Authors: Linda Andrews
Tags: #Science Fiction
No amount of soft skin, silky hair or easy smiles could change that. Bei focused on the white floor. But those words she’d uttered, her acceptance of him and her beautiful flaws… Bei shook off the thoughts.
The mission and his men came first.
At least until they settled on Terra Dos.
Footsteps echoed through the corridor branching off sick bay’s reception area. Doc rounded the corner; blood stained his green apron. The iris and sclera of his left eye were black, no doubt from data streaming down his optic implant relaying his patients’ status via the WA. When Bei crossed his line of sight, Doc drew up short and his eye returned to normal. “Admiral, I thought Wilson had seen to your damage already.”
“The civie is a damn good mechanic.” Bei flexed his arms and glanced down, relieved to see his feet still pointed in the right direction. The abrupt stop to prevent them from slamming into the wormhole’s dead end had damaged everything, including him. Fortunately, he and most of his men recovered quickly.
Doc swept his dark hair away from his forehead. “You got my report?”
Bei nodded, bringing up the information and gestured for Doc to return back down the hallway. Nell had to be here somewhere. Doc had been charged to watch her. “Twenty-nine Syn-En reported fatal errors due to biologic failures, one hundred twelve civilians injured and sixty-nine civilian casualties. We’re also running short on spare parts.”
Doc spun on his heel and retraced his steps. “With all the information flying around the WA, I wasn’t sure you’d find my report.”
“High priority usually gets my attention.” Bei nodded as they passed a series of closed doors. Imaging. Toxicology. RBC treatment and quarantine rooms. The morgue. His footsteps slowed as they passed. He would have to make a point of visiting those in their last moments and thank them for their service. After he found Nell.
Doc glanced at the white door, sealing inside a roomful of terminal Syn-Ens. “With your permission, I’d like to start trying to save the Syn-En with damage to their biologic core. It’s not right they should run down like ancient clocks, when I have the time to prevent it.”
Bei chaffed at the UEN resolution prohibiting his medical staff from operating on his men’s biological components. “Can any of them still be saved?”
“Maybe one.” Doc frowned. “The procedures are damned complicated and lengthy. If we’d been able to operate on some of them before seeing to the civilians’ minor injuries…”
“You’re in charge of triage. Draft a new procedure for prioritizing treatment.” Although he knew some civilians might complain, Bei trusted Doc and his staff. Where most of his men excelled at taking lives, Doc and his staff could save so many. They would do the right thing. “We’ve thrown off the yoke of citizen oppression, we might as well get rid of the laws that are not just.”
Doc’s shoulders relaxed. “Is the scuttlebutt in the WA correct? Do we really have a plan to exit the wormhole?”
“If all goes well, the fleet could enter Terra Dos’s airspace in twenty days.” Now Bei just needed to find their human savior. The one who might hold the key to those final equations plaguing his Science staff. When the corridor opened onto the recovery room, he glanced around, searching for Nell among the seven rows of beds holding patients.
“That’s a relief.” Doc smothered a yawn behind his hand. “What about the rest of the fleet? Any news on the status of the new inductees?”
Med techs moved between the rows of recovering civilians, changing bandages, checking life signs and muttering soothing words. The navy uniforms of the Syn-En personnel looked like shadows among the waves of white.
No Nell. While Bei was glad she hadn’t been hurt, that didn’t solve his problem. Only one man could. Bei focused on Doc. “The
and her escorts are estimated to rendezvous with us in twenty days. The wormhole’s event horizon must be open by the time they appear on our sensors. Preliminary intell reports the
size limits her maneuvering and braking capabilities. She’d never make the turn, let alone stop before the wormhole ends.”
Fear pulsed through Bei. If they didn’t get that event horizon open, the
would be lost with all hands on board. The citizens had taken her life pods and the new inductees wouldn’t last long in space. Timing was key. And so were those equations waiting to be deciphered.
“We’ll make it, Admiral.” Doc set his hand on Bei’s shoulder. “How many sleep cycles have you missed?”
“Four.” Although Bei knew his upgrades could power him through another four days, he didn’t like the sluggishness clogging his circuits. He wanted to sleep, but first he had to find Nell, make certain she was safe.
A handful of injured glanced up. The civilians’ attention slid off him to bounce around the hall.
Bei acknowledged the civilians with a nod. Yet another reason to find Nell. The civies needed a biologic in charge.
“You’ve been up almost five days?” Doc whistled low. “You’ll need eight hours to recover and I expect you to get every minute of them. Don’t make me initiate a snooze command.”
Bei smiled at the threat. Even Doc couldn’t override an Admiral’s cerebral interface. “I planned to catch up, but my quarters were empty.”
“You’re very lucky.” Confusion furrowed Doc’s brow before he turned back toward the corridor. “This is the most alone I’ve been in a month.”
“Where is Nell, Doc?”
The med tech changing a nearby civilian’s bandages snorted. A burst of anger flashed through the WA.
Bei clamped down on his own response. Too many of his men saw Bei’s concern for Nell as a sort of betrayal. Much as he wished to, he could not order the feeling away. Bei ignored the technician’s response. Given time, Nell would show them she was different. By placing her under his protection, he could wait for the opportunity she needed to win them over.
Doc shuffled down the hallway, stopped, then glanced over his shoulder. “She was here. She wanted to help and I didn’t see the harm.” He opened the NDA covering his forearm and brought up Nell’s genetic profile. “I’ll scan for her.”
Bei’s quick strides closed the distance between them. Did Doc think Bei hadn’t already thought of that? “Nell doesn’t have an ident chip and the scanners aren’t capable of detecting her genetic code among the rest of the civilian population.”
His words echoed down the deserted hallway.
Doc slowly closed his scanner portal. “I’m sure no one would hurt her.”
Bei cocked an eyebrow. She’d already been pushed around. Given the Syn-En strength, it wouldn’t take much to snap her neck.
Sighing, Doc stared at the floor. “I’m sorry, Admiral. It was my duty to watch her and I failed.”
Bei nodded. Apologies wouldn’t find Nell. “Where is the last place you remember seeing her?”
Doc gestured down the hall. “In the corridor on the way to the surgical rooms.”
“How long ago?”
Closing his eyes, Doc searched his internal chronometer. “Thirty hours.”
Damn. Bei tamped down his rising irritation. “We’ll search the rooms on this level then branch out.”
If they didn’t find her, he would call the chief and have security search the other decks.
As Bei followed the arcing corridor to the reception area, voices echoed back to him. Laughter quickly followed. Could they be civilians coming to visit their fallen comrades? Humor hardly seemed appropriate given the condition of those remaining behind. With a blink of his eyes, Bei accessed the CIC and began matching voiceprints. He frowned as a woman’s low tone returned a result. “Crewwoman Richmond is listed among the dead.”
Doc frowned. “Her time should have expired six hours ago.”
“Yet she is talking.” Bei increased his pace, heading toward the morgue. The double doors opened as he approached.
A limbless Syn-En hung between Richmond and another crewman as they walked from the morgue into the hallway. More of Bei’s men shuffled behind them. While most were missing one or more of their limbs, none of them were dead. How had they survived the damage to their biologic core?
Doc rushed forward. The green diagnostic beam of light radiating from his palm swept over the twenty people.
Bei focused on one woman in the middle of the pack. Stands of brown hair floated around her oval face. Her nose was wrinkled and her full lips were pulled down at the corners. Although he had perfect recall, his memory couldn’t match the animation of her features. Relief threatened to buckle his knees.
“It is not funny. This… This stuff you eat is cruel and unusual punishment.” Nell’s voice drifted on an air current. When a black bubble appeared at the opening of the tube in her hand, she stuck the tip in her mouth. Her cheeks bowed slightly as she sucked up the Syn-En ration.
Her soft pull on the nutritional supplement brought a swift reaction to Bei’s lower body. So much for his decision to remain immune from her charms. He stopped feeding the WA his emotions.
Doc circled the crowd, astonishment loosening his jaw. “You have been repaired.”
Richmond beamed at him then maneuvered to the right and stopped. “Nell Stafford fixed us.”
“All of you?” Doc shut off the life signs scanner and scratched his head.
“Me first.” Richmond nodded. “Then I helped with the next. After that we worked on separate patients under her direction. Her knowledge is most extraordinary.”
Nell blushed and fidgeted under the attention. Slowly, she pulled the tube out of her mouth and licked her lips. “I just did what anyone would do.”
Bei smiled, recognizing the pride pumping through him. No one would have done what Nell did. Her modesty and disregard of normal civilian-Syn-En relations attracted him more than her body. He skimmed down her petite form. And that said a lot.
Swaying on his feet like he’d just been tagged by a stun gun, Doc tugged on his dark hair. “Dermal patches infused with antibiotics for internal injuries. Viral nanowires for sutures. You plated DNA onto machines to prevent organ rejection. And it actually worked.”
Nell shrugged, cleared her throat, and ran her thumb up the side of the ration tube, milking the last bit of nourishment. “Not all of my ideas met with success. No one would use the wheelchair or the crutches.”
Bei smiled at the frustration in her voice. She who knew so much, seemed ignorant of Syn-En behavior. Only the dead and dying would stoop to using wheels to get about. Bei fought the urge to comfort her, knowing if he touched her, he might not be able to stop.
Doc inched forward, scanning Richmond. “This is most extraordinary. Your bodies are already healing. In fact they are incorporating the technology into their systems. It is truly a blend of biology and technology. How did you accomplish such a feat?”
Nell shrugged. “I just wanted to help.”
Richmond pulled a crystal from her pocket and handed it to Doc. “I have made copious notes. Her methods should reduce casualties among the civilians. In fact, I don’t think we’ll have to use artificial organs at all, but this blend. The data contains more procedures than we used.”
Doc retrieved the data chip from her palm and held it up to the light. “Is this Nell’s?”
Bei’s attention drifted from perusing Nell to Doc. “Where did Nell obtain a crystal?”
Doc eyed the clear obelisk. “It came with her in the stasis unit.”
“Admiral.” As if just noticing him, the group snapped to attention, without falling over in the process.
“At ease.” Using the CIC, Bei restored their WA access. There would be some very surprised Syn-Ens once their consciousness appeared online. Leave it to Nell to perform another miracle. Bei stopped in front of her and waited. Exhaustion colored the delicate skin around her eyes.
“Beijing.” Nell’s lips curved into a smile and a light flared in her indigo eyes. She seemed happy to see him.
He was definitely happy to see her, but clasped his hands behind his back to keep from touching her. Time and separation appeared to have increased his attraction to her, not diminished it.
Richmond nudged Nell.
The action caused Nell to drop the tube. Her mouth opened as she watched her snack slide across the deck. “Hey. I’m not finished with that.”
Walking the three steps to the wall, Bei scooped up the ration, wiped the tip on his sleeve and handed her back her prize. “I think it is nearly empty.”
Her fingers brushed his arm, lingered on the crease at his wrist before closing around the tube. For a moment her hand remained in his and she stared up at him. Her pupils dilated and the sensors in his NDA told him that her heart raced.
Bei’s pulse matched hers.
Nell licked her dry lips. “Nearly empty means there’s another bite or two left and I’m very hungry. It’s been years since…”
Years? Bei waited for her to finish, half hoping she referred to this attraction between them and not her last meal. Courtesy of the WA, information, chatter and updates mingled with his thoughts. His first duty must be to his men and the inductees headed his way. Damn.
“Nell,” Richmond scolded. “You’re supposed to come to attention.”
Nell jerked, squeezing the tube. The last bite of nutrition squirted out, shot through the air and landed on Bei’s uniform-clad hip. “Oh geez.”
Bei caught her hand before she could start wiping it off. The last thing he wanted was for her to become aware of his arousal. He sensed she’d be bothered by an audience. Sweeping his thumb across the back of her hand, he registered the silky texture. He loved the heat and dampness of her skin.
Richmond raised her good arm. “You salute like this.”
Nell glanced from her hand to the crewwoman.
Bei didn’t release his hold, couldn’t even if his ship were about to explode around him. Hell. Nell had turned him into a skin addict. Shaking the notion from his head, Bei focused on Richmond and her attempts at instruction. “Nell is not—”
“She’s a Syn-En,” Richmond cut in, then blushed as if she just realized she’d interrupted a superior officer.
The crewmen around her nodded.
Nell a Syn-En? Bei’s erection throbbed. If she were one of them, she’d no longer be off limits. They could… They would have sex. Bei’s gaze raked Nell from head to toe. His sensors registered one hundred percent biologic, but had no effect on his desire. “Nell is not modified.”