Stifling a yawn, Trisk confidently made her way deeper into the underground labs of Global Genetics. It was nearing noon, and she could feel her body slowing down, forced to stay awake to hold to a human schedule. After three years, she no longer nodded off over lunch, but it was hard to fight the urge for a four-hour nap when the sun was at its highest. Elves were most alert at sunrise and sunset, but it had been ages since she’d allowed herself the luxury of her natural inclination to sleep at noon and midnight.
Her low-heeled baby-doll shoes were eerily silent on the polished floor, and the faint smell of antiseptic was a familiar balm, pricking the back of her nose. After noticing a few high eyebrows this morning, she’d closed her lab coat to hide her short, bright yellow skirt, but the matching hose still made a colorful statement. Her lab assistant, Angie, said the outfit was fine, but getting the new look past the stuffier old men she worked with was proving to be difficult.
“Hi, George,” she said to the man at the glass double doors, and he rose from his desk to open them for her. There was no need to show her ID, and she didn’t even bring it out from behind her lab coat.
“Good afternoon, Dr. Cambri. Save me a piece of cake?”
His smile was infectious, and her mood brightened. “One with a rose on it. You got it,” she said as she crossed into the restricted zone.
Immediately the drier air and tang of ozone from the massive com- puters under her feet made her long hair float, and she impatiently tried to corral the strands that had escaped her hair clip at the back of her neck. If she were at the elf-run NASA facility, the computer needed to comprehend the genetic code of just one organism would fit into a room. Here, with human-only equipment, it took an entire floor—at least until someone leaked the technology and humankind took another leap forward.
Trisk heard the building’s head secretary before she saw her, the woman’s trendy thigh-high vinyl boots clicking on the hard floor. “Hi, Trisk,” the bubbly older woman said as she turned a corner and came into sight. “Are you getting him now?”
“Right this minute,” Trisk said, and Barbara beamed, her eyes alight as she took Trisk’s hands for a quick second.
“Outta sight! I’ll make sure everyone is in the lunchroom,” she said, the click-clack of her boots quickening as she ran in prissy, mincing steps to the security door and the elevators beyond. Her colorful dress rode high, and her hair was tall, but the day planner tucked under her arm had everyone’s schedule in it, and the self-appointed mother of them all knew more than anyone about how to keep the small facility working, even if she did look and act like an aged stand-in on American Bandstand—which raised the question: If Barbara could get away with flaunting the new styles exploding into the shops this summer, why couldn’t Trisk?
Because Barbara isn’t helping design tactical biological weapons, Trisk thought as she passed her lab, still proud of her name on the door. Her outer office was dark, but she could see through the interior windows into the brightly lit testing bays, green and gold in the artificial sun. There had been a marked slowdown in her lab since the patent to the Angel tomato had been sold to Saladan Industries and Farms and the slow, yearlong process of transferring data, seeds, and propagation techniques to Saladan Farms had begun. She’d have to find a new project by the first of the year, but for now, she still had a secondary, newly tweaked seed crop growing in the huge underground nursery—along with all the tomatoes she could give away.
Across the hall was Dr. Daniel Plank’s lab, and Trisk hesitated at the window, waving to get the attention of the two people suited up in level-two containment suits. The suits were big and bulky compared to the ones she’d learned in, making her feel foolish the first time she’d climbed into one and not known how to zip the stupid thing up. Fortunately she didn’t need one anymore in her day-to-day. Her product was two years in the field and doing well.
Both figures looked up, the taller immediately gesturing for her to come into the outer office. She knew it was Daniel even if she couldn’t see his blond hair and plastic-framed glasses through the thick helmet. He was the closest thing to an elf she’d seen since moving out here, and it bothered her that she’d been drawn to his slim build and light hair like a junkie.
Acknowledging him, she punched in the four-digit code to his door lock and entered his office. Only one window now separated them, and smiling, she went to the communication panel, as familiar with his office as her own. “Hi, Daniel,” she said, making sure her cleavage wasn’t showing as she leaned over the mic. “How long until you’re done?”
Daniel turned from his setup, fingers clumsy in the one-size-fits-all glove. “Trisk? What can I do for you this morning?”
Stifling another yawn, she raised her wrist and tapped her watch. “It’s noon. We have a plate of mac and cheese upstairs waiting for us. You promised.”
“Noon?” Daniel turned to his assistant. “Larry, why didn’t you tell me it was that late?”
“Sorry, Doctor.” Larry’s sour voice came faintly over the open channel. “I thought you were going to skip lunch. Again.”
Trisk hid a smile at the faint accusation in the man’s voice, but Daniel was known to forget to eat lunch. Go home at the end of the day. Have a life. She made a mental note to set aside a piece of cake for Larry as well.
“Oh, jeez . . .” Daniel turned back to Larry, clearly not wanting to leave him to work alone. “Trisk, can you give us another five minutes?”
"Just go,” the assistant said in resignation. “I can finish this myself. Probably faster than with your help, even.”
"Thanks, Larry. I appreciate that.”
Trisk rocked back as Daniel gave Larry some last instructions, moving slowly and awkwardly to the decontamination room. Knowing it would take him some time to work through the SOP, Trisk settled herself at Daniel’s terminal and punched in his password.
Fingers moving adroitly over the keyboard, she brought up the latest coding for the protein coat around the tactical virus he was working with. Again, she glanced at Daniel, his helmet off now as he closed his eyes against the glare of the decontamination light and scrubbed at his scalp as if he were in the shower. Returning to the screen, she com- pared the code to the one hand-printed on a scrap of paper she took from her pocket.
Perfect. Her last tweak to his work had taken. Now, even if his tactical virus should be deployed, it would have no effect whatsoever on her people. They were invisible to it. Ghosts.
Reaching out a sliver of her awareness, she touched her mind to the nearest ley line, squirming when the broken feel of it eased into her. The lines were fractured on the West Coast due to the constant mini-quakes. Both the movement and the slippery feel to the lines were big reasons why all the elven labs were east of the Mississippi, and though their vagrant feel still gave her the willies, she’d gotten better at using them the last couple of years.
Tightening her grip on the one running through Sacramento, she channeled the slip of energy through her, supplementing her body’s natural energy. “Flagro,” she whispered to direct the influx of tingly power going into her hands.
The paper with its incriminating message of A’s, G’s, T’s, and C’s burst into flame, consumed so quickly it didn’t even singe her fingers.
Sighing in relief, she waved the smoke to nothing. It was done. Sa’han Ulbrine had been correct in that human genetic studies needed to be watched, and she’d first brought Daniel’s research to the enclave’s attention almost eighteen months ago. Sa’han Ulbrine had advised her to completely sabotage the tactical virus, even after she’d explained that its intent was to sicken, not kill. She’d argued that in a world focused on biological weapons instead of space exploration, this was the first time anyone had tried to develop a tactical virus instead of a lethal one. Success here, she argued, might turn other human labs in a similar nonlethal direction.
To her surprise, the political body of elves had listened to her petition, accepting her plan to adapt the outer protein coat of Daniel’s virus to make not just elves, but all paranormal species immune to it. That her research was being shared with every enclave-run lab in the states was heady. That the enclave had trusted her to complete the modifications before the virus went to live trials had worried her. Now that it was done, she was more than a little relieved.
Even to humans, the virus would do little harm, causing twenty- four hours of frightening skin eruptions, fatigue, and fever. Its effect was toxin-based, and with no host or natural carriers, it was short-lived and unable to reproduce outside of the lab. If the upcoming live tests went well, it would become the first of a proposed line of tactical biological weapons designed to down anything from a plane to an entire city held by a foreign force.
And now, she and all her people were utterly immune.
She knew her face still held the pleasure of that when the door to the decontamination booth hissed open. “Sorry about that,” Daniel said, still arranging his short blond hair as he padded on sock feet to where his shoes waited. “You should have knocked on my door earlier.” He looked at his thick watch, brow rising. “I didn’t realize it was that late.”
Trisk pushed back from the desk, quashing a flash of guilt for her tweaks, some made with his knowledge, some without. “I know you get busy. Besides, they won’t put anything away for another half hour.”
“True, but I hate pulling the skin off the pudding.” Sighing, he bent low over his knees, his sweater in warm shades of autumn matching his brown trousers. “I’m going to request a live trial next month,” he said as his long fingers manipulated the thin shoelaces into behaving. “Maybe Cuba? It’d be nice not to have to worry about that anymore.” He grinned as he looked up at her. “You shouldn’t have the only project making money.”
She smiled back, liking him this happy. “I think it’s ready now,” she said. “There haven’t been any significant mutations in a hundred generations.”
“Not since you helped me strip its redundant DNA out.” Stand- ing, he reached for his suit coat, and she rose, the scent of his after- shave strong as he shoved his arms into his sleeves. She liked the clean, woodsy aroma as she fixed his tie, not caring that his suit was stuck in the fifties.
“Trisk, I can’t thank you enough for your help with the virus’s coat,” he said. “It never occurred to me to modify the protein skin so as to use the host’s own immune response to create those additional, secondary side effects.”
“Just making the value box bigger.” She turned to the door, uncom- fortable about everything she hadn’t shared with him. Humans were so far behind, but perhaps that was because the elves and everyone else kept them that way. “It’s what I did my doctoral thesis on,” she said, not wanting to talk about it. “If I hadn’t come up with it, someone else would have.”
“Maybe, but you’re the one who did,” he insisted, and after a last look at Larry heading for the decontamination booth, he followed Trisk into the hall. “It’s an entirely new way to think about viruses.”
The silence stretched as they walked to the glass doors. The quiet was unusual for the chatty man, and his hard-soled shoes sounded loud and obvious. Grimacing, she forced her baby-doll slippers to make some noise, not wanting Daniel to notice she wasn’t making a sound. Through the big glass doors, George read a magazine, oblivious to them approaching.
“How about dinner tonight?” Daniel said suddenly, surprising her. “Just you and me.”
Trisk’s step faltered, and she lengthened her stride to hide it. “Ah...” she hedged.
“Aw, come on,” he cajoled, pushing his glasses back up his nose as he got the door for her. “It’s my birthday. Don’t make me spend it alone.”
“Dr. Plank, all you have to do is ask any of the ladies upstairs, and I’m sure they would be more than happy to keep you company,” she blurted, and George chuckled, never looking up from his magazine.
“Is it my breath?” Daniel asked good-naturedly. “Did I forget to zip my pants again?”
She laughed nervously. “No!”
“Then what?” His expression became serious, and she sighed, wishing she’d done something different the last two years. Ignored him, maybe. But striking up a friendship had seemed harmless and made tweaking his virus easier. “Trisk, I’ve known you for three years,” he said as they headed for the big silver elevators. “You don’t have a boyfriend that I’ve ever heard of. You spend all your time here or at home. We have a great friendship, as far as I know. Did I do something wrong?” His eyes pinched. “Did I not do something I should have?”
She hit the elevator call button and turned to him. “Daniel, you’re a great guy—”
“Oh no,” he interrupted, and her eyes flicked up, reading real hurt behind the dramatic fašade of being crushed.
“It’s not you,” she fumbled. “It’s me.” Groaning, he dropped back a step. “It is,” she insisted as the elevator opened. She hesitated a moment,then taking a deep breath, she got in. Daniel was silent behind her. The doors shut, and she stared at the numbers counting up, wishing it would go faster. A relationship was fraught with more trouble than it was worth, not only endangering her career, but raising issues she wasn’t ready to deal with yet.
“Trisk.” She jumped when he took her hand, not moving as he searched for words. “I’m serious. Tell me what it is, and I’ll change. You are a smart, intelligent woman. I like you, and I want to spend more time with you than ten minutes here, five minutes there in the hall or lunchroom. Just give me one night. One lousy candlelit dinner at Celeste’s. If you don’t have a good time, I’ll walk away and not talk to you again.”
“Daniel,” she pleaded, never having imagined she’d be in this position. She’d never given him any indication of wanting anything other than a professional relationship. “That’s not what I want.”
“Then tell me what you do want,” he said. “Is it because you’ve made it on your own? I’d never take that away from you, though kids would be nice . . . someday.”
The elevator chimed and the silver doors opened. Relieved, Trisk strode out. She could feel Daniel’s tension as he walked beside her, his frustration that she was putting him off. An unexpected pain took her at the mention of children. He wanted kids, lots of them, probably. So did she, eventually. But how could she tell him it would never work? That the biology wouldn’t cooperate without intervention, and even then, her father would never accept him. Marrying Daniel meant the already slim chance that she’d have a healthy elven child would be completely gone, and with that, the possibility she could make something of herself, for when your species was on the brink of extinction, having healthy children equaled power, status. A voice.
She slowed as the doors to the cafeteria loomed close, and Daniel came to a stop before her. Trisk didn’t know what she was going to say, but she couldn’t walk into that room with this between them. Her breath shook as she inhaled. “Daniel . . .”
“There you are!” Barbara called as the door to the lunchroom opened and the woman bounded out, completely missing Daniel’s dark look as she took control of his arm. “We need you in the cafeteria,” she said loudly. “Right now!”
“We?” Daniel caught his balance as she jerked him to the door. “We who?”
Trisk didn’t move as Barbara all but pushed him into the lunch- room. Miserable, Trisk crossed her arms over her chest when the entire building shouted “Surprise!” and began to sing “Happy Birthday.” Her eyes closed, and depressed, she slumped back against the wall beside the doors. Her birthday was in the spring, but elves weren’t known to celebrate them, as there were too many memories of babies who never grew up.
Unable to go into that room full of happy people and pretend, she opened her eyes and pushed herself up from the wall.
Starting, she jerked to a stop, almost running into the man standing before her. She hadn’t even heard him approach. “Oh!” she exclaimed, her gaze going first to his ID badge before dropping to run over his tall frame. He looked almost exotic in his slim-waisted suit inspired by the latest British fashion, his narrow, brilliantly red tie the only nod to old-school business Americana. Dark, gently waving hair almost dared to touch his broad shoulders, and her face warmed at the unusual pull she felt toward him. “Excuse me,” she added, faltering at his intent gaze, his pupils widening ever so slightly to make his dark eyes even darker. They seemed to be looking right to her core, and she stifled a shudder, becoming very much awake despite it being noon.
“You must be Felecia,” he said, his mellow voice sounding as if he should be announcing jazz on the radio, not standing in the hallway of a scientific center.
A faint hint of brimstone tickled the back of her throat, and in a cold wash, she realized she wasn’t standing with a human. Suddenly his allure became . . . threatening. Don’t witches smell like brimstone? “I’m sorry. Are you supposed to be here?”
Smiling with his lips closed, he extended his hand. “I’m Rick Rales. The new CEO.”
“Oh.” She cautiously tapped a line, letting a bare hint of it run through her as she took his hand. If he was a witch, he’d notice and give himself away. Only witches and elves could tap into and use ley lines. But the man’s hand gripped hers with only a professional strength. “Everyone calls me Trisk or Dr. Cambri,” she added, pulling away when she remembered: Witches didn’t smell like brimstone. Vampires did.
He was a vampire. Not an undead one, as the sun was up, but a living vampire, born to parents who were the same before they died and became truly undead. He’d have some of the strength and charisma of his undead brethren, but none of the liabilities, and he probably only dabbled in blood whereas the true undead needed it to survive. Probably. What is he doing here?
“Ah, nice to meet you,” she added as Rick touched the side of his nose and smiled, clearly recognizing that he’d been outed. She should have known right away. The undead bred their living kin like horses, designing entire family lines to be compliant, mentally flexible, and most definitely beautiful. And Rick was breathtakingly handsome. In his midthirties, he was clearly too old to be a plaything anymore. It would make him smart, ruthless, and very . . . subtle, to have survived this long under his undead master’s attention.
Trisk hadn’t dealt with the undead much. Indeed, apart from elected officials and very old vampires regulating human-Inderland affairs, there was a “you go your way and I go mine” mentality that kept the peace. Showing fear, though, would be a mistake. She knew that much.
“I, uh, wasn’t aware we were getting a new boss,” she added, glancing in at the festivities. “Is Dr. Hartsford okay?”
“He is.” Rick’s lips split to show normal-looking teeth. He was wearing caps over his slightly elongated canines, though nothing would hide the truly long versions he’d get once he died. “You might say you invited me,” he said, head inclined in amusement.
“Really? How so?” Her pulse had quickened, and she didn’t like that he probably knew.
Rick leaned in, and she froze as he whispered, “You need to keep your nose out of human progress.”
Trisk pulled back, hating that she had flushed. “I created a drought- resistant tomato.”
“Your boyfriend’s virus?” he asked, thick eyebrows high.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” she said quickly, wanting to walk away, but turning her back on him wasn’t an option and might invite him to follow.
Rick breathed deeply, and she wondered if he was tasting the emotions that lingered long after those responsible for them had left. “He wants to be,” he said, voice as soft as black silk, and Trisk felt ill, wishing there were a vampire handbook she could consult. “Play with him. You have a hundred years to make more elves.”
Lips pressed, Trisk took a long step back. No sense of personal space. She knew what he was, and he needed to stop trying to pull an aura on her, which was a polite way of saying trying to charm her into being his blood slave. “Why are you here?”
Immediately Rick lost his avarice, glancing into the lunchroom as if it helped him find a calmer state. “You tweaked his virus,” he accused.
“There are elven fingerprints all over it. We are in the government as much as you are, and we know it’s been slated for military use. I’m here to make sure you’re not creating something to further your species at our expense.” His eyes found hers. “You elves are tricky little bastards.”
By our expense, he meant the vampires’, and she found her courage, hands on her hips as she leaned into his space, brave here among the humans as she couldn’t be in a dark alley. He wouldn’t dare bite her to try to bind her to him. Not here. “I may have given him some ideas,” she said, smug as he blinked in surprise at her lack of fear. “Don’t get your panties in a twist. If you’d bother to look at the code, you’ll see that I made everyone immune to it. All of us,” she emphasized. “Not just elves. It’s human specific, right down to its mRNA.”
“Mmmm.” Rick dropped back a step, a hand over his mouth. “I can’t read code.”
Trisk’s expression soured. He couldn’t read code, and yet here he was, the new CEO of Global Genetics. “Only those who share a common ancestor with humans will be affected,” she said. “It’s safe.”
“Vampires share a common ancestor,” Rick said, his suspicions returning.
“I took that into account,” she said. “I was the best in my class, Mr. Rales,” she added, proud of her skills. “Even at artificially high lev- els, Daniel’s virus will do nothing but make you and anyone else sick. Multiple safeguards keep it tactical. I wouldn’t have even bothered to make us invisible to it, but I didn’t want to take the chance that an immune-depressed elf baby coming out of gene therapy might get a pimple from being exposed. Look, you can talk to my boss if you want,” she said, exasperated. “Sa’han Ulbrine, not Dr. Hartsford.”
“I did,” he said, lips parting to show teeth. “Ulbrine is why you and Dr. Plank are alive.”
Threat, threat, threat, she thought, not impressed. The only thing more suspicious than a living vampire was a dead one. “You’re not going to slow down the trials, are you? Rales, he’s worked too hard for this. It’s perfect. I made sure of it. It cannot harm us. I’d stake my life on it.”
“Good. Because you have.” Rick frowned, but his expression suddenly shifted, the hard mistrust falling from him to show a comfortable camaraderie. Shocked at the change, she floundered, at a loss for words as the cafeteria door opened. Clearly he’d felt whoever it was coming before his or her shadow had touched the glass, and it creeped Trisk out.
“Mr. Rales!” Barbara burst forth, clucking like a mother hen. “I should have known you’d be out here hiding with Dr. Cambri. She’s such a wallflower. Come in and meet everyone you missed yesterday. It’s Daniel’s birthday and we have cake!”
Mouthing a soft platitude, Rick let the woman lead him away, giving Trisk a threatening stare as he crossed the threshold and was taken in among the naive, fragile humans like a cat among mice. He was here to watch her, but he’d play if he thought he could get away with it.
Turning, Trisk walked briskly to her lab, her mind pinging from the threat of Rick’s presence to Daniel. She needed to talk to Quen. He knew more about vampires than she did, and if he came out to spend a weekend, Daniel might misunderstand and stop trying to make a date with her.
Better than a hundred awkward conversations he wouldn’t believe anyway, she thought glumly, feeling even more guilt-ridden than before.