Authors: Rob Preece
Danielle nodded, wiped her body down with a towel, and threw on a silk robe. Years in the Warder Academy had made her less than self-conscious about her body. And one of the fundamental lessons of that training had been that the impaired are not fully human. She shouldn't have minded stripping down in Carl's presence any more than she would in front of a dog. But she did, and she didn't want to think about what that might mean.
"Okay, but a speech gene is just one change,” she continued, trying to keep her mind on business. “So, if a virus attack made us turn into vampires, or
, or goblins, or whatever, I might be able to buy it. But how could it result in all of the different changes we've seen?"
Carl smiled at her as if she was a talented student. “That's what we're working on next. After all, we need to discover a cure that will work for all of the infected, not just for vampires, or
, or goblins. I mean, how would it help if we turned a bunch of
She nodded, although she wasn't so sure about anything any more. Things were changing too fast, seemed too chaotic, too out of control.
"But tonight,” Carl concluded, “we celebrate."
Carl knocked on her door at seven that evening.
Sweltering Texas heat enervated her, made her wish she'd never agreed to this crazy idea.
Carl looked as cool as if he'd just stepped from a freezer.
His eyes widened when she opened the door. “You look great."
He looked like a complete hunk in a suit that had obviously been tailored to show off his broad shoulders and narrow hips. It kept getting harder and harder to remind herself that he was one of them—impaired and not a man at all. To Danielle, Carl looked all man. And a part of her wanted to tell him to forget dinner and drag him into her bed.
"You look pretty good yourself. Let me get my bag and I'll be ready."
He brushed his hand against the mark of the beast, the wolf's head sewn into the lapel of his linen jacket. “Yeah? Thanks."
"I mean it. But what's that?” She pointed at the gas-burning car sitting outside.
"I figured I'd drive. Somehow, it doesn't seem like much of a date if I make you do the driving."
She let the date word pass without comment.
"That's a gas burner."
It had taken way too long, but America had finally caught on to global warming and greenhouse gasses. Petroleum burners were limited to high status warders and government officials. Even normals drove hydrogen carts like the one Danielle had been assigned, or one-person electric scooters. The zone was littered with cars like his Chevy, abandoned by magical or normal alike when gasoline became government controlled and warders began making midnight raids on those who found a way around the regulations.
"Alcohol conversion,” he explained. “A lot of car buffs ended up on this side of the zone."
She still looked suspicious. “Where do you get the alcohol?"
Carl laughed. “That is the least of our problems. Comes from the algae plant."
The algae recycling plant had been a stroke of genius on Carl's part. One Arenesol and his gang, the Tigers, had been, indirectly at least, responsible for. Without city services, the Trinity River was their only source for water. Since the river was a slimy mess of sewage, poorly disposed-of chemicals, and whatever flotsam the normals of Dallas cast off, it made poor drinking water.
Elves were particularly susceptible to water impurities, so Arenesol's Tigers had come to Carl with a proposal to filter the river water. He had financed the plan, then added an algae growth facility to handle the filtered algae and chemicals, mixed the organic mass with yeast, and fermented it. The stuff couldn't be drunk raw—not that a few dwarves hadn't been fired for trying—but it could be distilled to pure alcohol.
Danielle hadn't realized that Carl's plant had progressed that far. It seemed like he made more progress each week than the normal side of the zone line had made in the decade since the return of magic virus had struck. Although he hadn't given up on his cure, more and more he seemed embedded in the zone—becoming one with the enemy.
She wondered how many laws Carl had broken, then decided not to think about it. Joe had given her the grim answer. When she decided Carl had crossed the line, she would have to terminate him. Best to ignore what she could. She also ignored his hand when he tried to help her into the car and slid into the passenger seat.
A blast of cool air met her. Wow.
"Yeah. Air conditioning. Isn't it great?"
He let her sputter out. “I'm not that much older than you, Danielle, but I can remember the way things were before the return of magic, when air conditioning was normal, when Dallas was thriving, and when malaria was something that happened in Africa rather than here. And I want those days back. Now come on. We're going to have some fun tonight if it kills us."
She might have to kill him this evening.
Danielle had always known it would come down to this. Certainly since her meeting with Joe, she'd been continually aware of the knife-edge Carl lived on. But she'd hoped that things would work out. Now, though, she was at a decision point. The knowledge drained the joy from what should have been a wonderful evening. Carl ordered Champagne, poured two glasses, then raised his glass in a toast. “You were the first person to believe in me, Danielle. I couldn't have made it without you. Thanks."
She barely nodded, took a small sip of the drink, and set it down.
The club's owner recognized Carl and hurried over to take their orders and to ensure that everything was to their satisfaction. It hadn't escaped Danielle's notice that just about everyone in the zone knew Carl now.
Danielle had reported to Joe that the zone seemed more organized, less chaotic, than her academy training had led her to expect. As usual, she'd gotten nothing in response, leaving her to make her own decisions and worry whether an organized zone would be better for the human world because it controlled its impaired, or could constitute a threat.
"Any normals around?” Carl asked. “I'd just as soon not get ambushed again."
The owner wrung his hands, told Carl that, as far as he knew, Danielle was the only normal who had ever set foot in his establishment, and hurried off to supervise their dinner.
"What is he?” Danielle asked softly once the owner had left.
"Pete? Oh, he's the owner, of course. I'll introduce you."
"I mean, what's his impairment? He looks normal. He had a generic magical marker which, I thought, was used only for children before they develop their specific handicap."
"He organized a protest against forming the zones. Everyone who protested got sent here. Some had talents. The warders decided that those without talent were latent. They don't believe that a normal could protest their benevolent rule."
Danielle's hand instinctively touched the hidden hilt of the small fighting knife she carried in a sheath on her thigh. Carl's words were close to treason. The penalty for challenging a government classification was death. And any warder was authorized to carry it out.
She told herself that she was letting Carl slide because of the potential he offered, but wasn't sure. She had let herself get emotionally involved with Carl.
"You've gotten a lot more cynical since we met,” she told Carl. “You're putting yourself in danger, you know."
Carl's laugh was relaxed, easy. “Hell, Danielle, I'm not a cynic. I'm a blooming optimist. I'm the one who thinks that we can undo the mess we're in and get back to normal. I don't know if you've been paying any attention, but hardly anyone else thinks that's even possible. On either side of the line."
"And you think your anti-virus will do the job?” she asked. She wanted him to give her an excuse not to kill him. That's why she tossed him softballs like this one. But would he bother to swing at it?
Carl frowned. “The virus we isolated shows how the original infection occurred. With the proper vector, we could even recreate something like the return of magic. If we decided that the normal were the sick ones and wanted to cure them by giving them magical abilities, we'd be as good as done. Since we want to do the reverse, we've barely started."
He lapsed into pure gene technology jargon and Danielle's comprehension of the next three minutes of his lecture were complicated by the difficulties of keeping her eyes open. Finally, Carl realized he was talking to an empty skull and nodded. “Sorry. Science is a language. Some things you can't explain to someone who doesn't have the vocabulary. Let's just say we have our work cut out for us and celebrate getting as far as we have."
Carl turned on his charm for the rest of the evening. He entertained Danielle with amusing stories about the problems they'd had in their research—about a mob of vampires who had tunneled under the lab and raided the blood samples, a white mouse who had been given the virus—and had turned into a zombie stalking and murdering the other mice, and about the dwarves who, hearing of a coffee shipment, had turned one of their own number into a battering ram, using the dwarf's head to break into the storeroom and secure the forbidden stimulant.
Danielle found herself laughing, relaxing, and even telling Carl stories about her own experiences—about teaching martial arts to trolls, and about life as the only normal in the zone.
Only when Carl's gentle probing touched truly sensitive areas did she realize she'd opened up to him more than she'd ever opened to any male, normal or impaired.
"What about your family,” he inquired gently. “How did they feel about your career choice?"
"I'm not going to talk about my mother,” she told him, her voice rising despite herself.
"Ooookay. Note to self. Don't talk about family.” When she didn't even smile at his attempt at humor, Carl turned serious. “I'm interested in you, that's all. Well, fascinated might be a better description."
Danielle wasn't sure she wanted to fascinate a man—or an impaired.
After dinner, they walked along the swollen Trinity River.
Strands of barbed wire, new in the three months since they'd first entered the zone, and continual probing of searchlights added a sense of danger and adventure to the evening. Hooting alarms and a flurry of tracer shells briefly disturbed the peace of their walk.
"I don't know how we can go on like this,” she admitted to Carl. “Keeping the impaired under control is absorbing so many of society's resources."
He nodded grimly. “That's why my work is important. Sooner or later, some politician is going to get the brilliant idea that normals would be better off without the magical."
It was a curious statement. “They already have. That's why we have the zones."
He shook his head. “The zones just contain the problem. They're not a solution."
She shuddered as she caught his meaning. Before this assignment, she hadn't really seen the impaired as human. But living with Carl, seeing the magical struggle for life, made her wish for a solution other than death.
"It's getting late,” Carl said. “I'd better get you home."
An alarm almost drowned out Carl's words and Danielle's memory flashed on the vampire she'd killed in L.A. Dallas didn't need an escape.
"Get your head down,” Carl hissed.
A searchlight blinked past them, then returned, joined by others.
"Warder Business,” she shouted, raising her badge.
Carl tackled her just before a ricochet threw shards of concrete in her face. The crack of a high-powered sniper rifle sounded a fraction of a second later.
"They're after us,” Carl hissed.
Walking near the barrier had been a bad idea, Danielle realized. An idea that just might get them killed.
She let herself blur, sending her senses out to be sure that no warders were on this side of the river before leading Carl on a long crawl back to safety.
By the time they made it back to his car, Danielle was a mess, but she was also filled with adrenaline and wound up like a spring.
After the short drive, home Carl walked her to her door.
She decided she'd shake his hand, thank him for a wonderful evening, and go inside.
His lips descended on hers before she could get the first word out.
The combination of Carl's potent male sensuality, the adrenaline rush from being shot at, and the romantic evening swamped any vestiges of common sense. For weeks she'd kept her libido under control by continual workouts, by sparing with vampires and fast-moving elves, and by resolutely refusing to think of Carl's lips, or Carl's body.
None of those tricks worked now.
The problem, she eventually realized, was that her lips and tongue were already busy—busy kissing Carl back as hard as he was kissing her.
Danielle brushed her hand down Carl's naked chest.
Now how had that happened? Her mind whirled with the past minute's activities: a simple good night kiss at the door. Then a frantic search for the key.
Oh, yes. Memory returned with a hot flush of embarrassment. She'd grabbed Carl and physically dragged him into her bedroom, torn his shirt from his broad chest, and buried her face in the pure maleness of it.
If she was clueless, Carl seemed to know exactly what he was doing.
He nibbled down the side of her neck sending delicious shivers rocketing through her body. His large strong hands held her firmly, let her believe that she was protected despite a lifetime's experience that she could never truly be safe.
She sighed and leaned against him. All of her training, all of her reasoning told her not to let down her defenses, not to let Carl do more. He was her herd, off limits. He was male and therefore risky. He was impaired and therefore a killer.
Yet she could do nothing. Rational thought yammered away inside her, ignored and muted as if locked in a nearly soundproof room. Danielle's reaction to Carl was driven by something more primal than logic.
His hands left trails of liquid fire behind them, left her panting with burning desire and need. He stroked her back and she purred like a cat.