next to her. Cupping a hand under her elbow, he helped her to her feet. “Ready for round two?”
No. “Yes. Of course.” Nell’s tongue stuck to the roof of her dry mouth. Pushing up her sleeves, she spread her fingers wide. The fermite dome expanded and solidified.
Bei skimmed his hand down her stomach. “You protect those babies and I’ll protect you. We got this.”
The world swam. She blinked rapidly to clear her vision. Stupid hormones. Her husband was darn near perfect. “Blow one out of the sky for me.”
“Any time.” He winked then focused.
The enemy ships were close. Fire blasted from the cannons mounted underneath one silver disk-shaped craft.
The missile launcher barked from Rome’s shoulder. It tore off one of the cannons. The Security Chief rolled his shoulders. “Damn shame I didn’t bring better gifts for our guests.”
Bei nodded. “I’m not detecting any life signs on the enemy craft.”
Two probes launched from the Starflight shuttle. The spheres glowed bright white. Instead of exploding when they hit the ship, they melted the hull and burrowed inside, heading for the munitions stored aboard.
“Nice.” Rome reloaded in one smooth motion. “You got the big one, now it’s my turn.”
He aimed for the smaller attack vehicle and fired. His bomb threaded through the enemy’s torpedo tube. The blast tore off the bottom of the ship.
Explosions rolled in concussive waves through the first craft. The hull of the enemy ship peeled away. Pieces thudded against the protective Syn-En shuttles and bounced against the barrier.
Nell’s arms shook. Her skin tightened. Just a little longer, she had to hold on just a little longer.
Standing next to her, Davena nodded. Sweat beaded her upper lip.
One by one, the Syn-En fired back, destroying the enemy’s weapons before sending incendiary devices into munition stores. Smoke poured from the four enemy craft before their hulls splintered and ripped apart. Blossoms of red, white, and yellow created bouquets in the air. Shrapnel bounced off the shield and pierced the ground around the camp.
The crowd stared, mesmerized by the flames, confident in the strength of the shield.
Nell didn’t have that luxury. Even superpowers couldn’t hold forever. She gritted her teeth and blinked away the sweat stinging her eyes. A soft thump on her right drew her attention.
Davena sagged in her husband’s arms, her long lashes black crescents against her pale skin.
Bei pressed against Nell’s back. “It’s okay. We’re safe.”
Nell dropped to her knees. She’d barely touched the dust before Bei scooped her up in his arms. His strength closed around her. She buried her nose in his neck, filled her lungs with his scent. It was over. For now.