Out of this World

Kinsman
Kinsman  —  connected
Berkley (August 2001)
ISBN-13: 9780515131093 ♦ ISBN-10: 0515131091

Read an Excerpt

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including “Kinsman” by Susan Krinard

Love is the universal language. And nowhere is this more apparent than in these extraordinary stories from four of today’s hottest authors. From a futuristic cop caught in a crisis of the heart to a smoldering vision of an unusual love triangle, from the hunger for a human touch on an alien planet to a witch’s desperate search for the love of one man, these tales of paranormal romance will transport you to a time and a place you’ve never been before…

Read an Excerpt

Kinsman

Jonas Kane VelArhan strode toward Persephone Station’s docking bay with little thought to the people who moved quickly out of his way, or the glances they cast after him, full of hostility and fear.

He was a Kinsman. Kinsmen had been objects of envy and resentment in human space for nearly a century, ever since explorer and telepath Eeva Kane initiated a lasting peace between humanity and the alien shaauri.

Kinsman. For Jonas the name was a source of pride. He and those like him, Eeva’s descendants and recruits, were the adopted kin of the shaauri–the only humans allowed to enter and cross the alien space that separated the two clusters of human worlds. They were a breed apart.

A Kinsman telepath on a human trade ship guaranteed its safe passage. Even those Kinsmen born without the telepathic gift held vital roles in the maintenance and administration of Kinsman stations and ships. Kinsmen held control of most interstellar commerce within the Concordat. They alone kept the fragile peace. They were privileged, rich . . . and sometimes hated.

Jonas was accustomed to the distrust of ordinary humans. But he hadn’t expected the obstacles his own people had thrown up in his way when he made the simple request to return to Persephone, the world to which this station belonged. After seven years among the shaauri, he’d expected a warmer welcome.

Oh, the obstacles weren’t obvious, never broached directly. It seemed the Directors at Kinsman Prime wished to “debrief” him before he returned to duty. That in itself wasn’t surprising. But he kept remembering the behavior of the non-telepathic bureaucrats in the Station’s Kinsman precinct office, the way they’d avoided his gaze. As if they had something to hide.

Or was it him? Were his perceptions so changed?

His steps slowed, and he paused beside a viewport looking out on Persephone, a jewelled sphere streaked emerald and purple far below. It had been so long since he’d followed in his father’s footsteps as Kinsman liaison for the ruling Challinor family on Persephone. So long since the accident that had killed his wife and taken the lives of Calypso and Georg Challinor, leaving him the sole survivor.

He’d been within his rights to temporarily resign his duties and concentrate on healing from his injuries. Within his rights to return when he felt ready. But he’d spent more time with his adopted shaauri family than any other adult Kinsman in the past century, and naturally the Directors would wish to know what he had learned.

He had learned how to do without reliable use of the telepathic powers he’d been born with. He had learned to understand the complex shaauri language by immersing himself among the aliens instead of depending upon his mind to read the subtle nuances most humans missed. He was familiar with the slightest shifts in their body language. He had given himself up to the ministrations of shaauri doctors, who had adapted his ears to hear the high pitches and subvocal sounds shaauri made, and who had altered his vocal chords to produce those same sounds.

Now he was almost as mentally blind as the non-telepath Kinsmen who never dealt with the shaauri. Perhaps this sense of wrongness was simply the vast gulf he felt between him and his people. Paranoia. Looking for something that wasn’t there, just because he had come to suspect that the accident had not been an accident at all.

But he did suspect. He had to learn the truth. On Persephone he could request an audience with Thetis Challinor, the ruler, or “Archon,” of the planet. She hated the shaauri, but it was a place to start. If she had similar suspicions about the mission that had ended in the death of her son and heir. . . .

“I beg your pardon.”

He emerged from his reverie at the sound of the young woman’s voice and the touch of her fingers on his sleeve. His first reaction was to shake her off and be on his way, but a glance at her face made him pause.

She was a stranger to him. Small, compact, with a shapely figure and a piquant face framed by straight blond hair. Pretty, under the garish face decorations Persephoneans favored, and dressed in knee-length tunic and pants that fit more snugly than had been the fashion when he left human space.

“What do you want?” he asked.

She dropped her gaze. Her eyes were pale, matching the hair. “I am sorry . . . sir. I recognized you by your uniform. I need the help of a Kinsman. . . .” She trailed off, losing her nerve under his stare.

Of course–just another worldbound human who knew nothing of Kinsmen but legends, ignorant of the proprieties. She clearly didn’t realize that one who wished to hire a Kinsman didn’t accost him in a public corridor, but made formal application at the nearest Kinsman precinct office. What would such a girl–no trader or corporate employee or wealthy traveller, by his educated guess–want with a Kinsman in any case?

She looked up, and he saw the determination in her eyes. He let his gaze stray to her small straight nose, the pointed chin, the surprisingly full lips.

Lush lips. He had not been with a human woman, Kinsman or otherwise, in nearly seven years. The last woman had been his wife. He’d been celibate since the accident. The shaauri were not fond of celibacy, but he had been alone among them.

Kinsman

His groin tightened into instant arousal. To lie with one of his own again . . .

But she wasn’t his own. He moved to walk away. “If you wish to hire a Kinsman, go to the office in sector nine.”

Her feet tapped out a firm rhythm behind him. “I’ve been there,” she said. “They won’t even listen. Please–I need your help.”

He came to a stop. Something flickered in his mind–a spark where a flame had dwelled, alerting him into utter stillness. He could almost, almost shape it, nurse it along to the old brightness. He tried, and failed. All it gave him was the hint of warning, of depths untapped, of secrets.

All hidden in this woman.

He turned to her again and flowed into the receptive state he had taught himself during his alien pilgrimage. His senses focused on the woman, noting every tiny change in her posture, every twitch of her skin, every shift of her gaze. humans were not nearly so difficult to read as shaauri.

Yes, she was hiding something. But she was also telling the truth. She needed help, and badly. He thought that she felt particularly alone.

As he did.

“Who are you?” he asked.

A smile crossed her lips, and faded. “My name is Téa. Galatéa Dianthe, of Eldoris Province on Persephone. My brother was a member of the crew of the Royal trade ship Eurydice. It left on a trade run to the Nine Worlds three weeks ago. It never returned, and I know that the only people who could look for it are–”

He held up his hand. “I know nothing of this Eurydice, or of lost ships. I’ve been out of human space for seven years.”

“Mr.–”

“Kane VelArhan.”

Her eyes widened. “The last part of the name, VelArhan–it comes from your shaauri family, the one that adopted you?”

“If you know that much about Kinsmen, you know we do not take assignments directly from the client. I will direct you to–”

“Kane VelArhan,” she said breathlessly, heedless of the discourtesy of interrupting him. “Kane was the human surname of the Kinsman who worked for our royal family many years ago. Even in the provinces, we knew of him.”

“My father,” he said. And I, for too brief a time.

“Then you are exactly who I need. The other Kinsmen won’t even see me. But your family served the Challinors. You would care what became of them–” She clasped her hands at her waist. “You would care if the second heir to the throne had disappeared in shaauri space. Wouldn’t you?”

His attention was caught by a single sentence: “You would care if the second heir to the throne disappeared. . . .”

The second heir. Lord Hector Challinor was heir apparent, first grandson of Thetis Challinor. Unless much had changed during his self-imposed exile, the next in line was Miklos Challinor, a young man Jonas remembered as something of a likeable hothead. He had a sister as well, who’d been serving in the Concordat’s Navy during Jonas’s brief tenure at the palace.

Kinsman

Hector, Miklos and Kori, Thetis’s grandchildren, left orphaned by the accident. Téa was right. He did care what became of them, because he had been pilot of the ship in which their parents lost their lives.

He held Téa still with his gaze. “This lost ship Eurydice carried a Persephonean heir?”

“Yes.” Her eyes grew bright, all naive courage. “My brother was a member of the crew. It was a new ship, very fast, and my brother was so proud to serve–” She swallowed. “It hasn’t come back, and it never reached the Nine Worlds.”

Jonas had no doubt that was telling the truth. All he need do was check the latest Persephonean newscasts. But why would such a disaster be ignored by Kinsmen, especially those on this station? If a ship was lost, so was the Kinsman or Kinsmen on board. No stone would be left unturned to find them.

And Persephone would be in an uproar.

He thought back to the faces of his fellow Kinsmen. They’d been tense, too void of expression. Perhaps they thought he already knew. But they hadn’t wanted him down on Persephone.

“A ship can’t simply disappear in shaauri space, not with a Kinsman on board–”

“There was no Kinsman on board.”

Shaauri did not laugh, not as humans did. The sound Jonas made was more of a snarl. “You said the ship went into the shaauri zone.”

“Yes.”

“No human ship enters shaauri territory without a Kinsman.”

“This one did.” She lifted her chin to meet his stare. “It hasn’t been announced on the newscasts. The royal family must know, but they’re keeping it secret. My brother–Acteon–told me before he left, and swore me to silence. He promised to send me word when they reached the Nine Worlds. I know something’s gone wrong.”

Jonas caught her by the arm and pulled her after him toward the observation deck. He sat her down on a bench overlooking the rows of small ships in their berths, his sleek shaauri craft among them.

“I have been away for seven years,” he said, “but seven years doesn’t change the nature of the universe.” Even though he stood over her, menacing and grim, she showed no sign of fear. After a long moment he sat beside her. “Start from the beginning. Tell me how a human ship dared to enter shaauri space without a Kinsman, and how it has gone unnoticed.”

A frown settled between her brows. “Lord Miklos–the heir presumptive–captains the Royal trade flagship, Eurydice. Acteon told me that he decided to cross space without a Kinsman. He picked a special crew of volunteers. Acteon considered it a great challenge.”

“A challenge.” Suicide. “Why?”

“I don’t entirely understand. Something about . . . problems with other Persephonean ships. Problems with–I’m sorry–with Kinsman delaying important trade to the Nine Worlds, upsetting schedules. Rumors. We’d all heard them. But my brother knew more. He said that Lord Miklos was angry and planned to make a stand–to prove that humans were ready to deal directly with shaauri instead of relying on Kinsmen. Acteon believed Lord Miklos could get them across.” She twisted her fingers in her lap. “People don’t know Lord Miklos is missing. He’s supposed to be on a diplomatic trade mission to Hanuman. But I’m afraid something happened to the ship. The shaauri–” She broke off, eyes pleading. “The other Kinsmen won’t help. They act like they don’t know, but they have to, don’t they? Could a ship cross shaauri space without Kinsmen learning of it?” She reached out, almost touched him. “I need to know if my brother is dead or alive.”

Jonas felt an upwelling of nausea tighten his chest. The implications of Téa’s words would have been stunning . . . if not for what had happened seven years ago.

Kinsmen delaying trade. Why? Persephone was one of their major clients, with the highest percentage of trade ships crossing to and from the Nine Worlds. Persephone, like other worlds in the Concordat, relied on the raw materials of the frontier Nine Worlds to feed their populations and need for fuel, and the Nine required the Concordat’s expertise and advanced technology. Their dependence upon each other was the reason that Kinsmen were necessary.

Miklos Challinor was a high-spirited young man, but it would take some great provocation to make him attempt something so flagrantly dangerous. Defying a century of custom, tradition, the very rules that made human-alien peace possible. Would Thetis Challinor have known of this, and approved, even at the risk of provoking the shaauri into a second war?

And why wasn’t the Kinsman grapevine ringing with news of this outrage? Kinsmen had to know about it, had to have caught the transgressors at one of the many stations scattered at every wormhole that led into shaauri territory. Shaauri wouldn’t have been left to deal with the intruders.

But if Kinsmen had caught the ship, and no one else knew . . .

Either his people had lost the Eurydice, or something else had happened. And Kinsmen didn’t want that something known.

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