Home > Wild Embrace (Psy-Changeling #15.5)

Wild Embrace (Psy-Changeling #15.5)
Author: Nalini Singh

Chapter 1

   Thousands of meters below the surface of the ocean, in the depths of the Pacific and not too distant from the Mariana Trench, Tazia Nerif looked out the window in the control room of the deep-sea station Alaris, and wondered if there really were changeling sharks.

   Andres, the junior geological oceanographer, had just spent ten minutes trying to convince her of that fact. “The next time you’re prancing around naked in your quarters, have a look outside the windows and see what’s looking back.”

   Since Tazia was an engineer who lived in grease-stained blue coveralls and had never pranced in her life, that wasn’t going to be a problem. But still, the idea of changeling sharks intrigued her. If Andres wasn’t trying to pull one over on her. Fiddling with her electronic wrench to calibrate it for her next task, she decided to do some research on the subject so she could beat him at his own game.

   “Ms. Nerif, is the life-support system back to full strength?”

   Her heart slammed into her throat.

   As usual, she hadn’t heard Stefan approach. Tall, with dark hair, and highly intelligent, he walked with the tread not of a sailor, but of a Psy. He was a Tk, a telekinetic, and fully enmeshed in the emotionless existence that was the Psy way.

   From the fleeting but telling references in the dusty old history book Tazia had found in an antique shop on her last trip upside, she’d worked out that the Psy race had once felt the same emotions as humans and changelings. But something had changed long enough ago that in the present, it seemed as if they had always been formed of ice.

   Brilliant at business and at science, the Psy race knew nothing of sorrow or love, joy or hate; they created no art, wrote no music, felt no passion.

   Not that Tazia knew much about that last, either.

   “I’m finished.” Sliding the wrench into her tool belt, she picked up and slotted in the cover of the panel she’d been working on, safely concealing the complex computronic systems beyond. “You can boot it up and switch off the backup system.” It had been a routine inspection, something she was fanatical about. Her type-A, check-every-nut-and-bolt-twice personality was why she’d won the coveted position on Alaris. This far below the surface, no one wanted an engineer who wasn’t obsessively precise.

   Stefan, of course, took precise to the next level. If Alaris had been peopled solely by Psy, nothing technical would have ever gone wrong. But of course, most Psy didn’t see the point in exploring the deep when there was only a slim chance of discovering anything that could lead to financial gain. Which was why Alaris had humans like Tazia holding it together, along with the odd changeling who could stand being shut up inside the station—or who had the capacity to survive in the mysterious dark water beyond the windows.

   There were several sea-based changelings on station courtesy of the fact that Alaris was funded in large part by a worldwide water changeling organization named BlackSea. Tazia didn’t know too much about BlackSea, but she knew a number of the sea changeling station personnel very well.

   Andres was a sea snake in his animal form. He’d shifted for her once in a sparkling shower of color and light. Beautiful. His snake form was big, shiny, and capable of sneaking around parts of the station she’d never be able to access without using the miniature maintenance bots she’d built after realizing the need. When he was in a good mood, he sometimes checked the ducts for her.

   “Everything looks operational.” Stefan entered the final command on the razor-thin computer screen mounted on the wall, then put his eye to the biometric reader to confirm the authorization.

   The systems switched over with no appreciable delay.

   Stepping back from the computer, Stefan scanned her face. Sometimes, she wanted to tell him nothing had changed since the last time he’d subjected her to an inspection. She still had black hair, worn in a rough ponytail to keep it out of the way, and streaky brown eyes set in a face covered in light brown skin. The end.

   “You have grease on your cheek.”

   She fought her blush and the urge to wipe at her face with the sleeve of her coveralls. “What else is new?”

   “The mail.”

   “The mail?”

   “It just arrived.”

   Her smile was instant. “Oh!” Grabbing her tool kit, she went to walk past him.

   He stopped her, his hand on her arm.

   Startled at the strange behavior—Stefan didn’t touch anyone unless absolutely necessary—she froze. “What?” she asked, tilting back her head to look up at him, his scent in her every inhale.

   Stefan always smelled crisp, clean, distant. No grease on his cheek and certainly no dirty work coveralls. On duty or off, he always wore the uniform of the station commander, the collar of his military-style fitted jacket rising partway up his neck and fastened to the side by a simple silver stud that denoted his rank. Everything else was stark black, from his boots to his pants to, she assumed, the shirt he wore under his jacket. She didn’t know, had never seen him with the jacket open.

   Now his dark gray eyes focused on her. “It is not there.”

   Disappointment uncurled in a leaden wave in her stomach, wiping away her surprise at his touch. “Are you sure?”

   “I checked all the return addresses on the letters and packages.”

   She swallowed, nodded. “Why?”

   “Because every time the mail comes and your package doesn’t arrive, you give in to the human failing of disappointment, which leads to at least two days of depression during which you don’t function at optimum levels.”

   Her eyes narrowed. “Ah, so it was concern for my well-being, then?” She snorted and tried to shrug off his hand. “I function perfectly fine—everything gets done, doesn’t it?”

   “Yes.” He didn’t release her. “But you have a tendency to snap at anyone who comes near you.”

   “What do you care?” she asked, feeling cornered and sad and angry at him for being the bearer of news she didn’t want to hear. “Emotion makes no difference to you.”

   “The humans and changelings care.”

   That made her face heat up. Stefan ran the show, contracted to manage Alaris at what had to be an exorbitant fee. If he said people were complaining because she got a little down a couple of days a month, then people were complaining. “It won’t happen again.”

   “Of course it will. Unless you stop waiting for a package that will never arrive.”

   It was a stab to her soul, a blade made of ice that broke inside her as she bled. “Let me go.” Wrenching herself out of his hold, she walked quietly out of the control room and headed down into the true guts of Alaris, where no one else ever ventured. Only when she was sure he hadn’t followed her did she curl up in a corner and put her head on her knees.

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