* * * * *
A cloak of feathers bore her down. A dark, rich scent filled her throat, edged with the faintest hint of metallic bitterness, and she wanted to fight the ebony plumes, but lassitude bound her limbs and she sank...sank into feathers and darkness...
Her eyes popped open. Dark it was, but there was the garish glow of her clock-radio not two feet away, and she could see familiar shapes in the dimness--the lamp, the edge of her pillow. She drew in a deep breath and let it out again, feeling the stickiness of sweat filming her skin. Just another nightmare, Doctor, she told herself. It's over now.
* * * * *
When she walked into her office that morning, the lab techs who saw her pass would never have guessed that she had spent two futile hours trying to get back to sleep. Her suit was without crease, her honey-brown hair was swept up into its perfect sleek wrap, her high heels gave her a few of the extra inches that nature had denied her. She changed her jacket for an immaculate lab coat and headed for the secured section to see what had been learned from their latest subject.
The doctor stood behind the one-way mirror and watched. The female restrained in the examining chair below was a real prize, and once again the doctor was grateful that she worked for a federal agency that could sidestep troublesome rules about protecting people's rights. She believed wholeheartedly in human rights...but the creature in the chair was not human.
"Dr. Anastasia?" One of her subordinates stepped into the observation room. "I'm glad you're here. The hemoglobin results are extraordinary, you should take a look."
She turned to glance at the big man. "I'll be along in a minute, Walter." She permitted herself a small, private smile as he nodded and withdrew. Authority and chain of command were essential in a project like this--and the authority was hers.
The doctor looked back out the window. Techs moved among the equipment, murmuring to one another and making notes, but they did not look directly at the chair's occupant unless they had to, despite the special glasses they wore. Wise of them. They had discovered the hypnotic power of the creatures when one of the previous subjects had nearly escaped, simply by catching the eyes of those about him and suborning their wills. Now anyone entering the room had to wear protective lenses, but they were still cautious.
It looks so innocent. The thought flashed across her mind before she could crush its subjectivity. The subject in the chair would present a pathetic picture to the untrained eye, she admitted silently. An ignorant observer would see only a young woman, perhaps nineteen, perhaps twenty; slender, shapely, blond, pale. The restraints holding her in the chair would seem ridiculously heavy. But one of the creature's kin had snapped men's arms and necks with easy twists; and there was no telling how old the female actually was. Or how many deaths could be laid at its feet. It could be centuries old.
As though hearing the doctor's thought, the subject turned its head as much as it could and looked up at the window. It can't see me, even with its eyes, the doctor thought, but even so the creature's gaze met her own unerringly through the one-way glass. Hate filled those eyes, and a rage so old that the doctor felt a chill run down her spine. She stepped back involuntarily, and the subject smiled coldly. The points of its teeth flashed in the harsh light of the lab, then vanished as it turned away again.
The doctor hurried out of the room, suddenly eager for the privacy of her office. Walter's tests could wait; she wanted another look at her notes.
She had to speak three passwords to reach the level of security that her computer required, but finally the neat blocks of text filled the screen. She scrolled down. Preys on humans but can subsist on other mammals if necessary...extraordinary strength...some form of psychic (?) hypnosis...senses appear to be superior to those of Homo sapiens...cell and tissue repair is extremely heightened...
The doctor sat back and remembered those experiments. The first subject's results had not been as good, but the creature had been near death. The second and this, the third, had displayed incredible healing talents. Cuts, burns, bruises all vanished within seconds or minutes; the more severe the injury, the longer it took, which made sense, and stress or starvation also hindered the process. She made a mental note to add amputation to the list. Could the creatures actually grow back missing limbs?
There were all sorts of sponsors fueling this lab, the doctor knew. Some wanted data that would serve to create weapons or soldiers; others were deeply interested in the possibility of cures for diseases and even immortality. As for the doctor herself, she most wanted to know how much of a threat the creatures were. They were superior to humans in almost every way, except for their sensitivity to sunlight. Were they increasing? Or was their population stable, wolves to the human cattle?
* * * * *
It was usually late when the doctor left the lab, and tonight was no exception. She sat in her car in the parking garage and rubbed distractedly at the back of the neck, trying to loosen knotted muscles. Working with the new subject was a continuing discovery, but the very nature of the creature meant that everyone was on edge, the doctor no less than any other.
Abruptly she decided to make a stop on the way home. A small dose of alcohol would help her relax, and might stop the recurring nightmare. And a little social life wouldn't hurt either, she told herself. You don't get out enough, Doctor.
The pub she patronized on her rare nights out wasn't crowded when she arrived, but then it rarely was. Part of its charm was its quiet calmness. The rest was its dim, cozy interior and truly astonishing selection of drinks. The doctor got her usual bourbon on the rocks and found an empty wing chair near the fireplace. She couldn't keep herself from a quick glance around, but then scolded herself. Don't be an idiot. What makes you think you'll see him again?
A few weeks before, seated at the bar, she had realized she was being watched. Paranoia was the stock in trade of those who worked for her agency, and she had considered carefully before turning to look. But the man seated at the other end of the bar had had nothing but cool appreciation in his gaze.
Funny, she couldn't remember much about him; just the brilliant blue of his eyes. All the other details seemed blurred, somehow. They hadn't spoken--just watched each other for a long, long moment. Then he had raised his glass in a brief salute, drained it, and left, leaving her with a jumbled impression of attraction and a hint of danger. And when she'd tried to pay for her drink, she found he already had.
"You're out a little late, aren't you?"
Her head snapped up. As though he'd stepped from her thoughts, the same man was settling himself into the chair opposite hers, setting his glass down on the tiny table between them. The doctor found herself at an uncharacteristic loss for words.
"I was working late," she finally managed, and immediately wondered why she felt she owed him an explanation. He smiled, and something shifted in her chest. She knew she was staring, but she couldn't seem to help it, and the analytical part of her mind was taking in details greedily, determined not to be left without this time.
He wasn't overly tall, she estimated, though he still had plenty of height on her; he wore a blue shirt and had draped a long black coat over the back of the chair. Prematurely silver hair curled carelessly, a frame for those warm, piercing blue eyes and the sensual mouth outlined by an equally silver goatee. He lowered his head a fraction to fix her with his gaze, a smile catching the corners of his lips. "You shouldn't work so hard, Dr. Anastasia," he said softly. "It's bad for your health."
"How--how did you know my name?" she asked, furious at herself for being so flustered as to stammer. She took a firmer grip on her emotions, retreating toward her usual cool command.
He shrugged self-deprecatingly. "I asked the bartender." Leaning forward, he picked up his drink and took a sip of the clear liquid. His fingers were long and slender and looked quite strong.
The doctor swallowed. "What's your name, then?"
The smile became full-fledged. "Jack Milne." He leaned forward, extending one hand, and she shook it automatically; he let her go as though reluctant to lose touch with her skin. She picked up her own drink and sat back, a deliberately defensive move, but she could still feel the imprint of his hand on hers, a gentle, evocative touch.
The doctor was quite prepared to ignore him, the pull of attraction notwithstanding--he was powerful, and few powerful men could deal with a powerful woman without feeling threatened. But he drew her into conversation without condescension or bluster, and before she knew it they were debating everything from politics to evolution to household pets. Two hours and another glass of bourbon sped by before the doctor noticed the time.
"I have to go," she said abruptly, discomfited again by the departure from her usual pattern.
Milne rose as she did. "I'll see you next week?" he asked easily, and she was surprised at herself when she told him yes.
* * * * *
She found herself thinking of Milne at odd intervals all week, though she did not allow herself to become distracted from her work. The amputation experiments were scheduled for five weeks in the future; there were a host of tests to be carried out, and all the lab's supporters were impatient for results. Most of the work was handled by Walter and his flock of technicians; the doctor coordinated the data and passed it on to her superiors.
Three days before she was to see Milne again, Walter drew her aside before she reached her office. "We're getting low on plasma again," he said quietly.
She sighed impatiently. "So go to one of the hospitals or blood banks. We have the authority--"
Walter shook his head. "The whole city has a shortage, and that supersedes our credentials. Perhaps we can sacrifice a lab tech." His eyes gleamed, but she ignored the comment and his subsequent sigh. She knew quite well that he thought her without a sense of humor, and she did not care.
"Send someone over to the agency for a quick drive. I'll write you a note. It's too bad that we can't just use animal blood right now."
Walter grimaced. "It would be easier, but the latest batch of experiments require human plasma. What we do for science..."
The doctor wrote him his note and sent him on his way. Consulting her schedule, she found that one of the lab's sponsors wanted information directly from the subject, rather than deduced from experiments. She sighed. This never worked--the subjects never cooperated, and they had yet to discover any way to make them do so. But orders were orders.
So she donned a pair of protective lenses, took up a clipboard and the questions, and shooed the techs out of the observation room. The subject watched silently as the doctor pulled up a stool near--but not too near--the chair.
"I have a number of questions," the doctor said briskly.
For the first time since its capture, the subject spoke. "I'll answer your questions if you'll answer mine." Its voice sounded perfectly normal, the quiet tones of a young woman.
Surprised by the easy agreement, the doctor thought a moment. "Very well," she said finally. There was little that she could not say to the subject, since it would not be leaving the lab. "How old are you?"
"I was born in August 650," the creature said without hesitation. "Why are you doing this to me?"
"We need to learn all we can about what you are and how you work," the doctor replied, hiding her shock at the subject's answer, and doubting its veracity. Over a thousand years old?! "When in August?"
The creature moved its head in a slight, impatient movement. "I don't know. No one kept track like that then. What have you learned so far?"
The doctor recited a brief synopsis of their discoveries, which garnered only a small grimace from the subject. The sharp points of its canines flashed dully for an instant. "Where were you born?" she finished.
"In a village in what is now Germany," the subject said. "It vanished centuries ago. How long do you intend to keep me alive?"
The doctor had been careful not to look the subject in the face, but the question startled her enough that she looked up. The eyes were dull with exhaustion and dimmed by the doctor's protective lenses, but there was still power there, and the doctor found herself answering without thinking. "As long as possible."
The creature did not move, did not blink, keeping a delicate hold on the doctor's will. "How can you make yourself do things like this to me?"
"You're not human," the doctor said, dazed by the eyes. "You kill humans to survive."
"We all try to survive. It's the strongest, the fastest, the smartest who survive, no matter the species." The creature's voice had dropped to a near-whisper, and when it flexed its arms, the restraints groaned softly. "But what you do isn't for survival. You're not human either, doctor. You stopped being human long ago."
The terrible eyes slid shut, and suddenly the doctor's will was her own again. She stood up, nearly knocking the stool over, and hurried out of the room, deeply shaken. Reaching the privacy of her office, she looked down at the answers to the questions she had asked, then tore the paper into tiny scraps and dropped them into the wastebasket. The sponsor would be told that the subject had refused to respond.
* * * * *
The doctor barely glanced up when Milne slid into the seat opposite hers in the pub. Her happy anticipation of the evening had been shattered by the news she'd received on reaching the lab. Milne waited patiently, watching her, until she sighed and shut the folder she held on her lap.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Today was a disaster at work, and I'm still distracted."
"Doctor Anastasia? I've got bad news." Walter meeting her practically at the door, brow creased with stress. She sighing--her nightmare had returned, and she was tired from inadequate sleep and dreams of smothering feathers.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Ann," Milne said softly, eyes warm on hers. "Do you want to tell me about it?"
She hesitated. Normally she spoke to no one about her work, but she needed to talk, and if she kept it general he would never know anything dangerous. "One of our test subjects died today, a very important one."
Blood sprayed in obscene swaths around the observation room. Four techs dead, their bodies sprawled limply. The chair's restraints torn impossibly open.
"You weren't expecting it?"
She shook her head. "There was a contamination...something went very wrong."
The door wrenched open and the subject gone, leaving a half-emptied bag of plasma hanging from the chair and the needle dripping slowly on the smeared floor.
"We tried to stop it, but it was too late." Milne's eyes on hers were sympathetic, his hand a warm, light pressure on her fingers.
"What happened?" Whirling on Walter in fury and sudden, sickening fear.
"I don't know!" Fear written large on his face as well. "I got here and saw this. The night shift is all dead. We don't even know where it is!"
Her mouth tightened. "Weeks of work, hundreds of hours in delicate experiments, and it was all gone. We got some data, but not nearly enough."
Sudden insight. The guard cameras showed that it did not leave through the doors. Only one other place it could go--the roof.
Pounding up the stairs, Walter puffing behind. The door half off its hinges. And--in the early morning sunlight--an ashy shape not six feet away, already beginning to crumble in the wind. It knew.
"The worst part is, we could have prevented the contamination easily, if we'd known." She sighed in weary anger.
Walter holding out a sheaf of printout. "The batch of blood I got from the agency people--one of them was contaminated. Heroin."
She gaped at him, too astounded to be angry just yet. "How? Didn't you test it?"
"Of course I tested it!" He glared at her. "But testing for street drugs is not on the standard list! What I can't figure out is how it got in there. The bags didn't leave my control until they hit the fridge here."
"The donor," she snapped.
"Too high for that. He'd have been raving, and all the donors were perfectly sane!" But his eyes met hers with growing doubt.
"The best we can do at this point is try to track down the person responsible for the contamination." She tapped the folder in her lap. "One of our scientists thinks that someone deliberately fouled a batch of...food...intended for the test subject, though we don't know why, or even how they found out where it was going."
Milne's hand tightened on hers. "And you think you know who might have done it?"
She shrugged. "There are only five possible culprits, and I have the files on them right here, but I haven't had a chance to look at them yet."
Milne let her go and took the folders, setting them down on the table. "No homework tonight," he said firmly. "You need to relax."
He seemed to be determined to charm her into a better mood, and she found it so easy to let him. Tonight was quiet conversation instead of the spirited debates of last week, and her weariness combined with his magnetism meant she kept losing her train of thought and gazing at him dreamily. Normally she would have been horrified at her behavior, but tonight it didn't seem to matter. He's so unlike anyone else I've ever met, she thought hazily. So perfect...
"I'll take you home tonight, Ann," he said finally, smiling at her with promise, his face showing the barest hint of hunger, of desire. She simply nodded and let him take her arm as they walked toward the exit. Outside, he bade her wait while he fetched his car, and she began flipping through the folders as he strode off toward the parking lot, gripping them tightly so the vagrant wind would not snatch them away.
Five donors, five folders, five files. Four photos. She frowned. Why was one file missing its photo? She glanced down at the description of the donor, and felt all the pleasant warmth drain from her body, to be replaced by a sick chill. Silver hair, blue eyes...
She watched the sleek convertible pull up in front of her. Milne got out and came around to open her door, and the wind caught his coat and blew it billowing behind him. It flared like wings, like feathered wings, and she did not have to reach inside his breast pocket to know. But she did anyway, as he stood before her, and unfolded the photo of him. "How did you know?" she asked, oddly calm.
"The computer system that monitors your lab's blood supply is easily hacked," he said. The desire in his face was gone, but the hunger remained, and she could see the barest gleam of sharp teeth. "I couldn't get in, but I could give her the means to free herself."
She shook her head numbly, hearing the rush of wind in feathers. "Why?" she asked. "Why do you do this?"
He bent close, and she smelled the rich, bitter-edged scent of him. "Survival," he told her quietly. "Isn't that why you do what you do?"
She closed her eyes. The cloak of feathers surrounded her.