Outside, the last traces of a sunset cast shades of purple and magenta across some high clouds near the horizon, a few moments after the latest image was stored in my camera, now safely in my shoulder-bag with a few other essentials, and an activated recorder ready for my interview. The sky was otherwise fairly clear, swept by a cool breeze from the coast a mile or so distant, but the autumnal evening was still quite warm and the old-fashioned inn had real fires crackling in hearths that looked as if they were original despite probably being built sometime since the second World War – perhaps in deliberate imitation of what once was.
I knew nothing of this or any other part of south-western England beyond the name of the nearest village in which I was staying for the night, but I was more than used to travelling to out-of-the-way places for my studies – especially the necessarily clandestine nature of my current research – and received little attention entering the low rambling structure whose grounds were dark except for a few lights at the perimeter of a half-empty car-park, and the general impression was an unusual one of isolation.
The alcove I chose was cosy but not cramped, perfect for either an intimate assignation or just a drink with close friends, though as was usual for this particular investigation I was due to meet someone about whom I knew virtually nothing beyond the designation they had given themselves. I was curious as to why she had chosen the inn at all, as it was at complete odds with the usual places I arranged to meet such people, where the situations had an undercurrent of injury even though the interviewees themselves never threatened it, for most of them had fairly strict codes of behaviour.
There were two wide seats of slightly worn brown leather on either side of a dark wooden table, and the wall at my right was a mosaic made from pieces of broken bottles and mirrors depicting a scene of two roses, one red the other white, their thorny stems intertwined and their open petals facing one another as if ready for a kiss. On my left, an open curtain of pale green and gold hung from a dull brass pole that joined the panelled wooden partitions separating the adjoining alcoves behind of and in front of me.
Lighting was from discreetly recessed spotlights in the beamed ceiling that were angled so as not to shine directly into anyone’s eyes, and on the table a tall thin candle had been placed on the remains of its melted predecessors as solidified wax fell like cooled lava over an old bottle – the only part of the label I could see mentioned something about a region of France and a date of 1983. Sound from the rest of the inn was neither too loud to intrude into conversation nor too quiet to make me question whether or not I was alone, and the atmosphere was slightly unusual in that there were no telemedias or games or comms interrupting the pleasant level of background chatting and bar-talk, which merged into a relaxing susurration.
“Hello, you must be—” Her voice was pitched as if she already knew the answer, and her seemingly genuine accent was noticeable yet not unduly intrusive, the pronunciation and style definitely Eastern European with none of what had been the so-called mid-Atlantic twang affected by many so as to make themselves appear well-travelled when all they did was commute between airport queues and conference centres. I was surprised that even with so few words my old training recognised her as someone who had been taught English in an overly-structured manner and then not gained sufficient general experience soon afterwards so as to make it more relaxed and conversational, but despite my sometimes wild years at university I had left with degrees in Eng-Lit and Sociology and Media Studies, and could match whatever style I encountered.
All I knew of her by way of our mutual contact was her name and alleged reputation, which was extremely understated in relation to my previous subjects – everything else was merely fantasy and fabrication – so she sounded absolutely fascinating.
Eva stood about one metre sixty-five tall, but her eyes drew all my attention, for though they were neither wide nor large, they were of the palest blue, going well with the light yet thick blonde hair which surrounded her rather oval face. I saw no evidence of make-up either on her well-defined lips or her skin, which was so clear it should have been translucent, and her clothes were stylish yet casual – knee-high pale brown boots with low heels, a long cream skirt split to mid-thigh on either side to occasionally expose rather muscular legs, and a cream jacket over a thin white blouse. In all other respects she was reasonably attractive in a Middle-European way and very self-assured, a comfortably well-off woman in her late-thirties – a few years younger than me – and I wondered what made her behave as she did, for unlike the others I’d met she hardly seemed to live on the fringes of mainstream society. Was it just the thrill she sought – the sense of taboo – or were there deeper psychological reasons perhaps linked to an ancient trauma?
I felt rather frumpy by comparison in my dark red roll-neck jumper with black trousers and pale grey ‘no sweat’ trainers – all neither new and obviously for the occasion nor so old as to be embarrassing – but they were familiar and comfortable, which when I chose them was my only consideration. “Susanna Collier, yes. Thanks for coming.”
Eva stopped just inside the curtain, as if already unsure of the interview – was she expecting me to be openly critical of her? If so, all she had to do was read my articles to know I never passed judgement, for all the people I met had chosen their way of live and accepted the repercussions, as I had done all those years ago. “Are you sure?” She lingered.
“Yes, of course.” I had no idea why she wanted to make the introductions so protracted unless it was a ritual behaviour – we both knew why we were there – but for the first few minutes we played a game like two dancers spiralling towards one another until one dared reach out and touch the other, or a prelude to an overture – a kind of social foreplay until we openly discussed her predilection.
Eva took off her jacket to reveal the blouse was short-sleeved – her arms were quite strong too – and sat opposite me, folded her jacket and put it beside her, then placed the latest model of personal communicator on the table, next to a small bunch of electrikeys. She momentarily smiled at her own fragmented images in the mosaic without even trying to hide the fact she had a reflection at all – as others had attempted by various means and always without success – then propped her elbows on the table and rested her chin on the arched bridge of her interlaced fingers whose rounded nails were buffed but not varnished, looking at me in a manner almost quizzical and at the same time watchful. Her left wrist had a rose-gold Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso complication which put my Rado ceramic multi-function to shame, the other a thick and intricately-woven chain of – white gold? no, the patina was too hard and coldly bright – platinum, as were the rings that circled the little and third fingers of both hands. Whatever her chosen way of life she was certainly able to indulge herself, and I hoped she would turn out to be as skilled at conversation.
I was suddenly and very strangely nervous, even having previously met people who may have been borderline psychotic or harboured desires of being a killer – though many were simply deluded to varying degrees and after only a few minutes displayed a complete lack of consistency or even the ability to function properly in the real world – and again I was puzzled by her choice of rendezvous. “I haven’t ordered anything yet as I wasn’t sure what you wanted.”
“A coffee will be fine, thank you – just ask for the special.” She smiled again to reassure me.
I left the alcove and placed my order with the bartender, returning to find Eva in the same pose as when I left, as if she had frozen time, which was strangely appropriate considering what she thought herself to be.
“Were the directions I gave you all right?”
“Yes, thank you.” I nodded. “It’s a little out of the way, but not hard to find, and I have to admit it’s rather cosy.”
Eva tilted her head fractionally and spoke idly, of no consequence. “I have used it for a while now, and it’s an excellent example of that rather trite saying – ‘Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose’,” her accent gave a pleasant lilt to some of the vowels.
Even though we had only just met she began introducing the concept of age and survival – which was certainly a novel approach – and I knew I would have to be completely honest with her about my own experiences otherwise she would think I was deceiving her by withholding information, but did she mean to delve straight into things without any attempt at context or trying to claim she was living outside convention due to circumstances over which she had no control? “I take it from what you just said that you come here often, and it was your suggestion, after all.”
“People come and go, leather deteriorates and the seats are reshaped by fashion, wooden panels are replaced or filled-in or knocked out, even the bricks can be taken down to foundation plans and rebuilt or changed as rooms are added, but ultimately it’s still the same, and quite a few remaining parts are centuries old. This was once a coaching inn – the last stop before a village that no longer exists, the haunt of many a rogue – and has seen more good times than most other such places.”
“Is that why you like it?”
“It’s somewhere people can meet without being made to feel things are too formal, especially on their quiet nights such as this when all the so-called entertainment is switched off.”
Despite myself, I was surprised at her early use of objectification, and smiled. “I don’t want you to misunderstand, but I have to say you’re not quite what I was expecting.”
She shrugged in a motion that was both nonchalant and dismissive. “Doubtless not. I know what you think and why you’re here, so let’s continue to humour one another for a while.” The mere words of her statement could have seemed a little brash, even allowing for my own unconsidered comment – why had I reacted like that anyway? – but the way in which she spoke was polite and actually quite disarming, and though her voice was not in any way hypnotic – it was far from monotonous with its occasional unexpected accentuation that betrayed a foreign birth – she spoke with such ease that it was infectious and I felt myself relaxing, which was a complete reversal as I should have been setting the mood and reassuring my interviewee they were not going to be an object of ridicule.
A waitress in her early teens wearing an old-fashioned short black dress and white apron brought in our drinks. Eva’s coffee arrived with insulated dishes of chocolate ice-cream and powdered chocolate – both glistening with frost and strongly dark – and a lush crème-caramel. After the waitress had filled my glass with white wine and placed the bottle on a silver-plated coaster, she pulled the curtain closed as she left, and even though no one knew why we were there, that the establishment catered for intimate rendezvous was apparent by the other closed alcoves and the gentle murmuring of conversations.
“And how many times have you done this?” Had I been overly direct too soon?
She almost laughed as she sprinkled chocolate on her coffee – there was neither milk nor sugar – took a spoonful of the ice-cream and dipped it in the coffee, then momentarily closed her eyes and savoured the contrasting tastes and textures and temperatures as if she had just taken drugs. “I have no need to keep an account.” The admonition was gentle.
“I was just curious.”
“More than a dozen – less than a thousand.” Her lips smiled, but did not tease me.
“And have all the meetings been in such pleasant surroundings?”
“Peaceful, now, certainly, but I could point out things to you to indicate otherwise. Holes caused by musket-shot, an esoteric sigil carved into a door-beam to warn of betrayal, another equally obscure sign elsewhere to indicate sanctuary, the ruins of a nearby barn scarred by fire, never mind the political intrigue and links to royalty in times of open rebellion. Then there are the collapsed tunnels leading from the cellars to caves a couple of kilometres away, full of rumours of stolen treasure, murder, and wreckers. Everything has a history, whether recorded in oral traditions or books or on films or discs, or simply in the fact it has endured and can be read by those who know how. In memories, too, for those who survived what happened.”
I was interested to see how accurate and detailed were her stories, and how much history – whether local or global – she would try and link with her own life. “Yes, I remember my grandparents telling me about being in London during the War – only the old newsreels are left now, and no one’s really interested except historians.”
“There are always other wars, somewhere – whether direct, against a country, or more abstract, against an undefined or unseen enemy – so conveniently polarised during times of political or religious expediency into ‘us’ and ‘them’ that most people now don’t even recognise it, let alone question it.”
“And would you class yourself as an unseen enemy?” I almost felt like smiling, and wondered why, then realised the curious effect she was having on me – everything she said and did was so assured yet also somewhat indifferent, as if she lived inside her own personal reality and didn’t care one way or another what anyone else thought of her for doing so. Certainly, she could afford to isolate herself financially – if my assumptions were correct – but what about the social and physiological aspects of her life?
“We are neither, and have never been, though mostly we aren’t seen because you do not want to – in most instances simply cannot.”
For the first time Eva explicitly mentioned herself as someone different, as she probably knew I had been waiting for it, but her mention of others was unexpected. How far would she take her flight of fancy? “What was it like for you – I mean how did it affect you in the beginning?”
She accepted the change of direction without comment. “To say that nothing can prepare you for it is not strictly true, for there is plenty of information for those who can be bothered to research it, but there are severe limits on what can be felt beyond the actual learning, and some didn’t have the opportunity to before they were thrust unprepared into a new world. The impact of that initial awakening can have repercussions that taint the rest of their life, but everything is a process of education. Can you really look in the mirror and accept what you see – not just your face at the end of a tiring day but your whole body, naked, open to scrutiny? Can you truly know who and what you are, what you are capable of, what you could become if you were able?”
“It was uncomfortable?”
“‘Terrifying’ is, I think, an appropriate word, or at least it was, for a while. It cleansed me, too – a rebirth in more ways than one – as I became the very thing I had been raised to fear, and I revelled in it.”
“Aren’t you ever worried about going too far – of becoming a monster?”
Eva dismissed my query with the barest of shrugs. “Whose definitions would you use?”
“The usual ones.”
“And who defines that other than people who already think of themselves as normal? It’s a circular argument used to make everyone feel secure, so their lowest expectations remain unchallenged as they sink ever deeper into mediocrity. To answer your initial question, though – no, I have long been what I would now wish to be, and have no desire to return to what I once was. I’m quite safe in polite society, and can take care of myself in others far less so.”
“Well, you certainly seem to accept your way of life.”
“I’m perfectly adapted to it, which is as it should be. You find me interesting, certainly, but also somewhat attractive in an unexpected way.” Her sudden remark should have been a question, but it was also true and she knew it, was fully aware of the effect she was having on me even though it bore no direct relation to our discussion. Or did it – was she just another of those who linked their fantasies with sex and simply added another fluid to the intimate exchange? I wouldn’t be disappointed if such were the case, for I’d met quite a few like her and understood what they thought – it was another and far deeper level of trust as well as containing a frisson of danger – and certainly my own experiments with that had been very enjoyable, though they had all been with men. There was definitely something about her that went beyond the simply physical – she was certainly no beauty in the conventional sense and would pass unnoticed in a crowd except perhaps for the confident way in which she moved – but at the moment she almost seemed to radiate a sensuality that was completely at odds with the athletically-proportioned woman sitting opposite me that it was almost as if she were two different people. Then again, I suppose that could be said of anyone, as there was usually a difference between anyone’s public and private personas. I was more than used to looking at other women without feeling any desire for them, yet Eva drew my attention like no other woman ever had and I was unsettled by it, though perhaps this was also part of her game – to charm me, perhaps even attempt a seduction. “It’s a normal response.”
Despite myself, I smiled. “Do you like that – it amuses you?”
She almost laughed. “I accept it, as with so many other things. It’s part of who we are, so some use it to their advantage, and despite appearances to the contrary I select my companions very carefully. Were we more accessible, no doubt someone would analyse it to the enth degree and market a scent named ‘blind lust’ or ‘night passion’, or something equally predictable.”
Her repeated inclusion of others beyond herself was a marked departure from my previous interviewees, as they had all made a specific point of explaining how they existed in isolation – perhaps to rationalise what was in some cases quite an extreme form of self-imposed suffering that bordered on masochism – shunned by a society that couldn’t understand them and saw no reason to as they clung on to outmoded fears. “So there are no surprises left for you?”
“On the contrary, it’s your never-ending propensity for change that keeps us interested in you – and wary – even as we pursue our own goals.” Following on from the shift in our conversation a few moments ago, she carried it forward in her own unique way, but where was she leading me? Eva turned and swung her legs up on to the seat, leaned back against the mosaic and drank more coffee, this time with some crème-caramel. “It used to be so easy – just pretend to die and leave a will passing everything on to yourself under a new name in a different village where everything was written on paper records and the locals soon died or forgot. Now it’s all automated, the few remaining paper birth- and death-certificates are kept centrally and everything is cross-referenced onto over-priced bug-ridden databases by neat little clerks who poke into other people’s lives because they have none of their own – or else they think they’re serving the ever-more paranoid state by keeping tabs on prospective dissenters who have only to say ‘no’ to be classed as such – as if anyone actually needed to know, despite what governments claim when they can’t even keep track of their own machinations and care only for their limited circle of financiers. It’s hardly a problem, nothing more than a simple accounting exercise for most of us, and any new systems you introduce will be broken before they’re even operational, aided by the fact you all live longer whilst individuals are more secluded as they are surrounded by new people they know nothing of, so there is more room for us to remain invisible.”
The creation of a background was also something which I was used to hearing, but hers was already far more detailed and reasoned, and we had hardly begun our conversation. “You’re being very honest with me.”
“I have nothing to lose – you do.” Her almost curt reminder of our respective positions was just a statement of fact rather than a veiled threat – her voice had not hardened at all, nor was she deriding me – for I was more than aware she could tell me whatever she chose and within limits I had to take it at face value unless she presented any corroborating evidence. I’d invited myself into her little world and was prepared to risk quite a lot – had already done so in previous encounters – and to instantly dismiss everything I heard would not do her any justice and negate the entire reason for interviewing her.
“I know, but for the sake of argument, what if you hadn’t felt safe in meeting me here?”
“Then I would be elsewhere enjoying myself and you would be here alone – unless you were hunting me, in which case you’d already be dead. My senses are so far beyond yours you couldn’t understand any descriptions, and I move faster than you can possibly respond to, but why dwell on the negative? The night is yet young, and even if it were not we can take as long as we need – beyond the morning if necessary.”
Superhuman strength and speed were part of the folklore – though with various limitations that provided an excuse not to actually reveal any of their alleged powers – and I was interested to see how much she could explain away her otherwise normal existence. “Surely daylight is a threat to you?”
Eva smiled, almost laughed, then mixed caramel with ice-cream, dipped it in coffee and swallowed slowly, as if the dessert was intoxicating to her. “Oh, so many myths, so many stories – you have no idea how wrong so many of them are.”
I laughed slightly, and prompted. “Well, I assume you like to sleep in a proper bed rather than a coffin filled with soil from the grounds of an ancestral home.”
“Yes, a poor allusion to us being judged creatures of the earth, and please tell me how we are supposed to rearrange our bodies to become a bat or any other creature thought of as evil by various cultures, such as rats or wolves, who invariably display more intelligence and care for their own kind than their detractors. Considering how few of us there were, our influence on your mythology and entertainment has been remarkable – fear is a prime motivator, after all – yet the amount of accurate information is minuscule, which is perhaps for the best as it keeps us safe from the idly curious and the quick-tempered. I don’t deny that some of our reputations were well-deserved – though the older chroniclers have a lot to answer for as they willingly distorted things to suit their own parochial bias and advance their personal agendas – but we are alive to appreciate the irony of it all as now even more than ever people refuse to consider our existence as anything other than born of ignorance and hysteria, or simple folklore. All they did was add invention to oft-repeated stories and never even considered going to the source, because they couldn’t think of us as real even as they created their own legends which other people then took as evidence we were real, thus fuelling the cycle. As for the doctors and psychiatrists – premature burial, rabies, catalepsy, porphyria, ignorance of the way a body decomposes so that even in this so-called enlightened age people still ‘know’ that nails and hair continue to grow after death – all medical explanations of legends along with their judgement of inverts. Now the entire pseudo-science is consigned to the dust-bin of history along with phrenology and graphology – perhaps it was the mother’s fault. Would not decapitation or immolation kill anyone else, too, and do they know of the force required to thrust a stake – why only a wooden one I never did understand – through to someone’s heart?”
“Yet surely there must be some basis in truth?”
“We are preternatural, certainly, but superstition to the contrary we can’t defy the laws of physics.” Her laugh was low, almost contemptuous. “Can doors and windows recognise our presence and so react – to deny us entry to people’s homes – or would some alleged ‘higher power’ control them all and keep mere mortals safe until they are foolish enough to invite us in?”
I smiled. “I must admit that was something I never really understood.”
“It is certainly true we have out own rules for interacting with Humans, but only within the bounds of what is possible, and who else but we would benefit from such a silly superstition, even one that’s so easy to disprove? You see me clearly, but does that same light then somehow vanish on its way to a mirror or can the mirror know what I am so as to suck an image of me – and everything I wear – into oblivion? What, in any case, would you define as a mirror? – silvered glass certainly applies, as would polished metal and a pool of water, but what of a glazed tile?” Her free hand moved slightly to indicate the mosaic at her back. “To admit those beliefs there must be a determining point where surfaces act accordingly, but even a cursory analysis only exposes the underlying flaws of such thinking, though people then were so easily persuaded that one of us was Human simply by standing in front of a mirror that it’s now another part of the underlying mythology. In any case, such alleged ‘rules’ were created long before modern inventions such as cameras which then have to be admitted or rejected from the new canon, and do they then only apply to older SLRs with mirrors and not the newer digital cameras? If anyone is afraid of their reflection or is unable to acknowledge what the mirror reveals of themselves, then it is Humans who can’t accept what they see when they’ve peeled away their thin veneer of civilisation and found nothing but a self-aware animal whose attempt at a conscience always absolves it of all the crimes it knowingly commits for whatever causes it deems expedient.”
“Mirrors were once thought to reveal one’s true soul – as the eyes were windows to it – and photographs to capture it.”
“Just so, and as for not breathing! – though I admit that when we sleep we appear comatose or even dead to those unaware of the signs – or what of having no heartbeat? which makes the sex we are justly famed for somewhat impossible, especially for the men. It is also a fact we don’t actually need normal sustenance, but to relinquish the sensual pleasures of food – why should we? – though perhaps it is also partly habit, but an enjoyable one especially to our senses, which certainly aren’t troubled by a smelly lily. Nor are we afraid of spells chanted in Latin – as if an older language somehow contained more potency – or those most ridiculous of alleged wards, the Christian cross and holy water or a bible, and if that then which version and why not any other similar or far older stories from the same region? How can holding a piece of tortured metal or chanting at mere aqua or quoting a charm from a book of stolen myths have any effect on someone? – least of all of a different faith – or on all of us who have no need of such things and can see no difference between the invention of Ea or Ra or Baal or Yahweh, never mind all the sects you have created and slaughtered in the meantime. Does that disturb you?”
Even more than the others, she had produced a complete history for herself, full of genuine references, yet everything that might be used to expose her as a normal woman with a blood-fetish linked to sex was rationalised by claiming nearly all of the conventional stories were wrong and only she was right. I was almost disappointed at how unimaginative it was, but I would never violate her trust in me by directly challenging anything she said, simply ask her to reveal more of her world of make-believe, and using my own past as a basis for further questions was the easiest and fairest way to proceed, as I had done in previous interviews. “No, not really. I mean, I went the local Catholic school – it was the only alternative to the corporate comprehensive down the road with its womb-to-tomb wall of indoctrinated smiley-happy clones, or the government-sponsored creationist nut-house whose concept of ‘science’ was so wide as to include astrology – and it was still a good place to get a general education, but in all honesty I think I only stayed with it for so long because I was attracted to the ceremonies and the sense of belonging to something greater than myself. I loved the overall atmosphere of the school, it was so – I don’t know – comforting, reassuring, and there was none of the danger that had existed in previous institutions where the girls were laundry-slaves. I suppose what really made me doubt after I left were all the different denominations, each claiming only they were right and that God was on their side, never mind all the other world religions who also argued the same thing with equal passion and lack of evidence, but the real problems for me were sin and hell – what a burden to place on a child who knew nothing of such things and had no need to! – that the God who made you split a part of himself off and then pretended to die to atone for the flaws he was responsible for creating, and then if you didn’t believe it you were condemned to an eternity of suffering for something you had no control over. Perhaps the fact I doubted at all is proof the teaching didn’t take as well as it should have done, but the more I learned the more disheartened I became with the whole thing, and eventually it all just faded away into the pleasant memory it is today. I suppose I’m an atheist, just like a lot of Europe – I completely lack belief in a God or gods, and have no need for any of them in my life, though of course I can appreciate and in fact love all of the rich cultural heritage it’s left behind. If there is a God, then he – it – isn’t a personal saviour who talks back to you – and why on earth would it bother with us anyway unless we’re nothing more than pets? whilst demanding worship is for insecure bullies – but more along the lines of a creator of the universe – is that deism? – or perhaps just a sort-of ‘spirit of nature’ that organises life wherever it can but doesn’t even have to be conscious or involved. Then again, it might all be maths and probability simply saying this universe allows life whilst unknown millions of others don’t, or even the universe itself using us and anyone else to try and learn about itself from the inside – I don’t know.” I felt oddly embarrassed at how vague that last bit sounded, but most of my friends and co-workers were of a similar outlook, either lapsed from the various faiths in which they were raised or just not thinking of it in any formal way at all, whilst most of those who did have faith in something else did not proselytise either because they didn’t feel threatened by different beliefs, or they knew they couldn’t answer the questions asked of them without resorting to excuses grounded in nothing except blind faith, and those few who tried to force their world-view onto us – for our own good, of course – were treated with the contempt they deserved.
“Yet for us there is no death and no hell – unless you consider we are already in it.”
“Someone else’s hell, you mean?”
“No, I was referring to Marlowe rather than Huxley.”
I easily matched her references, and smiled. “‘Deprived of everlasting bliss’? If so, then it’s our own fault, but I think our life is what we make of it, at least for those of us fortunate enough to still have much of a choice, but everything you claim to represent stands in direct violation of religion’s most sacrosanct laws – you’re outside it all. They would consider you damned, soul-less, something to be killed without mercy or pity.”
Eva laughed, but wasn’t mocking me as she ate more ice cream. “As they did to the inhabitants of every country they invaded, all the while boasting of their own ‘Humanity’ and ‘Civilisation’, but then that is a judgement made by people who are ignorant and wish to remain that way – comforted by servile devotion to a master they have no knowledge of beyond their own superstitions, though they try to legitimise their self-imposed slavery by calling them revelations and everyone else a heretic worthy only of conversion or death. As for the soul, since no one has yet demonstrated its existence for you who think so highly of yourselves you made most of your gods in your own image – the conceit of that is no surprise to us – then it’s as true we have none as well and neither does any other animal, but I know what I am and accept it – in fact I celebrate it.”
I poured myself some more wine, and whilst I reluctantly admitted to myself that I agreed with much of what she said, I was a still little unnerved by the calm manner in which she had completely removed herself from earthly affairs, but then she could afford not to be involved. “I’m afraid metaphysics is beyond me – I try and simplify things as much as possible.”
“So many theories over so many years – the search is endless. Hadrons shatter like a game of marbles into further sub-atomic particles that decay into even more, all rising like a phoenix from the ashes of phlogiston theory via electro-magnetism and the Casimir effect to a raging ocean of quantum foam and M-completeness to – whatever next? And then there are your arts and cultures – Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Beethoven, Turner, Friedrich, Shakespeare – all those from only a handful of centuries in Europe, when there is the entire world for richness and variety.”
My science background was minimal, but even I knew the basics of M-completeness – or Unification as it was simply known – for some of the principles were now even more famous than Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence formula, and despite howls of outrage from those whose ignorance led them to believe it meant the universe was as deterministic as a giant mechanical clock, it was as easily demonstrable as the underlying quantum theory, but what were ‘flojiston’ and ‘kazimeer’? Despite my reservations, I was becoming even more intrigued and hoped I wouldn’t become rude because of it, yet she was speaking in such a detached way as if relating a story that had happened to someone else, and despite the personal implications of her actual words, all of her alleged actions seemed distant. How far did she take this? “Don’t you create anything of your own?”
“It’s true that we are now well-organised, but we are also disperse because the risks of centralisation are far too great, though we do have communities and an extensive shared history, and some of our own technology which we use to pursue our own ends. We live on the peripheries of your world and we don’t control you, though there are many things we do to ensure our own comfort and survival, and we don’t want to rule you – to be blunt we would accomplish the task far better than you have managed during the past millennia – it would be too much trouble for us whilst exposing us to every conceivable danger, the least of which is a confirmation of our existence that prevents us from living as we wish. The only time we might risk a consolidated strategy would be if you deliberately threatened to extinguish all life on the planet, then we would either have to prevent you or implement one of our long-term strategies so we outlast the coming decades of chaos. I suppose the ideal scenario – for some of us at least – would be to leave the planet as a mass-grave for your species, a gigantic ossuary to commemorate a stupidity that can’t even ensure its own continuance, but stars are also suns, and finding one that isn’t dangerous to us which also has a suitable planet might not be possible – notwithstanding our immortality makes us better suited than you for stellar exploration – and there are supplies to think of. Besides, living in the ocean offers us so many more advantages which only an asteroid impact would threaten. Some people realise we are all interconnected – living as we are on this ball of rock whirling through space – but not enough that they relinquish their territories and borders, or offer any hope of equality.”
I was amazed at how well she managed to fabricate such a self-contained illusion whilst obviously still being able to function in the real world, but her reference to the various trading blocs was more accurate than harsh, especially since the isolationism had been copied by the older empires in response to growing local civil unrest at their increasingly repressive governments, and a corresponding rise in xenophobia. There were severe limits on what normal people like me could do to prevent it because we never had any real power to begin with – despite regular elections and their pretence of freedom from bureaucratic and corporate control – and any organised action would have been violently suppressed by the same governments who claimed to represent us, as had already happened. “At least you recognise it as well, but then I suppose you need us.”
Eva’s smile was almost feral. “For sustenance? Of course, though there are now alternatives, including hospital supplies that aren’t infected, and individual preferences vary greatly. Some are predators, others opportunists, whereas most invariably take from those who are willing and ensure the experience in enjoyable for both.”
“And have you always lived in Europe?”
She didn’t berate me for my continual questioning as she knew that was the reason we had met, but rather elaborated her alternative existence. “Most of my time has been spent here, yes, though for the first quarter of my life I was what would now be considered a refugee, fleeing from one country to another as you moved your wars like plagues across mountains and rivers, sparing no one, as I in turn did not until I grew up. Even the so-called ‘new world’ which I visited briefly – and with no small amount of danger throughout the long voyage, bringing with me cramped ships full of the desperate and eager and indentured – was no different, with the greedy exploiting the dispossessed and the politicians imposing foreign wars onto the local inhabitants, whose existing rivalries were used against them to hasten their own destruction, but the blood spilled there tasted no different from that which stained the earth of my home, to which I soon returned.”
Assuming that what Eva said contained even a grain of truth, then her status as a refugee explained a great deal of her attitudes, though not her extreme misanthropy and sense of detachment. Perhaps she was now afraid of becoming involved in anything – or anyone – in case it was all torn from her again or she was forced to uproot and seek shelter elsewhere. I pictured her as a child, huddled with her parents and a few belongings in the back of a dilapidated lorry queuing to cross a heavily fortified border, or trudging for weeks along dusty roads, forever fearful of the whims of local militia and foreign air-strikes, and if that image – seen so frequently on telemedia that its impact was now completely impersonal despite the more-than-obvious suffering etched on people’s faces – was indeed true, then she deserved my respect rather than my sympathy, for though it tainted her view of the world she had made a success of herself in financial rather than social terms, which was more than many other dispossessed people had managed to achieve. “But you weren’t actually involved in the fighting?”
“It’s true to say I have survived more wars than a Professor of history has studied, but when Napoleon swept through Europe I was safely here in England feeding off the rich and carefree, and during Hitler’s rampage I was far away in the northern lands with many of my colleagues – relative to those, the other battles were easy to avoid, though their consequences no less devastating to the victims. We knew of the terror-bombings of the later conflicts and the sieges of ravaged cities where the locals were used as cannon-fodder to contest every metre of land, but to hear someone claim they lived through the Great Fire of London and Paris Commune, survived both the Titanic and Hindenburg, and helped storm the Winter Palace – rather than simply living contemporaneously as I have done – is to find only a charlatan not even suited to the dregs of hack fiction. Stalin, Mao, Pol-Pot, and Kym, though they joyously slaughtered millions of their own, were basically local events, and done in such a way that gave those of us who wanted to leave plenty of time to do so, but some of us remained and took advantage of the ensuing carnage – why not? Our only concern is that now warfare is so mechanised the possibility of total annihilation increases, but so far every time a leader has sent forth their people or ideologies to conquer the world you have always – somehow – managed to stop right at the brink, for though on each occasion the world held its breath and wondered if they would see the morrow, still they saw the sun rise, which is more than we can do directly. And what can I say about a species that deliberately creates pathogens to destroy all life including its own? – but our bodies are capable of resisting most infections, including many of those which are fatal to you.”
There was nothing I could really say in response to that, but did she think of herself as some kind of superhuman, or in some way better than others? “So you’ve never fought in any of our conflicts, and you’ve never had any of your own?”
“For the first – we can’t move unprotected during the day – why would we when we are not partisan? And the second – though I admit our history saw people from early city-states fight one another for what were then limited resources, and there is an occasional rabble-rouser who thinks they can enslave your species like the herds of sheep you so often resemble – why would we when there we now have the entire world to live in and feed from? As for fighting the whole of Humanity – you are far more proficient at war than we, and would exterminate us without a care, advertising our destruction as a worthy goal and celebrating our extinction as a victory for your species. You used to send thousands of men to hack each other to death as generals moved flags back and forth on a piece of coloured paper – the start of a distancing of the commanders from the slaughter they supervised, whereas we always see our victims face-to-face – but that wasn’t enough so then they brainwashed myriads of otherwise reasonably sane people to shoot one another whilst fighting for abstract lines drawn on a map of the land due to conflicting ideologies – whether political or religious or both – and yet you think of us as the beasts, we who only take what we need.”
Even though now she had returned to the personal, Eva still managed to put her distinctive slant on things, for without exception all the others I’d spoken to who knew anything of history had tried to implicate themselves in events, some even to the point of being present during major discoveries as they tried to perpetuate their own mythology, which was – as she pointed out – ludicrous. Usually this sense of estrangement would make someone rather anti-social and solitary, but Eva showed none of the usual symptoms as she thoroughly enjoyed her life if the clothes and jewellery she wore were anything to go by, and it didn’t seem to be over-compensation for what may have been a genuinely traumatic childhood. Despite that, she thought of herself as a citizen of the whole world, owing allegiance to neither country nor creed, but how detached was she and how did such an outlook exist side-by-side with the fantasy within her? – where others of her kind roamed at will as externalised projections of her own freed desires. The sense of isolation was mentioned only as part of the general conversation and had neither been eliciting sympathy nor expressing sadness, it was a simple and accepted fact of her life, but surely things couldn’t be so easy – that she was lonely? “Is that why you became involved with blood-rites, because of what they represented?”
Eva looked at me with an expression that was half smile, half frown, but didn’t explain her reaction – had I overstepped some unspecified boundary by directly mentioning it? – simply ate some more ice-cream dipped in coffee and let it melt on her tongue before swallowing languorously in enjoyment. “The underlying assumption to your question is flawed. Unlike the invitation we now give to others, I had no choice in the matter and was turned by a man – then little more than a ravenous beast driven solely by instinct – who had been chased from town to village to farm and was almost mad with hunger. He found me at dusk working alone in what passed for a field and almost drained me, and only then, with my vision blurring and my breathing fading, did he drop me and stare down as I lay dying at his feet, for I expected nothing except an oblivion that would have been almost welcome as a release from the unending hopelessness and drudgery, but he seemed truly shocked by his own actions. Was it my relative youth? I doubt it, for many children died before reaching even their tenth birthday – so perhaps as a kind of perverse reward for saving his life he made mine as eternal as his. I was reborn on the twenty-eighth of June 1597, outside a nameless collection of hovels long ago fallen back into the mud from whence they sprang, and I had to leave my family and all I’d ever known as my body started to change and I grew older beyond my apparent years. Had I been stronger I would probably have tried to kill myself for fear of what I was becoming, but I’ve always been afraid of pain even though I now heal within a few days except for the most serious injuries, and since then I have never once felt the need to end my life, which I enjoy to its fullest extent. There were so many new experiences that I was overwhelmed and initially lost, for all I’d ever known was a few square miles of land whose people were all raised on the same ignorant so-called ‘facts’ and fearful legends, but he was a fair if at times brusque teacher who helped me adjust during the coming months, and after a few decades I reached a peak of physical performance which hasn’t declined in any way since.”
I had never before met anyone with such a detailed story to tell, but her ability to blend what may have been the genuine facts of her childhood with pure fiction – she was after all claiming to have been born over four centuries ago and therefore be ten times older than me! – had me alternating between slight alarm at her way of life and a deepening interest at how elaborate her creation was, or perhaps it was a protective barrier – a form of denial. “It must have been difficult leaving home and adapting.”
As if she could read my shifting opinions of her, Eva smiled again – she didn’t reveal her teeth, only her lips curved in a motion that was alarmingly seductive – but continued with her story. “I had no idea beyond fire-side tales of how large and terrifying the world truly was – it both repulsed and fascinated me – and it wasn’t until I was well into what would for a Human be their adulthood that I visited the sea and was astonished at the endless expanse of water that couldn’t even be drunk, but I soon began to love what I’d become, and revelled in the power I had before settling into a more sedate style of life. Later – tens of years and hundreds of miles away from that devastating awakening – I made use of what I’d already learned, namely that many people were willing to pay generously for certain favours, so I fell easily into pleasing them and satisfying my own needs at the same time, and it was quite safe. I could try and use a softer word such as ‘courtesan’ but in truth I was a prostitute – though a highly-paid one – for in those days it was a simple way for someone like me to advance, and it provided an extensive education by tutors and guides who pandered to my whims and turned a blind eye to my sometimes obscure tastes, as well as providing me with the means to travel and furnish my homes, but all that’s long behind me and now I do what I will simply for the pleasure of it, as I also learned to enjoy other people’s pleasure in what they do.”
“And children – what of them?”
“We are sterile – nature’s little trick on us – but then we have other means of procreation, and sex is so much more than it ever was – we can go on for hours. I’ve raised a few mewling infants – not of my own, obviously – and been happy enough for it, but to see them wither and die can hurt if you let it. As for friends and companions, I remember all those I have met, and none but I and a few others even know they existed beyond names in long-neglected books of dusty records.”
As I had assumed, sex was an important part of what she did, as indicated by her admission of selling herself – assuming that piece of the story was even true – but what did she mean by that last part? “Do you mean not everyone can be converted or whatever you want to call it?”
“We can sense those who will survive the transition, though even then some die from the shock – total systemic failure – but I was mainly referring to those who cannot change because their attitudes prevent them from accepting all that we represent. Outdated mores, cultural restrictions – or simple terror – which cannot be overcome, as I did. Even if their bodies accept the change their minds can’t, and they quickly destroy themselves in self-loathing. Our numbers increase slowly over the years, but in relation to the Human population we are insignificant, despite your growing use of us for the purposes of various entertainments.”
So that was how she reacted to anyone who couldn’t accept her way of life, but at least it was better than feeling persecuted. “You make it sound so sad, as if you’re forever searching for a relationship you can never have. Is that why some of the – how shall I put it? – more fantasy-prone people have given you titles such as ‘the forsaken ones’ or ‘children of the night’ and other epithets they consider tragic in a romantic sort of way?”
“I would say that the children of the night were actually wolves – ‘What music they make!’ – but perhaps that’s too pedantic even for me.” She shrugged in the slightest of movements. “It’s a conceit of theirs – they project their own loneliness onto us and claim we aren’t truly understood even as those who hunt us know precisely what we are – they who can’t find a friend in a bustling city or even say ‘hello’ to their neighbours lest they be rejected, who externalise their insecurities and reduce us to their level in the same way they initially demonise and then romanticise someone of another culture. All those attributes are magnified in us, for we are the embodiment of everything they claim to reject as primitive or despise as immoral even as a part of them yearns for what they want us to represent – freedom without a conscience – and I won’t even go into the entire other-world of allegedly genuine demons of which we are supposed to be a part, living our own oh-so poor and tortured lives parallel to your own yet forever in the shadows – as indeed we are – but they are merely similes for your own fears and fantasies, metaphors for an animal heritage you smothered under centuries of dogma which reduced your actual and wonderful existence to that of a mere creature – a literal created being made by a petulant demiurge who denied his parentage and claimed he was the only god, wanting everyone to praise his might and punishing them when they didn’t.”
I almost laughed at Eva’s concise description. “Is there nothing you miss?”
“Sunlight, of course – our only natural enemy other than Man – but that’s a small price to pay, for you can’t possibly understand how much we enjoy life – our life as we live it in actuality, not yours or what you think ours to be – we celebrate it in everything we do, for there is so much beauty in this world if only you would look, and feel. It’s intoxicating!”
“And yet you’re supposed to bring death to others.”
“Oh, but we do, and to refute that would be a lie which panders to those misguided groupies who consider us misunderstood and longing for redemption before we gladly seek death – a welcome release from our allegedly innate seclusion and unending torment. How morbidly Human that is! In my past I have drunk from those who were unwilling and watched them cower as I bent over them like some dark angel from their cruellest myths, or seduced them in a shadowy corner and nearly drained them to satiate myself, but nowadays I take only what I need from those who wish to live afterwards, who think I am merely playing a game. As for the few who genuinely desire death – I know them easily enough – they even judge it a kindness, for there is someone to hold them as they slip quietly away, and I enjoy that too.”
Her completely indifferent talk of murder was at such odds with our wonderfully relaxed conversation that it unnerved me for a moment. “How many people have you met in those circumstances?”
“More than a dozen – less than a thousand.” She chuckled quietly at her deliberate repetition of some minutes ago. “We can’t use them all, for some are diseased, but each type of blood has its own properties – like a subtle bouquet.”
I felt relieved, then, as I knew she wasn’t admitting to having actually killed anyone, for such things were either allegorical or part of the intimate game itself – le petit mort – or in more extreme cases the inclusion of partial suffocation or strangulation, but her description was something I’d not heard before, though it made a kind of sense. “Does it help you determine if someone is a suitable donor or not?”
“Just so. Hold out your arm.”
“What? I mean, why?” Even though we were sheltered in the alcove, was she seriously thinking of blood-letting in the middle of such a public place?
“A simple demonstration, nothing more. Remember it was you who requested this meeting – I wouldn’t be here without your invitation – and if you wish full disclosure then you’ll need to consent to something other than mere questions, otherwise this will be so one-sided as to be biased beyond use, for how can you report on what you have not experienced?”
Her words were not accusatory, but she was right, and I knew it, so I slowly extended my left arm, suddenly overly-conscious of the faint tracery of veins leading to my wrist, but Eva shook her head in the slightest of motions as she stood and walked to the end of our table, her skirt momentarily brushing the curtain.
She sat beside me on the left and, rather than taking my proffered arm, stretched over and lifted my right hand so I had to turn to fully face her, then in a surprisingly tender movement she ran the pad of her thumb over my skin as she leaned forward and pushed up the sleeve of my sweater.
My past needs mixed with no small amount of recklessness had drawn me to various forms of the sport, for I had no qualms about it although I was always the donor and knew how to safeguard myself as I always carried my own equipment when anticipating meetings – and a small medical kit, as I did now, though for reasons of general safety rather than involvement in any rituals – but what Eva wanted was so unexpected I was intrigued rather than disturbed, especially bearing in mind our surroundings which placed severe limits on what we could do.
Despite myself, I almost shivered at the contact as memories of hard sharp cold metal against soft pliant warm flesh returned to me, along with my eager anticipation before the first glossy red bead sprang out and slowly trickled around my arm to form a bracelet of rubies like roses blossoming in the snow, and the sudden high pain from the knife that shot through my body and produced a sensation of such brilliant clarity it was like feeling everything for the first time, before it was smothered in crimson warmth.
Eva’s touch was neither chill nor hot – completely neutral at room-temperature – neither firm nor light, as if my arm was moving of its own volition rather than in response to someone else’s gentle direction, then she detached a small dagger from her bunch of electrikeys and pulled off its narrow sheath to reveal a pristine blade of shimmering steel that she held at the side of the nearest candle-flame.
I watched in calm silence as she sterilised the knife – strangely, I had every reason to think it was already clean as its only purposes would be for such ceremonies – then Eva bent forward slightly as she lifted my wrist to her lowering head. I breathed in the aroma of strong coffee from her open mouth as her tongue licked a meandering path from the hollow of my elbow down to the palm of my open hand. My skin was far more sensitive than usual – almost unnaturally so – and I couldn’t help but shiver in delight even as a part of me wondered if I should pull back and tell her to stop before I fully committed myself, but the actual cut just above my wrist occurred as if it was happening to someone else for I hardly felt a thing, then her lips pressed against my flesh.
Eva drank leisurely, her breathing as slow and deep as since we first met, and after a while that may have been only a few seconds or over a minute she raised her head and licked her mouth clean. Her smile of pleasure revealed creamy-white teeth limned with red near the moist pink gums, and I glimpsed long sharpened canines – some form of extension rather than a permanent re-shaping of her normal teeth as I’d seen in other people – but all the while she watched me as she held my arm so blood dripped slowly into the wine-glass. Eva leaned towards me again, her face filling my vision, then she stretched out her right arm and cupped the back of my neck to draw me into an embrace that seemed so natural my body accepted it without any unease, though not my mind.
I’d only kissed women a few times before – girls really, at school, nothing more than teenage experiments to see what kissing was like and how to make it feel nice – and due to the last vestiges of my upbringing I still thought of gay relationships as slightly wrong even though I knew all that mattered was how happy the partners or their children were, but I was literally backed into a corner – both of the alcove and a situation of my own devising – and had nowhere to go. I could have struggled and tried to rise and push past her, or called for help, but that would have exposed what we were doing and caused more trouble than I felt like dealing with, yet I didn’t think I was in any real danger, certainly far less than with those who would recklessly mix their blood with a stranger’s for mutual consumption as part of a bonding ritual.
Eva’s lips hovered in front of mine before touching them carefully – in any circumstances as considerately as someone with an ingénue they didn’t want to frighten off – allowing me to taste the coffee and chocolate, which meant I was barely conscious of the blood that otherwise would have overlain everything like a thick syrup. The kiss was far from amorous as she tilted my head, just our mouths touching in a brief contact so relaxed we might have been friends greeting one another on the cheek – at least a genuine touch rather than the pathetic ‘air-kisses’ so beloved of TV personalities with their rictus grins and spray-on tans – but my breathing started to quicken because a part of me almost wanted to retch even as my mouth was flooded with a swirling warmth of contrasting flavours that were unexpectedly stimulating.
“Drink, but slowly.” The words drifted into me as I felt something hard against my teeth, and I realised she had taken the glass and was offering me my own blood as a libation whilst she resumed her feasting on my arm in such a way she could look directly into my eyes, though this time her actions were more pronounced and her enjoyment more evident as she swallowed, her eyes not blinking but retaining their intimate contact with my own in a way that was neither challenging nor intrusive, simply accepting of a situation that was as natural to her as eating and drinking.
I knew I should have felt queasy as the thick liquid slid down my throat but could do nothing, for in reality it was no worse than tomato juice even though it was truly blood of my blood and not mere communion wine over which had been cast a transmutation spell, then her lips replaced the glass and somehow managed to soothe my body’s unease as my tongue brushed over the sharp edges of her extensions, and all the while my own mouth was awash with so many textures I felt almost drunk on the jumble of unaccustomed sensations.
“Enough for now.” She sighed as if in regret and blinked languorously – how exhilarating was this for her when she was vastly more experienced and did this regularly?
I took the medical kit from my bag and wiped the cut – there was no discomfort at all and it had almost stopped bleeding – then put on an antiseptic plaster and crunched a pill that would protect me from anything her saliva may have carried. Even though there was something about her that engendered trust – as with the safety of her dagger, I felt sure the pill was unnecessary – I was still amazed and even a little disturbed by my own reactions and why I had allowed her to do that to me. What had I been thinking – had I been thinking?
Eva watched me all the while, idly curious at my own ritual as she licked her dagger in a motion of careless ease that belied its sharp edges, and replaced its sheath. “I am clean, but it’s good that you show care.”
I was far better than I would have thought a few minutes ago, for despite instincts to the contrary I hadn’t felt particularly sick, and neither could I dispute her statement as almost everything I’d ever believed began to disintegrate under the after-effects of the sensory bombardment. I had always remained on the borders of their world, giving without ever taking, but if this was a taste – both literal and metaphorical – of what they experienced, then what had I been missing? I poured myself some more wine, but after the experience of Eva’s kiss it seemed little better than vinegar. “I thought it would be – I had no idea it could be like that.” As with my pulse, my breathing was slightly faster than usual.
“You enjoyed it.”
I didn’t have to consider my response to her statement, for even if I could have tried to lie to myself she would have known, but one aspect of it troubled me. “I don’t know how you drank straight from me like that – it’s far too great a risk. I’m clean too and can prove it, but you shouldn’t have taken the chance.”
“I knew you were safe as soon as we met. You’re O-positive, but I assume you know that already.”
“Of course, but how did—?” I almost frowned, and wondered if – in apparent contradiction to her nonchalant behaviour so far – she had researched me prior to our meeting, but even then I didn’t think my medical records would have been that easily accessible, or had she managed to search for and read the emergency page of my personal communicator when I had left to order the drinks?
Eva reached out, and for an instant I thought she would open her own vein for me to taste, but she merely took the last spoonful of crème-caramel from her side of the table and passed it between her pristine – and now normal – teeth, so she was obviously used to changing quickly back and forth, and I had to admit the results were very effective without being unintentionally comical. “Come home with me.” Her request – as with everything she said – was direct, and a growing part of me actually wanted to enter her private fantasy for a while and go beyond all my previous experiences. She had never once threatened me or given me promises I knew she couldn’t keep, and aside from the manager at my hotel there were my colleagues at work who knew where I was staying – also my car was still outside – so I felt as secure as I could be in such circumstances, which were themselves far safer than other encounters which had been arranged for me in truly underground clubs that even the normal BDSM community avoided.
“Are you going to – what are you going to do?”
“Come home with me.” Eva quietly repeated her invitation without any sense of command as she stroked my arm, though as with everything else that had occurred I felt I had little choice – not because I was under any compulsion or duress, but simply because everything fell into place with a sense of benign inevitability.
It was true I could have left at any moment, but doing so would have meant the loss not only of everything I came for, but also the opportunity to travel further than I had ever gone before, and with a guide who was undeniably experienced. She stood up and collected her things, casually draped her jacket over her shoulders – I noticed neither of her arms were marked at all, there wasn’t the slightest flaw on her pale skin – then continued the motion to pull open the curtain whilst I picked up my own bag and hurriedly pulled down the sleeve of my sweater, knowing I would follow her.