Nell looped her arms around Bei’s neck and held him tight. Adrenaline drained from her body, and she shivered from the cold. Peeking through her lashes, she surveyed the camp.
Syn-En in black carried injured to the beetle-shaped shuttles landing on the right. NSA troops in blue filed back into the labyrinth of tents, organized the Municians into orderly lines, and hustled them forward.
Nell sighed. The battle was truly over this time. And the good guys had won. She smoothed Bei’s black hair. “Is this where you kiss me and we ride off into the sunset?”
“This isn’t some twentieth century video clip.”
She blinked. He wasn’t normally so terse after a battle, especially since they’d kicked bad guy booty. She tugged his head closer to her. She’d earned her kiss.
He stopped a hair short of her lips.
Her chest constricted. He couldn’t be that mad her, could he? She hadn’t known she was pregnant. Her lips parted.
His mouth quirked. “You know you won’t always be able to kiss me and distract me from my thoughts, don’t you?”
She sagged against him. “I have a marriage license that says I never have to stop trying.”
His mouth slanted across hers. Tingles raced up and down her body. The man sure knew how to kiss. But she had a few tricks, too. She opened her mouth and wiggled, creating friction on his lower body.
He pulled back, breathing rough for a moment. “We’re expecting again.”
Resting her head on his shoulder, she stared up at him. “Apparently. It would be nice to know before Iggy and her pack.”
“How long?” He cinched her higher and picked a path along the barbed wire fence separating the Humans from the Municians.
“If Iggy’s right and I’m carrying the last of the Meek, then I’m four weeks along.” Her skin prickled.
Bei’s sensors had kicked in.
The man was always looking out for her. Setting her chin on his shoulder, she stared at his profile. Strong nose, stubborn jaw, kissable lips. She liked the view. “Everything okay?”
He clamped his lips together for a moment. “I could have lost you.”
Nell blinked. Had she dozed off? Missed part of the conversation? Maybe his circuits had jumped the track, or whatever they rode on. “We won. We kicked zombie Scraptor butt. You knocked the bad guys from the sky. They didn’t even come close to hurting me.”
“If you hadn’t been able to create a shield with your fermites, you could have been killed.” He stopped short. “Our children would be orphans because I failed to protect you.”
Twenty yards north of them, gears ground as the ramp of Starflight 1 deployed. Dirt clods dropped to the ground, and smoke puffed from the nacelles. A panel in the hull slid open and a boxy warden crawled up the side like a metal spider and quickly repaired the damage.
She stiffened in Bei’s arms then removed her legs from his hold and stood on the ground. “Every time you go on one of these missions you could be killed. Ev-ery-time.”
She poked his shoulder for every syllable before stepping back. Her boots sank into the powdery dirt. Crossing her arms, she glared at him. She was about to be sidelined.
“Our children will be orphaned if anything happened to us.” He arched one eyebrow. Just one. He was showing off.
Her chest tightened. Her babies. Alone. No more sniffing their wispy hair after their baths. No more giggles when she blew on their necks. No more smiles around drool-covered fists. “That was a low blow.”
Then she caught it. The flash of fear in his blue eyes. The tightening of his mouth. He really was afraid. He was never afraid.
Bei cupped her cheek. “They need their mother.”
She leaned into his touch. A tear spilled over her cheek. Stupid hormones. “They need both their parents.”
He shook his head. “Our boys may be Syn-En but they are more. No one knew children so young could laugh or smile. It is not the way the Syn-En are raised.”
A lump of emotion clogged her throat. On Earth, the Syn-En were forbidden to express emotion, to be Human. If she ever met the United Earth Council, she’d punch them in the noses. Her fists shook at her side. “You want me to stay on the ship.”
His mouth quirked. “For the sake of my cardiac implants, I need to know you are safe.”
“See.” Helped by a Syn-En medic, Doc carried a blood-covered Human on a stretcher. “I’m not being overbearing. Just cautious.”
Davena waddled alongside the wounded. Her black robes molded to her protruding belly before snapping behind her. Gold fermites streamed from her fingers and poured into the injured person beside her. Her black eyes twinkled with mischief as she caught Nell’s gaze. “I’ll be staying on board, too. We can keep each other company.”
“Fine.” Nell stomped up the ramp after them. Her footfalls pounded her irritation into the shuttle. She hated it when he was right. Besides, he was the trained soldier. Somewhere, in some universe, that trumped her superpowers. “But I’m not happy about it.”
Bei set his hand against the small of her back. “We received a shipment of chocolate. I’m certain your condition allows for extra rations.”
Nell waited for the images of brownies, cakes, and ice cream to flood her head. Instead, she dredged up a jar of dill pickles. Saliva pooled in her mouth. What had she done that the universe would punish her so? Hello? It was chocolate. The wrinkled, green vegetable refused to be banished. “I think this is gonna be a pickle pregnancy.”
Her husband blinked. “Is that new slang from the twentieth century? A video clip perhaps?”
“No. It’s a cucumber that’s brined with pickling spices.” Nell turned sideways.
Stretchers were clamped, three high, to the walls of the crew compartment. Bandaged Humans sat next to the lowest stretcher, many held the wounded’s hands. A few hummed softly while stroking bald scalps. NSA medics checked their patients, recorded information on electronic pads before moving onto the next refugee.
She should give them a hand. Nell shook her fingers. Iridescent fermites twinkled in the air like glitter, then settled into a mist over the wounded.
Bei’s forehead wrinkled. “You want this brined vegetable instead of chocolate?” A green diagnostic beam shot out of his wrist and washed over her. “Are you certain you are well?”
She opened her mouth then shut it, clicking her teeth. Her stomach was a little upset. And she kept hearing the Syn-En muttering in the WA. Could her fermites be acting hinky? “I—”
“May I help?” The girl Nell had saved in the refugee camp tugged on Nell’s sleeve. Short brown hair covered her scalp. She’d tied her tattered blanket around her skinny frame. Gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes made her appear much older than twelve. “I was deemed unfit for battle and demoted to medic.”
Demoted to medic. Didn’t the Scraptors value their own lives? Outrage clogged Nell’s throat, preventing any words from being spoken.
Materializing, Iggy squeezed into the space between Nell and the Scraptor medic. “If Nell Stafford needs healing, I shall do it.”
The Amarook bared her fangs and dug her claws into the metal deck.
The girl backed up a step, biting her lip. Her eyes widened and her skin paled. Without her armor, she would be easy prey for the wolf-like alien.
Nell buried her fingers in Iggy’s pink and green fur. She automatically found the sensitive spot behind her protector’s ear. “I am healthy. Just tired.” She faked a yawn. “You know how it is in the beginning months.”
Iggy’s nose twitched. The pups growing in her belly rippled her fur with their antics. Plopping her hind quarters onto the deck, she unfolded her Humanoid arms from her chest to show the palmful of red crystals. They winked in the recessed lighting overhead. “You also forgot these.”
Nell swore under her breath. Idiot. She’d completely forgotten.
The girl retreated to the bench seat then dropped onto the blue cushions and drew her legs tight against her body.
Bei caught Nell’s hand before she touched the crystals. “Why are these important?”
“Iggy found them in the armor. She thinks they might be the power behind the zombie Scraptors.” Nell’s fingers tingled. Was it latent power from the crystals, or Bei’s scans of them?
“I’m not detecting any energy from them now.” Bei frowned and released her. “Just plain quartz.”
“Are you certain?” Nell eyed the girl. Why would anyone react to just plain quartz with such fear? Unless… No. No, it couldn’t be. She shook her head, trying to dislodge the thought, but it stuck like a Lyme disease carrying tick. “I trapped the Erwarians in red crystal. What if they’re trying to get out, to pay us back?”
A muscle flexed in Bei’s jaw. He selected the biggest crystal then tucked it into his pocket. “I will have it analyzed further. Until I do—”
“Admiral.” At the front of the crew compartment, Richmond slid down the ladder and thudded to the deck. Her brown hair was pulled back into a stubby ponytail at her nape. “The Munician matriarch is requesting your presence. A female of her status will only deal with those in charge, not their inferior servants.”
Richmond’s normal lilt twisted into a nasal whine, exactly mimicking the Munician.
Rising on tiptoes, Nell kissed her husband’s cheek. “Go on. I’ll be waiting for you in the cockpit when you’re done.”
After she questioned the young girl she’d healed. Nell’s gut told her she may be done with the Erwarians, but they weren’t taking their defeat with grace. Evil always wanted a sequel.
“We will be departing in ten minutes, six seconds. Be ready.” After a moment, Bei turned on his heel and climbed the rungs of the ladder three at a time.
Richmond moved to follow. When her attention fell on the girl, the Syn-En medic paused. “After I finish catering to the whims of the green and smelly, I can take you upstairs. If you really want to be a medic, you can learn a lot here.”
The girl glanced up. Her eyes brightened then dimmed when her attention fell on the crystals in Iggy’s palm.
Nell plucked them up and tucked them into the pocket over her thigh. The voices in the WA amplified then faded away. She’d bet half her fermites the crystals weren’t dead, just playing opossum. “I need five minutes to talk to her, then I’ll contact you to come for her.”
Nodding, Richmond scrambled up the ladder.
Nell turned to the bench seat.
“I shall keep her safe.” Iggy leapt onto the cushion, turned in a circle three times then flopped down. Curling her body around her belly, she covered her eyes with her tail. Moments later, soft snores fluttered through the Amarook’s pink and green feathers.
The pose was deceiving. Amarooks went from comatose to homicidal rage in less than a heartbeat. Still, it put the girl at ease.
Nell squeezed into the remaining space, setting her hand over Iggy’s stomach. The pups kicked against Nell’s palm. “Do you have a name?”
“My Scraptor designation is a jumble of numbers and letters, but my mother once called me Suelta.” Suelta checked her fingers and arms, massaging and smoothing the skin as Scraptors once did with their armor. “No one believed we were Humans, even after we were stripped of our armor. To me it explained why The Founding Five’s medicine never quite worked to heal my people.”
Nell held her breath. Something in her tone indicated more to the story. A horror that needed to be shared in order to be purged.
Suelta pursed her lips. Her eyes lost focus as she traveled to another place and time. “When I heard the news we were Human, I scoured our files, something beyond the effective means to torture, maim, and control. I used that knowledge to save my parents. I thought they’d be pleased; instead they killed themselves to salvage their honor. As a defective Scraptor, I was denied such action.”
Nell tugged up the cuff on her sleeve, baring her silver skin. “I am defective as well. People would fear me, if they knew what I’ve become. Like many species fear the Syn-En.”
“The Syn-En are the pinnacle of Humans.” Suelta picked at a dried patch of dirt on her knee. “I would like to become a Syn-En.”
Because they were feared? Nell would bite off her tongue before she’d ask. Some things she was better off not knowing. “I think you should explore your talent as a healer. They are valued among most species.” Nell leaned closer to the girl and dropped her voice. “Definitely not defective.”
The girl’s eyebrows rose. “Humans are quite strange in what they value.”
Nell snorted. She could hardly argue with that. “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“What happened?” Suelta moved her head to scratch her chin with her thumbnail.
“You know, how did your Scraptor armor begin to walk and fight on its own?” The shuttle’s engines hummed at a higher octave. The hair on the back of Nell’s neck tingled. They’d be taking off soon. She needed to finish this interview before meeting Bei in the shuttle’s cockpit.
Syn-En medics Brooklyn and Queens herded the final passengers on board. They focused on situating the walking wounded on the deck, but kept glancing in her direction.
Nell flashed them a thumbs-up, knowing Bei used his men to watch over her.
Clearing her throat, Suelta crossed her legs on the bench seat. “We were picked up on Nebula Prime six weeks ago. We heard from the Argent Matriarch herself that the war was over and she was returning to Municia to sign the treaty. She told us we Scraptors would be tried for war crimes, most of us would be executed.”
“I see.” Nell wouldn’t put it past the green and purple elf to take pleasure in passing along such news. “Do you know the name of the ship that picked you up?”
“There were four of them.” Suelta shrugged. “I don’t recall the names. Is it important?”
“Probably not.” Nell lied. The crystals in her pocket pulsed along her thigh. But if she could prove they’d been somehow affiliated with some weapon research program, she might have been able to convince Bei the Erwarians might have returned to put the zombie in the Scraptor armor.
Suelta scratched her skull then smoothed her short hair. “I have never noticed how soft human hair is. And to think I have it now.” She twirled a lock of hair in her fingers before lowering her hand. A strand fluttered from it. “Now you know why I made such a poor Scraptor. I was never able to focus on learning the fighting techniques.”
The girl blew the hair off her fingers.
“I’m sure you can be a great medic. Richmond wouldn’t have offered to show you around if she didn’t see something in you.”
“I shall not disappoint her. Any of you.” Suelta’s spine straightened, then she shook herself. “We didn’t realize we were not headed to Municia until four days into the mission. An old Scraptor commander broke onto the bridge and found it unoccupied. The coordinates set for Icely.”
“What did he do?” Nell couldn’t imagine a Scraptor accepting the change of course without comment. Hell, many believed if they didn’t surrender to Humans in a public venue they would be executed on sight.
That’s how they treated their enemies.
“He tried to reroute the ship. Instead of changing course, the interior flooded with gas, and everyone aboard was rendered unconscious.” Suelta stared at her toes. “We thought the Humans would board and slit our throats while we slept.”
Nell clamped her lips together. She’d stopped counting the number of times she’d heard Scraptors reiterate such irrational fears.
From under her lashes, Suelta peeked at Nell then glanced up. “Instead, we woke up on Icely, stripped of our armor. The Municians guarded the rations, distributed them, and gave us discarded items for covering. After the second month, we had to cut our rations in half. The third saw another cut. We didn’t understand why the Humans didn’t come since the Matriarch was among our number.”
The gears of the ramp ground as the back of the shuttle closed.
“We learned of your location two days ago.” Nell rose. Time was almost up.
Iggy peeked at Nell over her furry tail.
“Two days ago, we woke surrounded by our suits of armor standing guard.” The girl swallowed hard. “They glowed red at night. When the commander tried to take his armor back, he was chopped into pieces. Many tried to help, but then we discovered the armor was empty. We stopped fighting. What choice did we have?”
“You’re safe now.” Although for how long, Nell couldn’t say. This whole thing stank of the Erwarians. Sticking her hand in her pocket, she fingered two crystals. If only she hadn’t placed the last of the Meek, she could have contacted Mary Marple and have her fears about the Erwarians return confirmed. Thankfully, she had Bei. He and his men would get to the bottom of it. “Richmond will be down for you, soon.”
The girl nodded.
Nell strode to the ladder and climbed up the next deck. Iggy moved silently behind her. A wave of nausea hit her as she climbed the short flight of stairs to the cockpit.
Omest, a vampire-looking Picaroon, manned the crescent-shaped helm.
Security Chief Rome connected his brain box to the controls via a blue fiberoptic cable. “The Admiral’s on his way.”
In the round cockpit, only the two bucket seats in the rear remained empty. They’d saved her and her husband a spot. Nell rubbed the back of her neck and dropped to her seat. Exhaustion tugged on her and she closed her eyes. Muttering in the WA kept sleep at bay. She’d have Bei disconnect her since they were headed back to the Alliance flagship.
Iggy sat on Nell’s feet before resting her chin on her forepaws.
She opened her eyes at the woman’s voice. The shuttle’s cockpit disappeared, and a vortex of darkness swallowed her down.