by Juli

August 2007

Captain Mac Taylor strode down the corridor of the crèche with grim satisfaction. The sleek corridors were pristine; most of the battle had taken place on the exterior, so there was little evidence of fighting to be seen. Mac hated crèches. They were stark, soulless places, echoing the callousness of growing human beings like they were some sort of cash crop.

With Flack ably handling the mop-up on the exterior of the crèche station, Mac turned his attention to the interior. Once they’d breached its defenses, it had been easy enough to lock down the entire facility. Too easy. There should have been hundreds of soldiers defending it, but instead the station had been lightly staffed. Mac was far too experienced to feel good about that.

Mac touched the communication device clipped to his shoulder. "Stella, report."

There was only a moment before his second-in-command responded.

"We’ve got the facility locked down, Mac," her crisp voice came through loud and clear. "There were a few live guards posted by the hatchery, but other than that, it was automated."

Mac grimaced. The hatcheries were where newly decanted ELFs, Engineered Life Forms, were kept for training. There was no need to guard them unless. . . .

"Sniffers?" The captain asked, mouth twisted in distaste.

"Just the one decanted," Stella replied quickly. "And he’s fully contained."

Of all the ELFs, the type that birthed humans found the most disturbing were the ELFs that were engineered to imprint on one person. They were called "sniffers" because the bond was created when the ELF first scented someone’s pheromones; anyone’s pheromones. Since they were also phenomenally expensive to create, sniffers were always kept in isolated environmental chambers until the person they were intended to imprint on was available. As technologically advanced as illicit human engineering had become, thankfully it was still impossible to genetically predispose an ELF to imprint on a specific person.

"He’s a pleasure ELF," Stella went on to explain. "A young adult."

Mac sighed in relief. ELFs designed for the sex trade were always upsetting, especially those sex ELFs that were decanted at child age. A sniffer was bad enough, since they had even less free will than the regular variety. A child sniffer was particularly despicable. Virtually all of the sniffers were designed to imprint on someone either for purposes of sex or soldiering; since sniffers were expensive to produce, they typically were only engineered for high-paying applications. They were the ultimate loyal servant because they were incapable of straying.

"And, Mac," Stella sounded worried. "He’s the only decanted ELF in the whole place."

"Damn," Mac swore softly and the pressed his communicator again. "Understood. I’ll be right there."

A facility as large as the one they’d just wrested control of should have had dozens, if not hundreds, of ELFs decanted and training through various stages of their grace period. That there was only one was rather ominous. While it could be something as simple as having caught the gene splicers in between decanting cycles, it could also mean that the client who’d special ordered the sniffer was taking no chances of his or her investment accidentally imprinting on someone else. That same line of reasoning would also explain why the facility was so short staffed. Of more immediate concern for Mac and his team, however, was the fact that a wealthy and influential client would not take having his property confiscated lightly.

Mac changed the signal on his communicator. "Flack, look alive. We may have an unhappy customer breathing down our necks."

"Will do, Sir," Flack’s voice was deceptively nonchalant, but Mac knew better. Lieutenant Don Flack was one of the most skilled pilots that the Domain’s fleet had and Mac felt comfortable with him leading the other pilots that would be orbiting the facility while the clean-up inside continued.

Leaving the defense of the station in Flack’s able hands, Mac turned his attention to the inside of the crèche. As he strode through the empty corridors, he became more and more concerned. Stella had been right to point it out to him. He deployed additional troops in key corridors, ensuring that, should a secondary attack occur, they’d be better prepared for it.

Mac had been in a lot of crèches, but this one was the most state of the art he’d seen. Its box-like design made it obvious that it was meant to orbit in space, since it wasn’t even marginally aerodynamic. It had either been built at its current position or had been towed there. Given its size, Mac suspected the former. The center of the crèche was usually where the most important ELFs were kept, as was the command center, and that was the area where Stella and her team had been deployed. It didn’t take long for Mac to catch up to them.

"Break it down for me," Mac ordered as he joined his people. "What do we have?"

Stella was long used to Mac’s abrupt nature and merely nodded acknowledgement of his entrance. She walked a few steps towards a computer and, after tapping a couple of buttons, a large display lit up on an overhead screen.

"It’s a pretty typical set-up," she stated as a schematic of the crèche went on view. "Five layers, four of which contain ELFs still in their growing pods. The level we’re on now doubles as the administrative headquarters, with the inner core being where the sniffers are housed. As far as we can tell, this was a custom-order shop exclusively."

Mac raised an eyebrow. While all crèches did some custom work, the bulk of what most of the gene splicers created were ELFs that were customized in the training stage. The first eight weeks after an ELF was decanted were called the grace period. Unlike a birthed human, an ELF was decanted fully developed, an accelerated process that could take anywhere from eighteen months to three years, depending on the physical age that was desired of the finished product. An ELF emerged from its pod as a blank slate, but it didn’t stay that way long. That, after all, wouldn’t be profitable for the splicers.

In the first eight weeks of its life, an ELF learned at rate that was exponentially faster than a birthed human. Since personality traits were difficult to engineer for, it was during this time that an ELF was educated to behave a certain way or other training was introduced to encourage the type of personality that the customer desired. Of course, the trainers also were very deliberate in what they chose to educate the ELF about, putting the ELF further under the control of whoever ended up owning it. After that initial two months, the learning curve slowed down to a more human pace, so the first eight weeks of an ELF’s life were crucial.

"Hawkes has been looking at the genetic profiles involved," Stella turned to the young black man standing near her.

Dr. Sheldon Hawkes was the medical component to the team. His training fell far short of being a human engineer himself, but he knew enough to follow a splicer’s work, in theory at least.

"The outer layer is the grunt troops," Hawkes pointed to the crèche layout. "Looking at their physical profile, these were designed to be particularly strong, indicating that they were meant to be used in a high gravity environment. There are roughly 5,000, but none are near completion."

Mac whistled. "5,000? That’s one hell of a private army."

Hawkes nodded. "And it gets worse. The second most outer layer is also soldiers, but these have a larger brain pan than the first, although they’re not as impressive physically. I’d estimate that they’re either meant to be officers or maybe specialized troops like saboteurs. There are about 2,000 of those and they’re closer to being ready to decant."

"Great," Mac muttered. "So whoever ordered these has a need for a big, smart army."

"If they’re going to the same place," Stella pointed out. "That’s far from a given."

"True," Mac acknowledged she was right. "And the rest?"

"Sex ELFs," Hawkes answered, expression carefully blank. "The second and third layer house about 1,000 pods. Fully a third of those are children."

Mac felt his stomach lurch at the news and automatically looked around the room. "Where’s Adam?"

"He’s assessing the sniffer," Stella explained with an understanding smile. "Don’t worry, Aiden’s with him."

Normally, Mac would be the last one to coddle one of his team, but Adam was different. The human engineers, or gene splicers, were anathema to most birthed humans, but although the scientists were hated, that feeling generally did not extend to their creations. ELFs were regarded with a combination of guilt and pity; humanity had been complacent about genetic engineering for too long and a race of human slaves had been created as a result. Everyone in the United Earth Domain felt culpable, even a full century after the war that drove genetic human engineering into the black market.

Freed ELFs like Adam were usually treated with a great deal of care. Where possible, they were re-trained into jobs that offered a chance at a normal life. Adam had been one of those ELFs decanted at a child age and intended for the sex trade. He’d been rescued young, although not in time to prevent him from being abused. While it wasn’t unusual for a freed ELF to serve in the UED forces, it was somewhat atypical for one to be a member of the team that specialized in finding and bringing down crèches. Mac had been reluctant to let Adam join his team, but now freely admitted that he was wrong. Adam had a special touch with other ELFs, even if the child ELFs tended to upset him. His wife, Aiden, and husband, Flack, though, kept a special eye on him.

"Has Aiden had any luck discovering who the crèche owners are or the identity of any of the customers?" Mac asked. He had a feeling he knew what the answer would be, but had to ask anyway.

"No," Stella shook her head. "You know splicers, they’re as good at covering their tracks as they are manipulating DNA. She’s got her hacker equipment down at the core where Adam is and said she’d keep at it."

A short buzzing sound alerted Mac to an incoming message. "Captain Taylor?"

He touched the communicator on his shoulder. "Go ahead, Lindsay."

"We have all of the crèche personnel in custody," came the voice of the woman in charge of his mopping up crew. "There were about two dozen, with five of those ELFs."

"Keep them separated," Mac instructed. "And offer the birthed humans the standard choice."

Any birthed human participating in a crèche operation were assumed to be doing it willingly. If they cooperated and turned on their employers, they might spend life in prison. If not, then death was their only other option. Any ELFs involved, however, were most likely part of it because they simply knew no better. Those would be rehabilitated.

"Understood, sir," Lindsay acknowledged.

After she signed off, Mac rubbed his forehead before turning to Stella. "I suppose I better take a look at this sniffer of Adam’s."

Stella grinned at Mac’s obvious lack of enthusiasm. "I think you’ll like him; he’s got quite the personality."

"I don’t suppose he knows anything about who designed him?" Mac asked as Stella showed him the schematic that would lead him further into the core of the crèche.

"What do you think?" Stella asked sarcastically. "Personality or not, he’s still a sniffer, Mac, and has been kept in a glorified box the entire month and half he’s been alive."

Mac hadn’t truly expected anything else. If the sniffer hadn’t been imprinted yet, he likely didn’t know who his future owner was destined to be. In fact, since the bastards who were capable of having a sex slave grown to their specifications were just as likely to enjoy destroying said slave’s innocence, the sniffer probably didn’t even know what he was.

The room Stella directed him to was large and bright. Aiden was sitting behind yet another bank of computers and looked up as he entered. She nodded towards the other side of the space and Mac could see that it was walled off with a glass-like material. Adam was seated in front of it, chatting to the young man on the other side.

Almost of his own volition, Mac’s feet brought him closer. He stood so that he was out of eyesight of the sniffer, although Adam was aware of his presence. The sniffer was an innocent, but studying his traits and training might provide clues on who paid to have him designed.

"I’m just sayin’ that baseball’s a thinking man’s game, that’s all," the sniffer stated to Adam.

"But you haven’t even played," Adam told him. "How do you know you like it?"

"I’ve watched plenty," the young man countered. "The teachers showed me lots of vids. Where’d you say the teachers were? They say I’ve got a lot left to learn and not much time to do it."

"They’ve been detained for a little bit," Adam soothed the young man. "But don’t worry, your lessons will start again soon."

The sniffer ELF was younger than Mac expected. Stella had described him as a young adult, but Mac would put him at late adolescence, maybe eighteen or nineteen. He was shorter than Mac, but well formed physically. The environmental chamber he was in was fully half gym-type equipment. His hair was a dirty blond color, short and spiky. Bright blue eyes peered through a set of eyeglasses, which was somewhat surprising. Bad eyesight was something that had been eliminated genetically back when human engineering had still been benevolent. It said something about the client who’d had this ELF created, that a physical flaw was part of the design, as did the accent the young man spoke with.

Adam glanced to the side and Mac nodded. It was time for introductions. Adam nodded back and returned his attention to the chamber.

"I have someone I want you to meet," Adam said to the sniffer. Mac stepped closer so that the young man could see him. "Danny, this is my boss, Captain Mac Taylor."

"Hello, Danny," Mac said, deliberately gentling his voice. "How are you?"

The young man had been sitting cross-legged on the bed, but he got up and came over to the clear partition. Mac couldn’t help but notice how graceful his stride was.

"Hi," Danny’s gaze shifted from Adam to Mac. "Captain?"

Adam obviously hadn’t told Danny much about what was going on, which was standard operating procedure, at least for Mac’s team. Breaking the news to an ELF about what they were was never easy and Mac insisted on taking that chore himself.

"Yes, Captain," Mac replied. "With the United Earth Domain."

Blue eyes blinked. "United Earth Domain? What’s that?"

Mac sighed, although it could have been worse. It was sickening when ELFs were kept deliberately uneducated about society at large, but it was even worse when they were given misinformation that made them wary of the very people who were trying to help them. Danny not knowing what his rank meant was a far sight better than being afraid of him.

"Yes, the United Earth Domain is a consortium of planets, centered around our original home planet, Earth," Mac started to explain. That was as far as he got, however.

"Captain Taylor," Flack’s voice was tense as it came through the communicator.

Mac slapped the unit on his shoulder. "Report."

"We’ve got incoming," Flack replied. "We’ve got a shitload of incoming. Two launching platforms and they’re belching out more suicide drones than you can shake a stick at."

Mac’s stomach clenched. Splicers had the ability and complete lack of morals necessary to create a whole squadron of kamikazes. The ELFs had no choice but to obey, something that the defenders were all too aware of.

"Understood," Mac replied. "Flack, disable as many as you can, but don’t hesitate to use lethal force if necessary."

"I recommend that you evacuate the crèche station, sir" there was respect in Flack’s tone, but his suggestion was firm nonetheless. "If even one or two get by us, they could take the whole place out. We’re good, but there’s an awful lot of them."

Mac flinched, but had to acknowledge the suggestion. Lindsay already had the crèche personnel in custody. Mac’s team couldn’t do anything to help defend it anyway and were sitting ducks should any kamikazes make it through.

"Agreed," Mac responded. In the background, he could see Aiden hastily working on the computers. "Flack?" There was no answer. "Flack, respond."

"Better hurry, boss," Flack’s voice came back after a long pause. "Another launching platform just showed up; I don’t know how long we can hold them off."

"We’re on our way," Mac replied. He turned to Adam. "Get him into his breathing apparatus, ASAP."

"Yes, sir," Adam looked shaken, but he immediately moved to obey. "Danny, I’m going to need you to do something for me."

Seeing that Aiden was already working on getting ready to pull out, Mac let her be and contacted the command ship. "Lindsay, did you get that?"

"Yes, sir," she replied. "I’ve already contacted headquarters for back-up, but ETA is three hours."

"It’ll be long over by then," Mac muttered and adjusted his communicator so that he could address his entire team.

"This is Captain Taylor," Mac stated. "This station is about to come under attack and we are evacuating. Repeat, we are evacuating. Head for your assigned transport immediately."

An explosion rocked the station. Mac stumbled, but caught himself against the console. His eyes raked the room. Aiden was standing, grim, by the computers, her fingers flying over the keyboard.

"Flack, report," Mac snapped into his communicator.

"It’s a little crowded up here, sir, and one got by us," Flack’s transmission was full of static. "They appear to be targeting a specific area on the station."

"They’re trying to drill in," Mac muttered. "They’re willing to destroy all of those lives just to make sure they obliterate any evidence we might use to track them."

8,000 ELFs would likely be killed. Mac felt ill at the waste of life, but there was no way they could decant and save them. The best he could do was take care of the lives already under his responsibility. . . and the one ELF that was ambulatory.

"Captain," Adam called out to Mac. "I can’t get Danny to put on his breather."

"I’m not supposed to," Danny’s voice sounded very young and very scared. "I don’t think I should unless one of the teachers says to."

Since Danny wasn’t imprinted yet, it was imperative that he be protected from breathing any pheromones until UED representatives found a suitable bondmate for him. The only way he could leave the environmental chamber was with a self-sustained breathing apparatus, but the young man had probably been strictly trained against leaving his safe environment.

"Danny," Mac approached the chamber and addressed the young ELF firmly. "We have to leave, so put your gear on. Now."

It was a calculated risk, but Danny immediately stopped arguing and began donning the apparatus. Mac was both relieved and saddened. They needed to evacuate and he would be damned if he left the vulnerable ELF behind, but Danny’s instant obedience to Mac’s order was telling. The young man had been trained to respond to a male authority figure, one that was older than he was. That was why Mac’s order had worked, whereas Adam’s reasoned pleading had not.

Aiden finished her tasks and, after gathering up her equipment, came to stand by Mac and Adam. "I’m ready."

"Good," Mac praised her and then touched his communicator. "Stella, we’re almost ready to evacuate. What’s your status?"

"We barely scratched the surface here, Mac," Stella sounded frustrated. "Hawkes downloaded as much as he could, but the files are encrypted. There’s no way we’re going to be able to trace the crèche owners based on what we were able to save."

No wonder she was frustrated.

"Do what you can," Mac instructed. "We’ll be there in a minute, so be ready to bug out as soon as we get there."

"He’s good to go," Adam announced. He looked up from verifying the readouts from Danny’s breathing gear. "His system is sealed; he’s safe."

"Good," Mac turned back to the chamber. "Do we have the codes to get him out of there?"

"Got it, boss," Aiden stepped up.

She pressed a sequence of buttons on the wall next to Danny’s chamber and a part of the glass-like substance receded. Danny took a step back, clearly spooked. Just then another explosion rocked the station, this time knocking over equipment and causing structural supports to make ominous groaning noises.

"Come on," Mac forced his voice to stay gentle, if firm, as he held a hand out to Danny. They had to move, but the ELF had literally never been out of his box before and was clearly frightened. "We’re going to take you to your teachers."

The promise got Danny moving. He stepped forward and took Mac’s hand, allowing himself to be drawn from the chamber. His blue eyes were wide behind the plastic mask that encased his face. Mac felt for the young man, but they didn’t have the luxury of allowing Danny time to acclimate.

"You’re going to have to trust us," Mac told him as he started leading the way back to the core where Stella and Hawkes were. "We won’t let anything happen to you."

A third explosion hit and Mac was hard-pressed to keep his word. Debris littered the corridor and they had to dodge more falling from the ceiling.

"Mac," Stella’s voice came across the communicator. "You better hurry."

"Understood," he answered tersely.

A soft cry caught Mac’s attention. Danny’s hand was still in his, but the young man had stopped moving. Worried that another delay might cost them their chance at escaping the destruction, Mac turned, intending to chastise the ELF. He stopped, his words unuttered, when he got a good look at Danny’s face.

Danny was looking down at his feet and Mac cursed as he belatedly realized that the ELF was barefoot. A shard of debris had cut the young man’s foot and Danny was bleeding, perhaps for the first time in his life.

"Ah, hell," Mac muttered. He bent and hefted Danny into his arms. "Just trust me, Danny."

Danny didn’t respond, just hid his face, breathing apparatus and all, in Mac’s neck and clung for dear life.

The next several minutes were hairy. Mac had Danny and Aiden kept Adam in a white-knuckled grip. They hurried through the corridors, which had become a maze of rubble as explosion after explosion rocked the station. Finally, they reached the station core and were reunited with Stella and Hawkes.

"Glad you could join the party," Stella quipped. She slung her kit over her shoulder, as did Hawkes. The group took off at a trot to the docking bay where their transport was waiting.

They were lucky; their transport was still there, as was the pilot. The poor man looked a little white-eyed with fear, but he hadn’t left his post.

"You’re the last, sir," he stated as Mac and his team piled in.

"Get us back to the ship," Mac ordered. He could feel the craft shudder as the pilot moved to obey.

With a grateful groan, Mac plopped down in the nearest seat, Danny still wrapped around him like a clinging vine, his face remaining hidden in Mac’s neck. Now that their safety was in someone else’s hands, Mac had a moment to spare and rubbed a comforting hand down the ELF’s back.

"It’s okay now, Danny," Mac soothed. He addressed the others. "Hawkes, could you take a look at his foot, I think he got a pretty good cut and we didn’t have time to see to it."

There was no response and Mac looked up. Stella, Aiden, Adam and Hawkes were staring at him with something akin to horror.

Mac frowned. "What?"

"Oh, no," Stella was the one who responded. "Mac, it’s Danny. . . ."

At first, Mac was afraid that the young man had been more seriously injured than he first thought. He looked down and that’s when it hit him. Danny’s face, his bare face, was pressed into the skin of Mac’s neck. Somehow during their rush to escape the crèche station crumbling around them, Danny’s breathing apparatus had dislodged and the ELF was breathing fresh air.

Danny wasn’t hiding his face because he was frightened; he was pressed close because he was imprinting.

On Mac.

"Ah, hell," Mac cursed, hands coming up to push Danny away. The young man whimpered and burrowed closer.

"Mac, don’t," Sheldon Hawkes grabbed Mac’s arm and prevented him from dumping Danny from his arms. Mac subsided, allowing Hawkes to check the ELF’s condition. It didn’t take long. "His eyes are dilated, Mac, respiration is rapid and he’s flushed. Imprinting is well under way."

"Damn," Mac muttered. "This can’t happen."

"It is happening," Stella stepped forward. Her expression was sympathetic, but she was implacable. "So you just have to deal with it."

Mac took strength from her matter of fact manner. He took a deep breath and put the issue of Danny aside for the moment; he still had personnel in jeopardy.

"What’s our ETA to getting back to the Brooklyn?" Mac asked the pilot.

"About one minute, sir." The pilot was calmer now that they were underway. "We’re the last transport still out, sir."

"Good," Mac nodded at him and then reached over Danny’s form to click his communicator. "Flack, start your pull out. We’re the last buggy due back in the barn."

"That’s good news, boss," Flack sounded relieved. "It’s getting a little crowded out here, didn’t know how long we could keep them off your backs."

"The station is a loss," Mac told him. "We need to pull out."

The suicide drones were concentrating on the station, but once it was destroyed, they’d no doubt turn their attention on Mac’s ship. The splicers wanted to eliminate the evidence first, but then would need to do the same for any witnesses.

"We’ll be coming in gangbusters, sir," Flack promised.

By the time Flack’s transmission ended, the pilot was guiding their own transport into the Brooklyn. The star cruiser’s bulk was reassuring, but compared to the three launching platforms and dozens of suicide drones arrayed against them, even the heavy ship was relatively fragile. When they got back to base, Mac had some investigating ahead of him. He and his team had been sent to follow-up a vague lead. Mac would be most interested to know how they’d ended up in the middle of something far, far bigger.

As he’d been communicating with Flack, Mac had been vaguely aware of Hawkes tending to Danny’s foot. Once they were safely docked, he stood, grunting with strain as he hefted Danny in his arms. The ELF made a muffled, unhappy noise.

"Shhh, Danny," Soothing the ELF was already automatic.

Mac strode into the Brooklyn, the young man in his arms not proving much of a burden. Once he boarded the star cruiser, however, Mac pulled up short. He’d expected Lindsay, knowing she’d want to bring him up to speed as soon as possible. He wasn’t expecting Peyton. Mac shot Stella glare; he hadn’t been the only one making use of his communicator. She just nodded at him, unrepentant.

"Captain Taylor," Peyton’s British accent made her tone seem even more crisp than usual. "We need to have you both come to the infirmary."

"No," Mac refused. "Not while my people are still in danger."

Peyton’s face hardened and reminding Mac that his lover was a formidable woman. "You also have a responsibility to the ELF that imprinted on you. If you don’t allow him to complete the process soon, he’ll become ill."

"I know," Mac admitted. Although he’d never experienced it personally, he was all too familiar with how imprinting worked. "But we have a little bit of time. I have to balance the needs of one life versus everyone on the ship."

At his words, Peyton’s expression softened. As the chief medical officer, she understood duty. "All right," she conceded. "But the moment we enter the gate, I want you at the infirmary."

"Agreed," Mac nodded.

"We were able to get his profile," Aiden added.

Hawkes spoke up. "And I took a blood sample when I treated his foot."

Seeing Mac’s people rallying around him, Peyton smiled. "Well, I shall have something to study while I wait."

Adam and Hawkes followed Peyton to the infirmary, while the rest of the group headed towards the bridge. Danny lay quietly in Mac’s arms and for that, Mac was grateful. The young ELF didn’t weigh much, but Mac had been carrying him for quite some time and was beginning to tire.

"Lindsay, what’s our status?" Mac asked. Lindsay almost had to trot as her short legs worked hard to keep up with Mac’s stride.

"We have the gate programmed with the course back to base," Lindsay told him. "As soon as the last of Flack’s squadron are in, we can make for it."


"Seven," Lindsay answered curtly.

"Damn," Mac murmured under his breath. Just then, they entered the bridge, though, and he could see a visual of the forces arrayed against them. It was a testament to just how good Flack’s squad was that they’d only lost seven.

If any of Mac’s people thought it was odd that their captain came onto the bridge with a young man cradled in his arms, they were too well-trained to show it. Mac usually paced the bridge during an altercation, but Danny’s presence made that impossible. Instead, Mac sat in his chair, awkwardly settling the ELF onto his lap.

Mac mostly just listened as Flack kept his squad in control and the damage to a minimum. The retreat was orderly. If Mac knew the lieutenant, then Flack was keenly aware of every one of those seven losses and that he took them very personally.

The moment the last ship was in, Mac gave the order. "Get us out of here, Lindsay."

"Yes, sir," she nodded crisply.

The Brooklyn swung around in space, taking the heading that would bring them to the gate. Mac knew that the maneuver was going as quickly as possible, but it felt slow. Far too slow. A few suicide drones followed them, but the Brooklyn’s guns made short work of them. Most of the kamikazes, though, targeted the crèche station.

"Put the aft view onscreen," Mac ordered.

The image of the crèche station became smaller as they pulled away, but not quickly enough for Mac’s peace of mind. Even as he watched, he could see explosions rock the station. Without Flack’s squad fending them off, the suicide drones had free reign to attack it.

It didn’t take long. One kamikaze too many and the station exploded into a ball of fire that quickly spread to cover the entire viewscreen. The bridge was engulfed in orange light. Danny made a soft noise and shifted in Mac’s arms. "Shhh…" Mac soothed him.

"ETA to the gate?" Mac asked.

"90 seconds, sir" Lindsay answered.

Mac did the math in his head. It was too close to call. "Deploy the mines."

Lindsay winced, but moved to obey. Mac continued to watch the display. Sure enough, while the station still burned, the majority of the suicide drones broke off to follow the Brooklyn.

The bridge was silent and tense as everyone watched. The first suicide drone hit a mine and went up in a flash, causing everyone to flinch at the additional loss of life.

"20 seconds to gate," Lindsay announced before hitting the claxon that would warn the crew.

The gate was unassuming. In fact, it was easy miss if you didn’t know what you were looking for. A gate was simply comprised of a triangle of blue lights. Flying through them, however, while emitting the proper code, allowed a ship to enter subspace. Mac felt the familiar stretching sensation that heralded their entry into the gate. Only then did he relax.

Sighing, Mac bent his head, grateful that the ship and all the lives it held were safe. It was only when he breathed in a delicious scent that he realized he’d buried his face in Danny’s hair.

"Stella, Flack will need to debrief with you after he’s checked on his pilots," Mac instructed. "And I’d really like to know how a simple follow-up to a lead turned into us walking into a meat grinder."

"You aren’t the only one, trust me, Captain," Stella answered. Her mouth was a grim line, but her expression lightened as her gaze lingered on Danny. "I’ll take care of it, Mac."

Clearly, she was reminding him that he had something to take care of too.

Realizing that there was no putting it off any longer, Mac stood. He still cradled Danny in his arms and Mac carefully didn’t look at anyone as he left the bridge. He felt oddly alone as he reached the lift that would take him to the level that the infirmary was located on.


Mac turned at the sound of Flack’s voice. The lieutenant pulled up short as he got a good look at his commanding officer and the burden Mac carried. "Sir?"

"Stella will take your report, Don," Mac told him, oddly sheepish. "I have. . . another responsibility to take care at the moment."

Flack’s eyebrows lifted so far up that they practically disappeared into his bangs. Considering how short the lieutenant kept his hair, that was no easy feat. "Yes, sir."

Thankfully, the rest of the trip to the infirmary was uneventful. Mac felt relieved that he didn’t meet any more of his people, but he had a feeling that word had gotten out. The corridors had likely been cleared to spare him any additional embarrassment. Stella looking out for him again, no doubt.

"Ah, there you are," Peyton looked up as Mac entered. "Prompt as always."

Mac could tell that she was nervous, but only because he knew her so well. She gestured towards a bed and he tried to lay Danny down, but the ELF whimpered and wouldn’t let go.

"That’s all right, just continue to hold him and I’ll work around you," Peyton instructed.

Blushing, Mac did as she asked. Peyton tried to get Danny to look at her, but the ELF refused to take his head out of Mac’s neck.

"Danny, my name is Dr. Peyton Driscoll," she told him. "I’m not going to hurt you, I promise. I just need to check on your condition."

Even as kind as Peyton was being, Danny wouldn’t respond. She sighed and addressed Mac instead. "He’s deep into the imprinting. The best thing is to tell you what I’ve learned from his medical profile and then you can. . ." she blushed. "Get on with things."

"Peyton," Mac groaned. "I never meant for this to happen."

She smiled gently. "Mac, you don’t need to tell me that. You’re the most honorable man I know; you’d never imprint an ELF of your own volition." Peyton took a deep breath. "But accidents happen and what we need to do now is ensure that Danny doesn’t become ill. That means you have to see this through."

Mac was well aware of what ‘seeing this through’ was a euphemism for. "I can’t have sex with him."

"You don’t have to have sex, per se," Peyton explained. "You just have to accomplish mutual orgasm. That will allow the imprinting process to complete enough so that Danny doesn’t become sick. The full coital act can come later."

"He’s six weeks old," Mac stated. "If he were a puppy or kitten, he wouldn’t even be old enough to take away from his mother yet."

Peyton’s responding chuckle was bitter. "But he’s not a puppy, Mac, although with the way he’s curled up on your lap, I might concede you the kitten comparison." She put her hand on Mac’s shoulder. "He’s an Engineered Life Form, Mac, designed specifically for sexual activity. Whether you like it or not, this is his purpose and we’ll only hurt him if we try to deny that."

To Mac’s deep embarrassment, Peyton took his hand and placed it on Danny’s groin. The young man’s hot erection could easily be felt as it strained against the lightweight pants he wore. Danny moaned and pressed up into Mac’s touch.

Mac yanked his hand away as if burned. "I’m not sure I can do this."

"You can, Mac," Peyton encouraged him. "It’s your duty. Danny became your responsibility the moment he breathed in your scent. It being an accident doesn’t excuse you."

Peyton was right. Danny was an ELF and circumstances had fallen out so that he was, whether Mac wanted it or not, bound to him. But where did that leave Mac’s relationship with Peyton? It had taken Mac a long time to open up after Claire’s death. His relationship with Peyton still felt new and fragile the way it was, he didn’t think it could survive adding a sniffer to the mix.

From the look in her eyes, apparently Peyton had doubts of her own. She turned from Mac to reach for an electronic pad, giving them both a moment to compose themselves.

"Aiden was able to download Danny’s profile," Peyton said, her tone taking on a detached air as she went over the details. "It contains some information you should be aware of before you proceed. Danny has been provided with a heightened sex drive, which is not at all unusual for sex ELFs. His sensitivity to tactile sensation has also been elevated."

"The bastards," Mac growled, automatically pulling Danny closer.

Sex ELFs often had increased sensitivity to touch, making both pleasure and pain more intense. Other sex ELFs had their sensitivity decreased, making their pain threshold that much greater, making them the ideal whipping boy or girl. As far as Mac was concerned, either alternation was cruel.

"Other than that, he appears to be fairly human standard," Peyton continued.

"How about his eyesight?" Mac asked. "Can it be corrected?"

"I don’t think so," she shook her head. "But I’ll look into further. I also analyzed the blood sample that Sheldon took. There’s a small amount of genetic drift, but nothing conclusive."

The more drift an ELF’s genetic configuration contained, the more likely it was that the ELF had been patterned after a real person. In other words, a clone. While most ELFs tended to provoke feelings of protectiveness and responsibility in birthed humans, clones were regarded with less benign feelings, given that they were copies of ‘real’ humans. It didn’t happen often. Truly, if a person were rich enough and immoral enough to have a sentient creature grown to their specifications, they wanted an idealized version. True clones were rare, but not well regarded.

"I have a room set up for you," Peyton told Mac. "Follow me."

She got up and briskly left the infirmary, giving Mac no option but to follow. The room she took him to was nearby and Mac blushed when he got inside. It was almost all bed, with only a small area for washing up. In fact, the mirror over the sink seemed overlarge in proportion to the rest of the space.

"This chamber has been soundproofed," Peyton stated. "And there’s an observation room on the other side. I’ll be monitoring your progress and can offer suggestions as necessary."

"You’ll do no such thing," Mac had been about to place Danny on the bed, but snatched the ELF back at Peyton’s last words. "If I have to do this, I’m not going to do it with an audience."

"It’s standard operating procedure for an imprinting," Peyton didn’t back down, despite Mac’s scowl. "At least, when the ELF and the birthed human haven’t been prepped beforehand."

"Peyton. . ." Mac’s voice was desperate, borderline pleading. He had his pride, but neither could he imagine having sex with Danny while his lover watched.

"It’s either me or someone else," Peyton responded. She looked anywhere but at Mac and the young man he was holding. "I know it won’t be easy for you, but I thought it might be a little better if it were me than one of my staff."

Mac realized that the situation was every bit as hard for her as it was for him. But Peyton, unlike Mac, wasn’t trying to shirk her duty. The thought humbled him. "You’re right, it will be. Thank you."

She nodded at him and turned to go. "Just remember, mutual orgasms. And talk to him. He seems a little far gone at the moment, but once sexual activity commences, he should become more aware of his surroundings."

"Will do," Mac nodded. To her retreating form, he added, "For what it’s worth, I’m sorry."

Peyton’s steps paused for the barest moment before continuing. "For what it’s worth, so am I."

After she left, Mac was alone in the room with Danny, although he remained keenly aware that she was watching. Sighing, he realized that putting things off wasn’t making the situation any easier.

"Okay, let’s put you down," Mac commented softly, remembering Peyton’s instructions about talking to Danny. "My arms are getting tired."

He set Danny on the bed and started to withdraw his arms. Danny whimpered and tightened his grip. Mac couldn’t let that continue; he needed a little bit of room to maneuver.

"Shush, Danny," he crooned. "I’m not going anywhere."

Danny’s eyes opened, the blue almost completely swallowed by the dilated black pupil. Not sure if the young ELF understood what he was saying, but figuring the tone of his voice alone would be comforting, Mac continued.

"It’s all right, I know what you need," Mac tried to reassure him. He removed the ELF’s glasses and set them on the small counter. "I’ll make it as good as I can."

Mac winced at his own words and glanced guiltily at the mirror. Peyton was on the other side and Mac could just imagine her rolling her eyes at his lack of finesse.

"To hell with this," Mac muttered. Danny needed sex and the best way Mac knew of to get that started was with a kiss.

Leaning down, Mac remained standing by the bed as he took Danny’s mouth in a gentle kiss. Their lips touched, Danny’s soft and open underneath Mac’s. The ELF had been mostly pliant since the imprinting had started, but with the kiss, he seemed to rouse from his daze. As he kissed Danny again, Mac felt the young man stir.

"Captain Taylor?" Danny asked as Mac pulled back a bit.

Mac chuckled at the formality. "Call me Mac, Danny." Danny looked so puzzled and sweet that Mac couldn’t help but bend and steal another kiss.

Danny touched a finger to his lips after Mac’s mouth left them. "What was that?"

"It’s called a kiss, Danny," Mac felt his cock stir. He’d never thought of utter innocence as sexy before. Maybe he was just a dirty old man.

"I like it," Danny declared after another moment of thought. "Can we do that again?"

Forgetting his earlier hesitation about having sex with a young ELF, Mac smiled. "We can do it as much as you want."

Danny took him at his word, tilting his face up as though asking for more. Mac put a hand around the back of Danny’s head, reminding himself forcefully to be gentle and slow. They kissed again and again, Danny participating more actively as he learned the technique.

"Mac?" Danny asked as they pulled apart long enough to catch their breath.

"Yeah, Danny," Mac replied. By this time, Danny was half lying on the bed and Mac was had one knee on the mattress, using his height to continue to control the proceedings.

"What’s wrong with me?" Danny asked. He was flushed and his lips swollen from their kisses, but his expression was worried.

It brought Mac back to reality.

"What do you mean, Danny?" He asked kindly, sitting next to Danny so that he wasn’t looming over him.

"I feel. . . weird," Danny admitted. "I like this kissing a lot, but my face feels hot. I can’t catch my breath and my penis feels like it’s going to explode, but I don’t think I have to pee."

Mac held back a sad chuckle. This was what he’d been trying to vocalize to Peyton, what it meant to have sex with someone so utterly clueless about what was going on. Even as he thought it, though, Mac realized he wasn’t quite correct. Danny evoked lust in Mac, but also gentleness and an intense desire to protect. They weren’t having sex, they were making love, even if Danny didn’t know what that was yet.

"It’s perfectly natural, Danny," Mac assured him. He put one arm across Danny’s shoulder, liking it when the ELF snuggled close. "What you’re describing are the physical signs of arousal. It’s your body’s way of telling you that it needs something."

Danny looked down to where his erection tented his pants. "Whatever it needs, I think my body needs it pretty bad."

Mac chuckled. "Yes, I think you’re right."

"It’s never done that before," Danny stated, gesturing at his swollen cock. "Are you sure it’s supposed to?"

"Positive," Mac stated firmly. He kissed Danny again. "Now why don’t you just lie back and I’ll prove it to you."

Danny did as Mac asked without comment and something told the captain that would be one of the few times that would happen in their future together. Or maybe not. The trust in Danny’s face as he looked at Mac was breathtaking.

"All right, we’re just going to uncover you," Mac told him, voice shaking as he lifted Danny’s shirt off.

"My skin, it feels all hot and tight," Danny moaned as the fabric slid across his hypersensitive flesh. "Teachers told me about fevers; do I have one?"

"Not really," Mac explained curtly. "Not from being sick, anyway."

He tossed Danny’s shirt aside and couldn’t help but run his hands across Danny’s chest and down. Danny cried out as his nipples were palmed and his hips lifted off the bed. Mac quickly moved his touch lower, not wanting Danny to reach orgasm yet. He avoided the vertical slit that served Danny as an artificial bellybutton. Mac had always heard that particular area of ELF anatomy was particularly sensitive; he’d save that for later.

With trembling fingers, Mac slid his hands inside the waistband of Danny’s pants and worked the garment past Danny’s hips. Danny obligingly lifted up and, as the cooler air of the room hit his engorged cock, hissed.

"Shhh, it’s okay," Mac reassured him. "Eveything’s fine."

"I need. . . " Danny moaned. "I don’t know what I need, Mac, but I feel like I’m gonna blow apart here."

"I know what you need and I’m going to take care of you," Mac kissed him gently. He wondered if his earlier hesitation about imprinting the ELF had delayed things and made Danny so frantic. "Just trust me."

With that, Mac carefully lay on the bed next to Danny. He continued to kiss him while he took the ELF’s cock in hand, swallowing Danny’s cry of surprise at the sensation. It didn’t take long, only a single pump of his hand, before the young ELF was erupting into his first orgasm.

"Mac!" Danny cried out, his hips jerking off the bed as he spurted his release. "Please, please, please."

"Shhh, sweetheart," Mac crooned, the endearment coming naturally to him. He kept up his stroking, although he gentled the motions a little as Danny’s orgasm tapered off. "It’s all right, just let go. This is what’s supposed to happen."

Danny was probably beyond listening to him. The ELF’s eyes rolled up into his head as he came and, once his body was finished spasming, he fell limply back onto the bed. Mac smiled fondly as he released the ELF’s spent cock, gently nestling it back into place. Feeling languid although he’d yet to find his own climax, Mac dipped a finger into the seminal fluid on Danny’s chest and took a careful taste.

"Mutal orgasms, Mac," Peyton’s dry voice came over a microphone.

Mac grimaced. He’d forgotten that he had an audience and, once he realized that, Mac began to wonder. Perhaps the whole pheromone thing worked both ways? Certainly, once the act had gotten underway, he seemed to have lost all of his inhibitions.

Considering it ungentlemanly to take his pleasure of Danny while the ELF was unconscious, Mac instead concentrated on getting himself undressed. The soldier in him made him be neat with his clothing and he carefully folded each item before placing it on the edge of the bed. There simply wasn’t room on the small counter in the sink area to pile it there.

By the time Mac finished, Danny was starting to rouse.

Completely naked and erect with his own needs, Mac stretched out next to Danny. He gazed down fondly at the young ELF as Danny opened his eyes.

"Feel better?" Mac asked when he thought his partner was coherent enough to answer.

"Oh, yeah," Danny’s smile was sleepy, but wide. "I guess you were right, that was the way it was supposed to work."

"Thank you for trusting me," Mac replied.

"Sure," Danny suddenly became shy. "Mac, can we do that kissing thing again?"

"Sure," Mac echoed Danny’s answer and rolled on top of the young man. Danny gasped at the sensation and Mac took advantage of it to kiss him deeply. Still gentle, but thorough and with a lot of tongue. Mac only let up when he could feel the ELF start to wiggle. "Everything okay? I thought you wanted to kiss?"

"Your penis is all swollen," Danny pointed out. Mac’s erection had been trapped between the two of them and the ELF had noticed it. "Like mine was."

And, from what Mac could feel, like Danny’s was becoming again.

"I told you it was perfectly natural," Mac reminded him, leaving off kissing long enough to nip Danny’s chin.

"Can, can I help you with it like you helped me?" Danny asked, reaching for Mac’s cock.

"Of course."

Mac let Danny explore, but the innocence that had been such a turn-on earlier became a distinct disadvantage as the inexperienced ELF fumbled to find the right touch. At another time, helping Danny play and discover the right technique would be an experience to be cherished, but at the moment, Mac was becoming desperate for release. It didn’t help that Mac could feel Danny become hard again as the sexual encounter continued.

"Let’s try this," Mac suggested as he moved.

He’d shifted off Danny as the ELF stroked his cock, but lifted himself over the smaller man again. Mac settled his weight fully on top of his partner, causing Danny to moan. It must have been instinct that caused Danny to spread his legs, because Mac certainly hadn’t had time to teach him. Not that Mac was complaining. As their pelvises brushed together, their cocks slid against one another and he growled at the contact.

"Mac?" Danny gasped, eyes wide. "I need something again."

"I know, sweetheart, I know," Mac growled as he lifted his upper body up on his arms. The action gave him the leverage to grind their lower halves together. "You’re going to have to trust me again."

Danny held on to Mac’s shoulders and made breathy cries and noises as Mac thrust against him. Everything in Mac wanted to flip the ELF over and bury himself inside the sweet flesh, but he maintained enough control to know that it was too soon. Instead, Mac reveled in the expressions passing over Danny’s face as desire built, just as he took pleasure in the firm young body that was soon writhing underneath him.

"Mac, please help me," Danny cried out. "I need something!"

"Just let go, sweetheart," Mac encouraged him. He balanced on one arm and reached down with the other hand hand. Grabbing both of their cocks, Mac pumped hard. "I’ve got you."

Keening, Danny’s hips lifted and he came again. Feeling the ELF’s come hot against his belly finally brought Mac to orgasm. His hips thrust half a dozen times against Danny’s as he came, wave after wave of pleasure sweeping through his cock and out of his body.

With a final groan, Mac collapsed against Danny.

For a few moments their harsh breathing was the only sound, but eventually Peyton’s hesitant voice interrupted them. "Mac, it really would be best for Danny to taste your seminal fluid."

Mac wanted to snarl at the intrusion, but even sexually depleted, he knew it wasn’t her fault. Without commenting, Mac reached between them to swipe a finger through his come and then bring it to Danny’s lips. It was clear from the ELF’s glazed eyes that he wasn’t really focused on it, but Danny sucked obediently on the finger nonetheless.

Not really caring what further instructions Peyton might have, Mac sighed and settled in to take a post-coital nap. He felt Danny stir underneath him, only belatedly realizing that he still covered the ELF. Automatically, Mac started to move to the side, but a sleepy objection stopped him.

"Don’t," Danny protested. "Like you there."

"Aren’t I too heavy?" Mac asked, even as he kissed Danny on the forehead.

"No," Danny denied. "Feels good. Safe."

Sighing, Mac conceded that it did indeed feel good. He settled in to get some rest, since his body was informing him in no uncertain terms that moving off the bed and going back to his duty really wasn’t an option.

"Good night, Mac," Peyton’s voice came soft and sad over the microphone and he instinctively knew she would no longer be watching them.

In reality, she was saying goodbye.

And Mac knew, even as he fell asleep with an ELF in his arms, that tomorrow, he might even care.

~the end~


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