Kayleb NaMoren didn’t want to die. He walked down a small street near the apartment he shared with his brother and Penny, his brother’s mate, and tried to block out the yawning chasm of despair that clawed at his heart.
He was out of time.
As a youth he’d never cursed the Denya Price. His parents had found one another, as had several other family members. Yes, some Detyens died at thirty because they couldn’t find their mates. But that didn’t happen to NaMorens. Not until Karwan. And once his elder sister died, everything changed. Suddenly thirty was no longer some far off age, an impossible threat that would never come. No, he and his younger brother Krayter had barreled toward it at speeds faster than light, each day a little closer to the end than the last.
Until Krayter met Penny and everything changed once again. As selfish as it was, Kayleb had always assumed that he would meet his denya first. Krayter was his brother and best friend—he’d choose no other Detyen to stand beside until the end. But Krayter was… enthusiastic with his lovers, never caring for them beyond a night, never minding that somewhere in the vast fields of space his denya had waited for him.
Then Krayter crash landed his speeder in her back yard and found his salvation. And Kayleb was left to rot.
He clenched his fist and ground his teeth against the uncharitable thought. Penny had been nothing but kind to him since she came into their lives. She’d made every effort to become his friend. If anyone had been rude, it was Kayleb. The days until the end had grown shorter and shorter and he’d hoped to spare her the pain of his loss. And he hoped that her presence helped his brother muddle through. When Karwan had passed…
No, Kayleb didn’t need to think of that now. Not today. The sun shone bright overhead, a final gift given the tumultuous spring weather. The scent of rain still hung heavy in the air and the ground carried the memory of an overnight storm. Kayleb tilted his head up towards the sun and let it wash over him. The heat on his home planet of Jaaxis could melt the skin off a weaker species’ bones in the hot months, and in comparison, Earth was pleasant.
Almost like the home he’d never known.
The ancient loss of his home planet, Detya, hung over every waking and sleeping moment. It was more than a hundred years gone, his people eking out existence on other planets and moons, poor substitutes for the paradise they’d once held, but Kayleb and his brethren held that loss close and never let go. To forget the grief was to forget home.
He’d grown maudlin. More maudlin. Someone jostled his shoulder and he realized that he’d come to a standstill on the middle of the sidewalk, practically a capital offense in New York City. Kayleb shook his head and looked around, but he’d wandered off his normal paths and out of the neighborhood he’d refused to think of as home.
An ancient bodega sat on the corner, its sign so old that it had no holograms, and a trio of cats lay on the stoop, basking in the midday sun. Across the street was the even older church, stonework dating back centuries, all the way to the founding of America. Parents played with their children in the churchyard and an old human man in black robes watched over it all with a small smile on his face. Though Kayleb felt no affinity for human religion, this wasn’t the first time he’d wandered here when his mind went… wrong.
Red flashed in the corner of his eye and Kayleb whipped around, but it was only the brightly colored headscarf of a woman going into the bodega.
He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to summon the memory that teased his mind, the reason he’d been winding up on unfamiliar streets, his gaze drawn to red hair on human women. All he found was the gaping hole in his mind where a week’s worth of memories should have sat. After his injury a six months ago, he’d worried his brother to the bone with bouts of sickness and amnesia. But since Krayter had met and bonded with Penny, Kayleb had made an effort. Not to get better, but to seem better so his brother needn’t worry when he should be focusing on someone else.
The sickness had gone. And the memories had returned. Almost. He didn’t remember the blow that had struck him from pirates aboard their ship from Jaaxis to Honora Station. The last thing he remembered was the morning before a different injury, when he’d met a fellow Detyen named Inrit and the cyborg who ended up being her denya. After that, nothing. The specialist he’d consulted a few months ago, before he’d given up hope of full recovery, had told him his brain was intact and undamaged, but that trauma could do things that humans didn’t yet understand. The memories would come back or they wouldn’t, and Kayleb needed to accept that.
Even on his last day, the day before his thirtieth birthday, he couldn’t quite accept that he’d never know what had happened in that week on the ship. There was an emptiness in his chest, something he knew he should remember, but it was shrouded behind a wall of impenetrable fog. That was the part he’d never told his brother. Who knew what Krayter would do? His reckless brother might hunt down Captain Morvellan and demand all of the security footage from their stay, piecing together with technology what Kayleb couldn’t manage for himself.
Kayleb smiled at the thought. At least one of them would live to see their parents and siblings again. At least one of them had found love.
He walked up to the iron fence lining the church and placed his hands on it. A few humans glanced his way. He was the only alien on this part of the street, his blue skin a dead giveaway that he hadn’t come from Earth. With a quick tensing of his hands he could bring out wickedly sharp claws and show everyone that Detyens had once been the top predators on a faraway planet. But that was all ancient history and he had no wish to disturb the peace.
Kayleb turned away, letting go of the iron fence and the nagging sense that he should continue down the street until he found what he was looking for, that lock of red that would be just right. After all, this wasn’t the first time he’d found himself searching it—her—out, but it would be his last. For him, tomorrow wouldn’t come. And though he feared that spending this time with his brother would only bring him more pain once Kayleb was gone, he retraced his steps until he found himself back at their midrise apartment building.
Penny was gone for the day, spending the time with her sisters and giving him and Krayter a final night to say goodbye to one another.
His brother sat on the couch and jerked around when Kayleb opened and shut the door with more force than necessary. Gravity on Earth was a little different than Jaaxis and far different from the ships they’d taken to get here. He’d still been getting used to it and when he didn’t watch himself, his strength took over and he hit things too hard.
Of course, that had been his way of life on Jaaxis, but those days were long gone, never to be revisited.
Krayter’s eyes flashed red for a moment, emotion riding high, but he smothered it and they settled back to the normal black after a moment. At first glance, some mistook them for twins, but Krayter’s skin was closer to teal while Kayleb leaned toward blue. Kayleb also edged his brother out in height by a centimeter and carried a bump on his nose, first broken as a child and rebroken in a fight several years back.
“It’s nearly sundown,” Krayter said, haloed in light from the window behind him.
“I needed to move.” The words tumbled out, something Kayleb had muttered time and time again over the last months. It was true, in its way. But it hadn’t just been movement he needed, it was the hunt for something he couldn’t articulate. Something he’d never wanted to share with his brother, no matter the worry that it caused him.
Krayter swallowed whatever he’d been about to say, his skin going a bit pale around the edges. He blinked his eyes hard and gulped, dragging in a huge, shaky breath. “Of course,” he said once he’d gained control of himself once more. “You should do as you wish today.”
Guilt washed over Kayleb and he was forced to face the real reason he’d needed to move today. Tears pricked at his eyes as the chasm inside of him widened even further, the darkness reaching out to pull him in, to take him away from this place that was supposed to become his home, his haven. “I’m sorry, brother,” he managed around the ball of emotion that had lodged in his throat and refused to move.
Krayter blinked again, holding back his own tears. “You have nothing to apologize for.”
But that wasn’t true. He’d been so caught up in pain and denial of what was coming that he’d pushed his own brother away in the past weeks until all he could feel was the time wasted. He shouldn’t have ventured out to chase ghosts when the only person that mattered was right here waiting for him, reaching out even as he began his new life.
“I’m glad you found her,” Kayleb said. “I’m glad that you’re not alone.”
Krayter shot up and wrapped his arms tight around him, the warmth and care and brotherly love everything he’d been pushing away for far too long. “We don’t have much time, but we’ll make it last. I promise.”
Midnight came and went while they reminisced. If they’d kept to the old ways, Krayter would be sitting vigil as Kayleb prepared himself for the spiritual journey across the stars, following the guiding lights of Detyens gone before. But neither of them had attended the temple back on Jaaxis and Kayleb wasn’t sure he could recite the old prayers even if he tried to remember them. So he and his brother made their own ritual, one of life and love and memories. Kayleb recorded messages to send back to the family on Jaaxis and trusted that Krayter would see them delivered.
As the small hour of morning ticked by, exhaustion took him in a tidal wave and that chasm in his soul snapped at him. He swallowed hard against the fear and looked where Krayter sat beside him, their arms resting against one another. “I think it’s coming,” he said, unsure of what exactly the rest of the morning held in store for him. The priests of the dead kept the secrets of the Final Night, and he hadn’t been with Karwan, instead forced to spend the night in a delinquent cell on Jaaxis for a fight that had gone too far.
“I’ll stay by your side,” Krayter promised. “Maybe it would be best if you tried to sleep?”
With a jolt, Kayleb remembered that Krayter hadn’t been with Karwan either. Neither of them knew how this night would end, whether Kayleb would fade in peace or die screaming. If this was the end, he couldn’t go without saying one last thing. “I love you, brother. And I have no regrets about making this trip. I wouldn’t change it,” he promised.
As the first beams of the sun crested the horizon, Kayleb laid back on the couch and closed his eyes, letting the darkness take him. Death in sleep would surely be less painful than succumbing while awake.
His thoughts faded into cloying darkness and he dropped out of consciousness and into something beyond.
He remembered the ship. The Kella. He and Krayter had booked passage to take them far away from home in the dim hopes of finding mates and lives for themselves. But the ship was made of pain. Broken rails and piercing metal, falling debris. Nothing a person could relax around. Though Kayleb recognized the place, he knew something was wrong.
Lights flickered overhead, casting strange shadows, and the gray walls undulated as if something passed under them, a great beast in the walls of the ship, breathing in space and hunting the passengers until none were left.
But he couldn’t stop himself from placing his hand against the hard surface, still for the moment, despite whatever lurked. As his fingers brushed against what should have been cold and lifeless, he jerked back as it gave way, soft and bouncy like her…
He turned around and the thought faded.
A jagged stripe of red colored the opposite wall, the color of human blood. Cutting through the heart of it was a river of dark green, the color of his own blood which had once pooled in these halls, painting the floor and almost killing him in one fell swoop.
They were supposed to be safe here. He’d never quite said it to Krayter, but the thought had swirled and swirled as he spent far too many hours in the infirmary with—
His head jerked up and he turned again, but where there’d only been a wall behind him before, now it opened up into the black of night, stars visible for as far as he could see, shining in the cold, mocking him with their radiance.
“No!” The word tore out of him and Kayleb ran, his feet pounding on the grated floor under him, a metallic clang echoing down the hall and fading into nothingness in the vacuum behind him. No, he wasn’t ready. Not now, not yet, not until—
He slammed into a wall, and the pressure of it flattened him even though he felt no pain.
A feminine voice called his name, coming from nowhere and achingly familiar. He knew her, deep in his heart. “Who are you?” he asked, even though he saw no one else, even as he knew he had to run before eternity swallowed him whole. Before it snatched him away from her. Whoever she was.
But the voice went silent.
Kayleb turned and saw the stars had retreated, though they still sat threateningly close, no wall blocking them away from him. Two paths set out before him, one bright and wide, the footing sure and the railing sturdy. Beside it, branching in a different direction, was the path from the ship, grated floor, harsh metal, and the threat of certain danger if he stepped incautiously.
She was there, just down the path of the ship, and Kayleb stepped toward her, choosing his way before he realized what the choice could mean. As his feet touched the metal grating, reality snapped around him, slingshotting him back to the invisible wall and slamming him down hard. Something buzzed in his ears, the sound growing too loud to ignore until it was the totality of his being.
White bloomed between his eyes and exploded, taking him with it and thrusting him out of the dream and into the hard, cold morning.
Kayleb woke up.
The first thing he heard was the click of the front door closing. A blanket lay heavy and too hot over his chest and there was something off about the air around him. Kayleb sucked in a deep breath and realized the problem.
He was supposed to be dead.
Kayleb took another breath, keeping his eyes squeezed shut as he focused on the beat of his heart. Steady, strong, there, and it really shouldn’t have been. For a crazy moment, he thought he might be a ghost, forced to haunt this foreign planet, his brother’s shadow in death in a way he’d never endured in life. But when he cracked his eyes opened and moved his arms, he could push the blanket down. An experimental press of fingers against his cheeks showed him to be solid and warm.
Footsteps sounded down the hallway and Kayleb froze. He felt like an intruder in his own home, as illogical as that was. But he wasn’t supposed to be here anymore, he was supposed to be… done. Dead. Finished. And something almost like disappointment snapped through him. He hadn’t wanted—didn’t want—to die, but he’d met his end with honor like a proper Detyen. And now he’d woken up at home like it was just any other day.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Penny Morales, Krayter’s human denya, asked quietly. She must have slipped in the door behind him. If she’d looked over at the couch, she would have seen him move, seen the rise and fall of his chest. But he didn’t blame her for averting her gaze. This was hard enough for a Detyen, let alone someone without the denya curse living in her blood.
“What’s there to say?” The footsteps must have belonged to Krayter. His voice had taken on a cadence that Kayleb had never heard before, vulnerable and sad. Everything they’d normally keep hidden from one another. “He was…”
Kayleb sat up and cast the blanket completely off of himself before they could say anything else. He didn’t want to know what they would say when they thought he couldn’t hear. Those words weren’t for him.
Penny shrieked for a breath and Krayter cursed. Kayleb stood up, bracing himself on the back of the couch. He didn’t feel physically unsteady, but his mind was still catching up to the fact that he wasn’t dead like he was supposed to be. “Um… good morning,” he finally managed after several moments of staring blankly at his brother and Penny.
Penny’s skin drained of color and her eyes widened until they were larger than he’d ever seen before. Her mouth dropped open and she looked from him to Krayter and back again. Her mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out.
Krayter stared at him, an unreadable expression in his blazing red eyes.
He felt like a fool. He couldn’t find the words to say anything that needed to be said, and his feet were rooted in place just as surely as the trees towering over Central Park.
And then Krayter let out a whoop and vaulted over the couch, wrapping his arms around Kayleb and almost tipping both of them onto the floor. “You’re not dead!” he practically yelled into Kayleb’s ear. “Why aren’t you dead?”
“I don’t know.” Kayleb pulled out of the embrace, but he didn’t step away from his brother. His heart beat too fast and he couldn’t quite get a deep breath, but it didn’t feel like he was about to drop dead at any moment.
“I think we need coffee,” Penny said before she retreated to the kitchen, leaving Krayter and Kayleb alone again.
Several minutes later, in possession of both coffee and pastries from the bakery on the corner, Kayleb, Krayter, and Penny sat at the kitchen table and stared at their food. Krayter took a nervous sip of his drink before setting his cup down and idly running his thumb over the lip of the mug. “Have you considered that you might have calculated your birthday wrong?” he asked quietly.
The same thought had occurred to Kayleb. He’d been born on Jaaxis, which was lightyears from Earth and on a completely different calendar. Though his birth had been recorded in Interstellar Common Time as well as on the Jaaxis calendar, he’d still needed to convert it from IC time to the Earth calendar. “I did the calculation three times and had it confirmed by the extraterrestrial immigration agency.” He looked up from his coffee and saw that neither Penny nor Krayter seemed willing to meet his eyes. Kayleb pulled his communicator out of his pocket and brought up his identifying data. “See for yourself if you still have doubt.”
Krayter’s arm twitched but he didn’t reach for the device. Instead, Penny grabbed it. Her eyebrows drew down in concentration, but after a moment she handed the communicator back to him with a nod. “That looks correct to me. What else could it be? Is it because you’re so far from home?”
“If distance were an issue, the destruction of Detya would have been a…” He couldn’t bring himself to call it a gift, but when Penny bit her lip, Kayleb figured that she knew what he meant. “The curse is something that lives inside of us, it can’t be outrun. The only cure is to find a denya.”
“So no one has ever tried to get around it before?” she asked. “Really?”
Krayter sucked in a breath and studied Kayleb with new eyes. After a moment, he shook his head, and Kayleb was confused anew. “What is it?”
“You don’t remember that old story?” Krayter asked with a slight frown. “About that man… I can’t remember his name. The scientist and his daughter.”
“That’s just a legend and I’m clearly not one of the soulless, if they ever existed at all.” Kayleb scowled at the thought.
“Wait, what?” Penny shook her head. “Anyone want to take pity on the human and explain?”
Krayter smiled at his denya and reached over, lacing their fingers together. “It’s an old story, ancient by the time Detya was destroyed. Like one of those grim ones that you told me.”
“The Brothers Grimm? So it’s a fairy tale?”
Kayleb didn’t know what they were talking about; fairies, whatever they were, didn’t exist on any planet he’d been on. His translator didn’t offer a better word.
But Krayter nodded. “Exactly! It is a myth. Hundreds, maybe a thousand years ago, a scientist went mad. His denya died and none of his children could find their mates. He dedicated himself to study, to find what causes us to die at the age of thirty. And he found it. He called it our soul, though I don’t think that means the same thing to humans. It is the heart of our personality, our emotions. Anyway. On the eve of his final daughter’s thirtieth birthday, he performed a procedure to remove her soul and save her life. And it worked. But the next day she awoke and killed her father, destroyed his lab, and then flung herself off a cliff because whatever he’d done to her was too horrifying to let happen to anyone else. Whispers of the soulless have been around forever. They are like…” he paused to think for a moment, “they are like your vampires. Not quite living, dangerous. But imbued with life after they should have died.”
“And they don’t exist?” Penny asked. “You’re sure?”
“If they ever did, I’m sure they didn’t survive the destruction of Detya,” Kayleb said before Krayter could talk more of the stories of their youth. They had more pressing issues than so-called fairy tales at the moment. “And I still have my soul, I promise.”
Krayter opened his mouth as if he wanted to argue and Kayleb glared at him, resting his hand lightly on the table. He didn’t let his claws out, but Krayter glanced down and snapped his mouth shut. “Fine, this didn’t happen because you had your birthday wrong, and it’s not going to be solved by the old stories. Maybe we can find other Detyens on this planet. There might be an elder who has an idea. At the very least we should call Ruwen.”
Their cousin was the first Detyen to find a human mate. Right now he and Lis were off on a journey to meet Lis’s friends back where she’d originally come from. Though both Lis and Penny had questioned Ru’s decision to leave before Kayleb’s final night, it was the way of their people to not crowd the dying but to celebrate life while it lasted.
“There’s one possibility, isn’t there?” Penny asked, as if whatever she planned to say was the most obvious solution.
Kayleb had no idea what she might say. “There is?”
“Isn’t it possible that you found your denya somewhere? That you slept with her and… I don’t know, forgot? Isn’t that the simplest solution.” She looked between the two brothers and shrugged.
“No,” said Kayleb, shaking his head and pushing back from the table. He paced the length of the small kitchen, his mind whirling. “That’s something I wouldn’t forget. I’m certain.”