Kal’s steps were silent as he walked up the stone-paved path to the large ranch home snuggled between rugged palms and dunes held down by long grasses. Cocoa Beach was a ten-minute drive, the Atlantic an easy five-minute walk. The house afforded him a large private yard that kept his neighbors at arm’s length. It had been remodeled only a few years ago and had all the bells and whistles, not that he used the modern kitchen much. It was the walled garden that had attracted him. With mature fruit trees and a shallow koi pond, it had spoken to a part of him he hadn’t known he possessed. Turned out he wasn’t the only one it spoke to.
His parents thought he’d been crazy for wanting the solitary living space over the condo with a communal pool and private beach, even as they’d bought it for him as a graduation present, a consolation, he’d always thought, for having to work at a secondary lab in the hopes of someday transferring to the nearby NASA facility.
A tiny lizard skittered from his front door, and Kal juggled his keys with a doggie bag sporting the Sandbar’s logo. He hadn’t gone back to his office after lunch. He was debating if it was worth the hit his pride would take to go back at all. His colleagues had likely known before he left what he was walking into, and if they hadn’t, they soon would. It was obvious he had been given this task so they could shut down his research, send him to learn at the elbow of a classmate. But the chance to reclaim his family’s status kept his mouth shut and his resolve firm.
Dr. Trisk Cambri. Enclave security and their own private genetic engineer, he thought, grimacing as the key smoothly turned and he entered, shoes scuffing on the stone entryway. Her dark complexion and ebony hair made it easier for her to move freely in the human world than the fair, almost white hair that most elves were born with. Some said dark elves were the originals, and that the light hair and green eyes their race now almost exclusively possessed was a result of generations of captive, selective breeding by the demons. That dark elves usually had a stronger genome supported the theory. Kal didn’t care, but he couldn’t help but wonder if Trisk’s thick hair would be coarse or fine in his fingers.
He shut the door behind him, tossing his keys into the empty flowerpot on the table beside the door. “Orchid? You around?”
The clatter of dragonfly wings pulled his head up, and he smiled as a glimmer of light barely visible through the expansive, open floor plan flew from the distant living room and adjoining patio to him in the entryway.
“Hi. What’s up? You’re home early,” a high-pitched feminine voice called as Orchid came to a silver-dusted halt before him. The pixy was a dangerous secret, his friend and confidante, an attentive ear at the end of a difficult day, a way to feel special when the darkest hours of the night insisted he wasn’t. The entire species was on the brink of extinction, and he was honored that she trusted him. Most pixies lived in the deepest wilds, where predation kept their numbers low but their existence a continued secret. He’d risk everything for her, and he didn’t know why. She was like a piece of him he hadn’t known was missing.
“I brought you a flower,” he said, but she’d already spotted it, her tiny angular face lighting up with avarice.
“For me?” she said, wings blurring to nothing as she darted to his hat, now in Kal’s hand. A bright silver dust spilled from her, vanishing before it hit the polished floor. “Oh my God, look at the stamens on that thing. Thank you, Kal! I’ve not had hothouse lily pollen since Easter.”
“Then I’ll steal you another tomorrow.” Pleased at her excitement, Kal strode into the gold-and-yellow kitchen, half a wall knocked out so as to look out over the sunken living room and the walled garden beyond. It was made for entertaining, but he’d never had more than one person over at a time. The greenery was red with the low sun, and he liked to pretend that the insects rising silver in the glancing light were pixies. He knew Orchid did as well, though neither of them would say it.
“Ooooh, perfect!” Orchid exclaimed, following the hat down as Kal set it on the stark white counter. “Lemon pollen is tasty, but I love the rich tones of a good lily.” Her hands turned brown as she packed a handful into a ball and began nibbling at it. “Where did you get it?”
Kal smiled at the tiny woman, her dress of gossamer and spider silk and her little feet bare to the world. She was not his pet, being as independent and fierce as his people had once been: a garden warrior. “It was on the table at lunch. I brought you something else, too.” A rare, mischievous mood on him, he opened the doggie bag. “If you want it.”
Orchid dusted her hands together, the last of the pollen falling from her. “What?” she said, rising up on a clattering of wings. “Honey?” she guessed, breathing deep. “Good God! Do I smell honey? Did you find me honey?”
Kal beamed as she hovered at the opening of the bag, her dust an excited red. Her pride wouldn’t allow him to buy her anything at the store, but he’d found that if he gathered it from fortuitous sources, as a courting pixy buck would do, she would accept the odd gift. “I did,” he said as he reached in for the duck and threw it in the trash before going back in for the small container of honey drizzle it had come with. “For you,” he said as he set it on the counter.
“Outta sight!” Orchid used the tiny but potentially deadly knife at her hip to break into the container. Experience told him she would’ve taken offense if he had opened it for her. “Thanks, Kal,” she added as she used a pair of pixy-size chopsticks to eat it, her head thrown back to make her long blond hair cascade almost to the laminated countertop as she dribbled it in. The fair strands mixed with silver dust to make her almost glow.
“Orange blossom honey is the boss,” she said as he got himself a bottled beer from the fridge. There wasn’t much else in there. It would make moving easier. “The wild hive across the street. You know the one? I’m thinking I might smoke ’em out the next cold morning. Grab me some bee spit. I have enough to make it through the winter, such as it is down here, but some variety would be nice.” She spooned more honey into herself, a tiny, appreciative moan rising. “I like not having to hibernate, but it is a drag stockpiling enough until the flowers bloom. It would almost be easier to sleep through it.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Kal exclaimed as she almost toppled over backward, wings a blur as she giggled. “Take it easy. You know, you can save it. Honey never goes bad.” Beer in hand, Kal went into the living room, long legs going everywhere as he collapsed in his favorite chair. It was set perfectly to see his new color TV and the garden equally well. He’d never used the fireplace. Orchid did, thinking it made a grand door. He’d been thinking about putting in wall-to-wall carpet this fall, maybe a shag. But that wasn’t going to happen now.
Distracted, he leaned to flick on the record player, staring at nothing as the preloaded album dropped and silence filled the room until the arm swung across and settled into place. He chuckled ruefully as “Monday, Monday” spilled out of the speaker. The Mamas and the Papas always seemed appropriate to whatever mood he was in.
Orchid flew an erratic path from the kitchen, her dust intermittent as she skidded to a halt on the table beside him. Kal figured it was the honey inside her more than the honey she was carrying that ruined her flight. “What’s got your panties in a twist?” she asked, beginning to slur as the honey took a grip on her. “Your aura is all mixed up, Kallie-Wallie. Did they fire you?” she said, laughing merrily as she fell backward on her butt, wings bent awkwardly behind her.
Six months, he thought, his grip tightening on the bottle. “As a matter of fact, they did.”
Orchid stopped laughing. “They can’t fire you,” she said indignantly, struggling to get up, but she was still sitting on her wing. “You have a five-year contract. You’re a friggin’ genetic engineer! In the top of your class. Dr. Trenton Kalamack.”
The sight of a six-inch warrior in tie-dyed silk and gossamer defending him made him smile. He knew the slurring would vanish as quickly as it had come, leaving her with no headache. She wasn’t drunk as much as in overload. Pixies had a high caloric need when active. Combine that with a need to remain out of sight and undetected, and it was a wonder any of them survived.
“I had lunch with a member of the enclave, an alpha Were in the military, the owner of Saladan Industries and Farms, and the CEO of Global Genetics,” Kal said, and Orchid reluctantly looked at the remaining honey and tucked her chopsticks away. “The enclave is sending me to the West Coast to check on a colleague’s work. They want me to make sure it won’t kill humans and that elves are immune before it goes to live trials.” He took a sip, lips curling at the bitter hops.
Orchid made a wobbly flight to his hand. The dust spilling from her created a warm spot against his beer-chilled fingers. But it was her fierce expression that touched him the most. “How is sending you to check a colleague’s work firing you?”
Kal shrugged, his eyes on her garden. He might own the land, but she tended it, lived like a true homesteader in a broken flowerpot under the prickly pear that kept cats and big lizards away. He always felt like a guest when he went out to feed the koi. “Trisk’s theories to embed DNA into somatic and germ cells is moving faster than mine. By the time I get back, my research will be six months further in arrears. It’s a no-conflict way to pull the plug on my work as the enclave puts all their resources into her carrier virus.” He grimaced, feeling a sense of urgency rising. “It’s flawed, Orchid. You can’t control a virus as you can a bacterium. I don’t care how clean you get it by stripping out the redundant DNA.”
“They’re killing your research? On purpose? That’s so not cool,” she said indignantly, and then her wings drooped. “Six months?”
He forced his face to remain still, not wanting to show how much he was going to miss her. Size aside, she was the closest thing to a friend he had amid his rival colleagues. “They think if I work with Dr. Cambri that I’ll change my focus. Carry her work further,” he said, vowing that he’d show them just how dangerous her theory really was. Her techniques, though . . . those might be useful.
Eyes wide, Orchid sat down, right there on his hand. “They want you to work under someone? That’s not going to happen.” She snorted, reaching up for a drop of condensation from the bottle with which to clean the pollen from her hands. “Not Dr. Trenton Kalamack.”
“I have to do this,” he said, and Orchid’s wings hummed, making a cool breeze on his hand. “Showing them how dangerous her research is might be the only way to keep mine alive.”
“So you’re going out there to shut her down?” the small woman asked.
Kal smiled at her glum expression. “Officially?” he said, and she took to the air so he could sip his beer. “Officially, I’m going out there to find the holes in her patch job on a human-created tactical virus she’s been monitoring. She tweaked it to supposedly have no effect on Inderlanders, and since it can’t replicate out of a lab and has no host to carry it out of the intended range, it should be relatively harmless to humans apart from the initial reaction. If I fix the holes she left in it, the enclave agreed to put me in charge of it.”
“The better engineer,” Orchid said, saluting him with her drop of condensation. “She’s going to freak out.”
He shrugged and sipped his beer, turning introspective. Perhaps this was the enclave’s way of keeping the world spinning the way they liked it. Trisk was talented, true, but she was a woman, and a dark elf to boot. “It’s rare that the person who invents something is the one who’s remembered,” he said softly. “It’s usually the person who makes it marketable or safe. That minor in business my father made me get has got to be good for something.” Kal’s focus blurred. It was easy to make money with the right product at the right time. Hand-over-fist easy. If nothing else, he could use the funds appropriated to her research to jump-start his own.
“You should just let the humans kill themselves,” Orchid said as she flew to her stash of nectar behind the TV. “The world would be a better place without them. It would be cleaner, for sure.”
Kal sat up, buoyed by his predictions but still feeling the sting of having to leave Orchid. “No. A world without humans, or even with too few of them, would be a disaster.”
“For you, maybe.” The small pixy flew back with a cup she’d made from the carapace of a large ant. “But not me. They need too much room, too many resources. We’re pushed into smaller and smaller spaces to avoid them. There’s nowhere left to be pushed. If there were no humans, we could come out of the closet,” she said in satisfaction. “We all could. Witches would let us in their yards, I bet.” She looked wistfully to her garden, thriving but limited because of the salt and heat. “They might even keep the birds out.”
“Inderland needs humans,” Kal said, his thoughts on what to bring and what to leave. Setting his beer aside, he stood.
“I don’t,” Orchid grumbled.
“Yes, you do,” Kal said, voice loud as he went into his room. “We all do. That’s why the enclave is treating this so seriously. Fewer humans means vamps would be tempted to prey on witches and Weres. They wouldn’t tolerate that, and we’d have another underground war.”
Kal stood in his room and frowned at the double bed. He’d been sleeping alone in it for the last few months, but it hadn’t always been so. Orchid insisted she didn’t mind the occasional visitor, but they all left with blisters caused by pixy dust. I’m not sterile, am I? Grimacing, he flung his closet open. If he could not engender children, even ones who never survived to term, his voice would never hold weight, especially if his family’s millionaire status was in danger.
Orchid followed him, sitting on the lampshade to sift a blue dust that pooled on the table. “My people thrived in the Middle Ages,” she said, oblivious to his dark thoughts. Their higher populations and rare sightings were probably how pixies and fairies had made their way into fairy tales. Fortunately, there hadn’t been a way to preserve images back then.
“Mine didn’t.” Kal looked at his suits, taking only one to hang on the back of the door. It would be easier to buy new. The ties, though, he gathered down to the last and draped on the bed. “We need the resources that a large population brings: advancements in technology, medicine, a higher standard of living. You like your sprinkler system, don’t you? The electric wire that helps keep the cats out?”
She nodded, and the light brightened as her dust hit the bulb. “I’d like a family more.”
“I’d like that, too,” he said softly as he cleaned out his sock and underwear drawer. “If I could, I’d give you an entire field surrounded by a forest.” Orchid didn’t need him, but only now, faced with leaving her, did he realize how much he needed her. Even his colleagues did little more than tolerate him. Some of that was probably his fault. Hell, it was probably all his fault. He held too tightly to his pride, but it was all he had left. He’d known his parents had been strapped lately despite the show of wealth, but until today, he hadn’t known why.
The light dimmed as Orchid grew depressed. “Six months is a long time to be gone,” she said softly, and Kal pulled his golf bag from the back, silently weighing the trouble of bringing it with the hassle of buying new clubs. Finally he took out his three favorite clubs and a putter, setting them on the bed before putting the bag back.
“Can I come with you?” Orchid said suddenly, and Kal jerked, shocked. Emotion washed through him, honor, perhaps, that she valued his friendship as well.
“Are you serious?” he asked, and she flushed. “You’d leave your garden?”
She beamed, the light under her going almost painfully bright from her dust. “For the winter?” she said, giggling. “Why not?” Her mood dulled. “For everything I’ve done to it, my garden won’t come alive.”
Kal’s smile faded as he glanced out the patio window, thinking the yard was beautiful. Beautiful, but empty.
Wings clattering, she flew a blue-dusted path to him, hovering between him and the view. “If we go out there slow, stop at rest stops and stuff, maybe I could find a husband.”
Kal nodded, a hint of melancholy brushing through him at her need to search for another of her own kind. “That’s a great idea,” he said, though if she found a pixy buck to settle down with, she’d likely abandon him rather than return to the garden she’d made.
“Don’t make such a face,” Orchid said, clearly able to read his moods. “I don’t think there are any bucks left to find.”
He forced himself to smile. “Nonsense,” he said as he turned back to his closet. “Human’s haven’t killed them all. They’re in hiding. Not every pixy buck likes the challenge of living among humans as close as you do.” He could leave most of his clothes, but shoes he liked were hard to find, and he put four pairs on the bed, then a fifth. “We’ll go through the wild places if you like. Set out honey and leave a notice at every rest stop. I bet by the time we get to the Pacific, you’ll have a bevy of bucks trailing you, wanting to make your acquaintance.”
She slipped a pale pink dust, her mood brightening. “You think?”
“Absolutely.” There wasn’t much more he wanted other than his toiletries and the rack of genetically modified orchids currently taking sun on the screened patio. He wasn’t going to scrap eight years of tissue grafts and DNA splices. Leaving his work to arrange permanent funding for it was one thing, abandoning his plants to die of drought another.
Suddenly it felt more like an adventure and less like an exile. “You finished stockpiling for winter, right? Bring it all, and you’ll have enough until you’re settled and growing more. Sacramento has a twelve-month growing season.”
Hovering before him, Orchid looked to the garden, her face glowing. Her land was her life, but she’d been here for two years creating a place to raise a family and had yet to find even one prospective mate. Perhaps Florida had none. He’d found her in the back of a truck full of heat-dead plants someone had left on the interstate. Even now she was too embarrassed to tell him how she’d gotten there.
“Unless you want to stay,” Kal said, wondering if she was having second thoughts. It was more than risky traveling with a pixy. It was damn stupid if they were seen. “I won’t sublet it out. It is yours.” But he knew she’d suffer if he left her. Pixies weren’t naturally loners. Neither were elves.
“I want to go,” she said again, her flash of worry vanishing behind a quick smile. “When do we leave?”
Anticipation filled him, unexpected and heady. He’d have to work at a human-run facility with a woman he could hardly stand, but with Orchid coming with him, he felt whole. He could do this with his head high, not down in shame for failure.
“Is morning too soon?” he asked, willing to give her all the time she needed. “I’d like to get some miles behind us right away. The sooner we leave, the slower we can go.”
She took to the air, her dust a bright, happy silver. “Morning is fine. It won’t take me but a few hours to move my winter stores. Can I stash them in one of your orchid pots? You’re taking them, right?”
He nodded, sure he had a cardboard box in the carport. “Of course. I can move your entire flowerpot if you like.”
She clapped her hands, spinning where she hovered to make her dress and hair fling out. “I’m going to find a husband!” she cried, then darted out and up the flue and into the garden.
Kal couldn’t help his smile of prideful happiness that he could do this for her. He had long since seen his own people’s faltering mirrored in hers, and knowing she was happy, even if she found a mate and left him, would be a calm spot in his fractured moods.
Unlike his species’ decline, the pixies’ was a direct result of human activity. There were simply not enough wild places left for a small Inderland species forced into hiding and unable to mimic humans. It was a shaky balance, but the more humans there were, the happier the vampires were and the easier it was for the population of witches and Weres to integrate seamlessly. They’d had enough practice, having walked hand in hand with humanity through the ages since before Jesus, and yes, rumor had it he’d been an Inderlander. Never before, though, had any species had the ability to end not just its own people, but all of them.
Kal reached under his bed for his largest suitcase. It was dusty, and he brushed it clean before filling it to find he had room to spare. Pleased, he put in two more pairs of shoes and zipped it shut. No one would thank him for letting the humans die out from a virus of their own making. He’d go to Sacramento and make sure Trisk’s virus was everything she said it was. Fixing what she missed would put his name on her research. He’d make sure of it. Ulbrine had given him a chance to earn a career that would increase his opportunity to find a productive wife, or at the very least, the higher salary that would pay for fertility treatments or the gene therapies just now being developed.
What could go wrong?