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´╗┐Title: Teams - A Terran Empire story
Author: Wilson, Ann
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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TEAMS

A Terran Empire story

by Ann Wilson



Copyright (C) 1992 by Ann Wilson



Narvon III, 2277 CE

Marine Captain Jase Thompson enjoyed Evaluation Team duty, and this
particular assignment appealed to what his team members called his
warped sense of humor.  This had started out as an odd one; it was the
Archbishop of Narvon III, rather than its Baron or the System Count,
who  had pushed the panic button.  He'd appealed to the Emperor for a
battle fleet, with a full complement of Security and Combat Division
Marines, claiming civil war was breaking out because of something that
was turning Narvon System's "best people" into "bloodsucking servants
of the Devil."

Captain Thompson had no idea what His Majesty thought about the
situation, but he was skeptical, himself.  Still, no one asked for that
sort of intervention without some reason; it was up to the E-Team to
find out whether the reason was valid, and if so what degree of
intervention was really justified.  He certainly didn't want to call in
a fleet--no E-Team leader did--but he would if he had to.  Then he'd
hope that the Ranger or Fleet Admiral in charge overruled him; he
didn't like thinking what military occupation could do to the occupied
system.  Not that the situation was likely to be that bad.

Thompson sighed, checking the clock and deciding he'd better get back
to the bridge; the Koslov's Captain--Navy Lieutenant Inga Sanchez--
should have the pre-landing surveillance reports for him by now.

She gave him a rueful shake of the head as he entered her small bridge.
"It's peaceful as Terra down there, Jase.  No trace of active weaponry,
no civil disturbances our sensors can detect, no fires involving
artificial substances--no nothing."

Thompson grinned.  "Sounds good to me, Inga.  What about news reports,
entertainment broadcasts, that sort of thing?"

Sanchez grinned back.  "Just as normal, except for a couple of
oddities. The holos aren't carrying any 'casts of contact sports, and
on a talk show, one of the guests had fangs; the others were acting a
little nervous, but she was telling them how harmless she and the other
`Kins of the Dragon' really were." Sanchez touched a control on the arm
of her command chair.  "Watch."

The Captain's monitor screen lit up to show several people seated in a
group of comfortable-looking chairs around a low table, and Thompson
repressed a chuckle.  Talk shows seemed to be the same everywhere, he
thought--then one of the guests caught his attention.  She was
attractive, wearing the uniform of a System Security officer--Chief of
Detectives, from her badge--except that she was more than slim, she
looked damned near starved.

"How do you feel about the Kins who were killed, Chief Kaufman, and
what do you plan to do with the ones who killed them?" a man--Thompson
guessed him to be the show's host--asked.

The woman shrugged slightly.  "My personal feelings have no bearing; I
plan to deal with them as I would with any other murderers, how else?
I am an officer of the law."

"You don't have any desire for revenge?  After all, the killings were
rather . . . unpleasant."

The detective chief grimaced.  "Yes, they were.  But I can't take
revenge, any more than I can feed on someone who doesn't want me to--it
should be common knowledge by now that Kins feel any pain we
deliberately inflict."

"But you can feed on someone who's not willing, or kill; Kins have done
it."

"We can, yes; I've killed in the line of duty since I became a Kin,
which was bearable because I knew that not killing would cause more
harm later.  And I did try to feed on someone who didn't want me,
once--I suppose most Kins have--but I'd rather starve into coma than try
that again.  Thank the Prince I didn't really hurt him, but I did feel
every bit of his terror."

"Looks like she's doing just that, too," Thompson commented.  It didn't
look like much intervention, if any at all, would be needed--not with
the `servants of the Devil' appearing on talk shows trying to reassure
people and looking like death warmed over.  "What the hell do they do
for food, then?"

Sanchez advanced the recording, then started playing it again.
"--willing Donors," the detective chief was saying.  "We feel pain we
inflict deliberately, yes--but we can also project feelings.  If
somebody's willing to feed me, I can let . . . feel the
satisfaction--even, if @'s willing enough, the ecstasy--I do when I
feed.  And I certainly wouldn't take enough to hurt, or even to
weaken, . . .!"

Sanchez shut off the recording.  "You know, I believe her."

"So do I," Thompson said thoughtfully.  "I do still have to
investigate, of course, but I'd say from this that there's no crisis
big enough to call in even a squadron for."

      *      *      *      *      *

The E-Team's landing wasn't the covert operation Thompson had
originally planned; instead, the Koslov called for clearance, and they
landed at the main spaceport, where Thompson and his team disembarked
in full uniform, complete with sidearms.  He didn't particularly like
weapons, but procedure called for E-Teams to carry them unless doing so
would be more dangerous than not, which didn't seem to be the case
here.

Landing openly, even an E-Team had to go through Customs and Health,
which was routine enough until a tech told Thompson that he needed
blood samples to test for susceptibility to the nosferatu pseudo-virus.

"What's that?" Thompson asked.

"What makes humans into Kins," the tech said, sounding as if he were
telling them something they should already know.  "If you're
susceptible, and if the virus gets into your bloodstream, and if
something seriously weakens your system more than twenty-four standard
hours later, you turn into a Kin. The Count's orders are that anyone
from out-system be tested and warned, so if they are susceptible, they
can leave before exposure is possible."  The tech shrugged.  "Odds are
none of you will be, though; no one I've tested has been, and so far it
looks like only one percent--maybe less--are."

"We all have full-spectrum immunizations," Thompson pointed out.

"I know.  But the pseudo-virus isn't one of the things full-spectrum
works against."

"Okay."  Thompson extended his arm and let the tech take his sample.
When the rest of his team had followed suit, the tech sent them to a
waiting room until the results were back, probably in less than an
hour.  Thompson posted the newest team member with their luggage, sent
his second-in-command to a phone to make arrangements for them to be
quartered in the System Palace, then told the rest to spread out and
start up conversations with the others in the room, all of whom looked
like locals.

Not that he really had to give them orders any more, he thought.  All
except Corporal Nkomo--who'd replaced Corporal van Breda, killed on an
earlier mission--had been with him for at least four years; they were
more of a family than a military unit, although they were careful to
maintain protocol with anyone else around.  Thompson knew he had a
reputation for being overly concerned with his people's welfare,
especially since he'd turned down promotion to stay with his team, but
he preferred being called a mother hen to taking command of a larger
unit that would give him less personal satisfaction.

While his people circulated, Thompson leafed through several of the
newsjournals that seemed to be an inevitable part of every waiting
room.  He started with the oldest, published about six weeks ago,
discovering that the Archbishop's basic facts were accurate.  There had
been riots, all right, when some kind of laboratory accident and
explosion had released the pseudo-virus and created the first Kins of
the Dragon.  They'd called themselves that from the very beginning, it
seemed, which Thompson found intriguing--and it was discovered almost
immediately that they had to drink blood to survive. Preferably human
blood, taken directly from a donor's carotid, though they could manage
for short times on packaged or even animal blood.  Normal food made
them violently ill, and strong spices caused anaphylactic shock,
usually fatal.  To balance those limitations, they developed great
physical strength and endurance, as well as the responsive and
projective forms of empathy the detective chief had mentioned.

Unfortunately, the first reaction to the Kins had been horror.
Thompson could understand that, though he didn't share it; psych tests
kept people who couldn't overcome such feelings out of Imperial
service.  He was more intrigued than frightened by the idea of a Kin
drinking some of his blood, and according to the journals, most
Narvonese had felt the same way after the initial shock had worn
off--especially those who'd had friends or relatives affected.

But there had been enough whose horror had persisted to cause the
trouble that had inspired the Archbishop's appeal.  Riots had broken
out in all but the smallest towns, Kins had been brutally murdered by
impalement, decapitation, poisoning, incineration--but that trouble had
tapered off dramatically, starting about a week after the Archbishop's
call, when all three Planetary Barons and the System Count announced
that they had been infected and become Kins themselves.  Thompson found
that amusing, if almost inevitable; once Imperial nobility embraced
something new, most of the people in their fiefs followed suit.  By
now, attacks on Kins were down to scattered incidents, and it looked
like they'd taper off to almost nothing soon.

In fact, public opinion had made almost a complete reversal from the
initial near-universal horror.  In spite of some lingering
apprehension, Kins were rapidly becoming respected and even envied--a
process speeded by the fact that many of them had been that way to
begin with.  The Archbishop had been right in his report that it was
the "best people" who were becoming Kins. Not "best" in the sense of
richest or most powerful, although some were, but in the sense of
contributing most to society.  Kins overwhelmingly came from groups
like doctors, police officers, religious, and others who were devoted
to some form of service; none came from criminal or other anti-social
elements, and only a few from generally-neutral groups.  The
approximately one-percent figure the tech had mentioned seemed
accurate, so not all members of even the highest-incidence groups were
Kins--but it was enough to convince Thompson that such an oddly
selective disease called for scientific investigation, rather than
military intervention.  It wouldn't surprise him to see the Kins become
Narvon System's local nobility, either.

"Captain Thompson?"

He looked up from the journal to see the tech approaching, and his
people breaking off their conversations to join them.  Waiting until
his team had gathered around, he asked the tech, "What results?"

"One susceptible, Captain," the tech said, his expression unreadable.
"You."

Thompson was silent for a moment, then said, "Oh, Chaos."  He wouldn't
mind letting a Kin drink from him, but he had no desire to become one,
even with the social status they seemed to be gaining.  He didn't know
just how much blood a Kin needed, but he was positive it was more than
his team could supply, and probably more than anything short of a base
or mid-sized ship could handle; if he became one, he'd lose his team,
maybe even have to be discharged.  "You said the virus has to get into
my bloodstream to infect me?"

"Yes, sir--well, or into your digestive tract.  But it's hard to get
infected accidentally, except in a lab explosion like the original
ones; most Kins got that way feeding a friend or family member.  And
then you have to be seriously weakened for it to change you.  So if you
don't feed any Kins, or if you do and then don't get badly hurt or
sick, you'll stay just the way you are."

"Thank you."  That was better; he could still lead this mission safely.
He turned to his second-in-command.  "Report."

"We have quarters at the System Palace," Gunnery Sergeant Audra King
said.  "Count Nilssun was expecting us, and wants to see you at your
earliest convenience.  She's sent transportation and an escort."

"She expected an E-Team?"  No one was supposed to know about an E-Team,
not even the person who'd called for help; teams that came in openly,
like his, had covers that would allow them to go around asking
questions about anything and everything.

"Yes, sir."  King gave her team leader a wry grin.  "I'm afraid she was
in IntelDiv herself, on an E-Team, before her brother died and she was
named to succeed.  I'd guess one of her former teammates let her know
we were assigned here."

That sounded likely; it was just a good thing the problem had solved
itself before his team had to file its evaluation.  "Was she upset?"

"No, sir.  Pleased."

"That's good, I suppose."  Thompson kept from scowling by an effort of
will.  "When's the transport supposed to get here?"

"Should be already, sir."

"It figures."  If the Count had expected them, she'd probably given
orders that she be notified when ten Marines arrived; being former
E-Team herself, she'd be able to guess that with the primary danger past,
they'd be likely to come in openly.  "Main entrance?"

"Yes, sir."

"Okay, let's go."

      *      *      *      *      *

They were taken to the System Palace in a luxury limousine, with a
dozen System Security troops riding escort on gravcycles, then settled
into a decade apartments in the Palace's guest wing.  Thompson changed
into dress blues, and wasn't surprised, moments after he was finished,
to hear a knock on his door.  "Enter," he called.

The door opened, and a man in black and silver livery bowed to him.
"My Lady Count's compliments, Captain Thompson.  She invites you to her
office to discuss your mission; if you will come with me?"

Thompson nodded shortly, and followed the man to an office whose open
door was flanked by a pair of System Security officers.  He entered,
and the door closed behind him as he came to attention facing the woman
standing behind the desk.  "Captain Jase Thompson, my Lady Count."

"You may be seated, Captain."  The Count gestured to a comfortable-looking
leather armchair, and took her own seat as Thompson sat.  "Now--you came
here to investigate a report of rioting, did you not?"

"You know I did, my Lady."

"And what will your report to His Majesty say?"

"That no intervention is required, of course."

"No, Captain, it will not."  Count Nilssun smiled, and Thompson found
himself admiring her fangs, with an uncomfortable certainty that she
knew what he was thinking.  "Since you are head of an E-Team, I'm sure
you saw at least part of yesterday's `Narvon Tonight,' and read the
spaceport newsjournals while you were waiting for your test results.  I
hope you weren't too distressed at finding yourself susceptible."

"Not overly, my Lady."  She'd been IntelDiv, all right, Thompson
thought.  E-Team, yes, but he'd be willing to bet she'd been a field
agent before that--and that she'd set up the interview with her Chief
of Detectives and had a complete set of journals waiting for him.
She'd know better than to try misleading him, with her background, but
Thompson could understand her setting things up to let him get
information without too much effort.  And something in the information
she'd arranged for him would tell him why she said his report would ask
for some kind of intervention.

He was starting to enjoy himself.  This was the sort of puzzle IntelDiv
people liked to set up for each other, and it let him be sure there was
nothing seriously wrong.  "Let me see.  You couldn't have known I'm
susceptible to the pseudo-virus, since this is the only system that
tests for that, which means it has no bearing."

"Correct."

"Okay."  Thompson thought back.  "The journals were a pretty
straight-forward account, so you probably set them up just to give me
background.  The key has to be the interview, then."  He saw her nod
slightly, and concentrated.  "The Empire can't do much about your
feeding problem, if you need mostly fresh blood, so that's not it
either.  Oh!"  He nodded, realizing.  "You can't deliberately hurt
anyone, which means you'd have a hard time defending yourselves from
anything, criminals to a full-scale invasion. You need an Imperial
military presence, probably a Sub-Sector or Sector-level base.  Maybe
police, too, though Narvonese who aren't Kins may be able to handle
that."

The Count looked pleased.  "Exactly, Captain.  I do need a full-scale
base, and the Empire has none in this Sector as yet.  Debate on where
to place one is evenly balanced between this system and Argyros; your
report on our limitation will swing that debate in our favor."

It sure would, Thompson thought.  Given equal merit, the Empire
preferred to site bases and jobs where the need was greatest, and a
completely vulnerable system needed a base far more than one like
Argyros, which could defend itself at least until reinforcements could
arrive.

"As for police," the Count went on, "yes, non-Kins can handle most of
what Kins cannot--but I have already begun trying to recruit Security
Division veterans.  Non-susceptible ones, of course."

Thompson grinned appreciation.  Former SecuDiv Marines made the best
police available, if you were willing to let them do the job you paid
them for; if you didn't, they'd probably consider it a breach of
contract and leave.  Not too many people were willing to deal with
someone who'd alienated such police, so that was a definite point in
the Count's favor.  "I'll be glad to recommend construction of a base,
then, my Lady."

"Excellent."  The Count leaned forward, her expression serious.  "As
you have deduced, Captain, I was once a field agent, and I had this set
up to give you the maximum amount of information in the minimum amount
of time.  I can see from your reactions that you also know I want more
from you than a base, now that I have learned of your susceptibility."
She smiled, showing those tempting fangs again.  "And that you are
trying to avoid thinking about it, because you want it as well."

Thompson tried to keep his face impassive, even though he knew
perfectly well that it was useless, with a field agent reading him.
Dammit, a man was entitled to his privacy!  "By my Lady Count's leave,
I must remind her that my responsibilities to my team outweigh my
personal desires."

Count Nilssun leaned back with a sigh.  "Formality doesn't change
things, Captain.  You want to feed a Kin, and I have to send a Liaison
Officer to the Imperial Palace to represent Narvon System; a Kin who
was head of the team sent here to investigate us would be ideal, from a
public relations viewpoint.  I can't force you, as you are well
aware--but I needn't be the one who introduces the virus, or who weakens
you so you will Change.  I am perfectly capable of requesting that you
and your team be stationed here indefinitely, then surrounding you with
Kins until you can no longer resist your own desires."

Thompson's jaw tightened.  "My Lady Count may of course do as she
thinks best--but I will, equally of course, protest any such orders."

The Count stood, and Thompson had to follow suit.  "So be it, then,
Captain, although I had hoped you would be more reasonable.  You have
leave to use the Palace ultrawave for your protest--after I have made
the initial request."  She smiled, this time almost sadly and without
revealing her fangs.  "I can sense hidden depths within you, Captain,
and I would like to be the one to bring them to the surface.  Should
you ever decide you want to see me, I will grant you an audience as
soon as I can."

Thompson was unwillingly impressed; an Imperial Count's time was worth
considerably more than a Marine Captain's.  That didn't make enough
difference to change his mind, though.  "By the Count's leave, I would
like to return to my people."

"Permission granted, Captain.  But please remember, I am not doing this
out of hostility; I do what I do only because I think it best for my
own people."

      *      *      *      *      *

Returning to his assigned apartment, Thompson changed back into service
black.  He wasn't sure whether to be angry or flattered at the Count's
intentions for him; at the moment, he felt a bit of both.  She was
trying to take him away from his team, but on the other hand, she
wanted him to become Liaison Officer for an entire system--which, being
primarily ceremonial in nature, was a less responsible, but far more
prestigious, position.  And, though he was reluctant to admit it even
to himself, he was more than a little tempted by the prospect of--

Resolutely, he blanked out the inviting image of Kin fangs, and went to
knock on King's door.  She had evidently been going through the
library; when she let him in he saw tapes on the coffee table, and more
in the delivery tray.  "Research again, Audra?"

"Uh-huh.  What's up, Cap?"

He described his conversation with the Count, then scowled, knowing
Audra wouldn't take it as aimed at her.  "I'd try to get back to the
ship, but she'd anticipate that.  I'm afraid we're stuck here until
either she decides on someone else as liaison, or I let myself be
turned into a Kin."

King looked thoughtful, hesitating before she spoke.  "Cap . . . we
could all use a leave, and this isn't half bad."

Thompson chuckled, startled into real humor.  "True, Audra.  And we
won't get too many chances at living in a System Palace; pass the word
to take full advantage of it."

"Will do, Cap.  Anything we should do when her Ladyship starts setting
Kins on you?"

"I don't think so," Thompson said, "unless you can arrange for someone
to be on hand to interrupt if things get touchy.  They won't hurt me,
or even try to; from what I've read and been told, they can't.  But . . .
Audra, I may need--well, protection from myself.  I . . . it's hard
for me not to--"

King nodded understandingly.  "They are tempting, aren't they?  Cap, in
your position I wouldn't hesitate; I'd donate, and enjoy the hell out
of myself, even if it meant I'd have to stay here."  She gestured to
the tapes she'd been studying.  "This system is in the beginning of a
major social change, one that ought to be absolutely fascinating."

"I'm sure it would, if I shared your interest in sociology," Thompson
said drily.  Audra was the team's socio spec, and kept trying to get
the rest as interested as she was.  "But I'll be damned if I'll
voluntarily do anything to take myself off this team, or out of the
service."

"If you're given the choice, no.  But--" King raised a cautionary
hand--"if the Count's as determined as you say, it may not be your choice.
They have something called projective empathy, according to these
tapes, and they can use it to make you feel anything they want you to
feel.  Especially if it reinforces something you already feel a little."

"And I already want to donate.  Yeah, I see what you mean.  Her
Ladyship could have taken me already--and made me like it.  I wonder
why she didn't." Another thought struck him, and he looked sharply at
his second-in-command.  "Our hostess was a field agent, Audra.  Were any
of these tapes waiting for you?"

King looked startled, then nodded.  "Two of them, yes.  And one answers
your question--they don't know how long the effects of the projective
empathy last.  Which may mean they won't use it to infect or change you
for fear it'll backfire on them."

That made sense, Thompson thought.  Her Ladyship had to know that a
Marine who realized @'d been coerced into a decision, even gently,
would rebel against both the decision and the coercer.  "Then I'd say
they won't go beyond persuasion and the temptation her Ladyship
promised--or threatened me with."

King nodded, her expression troubled.  "There's another aspect, Cap,
one you may not be thinking about.  At least it's something I've never
known you to be concerned with--but these tapes make it pretty clear
that feeding is . . . well--"

"That's enough," Thompson interrupted shortly.  He'd been trying to
avoid thinking about that aspect; what had made Audra bring it up?  It
was a personal problem, a reason as important as what he'd spoken
openly about for his reluctance to donate--the reason he had opted out
of his original assignment selection when he'd found out what it
involved.  The idea of casual liaisons left him cold; the only people
he felt close enough to want intimacy with were the members of his
team--and regulations forbade that.  So although he certainly didn't
lack it, he'd never shown any outward interest in sex.

"No offense intended, Cap.  Sorry."

"None taken, Audra; you just pushed the wrong button."  Thompson took a
deep breath.  "And you haven't mentioned one factor that's damned hard
for me to resist."  He couldn't help thinking about the detective chief
he'd seen on holo.  "Some of these Kins, at least, aren't much more
than skin and bones.  I could provide a meal for one of them, yes--and
I would, gladly, if it wouldn't change me into one of them.  Hell, if I
could, I'd feed 'em as often as my body would tolerate the blood loss!"

      *      *      *      *      *

The Count didn't waste any time acting on her intention; she had
Thompson summoned to the Palace communications section, where she
called HQMC and requested the E-Team's indefinite assignment to Narvon
System.  Thompson filed his protest immediately, but it had no more
effect than he'd expected; he and his team were assigned to the Count's
command.

She turned to him when the tech broke contact.  "I don't think you will
find my first commands too unpleasant, Captain.  I would like you and
your people to consider yourselves my guests; you are welcome to full
use of all Palace facilities.  I would also like you to attend a
get-acquainted party tomorrow night."

Thompson had resigned himself to spending at least several weeks in
this system; he found himself grateful that the Count was making it as
pleasant as possible for them.  "Thank you, my Lady.  We'll be there;
should we wear blues or civvies?"

"Whichever you choose, Captain.  It will be semi-formal."

      *      *      *      *      *

Thompson wore blues, more for the illusory protection of the dress
uniform's high collar than for any other reason; the rest of his team
opted for civilian wear.  He thought King looked particularly sharp in
the shimmer-cloth culotte outfit she'd had the fabricator make, and
almost as soon as their group entered the Grand Ballroom he saw that he
wasn't the only one. Several Kins, ranging from almost normal physique
to near-starvation gauntness, surrounded her and began an animated
conversation.  Others started discussions with the rest of his team,
leaving Thompson himself momentarily alone.

That didn't last long, however.  The Count joined him, accompanied by
half a dozen other Kins who she introduced as her Planetary Barons, her
Chief of System Security, and the Head Nurse of the Palace medcenter.
"And you've already seen Detective Chief Enna Kaufman," the Count
finished.

Thompson acknowledged the introductions with a certain amount of
discomfort.  He wasn't used to associating with the nobility, and it
was unsettling for him to feel the restrained hunger they all radiated.
The two Security people were in the worst shape, and a moment's thought
told Thompson it made sense; their jobs were unlikely to bring them
into much contact with people willing to let them feed.

As they chatted about inconsequentials, Thompson had to keep himself
from staring at the Kins' mouths, or getting within touching range.
The Count had read him all too accurately; while one Kin was relatively
easy to resist, seven--two of whom were near starvation--made it an
entirely different case, even though they weren't doing anything but
stand there and converse. He was far too aware not only of their
hunger, but of his urge to satisfy it. How the hell was he going to
resist this kind of pressure even for however long the party lasted,
much less for weeks or maybe months?  He sipped at a drink he'd taken
from a passing waiter's tray, wishing for some excuse to leave, but he
couldn't think of any.  He couldn't even fall back on the Corps'
informal motto, because there was no dishonor involved.

"At least your teammates aren't refusing to enjoy what we can do for
them," Kaufman said, gesturing as she chuckled.

Thompson turned, to see Sergeant Gottfried--his communications
expert--in the arms of a tall, equally Nordic-looking man, her expression
almost ecstatic as the Kin's mouth worked at her throat.  Nearby he saw
Audra, pale but looking pleased, with a petite Polynesian-looking Kin
being obviously solicitous of her.  Thompson shook his head ruefully,
then turned back to his group.  "It looks like you have a few more
donors, at least as long as we're assigned here."  He hesitated, trying
to decide whether he should go on, but the Count made that decision for
him.

"Go on, Captain.  I can see you have more to say."

"Yes, sir."  Thompson took a breath, then did so.  "As I told Sergeant
King, I'd donate myself, as often as I could, except that I'm told that
if I do it even once, I'll become a Kin.  And that would cost me my
career, something I'm not willing to give up."

"More to the point," the Count said, "you think it would cost you your
team."

Dammit, Thompson thought, couldn't she give him any slack?  "The only
way it wouldn't, my Lady, is if you got the Emperor to assign them here
permanently--which would ruin their careers.  I say again, my
responsibilities to my team outweigh my personal desires."

He hadn't kept his distance carefully enough; Kaufman touched his
shoulder, then his throat, and he shivered with the promise of it.
"Captain," she said softly, "would it really be that bad, staying in
this system?  The human race, after all, was restricted to one planet
for millions of years, and most people still remain planetbound for
their entire lives.  Believe me, Narvon System can provide enough
challenge for you and your team.  Have you asked them whether they
would consider staying here with you?"

"No, I haven't," Thompson admitted.  But he had to add, "I wouldn't,
either, because I'm afraid they'd think I was pressuring them."

Kaufman eased her hand to the other side of his neck, and Thompson
moved closer without quite realizing it.  "Look at them, my friend.
They're feeling good, and I can assure you that anyone who's donated to
one of us once wants to do it again." She chuckled.  "The kind of
pleasure we can give is unique, and you want the best possible for your
people; wouldn't you like to give them feeding-pleasure yourself, as
often as you could do it without endangering their health?"

That gave Thompson an entirely different point of view, and he moved
still closer to the Kin, again without realizing it.  "Yes . . . yes, I
would."  He did want the best for his people, and if he could get that
in a way that also let him be even closer to them--

He felt lips at his throat, hard sharpness under their warmth, and knew
he'd surrendered.

Then a large hand closed on his shoulder and he was pulled away, to
stumble back against Corporal Nkomo's chest.  "What--"

"No marks, sir; you're safe."

Thompson took a deep breath, coming back to reality as his team
surrounded him.  It seemed he'd been right when he told Audra he might
need protection from himself.  "Thanks, Corporal.  And the rest of
you."

"No problem, sir.  Sergeant King said this might happen."

The Count smiled ruefully.  "You have a very well trained team, Captain
Thompson--but they cannot be around you all the time.  Sooner or later,
you will give in to your own desire."

He'd already come too close for comfort, Thompson thought bitterly.
The worst part of it was that it was himself he was fighting, not the
Count--and whichever way the fight went, he lost.  "That may be, my
Lady, but they're here now.  And they'll keep me from doing anything
I'd regret later."

"Indeed," the Count said politely.  "Then you will stay and enjoy the
rest of the party."

That was an order, Thompson knew, not a request.  "As my Lady Count
wishes," he said, trying to conceal resentment from the others, if not
from the Count herself.

"Good."  The Count signalled a waiter, who approached carrying a tray
loaded with foam-topped mugs.  "Your records say you have a fondness
for New Bavarian beer, something I doubt you can find very often.  I
can recommend this; it is their Oktoberfest Doppelbock, a brew I
enjoyed myself before becoming a Kin."

Thompson didn't doubt that; it was a brew he'd heard quite a lot about,
though he'd never been able to afford any.  He reached for a mug,
shaking his head when Nkomo tried to restrain him.  "It's okay,
Corporal.  I'm in danger of becoming a Kin, not being poisoned.  But if
it'd make you feel better, you can taste it before I have any."

"I'll do that, sir."  Nkomo took a deep drink, then handed the mug to
Thompson, shaking his head.  "Whoo! That's beer?"

"It certainly is," the Count said with obvious amusement.  "Rather
potent beer, I might add, though it is also quite smooth.  Feel free to
drink all you wish; my medcenter has considerable experience treating
hangovers."

With that, the group of Kins broke up and began circulating.  Thompson
took a hearty drink from the mug he held, while the rest of the team
took advantage of the Count's offer, accepting mugs of their own from
the waiter. Not at all to his surprise, he saw that all of them had
fang marks on their throats; when Nkomo lowered his mug, Thompson
indicated the marks.  "How was it?"

Nkomo rubbed the marks, grinning.  "It was great, sir--like nothing
I've ever felt before.  I'm going to do it again, as often as they'll
let me." He gestured resignation.  "Not as often as I'd like, but the
one who fed on me says they don't take chances on their donors' health;
even if I dose with rapid-heal, which I intend to, I'm not allowed to
donate more than once every four tendays.  What they call a Class Four
Donor."

That seemed to be about average, Thompson found.  Gottfried was a Class
Three, King a Class One, and all the rest were Fours like Nkomo.  Also
like Nkomo, all of them intended to repeat the experience as often as
they were allowed to.  "And if you do become a Kin," King told him, "we
want you to be the one who feeds from us.  Mine said that it's good
with any Kin, but best with someone you know and like or respect.  And
that a custom is developing for a Kin who leads a regular group of
Donors to be responsible for taking care of them that way."

Thompson raised an eyebrow.  "The Kin is responsible for feeding on
@'s people?"

"Yes, sir.  If you'd Donated, you wouldn't be questioning it, either."

"Maybe not," Thompson conceded.  It did seem to make an odd sort of
sense . . . but he didn't care to find out.  "That's academic for the
moment, though, so let's do what her Ladyship said, and enjoy the
party."

      *      *      *      *      *

The next morning, Thompson woke feeling hungry.  That was something
that almost never happened, especially when he'd been drinking the
night before; breakfast, for him, was seldom more than a cup of coffee
and maybe an English muffin.  Well, he knew where the guest dining room
was, he told himself, and it was likely that Audra would be eating
there; the rest were more likely to eat with the System Security troops
in their chow hall.

She wasn't there, so Thompson took a small table and began scanning the
menu as soon as he'd punched for coffee.  That was delivered by a human
waiter, not too surprising in a System Palace dining room, and Thompson
was giving his order when King walked in.  She looked surprised, but
joined him at his gesture and ordered her usual Spanish omelet, toast,
and coffee.  It wouldn't be quite like the same items on any other
world, but it was always how she started the day.

When their food came and Thompson cleaned his plate, then signalled for
a second helping while she was barely halfway through, King gave her
commanding officer a quizzical look.  "Is everything all right, Cap?"

"Fine, as far as I know," Thompson said.  "I'm just hungry."

"Hungry enough to eat two breakfasts when you normally don't eat any."
King frowned.  "Cap--did Carlo pull you away before that detective
chief got her fangs into you?"

"Yes, why?"

"Because some of the tapes I dug out--not the ones her Ladyship left
for me--say that some susceptibles get hungrier than usual after
they've become infected.  But if she didn't bite you, you can't be
infected."

Thompson set down the coffee cup he'd just picked up, an unpleasant
thought forming.  "I . . . don't know about that," he said slowly.  "I
may have a nasty mind, but I can't forget that our gracious hostess
used to be a field agent."

"And field agents don't exactly have the same standards as the rest of
the Imperial services."  King hesitated.  "Cap, you don't think she'd--"

"That's exactly what I do think."  The Count couldn't force him, no,
but a field agent would feel perfectly justified in tricking him, if
the stakes were high enough.  "I'm not sure whether it was her primary
plan or a backup, but thinking back, she could very well have laced
that beer with virus.  With you not susceptible and the rest of her
guests being Kins already, I'm the only one it would have any effect
on."

King chuckled.  "That makes sense, Cap--but if so, it backfired on her.
According to the tapes, the ones who get the hungries may become
high-class Donors when they're weakened for the Change, but they don't
become Kins."

"Oh, yeah?"  Thompson grinned in relief.  "I can handle that easily
enough, especially since it means the team doesn't have to break up.  I
think I'll ask to see her as soon as we finish eating."

      *      *      *      *      *

The Count sent word that she'd see him as soon as her morning formal
audience was over, so Thompson was waiting in her working office when
she came in just before noon.  He rose and, since he was in civilian
clothes this time, bowed slightly.  "Good morning, my Lady."

"Good morning, Captain.  You look pleased with yourself."  The Count
motioned him back to his seat, while she leaned against her desk.
"What is it?"

Thompson outlined what he and King had discussed, feeling more relaxed
in her presence than he'd have thought possible the previous night.
"So if what Sergeant King read is accurate," he finished, "I can let
one of you feed, enjoy it, and still stay with my team."

"It is accurate enough," the Count said, her expression unreadable to
anyone without a field agent's training.  "Perhaps a tenth of those who
are susceptible do not Change into Kins.  They do become the best
Donors available, though no Kin will risk feeding even from them more
than once per tenday."  She sighed.  "I cannot share your relief,
Captain, though I can understand it.  I am fully aware of the way most
people out-system will react to us, and being from out-system yourself,
you would have gotten a far more sympathetic reaction than a
Narvonese-born Kin.  Your being a Donor will help, even so.  Do you have
any preference as to the Kin?"

"One of the really hungry ones," Thompson said.  "Otherwise, not
particularly."

"Very well.  You seemed quite taken with Chief Kaufman yesterday; she
is Night Duty Officer now, so she is sleeping, but will be in her
office about twenty-two-thirty tonight.  Shall I leave word that you
are coming?"

"I felt sorry for her, was all," Thompson said.  "The poor kid--Yes,
please let her know."

"All you felt consciously, perhaps," the Count said drily.  "I read it
as potentially far more--but that no longer matters.  I will rescind my
request for your indefinite assignment here."

"Thank you, my Lady."  Thompson rose, and this time his bow was
everything her rank entitled her to.

      *      *      *      *      *

Thompson entered the System Security office complex and approached the
desk sergeant, ready to introduce himself, but she stood.  "Captain
Thompson?"

"Yes."

"Chief Kaufman is waiting for you, sir.  To your right, third door on
the left."  She smiled.  "You made a good choice, Captain.  She's the
best I've ever Donated to."

"How did you know I chose her, rather than the other way around?"

"It's always the Donor's choice, sir.  The Kin can ask someone, or pass
on a volunteer, but one will never feed on an unwilling Donor."  The
desk sergeant grinned.  "Besides, her Ladyship said you had."

Thompson chuckled.  "Thanks, Sergeant.  Third on my left, you said."
He went to the door she'd described, still amused.  Now that the danger
of becoming one himself was past, he discovered he was beginning to
like these blood-drinkers, and to hope the Count would find a good,
sympathetic Liaison Officer.

He didn't have to knock; the door opened as he neared it, and Kaufman
invited him in with a flourish.  "Nice to see you again, Captain," she
said, smiling--and this time Thompson let himself respond to her hunger
and her gleaming fangs.  He went into her open arms, leaning his head
to one side.

She brushed his throat with her lips, and he felt amusement mixed with
her hunger.  "May I assume that your Corporal Nkomo won't pull you away
from me this time, my dear Captain?" she murmured.

"You may, my dear Chief."  Thompson relaxed completely, feeling the
assurance she projected.  "This may be my only chance, so drink as much
as you want."

"As much as I'd take for a Change, yes.  You'll go into a deep sleep,
and wake up hungry enough to eat a hellbeast."

"That's what my socio spec told me."  Thompson's earlier desire was
back in full force, stronger than ever; he licked his lips, wishing
she'd get on with it.

Warmth on his throat, the sensation of hunger, hard sharpness--  He
cried out at the sudden intense pleasure of fangs in his throat, his
blood filling the Kin's eager mouth, satisfying her driving hunger . . .

      *      *      *      *      *

He woke with that memory, his hand going to his throat and caressing
the wounds there.  It was comfortable lying in bed--he knew, somehow,
that he was back in the apartment he'd been assigned--and he'd like to
stay there, holding on to the memory of Kaufman's feeding, but he was
much too hungry.  He got up and used the 'fresher, then dressed,
intending to go to the dining room.

It wasn't necessary; a covered serving tray sat on the coffee table in
his apartment's living room, with a note beside it.  He uncovered the
tray and began eating, curious about the note but not willing to
interrupt until he'd taken the edge off his appetite.  Whoever had
prepared the tray, he thought gratefully, had a pretty good idea what
one of the "near-misses" like himself needed; by the time he emptied
it, he was satisfied.

He picked up the note and leaned back, chuckling as he read it.


"Dear Jase,

"By the time you get to this, you'll have eaten and I'll be asleep.  I
want you to know: you were delicious, and I have never had a better
meal.  I hope I was able to give you as much pleasure as you gave me,
and if you are going to be here long enough, I'd appreciate the
opportunity to feed from you again.

"Affectionately,
    "Enna"


It was odd thinking of himself as a delicious meal, but Thompson found
it tickled him; sure, he'd feed her again if he and his team were here
long enough.  In the meantime, until he got orders, he and his team
were on leave, and as he'd told Audra, they might as well take
advantage of their stay in a System Palace.

For the rest of the day, they did just that.  Their status as the
Count's guests let them enjoy the prerogatives only local nobility or
above usually got, and they took advantage of it in the ways their
various interests dictated.  For Thompson, that meant a run through the
Count's target range, a hearty lunch, a trip through the planetary
zoo--he'd need a week to do justice to the whole thing, but this was a
good start--a four-course supper, and an evening at the local classics
theater to see Last Starfighter for perhaps the twentieth time.

He went to bed feeling comfortably tired, and for several hours slept
well, if with increasing unease, but about 0200 he woke and couldn't
get back to sleep.  His throat itched, and he felt restless, bloated,
so irritable he had to get up and move around.  For awhile he prowled
around his apartment, but that didn't help for long; eventually, he put
on a robe and went out.

He prowled the Palace corridors, rubbing the fang marks on his throat
from time to time, his unease and restless irritability growing.  He
didn't like being this way--it was nothing like his usual self--but he
couldn't seem to do fight his way out of it.

After what felt like decades, he found himself at the System Security
office complex.  Something inside him seemed to say "That's it," so he
went inside.

The desk sergeant--the same one who had been there the day before--looked
at him in surprise.  "Is there something I can do for you, Captain?"

"I . . . I don't know."  Thompson rubbed at the fang marks, frustrated
that it didn't seem to help, then began scratching at them.  "Is Chief
Kaufman here?"

"No, sir, she's patrolling.  You can wait here till she gets back, if
you want to.  Uh . . . you shouldn't be doing that."

"Doing what?" Thompson snapped.

"Scratching yourself like that.  You could . . . well, hurt yourself."

"Dammit, they itch!"  The reminder made it worse; Thompson's scratching
went deeper, beginning to draw blood.  That helped a little, so he dug
in more.

"Sir, don't!"

Thompson paid no attention, needing that bit of relief, small as it
was, even when the desk sergeant hit the station alarm.  Half a decade
troopers seemed to materialize around him, and he heard the sergeant
order him restrained.

When they grabbed him and tried to force his arms down behind his back,
though, he started fighting.  IntelDiv had some nasty moves picked up
from combat techniques developed by a couple of decade cultures; he'd
decked three of his assailants before reinforcements arrived and took
him down, handcuffing him and confining him to a padded holding cell.

An indeterminate, almost painfully frustrating amount of time later, he
felt some relief and slumped to the padded floor; a Kin was
approaching. Whoever it was stopped, perhaps at the desk, then he
sensed anxiety, and the Kin started moving again.  Not long after, Enna
Kaufman was at the door of his cell, opening it and entering.  She
knelt beside him.

"Jase, what's wrong?"

Her nearness calmed him; Thompson breathed deeply, his tension easing.
"I wish to Chaos I knew!  I damnsure didn't bargain for anything like
this when I wanted you to feed on me."

"Neither did I, or I wouldn't have."  She removed the handcuffs, then
stroked the wounds on his throat; he relaxed.  "I can feel what you
want, Jase, but I can't do anything about it; I fed off you last night,
so you have another nine days before any Kin will touch you again."

"I . . . don't think I'll last another nine hours, much less nine days.
Chaos, Enna, what do I have to do?"

"I don't know.  Prince knows, I'd help you if I could!"

      *      *      *      *      *

The Count was having a night as restless as Thompson's.  Finally, not
long after he'd been put in the holding cell, she got out of bed--
carefully, so she wouldn't disturb the Donor she'd mated with--and went
into her living area to call Security.  "Is anything wrong?" she
demanded as soon as the desk sergeant appeared on her screen.

"Not really, my Lady," the desk sergeant replied.  "Captain Thompson
came in a few minutes ago looking for Chief Kaufman, but she's out on
patrol, so I told him he could wait.  But he was scratching his throat,
drawing blood, and he wouldn't stop--I had to order him restrained.
He's handcuffed and in the holding cell till she gets back.  He's
trying to climb the walls, but at least he can't hurt himself."

The Count frowned.  That was a peculiar reaction to an attempted
Change, even to one she and Kaufman had known would be unsuccessful--
but it did explain the feeling of strain she sensed.  Perhaps the
attempt had had some effect after all; though it certainly hadn't made
him into a Kin, he was reacting as strongly as if it had.  "Call me
when Chief Kaufman arrives.  I want to see for myself exactly what is
happening."

"Yes, my Lady."

The Count switched off and dressed, thinking.  It had never seemed
reasonable to her that ten percent of susceptibles didn't react except
to become Donors of a class that was unusual, but didn't require most
to be susceptible or go through Change.  There had never been evidence
of more than a difference in degree, however--or not until now,
perhaps.  Thompson's reaction might indicate a difference in kind, a
Change to . . . what? Something that would complement the Kin Change?

It was half an hour before the desk sergeant called to report that
Kaufman had come in, but when she did, the Count lost no time getting
to Security and the holding cell.  She arrived as Kaufman was using a
damp cloth to gently wipe blood from scratches on Thompson's neck.

She felt immediate sympathy for the Marine; reading him told her that
he was in pain, as well as under the terrible strain she'd felt in him
earlier. She had sensed that strain before, she realized now, though
far less intensely: in some of the others who hadn't--or apparently
hadn't--Changed, near the end of the ten days that separated their
allowable Donations.  That irritability and anxiety had been attributed
to a natural desire to Donate as often as they could, but now the Count
was beginning to think it might be a physiological need as real as a
Kin's need for blood. Thompson certainly hadn't had time to miss
Donating to that degree, not with Kaufman having taken him the day
before.  "Captain," she said gently.

The face that turned to her held desperation and sudden hope.  "Y . . .
yes, my Lady?"

"Did you dream tonight?"

"Huh?"  Thompson was startled at the question, but he nodded.  "Yes--a
dragon wearing a crown.  An Oriental dragon.  He . . . approves of me."

"The Dragon Prince," Kaufman said softly.  "The one who used the virus
to make us what we are.  He always appears to a new Kin."

"But never, to the best of anyone's knowledge, to anyone else."  The
Count swore briefly, though only to herself.  They had never thought to
ask the supposedly-unChanged ones about their dreams, and they--or at
least she!--should have.  It was stupid to think Change had to bring
about a visible change; she could only excuse herself by pleading the
press of other problems that had claimed her attention since Kins began
appearing.  "Your desire to feed Kins is more than simple desire now,
Captain; I can tell that.  It is a physical requirement." She turned to
her Chief of Detectives.  "He needs you."

"But it's only been a day," Kaufman said.

The detective chief's heart wasn't in her objection; the Count nodded.
"The law will have to be changed to accommodate Captain Thompson and
the other . . ."  What was a good word for them?  They weren't Kins,
though they were of the--the Kindred, yes.

Thompson chuckled harshly.  "Call me a Bloodmate, my Lady.  I give
blood, and I damnsure feel like Enna's mate."

The Count nodded, raising an eyebrow.  "Appropriate; very well.  Care
for your Bloodmate, Enna."

Kaufman didn't have to be told twice; she took Thompson into her arms
and nuzzled his throat, breaking the skin to sip but not piercing his
carotid. Thompson relaxed, his irritable frustration easing, and he
felt his consort's satisfaction at that.  There was far more to his
need than her gentle sipping; he was responding to her physically as
well, knew she felt it, and luxuriated in her answering caress.  There
was no such thing, he realized dreamily, as a casual liaison between
Kin and Bloodmate; he was free to accept her love-making, as well as
her feeding.

"But not in a detention cell," Kaufman murmured against her Bloodmate's
throat.  He might be too far gone to care, but she had no intention of
taking him on the floor, no matter how well padded it might be.  She
picked him up, sensing the Count's approval, and carried him to the
duty officer's apartment.

Thompson was content to wait; for now, the promise of her delicate
fangs, the strength of the body he would nourish, were enough.  She
would make love to him, and when he peaked, she would sate her fierce
hunger in their shared ecstasy.  She would care for him, yes . . .

The Count watched them leave, pleased.  She had hoped for an ex-E-Team
leader turned Kin as Liaison Officer, though she would have settled for
whatever benefit a team-full of Donors might bring; now she had
something beyond her most optimistic hopes.  She would give Kaufman and
Thompson time for--she grinned to herself--a honeymoon.  While they
were indulging in each other, she would name the Kindred--Kins and
Bloodmates alike--as the System's local nobility.  And then she would
designate the pair of them as Liaison.  Thompson had lost his team,
yes, but he had gained at least as much in the way of companionship and
more in physical satisfaction; he would be fine.  And what a team those
two would make!



END





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