Erin M. Leaf
Copyright © 2017
Bruno Day stood at the window of his penthouse in midtown Manhattan. The thunderstorm rolling up the East River threw lightning at the horizon like a vengeful child while ominous clouds billowed over the Statue of Liberty in the distance. He couldn’t help but think of the storm as a portent of doom.
The silver shield ring he held chilled his palm, so he closed his fingers around it to warm the special alloy. He didn’t usually have time to stand around idle, but today he’d somehow managed to squeeze out thirty minutes of blank space in the midst of his insanely busy day. He wished he hadn’t. Nothing good ever came of giving himself time to brood. When the elevator doors to his floor opened on the far wall, he turned in relief. His mind had been circling the same problem with no solution for days now.
“Bruno? I have the briefing on your next appointment ready,” his assistant, Eileen Parker, said as she stepped out of the lift. As usual, she wore her hair scraped back into a tight ponytail. Her suit jacket and slacks were immaculately pressed. If he didn’t know better, he’d almost think she was an automaton, but the photos of her daughter and husband on her office desk two floors down belied her professional exterior. He’d seen her with her family, and his empathic gift gave him more intimate details of the people he met than they realized. He knew Eileen’s emotions well. He knew her kindness and loyalty. He counted on them. And her efficiency continued to impress him.
“Thank you,” Bruno said, walking toward her. They met in the middle of the vast space, near the Stronghold pillar that dominated the center of the room.
She unclipped a paper from her clipboard and handed it to him. “This should be a fairly routine meeting. Fifteen minutes tops,” she said.
Bruno nodded and scanned the information. “The President sent his favorite hacker to interrogate me? For what?”
“Because he can.” Eileen laughed. “If that’s what you want to call his cyber-security chief.”
Bruno sighed softly. “I hope they don’t still think that the Stronghold net has somehow compromised the government’s networks.”
“They long for something damaging that will force the Sentries under their control. Something that will force you, as the most visible Sentry, to answer to them.” Eileen reshuffled the rest of the papers on her board, then tucked it between her arm and torso. “Human nature and all that.”
“I know, but that will never happen. They couldn’t force us to do their bidding if they tried. My brothers and I must remain outside and above human governments,” Bruno said, rescanning the brief. As he did so, he absently rolled his shield ring around his palm. He glanced up to find Eileen frowning at him, and closed the ring inside his fist. “What?”
“When are you going to see her?” She looked pointedly at his closed hand.
Bruno stared at his assistant. He knew better than to assume Eileen didn’t know what was happening. He knew she’d spoken to his brother Greyson’s wife, Eva, just yesterday. If Eileen was asking this question, that meant all of his brothers and their paired mates knew everything. “You spoke with Eva?” he asked, stalling for time.
Bruno exhaled. “There’s no rush to go see Saige’s friend.”
“No?” Eileen tilted her head. “Saige is a good person. I’m glad Isaac found her.” She narrowed her eyes. “But she isn’t in Flagstaff anymore. Isaac took her out to Alpha Centauri in one of the starships, remember? If her friend Amy needs protection, shouldn’t you give that ring to her?” She nodded at his fist.
“Amy Roderick is safe. She has Isaac’s ring.” Bruno didn’t elaborate. He didn’t have to. Eileen understood enough to know he was being uncharacteristically reluctant with her.
“But the ring Amy has is meant for Saige, right? It’s for Isaac’s wife, not for her best friend to carry around,” Eileen pointed out.
Bruno sensed her honest concern, and suppressed his frustration. He’d foreseen this exact moment in a dream over two hundred years ago, and one would think that having that much time to chew over an event was long enough to get used to the idea of meeting one’s mate. It wasn’t. He had no desire to put an innocent young woman’s life at risk, even if it meant he’d finally have someone to share his life with. “I need you to clear my schedule for the next few weeks,” he heard himself say, as if from a great distance.
Eileen’s eyes widened with surprise. “Weeks? Are you serious?”
Bruno nodded, understanding her shock. He never took time off, and certainly never that long a stretch at a time. “I’m sorry. I know what a mess that will cause.” But I can’t run from my fate any longer. The world’s survival depends on me. And on Amy, though she doesn’t know it yet.
“I’ll do my best,” Eileen said as worry seeped into her expression. “What’s happening?”
Bruno shook his head. “Nothing is happening right now. No incursions or swarms, so you can rest easy, Eileen. I am merely taking your advice.” He showed her the ring he still held. “I may not be gone for that long. I may be able to resolve things sooner.” He lifted a shoulder. “But I can’t promise it.” He squeezed his fingers around the silver ring so tightly that it hurt his joints.
Eileen stared at him for a long moment, and then her expression eased. “Bruno, if you want a rest, you should take all the time you need. You have never taken even one day off since I first started working for you twenty years ago.”
“Sentries do not take time off.” Bruno knew the words sounded pompous the moment they left his mouth, but they were true, nonetheless. He smiled wryly as he caught Eileen’s smirk.
“Tell that to Greyson. He hid in his woods for what? Decades?” Eileen smiled. “That’s a lot of time off.”
Bruno folded the briefing notes in half and then in half again. “My brother had good reason to hide away. And he has different duties to fulfill.”
Eileen raised an eyebrow at him.
Bruno pursed his lips, and then decided to tell her a secret that she surely suspected after working with him so long. “You know that Sentries have certain abilities, yes?” he asked, watching her for the merest hint of confusion. “Beyond the technology we use to safeguard Earth from the Spiders.”
She nodded. “Yes. I figured that out in the first year I worked for you.” Eileen glanced at the pillar in the center of the room. “And you have some impressive technology, but that’s not what you mean, is it?”
“The abilities I refer to are biological tech. Long ago, a group of benevolent aliens tampered with our DNA,” he explained.
“Everyone knows that,” Eileen said, frowning. “But the Others have been gone for a long time, right?”
If only she knew, Bruno thought, remembering the alien he’d fought with his brother, Isaac, just a few short weeks ago. “Yes. They are extinct,” he said, not wishing to explain the situation that had led to a single, surviving, rogue Other attacking his brother and his paired mate. The creature was dead now, anyway. “What no one knows is that we have a heightened sense of empathy,” he continued, watching her closely for signs of disbelief. There were none.
Eileen waited a moment, then nodded when he didn’t elaborate. “Well, I assumed you had some sort of enhanced intuition, given the way you interact with politicians and the like. I know that you are gifted. No one else could keep all these crazy leaders from blowing each other up.”
“Humans can be very trying.” Bruno grimaced. “What I have is more than simple intuition. It’s an energy-based ability to read and sometimes influence the emotions of other people.”
Eileen blinked. “You can literally sense my emotions?”
“Yes.” Bruno smiled. “Right now, you are feeling surprise, but also satisfaction. I have confirmed something you suspected but did not know how to articulate.” He exhaled. “I’m relieved that you’re not afraid.”
“I’ve known you too long to fear you,” she said slowly. “However, what does this have to do with Greyson and his short temper? And why he hid himself away in a forest for so long?”
Bruno swept out a hand. “Imagine being able to sense the emotions of everyone around you. Then imagine being in the midst of one of the largest concentrations of sentient beings on the planet.” He looked out of the windows at the storm drenching the city. “Imagine feeling all of Manhattan inside your brain.”
Eileen blanched. “Oh.” She followed his gaze, then put a hand to her throat. “Dear God.” She glanced back at him. “How do you function? I assume you can feel … everyone.”
“I can, and it’s often quite uncomfortable.” He ran two fingers along the crease in the paper he still held. “I have developed some coping mechanisms after so long among so many humans, but Greyson’s work requires him to remain more open. He requires solitude.”
“Open? Open to what?” Eileen asked, then visibly gathered her wits. “Wait. He’s an engineer. He creates a lot of your tech, and he uses this ability to help him do that,” she reasoned.
Bruno didn’t interrupt her musing. His assistant was a highly intelligent woman, and she’d already gotten to the point he didn’t have to explain aloud.
“And that leaves his mind exposed, since he’s manipulating energy, right? He’s grumpy because he feels too much.”
“Precisely,” Bruno said, not surprised that she’d put it together so quickly.
Eileen frowned. “And you all have this ability?”
Bruno sighed. “To a certain extent, yes. We can all heal a little bit, and use our energy against the Spiders, but our abilities are most focused where our interests lie.” He waved a hand at his home in the middle of one of the biggest cities on the planet. “I am good with people.” He had other gifts, but they weren’t something he felt comfortable sharing. Even his younger brothers didn’t know everything about him. They’d all inherited their abilities from their parents, but his father had tinkered with Bruno when he’d been born, boosting his personal energy beyond natural levels. When he fully bonded with his paired mate, her power would match his. It was another reason he’d been so reluctant to claim Amy: he didn’t want her to have to deal with such a difficult responsibility.
Eileen raised her eyebrows, obviously recalling numerous incidents over the years when his private anger had bled through his extremely composed exterior. He didn’t bother to explain. He’d done nothing more than stalk around in private, even at his most angered. No politician had ever seen him less than composed. One thing he prided himself on was his self-discipline. A man in his position could not afford to lose control. Ever. He continued his explanation. “And when we pair, our mates gain the ability, too, because their DNA is irrevocably changed during the process.”
Eileen went still for a moment, and then she tilted her head. “You feel more than Greyson, don’t you?”
Bruno stared at her. She deserves at least some of the truth. “No one knows this.”
“I’ve known you for almost my entire adult life, Bruno. You’re over two hundred years old.” Eileen ran a hand over her face. “Jesus. I thought living forever was a curse. This is worse.”
He laughed shortly. “It is also a gift.”
She shook her head. “No. Now I definitely know you need time off.” She flapped her hands at him. “Go. I’ll take care of all your meetings.”
“Thank you,” Bruno glanced outside. He’d go tomorrow. Perhaps startling the girl on a Saturday would be less stressful for both of them. And she’d likely be home, not at work.
“Do you need a driver?” Eileen asked.
“No. I don’t think showing up with an entourage would endear me to her,” he replied.
“Oh, I don’t know. If the most powerful man in the world showed up at my door with all of his minions, I’d probably be pretty damn impressed,” Eileen retorted, eyes twinkling. “I might even swoon on my doorstep.”
Oh, hell no. Never. Bruno made a face. “I did show up at your door one day. Your daughter vomited all over my shoes. I had to throw them out. I had no idea that human bile could destroy leather.”
“That’s because you insisted on coming to see if we were all right. I told you to stay away that day. We all had the plague.” She rolled her eyes. “And anyway, that was years ago. Many years ago. Martha’s all grown up and off at college. She knows how to throw up in a toilet now.”
Bruno smiled, pleased that Eileen wasn’t treating him any differently after the past few minutes’ disclosures. What she didn’t know was that he’d used his healing abilities on her and her family that day, so long ago. When he’d shown up at her house, he’d wanted to make sure that they hadn’t contracted a particularly virulent form of ‘flu, and a bit of discreet healing had assured him that they would be okay. He didn’t regret the vomit, not that he’d admit that to her. He had to maintain his stern image, after all. “If Amy is still in Arizona, I’ll use a starship. If she’s back on the east coast, I’ll take my motorcycle,” he said instead of elaborating on that particular visit.
“The Harley?” Eileen laughed. “Oh, Amy’s mother is going to love you.”
Bruno narrowed his eyes. At that moment, a loud roll of thunder echoed across the room as rain started pelting the floor-to-ceiling windows when the wind changed direction.
Eileen shook her head, still smiling. “Enjoy the briefing, if you can. And then enjoy your time off. You deserve it.” She checked her watch. “I’m heading out for the day, but if you need anything—”
“I know how to text, Eileen. You forced me to learn how several years ago, remember?” He walked her to the elevator.
“Yes, yes. But still. I know you. If you need anything, I’m only a phone call away.”
“It’s a good thing your husband trusts you,” Bruno muttered.
“He’s met you, remember? I think he told me that you would never be so crass as to steal another man’s woman,” Eileen said, stepping on the elevator. She grinned at him.
Bruno refrained from yet another sigh. He didn’t mean to come off so stuffy. He simply had a great deal of responsibility, and never enough time to handle most of the problems that fell across his desk. He’d considered hiring more assistants, but almost immediately dismissed the thought because more people close to him would only weaken the security of the Stronghold net he and his brothers maintained. They had to remain vigilant, as the non-sentient Spiders continued to send swarms down to the surface of the planet every so often. He slid the shield ring into his pocket. No, he’d manage. He always did. And he didn’t want a crowd of folks following him around all day, every day. It was bad enough living in the middle of one of the largest cities on the planet.
“Have a lovely weekend, Eileen.” He pushed the button to send the elevator down to her office level.
“You, too,” she said, as the doors closed.
Bruno ran a hand over his face, sensing her amusement fading as she descended, and then he checked the time again. He had approximately seven minutes until the briefing, just enough time to check in with Isaac. He went to the Stronghold pillar and put a hand on the smooth white surface. An interactive window opened, but he didn’t bother trying to establish a video connection. His brother and his new wife, Saige, were out on the edge of the solar system, heading for Alpha Centauri. The Sentry tech could send text over interstellar distances, but not video. He typed an inquiry into the interface as more thunder rolled across the room. The summer storm darkened the view of the city, and overhead lights clicked on automatically as he waited for his brother’s response. He didn’t have to wait long.
Isaac: Bruno. Hey, what’s up?
Bruno: I am going to exchange the shield rings tomorrow. Is she still in Flagstaff? He knew his brother would immediately know he was talking about Saige’s best friend, Amy, so he didn’t bother with explanations. He’d put off the exchange for long enough already.
Isaac: Nope. She’s back with her mom in New Jersey. She graduated, remember?
Bruno frowned, suspecting as much. He’d have to drive. New Jersey was too close to warrant taking a starship. Address?
Isaac: Dude. You’re not seriously going to her mother’s house, are you?
Bruno: Yes. And don’t call me “dude.”
Isaac: I can give you her phone number. This is Saige, here, btw.
Bruno took a breath. He had a feeling Saige was going to give him a hard time. I don’t want her number. I want her address.
Isaac: You have to give her time to prepare!
Prepare for what? Bruno wondered. He checked the time again. He had maybe a minute left before his meeting. No time to be nice to his new sister-in-law. Address.
Isaac: OMG she’s never going to forgive me if I give you her address.
Bruno hated to annoy her, but he had no choice. Saige would understand. Eventually. Put Isaac back on.
Isaac: !!! Fine. 985 Manito Lane, Oakland, NJ. Don’t tell Amy I told you her address or she’ll kill me.
That response startled a smile out of Bruno. He could almost sense her disgruntlement. She’ll know anyway.
Isaac: Shut up. You suck.
Bruno: Isaac has been a poor influence on you, my new sister.
Isaac: I can be irked at you all by myself, Sentry Day.
Bruno grinned. He liked Saige, not that he’d ever tell her that directly. He had a reputation to maintain, after all.
Isaac: Good luck, brother.
Bruno knew that last message was from Isaac. Saige still didn’t feel comfortable calling him “brother”. Thank you. Be safe, out in the universe.
Isaac: The stars are quiet. All is well.
At least there’s that, Bruno thought, relieved that Saige’s first jaunt into deep space was a noneventful one. They didn’t need any Spider incursions right now. Bruno touched the corner of his eye, even though he knew his brother couldn’t see the symbolic gesture. The connection dissolved, and the pillar returned to a seamless white sheen just as his elevator door opened once more. Men walked out, scanning the room for threats and who knew what else. Bruno put on his diplomat’s face, and turned to welcome his last appointment of the day even as rain chased the last of the light into darkness.