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Tensions between human and vampire factions are escalating. Peace hangs in the balance. And like two ill-fated stars, Alexia Fox and Damon are destined to collide. She's a seductive human operative on a mission to infiltrate an illegal vampire colony. He's a vampire and represents everything she loathesand all that she desires. Their attraction is scorching, immediate and could explode like the fragile truce they've both been fighting independently to preserve. Now the world's last hope hinges on their ability to work together. As enemies they are doomed, but as allies they just might save the world.
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San Francisco Enclave, West Coast Region
"It may be fatal," the Director said. Alexia laughed. "Since when hasn't that been true of every mission?"
Aegis Director of Field Operations Wilson McAllister regarded her without a trace of amusement. "This isn't funny, Alex," he said. "We're talking about violating our side of the Treaty and striking deep into the Zone. Even the Mayor doesn't know about it."
"At least not officially," Alexia said.
"Not officially enough to send someone to pull your ass out of the fire if you get caught." The steel rims of McAllister's glasses flashed as they caught the cold and sterile light from the overhead fixtures. "Your mission will be to learn everything you can about the Nightsiders' illegal colony without doing anything to attract the Citadel's attention. If you fail or are captured"
"Aegis will disavow any knowledge of our actions. I know the drill." Alexia wandered to the window overlooking the glimmering waters of San Francisco Bay. From Aegis headquarters in the old Financial District, she could see a heavily guarded convoy of trucks carrying agricultural products from the Central Valley into the city. The Treaty meant that the Nightsiders were supposed to leave such convoys alone.
Usually they did. But there were always the terrorists, the ones who wanted to ignite a new War. On both sides. And that was what her team would be sent in to try to prevent.
Alexia drifted back into memory, of the year the Nightsiders had first appeared. Not that they'd been her memories, not exactly. But she'd seen the archived news vids, the looks of bewilderment and fear on the newscasters' faces when the first reports came in: horror stories of vampires arising seemingly out of nowhere, some emerging from decades or centuries or even millennia of sleep in sanctuaries built far beneath the earth. No one knewor at least the leeches weren't tellingwhat had roused them, or why they had chosen that time to rise and claim the earth.
Ten years laterten years of chaos and plague and terrible war, the time when Alexia's mother gave birth to a half-vampire childhad led to the Treaty, and now most parts of the world were carefully divided into territories: vampire Citadels and human Enclaves, separated by the unclaimed regions known as the Zones.
Just outside the Enclave that embraced San Francisco and the area formerly known as the East Bay, the Zone comprised an immense semicircular region that had once held thriving suburbs, now abandoned and slowly crumbling back to the earth as new forests and fields absorbed stone and concrete, and animalsonce driven away by human incursionsreclaimed their original habitats. Beyond the Zone, to the south and east in the regions of the Central Valley, lay the farmlands that produced sustenance for the Enclaves, each surrounded by its own Zone and patrolled by special military forces whose job it was to keep Nightsiders out and human workers safe from them. In theory, as per the Treaty, the workers were protected, and so were the routes to the Enclaves.
To the north, in the area once distinguished by its scenic fields of grapevines and boutique wineries, its rolling hills and towering redwoods, stood Erebus. The Citadel of Night.
Alexia remembered the images on the TV when the construction began. Very little had been known then, because the Zone had just been established, and rumor was more plentiful than fact. Human laborers prisoners of war had built the city by day, vampires by night. In a year the Citadelall black, gleaming, windowless towers and paradoxically Gothic ornamentationwas large enough to hold a population of ten thousand, and that was only on the surface. It was speculated that the underground portion of the city could house five thousand more. Today, the Citadel was twice as big, with its own farms and fields to support its human inhabitants.
Slaves, Alexia thought with that burning anger that never diminished. Blood-serfs. The prisoners, the castoffs from the human Enclaves. The damned.
She turned back to McAllister, who was leaning over his desk with an ominous frown on his lean brown face. His sudden formality wasn't a good sign.
"You aren't listening to me," he said. "Are you sure you're up to this?"
Alexia returned to stand before the desk, taking a formal stance that betrayed none of her emotions. "Yes, sir. More than up to it."
"It's only been a year since your brother was"
"I haven't forgotten, sir."
He cleared his throat. "The Examiners say you may still harbor resentment against the Court for sentencing him to Deportation."
Deportation. Such a nice way of putting it. "I know the Court weighed the evidence thoroughly, sir. It was a fair trial."
The Director sighed and sank back into his chair. "Was it?"
Alexia knew it was another test, and one she had to pass. "The evidence was conclusive, sir."
"Then you no longer believe it was self-defense?"
The same questions the shrinks had asked her, over and over again, ever since Garret had been sent to Erebus.
"Without the laws there would be chaos, and the Enclaves would die," she said with perfect sincerity. "I blame the leeches, sir. Only them."
"But do you blame them enough to lose your objectivity in an operation of such extreme delicacy? That is the question."
"Have the Examiners suggested that's the case, sir?"
McAllister smiled without pleasure. "If they had, we wouldn't be having this conversation. But the final decision rests with me. If I'm making a mistake"
Alexia straightened, staring hard at the framed mission statement hung on the wall behind the Director's chair. "You aren't, sir. When do we go?"
McAllister made a show of shuffling a few folders on his desk and slid one of them across the desk. "Tomorrow. You and Michael will be the only team for the time being, and your mission will be to observe, and observe only.'"
"Call Carter and study the report. There'll be a briefing at 1100 hours."
Before Alexia could salute, McAllister was back to his computer, typing away as if she had already left the room. She knew he preferred it that way. And so did she.
She returned to barracks and the small apartment that she, as a highly valuable Aegis asset, was permitted to occupy alone. Alexia unlaced her boots and allowed herself a small glass of the rare and expensive Riesling she had bought with the better part of last month's pay. After a short breather she buzzed Michael, and they synced their computers to study the report.
"Looks easy," her partner said when they had gone over it a second time. "In and out."
Alexia glimpsed her reflection in the computer screen, briefly blotting out the image of Michael's habitual smirk: straight auburn hair cut at an efficient and regulation chin length, tilted green eyes, slightly pointed chin. New recruits sometimes thought themselves clever by suggesting how much her appearance matched her surname.
But even a fox might not sneak out of this one. Not even a highly trained dhampir agent like her. If she'd thought Mike was taking this as lightly as his words suggested, she might have been genuinely worried.
She knew better. Her partner was one of the survivors, an agent who had made it through ten missions with only minor wounds and the same partner until Jill had been killed a year ago. Since then, he and Alexia had been on three assignments together, and they'd worked as a perfect team. She trusted him more than anyone else in Aegis, even the boss.
Michael had been deep into the Zone several times, while she'd never gone much beyond the Border. She would be relying on his greater experience, but she intended to pull her full weight. This was her chance to prove just how good she was.
She glanced at her watch. "Briefing in fifteen minutes. See you there."
Michael gave her a mock salute. "Don't even think about finishing that wine. I plan to drink at least half of it when we get back."
"It's a deal." Alexia signed off, laced up her boots and sipped the last few drops of the wine in her glass, wondering who would be drinking the rest if she and Mike didn't make it back.
Craving some fresh air, Alexia took the elevator to the lobby and walked out into the busy morning street. Twenty-six years ago, on the day she was born, no one would have believed that San Francisco could ever return to what it had been in the years before the Awakening.
It hadn't, of course. Not completely. But the rhythms of human life had resumed after the Treaty had permitted regular farming, manufacturing and inter-Enclave commerce. There were bankers and office workers, reporters and shopkeepers, cops and financiers all going about their business much the same way they had in the twentieth century.
But Alexia could never venture out among the general public without knowing what had changed. Because when her eyes met those of an ordinary human on the street, she saw the suspicion. Suspicion, or fear, or hostilityall the same emotions most humans felt for Nightsiders, only a little less severe because they knew she wasn't one of the enemy.
The existence of dhampir agents couldn't be kept from Nightsiders or Enclave citizens. But neither she nor any of her fellow Half-bloods could pass for human. Not with eyes like those of a cat and teeth a little too reminiscent of a wolf's.
Or a Nightsider's.
As Alexia paused at a fruit stand to examine a fresh orange, just shipped in from the Los Angeles Enclave, she heard a child's voice on the other side of the stacked crates.
"Look, Mommy," the little girl said. "Is that a bloodsucker?"
Alexia tried to smile at the mother, hoping to express her understanding for the child's mistake. The woman looked mortified, but she couldn't hide her distaste.
"You mustn't say such things, Jenny," she said, jerking at the little girl's hand. "It isn't polite, and anyway, she's on our side."
Our .side, Alexia thought as she returned to headquarters. Yes, her loyalties could never be in question. It was her late human mother who had raised her, not her unknown and reviled Nightsider father.
But for the dhampires, there would never truly be an "our."
The ferry slid quietly away into the fog, its wake swallowed up in the choppy waves stirred by a brisk late-summer wind off the Pacific. Unless an observer were standing nearly on top of Alexia and Michael at the old Larkspur Ferry Terminal, he or she would hardly know a boat had ever been at the dock.
But then again, Alexia thought, this was still technically part of the San Francisco Enclave, and there shouldn't be any leeches here. Which didn't mean a damned thing. They were standing almost at the border of the Zone, where the Redwood Highway crossed over Mission Avenue in the crumbling city of San Rafael. It was an arbitrary border, like so many of them, but it was quite real. Broad daylight, more than any mere treaty, was what protected them now.
The abandoned stronghold of the former San Quentin Correctional Facility stood within view across the inlet to the southeast, and beyond it the twisted halves of the Richmond Bridge, separated by a kilometer of empty water, reached out from each side of San Rafael Bay like hands desperate to touch one last time before an eternal parting.
Alexia tightened the straps of her pack and nodded to Michael, who was already scanning the disintegrating ferry buildings for any sign of movement. She watched him for a moment, grateful that she'd never felt the slightest romantic interest in him in spite of their close partnership. It would have made things very complicated, and fraternization was against Aegis policy in any case. But with his rugged good looks, heavily muscular build and sun-streaked blond hair, he had plenty of female admirers.
"All clear," Mike said, oblivious to her inspection. He checked his weapons, traditional XM30 assault rifle and VS120 "Vampire Slayer" pistol and combat knife. The XM30 was powerful enough to slow a vampire down, even stop one for some time when used by an expert marksman, but the Vampire Slayer was the only weapon that could kill a leech. And it was to be used as a very last resort, because the damage it inflicted on a vampire, as well as any other creature unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end, couldn't be mistaken for anything but what it was. It almost literally blew its target apart.
After checking her own weapons, Alexia instinctively touched the underside of her arm, tracing the raised shape through the heavy fabric of her uniform jacket and the shirt beneath. The patch was exactly where it should be, attached to her skin by a thin graft of synskin that held it in place and continuously fed the necessary drugs into her bloodstream. It was new, replaced only yesterday, and would remain effective for up to a month.
Without the drugs, shelike approximately forty percent of dhampir agentswould be unable to take nourishment from human food, and since Half-bloods never fed on blood, death was the inevitable result. At least she, unlike the other sixty percent, was immune to any risk of conversion by a vampire's bite.
And that was a horror far worse than death. Michael noticed her gesture and touched her shoulder. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll have this over and done within a week."
Alexia quickly dropped her hand. There were eleven hours of daylight left, but it was a good thirty miles northeast across the Zone. If the garbled reports were correct, the illegal colony was just west of the old city of Santa Rosa, on the other side of the Sonoma range and at least three miles from the eastern border of the territory claimed by Erebus.
And the closer they got to Erebus, the more likely they were to run into the Citadel's own agents, both Nightsiders and the elusive Daysiders . That is, if they managed to make it past the mutant creatures even the Nightsiders wouldn't allow near their city.
Without exchanging another word, Alexia and Michael set off toward Highway 101.
Damon crouched at the crest of the hill, looking down into the valley below. From this elevation, the abandoned city was a maze of streets and decaying buildings, empty of human life. Rusting automobiles caught the sun's lightbrief, glaring beacons that appeared and vanished in a matter of seconds like the signals of an unknown code.
But he knew the emptiness was only an illusion. Somewhere, nestled at the foot of these hills, was a society that shouldn't exist.