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Milo’s mind awoke before he had the strength to open his eyes. Images flashed through his mind. The violent storm. The icy water numbing his feet. A stranger on horseback. Was he dying? Is this what death felt like? Warm, soft, and serene, with the steady drumming of water tapping wood and glass? No, he couldn’t die.

If he died, so would the child inside him.

The thought brought his fingers to twitch. Slowly, sensation returned to his body, along with the pain. A dull throb in his head, a deep soreness in his legs, a bladder so full that his kidneys ached. Alive. Yes, he was alive!

He forced his eyelids open, each feeling as though it weighed ten pounds. Beneath him, the bed felt soft and warm, a welcome luxury after trekking through miles of freezing woods. Blinking slowly, he waited for the vague shapes around him to come into focus. Rows of unfinished wood beams stretched across the ceiling overhead, while a weak, crackling fire burned inside the hearth.

The strong but pleasant smell of charred wood hung in the air. The blankets held a scent, too. Like soap, sandalwood, and musk. Insulating him, protecting him. He felt safe here. He hadn’t a clue where “here” was, but anywhere was better than the place from which he’d fled.

As soon as the memory crossed his mind, he ducked from it. He didn’t want to think about that place. He wasn’t ready. Maybe somehow, he would never have to think about the past again.

His hand curved over the gentle swell of his belly. No. There was no forgetting.

With trembling arms, he lifted himself into a sitting position. As the covers slid down his chest, he noticed the loose tunic he now wore. Someone had dressed him.

“Hello?” he rasped, peering around the open floorplan.

No answer but the constant patter of rain. How long had he been asleep? It was impossible to tell the hour with the darkness of the storm. He saw no clock. In fact, he saw nothing resembling technology.

In one corner of the room, a tall dresser sat against the wall, along with two weathered armchairs and a rug that looked to have been pushed haphazardly aside. A small kitchen area with a table and four wooden chairs filled the rest of the space. No photographs, no décor—save for the drawn window curtains and a strange archaic weapon displayed above the mantle.

Milo clutched the baggy flannel at his chest and pulled outward, peering down into the stretched neck hole. His rescuer must be male—a much bigger one than him. A twinge of fear crept up his spine. But if this man had wanted Milo dead, he wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of caring for him.

Gingerly, he lifted the covers. Each step hurt right down to the bone, but at least the floorboards were smooth beneath his bare feet. He paused, resting a hand on the fireplace mantle, trying to gather his bearings. He had to pee badly and moving made it worse. He couldn’t hold it any longer. Through the darkness of the cabin, he shuffled toward the first door he found and stepped out onto a small, covered porch.

The gentle morning light felt harsh on his eyes. Grasping the wooden rail with one hand, he unbuttoned the gap in his over-sized pants and relieved himself, careful to aim through the bars and onto wet ground. A hard sigh escaped his lips. When he finished, he gazed out at the endless expanse of forest, listening for signs of life. Deep woods surrounded him on all sides. Soft rain batted against the branches and dripped from the angled porch roof. The air felt damp, chilly, peaceful.

Just three days ago, everything had been different.

A memory assaulted him. The sickening lurch of the train as it picked up speed. The explosive clouds of smoke and fire as it barreled into the perimeter, annihilating those in the first several cars. A fellow blyther shouting raw throated at him, unlocking his harness and instructing him to run. Milo did as he was told, joining the thousands of others racing toward the gaping perimeter hole on foot, desperate for freedom. But for a blyther, freedom was impossible.

Milo shut his eyes and inhaled slowly. He tried clearing his mind. Tried to drown out the ringing in his ears from the gun blasts and blood curdling screams. One by one, the blythers fell. Some were shot. Others exploded when they reached the invisible barrier. In the darkness behind his eyelids, he saw the terrified, angelic face of the female whose hand he’d grabbed while running. When he’d glanced back to check on her, only her arm remained.

A wave of nausea rolled over him, forcing him to open his eyes and clutch at the base of his throat. He should return to bed. Put the terror and memories to rest for as long as he could. But his now empty bladder redirected his focus to hunger and thirst. His mouth felt dry as a bone. A gnawing emptiness gripped the pit of his stomach. Nourishment first, then bed.

When he entered the kitchen, his eyes fell on the porcelain pitcher atop the counter. To his delight, it was half-full. He didn’t bother searching for a glass. He lifted it to his lips and gulped from the side. The chilly water numbed his tongue, quenching his thirst as it dripped from the corners of his mouth.

Not long after, the baby stirred. He exhaled in relief; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt movement. “You’re still with me.” He placed a hand on his stomach. “I was worried about you, tiny. That cold water woke you up, didn’t it?”

Dragging a sleeve across his mouth, he glanced around. Strange—this kitchen didn’t even have a refrigerator. How did the homeowner keep their food cold and fresh? No faucets, no microtoaster, no espresso machine, nor any other modern convenience. He looked up. No lights overhead, and not a single air vent. What sort of place was this?

It didn’t matter. The farther away, the better.

He began rummaging through the cabinets, where he discovered a box of crackers, bags of jerky, cans of beans, a jar of peanut butter, and half a loaf of bread wrapped in a cloth. The meager selection might as well have been a king’s feast. He didn’t hesitate to unfold the loaf and tear off a piece. His mouth watered as he un-screwed the lid of the peanut butter jar with trembling hands and scooped a generous portion onto the bread.

“Forgive me,” he said to the empty space around him, before stuffing it into his mouth. Soft, creamy goodness filled his mouth, overwhelming his taste buds and sticking to his palate as he chewed. Oh, it tasted so good. The best peanut butter he’d ever had.

He felt guilty for eating the rest of the loaf, but if his rescuer had been kind enough to give him dry clothes and put him in bed, then perhaps he wouldn’t mind Milo eating his food. Maybe, if he knew Milo’s situation, he would understand—

An alarming thought struck him. He reached up to clutch the side of his neck, remembering his code. Had he been reported? Were the enforcers already on their way to return him to Dominus? To him?

Milo’s heart began to race, and his gaze whipped to the front door. If he fled now—went back out into the cold—he would surely die. Exhaustion overcame him. He stumbled back into bed and pulled the covers up to his chin. As he nodded off, he prayed to whomever might be listening that things would be all right.

***

Eldon pulled the soaked saddle from the cluster of wet ferns. With a grunt, hoisted it onto Deputy’s back. Thankfully once it dried, a little oil would make it like new. His hands worked quickly to secure the cinches, while his mind vexed with thoughts of the stranger in his bed.

It had been a couple hours since he’d left to escort Mrs. Tate back to the village. The storm had worsened into the evening, so she’d spent night up in his loft. Eldon had maintained the fire and kept watch from the kitchen table, only dozing off a time or two. Every time he woke, he’d half-expected the incident to have been a dream. That he’d be alone in his cabin. But the bed remained beside the fireplace, the handsome stranger motionless beneath the sheets.

Yesterday had forced him into the past. He could not escape it. Couldn’t help thinking of what Dominus had stolen from him seven years ago—had ripped from him so hard that it left a cold, gaping hole that nothing could ever fill. What a cruel trick of nature. Why did this have to happen to him?

At dawn, Mrs. Tate had checked on the stranger, and before they left, had promised to return with her stethoscope once the weather improved. Calling out Dr. Harlowe was not an option. He would see the silver barcode on the man’s neck, and Eldon didn’t know how he’d react. Gossip in the village spread like wildfire, and he trusted Mrs. Tate not to say a word.

Saddle secure, Eldon mounted Deputy and clicked his tongue. The scents of mud, wet horsehair and evergreen mingled in the air as they rode onward. He treasured the silence of the woods. The comfort of the saddle beneath him. This was the kind of peace he lived for, and when winter came, he’d take solace in the short days blending together—each one no different than the last.

But today was different. Because of him.

In the gathering light behind a heavy grey sky, Eldon secured Deputy to the hitching post outside the cabin. He hurried up the steps and opened the broken door. The man had shifted position. Eldon had noticed it before he reached the bed. The stranger now lay on his side, relaxed as a pup, his sleep undisturbed. The quilts were pushed to his bare feet.

It hurt to look at him, the w’ay it hurt to look directly at snow on a bright, wintry day.

Eldon’s gaze darted around the room. The fire was out, save for the glowing embers within the ashy wood. Nothing looked suspicious from the get go. He bent forward for a closer look and noticed a dried smudge on the man’s bottom lip. Peanut butter.

Eldon straightened so fast his head spun. He went to the kitchen, where he discovered an empty water pitcher and raided pantry. It made him feel strange, imagining someone traipsing through his house in his absence. Eating his food. Invading his privacy. Judging him. He didn’t know which felt worse, the embarrassment of a pathetic food supply, or the guilt for not offering the man more.

He banished the pointless thoughts. This stranger didn’t care about him, nor would he have any interest in Eldon’s boring, reclusive life. The man had probably gotten up, stumbled about in confusion, and eaten whatever he could find before falling back into bed. Well good, at least he ate something.

Eldon returned to the bedside, where he lingered for a ridiculous amount of time. He should leave the man alone, but still he watched, caught up in some horrified fascination. The fair, flawless skin, the silky blond eyebrows and sleek, prominent jawline. So beautiful, both masculine and feminine at the same time. The longer Eldon stood, the deeper he found himself buried in the mystery.

A shiver ran through him. He’d been alone a long time. Too long. But he had chosen this solitary life for good reason. He hadn’t wanted to feel lust, or affection or, dare he think it, love, ever again. Now, this captivating person lay in his bed, with lips as tempting as forbidden fruit, reminding Eldon of his humanity. Never had the line between fear and attraction been so blurred.

“Damn you, Dominus,” he whispered into the empty air. “Who is he to you? What are you planning to do with him? No one is supposed to be this breathtaking—”

A log inside the hearth crumbled. The man moaned softly in his sleep, his knees coming up and his arm sliding down to make a protective cradle for his belly. Retreating a step, Eldon clenched his jaw.

He’d forgotten.

The stranger was five months along according to Mrs. Tate. It was the time when most babies started to show. She’d gone on to explain that at this stage, the bones were developed, and the mother could feel its movements. She had said this all while smiling in awe, as if Eldon should have felt the same. But he didn’t. He only felt confused and uncomfortable. A mother was a woman.

“Eldon, I have something to tell you.” Calliope lay in the grass beside him, clutching his hand tightly as they gazed up at the night sky. She rolled onto her side to look at him, her soft blue eyes glistening as brilliantly as the stars. “I went to the doctor today, and he confirmed what I’d been suspecting these past couple weeks. You’re going to be a daddy!”

Eldon quickly banished the haunting memory. Every time he thought of her, he bled inside.

He left the bedside and climbed the ladder to the loft, where he kicked off his muddy boots and collapsed onto the spare mattress. He was so tired. But how could he sleep? How, when such a mysterious presence lay just below him, filling his bed with warmth, saturating his clothes with his scent?

His mind vexed at a sudden thought. What would happen when the man woke again? The thought of having to speak to him made Eldon’s stomach churn with dread. People in the village saw him as strong, fearless. He had fooled them all. Inside, he was like an ancient statue laden with cracks.

One more hard blow and he would collapse to pieces.

* * *

Arms folded across his chest, Declan Wade, Chief of Science, watched the porters hoist the mangled blyther bodies into the deconstruction chamber, where they would be reduced to fertilizer. Cremation was only for the obedient; these rogues would be made an example of.

“Sir.”

A muscle in his jaw twitched. He turned sharply at Attorney General Easton’s voice.

The tall black man approached with purposeful strides. He handed Declan a green sack the size of a pillowcase. “My men discovered this at a campsite five miles south of the crash. The outlier they found there was brought in for questioning, but he claims he was out fishing and saw nothing.”

Declan shoved a hand inside the pouch and pulled out a three-piece suit. Milo’s suit. It was cold to the touch. Custom tailored using the finest woven wool, with each article of clothing specifically designed to accommodate his figure as the baby grew. Declan’s baby. Frustration ripped through him. He clutched the burgundy fabric so hard that his knuckles turned white.

“The dogs latched onto the scent immediately,” Easton continued, nodding to the suit. “They led the enforcers two more miles south before turning west, but they lost it at about fifteen miles.”

Declan’s nostrils flared. “They… lost it?”

“At the river. He must have travelled by water to throw off the trail.”

Declan hurled the suit at the general’s chest. Anger seethed through him like poison, burning him, paralyzing him, turning his every muscle to stone. “Of course he did! Just because blythers are subservient doesn’t mean they’re idiots! Hence why we implant them with built-in tracking devices and euthanasia chips.”

Easton cleared his throat. “Blither 4px8 has neither, sir, per your instructions—”

“Because I didn’t want him to feel threatened,” Declan spat. “He’s more important than all the others. I never wanted to give him reason to run.” He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the space between them. Easton didn’t know the stakes. No one did. Composing himself, he moved toward the general, the heels of his oxfords clacking on the metal grated floor. “I’m going home. Inject that campsite vagrant with truth serum and let me know what he says. If he never saw 4px8 as he claims, kill him. If he did, lock him up and call me immediately.”

“Yes, sir.” Easton straightened. “We will find the missing blyther.”

“And when you do,” Declan stopped at the man’s shoulder and turned toward his ear, “you had best pray he’s alive and unharmed, for your sake.”

He stormed down the steps of the facility to the first level, ignoring the stares of those in bio suits as he blared a slew of curses. What a nightmare. Two hundred years of blyther servitude without a hiccup—and now, a catastrophic train crash under Declan’s watch. He couldn’t believe Milo was gone. It had been a grave mistake, making him travel to the city with the “newborn” blythers aboard the Hermes instead of Declan’s private car.

Blinding sunlight assaulted him as he stepped outside the building. The security team ushered him into the back of the Argo 500 and the autopilot activated. Declan dragged a hand down his face, looking across the long vehicle at his husband. President Cormac Lozier’s stare was stone cold and assessed him frankly.

“Oh, enough already,” he grumbled, shrugging off his white lab coat. “It’s been four damn days of your hostility, and I’m sick of it.”

An icy air of command hung about the President. Everyone feared him, but not Declan.

“Hostility?” Cormac raised his chin, his sleek bald head and angular features giving him a handsome, powerful countenance. “Five thousand brand new blythers are destroyed. The Hermes crash is plastered all over the news, and I’ve been answering calls non-stop with questions I don’t have the answers to. I can be hostile towards you for as long as I fucking want.”

With a scoff, Declan reached for a bottle of scotch and a glass from the vehicle’s bar. He plopped an ice sphere inside the glass and poured himself a drink.

“This is your fault, Declan.” The man’s patronizing tone was like a hammer to the head, mocking Declan’s intelligence, pounding him into the dirt. “Imagine if, for a second, word of that escaped blyther reaches public ears. The entire nation will wonder how it happened under my leadership. They’re already questioning the safety of their own blythers. You’ve made a fool of me.”

The vehicle’s wheels turned sideways, and it began to hover. Leaning back in his seat, Declan took a sip of his drink. “I’ve already made a public statement to cover up the accident. There will be no intelligence leaks. Nobody will find out.”

“If the missing blyther isn’t found by the end of the week, call off the search.”

“I can’t do that. He’s too valuable.”

“And why is that, Declan?” Narrowing striking amber eyes, Cormac folded his arms across his chest. His mouth tightened a fraction more. “Why didn’t he explode like the others trying to escape? And why can’t you track him down?”

Declan swirled his glass, turning to look out the window.

“You did it on purpose, didn’t you? How many others have you tampered with?”

“None, except for him.” He dug his fingernails into his thigh. The cityscape loomed in the distance across lake Winnepeg, like a flaming beacon in the late afternoon, the way the sunlight glared off the shiny buildings. Anger, guilt, and regret swirled inside him like a powerful potion. Why had he made it personal? Why had he taken it so far? He should have used Milo for pleasure and nothing else. When he’d first laid eyes upon blyther 4px8, he knew he had to have him…

“Declan.” Cormac’s voice sliced into his thoughts. Declan turned. A flash of insecurity flickered across his husband’s face. After fifteen years of marriage, Declan had learned to identify that one, rare look. “Did you fuck him?”

Declan tightened his grip on the glass. “A blyther? Don’t be ridiculous,” he lied.

Cormac leaned forward. His silver tie dangled from his neck like a blade. “Then tell me what you’re hiding.”

Declan tossed his head back, gulping down the entire drink. Then he pulled his palm projector from his jacket pocket. “I’d arranged for him to travel on the Hermes to the capitol city, where I had a room reserved for him at the Rutledge Hotel. I was planning on telling you once he was settled in.”

Cradling the round device in the middle of his hand, he pushed the projection button. A hologram of Milo floated above, along with a series of genetic code and anatomic mock-ups. “Blyther 4px8 is the first phase of an eighty-year-long project developed by Europrasian scientists. He was specially designed for an apocalypse—a way to keep humans going at double the rate, if another threat to our existence should arise.” He fought to keep his tone even. When it came to science, passion often got the better of him. “Imagine if not one, but both sexes could naturally become pregnant, carry, and deliver a child? It could mean the very difference between success and extinction.”

Cormac furrowed his well-groomed, salt and pepper brows, studying the images with an unimpressed frown.

Brushing it off, Declan changed the image to a rotating diagram of Milo’s internal anatomy. “Again, blyther 4px8 is phase one, meaning he was developed possessing only a womb and birth canal. He still lacks ovaries and female hormones. Europrasian scientists gifted 4px8 to us ten years ago when their research hit a standstill. They were eager to collaborate, but Dr. Aelis wasn’t interested—”

Cormac stopped him with a raised palm. “Spare me the details and get to the point.”

Declan glared. He loathed when Cormac cut him off, and his husband knew it. “Fine. I was unaware of 4px8’s existence until Dr. Aelis retired last year. He’d been storing all the experimental blythers unsuited for public service in a private wing of the northern facility.”

“So, when you took over his position, you wanted to try your hand at what Aelis had rejected.”

“Dr. Aelis was stuck in the past and never had the vision I do. I want to resurrect this project and succeed where Europrasia failed. I want to successfully create phase two, after testing phase one. To learn about our capabilities through blyther experimentation, without jeopardizing our own humanity—””

“Declan...” Shutting his eyes, Cormac pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled. “Aelis was experienced and smart. He knew we were already playing with fire by growing genetically engineered servants in artificial wombs. See what happens when your ego gets in the way? Look what it led to.”

“I’ve been designing and growing blythers for the past twenty years,” Declan hissed. Acid anger rose like undigested food from his gut. He was sick of feeling inferior. Of being the “weaker link.” “Do I go around criticizing your political decisions, or compare you to past leaders?”

“We have enough to worry about here on our soil. Blithers aren’t real people. They’re not supposed to procreate.” Cormac narrowed his eyes. “Just as they’re not supposed to be violent.”

“They’re not violent, and they never will be. Their hypothalamus and limbic structures have been altered to make aggression impossible. The train crash was an accident.”

Cormac glanced out the window, his thin lips twisting into an icy countenance. “We’ll never know, will we? They’re all destroyed now, save for one.”

“All the more reason to find him.”

Cormac looked at him. “Has this blyther already been experimented on?”

Declan straightened, meeting his husband’s gaze head on. His heart pounded, but he refused to look vulnerable under the man’s critical squint. A few seconds of silence passed, save for the soft, almost inaudible hum of Mozart coming from the vehicle’s speakers. Cormac nodded in understanding.

“So, that’s why you can’t track him,” he said quietly, as if to himself. “You implanted this 4px8 with an embryo. You didn’t want to risk damage from the radioactive waves in a tracker chip.”

“It’s imperative we find him.”

Declan’s words were met with a contemptuous scoff. “Who knew a blither embryo was so important?”

Declan hesitated. “It… wasn’t a blither embryo.”

“What was it then?”

Another gruesome feeling of regret washed over him. “I never should have told him I intended to take the baby away. That’s why he ran.”

“Baby?” Cormac asked with a deceptive calm. “A human baby?”

“Yes, a human fucking baby.”

“Why would you do that?”

Declan shut off the hologram. “Because for years, we’ve discussed the idea of having children…”

“But we never followed through with any of those discussions, Declan.” Cormac’s voice rose in both volume and pitch. “That’s what they were—discussions! You just assumed I’d accept the result of this outrageous blyther science experiment as my successor with open arms?”

“We aren’t getting any younger. Everyone will think we hired a surrogate—”

“It’s a blyther for fuck’s sake!”

“But it’s a human child!”

“I’m calling off the search.”

“No! You can’t. We’re both bound to that child by blood.”

Cormac raised a suspicious eyebrow. “What does that mean?”

Declan looked away, unsure of how to go on. He braced himself for an inevitable eruption.

“Declan, what have you done?” Cormac pressed in the silence.

For the first time in a long time, Declan felt a twinge of fear gnaw at his spine. With a slow, deliberate inhale, he turned back toward his husband. Cormac’s gaze burned with such intensity Declan felt his soul shiver. It took but a second for it to click… and Cormac went pale.

“You didn’t!” he lunged with outstretched arms, grasping Declan by the throat. Declan slammed back against the vehicle door, trying to pry Cormac’s hands loose as he struggled to break free. “What have you done?” his husband bellowed.

Declan choked. “My sperm… with… your late sister’s… egg.”

“Esther?” Cormac’s eyes went ablaze. He released Declan’s neck, grabbed him by the collar, and yanked him up—bringing them face to face. “I’m going to kill you.”

Tearing himself free, Declan shoved Cormac back into to his seat with a hard kick. Cormac landed with his legs sprawled, staring across the vehicle in wild disbelief. A distant ambulance siren mingled with their heavy breathing, and neither man uttered a word. Cormac would come around. He always did. And when the time came, the search parties for Milo would triple.

Sitting up, Declan cleared his throat and tugged the wrinkles from his lab coat. “Congratulations,” he said with a ragged breath. “It’s a girl.”

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