“I tell you, Hail, you have nothing to fear. No you don’t, no you don’t.” Yipper, the Tolleg surgeon, who had been Hail’s doctor back when he still lived on Z4, the home world of the Dark Kindred, looked up at him earnestly. “I know your emotion damper is fully adjustable—you should allow yourself to open up and feel more. Yes you should, yes you should.”
“I thank you for your concern.” Hail, who had recently migrated to the Mother Ship, nodded stiffly. “And I would be more inclined to take it if you had mixed my DNA yourself. But…”
“But I did not. No I didn’t, no I didn’t.” Yipper gave a sad shake of his head, his long, furry ears flopping around his head.
Many on the Mother Ship, where Hail now resided, said the Tolleg surgeon looked like a cross between a hound dog and a baboon—two Earth mammals that were furry and had large eyes. Hail had seen pictures of both and he had to admit the resemblance was not insignificant. But to him Yipper was simply a trusted medical professional—although perhaps not quite trusted enough for Hail to take his advice on this particular issue.
“My DNA was mixed by another,” he reminded the little Tolleg. “Under orders from the Continuum when they were seeking warriors with maximum aggression. My unit was the only one with adjustable dampers—specifically so that we could fight with berserker rage when the situation called for it.”
And therein lay his problem. As a Dark Kindred, raised on Z4 where feelings had been outlawed and feel-crime was punishable by death, Hail had only ever experienced one emotion—blinding, red-hot rage. He knew exactly how much damage and destruction he could do in that state—he’d seen the aftermath of his own battles—had taken in with cold, wondering eyes, once his damper was turned back on, the swath of destruction he’d cut while he was under the influence of his volatile genetic code.
Here on the Mother Ship, he was cautiously experimenting with new emotions on his damper’s lowest setting—mild pleasure when he tasted food that pleased him or listened to stirring music… disappointment when plans didn’t go quite as expected…and envy (he had to admit) when he saw other Kindred warriors calling brides all around him and finding warm, fulfilling relationships that would last a lifetime.
But Hail didn’t dare go past the boundaries of mild emotion into deep feelings. He knew the blinding rage still lived inside him—the all-consuming lust for destruction. It would be dangerous and irresponsible, he told himself, to risk letting that part of himself—that beast—anywhere near the surface of his mind.
Which meant that what Yipper was suggesting was out of the question.
“I cannot allow myself to feel any more than I already am,” he told the little Tolleg. “And though I appreciate your concern for my emotional well-being, I only visited you today for a check-up of my visual oculars.”
As one of the few number of Dark Kindred who had been allowed to migrate to the Mother Ship once the hold of the Continuum was broken over Z4 and all its inhabitants, Hail knew he wasn’t Yipper’s only patient. The little Tolleg surgeon was an expert at enhancements and replacements—and also the only one of his kind aboard the Mother Ship. He was a fine surgeon but also what the humans called “nosey” when it came to personal matters, such as how much and how often Hail was allowing himself to feel.
“Your oculars are in fine shape. Yes they are, yes they are.”
Yipper flipped down the black, mirrored shades that covered Hail’s eyes. Though many of the inhabitants of Z4 had their body parts completely replaced with superior mechanical versions, Hail had opted for less permanent enhancements that simply fit over his existing eyes. They were easier to upgrade when he wanted a change.
“I thank you,” he said and started to get up off the exam table in Yipper’s office.
“You should keep your oculars flipped up when you interact with potential mates. Yes you should, yes you should,” the little Tolleg counseled.
“What?” Hail frowned at him. “What do you mean? And who said anything about ‘potential mates?’”
“I mean that human females like to see the eyes of a male they might consider as a mate,” Yipper explained patiently, ignoring his last question. “Hiding your eyes makes it more difficult for them to read your emotions and can be considered a hostile or frightening gesture.”
“How can I be frightening?” Hail objected. “I don’t even wear my exoskeleton armor anymore. Instead, I have adopted the uniform of the Mother Ship.” Which for his kind consisted of black leather trousers, tall black boots, and a black uniform shirt of heavy, thick satin that left his arms bare and felt oddly silky against his skin after years of his old suit.
Though it felt strange to wear it, Hail did not complain or object to the new clothing. He knew he was lucky to be allowed a place on the Mother Ship after his people had nearly decimated Earth, the planet the Kindred of the Mother Ship protected. Of course they had been under the influence of the Continuum at the time but still, some people—especially humans—didn’t seem to understand that and still bore a grudge. Hail had a suspicion that he would not have been welcome at all if his old comrade in arms, Six, had not put in a word for him.
Six sometimes went by his old name, “Jax” now, since the humans seemed to think it odd if one’s designation was a number. Accordingly, Hail had shed his old designation—Nine—as he had shed his bulky but effective exoskeleton armor. He had picked his new name, Hail, at random because he liked the sound of it. It was short and held no meaning to him—it was a human term for freezing precipitation—but he answered to it anyway.
Besides, it made no sense to be called Nine anymore, Hail reminded himself. He was no longer ninth in line to the Collective because there no longer was any Collective. Logic dictated that he change his designation and he would have done so even if the humans hadn’t thought his old one strange.
“Come and see, come and see.” For some reason, Yipper had him by the hand and was pulling him to a 3D viewer at the end of his operating theater slash office. “Just look at yourself, Hail,” he instructed.
Hail looked. He saw a tall, muscular male with broad shoulders and short, dark hair. His eyes were hidden by the black oculars but he didn’t see why that should be a problem. He had seen some human males wear lenses very like them—they were called “sunglasses.” It was true that he had stern features with a square jaw and high cheekbones but that was simply the way his face was shaped. Actually, he didn’t think he looked any more threatening than the average Dark Kindred—less so since he wasn’t wearing his exoskeleton.
“Your very size can be frightening to human females,” Yipper said, pulling Hail out of his musings. “They are used to much smaller human males. Which means that some find the Kindred intimidating—yes they do, yes they do.”
“But my DNA is not pure Kindred,” Hail reminded him. “Only ninety percent of my genetic make-up is Kindred. The rest is Bolaxian Berserker. Also known as Bolaxian Beast,” he added dryly.
“Which is precisely why you are afraid to turn up your damper and engage in emotion, I know. Yes I do, yes I do.” Yipper nodded vigorously. “But believe me, Hail—Kindred DNA breeds true every time. If what you fear is that you would hurt a female if you allowed yourself to love her, you can rest assured it wouldn’t happen. Your Kindred heritage would not allow it.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Hail said darkly. Bolaxians were only a semi-sentient species which the Kindred High Council would never have approved a genetic trade with—and with good reason.
Hail had seen vids of the way Bolaxians mated—it was a savage affair that involved the male dominating his female completely—holding her down with bruising force while he skewered her brutally with his cock. The thought that he might so lose control of his emotions that he would allow himself to do that—to hurt a female in that way—was repugnant to Hail. The blinding rage he’d felt in battle had always been directed at the enemy he was fighting—but he didn’t want a similar blinding lust to take him over when he was with a female he cared for.
Which was why Yipper’s idea that he should take a bride was pure fantasy. He would be unable to mate with a female unless he turned his emotion damper up to at least its medium range which was getting into extremely dangerous territory. Hail wasn’t sure he could risk that.
“It doesn’t matter if I appear frightening to human females or not,” he told the Tolleg. “Since I never intend to call one as a bride.”
“What? But Hail, you cannot tell me you do not dream of having a family one day. No you can’t, no you can’t,” Yipper objected.
For a moment a picture flashed before his mind’s eye—a small, lusciously plump female with golden-brown hair and wide, soft brown eyes stared back at him. She looked tired but lovely, as though she worked long hours and never really got enough sleep. But she wasn’t the only one Hail saw. Standing beside her was a thin, lanky boy with the same hair color as hers. There was a far-away look in the boy’s eyes, covered by thick oculars with smudged lenses—an inward seeing glance that said he didn’t care much for the outside world.
Hail identified with him there—he didn’t care for it either.
But the picture was just that—a picture he’d seen in his dreams once or twice. Nothing serious or important.
“No,” he said, turning away. “No, I do not wish for a family. I would not be good for them.”
“You’re wrong, Hail. Yes you are, yes you are,” Yipper said sadly. “But I can tell you wish to leave.”
“It is not that I find your company unpleasant, Yipper,” Hail told the little Tolleg. “You remind me of my old life and not all associations with Z4 are unpleasant. But I have promised my friend Six that I will make a trip to Earth to bring a female who is waiting there up to the Mother Ship.”
“An unattached female?” Yipper sounded hopeful.
Hail sighed. “I do not know her relationship status nor do I care. I am bringing her to help plan the celebration of Six’s first born son—his bride, Mei-Li, is due to give birth any day now.”
Hail himself had been grown in a growth tank on one of the medical barges circling Z4 so he did not fully comprehend the purpose of such a celebration, or indeed, of any celebration. But humans liked to “party” as he had heard it called and so, when his old friend had asked him to bring up the human woman as a favor, he had agreed without question or comment.
“I must go,” he told Yipper. “Thank you again for making certain my oculars are in optimal working order.”
“Any time, any time.” Yipper nodded vigorously. “Just remember to flip them up when you meet the Earth female you will be transporting. Otherwise you might frighten her.”
“All right. Thank you for the advice,” Hail said politely, although he privately thought that it would be better to keep his eyes hidden and say as little as possible when he went to get the female. There was really no need for conversation—it wasn’t like he was trying to form a permanent relationship—he was only bringing her to the Mother Ship and back again. Probably he would meet her once and then never see her ever again.
Or so he thought.
“So are you ready to go, doll? Got your bags all packed?”
Isobel Yates smiled at the perky voice on the other end of the phone. Kat was an old friend—they’d done the paralegal program at USF together and had run into each other again recently in the local Publix supermarket.
Isobel had been shocked to find out that her friend had been called as a Kindred bride and now resided on the Mother Ship. Kat seemed happy and healthy and she had three lovely children now but she claimed that even on the Mother Ship, she couldn’t get a decent piece of key lime pie—which was a Publix specialty. They had exchanged phone numbers and vowed to catch up and, to Isobel’s surprise and pleasure, Kat had actually followed through on her promise to call.
Of course the first time she called, it was with a Think-me—a Kindred device capable of projecting thoughts into another person’s head. Isobel had thought she was going crazy until Kat had explained she’d lost her phone number. In the future, she promised to call on the phone which was much more comfortable—for Isobel, anyway.
Kat was one of those people you might not see for years but when you did, you could fall back into conversation with her as naturally and easily as though you’d only seen each other yesterday. And since Isobel had recently moved and really needed friends, their friendship had resumed right where they left off after graduation.
“I’m almost ready,” she told Kat, holding the phone to her ear as she checked her appearance in the mirror one last time. The conservative black pencil skirt with a slit up the back was somewhat offset by the flirty red blouse with a deep V-neck that showed a hint of cleavage. It wasn’t that Isobel was trying to flirt with anyone or “catch a man” as Kat would say, she just wanted to look nice and feel confident on her first trip to the Kindred Mother Ship.
Her clothing was fine but her hair was another matter—the long, golden brown strands never knew whether they wanted to curl or not which often led to a frizzy mess when the weather was humid. And since she’d just moved back to Tampa, Florida from her home state of California, it was always humid.
I’m going to have to do something with this before I go, she thought, eyeing her fly-away hair in the mirror. It was time for a trim but her life was way too packed with work and being a single mom to think of taking time off for any kind of self-pampering like a trip to a salon.
“Have you got your bag of tricks all packed?” Kat asked, but just then the doorbell rang.
“Hang on, will you, Kat?” Isobel said. “I think that’s my babysitter.”
She ran to the head of the stairs and shouted down to her son. “Brandon? That’s probably Mrs. Hallstead. Let her in, okay? And tell her I’ll be right down.”
“K, Mom,” came the faint reply and Isobel went back to her room.
“Sorry about that,” she said to Kat. “But Brandon’s drawing a new diagram. He gets so absorbed in his own little world when he’s drawing something—he won’t get the door unless I tell him.”
“I wish you could bring him with you,” Kat said. “He’s such a sweet, funny little guy.”
“I wish I could too,” Isobel said. “I think he’d be fascinated with the Mother Ship and all the alien technology. But he’s got school tomorrow and any kind of change in routine throws him off for an entire week at the least. Maybe I can bring him up during the summer.”
Her son Brandon was what was sometimes termed, “twice exceptional” meaning that he was both on the Autism spectrum and also intellectually gifted. Isobel had had him tested at the age of five only to find that he had both Asperger’s Syndrome and a staggering IQ. He was seven now and did well in school, although he had a lot of quirks and was socially awkward, interacting much better with adults than with peers his own age.
As a mom of a twice gifted child, she’d found that routine was incredibly important in keeping Brandon on track both academically and emotionally. Only the fact that she’d been able to get her kind, grandmotherly neighbor Mrs. Hallstead, to stay in their little townhouse with Brandon while she left for the short trip had made her feel comfortable about visiting the Mother Ship at all.
“So are you bringing all the pretty-pretty samples?” Kat asked her. “I can’t wait to see what you whip up—this party is going to be spectacular.”
Isobel smiled and looked at the bulging bag of samples, party favors, decorations and other odds and ends that had been packed and waiting for days.
“Yup—I’m bringing everything but the kitchen sink. You’re right—it’s going to be a great party.”
Kat had asked Isobel to help plan her friend Mei-Li’s baby shower, knowing that Isobel had run a successful party planning business in California before she’d gone back to being a paralegal in Tampa. Isobel was pretty sure her friend was just being nice but she was happy to have a chance to do something she loved again—she missed her little business but she hadn’t been able to take it with her when she left. It was better…safer…to just go back to being a paralegal. She was able to be more anonymous that way, which meant her ex, Mitch, couldn’t find her.
Mitch…sometimes she could go days without thinking about him and other times he was a dark cloud hanging over her head, a bad penny just waiting to turn up again. Isobel tried to push the thought out of her mind and concentrate on the matter at hand.
“So when does the Kindred taxi you sent for me get here?” she asked Kat.
“Should be soon,” Kat told her. “But about that—I, uh, kind of need to warn you about your ‘taxi driver.’”
“What about him? I assume it’s one of the Kindred, right?”
The huge alien warriors mostly kept to themselves up in the Mother Ship but seeing them down on Earth was becoming more common. Kat had told Isobel they were trying to be less mysterious and more transparent to the people of the planet they were protecting. The Kindred bride draft had only recently been reinstated after some serious misunderstandings between the two peoples and the big warriors didn’t want their access to marriageable females cut off again.
“He is Kindred…” Kat still sounded hesitant. “Actually, he’s a Dark Kindred.”
“What?” Isobel heard the note of panic in her own voice and tried to tone it down. “I mean…why…why would you send me one of those?”
The Dark Kindred had tried to take over Earth not that long ago. They had decimated whole urban areas before the regular Kindred from the Mother Ship could stop them. There had been a rumor circulating that the Dark Kindred were being controlled by an advanced race of Artificial Intelligence and that was why they had attacked in the first place. But Isobel didn’t care what the reason behind the attack was—she only knew she’d been scared to death for herself and her son and she didn’t really want to meet one of the attackers first hand.
“His name is Nine,” Kat said and there was a rumble of a male voice in the background correcting her. “Or no—Deep says he goes by Hail now. Like frozen hail? Anyway, he’s a really nice guy and he agreed to come get you because everyone else is busy. He’s a friend of Mei-Li’s husband, Six—he’s a Dark Kindred too, you know.”
“Okaaaay,” Isobel said doubtfully. “Well, if you’re sending him then I’m sure he’s fine.”
“He’s more than fine, girlfriend. You should see him—I think you’ll like him, if you like the tall, dark and handsome type.” There was a hint of mischief in Kat’s tone now that Isobel remembered from their USF days.
“Kat,” she said sternly. “You’d better not be playing matchmaker here. I just got away from a pretty bad relationship about a year ago—and besides, if he’s that handsome and fabulous he’s not going to be interested in me.”
“What are you talking about?” Kat demanded indignantly. “You’re gorgeous, Izzy! With that caramel colored hair and those big brown doe eyes and—”
“And the plus-sized behind,” Isobel interjected. “Don’t forget about that because you can bet no man ever will.”
“No human man, maybe,” Kat said. “But Kindred are different. In fact, a lot of them prefer girls with some extra junk in the trunk.”
“Twin Kindred might like that,” Isobel objected. “But I don’t know what Dark Kindred like and I’m not too interested to find out either.”
“Why not? Honey, if what you told me about Mitch is true, you’re well shut of him! There’s no love lost there so why not put yourself on the market again? Put your name back in the draft and see if you get called as a bride.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that!” Isobel said quickly. Just the thought of entering her name into the Kindred bride draft made her stomach feel like about a billion butterflies had taken up residence there.
“Why not?” Kat insisted. “You’re beautiful and sweet and smart. Any guy—any Kindred—would be lucky to have you.”
“They might not think so when they found out about all my baggage,” Isobel said. She frowned in the mirror again and dabbed on some lipstick.
“What baggage?” Kat asked. “You’re not just saying that because you’re a single mom, are you?”
Isobel sighed. “Look, Kat, it’s one thing to be a single mom but when you’re kid is on the Spectrum, well, that makes things more…complicated.”
“I can’t imagine any guy not loving Brandon when they got to know him,” Kat said promptly. “He’s so smart! And he cracks me up with the big words he uses. He’s only seven but he talks like an adult!”
“Yeah, well I’d like to think that any man who said they loved me would love him too,” Isobel said. “Unfortunately, I don’t believe that’s true. Even his own father—” She stopped short, unable to say it, unable to talk about her ex and the way he had related—or rather not related—to their son.
“Izzy?” The cautious tone of Kat’s voice said she knew she had hit a nerve.
“Never mind.” Isobel took a deep breath. “I just…I should be over it by now. Anyway, let’s just say that I don’t feel like I can trust a strange man around Brandon. I’d rather stay single than risk his safety.”
“Awww, I understand, hon,” Kat said softly. “I’m sorry if I upset you.”
“Of course you didn’t.” Isobel took a deep breath and tried to smile, even though her friend couldn’t see her. “I’m fine.”
“You could be finer though—just think about joining the draft,” Kat urged. “Kindred guys are a lot different from human men—they’re more trustworthy. Plus, you can’t tell me you don’t dream of finding some hot guy and getting a little nookie from time to time.”
A sudden image floated into Isobel’s head—a tall male with incredibly broad shoulders and a strong jaw. He had short dark hair and sensual lips that looked just made for kissing. But his eyes…
I can never see his eyes. They’re shielded…hidden…
Isobel shook her head and pushed the thought away. She didn’t even know where the strange image had come from. From some half-remembered dream probably. At any rate, she didn’t have time for it now.
“Listen,” she told Kat. “I’d better get going. I want to give my babysitter some instructions before my ride gets here.”
“See you soon,” Kat said. “Can’t wait, doll.”
“Me either,” said Isobel, really meaning it. She hung up her phone, tucked it into her purse, and smoothed down her fly-away hair as best she could. Then, with a final glance in the mirror, she grabbed her bag and ran lightly down the stairs.
“Brandon,” she called. “Did you ask if Mrs. Hallstead wanted a glass of water? She is our guest and—”
She stopped dead at the foot of the stairs, the words dying in her throat.
There, sitting beside Brandon at the coffee table was a total stranger who just happened to be the most enormous man she had ever seen in her life.