"Tsk!" sniffed Eloia Rand. "More of those greedy bloodsuckers, Kyra, can you believe it?"
Kyra glanced up from her lunch, her gaze taking in the stern disapproving set of her mother's profile and beyond her, the thorny white ship descending to the docking gantry.
The outer wall of the First Colonial Mall's sustenance court was force-window from floor to ceiling, making it seem as if nothing stood between the diners and the spaceport. Dozens of ships, from the hulking Oullian freighters to the dart-shaped interplanetary messengers, moved in computer-guided harmony. Beyond the spaceport, several of Cahaldra's other moons were silhouetted against the ever-changing purple and gold swirls of the gas giant.
"What's the matter, Mother? It's just a Bram craft," Kyra said, with a shrug that wasn't half so indifferent as she felt.
"That's my very point," Eloia said. "You'd think people would stay where they belong. Hmf. Isn't anyone's homeworld good enough?"
"Wasn't ours?" Kyra countered.
"That's different, and you know it. Your grandmother was --"
"On one of the first terraforming crew from Earth ..." Kyra joined in by rote.
"Don't be smart," Eloia said. "What matters is that we made Rannok what it is today, and it's being taken over by aliens."
"We're all aliens here," Kyra said. "They're only looking for the same things we are. Homes, jobs, good lives. They're not that different from us, really."
"Oh, and how do you know so much about them all of a sudden?" Eloia's voice took on the patronizing tone that had so infuriated Kyra through the first twenty-five years of her life, something that didn't seem likely to change now that she was into her second quarter of a century. "I can't imagine many Bram come to places like Sunspots."
"No, of course not." Kyra shut herself up and went back to concentrating on her meal, though nervousness had stolen her appetite.
"Good. And even if they did, I'd hope any daughter of mine would have the sense to stick to her own kind. Now, hurry up and finish your dinner. I still need to find something for your sister's promotion gift and be on our way before we're swamped by aliens. Why they built the spaceport concourse to deposit those leeches smack in the middle of things is beyond me."
"I'm done." As she started to rise, her foot bumped the bag resting beside her chair. It fell over and sent her purchases rolling every which-way across the glassy-smooth floor.
"Kyra, I swear, sometimes you have all the grace of an Oullian block-lizard," Eloia sighed in exasperation. "Here, I'll help --"
"I've got it, thanks, that's fine, I've got it!" Kyra dropped to her knees and began sweeping items back into the bag.
Where was it? Where was it ...?
She saw it directly under her mother's chair, the black and white box with its red lettering.
Why didn't those marketing people use a little discretion? She wasn't asking for a plain brown wrapper, but did it have to have such bold and dynamic design?
Eloia bent to collect her own parcels, and her hand brushed the side of the box. Kyra's adrenal system dumped panic into her bloodstream by the liter. She lunged for it, too slow. Her mother picked up the box, glanced curiously at it, and began to hand it to Kyra. Then Eloia froze, a statue in the shape of a woman. Her complexion paled until she was nearly the shade of a Bram. Slowly, ever-so-slowly, she looked back at the box.
"Kyyyyyyra?" She drew it out into a wavering accusation that packed a galaxy worth of "this had better not be what it looks like" into a single word.
"It's not mine," Kyra blurted, rooted to the floor.
Her position instantly reduced her to a child again, especially as her mother stood. Kyra had inherited her height, or lack thereof, from her space-jockey father. Eloia was tall and robust terraformer stock. As she towered over her abjectly horrified daughter, she seemed a monument to some forgotten goddess.
She gingerly extended her arm, holding the box as far from her as she could. Her face wrinkled as if she smelled something nasty.
Kyra's chagrin was not helped by the fact that they had drawn the attention of everyone at the surrounding tables. All of them could easily read what was emblazoned on the package, and looked at her with knowing smirks or scandalized shock.
"It's not mine," Kyra said again, with a little more strength and a little less blatant guilt. "Well, I did buy it --"
"But it's not for me," Kyra finished. "It's for ... um ... one of my friends from work! She asked me to pick one up for her when I mentioned our shopping outing."
Inwardly, she was kicking herself black and blue.
Never, never buy things like that with your mother! Don't even go into that aisle! You thought you were being so tricky, that she was too involved with the new ficvid releases to notice, and you lucked out there, but did you really think you could pull this off, Kyra? Now look! Just look!
"Not for you," Eloia said.
"Not for me," Kyra assured her as fervently as she could.
"For a friend."
"A friend from work."
"She ... does this sort of thing?"
"She said she met someone at a club. I didn't ask for details."
Her mother, with a grimace of distaste, let the box fall into Kyra's open shopping bag. She wiped her fingers on her napkin. "I hope this isn't a person you spend much time with, Kyra Jane."
"We barely know each other." She crammed everything else into the bag, hiding the offending article.
Eloia held her spine stiff as a titanium rod, her manner as imperious as a queen as she proceeded toward the lifts that would take them to the shopkeep levels. Kyra trailed after, not daring to speak.
Well, Donovan, she thought, after all this, you'd better be worth it!
"Tonight's the night, is it?" Vinkiri asked, hopping onto the corner of Kyra's console. Her bronzed skin gleamed, her hair shined like a spill of rubies in the solar spa's artificial sunlight.
"Shh!" Kyra hissed. "I don't need the whole planet to know!"
"But everyone here already does," Vinkiri pointed out. "You've done nothing but talk about him. Donovan, Donovan, Donovan. Is he picking you up here?"
"No ... we're meeting at my place."
She lowered her voice to what she probably thought was a conspiratorial whisper, which would only have carried to everyone inside Sunspots. "Did you get it?"
"I did. But, Vinkiri, I don't know."
"Honey, if you're going to do it, you've got to be protected."
"What if it's too soon? What if I'm rushing things?"
"You like the guy, don't you?"
"He's great. Sweet, charming, romantic --"
"Gorgeous," Vinkiri added.
"Gorgeous," Kyra agreed. "But we've only been out three times. I don't want him to think I'm ... well, easy."
"Oh, come on, Kyra! That way of thinking went out four hundred years ago!"
"But this is different. It's risky."
"That's why you use protection. Relax."
"And what if he's not attracted to me that way?"
Vinkiri rolled her eyes expressively. "Would you listen to this woman? Not attracted to you that way? Those big brown eyes, that golden skin, hair like a selkie's mane, those darling titties ... Kyra, I'm attracted to you that way! If he isn't, get him to the medics, because he needs help!"
Kyra laughed. "Thanks, Vinkiri, I think. I just want this to be right. It's bad enough knowing what my mother would say. She still won't admit that I'm an adult."
"This isn't about your mother. It's about you and Donovan. You're prepared, you know what you're getting into. Enjoy it!"
Kyra's shift ended, leaving her with two hours to get ready before Donovan arrived. She'd been able to put her edgy excitement away while she was at work, but now, on her way home, she gave in to the thrill of hopeful anticipation.
Would tonight be the night? Was she ready? Were they ready?
What she'd told her mother hadn't been a complete fabrication. She'd met him in a club, having been dragged there by Vinkiri when the vivacious redhead was in one of her experimental moods.
Kyra had been expecting to have a dreary time, spending the evening alone in a corner nursing a Nebula Blue while Vinkiri took to the dance floor with one partner after another. Men, women, nats, alters, aliens ... didn't matter. Hers was a freedom that Kyra, having grown up under her parents' strict instruction, found unnerving and enviable.
She'd been sitting there for almost an hour when she'd become aware of the man at the next table. In nearly the very same pose as her. Nursing a drink, watching a more outgoing companion writhe to the music.
He'd sensed her looking at him, caught her eye with a marvelous ice-green gaze, and tipped his drink in a rueful shared toast. And then, though she'd never done anything like it before, Kyra had gone over to him and introduced herself.
They'd hit it off at once despite their many differences. He'd only just arrived on Rannok, while she had been born here -- grandmother one of the original terraforming crew, yes, right, never could forget that. She was a solar spa technician, he was an artist.
And the other differences ...
Just the thought of him brought a twinge of yearning deep within Kyra. She closed her eyes and imagined sinking her fingers into the coarse silk of his hair, which was of a color her mind could never satisfactorily name. Blond, he called it, with a shy grin. But calling it 'blond' was like saying that Cahaldra was clouded. Donovan's hair was buff-tawny-white-beige-platinum, long and manelike and wild.
She wanted to know what it was like to feel that hair loose and brushing over every inch of her body. To caress his milky-fair skin, comparing its softness with the lean firmness of his flesh. To twine their naked limbs together and elicit low cries of pleasure from him ...
Kyra gradually realized that she had stopped in the middle of the skybridge, with a wide dreamy grin on her face. People were parting to go around her, a few with scowls but most with amused glances.
She collected herself and hurried onward, disembarking the skybridge at the connection to her building. It was nothing special, one of the countless residential complexes that surrounded Colonial City's main business district, but it was the first place she'd lived on her own.
Kyra tidied up and adjusted the environmental controls, dimming the lights to make the room more intimate and comfortable for Donovan.
She paused when she picked up the small box containing her precaution. What to do with it? Couldn't leave it sitting out in plain sight. Donovan might be flattered, but then again, he might be offended that she was so cautious about his status.
What if he thought it would ruin the mood? She'd heard that sometimes happened ... that they resented having to stop in the heat of passion and put those things on. Or that it dulled their sensation, made the encounter less enjoyable.
Well, that was just too bad. If it was going to happen, Kyra was going to take steps to keep herself safe. She had a responsibility to herself that went beyond worrying about hurting Donovan's feelings. He had to understand that.
She tucked it away in a table drawer beside the lounging platform, out of sight but within easy reach. Closed it. Opened it partway. No, too obvious ... closed it again.
The comm signal beeped as she was putting the finishing touches to a romantic dinner provided by the kitchenette's food dispensers.
She checked the mirror one last time. A simple clip held her hair back from her face, letting it tumble in rich brown waves nearly to her waist. Out of deference to Donovan's acute senses, she wore no perfume and only the merest hint of cosmetics. The hem of her silkweave dress swirled around her thighs in fluttering panels of violet, sapphire, and deep green. A matching scarf was bound around her neck.
Satisfied, Kyra went to the comm and activated the incoming video component. The reception was fuzzed with lines of interference, through which she saw the entryway of the building, a few of her neighbors coming and going in the background.
A hissing buzz emanated from the speaker, and then a synthvoice said, "Caller for Unit 1801, K.J. Rand."
"Approved," Kyra said. "I'll see you in a few minutes, Donovan."
The speaker spat a feline burst of static by way of reply.
Kyra turned the comm off and activated the firestars, tall tapering crystals that shed a flickering glow across the carefully-arranged table. She started to program some music, then paused, wondering if that might make it look too much like a stage set for seduction.
"But isn't that what it is?" she murmured to herself, and selected a haunting Tynevan melody that floated through the room like eddies of cool smoke.
The proximity light began to blink. Kyra opened the door.
"Enter freely," she said.
Donovan took one step into the apartment and stopped, slowly pulling off the black-glass visor that shielded his sensitive sight. "Kyra ..."
She resisted the urge to shift position self-consciously, though she couldn't help fiddling with the trailing ends of her scarf. Many times in her life, she'd heard phrases like he drank in the sight of her, but this was the first time she really felt it was happening.
Fair enough, for she was drinking in the sight of him. His long coat was unbelted, flaring casually behind him like a cape. Beneath it, he wore a high-collared vest in a shade of green so dark it was almost black, relieved by the pearly shine of its double row of buttons. The somber shades made for a startling contrast to his white skin and that glorious hair.
"Do you like it?" she ventured needlessly, gesturing around the room.
"How could I not? You are perfection!" He shook himself slightly and drew a breath. His ice-green eyes gleamed with pleasure as he sampled the air in tiny sips. "Do I smell lissite broth?"
"I made dinner for us. If that's all right with you."
"What a wonderful surprise, Kyra! I would be delighted." He brought one arm from behind his back, offering her a bouquet. "These are for you."
The flowers had tissue-thin black petals traced with delicate veins of red, the white stems as slender and graceful as a nebula dancer. Kyra gathered them close to her face, inhaling deeply. The scent was very faint but evocative, as if the night wind had its own fragrance.
"How pretty! What are they?"
"They're called bathory, named for an ancient queen of our world."
She arranged them on the table, aware that he was admiring her every move. Then it was her turn to admire his, as he slipped off his coat and turned to hang it on the rack. The width of his shoulders tapered to a narrow waist and hips, and long, lean legs ... just watching him made Kyra want to forget dinner and pounce on him.
He was no mind reader, but his enhanced senses let him detect emotions. Donovan turned back to Kyra, his head tilted questioningly. Cream-gold strands fell rakishly over his forehead, giving him an aspect at once boyish and irresistible.
But there was something else about him, too ... that inescapable hint of danger. It stirred her desire and her fear at the same time, and she was finally beginning to understand what was so compelling about him. It was the razor's edge between life and death, the ultimate chance.
"I thought we could stay in tonight," she heard herself say, marveling at the newly husky quality to her voice.
"I'd like that." He advanced toward her, his uncanny grace making him seem to glide without touching the floor.
Before she was quite sure how he'd gotten there, he had taken hold of her hands and raised them to brush his lips across the backs of her knuckles. She shivered at the cool touch.
The timer in the kitchenette chimed, breaking the dreamlike spell that had begun to fall over Kyra. She reluctantly freed her hand from Donovan's.
"Pour the wine while I serve?" she suggested.
She was glad she'd splurged and bought the food dispenser expansion set, which included recipes from nearly every known culture. His appetite wasn't hearty, but it was discerning. They dined on tender cuts of meat in a variety of spiced sauces, a fruit dish popular on Oull, the savory lissite broth with shavings of briarnut and herbs floating on top, and ended with a cream-filled flake pastry for dessert.
Over the meal, they talked of this and that, but Kyra's mind couldn't linger long on conversation. The table was so small that she was constantly aware of Donovan's knee against hers, and all it took was a single glance at the firestarlight reflecting in the twin jewels of his eyes to send a melting thrill down her spine.
"Shall we take the last of the wine and sit for a while?" Donovan asked, indicating the lounging platform.
"I have a new scenevid," Kyra said.
She took her glass and led him to the platform, where they sat side by side on the padding that molded itself to support them. Her hand trembled a little as she reached over to set her glass on the table. The scenevid showed images from around the system and the outlying worlds, scenes of unspoiled beauty and cultural majesty, blended together to music. She let herself relax into the cushions as she finished her wine.
"Kyra." The sound of her name was like a caress. She turned to him, and he stroked the side of her face from cheek to chin. "May I kiss you?"
"Please do," she breathed.
He leaned closer, cradling her head in both hands. It was a featherlight kiss, gentle and testing. Kyra sensed the tension in him, the readiness to pull back if she reacted with fear.
"I'm not afraid, Donovan."
"But you know what I am ... you know my status."
"I know you, and I like you. Very much." She finally did as she'd been yearning to do all day, sinking her fingers into his hair. "I want to get to know you better."
He smiled, and she caught the briefest glimpse of the whiteness of his teeth before he brought his mouth to cover hers again. This time the kiss was longer, more sure. Their lips parted, tongues and breath mingling, sharing the sweet flavor of the wine.
"So lovely, Kyra, so alive," Donovan murmured, slowly rubbing her upper arm. "I feel the warmth of your skin, the vitality of your flesh."
She drew him down until they were half-reclined. He was cool as marble, even through the fabric of his clothes. The rest of the scenevid went unwatched as the fervor of their kisses intensified.
"Aren't you uncomfortable in that tight vest?" Kyra asked. "Let me help you with it ..."
She undid the pearly buttons and removed it. Underneath, he wore a black silkweave shirt, loose and billowy, open in a deep V. Kyra bent and kissed her way down the edge of the V, resting her hand lightly on his hip.
Donovan sighed and rolled onto his back, pulling her with him. She acquiesced willingly, snuggling atop him with a sigh of her own. Her head rested on his chest, hearing the silence within him. It momentarily gave her pause, truly bringing home to her that he was not one of her kind.
"But your heart," he said, working a hand beneath her to cup her breast, "beats fast enough for us both."
"I'm sorry ..."
"Don't be ... does it disturb you?"
"Sort of, but it intrigues me, too. The differences."
"I assure you, in many important ways we're not so different."
She shifted her legs and grinned down at him. "I can tell."
"Perhaps you should examine me thoroughly before reaching a conclusion."
"That's the best idea I've heard all day," she purred.
He started in surprise as she began undressing him, but when she mock-sternly admonished him to hold still and wait his turn, he did.
In the dim light, against the dark upholstery, his paleness made him seem to radiate with a soft inner light. He was somehow more elegant without clothes than he'd been with them. The lines of his body were long and lean, as artistically sculpted as any alabaster statue of a god in repose. Not a scar or mark anywhere marred the smooth perfection of his skin. He was utterly hairless aside from his lustrous white-gold mane and a darker tawny patch at his groin.