Chapter 25


Chapter 25
When we pulled ourselves back up onto the subway platform, everyone gave us a wide berth.
You could hardly blame them. We were covered in dust and sweat, our palms reddened with rust, our expressions crazed. And the funny thing was, we were all over each other. Fighting the worm had redoubled my usual implacable desires, and somehow Lace was affected too. We kept stopping just to smell each other, to hold hands tightly, to taste each other's lips.
"This is weird," she said.
"Yeah. But good."
"Mmm. Let's go somewhere a little more private."
I nodded. "Where?"
We ran up the stairs and into Union Square, crossing the park, walking without a plan. The city seemed weirdly blurry around us. My connection with Lace was so intense, everyone else seemed faded and remote. The parasite's imperative mixed with six months of celibacy screaming inside me, heady and insistent.
I thought about risking her apartment - after all, she'd have to pick up some clothes some time - and started to draw Lace toward the Hudson. But then my eyes began to catch glimpses of them. Their smells grew under the current of humanity in the streets.
They were spread out across the crowd, walking not much faster than normal humans, but somehow completely different. They moved like leopards through high grass, leaving only the faintest stir behind them. Maybe a dozen, all more or less my age.
No one else seemed to notice them, but their uncanny movements made my head pound. I'd never seen so many carriers in one place before. Night Watch hunters always work alone, but this was a pack.
And the funny thing was, they were really sexy.
"Cal...?" Lace said softly.
"Yeah. I see them."
"What are they?"
"They're like us. Infected."
"The Night Watch?"
"No. Something else."
By the time I spotted Morgan Ryder, she was already standing in front of us, blocking our path, wearing all black and an amused expression.
"What do we do?" Lace asked, squeezing my hand hard.
I sighed, bringing her to a halt.
"I guess we talk to them."
"How did you find us?"
Morgan smiled, taking a drink of water before she answered. She'd taken us to a hotel bar on Union Square. The others had kept moving, except for one waiting at the door of the place and cradling a cell phone. Occasionally, he glanced back at her and signaled.
Even with Lace beside me, I was having trouble not staring at Morgan. Memories of the night I'd been infected were rushing back into me. Her eyes were green, I finally recalled. And her black hair set such a contrast, gathered in locks as thick as shoelaces against her pale skin.
"We didn't find you," she said. "That is, we weren't looking for you. We were after something else. Something underneath."
"The worm," Lace said.
Morgan nodded. "You smelled it?"
"We saw it," Lace said. "Took a big chunk out of it too."
"It was in the old Eighteenth Street station," I said.
Morgan nodded and made a hand gesture to the carrier in front, and he spoke into his cell phone.
Our beers arrived, and Morgan raised hers into the air. "Well done, then."
"What's going on?" I said.
"What? Are you finally going to listen to me, Cal? Not going to run away?"
"I'm listening. And we already know about the old strain and the new, and that we're meant to fight the worms. But what you're doing is crazy - infecting people at random is no way to go about this."
"It's not as random as you think, Cal." She leaned back into the plush couch. "Immune systems are tricky things. They can do a lot of damage."
I nodded, thinking about wolbachia driving T- and B-cells crazy, your immune defenses eating your own eyeballs.
But Lace hadn't benefited from six months of parasitology. "How do you mean?"
Morgan held the cold beer against her cheek. "Let's say you've got a deadly fever - your body temperature is climbing past the limit, high enough to damage your brain. That's your immune system hoping that your illness will fry before you do. Killing the invader is worth losing a few brain cells."
Lace blinked. "Dude. What does that have to do with monsters?"
"We're our species' immune system, Lace. Humanity needs a lot of us, and soon. The worms are a lot worse than a few more peeps, and chaos is a fair trade for our protection. It's like losing those brain cells when you get a fever." Morgan turned to me. "And it's hardly random, Cal. It's quite elegant, really. As the worms push closer to the surface, they create panic in the Underworld broods; a nervous reaction spreads through the rat reservoirs that carry the old strain. The rats come up through the sewers and PATH tunnels and swimming pool drains. Then a few lucky people, like me, get bitten and we begin to spread the strain. It's happening all over the world, right now."
"So where's the Night Watch in all this? I mean, who elected you the carrier queen? Or whatever?"
"I'm in charge because my family knew what to do, once they saw what I had become. Once I felt the basement calling me, drawing me down." Her eyelids half closed, fluttering, and she took a slow, deep breath. "I knew the whole planet was in trouble... I was so horny."
Lace and I exchanged a glance.
"As for the Night Watch" - Morgan rolled her eyes - "they were never more than a temporary measure. I mean, come on, Cal. If you were really fighting to save the world from vampires, you wouldn't keep it a secret, would you?"
"Yeah, that's what I said." Lace spread her hands. "You don't hide diseases, you publicize them. And eventually someone comes up with a cure."
Morgan nodded. "Which is exactly what the old carriers were afraid of - science. A cure for the parasite would erase both peeps and carriers. Meaning that the next time the worms rose up from the Underworld, humanity wouldn't have anyone to protect it - like switching off your own immune system." She laughed and took a long drink of beer. "There's only one logical reason you'd have a secret government organization hunt vampires - if you wanted the vampires to survive."
"Oh." I gripped my beer glass, certainties falling away all around me. I saw the rows of dusty file cabinets, the ancient pneumatic tubes, the stacks of endless forms. Inefficiency perfected. "So I've been working for a big joke?"
"Don't be whiny, Cal. The Watch had its uses. By keeping a lid on the new strain, it allowed that to happen." Morgan pointed out the window at the crowded streets. "Big old cities are like houses of cards, giant cauldrons of infection waiting to happen. This was always the plan, huge reservoirs of humans, a potential army of carriers to take on the ancient enemy." Morgan's eyes were bright as she downed the rest of her beer, her throat working to empty it. "We're just the beginning."
She thumped her glass on the table, laughing, proud that she was one chosen to be the harbinger of doom. And I could smell the parasite humming in her, making every man and woman in the room glance in our direction, making their palms sweat. Without knowing it, everyone wanted to join Morgan's army.
The whole thing was madness, but amid all the insanity, one thing kept bugging me. "Why was I kept in the dark? I'm an old-strain carrier, after all."
For a moment, Morgan looked sheepish. "You were ... um, an accident."
"A what?"
"A little indiscretion of mine. It's not easy, you know, being a sexual vector."
"Tell me about it. But I was an accident?"
She sighed. "We didn't want the science types at the Night Watch catching on, not until we'd reached critical mass. So we started in a controlled way at first, with our house cats and a few kids from the old families. Except for you, Cal." Morgan sighed. "I only wanted a drink that night. But your accent is just so cute."
"So you just infected me?" I closed my eyes, realizing how much this sucked. "God, you mean I lost my virginity to the apocalypse?"
Morgan sighed again. "The whole thing was really embarrassing; my parents sent me to Brooklyn when they found out." She shrugged. "I thought I'd be safe in a gay bar, okay? What were you doing in there anyway?"
Lace looked at me sidelong. "You were where?"
I took a sip of beer, swallowed it. "I, uh, hadn't been in the city ... very long. I didn't know."
"Hmph. Freshmen. Thank God you turned out to be a natural carrier." Morgan smiled and patted my knee. "So no harm done."
"Sure, easy for you to say," I grumbled. "Couldn't you have at least told me the truth a little sooner?"
"When those geeks at the Night Watch found you before I did, we couldn't tell you right away. It just would have confused your pretty head."
"So when were you going to tell me?" I cried.
"Uh, Cal? Did you miss the last two days? I kept trying. But you kept running away."
"Oh. Right."
"A freshman?" Lace said, frowning. "How old are you anyway?"
"Oh, I'm sure he's much more grown up now," Morgan said, patting my knee again. "Aren't you, Cal?"
Hoping to move the conversation along, I said, "So what happens now?"
Morgan shrugged. "You two can do whatever you want. Run. Stay. Get laid all over town. But you should probably join up."
"Join up ... with you?"
"Sure. The New Watch could use you." She waved for the waitress. "And I could use another beer. We've been chasing that stupid worm all day."
I looked at Lace, and she looked back at me. As usual, I didn't know what to say, but the thought of us fighting together, the exhilaration we'd shared down in the tunnel, sure beat the idea of running off to Montana. This was our city, after all, our species.
"What do you want to do, Cal?" Lace said softly.
I took a deep breath, wondering if I was saying too much, too soon, but saying it anyway. "I want to stay here, with you."
She nodded slowly, her eyes locked with mine. "Me too."
"God, you two," Morgan said. "Just get a room."
I realized that this was in fact a hotel bar, and that Brooklyn or the West Side seemed much too far away right now. I raised an eyebrow.
Lace smiled. "Dude. Why not?"