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The visiting delegates stepped out from the long glossy black limousines and looked at the house that was larger than they had expected, its walls and driveway illuminated against a pale maroon dusk by stark recessed lighting that washed out details and gave everything an atmosphere of flat unreality, as if they were entering the physical set of a old flat film and were only presented with façades whose underlying nature would betray their trust in the forthcoming meeting. They hoped the analogy wouldn’t hold up under scrutiny as they already felt their lives were not entirely safe, but trust was a major element of the talks soon to be convened face-to-face after video negotiations had taken place during the previous fortnight, and they all knew they were at a critical juncture for the Human race.
Amaranta and her five companions were escorted into the entrance hall by plain-clothed guards who remained silent as they scanned the delegates and their few bags for weapons and anything else that might breach the security arrangements, then they were ushered through the house by an officious steward who welcomed them to the country retreat and enquired in a politely neutral tone if their journey had been all right considering how unusually late was the hour, so it was apparent no one knew who the attendees were, which came as no surprise to them and was in some ways welcomed.
János, an isolationist, glanced at the corners of the ceilings and the few bare panels in the walls, as if at any moment he expected their peaceful journey to be interrupted and weapons aimed at them with no chance of escape, and even his partner Tamara had trouble calming him as there was no doubt they were under continual surveillance from both old-fashioned fibre-optics and the latest roving microscopic systems, though they had brought their own motes that would alert them to danger from within and there were observers situated a few kilometres away. Yvette, Erik, and Karel remained alert yet quiet, whilst Amaranta – their chosen main speaker – looked at the pictures and decorations as if they were all new to her, though she had seen such things countless times before.
They were led to the side of the building and into an ante-chamber of worn leather chairs and portraits in faded gilt frames, and asked if they would like to freshen up beforehand or go straight through, as everyone was ready for them and had been informed of their impending arrival as they drove out of the nearby forest and passed through the fortified gates, but the invitation was declined and Karel barely managed to suppress a laugh – of surprise rather than mockery – at the query’s genuine innocence as they were then asked if there were any last-minute changes with regards to drinks and food, to cater for special dietary requirements that may not have been passed on to the general staff.
At the end of the ante-chamber, tall but narrow doors of polished golden-brown wood were opened by two uniformed guards – wide bands of white crossed over their ceremonial uniforms with holstered sliver-guns and laser-rifles held at attention – who stood to attention and, once the delegates had entered, closed the doors behind them and remained outside. The large room was in the same style as the rest of the house, with two plush sofas on either side, but in the centre was a modern oval table of semi-transparent pale yellow lit from beneath by diffuse strips of biolumin radiating from the curving legs which gave the table the appearance of a giant irradiated insect, whilst jutting from the walls were a few antiquated filament lamps shining from brass hoods onto framed landscapes and portraits, and hanging from the ceiling were three small chandeliers of slightly dusty glass whose bulbs remained unlit. Facing them, two pairs of reinforced French windows presented a gloomy view of the darkening grounds and bushes beyond a low balustrade, though there were recessed lights shining up from the paving onto the outside walls.
“Ladies, Gentlemen, thank you for coming. I trust your journey was comfortable?” Gianni Bruno – President of the European Union – left one of the sofas around which almost a dozen people were standing, though it was clear they had stopped conversing as soon as the doors opened, leaving an atmosphere of nervous expectancy. He approached the guests with an attitude that bordered on overly-eager, and with only the slightest hesitation stretched out his arm.
Amaranta stepped forward as the first of her colleagues to shake his hand, and almost smiled at his response to the contact – had he expected their touch to be cold despite the fact he must have been informed to the contrary and had perhaps even visited the prisoners? – then followed him to stand opposite the others as he began introductions.
“I think we all know who you are, but I’ll present everyone to you before we begin, as there are a few faces here you’re probably not familiar with.” The President indicated the four civilians, dressed in varying shades of grey or blue as if they had just emerged from an old corporate board-meeting. “Pauline Zelinski, Clio Halley, Douglas Teeg, and Suresh Patel.” Bruno then turned to the remaining five people, all wearing crisp uniforms with various bands of coloured stripes, but other than that there was nothing to distinguish the formally upright manner in which they all held themselves. “Commander Ian Falcon, co-chair of this meeting, Moira Kelly, Stephen Morris, Rebecca Neilson, and Rafe Pedersun.”
“Thank you.” Amaranta indicated her companions – all of whom were dressed in a variety of casual clothing from various periods in the last couple of decades and so were utterly indistinguishable from most of the general population who wore what they felt comfortable with – and named them in turn, but as she reached Yvette, Bruno’s eyes widened in slight surprise as he saw how different she was from the others, for her appearance was unmistakably Native American, and she had not been on the original attendee list.
“I’m a last-minute addition.” Her intonation was softly French, though tinged with an unidentifiable accent.
“We didn’t think they would send anyone.” The President commented neutrally, puzzled but not wanting to criticise their decisions.
“They haven’t, and they’re too busy doing other things at the moment. I’m what you would think of as Canadian, though it’s a recent designation.” She replied simply, and watched his reaction.
“Oh. The situation over there—” His voice faded.
“Is an entirely predictable distraction, given the circumstances. After all, they’re responsible for this mess.”
“We’ll get to that later.” Bruno hastily changed the subject. “I understand you all wish to be known by your given names, is that correct?”
“Our chosen names, yes.” Amaranta confirmed.
“Is there any particular reason for that?” Teeg asked.
“To preserve some anonymity – not for ourselves, you understand, but for those people who know of us or with whom we currently have relationships. The identities are genuine enough, merely obsolete ones we used some time ago.”
“You don’t trust us?” The President’s tone indicated he wasn’t offended by the inference, but it certainly was not a good way to begin the talks.
“We have no reason to.” Amaranta’s reply was not confrontational.
He nodded to himself. “I understand your disquiet.”
“Do you?” Her response was muted.
“So how do we know you are who you say?” Falcon asked.
She smiled briefly, though the motion was only of her lips. “We can certainly demonstrate what we are, though we have conversed over video links so you do know who we are, but given your recent behaviour towards us and its effects on you, surely the issue is that we have trusted you with our lives merely by attending?”
“And yet you claim to lead all your kind?”
Erik shook his head slightly. “Not at all – we have no leaders, nor any need for them, though we’ve been chosen by those like us and so represent them as much as is possible when dealing with such large numbers.”
The President spread his arms to indicate both groups should move to the conference table, and once everyone had sat at their allocated position – Humans near the main doors, facing the back of the room and the vampires – each with carafes of water, activated notepads, and a variety of beverages in thermal containers surrounded by cups and mugs, he looked to either side at his companions and across at his guests. Bruno leaned forward. “I’d just like to lay some basic ground-rules, as this is hardly a conventional gathering by any means, and I want everyone to be as relaxed as possible. Don’t doubt that we’re well aware of the severity of the situation, and I know things might get rather heated at times so it may have been more productive if there were even fewer of us, but in relation to other such meetings this has been stripped of the usual teams of advisors and representatives of interested parties – who would in any case only look after their own local concerns – for as some of you already know the stakes are considerably higher. So, for the sake of clarity, can you all please try and remain calm and focused on the issues at hand, as we have a great deal to do tonight and we need to be clear on what’s happening and where we’re going – we can’t afford any misunderstandings.” He looked at Amaranta. “This building is completely secure, and our control room ensures it’s shielded against all unauthorised communications for the duration, but the notepads are standard units and will be our permanent record of the conference – they’re for your own use as well, of course, and to be taken when you leave. On the issue of protocol, how would you prefer to be addressed? – I mean as a group rather than individuals.”
“‘Vampires’ is a good-enough description, and it’s been part of both our cultures for so long that it’s too late to change it now.”
“And do you have any questions before we begin?”
She addressed the Human delegates. “I assume you all know what we are – beyond the term ‘vampire’ and all that it evokes, rightly or wrongly – and why we are here?”
Commander Falcon, sitting at one of the narrow curves of the table, opposite Bruno, nodded slightly. “Everyone had been fully briefed on the first aspect, but there is also the latest development that some of us are currently unaware of, as it has been kept at the highest level for reasons that will soon become apparent.” That announcement made some of the Humans uneasy, but they silently deferred to his authority, and he continued. “I must admit, however, we’re all very disturbed by this – even after all this time, the mere concept of what you are is still a shock. I don’t think I’m exaggerating if I say it’s profoundly changed the way in which we view the world – and ourselves. If any of this got out – if the general public ever learned of your existence—” He shook his head as he visualised the panic and fear, the suspicions and accusations as even more ignorance and xenophobia spread through the population.
“There have always been certain amongst you who knew of us – whether hunters who dedicated their brief lives to destroying us, or a few who accepted us as different but not threatening and so lived peacefully with us – but now all that has changed, and you can’t keep this a secret much longer, no matter how much you may want to.”
János quietly added. “They will have to learn of us eventually, if we’re to succeed – if this conference is to have any meaning.”
“You don’t seem very comfortable with that idea.” Bruno pointed out.
“I have no reason to think otherwise – I don’t need you.”
Teeg leaned forward slightly. “Surely you do – as a society, a culture? – for you live among us.”
“It’s true that applies to all but a minority of us, but I do not need you and neither do those I represent. To be blunt, you have nothing to offer me except perhaps a good axe. With that I can fell trees to make a home and build fences to keep animals – they supply me with blood and leather and wool, and when there were such things as bears and wolves, perhaps a coat to last many winters. I don’t need Humanity, but I also know there’s far too much at stake – for us all – and that’s why I’m here.”
“I appreciate your candour.” The President spoke to forestall any protests at János’ casual dismissal.
“Let’s not misunderstand one another.” Amaranta spoke for all of her colleagues. “None of us wants to be here – not because we don’t want to end your war on us, but because we’d rather none of the past few months ever happened. However, much as we would like to even we can’t turn back time, so now after all these centuries of co-existence you are fully aware of us, and it’s not a situation we’re particularly happy with. It is one thing to live where no one except a few trusted individuals and small fanatical groups knew we were real, but soon you all shall, and will you react as you have always done when you felt threatened, even when you were not? Certainly, that seems to be the case, else we wouldn’t be here.”
Halley was puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“We’ll get to that in a moment.” Falcon made it clear he did not want to discuss that particular issue just yet. “I realise you find this difficult, but you must know this isn’t at all easy for us, either. I can’t underestimate the impact of discovering that we’ve been living alongside a small but not insignificant number of people who form an entirely separate species, and have done so for how long? – since before we had written records, considering you’re part of a world-wide mythology that goes back thousands of years in one form or another.”
Amaranta nodded slightly. “The oldest vampire I met was born in the early third century, but I know of a few who lived before Babylon was a name to be feared.”
“They’re over four thousand years old?” Neilson’s subdued exclamation punctured an uncomfortable silence on the part of the Humans.
“Some are nearer six, and there are others still older – legends even to us – but the number itself is meaningless, for the more we live the less important time becomes. We are effectively immortal, after all – barring fatal accidents – though some of the older ones kill themselves, either because they can’t keep pace with your changes or simply because they see nothing ahead except increasing repression of the kind you excel at and which is more than evident in all but a few areas, and despite what many of you fear we have no influence over you, for I’ll say to you now – openly – that if there were means to safely restrain your destructive excesses we would have done so a very long time ago. What does count is what we’ve experienced, and created, and our knowledge, all of which are considerable.”
Falcon’s smile was weak. “There are many things we need to recognise, and we still need time to adjust to the full implications, but time is something we’re very short of at the moment, and we have to come to an agreement, even if it takes all week.”
“We have all the time in the world.” Yvette’s cliché took on far more meaning than usual because of who had spoken it.
“You don’t have to sound so smug.” Halley replied neutrally.
“I was simply stating a fact, and it’s something you must understand if you are to accept us – or at least the fact of our existence – as you claim you want to.”
János was direct rather than critical. “You still can’t live together as inconsequential variations within the same species, so how do you expect two different ones to openly co-exist?” He turned briefly to look through the French windows into the darkened grounds, wondering how many guards might be outside and ready to enter at the first sign of trouble, but he knew the risks in attending the conference, as he was also aware of the consequences if the meeting never took place. “Even I would concede that individuals can be honourable – I have traded with those who knew what I was and either saw no reason to betray me or, seeing reasons, dismissed them as wrong – but as soon as a village is involved things become untenable. Our meeting here is but one of many – we all attended with the same agenda and can deliver what we promise, but you’ve always been fickle and unpredictable – and if we reach an agreement here but your equivalent representatives do not because they reject us or we’re just murdered, what then? If the United Nations still existed we might have addressed a special session in an attempt to allay their fears, but that was disbanded a long time ago because of the new empires, and the entire institution was crippled by the principle of veto – so much for your attempts at representative rather than a participatory democracy, but then that has always been for sale to the lowest bidder so all you do now is decide whose bought-and-paid-for corporate lackey will tell you what do to.” János sighed, and though his tone was far from condescending, he spoke as if describing something that was readily apparent to everyone except those sitting opposite him. “Not so long ago some of you created a set of articles which gained numerous signatories, and announced them with a fanfare of satisfaction as being ‘universal’ when in fact they were only another example of one part of the world trying to impose their will upon the other, and even the most basic Human rights they tried to protect have always been ignored by countries with different perspectives who considered the rules too liberal, both for personal behaviour and because it meant the governments could not then oppress certain groups or individuals, yet despite the best of intentions more cultures exist today than when the declaration was announced who think it perfectly natural to enslave women and children and exterminate those deemed inferior – anyone not like them is automatically less than Human and so to be treated as diseased vermin. That is not to say I agree with them as they joyfully persecute anyone who behaves in a manner the politicians or clerics or self-appointed guardians of public morality claim is indecent or offensive to their prissy sensibilities, but is their way any different than those of the laws everyone else allegedly adhered to yet conveniently ignored when they cited such self-serving excuses as ‘national security’ or ‘cultural integrity’ or ‘corporate confidentiality’? Those who hold power will always use it to find someone to victimise by using inflammatory rhetoric based on obsolete historical texts which were created to divide all people and societies into ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the holy righteous and the heathen infidels, the clean and unclean – so that the accusers were always right and by definition everyone else was wrong, and their purity could be maintained by whatever means necessary, preferably genocide to remove the immediate problem until another group was identified and the cycle repeated ad nauseam.” He shook his head. “Your only consistently uniting purpose has been conquest – which can be focused for good if it means engineering drugs to prevent diseases or creating buildings that seem to defy space and gravity – but that same drive has now led to your virtual extinction. As for the general population, you may be able to inform them of us as if we were just another group of refugees seeking work and a home, but you can’t make them accept us, as they can still barely accept variety amongst themselves because even before they built cities they feared the outsider and now they’re deliberately conditioned since infancy to equate conformity and repression with safety and security. They’re all part of an impersonal social machine that churns out interchangeable parts or just more and ever-more uneducated people who are either unable to question their own oppression because they don’t even know it exists, or actually welcome it because it frees them from making decisions, and they only change when they’re told to, when rulers such as yourselves decide it’s in your own interests.” He looked across at Morris. “You, of all people, should know that.”
“What do you mean?”
“A few centuries ago, you and Halley would have been in servitude to Teeg or Zelinski, simply because your skin is darker than theirs. That was all the difference needed to create a race of slaves, though the practice was standard for the area and enshrined in all the cultures who saw themselves as better than everyone else – the Greek philosophers beloved of so many wrote of fine ideals, but never questioned the underlying assumption of slavery needed to maintain their state, or even the existence of the state itself – and as the Romans discovered slavery soon became a threat simply because of the numbers involved, but it thrives again today and is practised with an even greater severity than before because the tools are more invasive. Some time later – before you were allowed to sit at the same tables as your paler brethren in a land that boasted interminably of its freedom even as it enslaved those workers who helped create its burgeoning empire – others like him took others like you and tortured you to see what the limits of physical tolerance were, and neatly catalogued the results. What was their crime? Nothing except believing a variation of the dominant mythology – itself spread by endless and endlessly cruel persecution – or speaking another language, or living in the wrong area of land which you had set aside and used to determine who was allowed to live where based only on their perceived ethnicity.”
“We’ve progressed since then. My being here is proof of that, and I’m hardly the first.”
“Perhaps.” János made no attempt to sound convinced of the first point, though the second was undeniable.
Tamara looked at Amaranta, then the only doors into the room as if she could see straight through them to the two guards beyond. “They behave as little more than herds at times – whenever there is a new atrocity the perpetrators all too readily excuse themselves by saying they were merely following orders, whilst conveniently ignoring the fact that no matter how horrible the thoughts of their leaders there would be no massacres if the people concerned turned around and simply said ‘no’. Even that analogy fails simply because they don’t take it far enough – if they thought of the world as their domain instead of just a valley or a nation, would they then slaughter their own parents or children? but even given that opportunity their history is covered by the victims of civil-wars or cultural revolutions and all those who said ‘yes’. Fighting for freedom from subjugation is laudable, but they do the complete opposite and fight to maintain their own ephemeral power and domination, and over half their world oppresses people because of their gender or sexuality because it’s endemic to their cultural propaganda or to appease those people they’ve allowed to rule them – usually just because they enjoy it – so what do you think they would do to us if they were as armed as the others outside? They still rape babies! – because their wretched superstitions tell them that so-called innocence can cure disease – even the most vicious of us have never done that.”
Pedersun leaned forward and sneered. “Come on, you blood-sucker. I can take you any time.”
“That’s enough!” The Commander’s voice barked out. “You’ve all seen the vids of what they can do, and you wouldn’t stand a chance even if you had weapons. They’re here under our protection – Gianni’s and mine – so any of you who can’t accept that should have voiced their objections before attending.”
Erik voiced a concern that arose as soon as they had been guaranteed full ambassadorial privileges and protection. “You’ve almost proven our point – it’s only your threats of punishment that restrain your people. If anyone who currently supports your promises of safety changes their mind because they can’t see an immediate profit or they simply can’t be bothered, then the war will continue, and what about all the competing defence and intelligence departments who not only fight one another for information with which to further their own schemes but also freely murder their own citizens to support their governments?”
Bruno shook his head emphatically. “The Commander and myself are the only ones who will make the final decision. I admit that I can’t speak for everyone else, but at this level we know far too much to be pressured by outside interests or internal rivalries, and all the power and money in the world are pointless if there’s no one around to make use of them.”
“Please—” Falcon raised his arms slightly, and his hands moved as if smoothing invisible fabric laid on the table. “We know you don’t trust us, and considering what’s happened I can’t say I really blame you, but—” He sighed. “—we need you.”
Neilson was shocked at the prospect. “For what? They’re killers – they kill us!”
Yvette frowned. “Yes, occasionally we still do, as you have also spent your entire existence killing each other and hunting nearly every other living thing on the planet to extinction. As we sit here discussing peace, my homeland is being invaded as a distraction from the truth whilst the general population dutifully wave their flags and hang out their ribbons instead of trying to think for themselves, so by the time they realise their own government has killed them it will be too late, as it always is. What’s your point?”
“Doesn’t it mean anything to you?” Morris was stunned at her apparent indifference.
“Does what?” She tilted her head slightly in puzzlement.
“We’re not farm animals bred for food – we’re intelligent creatures!”
“No, you’re not.” She forestalled any protest. “Like us, you’re animals with a level of intelligence – there is a marked difference, but if you truly were, isn’t it strange that you don’t then apply the same criteria to those other Humans whom you kill or knowingly allow to die?”
Teeg leaned forward but was not angry, rather he was trying to understand. “I assume you can’t see a difference?”
“As individuals we often killed to live – as we still do in self-defence – occasionally in the heat of passion and some of us in our early years did so for fun simply because we could, just like you, whereas you’ve advertised death as a commodity for so long it’s an integral part of your economies, and use it as a means of political and commercial control to enforce your authority, so the more illegitimate the regime – whether dictatorship by coup or drugs cartel – the more they resort to it.” Yvette shrugged. “It’s only Human arrogance that assumes because it thinks it’s the dominant species on the planet then by default its way is the only acceptable one and that anything else is wrong, because it opposes your own ideas which by definition are always right. The way many of you behave, there’s nothing to make some of us react towards you any differently than you would when killing a cow or a sheep, except perhaps that we don’t breed you for it any more and are more merciful. Why should it?”
“But—” Neilson’s protest faltered because she was so shocked she didn’t really know what to say.
János replied. “You who live for so short a time find death so appealing that you inflict it upon others as a form of entertainment, and the majority of your cultures are based on the desperate belief that this only life you’ll ever have is meant to be suffered rather than enjoyed – could any but slaves have invented such a bleak concept? – and so joyously persecute those who do want to enjoy themselves. A little over two millennia ago, thousands of serried onlookers who in many other ways were very civilised yelled with delight as they gambled on the outcomes of fights in the arena below where men killed each other or wild beasts – all for your amusement, an afternoon’s pass-time. Where I was born, people roasted each other alive over fires, and after that Humans were beheaded during the so-called ages of reason and enlightenment as other crowds bayed for their death and had their clothes spattered by blood as the guillotine fell, whilst elsewhere children were taken to see corpses swinging on gibbets as part of a day at the fair. Perhaps because it’s something that afflicts you, you’re as much in love with death as afraid of it – you’re certainly obsessed by it – which is why you invented so many stories about what happens afterwards in an attempt to reassure yourself that it wasn’t the true end of your memories or whatever you thought constituted the real ‘you’, and that you saw your dead relations in dreams gave you reason to think there really was something else even though you also saw many other things that were clearly impossible. I’ll not deny that death is something you have to accept simply because it’s part of what you are – we fully recognise it is we who are unusual, not you mortals – but you so often treat it like a lover whose fascination hypnotises you and draws you into its fatal embrace that many of you seem to have forgotten it isn’t a goal in its own right – though for many of you who are abused and exploited it can be an almost welcome release – but rather the natural ending to what you should have been doing in the meantime.”
“Which is?” Teeg enquired.
Karel almost snorted. “How about enjoying your life and trying to keep the world in a half-way decent state for everyone else, including your own children, else why bother having them?”
Patel was scornful. “Don’t try and give us any of that peace-loving stuff that came out at the end of the twentieth century. Only people who don’t want to work have time to waste on that!”
Yvette smiled. “We are a part of nature, certainly, but not above it – as you try to be. We know what we are, and Neilson is correct for we are killers – as indeed are you – though we long ago modified our behaviour so we don’t do it as a matter of course, but then so have most of you changed. Once again – what’s your point? other than that of failing to claim some kind of moral high-ground.”
Falcon cleared his throat to indicate the subject was now closed. “We’re here to discuss a way forward – looking into the past does us no good at all. I’ll repeat this for those of you who didn’t understand me the first time. We need them – as a species we need them.”
Amaranta spoke without any sense of triumph. “Yes, you do.”
“What do you mean?” Neilson announced her ignorance of the latest news, though it was clear by the reactions of other people she wasn’t the only one without access to complete information.
The Commander’s voice increased in volume as an indication of how serious was the subject. “What I’m about to tell you now stays inside this room, is that clear? If any of you spreads what I’m about to tell you, you’ll be locked up faster than a vampire can move. I said, ‘Is that clear?’”
“Yes sir.” The military people responded in a desultory fashion – no parade-ground satisfaction of monotonous chants, but rather the subdued replies of those who knew they were being told what to do and had no choice in the matter.
“Now, there’s no easy way for me to say this, but even if this treaty had never been arranged, the war is already over.”
“What a surprise – we won.” Pedersun grinned.
Tamara shrugged her shoulders dismissively. “Of course you haven’t – no one ever does.”
“What—?” Halley remained calm, but was becoming exasperated at the lack of straightforward answers. “Can one of you please say what you actually mean?”
“You have lost – you defeated yourselves.”
Morris laughed quietly. “It’s you who are surrendering here, not us. You’re on our turf – that’s the way it works.”
Yvette shook her head. “Where are the boring announcements and self-congratulatory speeches played endlessly on all media? There are none, simply because your own people – those whom you allegedly protect – don’t even know you’ve been fighting us on their behalf. Or is this use of force to be excused as not a real war – a ‘liberation’ of the kind taking place in my homeland? We are here at your invitation so—”
“So we’re still at war?” Pedersun interrupted.
Falcon shook his head – not in denial of the query, but rather at the lack of clear communication. “I’ve already said it’s over. This is not a truce in the accepted manner of things, though from our side there’s been an unconditional cessation of all hostilities. It’s a joint-treaty between two parties with a common interest – mutual survival.” He allowed a few moments for the challenges and accusations to be made by his fellow-Humans – all of which remained unanswered – then with a glance at the President, continued. “As has been stated rather bluntly, it is our fault, and now we have to accept the consequences, terrible though they are. We’ve always had viruses that discriminated against people based on specific genetic and racial groups, but it was only the horrendous implications of total annihilation that have prevented their use in even a limited scenario, so given their different physiology it was more than feasible to design something against vampires once they had been identified. In fact we’ve been working on a locally-administered toxin for some time – as with all the latest infections it would disintegrate within an hour and became inert instead of spreading uncontrollably – just as I assume the vampires have been engineering ways of improving their formidable metabolism and bolstering their already far superior immune systems, but because there are so many similarities between our two species the chances of getting the coding wrong was too great – one mistake in the sequence and we’d also wipe out everyone on the planet.” Falcon looked at each of his people in turn to ensure what he said was fully understood. “I didn’t think anyone was ready to go out with billions of souls on their conscience, but apparently someone didn’t care quite enough, or there was an accident that wasn’t properly contained in time. Officially, none of this ever happened – it’s still being denied by those responsible – but the virus is now in the wild, and spreading.”
“‘Kill them all – God will know his own.’” Tamara didn’t hide her contempt.
“So anyone could be infected?” Neilson asked in a voice that was almost too loud.
Erik exaggerated a sniff. “Some of you already are.”
“It’s true.” Falcon quietened the protests of horrified disbelief. “Even if we impose martial law in the whole Union to restrict movement of a population who don’t even know there is a problem, the entire planet will be contaminated within a few months. Global deployment was actually the main goal, of course, as a contingency against the failure of more traditional methods, but not with this outcome. Once news gets out – as it’s bound to once the full weight of the medical establishments come to bear when millions of people begin reporting the same fatal symptoms – that’s when we’ll have to prevent the general panic and despair from trying to stop us preserving what we can for those few who survive us.”
“Assuming they even acknowledge it, of course.” Yvette replied. “The HIV plagues were bad enough, but when the inter-species strains gave you AI2V epidemics most of you did nothing except step back and deny the problem even existed whilst millions died around you, all because only those who weren’t ‘pure’ and ‘moral’ were affected – their corpses deliberately unseen just as their previous cries for help had been ignored, and it became the latest justification for escalating tribal rivalries.”
Halley almost stood up and broke what had been her quiet demeanour. “Do you mean to tell me someone released this thing before they’d even designed a cure?”
“They did it?” Neilson was unsure of herself.
The Commander barked his response so there was no room for doubt. “No, it wasn’t the vampires, it was us – Humans. As for the vaccine or cure, they were either so stupid as to think that one wouldn’t be needed, or they hadn’t got around to creating it instead of making it first. The small amount of unofficial information we’ve received indicates the release was a genuine accident – not that it helps us now.”
Amaranta explained the outcome. “The figures are not precise, but current profiling indicates roughly ninety-five per cent of your population will die over a three-month period in the next twelve to fifteen months, whilst ninety-five per cent of ours will survive.”
“But that’s millions – billions of people!” Halley was aghast.
“Yes, it is, but why would you care?”
“What?” She stared at Amaranta. “Of course I do!”
“A third of your population already exist – their condition could hardly be described as ‘living’ – in extreme poverty, with no access to clean water let alone such modern luxuries as electricity, and uncounted millions die every year through famines and floods and other easily preventable disasters – who here cares for those? When thinking of losing people, everyone thinks of twenty friends or acquaintances and then keeping only one, but not of other people elsewhere, of whom you have no direct knowledge, though everything you eat and drink and wear and have in your homes is entirely dependent on them. It’s true there are minor variations of Humanity, but underneath all the extra and artificial divisions you have created it’s still the same flesh and blood, and who better than us to inform you of that? Besides, in terms of simple numbers you will still have a distinct advantage, but the psychological damage will probably be irreparable. Humanity will see itself as utterly doomed and without a future, and though it can certainly survive with surprisingly little changes you’ll not be able to conceive of how your society can function if nineteen out of every twenty people were to die, never mind the severe emotional shock and inherent health risks of disposing of all the bodies. Given the predilection of many and the fact they would actually welcome such a scenario – as they proved in 1999 when they tried to instigate an apocalypse by destroying Jerusalem – perhaps they would then try and wipe out those few survivors so none remained alive to affirm your existence, or simply try and eradicate all life regardless of type, and leave this planet an orbiting cemetery.”
“And you’re going to help us out of the goodness of your heart?” Pedersun scoffed.
“No, not at all, and neither have we ever claimed that. The change of proportion between our two species means we can no longer remain hidden from your general population, and so offer an easy target for those seeking to blame us for the disaster or who need the smallest of excuses to persecute someone else – it also means there will be less suitable healthy people for us to drink from, or occasionally turn. There are four possibilities – we continue to live on the margins of your lives, known to only a few, though a larger number now than before and thus at greater risk of full exposure, or we integrate completely and live alongside you as the sentient species we demonstrably are, or we are exterminated along with everything else, or we let you kill yourselves and take over once you are gone, which we can certainly do. We prefer the first two options, as I’m sure you do, and as things stand we all have to live with the consequences of your folly, but if we work together – beginning now – then there will be benefits for everyone, especially yourselves. You could have a new purpose – to rebuild a society that is fairer and by definition better than this existing quagmire of corrupt bureaucracies and dictatorships – and if we favour integration then we will be able to move freely amongst you, as we have lived secretly for millennia.”
“How do you expect us to live together when you don’t even have a soul?” Kelly spoke for the first time, and she was genuinely puzzled.
“No, we don’t, but then neither do you or any other living thing.” Erik’s curt manner dismissed the query as irrelevant.
“Of course I do! I’m Human, as you are not.”
“Yes, you’re so special – at least according to your own legends.” His tone was low. “That claim was used to justify the slaughter of most indigenous peoples by various settlers – ask Yvette if you’re not afraid of the truth – but the issue is moot, and why do you think we are here whilst there are no such meetings in America and Africa and Arabia? to whom we are all demons and other fantasies who supernaturally take over people’s bodies and so are not worth talking to, only sought by teams of hunters who have been blessed for murder by their churches who use the old argument of not killing people, just the demon within, and if the person is killed as a result then they are blessed and go to heaven – those same fundamentalists who claim to praise life whilst celebrating our deaths and that of anyone else who doesn’t agree with their sexist theocracies. Would you copy their idiocy and pass resolutions demanding that everyone fast and gather to witness group exorcisms as they give thanks to their God for being his chosen people? Show me this soul, this means of ensuring people can suffer even after death, or will you finally admit it’s just another means of control? – a promise of everlasting happiness for aiding your rulers, or the threat of eternal torment for questioning your authority. You claim it can exist both within and without a body, yet you can’t even agree when it comes into being and inhabits a few cells that aren’t identifiably Human, or where it originates unless from a God who knowingly creates them to go to hell once the inhabited body has perished, but that’s only one metaphysical creation based on another, so how does it support a consciousness and sustain its own existence before it enters and after it has left a material body without resorting to even more metaphysics? It’s nothing but an abstract means of coercion based on an understandable fear of death’s final loss of consciousness.”
“How dare you insult—!” She was livid. “Do you have any idea how many people believe in God?”
“Yes, more now than ever before, but which one? The gods of the Thracians had blue eyes and those of the Ethiopians were black, which ought to tell you something.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” Kelly was suddenly confused.
Amaranta shook her head slightly in disbelief. “I feel like an alien character in one of your more puerile pieces of so-called science-fiction – they always knew more about your own history and culture than their Human companions, as if it was the only thing worth learning. Despite the advances of fanaticism elsewhere and the continual influx of those who want to bring their intolerance into the old world just as they did took it to the new, a quarter of the population here have been almost godless since the First World War – perhaps spurred by nationalistic claims of ‘God is on our side’, and subsequently bolstered by Jerusalem – and most of the rest have no formal care one way or the other because they consider it a personal issue, whilst the remainder are an aggressively vociferous minority who huddle behind claims of persecution and delusions of moral superiority. In the end it’s only a codified system for living – just like the corrupt politics it has infiltrated – with an added layer of fear and intimidation underlying threats from people afraid of losing their power. Those of us who live in the real world want to create a better one here and now, not wait until we’re dead and can’t do anything except recycle our atoms.”
Kelly was both offended and defensive. “I’m fully entitled to my beliefs.”
“I’ll never deny that – in fact I’d support your right to believe whatever you will, as I do those who still consider the Earth to be flat or hollow or inside-out – but that freedom doesn’t allow you to impose your system upon other people who do not want it. Neither does it mean the belief itself has equality with all its competitors and should be protected from examination if it’s held despite contrary facts, or no evidence whatsoever. Would you readily deconstruct everyone else’s myths and bizarre beliefs to denounce their gods as false and their believers guilty of the victimless crime of blasphemy, or condemn them as immoral whilst at the same time demanding immunity for yourself and claiming you’re being oppressed when your own stories are examined as critically as the others and placed into cultural and historical context?”
“If there is an afterlife, it resides with us.” Erik continued. “In more ways than one, we represent your future.”
“You can think that if you like – we know you are evil.” Kelly’s accusation was full of certainty.
“First mythology, now philosophy.” Amaranta momentarily raised her eyebrows. “Are we judged evil because of what we do, or do we do what you call evil because of what we are? The first is an opinion based on criteria you consider immutable when you don’t even obey the positive tenets of your own religions – the very concept of evil does in any case change depending on who makes the judgement and what their motives are – the second an expression of an inherent nature, so even by your own limited definitions you and those you represent are evil, though to us it isn’t even a valid concept. Can anyone who has been resurrected be evil?”
“Is that what you call it – resurrection? How typical that you desecrate such a holy concept.”
Amaranta frowned slightly at the abrupt change of subject, then realised she had been misunderstood. “I wasn’t speaking of turning a Human into a vampire, but rather a spiritual awakening of the kind that is still hinted at in your own religion – the concept of resurrection was hardly unique even then and was a staple of earlier myths such as Baal and Tammuz and Osiris – though like all dogma the true message of your own story was all but destroyed by those who saw only the words and ignored the underlying meaning.”
“Now what are you talking about?” Kelly was flustered.
“Do you not know your own history? We haven’t the time now to go into any great depth of the kind we used to whilst debating in the libraries, but those who wait desperately for the resurrection to come – and especially those who want to visit Armageddon after all their predecessors have failed – have completely missed the point. It was never an external event as told by the literalist interpreters, but an internal awakening. Christ or Messiah, literally ‘the anointed one’, was a sacrifice within one’s own self – God is in us all and his kingdom isn’t something you wait for but is everywhere around us if you have eyes to see and ears to hear. I know you have no idea what I’m referring to because you’re the product of two millennia’s worth of censorship and forgery, but even that legacy couldn’t manage to completely destroy the life-affirming message, as told by the beloved disciple and first apostle – ‘I have broken my bonds, overcome my surroundings, and tamed my desire: ignorance has died’. It’s true that even after all these centuries I still finding such discussions interesting, but neither opinion on such matters should have any bearing on these talks, unless you are looking for further ways to ensure their failure?”
“If this meeting is more than a charade to appease your excuse for a conscience before you kill us all, at some point you will have to return the trust we have shown you.” Yvette added.
Teeg leaned forward and spoke quietly. “If you want to live with us openly, as you have suggested is a possibility, surely you must accept our ways? – the bad as well as the good.”
Amaranta shook her head slightly. “You’ll probably think me arrogant, but no, we don’t.”
“So you dismiss ethics as nothing more than an inconvenience, and want to promote the very cultural relativism you say you despise?”
“Not at all. The only people who have any power over me are those to whom I give that power, but everything else I do is of my own volition, due to my own reasoning. I hold the ultimate accountability for my own actions – or inactions – yet you deride this by calling it irresponsible, which is the precise opposite of what it actually is, for it’s the undertaking of a complete responsibility for everything I do, and the reasons why, whether directly for myself or to help others because I know it’s the right thing to do. However, this is yet another unnecessary digression, so let me briefly ask you this – having fought for and gained my freedom, why would I then voluntarily relinquish my personal autonomy by either actively electing or passively allowing through lack of resistance someone to rule over and oppress me by restricting my actions and even my speech and thoughts?” Amaranta turned to look at Bruno, and appealed. “We can speak of this in as much detail as you wish, but not now. We are here for other reasons.”
He nodded, and cast a glance around the table to indicate that the topic was finished.
“Unless you want this war to continue?” asked Karel.
“That is not an option.” Falcon spoke emphatically.
Pedersun was not convinced. “Why don’t we just fight them on their own terms?”
The Commander shook his head. “It’s not that simple.”
“Tell them what happened.” Amaranta tried not to think of the experiments.
“We wanted to use blood from the first few vampires we captured, to turn our own people – it was the obvious thing to do to infiltrate their ranks because we learned they could sense Humans – or if that didn’t succeed then at least we’d have stronger and faster troops, but of the twenty-five who volunteered fourteen died within a couple of days and another six died by the end of the first week – all in absolute agony, I might add, which we couldn’t prevent. The survivors went full-term and changed successfully, but then three killed themselves in some sort of frenzy, and simply because they had turned, the remaining couple were almost useless to us.”
“What do you mean?” Neilson enquired.
“I’m not a doctor, I can’t explain the ‘how’ of it, but the nearest analogy I’ve been given is that it’s like puberty, only amplified thousands of times. It doesn’t only rewire your emotions and the way you react to things, it messes up your whole brain as well, except in this case it includes the creation of almost a dozen new bodily functions and even a regeneration of the entire jaw-line, with glands and muscles we’ve never seen in anything outside a museum. In simpler terms, their DNA has more active data in it and it takes over certain systems and restructures them to a different template. We tried various types of fertilisation, too, but all the Human host tissue was destroyed – it just disintegrated. It may be possible to create some form of hybrid in time, but a full analysis of their DNA shows sequences whose functions we don’t yet understand, so trying to combine different sources is pointless at the moment unless you want to create tanks of freaks and hope that somewhere you get a lucky combination. The surviving pair knew who they had been – their memories were fully intact and their personalities were still recognisable – but they also knew what they had become, which was no longer Human, and despite extensive preparation and a thorough briefing with all the information we had, they couldn’t cope with the transformation. There was nothing we could do to help them.” He sighed.
“What did you do with them?” Erik enquired. “Did you also experiment on what had been your own people as well as your prisoners?”
“Of course not!” Falcon was aghast at the suggestion. “I admit we subjected them to extensive examinations – they knew that would happen before they volunteered – but even so they couldn’t accept what had happened to them, and the psychological repercussions were far more severe than we’d anticipated simply because there was no introduction to the concept by anyone who’d already been through it. I’ve since been told you treat it like a seduction, and that’s when we discovered you can sense who is suitable for turning while we were flying blind, and the three who killed themselves presumably did so because being turned into a vampire is far more than just becoming fitter and needing to consume blood, but the remaining pair are as well as can be expected.”
“Are your prisoners still alive?” Tamara made no pretence at believing him, though she wanted to, as it meant there was hope.
“All but one, yes. I’ll be honest with you, there are vampires being held in other countries – I suppose you know that anyway – and we don’t know the status of them, only that not all survived, and those which did aren’t in very good condition. I’m sorry, but that’s the way things are in a war. As soon as we recognised it wasn’t a simple deviation from normal Humanity but a completely different species, we had to revise our tactics.”
“Why?” János asked. “If you thought we were no threat you would wipe us out because we’re different and are the embodiment of a carnal fear, and if you thought we presented a very real danger you would multiply your efforts to the same ends, as indeed some of you have done.”
“It’s a simple matter of numbers. It’s true we could have shone our detectors at the general population and seen who ran for cover, but we had no idea of how many of you we were dealing with – we still don’t. It was hard enough taking the initial information seriously – for obvious reasons – but then we started getting results and we had to treat it as a major health issue because it seemed to be some form of communicable disease, though we had no idea of how many people might be infected. Everything we learned subsequently indicated you were healthy to the point of being superhuman, so then it went beyond an exercise in collecting contaminated people, which led to problems with civil awareness and control. It was difficult finding you to begin with, but now it’s virtually impossible.”
“How did you think we would react?” Amaranta enquired.
“As you did – it’s perfectly sound strategy – I’d do the same. By the way, for anyone here who still doesn’t know, it was the vampires who approached us regarding the virus, at least in terms of telling us it was out in the wild, and offering to help. They knew of it as soon as it was released, and it was through them that we managed to trace it back to the source, but that doesn’t do us any good now.”
“When this meeting is over, will you let some of us visit your prisoners?” Tamara returned to her earlier conversation.
“We can do much more than that.” Bruno answered, and tapped out a short sequence on the display. “The few vampires we managed to capture were officially released yesterday, and are here in this building. Once this meeting was arranged, General Morris suggested we present them to you during the first recess as a gesture of good-will, but now seems a good a time as any.”
Zelinski leaned forward as if to protest, but at a sideways glance from the President remained quiet.
Yvette was genuinely surprised as she looked at Morris. “You thought we were beaten, but proposed that?” Then she realised. “Not out of kindness, but for propaganda purposes – to boast of how magnanimous you could be in victory.”
He nodded. “In one of our earlier video-conferences you more than hinted you’d already made significant progress in finding a cure for the virus, so I’ll do whatever is necessary to ensure Humanity survives, and if that means helping some of you in the short-term, then it’s a small sacrifice and one I pay gladly, as I would if anything greater were required of me.”
“How very pragmatic, and utterly dispassionate.”
Bruno continued. “Those we changed ourselves will have to remain with us for a while longer – for further debriefing – but then they’ll be released as well because we don’t know how to help them, or if they’ll survive, or even if they want to.”
“You’ve no idea what you’re playing with.” Amaranta replied. “We don’t turn people at random every couple of days – there wouldn’t be a single Human left if we behaved like a character in your fiction – but choose someone every few decades, usually as part of an existing relationship or a chance encounter that just feels right, which usually means that it will be. We know if they can accept what we are, if they’re interested or can relate to it, so I’m surprised you even had two survivors out of such a small sample, but I doubt they’ll be able to cope with the transition. They aren’t people who have just lost a relative in an sudden accident and require a little counselling for grief – they need to be prepared for the consequences, or at least have the desire to change – you’ve destroyed their existing life and forced them into another one they know nothing about and didn’t even want.” She sighed, and from previous experience knew the volunteers would never welcome their new existence and so kill themselves, then the doors were opened by the two guards outside and half a dozen people walked nervously into the room, accompanied by four other soldiers who saluted and stood to attention on either side of the vampires.
The captives wore a variety of fairly non-descript clothing that ranged from casual suits to coveralls – presumably their own which they had been wearing before their capture, and carried either hand- or shoulder-bags or various body-pouches – and looked devastated by their time in captivity, but though thinner and far paler than usual didn’t seem to be suffering from any severe injuries that might take more than a week or so to heal, and with quickly dismissive glances at the Humans which combined loathing with something that bordered on a unique fear, walked past them to approach Amaranta and her companions, who had all left their seats.
The President smiled wanly at the newcomers, whose surprise at seeing fellow vampires – free and healthy – was more than apparent, then with an angled tilt of his head towards the doors dismissed the soldiers, though it was clear they were reluctant to leave so many strangers in the room of dignitaries. “I give you my personal assurance you are completely safe here. You may leave as soon as you wish, or remain until the conference is over – the choice is yours.” He looked to the seated Humans and ushered them to one side of the room. “I think it might be a good idea if we gave them a few minutes to themselves.”
“Is it true?” One of the male prisoners enquired as they all moved to the other side of the room.
“Their war is over, at least officially.” Amaranta stood opposite him for a moment, then leaned forward and hugged him tightly, and with that each of the freed prisoners were received in a like fashion amidst no small amount of recrimination against their captors. “I don’t know how much you’ve been told, but we’re an official delegation, following an initial dialogue a fortnight ago. My name is Amaranta, and this is Erik, János and Tamara, Karel, and Yvette.”
“I’m Christophe.” He introduced himself and his companions. “Miranda, Lily, Daniel, Rudy, and Paolo. Deborah—” His voice faltered. “They kept using her over and over again and she killed herself. We thought they’d kill us, too.”
Miranda lifted her head from Karel’s shoulder, and had difficulty speaking because of the severe pain in her jaw. “They even sent me to sleep and pulled my teeth out.” She mumbled into his jumper, trying not to cry as she felt the contact of a healthy vampire – sensing his blood and vitality – and it was only with great effort that she didn’t move to assuage her hunger despite the trouble she would have had because of her damaged mouth, but she kept her desire at bay, having saved it for a more worthy target.
Rudy’s accusation was still full of disbelief even after their combined experiences. “They cut us open and infected us with toxins just to see how long it took us to heal.”
“I actually thought we were beginning to get somewhere with them.” János spoke flatly.
Paolo shivered. “We haven’t slept or been fed properly since we were captured – they did it to see how little we could survive on, and even if we’d turn on each other. Miranda’s the weakest – she was the first to be caught.”
Amaranta forced herself to remain calm – at least on the outside, as she was a raging torrent of anger and revulsion inside and felt like smashing something – and stepped back from Christophe, her movement attracting the attention of the Humans, but she managed to isolate the President’s gaze and with a motion of her head requested he join her away from their respective parties. She forced her breathing to be slower, and spoke with hardly any intonation. “When we arrived, we were asked if there were any special dietary requirements, but I know the steward had no idea what we were. These vampires are desperately weak and need something to drink.”
“They want blood?” He managed not to hesitate at the last word, but his body almost trembled as it betrayed his disgust at the concept.
She easily ignored his discomfort and replied simply. “Yes.”
Bruno wanted to reassure her. “We gave them all they needed before releasing them, but if they require more then we could have something brought in if they want to stay. It would take an hour or so, though.”
“They will remain with us.” Amaranta knew that would be true. “This estate – I presume it’s more than just a secure compound for high-level conferences and such – it’s equipped for emergencies and so has an infirmary?”
He seemed reluctant to answer, as if afraid of revealing the full range of facilities. “Yes, it does, and we also have a doctor in case of – but why do you—? Ah, I see.”
She nodded. “It can be replaced easily enough – in an hour or so, as you just said – but there are other things they need straight away which only we can provide.”
The President’s frown indicated he didn’t know what she was referring to, then his eyebrows rose as he remembered details of the numerous reports he’d read, and he nodded agreement. “I’ll arrange for them to be taken down as soon as we reconvene.”
“I also assume you monitor everywhere through various optics and motes, but I strongly recommend you don’t let anyone see what happens – I doubt any of you are ready for that yet – and it won’t be like watching one of us in prison.” She almost stumbled on the politely vague epithet, then with a curt nod to the President returned to her colleagues. “If none of you have any objections, I’d like you to be donors whilst János and I continue the meeting. There’s an infirmary downstairs where you can get something more to drink – you all need it. Tamara, if you take your notepad you can let everyone know what’s happened so far.”
“Are you sure?” Paolo had no reason to think they were really safe as the delegates nodded consent to giving their blood.
“There have been raised voices but nothing else.” Yvette reassured him, and saw the Humans were returning to the table.
At a typed command from Bruno, the main doors were opened, and he addressed the guards. “Please take our guests to the infirmary, then wait for them outside. They are not to be interrupted, and must be left completely alone until they emerge at their own convenience – is that clearly understood?”
“Sir.” One of the men replied with a hint of inquiry in his voice, then his colleague whispered something into a badge on his shoulder and within a few seconds the soldiers who had initially escorted the prisoners into the conference room reappeared and made an ceremonious show of lining up, but the main guard who had been addressed by the President held out his arm rather more informally. “If you’d follow me, please.”
Amaranta resumed her seat at the table with János, and once their companions had left the room activated her notepad’s sensory interface. She traced out coloured shapes to create a representation of chemical elements in the three-dimensional space above the curved screen, then named and joined them together and left the image rotating slowly above her notepad.
“What is it?” Teeg was puzzled. “I know some chemistry, but this is completely beyond me.”
Amaranta addressed Falcon. “For your men, until they’re freed, and any other subjects you may have lurking in the deeper recesses of your institutions. It’s a blood substitute – one of the synthetics we’ve developed. It’s an old model but still effective, and whilst a little bland for our tastes is a clear liquid so it can be mixed with something such as tomato juice.” She faded the display, then tapped out a couple of instructions. “It’s ready for you to receive.”
“Thank you.” The Commander was pleasantly surprised as his own notepad took the beamed data. “We’ll have to test it, of course, but—”
“No.” She was adamant. “No more tests – on any thing or any body. If I was going to kill someone it wouldn’t be through something so impersonal as poison, and if you’re concerned I may have made a mistake, I assure you I haven’t. I can remember the equivalent of Shakespeare in two languages, so don’t think I’ll make such a simple error as misplacing a molecule.”
“You—?” Neilson’s astonishment matched the reaction of the other Humans, but they remained silent as Amaranta continued.
“Why should that surprise you? In reality it’s little different from theatre actors of centuries ago, or travelling bards before then.”
Teeg almost laughed at her casual dismissal. “And what other surprises do you have in store for us?”
“That depends on what you’re looking for, and what you gained from those of us you captured. I can easily guess what you did to them, but did you really learn anything beyond your expectations? I hope most of you wouldn’t think of destroying a mediaeval cathedral that has stood for centuries – unless of course it was ‘absolutely necessary due to its strategic importance’ or ‘as a psychological weapon against the enemy’ – but when faced with one of us who watched them being built, would you have listened to what we told you? If you had wanted to see how much we had in common instead of how different we were – and I’ll never deny how great those differences are – you should have taken us to a concert and watched us weep at your music, or walked with us along a beach and just experienced the simple delight and deep mystery of being – of being alive and able to sense that things, anything, exists at all – and appreciate them on their own terms without any irrelevant and unnecessary interpretation or value judgements. But, we recognise the fact we ascribe moral values, whereas you have for so long denied it that you now assume such things to be nothing more than another inherent characteristic awaiting discovery – like size or mass – instead of something assigned by an external viewer as happened a few minutes ago when I was deemed evil, so we accept that role and responsibility, and before you claim otherwise and charge me with playing legal sophistry – ‘oh, it wasn’t my client but the gun who killed the victim, in fact only the bullet’ – I’m not resorting to petty semantics but trying to describe part of a different philosophy, for we don’t even recognise evil as a valid concept. People do things because they want to, and any excuse they were merely following orders, or that most banal of defences where someone is allegedly obeying voices in their head, is just a total abnegation of personal responsibility. You dream of heaven – have you any idea what it was like for an illiterate peasant staring up at the vaulting and flying buttresses of Rheims when it was new, or tasting her first orange? – but you create hell. Uncounted tens of millions died in last year’s famines and were thrown onto funeral pyres like so much old wood, and almost fifteen per-cent of your population are born with AIDS – which I admit isn’t fatal any more – or are dying in agony with AI2V or Hepatitis F because they’re denied access to cheap drugs, or they’re simply told their suffering is good for their souls and a better life awaits them elsewhere.”
“But Rheims was built in—” Teeg faltered. “Are you really that old?” His voice was hoarse with incomprehension.
“I was born in about 1215, but I don’t know precisely when, only the conditions in which I grew up – I couldn’t even begin to read until I was about thirty. Those are times I definitely do not miss, nor do I want to see a repetition of them – two Dark Ages are enough for any world – unless you actually want another one?”
“You sound as if we’re already doomed.” He commented rather bleakly.
“That will be your choice, as it has always been. Strange though it is – and it is, especially so to us – we’re here to help you, and I assume you genuinely desire it otherwise you wouldn’t have responded to our approaches and arranged this meeting, but any offer we make is useless unless you accept it.”
“And the conditions?” Falcon asked.
“Ideally, leave us alone and let us live as we have always done. Of course we know that isn’t possible, but there are ways to minimise the effects of—”
“No.” Pedersun interrupted. “Nothing is ever that simple. We’re your food – or had you forgotten that?”
“You will destroy us.” Kelly added. “It’s what you are.”
Amaranta nearly laughed. “Are you trying to say that as predators we have nothing better to do than exterminate our main prey? That’s a very short-sighted attitude, even by Human standards.”
“Is that how you really see us?” Bruno asked calmly. “Just that?”
“No, of course not – I was being as deliberately simplistic as some of your own comments have just been. In truth the relationship between our species is far more complex, for we live amongst you and have lasting, loving relationships with you – and we drink from you and need you to turn as we slowly increase our own numbers to keep up with your own growing population.”
Pedersun smiled. “So you’re parasites? You certainly can’t live without us – you’ve just admitted as much – and you need our cultures and the comforts we provide.”
János shook his head. “I can and do live without you, though others certainly enjoy much of what you have made, but you’re wrong to suggest we are entirely dependent on you for we also create things of our own, and have always done so. Would you apply the same criticism to those of us who live in your cities, work and pay your taxes, aid their local communities and have friends and even adopted families? Many of us contribute far more to your society than a good proportion of your own kind – a quarter of your world population is barely literate, and I use the word in its loosest possible sense – or organised crime syndicates with their fake sentimentality and commiserations at the funerals of the families they have just massacred, and thus have a certain right to take from it what it has to offer them, and some of us have given you far more than you’ll ever know.”
“The analogy is seriously flawed.” Amaranta continued. “It’s true that we haven’t made the same individual impact as a Leonardo or Galileo, but we have more than our share of artists and scientists – more now than ever because we need to keep pace with you to safeguard ourselves – and whilst it’s true we work for ourselves, that doesn’t mean by default we work against you, only not actively for you. It is also true that many of our inventions are adapted from your own technologies, but we easily keep up with and in some cases exceed your developments. One of the biggest problems, though, is that you very rarely follow things through and so miss the inherent wonder of what you have created or discovered, and most of you still ignore what’s all around you. Perhaps it’s all part of being mortal, I honestly can’t say, because I’ve never really known what that was like.”
The vampires were taken to one side of the house and past the lounge in which they had waited and feared for their lives, whilst the escorting soldiers tried not to look upon them with any obvious attempt at scrutiny as they followed the guard in front, where they were led to some wide wooden panels which slid apart at their approach.
“No.” Lily spoke so quietly she could barely be heard as the doors opened and she saw the large lift whose plain interior was in marked contrast to the plush surroundings.
“What’s wrong, Ma’am?” The guard was puzzled as he waited for them to enter.
Karel began to frown, then realised what the lift represented. “They’re just a bit nervous after their confinement.” He tried to be diplomatic as he indicated the soldiers with a turn of his head. “Are they really necessary?”
The guard’s expression made it clear he didn’t understand what was so threatening about a mere lift, but he answered in a tone approaching sympathy. “I’m sorry, Sir, but we have our orders – no unescorted guests in the building.”
“Of course.” Erik smiled briefly, though he wasn’t sarcastic. “You need to feel safe.”
Once everyone was inside, the guard took them to the deepest sub-level, then led them along a rather bare yet functional corridor towards a pair of white doors with glass windows, and opened one for them so they could enter. “We’ll wait for you.”
“Thank you.” Yvette replied dismissively, and once the guard had closed the door she moved a screen from between two beds and placed it to obstruct the windows, in case their curiosity overcame their orders.
“Do you think anyone is watching?” Tamara placed her notepad on a trolley and looked around the room to see it contained all the facilities she hoped from a compact medical establishment, and it was somewhat larger than she had expected.
Rudy didn’t care. “Let them.” He leaned against one of the beds as his healthy colleagues began looking in cupboards and storage units. “More damned hospitals.”
“Sorry.” Erik looked at a tray he had taken from a sealed bag, and with disgust threw it back onto a shelf, where the scalpels rattled momentarily with a jarring clang.
Yvette ignored the sachets of plasma that had been taken from a low refrigerator as they were handed out to the freed prisoners, and stood beside Miranda. “You’re the weakest.” She pulled up the sleeve of her own blouse and bit into her wrist. “Drink, but slowly.”
Miranda collapsed onto the floor at the words – identical to those she had heard from her maker before she was willingly introduced into their world – then with the other vampire kneeling beside her she clasped Yvette’s arm to her mouth and fed as best she could. Her teeth would take almost a month to fully regenerate, but their removal left her at a distinct disadvantage in comparison to healthy vampires, and thus reliant upon them for boosters even though she had her own stores of normal blood at home as well. She tried not to gulp the unexpectedly rich fluid and paused occasionally to lick the blood which dribbled down to Yvette’s hand because of her missing teeth, but Yvette stopped her after a few seconds as she realised how badly the feeding was going.
Miranda pulled back her upper lip. “Fucking vivisectionists.”
Yvette’s cry of shock caused everyone to stop what they were doing as she looked at the ruins of Miranda’s teeth.
Daniel briefly lifted his jumper to reveal newer skin where the old had been stripped off, and fading scars. “We’ve all been abused.”
“Is everything all right in there?” The guard’s voice sounded through the door.
“Leave us alone, you – you – Human.” Yvette shouted, and helped Miranda feed again.
Lily wrinkled her nose as she sipped from one of the sachets. “At least this is clean. Half the Humans upstairs stink – what’s wrong with them?”
“Mutated leukaemia.” Tamara explained. “They tried to wipe us all out with a genetically modified virus, but either they got the target sequencing wrong or it was released too soon – apparently by accident – and now they’ve infected everything that’s remotely Human, both themselves and us, and probably all the remaining primates.”
“What a wonderful irony.” Paolo spoke without any sense of pleasure. “If it weren’t so tragically stupid I’d probably laugh.”
“Do you trust them?” Daniel’s voice indicated he had no reason to as he drank from Erik, who shrugged his shoulders.
“A few individuals, certainly – but an entire species?” He shook his head, though not in denial. “I don’t really know. I’d like to, and I suppose they want this peace as well, but they always make things so complicated – overlapping layers of conflicting interests and simple short-term greed – and I don’t know how everyone else will react. Even if they had a world government it wouldn’t be easy.”
“If they give up hope, they might as well already be dead.” Yvette’s opinion was shared by more than a few.
“They’ll blame us, whatever happens.” Rudy opened one of the sachets and began to drink, leaving Karel’s arm to be taken by Christophe.
“Wow, what a rush.” Christophe breathed deeply after he had swallowed a few mouthfuls.
Yvette frowned at the juvenile reaction, then removed her arm from Miranda’s lips and replaced it with a sachet. “How did they find you?”
Miranda cast a sideways glance at Christophe and smiled before replying. “It was an organised raid. Military units swept the club with special UV lights I’d not seen before – I thought they’d blinded me. They knew exactly what they were looking for, or at least the symptoms, and you know there have been more hunters than ever in the past few decades – I just happened to be in the way.”
“Could we have been betrayed by one of our own?” Erik voiced the horrible thought as he fed Lily.
“To what end?” Tamara and the others had also considered that possibility before they cautiously accepted their invitation to attend the meeting. “We’ve discussed this – Amaranta and the others who came – but we don’t see what they would have to gain. None of us have ever needed a leader of any kind – in fact we’ve killed those who started to organise uprisings – so planning a world-wide conquest is ridiculously impractical. No one benefits from it – neither us nor the Humans.”
Rudy shrugged weakly. “I doubt we’ll ever know what started it, but the consequences will live with us forever.”
“Do you think they would let us join you?” Christophe asked.
Tamara was unsure. “I doubt it – they’re insecure enough as it is, and they don’t know us or really what we are.”
“Well, if they’d tried talking to us instead of torturing us they might have learned something.”
“What if we swap?” Erik suggested. “Then it’s just a substitution. I don’t mind giving up my place if one of you wants to take it.”
“Nor I.” Karel volunteered, and looked at Christophe. “You want to join us?”
“Yes, I do.”
Miranda squeezed the last drop of blood from her sachet before dropping it into a bin. “So do I. I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I can be very tactful, but I want to hear what they have to say, and I need to know why.”
“Yet they are the ones who need reassuring.” Tamara licked clean her wounds and applied a small plaster, then replayed the events upstairs from her notepad for the others to see as they finished the supplies.
Pedersun shook his head slightly. “Whatever you say or do, you can’t avoid the fact that you’re killers. It’s how you live – and you enjoy it, don’t you?”
“Do you really want to pursue this now?” Amaranta asked rhetorically, as the answer was more than plain.
“How many of us have you killed?” Kelly glared.
“I had no reason to keep a count, but the last Humans I killed in aggression were a team of professional hunters last year, and they knew the risks.”
“You’d confess that?” She was incredulous.
Amaranta frowned. “No, I was merely stating known facts, and I’m certainly not requesting absolution from someone who doesn’t even know what life was like when I was growing up, except perhaps from some apologia of a ‘corrected’ history book. Even if I were seeking a pardon, then the only people who could forgive me – or who have any right to – are those I killed, but like them I was a product of my time and place, and I have evolved – as have most of you. I really don’t know where this is leading. Your culture consistently glamorises one of your own kind whose life is spent killing people for profit or fun or in the service of a state or corporation, but when you meet one such as I who has killed mainly for survival, you react with horror.”
“But don’t you want to be redeemed?”
“That concept is as meaningless to me as sin. You invent a disorder with which you inflict everyone so you can then offer them a cure as part of your means of controlling them, and how can someone possibly be held responsible for things over which they had no control and that allegedly occurred before they were even born? Who will set themselves as my judge and give me tasks with which to pay off my debts to people long since dead, or would you simply cast me into your idea of hell for eternity and gloat at my infinite suffering? though given the alternative is of forever praising the ego of a petulant demiurge who throws temper-tantrums when he doesn’t get his own way, perhaps the other destination is preferable, and I would be in far more interesting company.” She shrugged dismissively. “So many of you feel something which I can only call guilt about life itself, and that attitude taints all that you do, but such a reaction is utterly beyond our comprehension. I certainly admit to what I have done in as much as I acknowledge and hold myself accountable for my own actions – but why would I ever disown them? – and looking back I now classify some of my early behaviour as excessive or simply wrong, but those events occurred long ago and cannot be undone. I made mistakes and I learned from them, as you do as well – what’s the difference? I could claim you are right and that we do indeed want to wipe you out – after all, you only think of yourselves as our food, don’t you? – to further increase your almost masochistic delight in servitude and self-denial, but that has never been our goal – it’s pointless and utterly impractical besides.”
“Are you trying to excuse what you did by the circumstances? That’s ridiculous! We all know what you are, and what you’ve done.”
Amaranta withheld an obvious and sarcastic retort. “It seems you know neither, else you’d not be following this line of questioning in an effort to delay any progress. Do you really want details? Would that increase your sense of victimhood and thus provide a further reason for not working with us? or do you just want another tenuous excuse for vengeance in the name of things that didn’t affect you personally but which you take on like a mantle of incurred duty to give your otherwise empty life some semblance of meaning?”
“I really don’t think—” Falcon tried to change the subject, but Kelly ignored him.
“Yes, let’s hear what you’ve done and why you think you’re so much better than we poor mortals.”
Amaranta raised her eyebrows slightly, then sighed in resignation. “I just mentioned Rheims, and it’s true I was amazed at the size and intricacy of the structure – it was and still is a superb example of the mason’s craft – but I was also bewildered by the sheer hypocrisy of the culture that had created it, based as it was on glorifying oppression and persecution, and it was then that I realised I didn’t care what you did to each other or what you expected – no, demanded – from everyone else, for you always claimed whatever you did was for ‘the greater good’, and so not knowing any better I merely copied what I saw and treated you in the same casual manner as you brought death so easily to one another.”
Pedersun interrupted. “Didn’t your parents teach you any morality?”
“I don’t remember much of them except their names – I watched their stomachs being ripped from their living bodies when I was about six years old because they didn’t believe in the correct ‘one true God’ – but they ensured my survival before being butchered by people who were themselves slaughtered some years later in just as grisly a fashion, still believing their way the only one. I lived as a Human scavenger for a few years after that, and then I was turned and realised precisely what I was capable of.”
Kelly glared at her. “You became a cold-bloodied killer.”
Amaranta nearly smiled, but didn’t show her teeth. “If you were to examine some of the obscure volumes hidden in the Vatican Library and a few other equally restricted places whose contents reveal a far richer and diverse history than the censors have ever made known, you could read a story that might – as the sayings so picturesquely went – chill your bones to the marrow and make your blood run cold. Imagine a setting where we supported priests who gave us nothing in return except promises they knew they could never keep because we had to die to gain the benefits, and where the lords taxed us into poverty before forcing us to fight in the wars which they created as they sought to increase their personal power, whilst vying with neighbouring families for control of more land and people to perpetuate the cycle. You think genocide and ethnic cleansing are new phenomena because you’ve given them politely bland names which mix well with the acronyms that barely disguise the fact some of you spend ten times as much on armaments as education or health, but it’s been going on for millennia and is lauded in many of your so-called holy books. All around me, death was advertised as a worthy goal – at least for everyone else – but there was never anything about the marvel of life and the simple wonder of the fact we are alive and conscious unless it was to admit being a slave of an unaccountable ruler who either lived in a castle or over the sky, so I merely behaved towards them as one of their own as they took the lives of so many of my contemporaries and slaughtered children as merrily as they did those with any knowledge, and I became an excellent pupil, easily surpassing the random excesses of my unwitting teachers. Like others of my kind born in similar circumstances, I became the incarnation of their deepest fears as they hid from the world behind their fortified walls and convinced themselves their self-imposed suffering led to bliss, and I did so with a passion to match that of their ecstatic martyrs. I walked over their enchanted ground like any other and past their idols of torture and laughed as they shied from my femininity – as a woman I was by default responsible for Humanity’s woes and so embodied the carnal desires whose basic passions were redirected into flagellation or paedophilia – I was despised as filthy and contaminated, a wanton seductress tempting their lack of self-control, which was of course also my fault as is the case in many countries today. Some recognised me for what I had become, and those who didn’t know automatically judged me to be a witch and so worthy only of torture and death, but that I was immune to all their spells and supplications only increased their terror and my immediate enjoyment – despite prayers their God refused to protect them with something as simple as a beam of sunlight – and I consumed their fear as well as their blood as I held them against me and drained them in their inner sanctums.”
Kelly was horrified by the vivid descriptions. “You’ve murdered all those people, and you – you – you’re boasting about it!”
“No, I’m merely responding to your accusations.”
“And proving them correct!”
“You know nothing of me or those times, or of other places here and now that are virtually indistinguishable. We were kept in the dirt and judged unclean, trodden underfoot and treated with contempt because we were ignorant, though we were no more superstitious than they. Knowledge was kept as power not only because it was power in its own right and therefore to be hoarded like jewels rather than shared and used by all, but also because it was empowering – knowledge was both freedom from oppression and freedom to do things for one’s self and others – but not all the monks were selfish, for there were doctors and historians and essayists who knew far more than their barely-literate brethren who sat hunched over desks copying the shapes whose actual words they could barely understand, and these were more than willing to teach a girl what was in the world even if it was distorted through the lens of their belief, for not all of them wanted favours from me as they too delighted in the wonder of being. That all of our combined knowledge subsequently proved to be completely wrong is irrelevant, and doesn’t in any way detract from their personal integrity and desire to impart their learning, because they wanted to create a better world for all. After that, I moved from town to town, avidly ransacking what at first seemed wonderful libraries but were in actuality quite sparse, because by then I’d learned more than enough to recognise that many didn’t use but merely collected and otherwise consigned to the flames hundreds of irreplaceable tomes on science and philosophy – in fact everything that didn’t agree with their view of the world and so deemed evil – and a few centuries later, having preserved much of what had been destroyed elsewhere, imams repeated the process for the same reasons and denounced all religions except their own as false, whilst gleefully spreading their own theocracy by the sword and demanding unquestioning obedience of something that made its predecessors seem enlightened. Those libraries in which I sat and ate and slept contained numerous misconceptions born of ignorance, but the fact the others are still kept secret does itself create a lie, for if people were to learn the truth of what they contained their sense of betrayal might shatter the institutions and divest them of their power – hence the necessary secrecy, for self-preservation – which wouldn’t be a bad thing as their power is held without any authority other than that of fear. The only real surprise is that those documents still exist, rather than having been destroyed so their existence could justly be denied, but though there are many groups around the world who know versions of the truth, it’s easy to dismiss them because they are victims of an orthodoxy that was – and is still – spread by extensive propaganda and simple power, whether military or political, though usually one reinforces the other. Abstract descriptions of mythological processes are always open to new interpretation as they assimilate new ideas from other systems as well as personal experience in the real world, but as soon as something becomes regarded as literal it’s frozen as dogma which by its very nature can’t change or admit other views, because by its own definition – the only one that is made to matter – it is infallible, and so everything else is either a threat or a temptation, both to be destroyed. Once that happens, they deny the very miracle of being they claim to celebrate, and go on to the ultimate hypocrisy of self-righteously killing people to save their souls rather than allow everyone to follow their own road to freedom and knowledge, which even if they don’t find – or don’t want to – is still their choice and not something imposed, though there is always a danger of them dragging everyone else down with them into a wilful quagmire of ignorance as everything falls to the lowest common denominator, as almost happened here in Europe not so long ago, which brings us up to date with the sedated masses who consume GM bread and satellite circuses and believe they’re being protected by all the governments spying on their every action. I would ask you if this was truly what you wanted, but I can only assume the answer to be ‘yes’ as no one has prevented it.”
Kelly’s tone was derisory. “It doesn’t matter what you say now. Everything you have done was documented at the time – you’ve admitted as much yourself. You’re nothing more or less than how you have been portrayed, and no amount of words can undo that.”
Amaranta shook her head. “I told you it was a story – though I’d never deny it was based on certain truths of my past, the preposterous thousands they accused me of killing would have meant entire villages slaughtered for mere sport when I only concerned myself with individuals – but their power comes from the superstitions they still promote as they help spread the plagues that have ravaged your population for the last couple of centuries and left millions dying in unacknowledged suffering, because anyone who was pure and decent would never be afflicted by such a divine punishment meted to the sinners of the world.” She almost snorted in contempt. “I learned there was nothing to distinguish between a priest huddled in the corner of a chapel and a drunken farmer stumbling home from an inn besotted by the first women who looked at him, for they all tasted the same, and only the situations made each one different. However, I grew quickly on a readily-obtained diet, and as I matured I changed my feeding habits, or to put it into your religious context I ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and learned my own morality – which is far more than their God ever did as he always sanctioned genocide and excused all wrong as long as it was in his name and he received praise – and so I went after anyone who was suitable and invariably left them alive because I realised that killing indiscriminately was not only pointless but also self-defeating, though you continued to do so as you justified it with ever-more refined excuses, some of which are now established in various national constitutions. I had the power to do so much damage – I could easily have gone on a rampage and literally torn the throats from dozens of terrified villagers as my hilariously overwrought biography stated I did alongside suitably lurid wood-cuts and later engravings – but I recognised that just because I could do something it didn’t mean that I had to, and that was a realisation I found within myself as my knowledge and experience increased. Thus I became accountable to myself and others like me, as you were not, for even as we developed our own codes of conduct you had higher authorities to answer to who conveniently agreed with whatever you did or simply absolved you of all crimes as long as they were in his name – whether lord or God – whereas my own self was solely responsible for all that I did, and I fully accepted that. If I had known more at the time then naturally I would have behaved differently, but I’m not tormented by my mistakes and they certainly don’t ruin my present life.”
“You have no conscience and show no remorse, yet you come to this table and expect to be treated as equals.”
“‘Expect’ – from you? Of course not.” The tone of Amaranta’s voice indicated she was not annoyed by the repetition, merely resigned to it, and that she might just as well be speaking a foreign language, such was their understanding of what she was saying. “How does taking revenge on me now affect those I killed? What about the hundreds of millions of Humans who died protecting ways of life that have long since vanished or who defended borders that were dissolved centuries or sometimes even decades later? Was their sacrifice in vain? and it was an easily preventable one if the soldiers had not fought one another but rather the petty dictates of their rulers, except some were caught in the dreams of conquest and power, and others went willingly to their deaths to defend a system that was – at the time – freer and fairer before it was constricted with repressive legislation. Would you feel happier if I told you we now fed only on Human detritus? – indiscriminate murderers and rapists and pimps and drug-dealers – the very people you don’t want to have anything to do with, so you can think we’re doing you a favour and thus somehow justifying ourselves to you by culling the herd and allowing only the so-called best of you to survive. It isn’t true, of course, for their blood is invariably diseased and they are the last people we would consider turning, as we would never bother with most of the rest, so nowadays we drink from people who generally think what we do part of a game, and I’ll never deny there is still a thrill attached to it – as you also enjoy sex or sports – but why should we not enjoy everything we do? Life would be so depressing otherwise that even we might tire of it.”
Pedersun’s voice rose in unrestrained anger. “How dare you criticise us when you can’t even behave by any civilised code of conduct. You’ve just told us of all the murders you’ve committed and how you revelled in it, and yet you’re accusing us of being the aggressors?”
Amaranta smiled bleakly. “I dare – and with just cause else why are we here? – but you’ve spent your entire existence judging everything around you by your own expedient standards without ever being held accountable except to others of your own kind who think the same way because anyone else is automatically guilty of manufactured thought-crimes such as treason or heresy, and now you’re on the receiving end it’s hardly surprisingly you don’t like it. What’s the difference between my killing people to live and your chosen profession? – that of a state-sponsored murderer who sends their own colleagues to certain death whilst fighting for an ever-changing cause that’s redefined for each occasion by whoever buys your loyalty because they need the land’s resources or the new marketing opportunities, or who merely touches a screen to direct remote armaments whose casualties you never see as charred or dismembered corpses but only numbers in a report – ‘us’ and ‘them’, instead of fellow Humans who should have as much right to life as you as long as neither you nor they try to impose your ways upon others, but most of you can’t even accept that basic premise because you’re all so convinced your way is the only one. That we have different systems of behaviour based on our own experiences and priorities is, to us, perfectly natural and expected, so each of our autonomous groups does what is best for their immediate area, but even now you want everything to fit into your own way of thinking and then protest when we don’t, or do something you disapprove of. This just demonstrates the species equivalent of all your racism and ethnicity – your entertainment is still obsessed with aliens who want to experience being Human because they find you endlessly fascinating, androids who desire to become fully Human rather than exist as a so-called empty echo of their allegedly ensouled creators, people with supernatural powers who want to relinquish their marvellous abilities if only they could cry or love as Humans do, and many of you even had your own God make you in his own image – could you be any more conceited? A long time ago one of your wisest men remarked that from a distance your scrabbling was indistinguishable from that of ants or bees, both of whom build cities and have structured social hierarchies, but anyone who doubts the illusion of your superiority is called misanthropic, just as those who challenge your nationalist excesses and question policies with which they disagree are accused of being unpatriotic or self-loathing – anti-this or something-phobic. The only reason that entertainment exists is to reaffirm that you are indeed ‘the paragon of animals’, but some still question it else why the continual need for assurance, or is it just a lamer form of mind-numbing propaganda? Perhaps some of you don’t have a chance to change because you don’t live long enough to – I don’t know, and at the moment I don’t really care. There are far more important issues, which is why we are here, so can we please return to the main topic?”
“This is getting us nowhere.” The Commander spoke firmly to indicate the subject was closed. “Peace negotiations have to acknowledge the underlying motives for past actions – on both sides – so a way forward can be found that benefits everyone, and war makes us all do things we later regret. It’s perfectly true that no one here – none of the Humans, I mean – can possibly understand what it was like to have lived hundreds of years ago, and we know from our own investigations how the vampires have changed their tactics to something far more stylised. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest people knowingly seek them out to perform rituals, otherwise it’s all incorporated into blood-games where the victim – or should that be participant? – is none the wiser as to their true nature. I know it’s hard for us to accept, but we’re not here to pass sentence, and any judgement we make is personal, therefore irrelevant.”
“So how do you live on us?” Pedersun wanted to have the last word.
“You’ve just been told, and that information must also be in your reports.” Amaranta spoke carelessly. “You seem to delight in hearing of the people I’ve killed rather than anything positive we have accomplished, but we are here to discuss your own situation, and if you are to perish it will be by your own hand – as has always been the case, as it is now.” She sighed lightly. “We thought you truly wanted this dialogue, and despite serious misgivings as to our safety we agreed to attend, hoping that despite innumerable historical betrayals your intentions were as honourable as your claims of them. So far, we haven’t been too disappointed – disagreements over individual ethics are a minor concern which can be dealt with later – but you’re treating this like any other meeting between warring nations when we are neither a nation nor at war with you, though that hasn’t prevented you from declaring us the latest ‘Enemy Of Civilisation’ despite your continuing claims that your existence is indeed civilised whilst everything you do contradicts that assumption. That is part of the problem, for it’s all very well reading of fictional contact with a visiting alien species – hopefully friendly and smaller than you so you don’t feel threatened, able to solve your problems simply by appearing in the sky like an anthropomorphic god of old and declaring ‘all life is sacred’ or some other equally ineffectual truism – but now you are presented with a form of life that’s been living alongside yours ever since we both grunted at the moon, and you genuinely don’t know what to do.”
“Much of what you say is true.” Bruno conceded, and he was extremely glad the conversation had returned to the matters at hand. “However, you have a distinct advantage over us. Simply because – as you say – you’ve been living beside us for so long, you are fully aware of us, whereas this is the first time we’ve had confirmation of your existence beyond legends and folklore. I would never deny that we do need time to catch up, but you can’t condemn us – all of us – if we have difficulty in doing so. It’s all very well saying you know it isn’t easy for us, but simply because you aren’t Human any more you no longer know how we feel.”
“You’re right.” János replied. “However, is that not part of the reason we are here? – to give you assurances in turn.”
“And did not the information in our initial approaches indicate our sincerity?” Amaranta enquired, then looked at Pedersun. “Or do you think it was done selfishly so you would survive merely to serve as food for us? Why are nearly all of your cultures based on servitude and fatalism? You, whose lives are sometimes so brief – is not that very transience even more of a reason to enjoy what little you have?”
“So why would you help us when you keep maintaining you don’t need us?” Patel asked.
“All but a few of us like you to varying degrees, and we’re certainly used to you as you’re the dominant species on the planet whether we like it or not – and I readily acknowledge my own life would have been so much the poorer without all the lovers and friends I have had. Most of us interact with you on so many levels that losing you would be like losing part of ourselves, and it would be such a waste if all the good things you had ever done were destroyed by one mistake, no matter how critical it is. I don’t think even the most vindictive of us would want that – it’s an irrevocable death-penalty – and I for one can’t really imagine living without all your music and art. Besides, most of us appreciate a comfortable life, though we’re more aware than most how ephemeral are physical things, especially as some of us are older than even your largest monuments.” She looked up as she heard sounds outside, and the doors to the conference room were opened by both guards.
Once they had all seen the meeting begin, Tamara removed the screen from in front of the infirmary doors and led her companions outside. “We’re finished here.” She addressed the guard in a perfunctory manner.
For a moment he looked as if he might contest the issue, and he was obviously uncomfortable in the presence of the strange people, but he remained silent and with the soldiers escorted them back to the lift, then up to the ground floor and along the corridor, where he rejoined his colleague.
Once the returning vampires had entered, they stood and regarded the Human delegates for a moment until their escort had left and the doors were closed again, then they walked back to Amaranta and János, but as they passed one end of the table and had a proper chance to see who was attending on behalf of the Humans they stopped to glare, and it was only with visible effort on their part that they didn’t react with anything other than a quickly-smothered desire for instant revenge.
Christophe approached Amaranta. “Miranda and I are going to join you – Erik and Karel have agreed to swap places with us.”
She frowned briefly, then nodded consent, but Teeg objected politely. “I’m sorry – it’s a matter of protocol. You can remain as witnesses – though even that exceeds normal procedure – but we only recognise the official delegation.”
“Recognise this.” Miranda opened her mouth in a motion that was slow due to pain rather than any attempt at melodrama, and had the grim satisfaction of watching the Humans wince as they saw the gaping holes where her canines had been – Halley looked as if she was going to be sick – and János rose from his seat for a few moments before sinking back again. She addressed Morris. “At least you asked questions – you wanted to know things – even if it was how to identify and kill us.” Then she leaned on the table with arms that seemed barely capable of supporting her weight and glared at Kelly, her voice trembling with effort. “But you – you didn’t say a word – you just stood and watched, and you didn’t even enjoy it, did you? There used to be an expression that said ‘don’t get mad, get even’, and we have an equivalent which says ‘read the gravestone’, though it’s to do with out-living rather than killing you, but you – you’re already dead – you just haven’t stopped breathing yet, and when you do I’ll be looking down at your rotting corpse, which won’t be long by all accounts.” She almost fell into the chair which had belonged to Erik. “It’s almost funny in a pathetic way. Only a few decades ago Humans managed to dramatically extend their life-spans by a combination of bio-engineering and cleansing machines, and some of you even boasted you’d become immortal, but here you are, having just wiped out the majority of your own population. We’ve always known that longevity had to be balanced with a sharing of power and responsibility, but now you won’t have any of those mistakes to make, so that’s something else you’ll never learn.”
“I think it would be best if we all returned to the table.” Bruno tried to calm what was again becoming an increasingly tense situation. “I can’t say I agree to the substitutions – we don’t know if you have a different agenda.”
“I know what’s at stake.” Christophe replied as he sat in Karel’s place next to Miranda, then Yvette and Tamara resumed their seats whilst the remaining vampires moved to the nearest two sofas and became spectators. “That’s why I have to be here.”
“Enough!” Falcon slammed his hand onto the table. “I have to agree with the President – how can we be certain you both represent the same interests as Amaranta and the others?”
Miranda glared at him. “Do you think that after everything you put me through I don’t want to live? – and I have far more reason to, believe me. It’s true I won’t be as eloquent as my colleagues here, but then given the experiments you put me through it’s a borderline miracle I’m still sane, what with the hallucinations and my body just collapsing into enforced sleep – I’ve had less than ten per-cent of what I need, never mind the blood deprivation, so you’ll have to excuse me if I ramble occasionally.” She looked slowly at each of the Humans opposite her. “When you captured me, you knew precisely what you were looking for, but you didn’t actually expect to find anyone because it was only a test – you’d gone to a crowded area and flooded it to prove a negative reaction for your detectors – but at the same time you had no idea of what I truly was when you got that unforeseen positive. You used me as a basis for finding others, then prodded and poked us – and far, far worse, as all our wounds testify. You put us on running and tension machines to measure our stamina and strength, damn-near suffocated and drowned us, and fried us with microwaves to see how much pain we could take, but you never learned anything about us except to reinforce your existing biases. Most of you never even tried to understand us as anything other than specimens, and those who protested and wanted to treat us fairly as sentient beings were told to keep quiet or lose their jobs, or perhaps you’d just murder them in case they let others know of our existence. We had no rights because we weren’t considered Human – which I admit we aren’t – but even if we had been you’d have ignored the few remaining conventions as you’ve always done, simply because you were either doing what you were told or it was in the name of ‘the people’ – the poor huddled masses who are willingly enslaved by increasingly repressive corporations and their sponsored governments who create even more restrictions that are advertised – and believed! – as greater freedom, because they all know that ‘If you’re innocent you have nothing to fear.’” Her short laugh was derisory. “Unlike you, we have no need for your obsessive hierarchies or of any of your societal constructs, which are proven failures. All you’ve ever done is bounce between two extremes and usually combine them at the same time – either the strong oppress the weak and prevent them from improving themselves and becoming strong in their own right, or the weak tyrannise the strong with mediocrity and conformity to prevent them from attaining their full potential, and both are held in check by a web of propaganda originating from the leaders whose only concern is their own survival. A few of you know there’s another way, but no one has ever tried to implement it because it means relinquishing control of everything you think of as sacred, yet that’s how we live almost by default because what we are and what we can do means there’s no other way if we’re to survive peacefully and enjoy our lives.” Miranda looked at Zelinski. “Have you sued anyone yet for keeping us secret and preventing you from patenting us? Think of the medicinal fees alone – billions a year once you’ve forced through the first unsafe products on an unsuspecting public who will be your beta test group.” Her smile would have been ferine had she bared her teeth, then she turned her attention back to Falcon. “I know how the others behaved, and what they can do, but I’m telling you now that despite everything you put us through I still held back in case I managed to escape – I always held back – so you’ve never really seen what I can do as an individual, and you have absolutely no idea of what we’ve done as a species.”
The Commander shook his head in a manner that suggested he was calling a bluff without being insulting in the process. “We’ve all seen the results, and we know what you’re capable of.”
“Sod the videos.” Miranda didn’t shout, merely swore to emphasise her dismissal of his evidence. “You’re just like the others – you don’t want to listen.”
“No.” She interrupted. “Listen. You might learn something, or is that what you’re all so afraid of?”
“Are you trying to say you were deceiving us? The tests could have been genuine and you could be lying to us now.”
“I honestly can’t be bothered. Here I am, and here are all of you within easy reach – oh, it’s so tempting! – there’s no barrier separating us now, no brain-dead auto-saluting thugs waiting to zap a restrained captive who can’t fight back – wouldn’t they be in for a surprise now! I could do anything I wanted before you even knew what was happening, but far more than you I know how fleeting revenge can be – in any case, the best form is to be neither like you nor to behave as you demand – and I’ve seen the recordings of what happened here whilst we were in the lounge next door, wondering if we were going to be paraded in front of all the suits and ribbons before we were killed in a ceremony whilst you all blew your trumpets and waved your flags as you gave praise to your blood-thirsty gods.”
“If that’s a threat then I’m not impressed, and it has no place at these negotiations. I don’t think you do, either.”
“The fact I’d been kidnapped, imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured might give me a claim, don’t you think?” She raised her eyebrows, then sighed. “No, of course not, not any more – it’s Standard Operating Procedure.”
“We can’t continue like this.” Bruno’s voice thundered across the table. “Young lady, if you have something constructive to say, then I’ll let you speak for a while, but as you’re not part of the delegation you cannot attend the table in an official capacity, and I’ll not have anyone here – from either side – trying to sabotage our meeting when we’ve only just begun.”
“‘Young’? Yes, I’m probably a child to some of those here, as they in turn are children in relation others, but age isn’t the point – is it? – just another irrelevant distraction.” Miranda laughed weakly. “You don’t want to know what we are!” Exhausted, she bowed her head.
“I’m sorry.” Amaranta looked at her, the President – who waited for Miranda to be dismissed – then Bruno, who frowned with an obvious but restrained displeasure as Amaranta ignored him and continued. “She is right – you have been in denial ever since you learned of us. You know we’re real otherwise you wouldn’t have rushed to create the virus in an attempt to destroy us – because you were terrified of what you thought we were without bothering to learn what we actually were – but other than that you’ve been using the word ‘vampire’ as if we were an antiquated literary metaphor for racial intolerance, and most of the time you won’t even admit we’re another species but instead try to divert attention from the true reason for this conference by asking us to reveal what we did when we were younger and then claiming we have nothing in common, when the whole point of us being here is to demonstrate that we do, so we can work together, and need I remind you that it was your disproportionate reaction that created this situation? What would you have done had we descended from the clouds upon feathered wings instead of emerged from the shadows with fangs – would you have greeted us with open arms or just interned us as literal aliens and tested us anyway? You want to demonise us and use us as a screen upon which to project your own prejudices and insecurities, but we neither think nor react the way you do, and how many times do we have to tell you we are not Human? Look.” She opened her mouth and extended her canines, pressed the tip of each with her tongue, and then closed her mouth again, watching their visceral reactions of horror and revulsion with neither disdain nor amusement. “Did you even know we could do that consciously or just assume it was a reflex response to certain sensory stimuli? – when we were hungry or aroused. It would have been better had you learned the whales were trying to sing to you before you slaughtered them all for food and cosmetics, because though still mammalian they’re vastly different from you, but I know it’s our very similarity that disturbs you. You’ve spent centuries trying to convince yourself that you’re all civilised and that that state is worth defending at all costs, even though you know there will always be people who are incapable of living peacefully in any form of society and want nothing except domination or destruction – and rather than deal with them as dangerous individuals or regimes you continue to support them because they bolster your economies and so you rally around a cause and wage war against unassailable abstracts – or when you behave in a manner that directly contradicts what you’re allegedly protecting, and we remind you of your animal heritage, or at least we do to those who still acknowledge such origins, given most think they’ve been made in the image of their god, which only demonstrates how vindictive he is.” She briefly opened her mouth again to show her fangs were retracted. “When we arrived, you wanted to know if we were who we claimed and if we truly represented and led our kind, but what you don’t understand is that simply by being what we are, we are representative of a vast diversity that has no need of rulers. We spent centuries freeing ourselves from your tyranny, so do you think we would then voluntarily relinquish that hard-won freedom by supporting someone who wanted to enslave us? – you call it ‘government’, but who except fools or those with no concept of self-control would nominate people to oppress them? Excessive power and its abuse go hand-in-hand – that’s something else we have in common – but unlike you we didn’t just blithely acknowledge that fact we did something about it, and in so doing liberated ourselves beyond your wildest dreams – or your deepest fears, given your obsessive need for control – which is why we’ll never give that up by letting ourselves be ruled, whether by you or one of our own. It’s true that János and I are at opposites in how we live amongst you, but we’re both here with the same proposals because they are the only offers to be made in the circumstances, and we know that because unlike your own people we have access to full information and so can make valid decisions. You had great difficulty in finding us to begin with, and now it’s virtually impossible – why? – because even as we are highly organised and work together towards common goals we’re not centralised or possessed of any formal structure. In you, that would be a weakness because you not only want to be told what to do but actually need it because you’re either afraid of or just don’t want the responsibility of real freedom, but it’s another one of our strengths, and you’ll never begin to understand us until after you’ve acknowledged what we truly are.”
“Which is?” Falcon prompted.
“More than anything else, independent and completely self-aware – everything you are not, and those few who are you treat as outcasts and call threats to your society. How can anyone possibly claim to know and love and understand someone else if they don’t first know and love and understand themselves? Recognition and knowledge of your true self is critical – no, more than that, it’s the fundamental foundation – in understanding how you view and interact with the world and all it contains. Without one, the other is just blind absorption or passive mirroring, without even knowing that is what’s happening – it’s completely self-destructive, which we are not.”
“But we can’t function if everyone goes their own way. What you’ve just told us about your own past demonstrates that perfectly. I’m not accusing you of anything and I don’t want to repeat the arguments, but don’t you think you behaved as you did because you ignored the social conventions in place at the time even though they seem unfair to us now?”
“No, precisely the opposite – I was given no opportunity to discover my own way in the world and learn what I wanted when I wished or needed to, by which time it was too late because I’d already reacted against the systems surrounding and restricting me. Everything was held in place by commands and prohibitions without any justifications other than that of imposed authority, all of which were based on the abuse of power held without reason or consent, and in our own terms what I did was only the equivalent of one of your own children rejecting excessive parental control. It’s all academic now, anyway, and the kind of society we have thrives very well within your own.”
Teeg leaned forward slightly. “So you live rather like a disperse group of – I don’t want to use the word ‘refugees’ – integrated foreign nationals who maintain their own culture?”
“You’re still thinking in small terms. We are both in the world and of it, though each of us has their own needs and offers different things to our community – and yours, for as I’ve already said we work and have relationships with you – or there are those like János and Tamara who are asocial and live in an isolated manner that’s strange even to me, but they aren’t antisocial or destructive and thus contribute as much as they take, though obviously in varying forms. All that is an acknowledgement of the fact we are different and even when presented with equal opportunities will not be able to do the same things with equal skill, but your systems deny this individuality so you’re indoctrinated to equate diversity with dissent and submission with harmony – the cornerstone of all religions and politics – and any discussion of variations or alternatives is within rigidly enforced borders whose existence is so entrenched they aren’t even acknowledged any more, let alone challenged as they grow smaller and tighter. For us to exist any other way is unthinkable now we’re so empowered – it’s not only restrictive for our individual selves but also everyone else, so no one benefits at all.”
“So you claim the individual is more important than the community?”
“Of course. A community is merely a collection of individuals who may have things in common with others of their kind, but when those same people are then constrained by the greater whole out of fear or jealousy, what use is it to them?”
“It sounds as if you’re living on the borders of chaos.” Falcon remarked. “Still, it obviously works for you otherwise it couldn’t have lasted as long as you say, but none of us could live like that.”
“How do you know when you’ve never tried it?” Yvette asked, but the tone of her voice indicated she was thoroughly bored with the entire conversation, and knew it was irrelevant to the current situation.
“We need structure in our lives.” The President replied. “Something formal for everyone to follow. A set of rules, and laws to live by.”
Miranda looked up. “We have a few rules, too, but no structure – that’s the whole point. It’s also another pointless digression. Do you or do you not want to this to end?”
“Yes, we do.” His voice was quiet, though not in submission but rather because it was a fact already stated, and whilst it was plain Miranda would not be moving – which annoyed him, as did Amaranta’s refusal to send her away – he still wanted to placate her, for he knew that had she been Human she might have had the right to indict many of those sitting opposite her because of what she had endured.
“Then stop treating us like freaks or pariahs and instead open your eyes – we aren’t dosed-up sports-players or psychotics claiming we can walk through walls whilst conveniently not falling through the floor – we’re an utterly different species with only a superficial resemblance to you and everything that you represent.” She looked at the Commander, and her voice became hoarser as she continued. “You claim to know what we’re capable of just because you abused us? You haven’t a clue! I now know what’s at stake – no one bothered to tell me there was another undeclared war going on – so I want to know why? Why didn’t you just talk to me and let me tell you what I was in ways you would have been able to understand and possibly enjoy as you learned something new? because some of your investigators were interested in more than just the literal tests and were amazed by my abilities and the fact I existed at all. You can barely see the night, let alone through my eyes, and I could have described to you how astonishing it is – even now we can walk in the forest outside if you’re willing and I can try to show you the wonders of the night, the sounds and textures like wind in the trees or waves on a beach – but a different kind of beauty didn’t interest you. Why didn’t you listen to Deborah when she told you how much pain she was in before she killed herself because of all the active drugs you’d shot her up with so she almost glowed in the dark? instead of watching in admiration as she did acrobatics and gymnastics that would defeat all your best athletes. Why did you burn Daniel’s flesh down to the bone because you wouldn’t believe what he told you about how we react? – though you knew it already because that’s how you found us, so in reality you just enjoyed the torture you publicly denounce in other regimes, or do you excuse it in yourselves because you represent ‘freedom’ and ‘righteousness’? – but that in compensation for that we can run and run and run and almost forget ourselves in the speed and sheer exhilaration of movement. The only real surprise I’ve had in the past few weeks was coming here during the day and not being thrown into the sunlight to burn to death while you all stood around laughing.”
Falcon was genuinely shocked. “You really thought we would do that?”
“You’d pulled my fucking teeth out!” Her exclamation was subdued.
“You are free now.” He pointed out.
“Only because you need us – quid pro quo – or am I supposed to be grateful? Why didn’t you yank out my eyes as well while you were at it?” Miranda bowed her head again, breathing slowly and deeply.
“I understand your bitterness – I certainly can’t blame you for it, or the desire for vengeance you expressed earlier – but we’re all here now to find a way forward, and I think we’ve made some progress.”
“Well, bully for you.” Miranda sighed.
Amaranta nodded slightly. “Strangely enough, so do I, but at the risk of extreme repetition – are you going to accept our offer? We can give you all the help you’ll need to salvage some of the best from your species, and we know we can save at least another five per cent of your population with various aggressive therapies, but it won’t be at all easy for you – by which I mean all of Humanity, not just those present here. You’re going to have to stop your persistent analysis and kerb your compulsion to pull everything apart, and do something you’ve never been taught how to do, which is simply take us as we are. We know ‘man is the measurer of all things’ – if you’ll forgive the misquote – and we don’t expect you to change that because it’s what drives you and makes you what you are, which is a good thing when channelled constructively. I’m not speaking of a simple clash between two incompatible methodologies, but rather of you beginning to learn that you can be so much more than you’ve ever been, whilst leaving behind all the debris of your Neanderthal heritage when you fought over water and food and breeding rights. One of your sillier legends had us being held at bay by the lack of an invitation to enter your homes – are you now going to hark back to those days and refuse to invite us into your lives when you actually need us to survive?”
“We’ll even help you save face.” János added. “We could easily be blamed by those who think we’ve nothing better to do than wipe out Humanity, but rather than admit the fault was yours you might claim we exist as a result of the infection – which was after all targeted at blood – that we are the result of a mutation and have adapted to the threat to overcome it. It’s a short-term approach to be sure – though you have always favoured such things – and many will soon learn we know things far beyond our apparent age, but we can remain quiet for a few decades and by then some of the trouble should have subsided. What the survivors will need, however, is strong and purposeful leadership on the part of your successors, who must be bound to the same treaties as we agree now, otherwise everything here will be in vain.”
“That last goes without saying.” Bruno said.
“Then perhaps we can continue.” Amaranta replied. “A blood-oath used to be the most binding agreement anyone could make, so will you accept that from us? Though there are some on both sides who would deny it, we are bound together – Vampires and Humans – and the future belongs to us both, or at least it should. If not, then we will witness your passing and continue on our way without you – the choice is entirely yours.”
Teeg’s voice was hollow. “You can’t just write off all of Human history as if it never happened. I don’t want to die like this – lying down waiting for it – but if we can go out with a fight and help build something good, then at least I’ll know we did the best we could. Surely you see that as well, and haven’t you said we have much in common and that that – not our differences – is the basis for working together?”
“Yes, we did, but what precisely do you want as your legacy? We are all children of the sun – the irony of our aversion to it doesn’t escape us – and like so many of you we have an almost inbuilt yearning for the stars and one day we would like to return to the space from which we were born, but having yourselves voyaged to the planets, what have you done since? It’s been nearly two centuries since you sent anything to Jupiter or beyond, and you have never once tried a viable interstellar probe even though it’s easy enough, and we know. By itself, that omission wouldn’t be a bad thing if you had directed your energies elsewhere, but instead of spending your resources on improving the wellbeing of all the inhabitants of this planet we share, you simply turned your backs on what was outside your immediate borders and magnified the mistakes and inequalities of the past to create even more internal divisions, whether geographical, political, or economic. Your people are so deliberately ignorant they wail to the heavens whenever there’s an eclipse because they ‘know’ they have earned their God’s displeasure, and local space is over-populated with surveillance and defence satellites that cater to and so help increase your xenophobia. You’re locked in a spiral of promoting the same suspicions and continuing the same wars that initially created the rockets, and with a few notable exceptions have used them for nothing else since. Do none of you want peace by any other means except one maintained by force – which even by your own limited definitions is no peace at all – and do you want to be perpetual slaves to the ever-hungry machinery of conflict and domination? Is this what you want to take forward with you – petty sectarianism that demands different ethnic groups kill each other over minor variations of belief or dress or because their respective grandparents didn’t like each other? If so, then we will not accept it, and without wishing to make it sound as if I’m resorting to threats, you must realise what we can do to ensure our own survival – without you, if absolutely necessary.”
“Are you sure about this?” János was more concerned than usual.
Amaranta nodded decisively. “If this doesn’t make them wake up, then nothing will, and it will be too late for them – it might already be. Besides, I’m only giving them a few basics, and we’re too far ahead for them to catch up.”
“What are you doing?” Miranda frowned, her voice low and ominous, then she shook her head and her eyes widened as she realised the truth. “No, not that. You know what they did to me – to us! I’ve spent a century on those damned clocks and I’m still not happy with them – you can’t just give them away!”
Amaranta looked at her with a sudden look of awe on her face. “You’re that Miranda? I swear I didn’t know.” Then she turned her attention back to the Human delegates, and her tone was edged with ire. “You have no idea of who you almost destroyed, otherwise you would surely have done so.” She reached out to touch Miranda’s hand in a combined gesture of respect and reassurance, but the newly freed vampire leaned back with an expression bordering on a snarl. “It’s true I can never feel what you suffered, but if it’s any consolation I’m doing this purely for our benefit, not theirs.” The tone of her voice was as if she and Miranda were the only two people in the room. “Please believe me when I say I’m not betraying your work, and they’ll find out sooner or later – given their collective paranoia, it’s perhaps surprising they haven’t already.”
“And what about the risks? The first thing they’ll do is try to find it, and destroy all of us.”
“You know it’s far beyond their reach, and they can annihilate everything on the planet if they want to – I’ve already mentioned that – which they may do anyway simply out of spite. It’s a very dangerous time for everyone – for all life.”
Falcon cleared his throat slightly. “What are you referring to? Would it be a project called Daedalus?”
“Yes.” Amaranta made no pretence at denial. “I’d be surprised if you hadn’t heard of it by now.”
“We’ve heard the name, certainly, but in all honesty we still don’t know what it is – beyond the mythological reference, obviously, which covers a lot of ground.”
“Well, it wouldn’t be a secret if everyone knew, would it?” Miranda’s voice was full of sarcasm, then she looked at Amaranta, but rather than continue their side-conversation or further her objections, she bowed her head – in tiredness rather than defeat. “Don’t expect any help from me – I’ve more than enough to contend with at the moment.”
“Thank you.” Amaranta replied quietly, then addressed Falcon. “The power you unleashed at Hiroshima was bad enough, and the Cold War filled us with dread at how easily you used the threats of mutually assured destruction – an appropriate acronym if ever there was one – all without the slightest care for the people you claimed to protect, but then all you really cared about was political posturing.” She looked at Pedersun. “A few minutes ago you challenged my right to judge your species because of my personal behaviour which resulted in the death of a few hundred people throughout the centuries, and now I throw the accusation back, multiplied millions of times and in a far-shorter timescale. How dare you and others in your position threaten to destroy all of Humanity and almost every other living creature on the planet rather than try and coexist with a conflicting ideology, or are you so afraid you might learn anything about the fundamental flaws in your own systems which you always boast of as the best? I could also ask how you dare use your own population as subjects for untested chemicals or expose them to unknown radiation, but your contempt for your own kind is well documented even by your own people, and after all this time we expect nothing less of you.” Amaranta returned her attention to the Commander. “After Jerusalem, we knew we had to look at means of ensuring our survival if you cared so little for your own, and our fears were realised once the major trading blocs retreated behind their so-called ‘walls of peace’ and built dozens of cheap nuclear reactors whose safety-records almost made Chernobyl resemble a model of perfection – those of you who don’t know what that was can reference it later – and it was then we realised we had two major choices – either try to influence your development and steer your course away from oblivion, or look after ourselves and leave you to get on with it. For the first time in our long history there were two complementary views, but as they were not mutually exclusive and each had their own advantages we proceeded together, for reasons which were purely selfish, but then why not?” She reached into her bag to bring out a small rectangular case that might have been a bulky hand-mirror, but was a smaller display pad of the same kind they were using to record the meeting, and it began to show random images and brief movies of sunsets and buildings, animals and insects. Amaranta changed it to show a family of tigers. “For reasons that are obvious I’m not prepared to divulge any specifics, but before you criticise it as a mere copy of a video made before all the larger cats became extinct, let me say now that they are the results of our own breeding programs. These and other animals are perfectly safe from your trophy hunters and quacks with their so-called medicines, and our only regret is that we don’t yet have the facilities to bring back whales and elephants, though creating a sufficiently large environment is also a problem given we’re working under conditions of extreme secrecy. It took us decades to perfect the technique, but now we can regenerate whatever we like from the samples we began collecting at the end of the twentieth century, and lest you think otherwise and harbour quaintly romantic notions, I’ll tell you now that no, we aren’t the embodiment of some old-age dream about being hidden custodians of the planet who will give you a second chance after you knowingly and wilfully squandered the first and only – we simply appreciate bio-diversity and want it for ourselves, so Humanity hardly enters into the equation now. We knew about the flow of blood and the function of the heart long before you, whilst some of you even considered blood to be a useless liquid that filled otherwise empty spaces and spent centuries searching for – and even claiming to find! – an imaginary force that could be balanced and focused, and we
have our own priorities. We wish to live and enjoy life, whilst most of you are content merely to survive and endure it. You used to clone soldiers before you realised they were more psychotic than you’d wanted and so couldn’t be fully controlled, but never once set about trying to restore the animals you’d killed off, though most would have nowhere to live as their habitats had also been destroyed. I doubt you’ll believe this, but in truth many of us are beyond caring – we know what we’ve accomplished and have no need to boast of it. So, our offer is this – the oceans and earth anew, and ultimately the stars, for they are all our inheritance – and it would be tragic if you refused to join us as we claim our rightful place in the universe. Our longevity means we can see projects through to their conclusion, and who better than an immortal to travel to the nearest inhabitable planets when they are dozens if not hundreds of light years away? We can give you a future of the kind many of you still hope for, rooted as it is in the past which you have almost wiped out, or do you want us to be the only ones who can remember what it was like to walk in a forest or see animals in the wild rather than just as flat images? – not even in a zoo where they suffered from various neuroses and even harmed themselves – and this is what we offer.” She tapped the screen for emphasis. “This is what we can do, and even now – despite everything that’s happened – we’re still willing to share it, so I’ll ask for the last time – will you hear us, or will you be deafened by the approaching sound of your own funeral knell?” Amaranta switched off the display as a visual accompaniment to the finality of her question.
The President regarded Amaranta with an initial reaction of disbelief, then his body flushed at the horrible realisation she might be telling them the truth about their cultural and technological development – and had always done so – and he glanced across the table at Falcon with a look bordering on fear.
As if sensing his recognition, Miranda lifted her head and smiled in a motion that approached an unexpected sympathy. “Eva – my maker – told me even before she turned me that we’d soon be in a situation like this, and now here we are, so do you honestly think we weren’t prepared?”
“I don’t think that we really have a choice.” Bruno replied to Amaranta with an expression that combined horror and hope.
“You always have a choice.” She replied, then suddenly turned and surveyed the room whilst all the invited vampires stood up as if in response to a signal only they could hear.
“What are you doing?” Falcon’s tone veered abruptly from curiosity to sudden concern, but all the visiting delegates ignored him as they moved swiftly to the corners of the room, with Erik and Karel standing on either side of the French windows. He started to reach for a gun he no longer wore because of the security arrangements, but even before he recognised its unaccustomed absence and thought of moving his arm back up to touch his notepad, he was pushed from his chair by Amaranta as if he were nothing more than a rag doll.
“You freaks, you betrayed us!” Pedersun’s accusation went unanswered as the Humans also stood up and raised their own voices in protest.
“And you always choose the wrong one.” Amaranta ignored him and completed her sentence as she reached the internal doors and pulled them open, but long before the two guards outside had time to react she tugged them into the room with so much force they tumbled over two or three times before being pinned by other vampires. She kept a rifle and sliver gun for herself and threw the other weapons across the room to Karel and János, then turned and ran from the room as Erik pushed the two furthest sofas across each of the French windows to provide minor obstacles rather than as an attempt at creating protection.
“Stay down, you fool.” Yvette casually knocked Pedersun over as he tried to intervene, then frowned as she briefly saw a bright red light from the corner of one eye. “What—?”
“That’s who you are.” Miranda seemed to be talking to herself, then without any warning the edge of her right hand chopped Christophe’s neck with a motion that threw him over his chair and left him choking on the floor, whilst her left hand picked up the notepad in front of her and threw it towards Morris, who had no chance of avoiding the object hurled at such close range and with speed and accuracy, and as he was thrown backwards she twisted from her own seat and turned to stand opposite Christophe who had since regained his feet, though he was gasping for breath from an assault that would have killed a Human. As Morris lost his balance, his arms flailed loosely and for a moment there was a sound like glass wind-chimes, then his lifeless body hit the floor and the notepad which was embedded into his skull just above his nose fell partially away to reveal shattered bone and oozing blood, whilst Tamara screamed as she clutched her arm and then her shoulder where slivers from his concealed gun had ricocheted from the table-top and sliced into her flesh as she turned to face the windows.
Amaranta reached the first junction and stopped as she heard deliberately quiet footsteps ahead of her and a cry of pain behind her that cut through the rising voices which signalled the beginnings of an argument, then she kneeled down and quickly peered around the corner to see three fully-armed soldiers dressed in chameleoflage. She had no way of knowing if they were hunters or just normal soldiers, but they were all wearing armour that covered not only their bodies but also most of their limbs, so any extra strength they might have gained would be lost by having to deal with the extra weight.
They moved towards the conference room, guns covering every door as they advanced in standard covering formation and opened fire without warning when they encountered anyone, including the unfortunate steward whose white jacket and chest erupted in bloody tatters before he even had a chance to know he was being threatened.
She set the rifle to full power and calmed her racing heart before opening fire, but an explosion the in conference room almost made her lose her concentration before the soldiers changed to a run, and she was forced to confront them.
János tried to reach his partner as he saw how badly she had been injured, but then realised Tamara would be safer on the floor, so he changed his direction to vault across the table, knocking a couple of the delegates over in the process, though that wasn’t his primary goal. He landed on both feet and twisted to avoid a sweeping laser beam, then rolled backwards and shot at the faces of as many of the soldiers at the other end of the room as he could without risking any of the vampires, who were doing their best against so many fully armed and armoured opponents.
Daniel leapt from one arm of a sofa, and in passing behind the last of the soldiers to enter the window nearest him grabbed his neck and broke it, but Daniel was exhausted from his ordeal and could do little else except tackle another to the floor where he managed to pull off the soldier’s helmet and thrust his fingers into the startled eyes before jerking his head abruptly to one side.
The windows shattered in a cloud of debris as contact explosives detonated and sent crystalline granules flying into the room, then the first soldiers through each of the French windows tried to step aside to give the men following plenty of space in which to fan out so they didn’t hit one another, but their movements were hindered by the sofas, and the unexpected presence of vampires who were waiting for the assault by people whose appearance would in normal circumstances have almost faded into the background, but whilst more than effective against Humans and civilians without vision enhancers, when faced with fully alert vampires their chameleoflage might as well have been normal armour whose surfaces were rather fuzzy.
Paolo knew he was probably too weak to fight effectively, but grappled one of the later soldiers who had not already been wounded, and he managed to knock the man down so at least no one else could be attacked, but even as he lay over the soldier and subdued him he felt something was wrong, and pain etched a line across his back as slivers from another attacker released his grip on the dead man’s throat, but the smell of his own blood was so strong that he knew he was dying too.
“You’re mine!” The blast drowned Miranda’s cry, and all traces of her fatigue vanished as she leaned sideways in response to Christophe’s lax punch, which slid past her shoulder as she grabbed his arm to pull him forward so his face was struck by the sweeping elbow of her other arm. She dropped and pivoted on her grounded hand to swing her legs in an arc and knock him over, then before he could react she had kicked him in the side of his stomach so hard that he rose from the carpet and fell across the nearest chair – the sound of his ribs breaking at the impact of Miranda’s foot could be heard by the nearest of the prisoners – but even as he tried to push himself up she kicked him in the chest and sent him rolling across the car-pet where she jumped and leaned over with both arms above her head, her fingers meshed and ready to slam into his chest. He stared up at her with a look of utter terror on his face as he realised he had been beaten by some-one he thought too weak to even stand properly, then after a slight hesitation she pounded her fist into his chest and killed him. “I’m knackered.” She slumped over her dead foe, barely conscious of the war that still raged around her, then fainted as her body shut itself down.
One rifle was used as a club by Erik as he slammed it into the face of a soldier, and he managed to stamp on and break the leg of another who had fallen, then Erik dropped to his knees in agony as a few centimetres of flesh on his thigh was scorched by a passing laser which thankfully didn’t seem to be on full power as the batteries were being exhausted, but even as he fell he turned around his own gun and swept its beam across the visors of two soldiers who were almost facing him, knowing their armour would absorb any blast and that even the visors would reflect some of the energy, but the soldiers were still temporarily blinded and so unable to save themselves from Erik’s follow-up attack.
Yvette ducked the laser that had just swept across Teeg’s chest as he died protecting the President, and tried to move from her corner of the room where she could obtain a weapon, but she was pinned down. A blurred memory came into focus and she rolled towards Morris, then found the radial sliver array around his left forearm and pulled it off so hard she broke his wrist, but at least she was now armed and she half sat up to fire at the soldiers until her gun was empty, though her effective-ness was severely reduced by their armour which meant she had to aim either at their visors or the gaps between the armour itself.
Karel dived across the floor to knock over a soldier and use his gun as a club, then slammed his elbow into the soldier’s visor and managed to shoot another in the side of his hand so that a laser-rifle fell, only to be accidentally kicked out of the way by a third soldier as everyone fought to gain control of weapons, but it was picked up and used by Rudy as Karel grabbed a soldier’s arm and swung him around, leaning into the man’s armpit and picking him up by the crotch to drop him onto a bent knee and, despite the armour, break his spine.
As soon as he had no clear targets, János turned his attention to the nearest end of the room, and as he ensured he was not going to be hit from the far end he scrambled forwards so he was behind the remaining pair as they turned in response to Amaranta appearing at the main doors, then he grabbed one soldier by the neck and pulled him around abruptly, using him as a shield and snapping his neck at the same time as he lifted the corpse’s own gun to shoot the other attacker.
Patel fell next to Yvette as slivers found their target, so she stood up and threw his body at the nearest soldier whilst running after the flying weight so quickly that her victim only had time to see a single event before her fist smashed through his visor and shattered his skull. She followed her own momentum and rolled forward, parried the downward slash of a long blade from another soldier as if he was moving in slow-motion, reached sideways and spiralled her right arm around his left to grip his shoulder and press her thumb between the segments of his arm and chest armour to anchor herself, then hit him in the chest with the palm of her left hand so that he screamed in agony as his arm was pulled right off, and before he had fully reacted to the shock his own knife was buried in his neck. Yvette yanked the blade free so hard that his head was almost severed from his body, flipped the knife end-over-end to catch the tip and spun it across the room through the side of a soldier’s helmet, then she dodged a swinging rifle-butt and arced the heel of her hand into the man’s chin, smashing his jaw and neck to send his body flying backwards into the nearest wall, whilst the sudden ending of the fight seemed to catch the survivors unawares.
The Commander sat up as he realised how quiet everything now was, almost surprised he was still alive and amazed he had no injuries, and it was only then he realised what the strange sound had been before the main attack. He saw blood running from the large and jagged wounds on Tamara’s arm and shoulder as János tended to her, then he looked at the bodies everywhere – Human delegates and soldiers, and vampires. He was shocked both by the brutally insensitive use of Patel’s corpse and the inhumanly strong manner in which it had been thrown, but he also knew it was a practical thing to do as it had enabled Yvette to help defend them, for it was clear the attack was meant to kill everyone regardless of their species or rank, but he had trouble remembering precisely what had happened. “How on earth did she—?” Though he had repeatedly studied every piece of evidence they had gathered, he still could not believe what he had witnessed from the vampires in general or how Miranda in particular had managed to react at all, let alone in such a decisive fashion considering her apparent frailty. Having dismissed her earlier threats as exaggerations born of resentment, he was grateful he hadn’t been on the receiving end of her attack, never mind that of a healthy vampire, then he looked at Morris’s sprawled body and saw the staring yet lifeless eyes which hadn’t even recognised his own approaching death. Falcon winced as he met Yvette’s impenetrable gaze – though her lips were almost smiling, her posture was that of waiting to pounce upon anyone who reacted in a manner she wasn’t happy with – then he breathed slowly a couple of times and tried not to gag on the stench of burning flesh and materials, for though the laser’s batteries didn’t last very long, the power they did provide was more than sufficient to char anyone who wasn’t wearing deflective armour beneath the layer of chameleoflage.
Yvette saw where he was looking, and grinned. “Thank you.” She carefully licked the small amount of blood from her injured hand so that not a drop was spilled.
Falcon returned her accusation with a glare. “I don’t know who Morris was working with, but believe me when I say I would have killed him myself if I’d known he was planning something like this. How did you—?” His query as to how she’d managed to merely punch her way through the visor was interrupted by Amaranta’s precise command.
“Everyone stay very, very still.” She stood just inside the interior doors where she could see the entire room yet also be behind anyone entering from the front of the house. “No sudden movements – is that clear?” Amaranta tapped the surviving guard with her foot to indicate he should arise as his wound was not severe, then used her gun to direct him to the furthest end of the table. “Any of us who can, see how many of the soldiers are alive and kill or cripple them, I don’t really care which at the moment, but we need to know how everyone is.”
“Who put you in charge?” Pedersun demanded as he slowly stood up under Yvette’s careful scrutiny.
“Be quiet.” Falcon responded icily as he watched János help his wounded partner to the nearest sofa. “She’s right.” He looked at Amaranta. “And if we’re still in danger.” Once she had paused for an uncomfortably long time – obviously wondering if he could be trusted – she nodded agreement and he tapped out commands on his notepad. “We’ll know soon enough if anyone is still alive out there, and whatever happens we’ll need our doctor, but by the looks of things we’re the only ones left. What with all the noise, someone should have been here by now.”
“The stewards were killed without warning – I expect the entire staff were.” Amaranta cast her gaze over the fallen bodies, the dead and the wounded, and realised there could be even more trouble. “Anyone who can move, go to the sofas – Humans to that side of the room, the rest of us on this side with János and Tamara – otherwise stay where you are until we know how badly you’re hurt.”
Kelly was indignant as she clutched her bleeding arm. “That’s how much you really care about us, isn’t it?”
“Shut up.” Amaranta spoke irritably, then shook her head. “No, not you, Sandoval – sorry.” She was evidently communicating with someone else outside the building, then returned her attention to the room. “There’s wounded on all sides, and blood everywhere. For anyone unable to think clearly, the key-word is ‘blood’, or do I really have to explain the consequences?”
The President cleared his throat as he shakily resumed his seat. “I don’t think I would have considered that. Douglas is dead.” He looked at Teeg’s body and tried not to breath in the smell.
“Everyone just needs to stay calm for a while – help will be here in less than ten minutes.”
“Help for who?” Pederson accused. “You’ve been monitoring us the whole time.”
“No, your jammers were very effective, but as soon as they went down all our relays became active.”
“You brought motes with you.” He spoke flatly.
“Of course, but they were entirely passive, not the aerial kind. We scattered them when we arrived, and our team now has a full map of everywhere we’ve been, and a few we haven’t thanks to your stewards spreading the motes where they walked, but given this building is totally compromised it’s also irrelevant. We have far more important things to consider.”
“Oh no.” Rudy bowed his head as he saw Lily’s back was a glistening tangle of flesh through her torn dress where slivers had found their target. “After everything we went through.” He carefully turned her over and gently kissed her open eyes and mouth, then checked the pulse and breathing of another fallen vampire before performing the same gentle ritual and adding with a sigh. “Paolo is dead, too.”
János leaned over Tamara as she lay on a sofa, then pulled off his tunic and ripped it into strips which he bound tightly around her arm and shoulder in an attempt to staunch the bleeding. When he had finished, he stood and calmly brought his foot down with a horrifying crunch onto the chest of a soldier who had merely been dazed and was now surreptitiously reaching for a weapon with which to try and complete his mission.
“We need some for interrogation.” The Commander chided János as gently as possible – bearing in mind the circumstances – and dragged Patel to the Human side of the room before starting to remove the info-helmets from a few of the soldiers in a probably futile attempt at identifying them. “I hate this stuff.” He peeled back the chameleoflage from its armour, for it was now torn and stained rather than shimmering.
“Then you shouldn’t have invented it.” Yvette commented dryly as she bent down and pulled off some of the material with her good hand, then curved it around a finger so that it seemed to fade in and out of existence as the material bent light around itself.
“The rest of us will live.” Erik spoke for the other vampires despite some of them being wounded in varying degrees, then he prodded Christophe with the foot of his uninjured leg and looked at Daniel who was examining a wound at the top of his arm. “Why did Miranda attack him? I thought he was a prisoner.”
“I honestly don’t know. It’s true he hadn’t been with us very long—” Daniel winced in pain as he bent over Miranda, but sighed with relief at finding she was still alive. He looked up. “Help me – I can’t – I’m still too weak.”
“I’ll do it.” Amaranta said in response to his appeal, as she was not injured, and János would need to provide for Tamara.
Zelinski stood up from having checked Halley’s prone body, though she seemed unhurt. “Clio’s unconscious, but I can’t see anything obvious.” She almost retched as she saw where slivers had stripped off half of Neilson’s face and sliced through her skull. “Rebecca’s dead as well.”
“Where’s that damned doctor?” Falcon demanded of no one in particular. “We can’t risk moving anyone until we know what’s happening, and we don’t even know if it’s safe to stay here.” He went to the far end of the room to pick up a laser-rifle that still retained most of its charge, which he gave to Pedersun. “Go down to the infirmary and bring back as much as you can.”
“Wait a minute.” Karel said, though whether he volunteered because of his distrust couldn’t be determined from the level tone of his voice. “Let me have a look at everyone first so we know what to get. I am a qualified doctor, amongst other things.” He added to reassure anyone who doubted his intentions, and having briefly checked Tamara and the other wounded vampires, approached the Humans who were trying their best to comfort one another. Their reaction to him was a combination of restrained hostility and desire for assistance, and the look on Kelly’s face made it clear she didn’t want him near even though blood was running from her wound, but he kneeled beside Halley and gently touched her body. “I’ll be able to examine her better once I get some things. Come on.” Karel addressed Pedersun and stood up.
The Commander nodded slightly. “I’ll do a quick sweep outside and see what state we’re in.”
“Be careful.” Amaranta addressed them as they left by opposite sides of the room, then she kneeled beside Miranda to gently turn her over – her breathing was so faint that without using medical equipment only another vampire would have known she was still alive – and picked up her limp body to lay it on the now upright sofa beyond Tamara, placing a cushion beneath her head. Amaranta bit into her own wrist and tenderly smeared blood on Miranda’s slightly parted lips, and as Miranda’s mouth opened instinctively in response Amaranta barely managed to suppress her rage at seeing the wanton disfigurement. “Drink freely and without obligation.” She touched Miranda’s cheek. “You can’t die now, not after all you’ve done for us.”
Having ensured his own people were as well as could be expected in the circumstances until they received proper medical attention, the President approached cautiously so his intent could not be misunderstood, but stopped abruptly as he neared János. “I—” He averted his gaze and stepped back, then winced as he saw Tamara feeding, but despite his revulsion he still looked as she drank – he could see her throat moving as she clasped János’ arm to her mouth with her free hand – and he found himself momentarily staring into her half-closed eyes whose shade of blue should have been luminous, with flecks of what seemed to be pure gold. He forced himself to remain calm and passed to the next sofa, for though Miranda’s actions had initially been incomprehensible it was plain she anticipated the attack and was now as much a victim as everyone else, but here he was confronted by Amaranta’s efforts at resuscitation, and he faltered.
Miranda awoke in a reflex action as she almost choked on the blood that trickled down her throat, then she managed to turn slightly and swallow, closing her mouth so none of the precious liquid escaped. “Too slow.” She mumbled. “Tamara—” Miranda drank some more and elucidated faintly. “How bad?”
“Erik and Daniel are injured but not badly, Tamara is far worse but will live, and Lily and Paolo didn’t survive. I’m sorry.” Amaranta told her as Bruno suppressed his disgust and slowly stood beside her. “Teeg, Neilson, and Patel are dead, and we don’t know how bad Halley is yet. You did the best you could, and on behalf of us all I thank you for it.”
Miranda closed her eyes for a moment. “Chris—” She tried to sit up, but hadn’t the strength. “Christophe—”
Amaranta tried to reassure her. “You stopped him, though I don’t know what he was going to do, or why.”
“What?” She frowned, suddenly concerned, both at what Miranda was trying to say and that she was so frail.
“Not mine. Experiment. Unstable.”
Had she not been feeding Miranda, Amaranta would have approached the military to demand what they had done, but Falcon was out of the room and the survivors were still too dazed by events to behave sensibly, and she wanted to believe they were genuinely unaware of the conspiracy of which Morris had been a part. She looked up at the President and watched him almost recoil at the anger in her face, then she released the clip of her gun and carefully ejected a sliver before expertly reloading the cartridge in a fluid motion. Amaranta flicked the sliver’s tip with her nail and, once it had sprung apart into spiralling barbs, used it to extend the punctures in her own wrist before cutting into Miranda’s forearm, then she clasped Miranda’s hand so their wounds lay against one another. “My blood to yours, my life to yours – semper viva.”
“Will she be all right?” Bruno asked quietly, and though his voice trembled at having witnessed the dispassionately precise manner in which Amaranta had used the weapon on herself and he was unnerved by the visceral nature of what she was doing, still he managed to recognise its importance, then he stepped back as Amaranta, though still bound to Miranda, turned and aimed her gun at the far wall. “What’s wrong?”
A few seconds later, the Commander returned from his speedy reconnaissance and announced perfunctorily. “Everyone’s dead. The grounds are like a morgue, but the guards look as if they were killed long before the main assault, and all the alarms were deactivated from the inside.”
“You did a good job.” Amaranta spoke tonelessly.
“I only—” Falcon curtailed his reply as he saw what she was doing, then realised her gun was pointing at him. “What’s going on?” He demanded.
“You tell me.” She indicated Christophe’s body with a tilt of her head. “One of yours.”
He was genuinely puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
“Your stupid tests!” Amaranta hissed. “You never know when to stop, do you?”
The Commander shook his head in denial. “We only had two survivors – they’re both still at the facility – and I assure you he wasn’t one of them. He was brought in a couple of weeks ago, just before Lily.”
“Miranda just told me she didn’t turn him, which means he was someone you turned, and to make matters worse he was psychotic. I don’t like any of this – it was far too easy.” She cast a disdainful glance in the direction of the wounded guard who was staring in horror at people doing and speaking of things he had no comprehension of, but lowered her gun as a sign of belief in the Commander’s sincerity.
“‘Easy’?” Falcon exclaimed. “Do you know how many of us were killed?”
“We lost some as well, but these were ordinary soldiers rather than hunters, let alone enhanced ones, and why storm in like that when vampires excel at hand-to-hand combat? If I’d not wanted to use artillery that could have been tracked, then a dozen or so fragmentation grenades would have torn us all to shreds, and the lasers are too bulky for close-quarter’s combat. Even allowing for the fact they didn’t expect to meet so many vampires because of the others you’d brought here, it was inefficient to the point of clumsiness, and there are many far-better weapons they could have used. I’m just wondering what will happen next.” Her eyes widened suddenly.
“Please.” Bruno tried to calm the situation. “Hasn’t there been enough distrust already? Oh, good.” He sighed with relief as Karel returned, pushing a trolley laden with equipment. “Where’s Pedersun?”
“Collecting more things. It’s safe down there, but only because everyone’s dead. He’ll be up in a minute, he’s trying to call your own people from the security room, or what’s left of it – it’s completely trashed.”
“It’s what?” The President frowned at the archaic phrase, then realised its meaning by the context.
Karel began unloading the trolley, placing blankets and bandages and the few remaining sachets of blood near János and Amaranta, then he spread out everything else on the conference table and knelt to ensure Halley was still all right before carefully sliding a brace under her neck and securing it around her shoulders and head. “Anyone need help?”
“No.” Kelly replied brusquely, despite evidence to the contrary.
“Something still isn’t right.” Amaranta voiced an inner doubt, and addressed Erik who had just given himself a local anaesthetic. “Can you take a sample from Christophe whilst he’s still warm?”
He frowned momentarily before nodding as he realised what she intended, and removed a swab from its mask before pulling open Christophe’s sodden shirt to expose the ruins of his chest, then he soaked the swab in the dead vampire’s blood.
“What are you looking for?” Bruno asked quietly as he felt how tense the situation was becoming – he had no idea why and was almost afraid of asking, and tried not to look at the fatal damage – but an answer was forestalled by Pedersun returning with another trolley, which he left between the conference table and windows.
“Suit yourself.” Karel shrugged nonchalantly at the antagonism, then laid out instruments and equipment on clean dishes which he placed on the floor beside János. He carefully removed the soaked remains of János’ tunic and began to clean around Tamara’s wounds, then lifted an anaesthetic spray and pressed it first against her shoulder, then her lower arm. “I’m sorry.”
She kissed János then lay back, knowing what had to be done, for the slivers had already been open when they struck her as ricochets from the table, and like barbed arrows their design ensured there was no easy way of removing them. “Stop talking and get on with it.” Her voice was hoarse from pain.
János gave her a folded cloth to bite into and momentarily squeezed her other hand, then picked up some tweezers and with Karel began probing for the slivers, actually glad they were the razor-edged variety rather than the hollow types containing explosives.
Amaranta held out her free hand for the swab, but being surrounded by so much diseased Human blood she found it difficult to distinguish clean from infected, so she sniffed the swab to ensure Christophe was safe, then tasted him before dipping her finger in the blood that ran down Miranda’s arm and licking that. “Miranda was the first to be captured, so it’s reasonable to assume that her blood was used to turn all your volunteers.”
“I don’t refute that.” Falcon’s confusion changed to sudden concern. “What are you suggesting?”
“I’m suggesting nothing, I’m telling you that Christophe was also turned with her blood. She was captured about three months ago, so you’ve had more than enough time in which to successfully turn one of your own people and then plant them in the prison or wherever you kept them – you mentioned a facility of some kind.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Pedersun almost laughed. “He’s a vampire – didn’t you see how strong he was?”
Yvette walked over. “He merely had some different blood in him, which is hardly the same thing. How do you think Miranda beat Christophe so quickly despite being so weak? She knows how to use everything she is, and she obviously had good teachers for one so young, whereas he was a fool with delusions of grandeur who didn’t even know the little that he could do.”
“That only proves he was turned recently.” Pedersun’s voice rose in anger.
“With Miranda’s blood in him?” She scoffed. “I’m sure she had nothing else to do except turn the first person she met whilst enjoying your hospitality.”
“If not yours, then whose?” Amaranta queried, then suddenly looked at Zelinski as she remembered. “Miranda knew, and she tried to warn us without alerting Christophe to the fact.”
“Of what?” Bruno was puzzled.
“One of your corporations wanting to ensure they survived the crisis, or just trying to kill as many of us as they could.”
“But what would be the point?” The President asked. “Even if some of us lived through the attack – I assume those working on the inside did expect to survive even if whoever they worked for didn’t want them to – and it was blamed on you, what would they hope to gain?”
“They’d be leaving someone on the inside – the one thing that’s hard to detect until it’s too late for some of us – a vampire hunter.”
“Yes, I know about those, but Christophe was—”
“No, not a Human one.” Amaranta corrected him. “There are three sorts of hunters – the Humans who seek us, and ours who hunt yours – but the worst are vampires who hate what they are and so take it out on the rest of us by going on an ‘oh, pity poor suffering me feeding from dogs and cats’ crusade. Very occasionally we make mistakes in turning people – our senses tell us if they’re suited physically, but if they can’t cope emotionally then there are problems, as you learned the hard way.”
Falcon shook his head at the new information. “Wait a minute, I don’t understand what you’re saying. Even if Christophe was turned with Miranda’s blood – which itself means some was taken from our facility – how did she know?”
“Try reading your reports.” Yvette’s tone was flat.
The Commander didn’t allow himself to be baited. “I have – numerous times and very thoroughly – but there’s nothing about this. Are you saying you can trace a vampire’s ancestry?”
Amaranta nodded. “It’s even in your own legends, albeit in a corrupted form. Didn’t you try to learn anything real about us?” She sighed. “Many people say there’s a link between a vampire and their progeny – I’ll ignore the fact no one has ever been able to demonstrate physic abilities despite ever-more outlandish claims to the contrary – but it’s certainly true we can recognise lineage.”
“All right, I’ll have to take your word for that, but how?”
“Overall physical transformation occurs as a reaction to what is effectively a virus that starts to restructure the host, which in turn fights back as best it can even though it loses, then everything settles down and forms a new combination which has all the power of the invasive organism but modified slightly for the newly-turned body – that’s why some people die after a couple of days as their entire system overloads. Once everything has stabilised, then everyone tastes different – a bit like your Human blood-types, but far subtler.”
“So you could be wrong.”
Amaranta shook her head. “Christophe’s blood contains part of Miranda’s.”
“You’re assuming all that based on taste?” The President tried not to sound as sceptical as he was.
“Miranda did predict the attack.” Falcon pointed out, then asked the question which had been on his mind ever since. “How did she?”
“She knew what was happening, and merely reacted.” Yvette explained, and ignored the Commander’s surprise at what he mistakenly saw as her casual dismissal of Miranda’s abilities. “Now I know why Christophe wanted to be at the meeting – so he would be in position when the attack began – and why Miranda sat next to him, but he never knew he didn’t stand a chance against her, let alone any of us. Morris sent a signal to Christophe – I saw it from the corner of my eye and presume it was a warning the attack was impending – as I also assume he was informed of the raid starting via the internal comms once the building had been secured from outside interference. Remember this?” She held out the transponder and sliver array which had been wrapped around Morris’s forearm.
“That’s a very convenient chain of reasoning – blaming everything on us.” Pedersun had no reason to try and hide his disbelief.
“Unfortunately, it also fits the known facts, at least for the moment.” Falcon replied, then frowned. “What signal?”
Yvette sighed as if she was already bored. “Didn’t anyone else see it apart from Miranda? who was waiting for something like it.”
The Commander shook his head and retrieved the radial sliver array. “There’s nothing here to—” He touched some of the embedded controls in the transponder, then stopped as she looked away. “What’s wrong?”
“I keep forgetting how blind you all are.” Yvette bent over the first soldier she had killed and tugged free a piece of his shattered visor – underneath, his face was a mass of tangled flesh and broken bone from the impact of her fist, but she didn’t even glance at the damage – then handed it to Falcon, who saw a needle-thin beam emanating from the transponder.
“But this means it’s infra-red.” The Commander protested, then belatedly realised. “Oh, of course – your extended visual acuity.”
“Or ‘the sight’, as some of you so quaintly used to call it.”
He indicated the dead soldier with a downward swing of his eyes. “Even you shouldn’t have been able to do that.”
“The visor’s made from—” Falcon started to explain, then remembered what had followed and interrupted himself. “You pulled someone’s arm off!”
“Huh.” Yvette’s lack of meaningful reply was instantly dismissive, and her mouth hardened. “None of you have ever seen a vampire fight for their lives, have you? when they’ll do anything to survive. We have no defence against iron or plastic, steel or teflon, which is why you always shoot us from a distance – bow and arrows or guns, it makes no difference except for our ability to get out of their way – but close-up, like this, even one of your enhanced hunters doesn’t stand a chance against someone like me, and these were only normal Humans with some silly toys.”
“You sound as if you’re actually enjoying this.” The Commander’s anger was more than plain.
“More than they did.” She almost smiled, which only emphasised her contempt.
Amaranta’s gaze alternated between the damaged visor and Yvette’s hand, which despite the torn skin no longer seemed to be bleeding, and her eyes widened. “You’re—”
“Yes.” Yvette’s tone was flat again, and she abruptly changed the subject. “When is it due?”
“Almost above us.” Amaranta wanted to ask more of Yvette, but not in such public surroundings, for the sudden and apparently meaningless admission signified that Yvette was probably the most important vampire at the meeting despite her evident desire for anonymity, and Amaranta’s voice was subdued as she returned the conversation to their previous subject. “They had to contact their people inside, and it was planned that way. I really think you ought to check your security, don’t you? Can we trust everyone who’s survived? We’re all sitting targets, and I don’t like staying still in hostile territory.”
“We aren’t your enemy.” The President spoke forcibly. “We had nothing to do with this carnage, and if you thought us guilty, why did you try and save us?”
“In the hope that any innocent Human survivors would report what truly happened here, and that we were not the antagonists as would be claimed by those responsible. That the plot was organised by your own security departments is hardly surprising given their long history of subversion and interference in all forms of government, especially their own. The only real surprise is that they didn’t aim Thor’s Hammer at us right from the start, even if it did raise alarms that someone was actually using that abomination, but I suppose they needed news of the attack as a distraction for the various command centres as well as to perform its real task of keeping us pinned down.”
“Why are we still here?” János momentarily looked up from his partner’s arm as he pulled out the final sliver and dropped it into the tray, though the tone of his voice indicated he was speaking of more than just remaining in the conference room. He briefly squeezed Karel’s arm in silent gratitude, then they began to place cleansing pads over Tamara’s wounds.
Bruno glanced with dismay at Falcon, not only for the decisive manner in which the talks had been sabotaged but also for Amaranta’s casual mention of the highly secret orbiting laser platform.
“It’s in position now.” Amaranta looked up.
“What are you talking about?” Falcon demanded. He, too, looked to the ceiling, wondering what they were seeing with their vision, then despite all the shocks he had been through felt his body flush hot at the terrible realisation. “God help us.”
“No.” Karel replied. “We will help you, or do you honestly think you’d ever be allowed to use it?”
“Thank you, Sandoval, that’s good news.” Amaranta sighed, and the vampire delegates returned to what they had been doing with a palpable sense of relief.
“It didn’t fire?” The Commander asked, then realised how stupid his question was, given they were still alive and the house and its grounds had not been incinerated. “Why didn’t it?”
“We’ll deal with that later.” Her tone brooked no argument.
“You stopped it.” He accused. “But that means—”
“We can discuss it next time, assuming you actually want to meet again?”
Bruno nodded. “I admit it’s difficult for anyone to talk with a level head at the moment, but if we could all stay calm until the medics arrive, and not say anything we might regret later, then I—”
“No.” Yvette interrupted. “No regrets – at least not as you understand them. We are, we act, and we celebrate our achievements and learn from our mistakes without glorification or wallowing in self-pity.”
Amaranta removed her arm from Miranda’s as Karel began setting up proper transfusion equipment. “That’s why you’ll always fear us, and why some of you will envy us. Most likely you’ll just bolster your self-esteem by deigning to pity us because we can’t be ‘saved’ – whatever that means – or claim we’re emotional cripples longing for death.”
“Are you leaving?” Bruno was horrified at the prospect. “I don’t want this unfortunate incident to undo all the good that’s been done here tonight, and you said yourself that we’d made progress.”
“‘Unfortunate incident’?” János almost choked on a laugh. “This wasn’t a drunken idiot causing a motorway pile-up – these are supposed to be negotiations to save your species from near-extinction, never mind the rest of the planet.”
“You know we need you.” The President’s admission was subdued. “Once this as been sorted out, we’ll have a proper chance to—”
“No.” Amaranta shook her head as she heard the sound of approaching gyrocopters, and knew that Sandoval had arrived. “You had your chance – it’s our turn now.”