Copyright Amber Allen © 2011.
The right of Amber Allen to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or localities is entirely coincidental.
Outside, the last traces of a sunset cast shades of purple and magenta across some high clouds near the horizon, a few moments after the latest image was stored in my camera, now safely in my shoulder-bag with a few other essentials, and an activated recorder ready for my interview. The sky was otherwise fairly clear, swept by a cool breeze from the coast a mile or so distant, but the autumnal evening was still quite warm and the old-fashioned inn had real fires crackling in hearths that looked as if they were original despite probably being built sometime since the second World War – perhaps in deliberate imitation of what once was.
I knew nothing of this or any other part of south-western England beyond the name of the nearest village in which I was staying for the night, but I was more than used to travelling to out-of-the-way places for my studies – especially the necessarily clandestine nature of my current research – and received little attention entering the low rambling structure whose grounds were dark except for a few lights at the perimeter of a half-empty car-park, and the general impression was an unusual one of isolation.
The alcove I chose was cosy but not cramped, perfect for either an intimate assignation or just a drink with close friends, though as was usual for this particular investigation I was due to meet someone about whom I knew virtually nothing beyond the designation they had given themselves. I was curious as to why she had chosen the inn at all, as it was at complete odds with the usual places I arranged to meet such people, where the situations had an undercurrent of injury even though the interviewees themselves never threatened it, for most of them had fairly strict codes of behaviour.
There were two wide seats of slightly worn brown leather on either side of a dark wooden table, and the wall at my right was a mosaic made from pieces of broken bottles and mirrors depicting a scene of two roses, one red the other white, their thorny stems intertwined and their open petals facing one another as if ready for a kiss. On my left, an open curtain of pale green and gold hung from a dull brass pole that joined the panelled wooden partitions separating the adjoining alcoves behind of and in front of me.
Lighting was from discreetly recessed spotlights in the beamed ceiling that were angled so as not to shine directly into anyone’s eyes, and on the table a tall thin candle had been placed on the remains of its melted predecessors as solidified wax fell like cooled lava over an old bottle – the only part of the label I could see mentioned something about a region of France and a date of 1983. Sound from the rest of the inn was neither too loud to intrude into conversation nor too quiet to make me question whether or not I was alone, and the atmosphere was slightly unusual in that there were no telemedias or games or comms interrupting the pleasant level of background chatting and bar-talk, which merged into a relaxing susurration.
“Hello, you must be—” Her voice was pitched as if she already knew the answer, and her seemingly genuine accent was noticeable yet not unduly intrusive, the pronunciation and style definitely Eastern European with none of what had been the so-called mid-Atlantic twang affected by many so as to make themselves appear well-travelled when all they did was commute between airport queues and conference centres. I was surprised that even with so few words my old training recognised her as someone who had been taught English in an overly-structured manner and then not gained sufficient general experience soon afterwards so as to make it more relaxed and conversational, but despite my sometimes wild years at university I had left with degrees in Eng-Lit and Sociology and Media Studies, and could match whatever style I encountered.
All I knew of her by way of our mutual contact was her name and alleged reputation, which was extremely understated in relation to my previous subjects – everything else was merely fantasy and fabrication – so she sounded absolutely fascinating.
Eva stood about one metre sixty-five tall, but her eyes drew all my attention, for though they were neither wide nor large, they were of the palest blue, going well with the light yet thick blonde hair which surrounded her rather oval face. I saw no evidence of make-up either on her well-defined lips or her skin, which was so clear it should have been translucent, and her clothes were stylish yet casual – knee-high pale brown boots with low heels, a long cream skirt split to mid-thigh on either side to occasionally expose rather muscular legs, and a cream jacket over a thin white blouse. In all other respects she was reasonably attractive in a Middle-European way and very self-assured, a comfortably well-off woman in her late-thirties – a few years younger than me – and I wondered what made her behave as she did, for unlike the others I’d met she hardly seemed to live on the fringes of mainstream society. Was it just the thrill she sought – the sense of taboo – or were there deeper psychological reasons perhaps linked to an ancient trauma?
I felt rather frumpy by comparison in my dark red roll-neck jumper with black trousers and pale grey ‘no sweat’ trainers – all neither new and obviously for the occasion nor so old as to be embarrassing – but they were familiar and comfortable, which when I chose them was my only consideration. “Susanna Collier, yes. Thanks for coming.”
Eva stopped just inside the curtain, as if already unsure of the interview – was she expecting me to be openly critical of her? If so, all she had to do was read my articles to know I never passed judgement, for all the people I met had chosen their way of live and accepted the repercussions, as I had done all those years ago. “Are you sure?” She lingered.
“Yes, of course.” I had no idea why she wanted to make the introductions so protracted unless it was a ritual behaviour – we both knew why we were there – but for the first few minutes we played a game like two dancers spiralling towards one another until one dared reach out and touch the other, or a prelude to an overture – a kind of social foreplay until we openly discussed her predilection.
Eva took off her jacket to reveal the blouse was short-sleeved – her arms were quite strong too – and sat opposite me, folded her jacket and put it beside her, then placed the latest model of personal communicator on the table, next to a small bunch of electrikeys. She momentarily smiled at her own fragmented images in the mosaic without even trying to hide the fact she had a reflection at all – as others had attempted by various means and always without success – then propped her elbows on the table and rested her chin on the arched bridge of her interlaced fingers whose rounded nails were buffed but not varnished, looking at me in a manner almost quizzical and at the same time watchful. Her left wrist had a rose-gold Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso complication which put my Rado ceramic multi-function to shame, the other a thick and intricately-woven chain of – white gold? no, the patina was too hard and coldly bright – platinum, as were the rings that circled the little and third fingers of both hands. Whatever her chosen way of life she was certainly able to indulge herself, and I hoped she would turn out to be as skilled at conversation.
I was suddenly and very strangely nervous, even having previously met people who may have been borderline psychotic or harboured desires of being a killer – though many were simply deluded to varying degrees and after only a few minutes displayed a complete lack of consistency or even the ability to function properly in the real world – and again I was puzzled by her choice of rendezvous. “I haven’t ordered anything yet as I wasn’t sure what you wanted.”
“A coffee will be fine, thank you – just ask for the special.” She smiled again to reassure me.
I left the alcove and placed my order with the bartender, returning to find Eva in the same pose as when I left, as if she had frozen time, which was strangely appropriate considering what she thought herself to be.
“Were the directions I gave you all right?”
“Yes, thank you.” I nodded. “It’s a little out of the way, but not hard to find, and I have to admit it’s rather cosy.”
Eva tilted her head fractionally and spoke idly, of no consequence. “I have used it for a while now, and it’s an excellent example of that rather trite saying – ‘Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose’,” her accent gave a pleasant lilt to some of the vowels.
Even though we had only just met she began introducing the concept of age and survival – which was certainly a novel approach – and I knew I would have to be completely honest with her about my own experiences otherwise she would think I was deceiving her by withholding information, but did she mean to delve straight into things without any attempt at context or trying to claim she was living outside convention due to circumstances over which she had no control? “I take it from what you just said that you come here often, and it was your suggestion, after all.”
“People come and go, leather deteriorates and the seats are reshaped by fashion, wooden panels are replaced or filled-in or knocked out, even the bricks can be taken down to foundation plans and rebuilt or changed as rooms are added, but ultimately it’s still the same, and quite a few remaining parts are centuries old. This was once a coaching inn – the last stop before a village that no longer exists, the haunt of many a rogue – and has seen more good times than most other such places.”
“Is that why you like it?”
“It’s somewhere people can meet without being made to feel things are too formal, especially on their quiet nights such as this when all the so-called entertainment is switched off.”
Despite myself, I was surprised at her early use of objectification, and smiled. “I don’t want you to misunderstand, but I have to say you’re not quite what I was expecting.”
She shrugged in a motion that was both nonchalant and dismissive. “Doubtless not. I know what you think and why you’re here, so let’s continue to humour one another for a while.” The mere words of her statement could have seemed a little brash, even allowing for my own unconsidered comment – why had I reacted like that anyway? – but the way in which she spoke was polite and actually quite disarming, and though her voice was not in any way hypnotic – it was far from monotonous with its occasional unexpected accentuation that betrayed a foreign birth – she spoke with such ease that it was infectious and I felt myself relaxing, which was a complete reversal as I should have been setting the mood and reassuring my interviewee they were not going to be an object of ridicule.
A waitress in her early teens wearing an old-fashioned short black dress and white apron brought in our drinks. Eva’s coffee arrived with insulated dishes of chocolate ice-cream and powdered chocolate – both glistening with frost and strongly dark – and a lush crème-caramel. After the waitress had filled my glass with white wine and placed the bottle on a silver-plated coaster, she pulled the curtain closed as she left, and even though no one knew why we were there, that the establishment catered for intimate rendezvous was apparent by the other closed alcoves and the gentle murmuring of conversations.
“And how many times have you done this?” Had I been overly direct too soon?
She almost laughed as she sprinkled chocolate on her coffee – there was neither milk nor sugar – took a spoonful of the ice-cream and dipped it in the coffee, then momentarily closed her eyes and savoured the contrasting tastes and textures and temperatures as if she had just taken drugs. “I have no need to keep an account.” The admonition was gentle.
“I was just curious.”
“More than a dozen – less than a thousand.” Her lips smiled, but did not tease me.
“And have all the meetings been in such pleasant surroundings?”
“Peaceful, now, certainly, but I could point out things to you to indicate otherwise. Holes caused by musket-shot, an esoteric sigil carved into a door-beam to warn of betrayal, another equally obscure sign elsewhere to indicate sanctuary, the ruins of a nearby barn scarred by fire, never mind the political intrigue and links to royalty in times of open rebellion. Then there are the collapsed tunnels leading from the cellars to caves a couple of kilometres away, full of rumours of stolen treasure, murder, and wreckers. Everything has a history, whether recorded in oral traditions or books or on films or discs, or simply in the fact it has endured and can be read by those who know how. In memories, too, for those who survived what happened.”
I was interested to see how accurate and detailed were her stories, and how much history – whether local or global – she would try and link with her own life. “Yes, I remember my grandparents telling me about being in London during the War – only the old newsreels are left now, and no one’s really interested except historians.”
“There are always other wars, somewhere – whether direct, against a country, or more abstract, against an undefined or unseen enemy – so conveniently polarised during times of political or religious expediency into ‘us’ and ‘them’ that most people now don’t even recognise it, let alone question it.”
“And would you class yourself as an unseen enemy?” I almost felt like smiling, and wondered why, then realised the curious effect she was having on me – everything she said and did was so assured yet also somewhat indifferent, as if she lived inside her own personal reality and didn’t care one way or another what anyone else thought of her for doing so. Certainly, she could afford to isolate herself financially – if my assumptions were correct – but what about the social and physiological aspects of her life?
“We are neither, and have never been, though mostly we aren’t seen because you do not want to – in most instances simply cannot.”
For the first time Eva explicitly mentioned herself as someone different, as she probably knew I had been waiting for it, but her mention of others was unexpected. How far would she take her flight of fancy? “What was it like for you – I mean how did it affect you in the beginning?”
She accepted the change of direction without comment. “To say that nothing can prepare you for it is not strictly true, for there is plenty of information for those who can be bothered to research it, but there are severe limits on what can be felt beyond the actual learning, and some didn’t have the opportunity to before they were thrust unprepared into a new world. The impact of that initial awakening can have repercussions that taint the rest of their life, but everything is a process of education. Can you really look in the mirror and accept what you see – not just your face at the end of a tiring day but your whole body, naked, open to scrutiny? Can you truly know who and what you are, what you are capable of, what you could become if you were able?”
“It was uncomfortable?”
“‘Terrifying’ is, I think, an appropriate word, or at least it was, for a while. It cleansed me, too – a rebirth in more ways than one – as I became the very thing I had been raised to fear, and I revelled in it.”
“Aren’t you ever worried about going too far – of becoming a monster?”
Eva dismissed my query with the barest of shrugs. “Whose definitions would you use?”
“The usual ones.”
“And who defines that other than people who already think of themselves as normal? It’s a circular argument used to make everyone feel secure, so their lowest expectations remain unchallenged as they sink ever deeper into mediocrity. To answer your initial question, though – no, I have long been what I would now wish to be, and have no desire to return to what I once was. I’m quite safe in polite society, and can take care of myself in others far less so.”
“Well, you certainly seem to accept your way of life.”
“I’m perfectly adapted to it, which is as it should be. You find me interesting, certainly, but also somewhat attractive in an unexpected way.” Her sudden remark should have been a question, but it was also true and she knew it, was fully aware of the effect she was having on me even though it bore no direct relation to our discussion. Or did it – was she just another of those who linked their fantasies with sex and simply added another fluid to the intimate exchange? I wouldn’t be disappointed if such were the case, for I’d met quite a few like her and understood what they thought – it was another and far deeper level of trust as well as containing a frisson of danger – and certainly my own experiments with that had been very enjoyable, though they had all been with men. There was definitely something about her that went beyond the simply physical – she was certainly no beauty in the conventional sense and would pass unnoticed in a crowd except perhaps for the confident way in which she moved – but at the moment she almost seemed to radiate a sensuality that was completely at odds with the athletically-proportioned woman sitting opposite me that it was almost as if she were two different people. Then again, I suppose that could be said of anyone, as there was usually a difference between anyone’s public and private personas. I was more than used to looking at other women without feeling any desire for them, yet Eva drew my attention like no other woman ever had and I was unsettled by it, though perhaps this was also part of her game – to charm me, perhaps even attempt a seduction. “It’s a normal response.”
Despite myself, I smiled. “Do you like that – it amuses you?”
She almost laughed. “I accept it, as with so many other things. It’s part of who we are, so some use it to their advantage, and despite appearances to the contrary I select my companions very carefully. Were we more accessible, no doubt someone would analyse it to the enth degree and market a scent named ‘blind lust’ or ‘night passion’, or something equally predictable.”
Her repeated inclusion of others beyond herself was a marked departure from my previous interviewees, as they had all made a specific point of explaining how they existed in isolation – perhaps to rationalise what was in some cases quite an extreme form of self-imposed suffering that bordered on masochism – shunned by a society that couldn’t understand them and saw no reason to as they clung on to outmoded fears. “So there are no surprises left for you?”
“On the contrary, it’s your never-ending propensity for change that keeps us interested in you – and wary – even as we pursue our own goals.” Following on from the shift in our conversation a few moments ago, she carried it forward in her own unique way, but where was she leading me? Eva turned and swung her legs up on to the seat, leaned back against the mosaic and drank more coffee, this time with some crème-caramel. “It used to be so easy – just pretend to die and leave a will passing everything on to yourself under a new name in a different village where everything was written on paper records and the locals soon died or forgot. Now it’s all automated, the few remaining paper birth- and death-certificates are kept centrally and everything is cross-referenced onto over-priced bug-ridden databases by neat little clerks who poke into other people’s lives because they have none of their own – or else they think they’re serving the ever-more paranoid state by keeping tabs on prospective dissenters who have only to say ‘no’ to be classed as such – as if anyone actually needed to know, despite what governments claim when they can’t even keep track of their own machinations and care only for their limited circle of financiers. It’s hardly a problem, nothing more than a simple accounting exercise for most of us, and any new systems you introduce will be broken before they’re even operational, aided by the fact you all live longer whilst individuals are more secluded as they are surrounded by new people they know nothing of, so there is more room for us to remain invisible.”
The creation of a background was also something which I was used to hearing, but hers was already far more detailed and reasoned, and we had hardly begun our conversation. “You’re being very honest with me.”
“I have nothing to lose – you do.” Her almost curt reminder of our respective positions was just a statement of fact rather than a veiled threat – her voice had not hardened at all, nor was she deriding me – for I was more than aware she could tell me whatever she chose and within limits I had to take it at face value unless she presented any corroborating evidence. I’d invited myself into her little world and was prepared to risk quite a lot – had already done so in previous encounters – and to instantly dismiss everything I heard would not do her any justice and negate the entire reason for interviewing her.
“I know, but for the sake of argument, what if you hadn’t felt safe in meeting me here?”
“Then I would be elsewhere enjoying myself and you would be here alone – unless you were hunting me, in which case you’d already be dead. My senses are so far beyond yours you couldn’t understand any descriptions, and I move faster than you can possibly respond to, but why dwell on the negative? The night is yet young, and even if it were not we can take as long as we need – beyond the morning if necessary.”
Superhuman strength and speed were part of the folklore – though with various limitations that provided an excuse not to actually reveal any of their alleged powers – and I was interested to see how much she could explain away her otherwise normal existence. “Surely daylight is a threat to you?”
Eva smiled, almost laughed, then mixed caramel with ice-cream, dipped it in coffee and swallowed slowly, as if the dessert was intoxicating to her. “Oh, so many myths, so many stories – you have no idea how wrong so many of them are.”
I laughed slightly, and prompted. “Well, I assume you like to sleep in a proper bed rather than a coffin filled with soil from the grounds of an ancestral home.”
“Yes, a poor allusion to us being judged creatures of the earth, and please tell me how we are supposed to rearrange our bodies to become a bat or any other creature thought of as evil by various cultures, such as rats or wolves, who invariably display more intelligence and care for their own kind than their detractors. Considering how few of us there were, our influence on your mythology and entertainment has been remarkable – fear is a prime motivator, after all – yet the amount of accurate information is minuscule, which is perhaps for the best as it keeps us safe from the idly curious and the quick-tempered. I don’t deny that some of our reputations were well-deserved – though the older chroniclers have a lot to answer for as they willingly distorted things to suit their own parochial bias and advance their personal agendas – but we are alive to appreciate the irony of it all as now even more than ever people refuse to consider our existence as anything other than born of ignorance and hysteria, or simple folklore. All they did was add invention to oft-repeated stories and never even considered going to the source, because they couldn’t think of us as real even as they created their own legends which other people then took as evidence we were real, thus fuelling the cycle. As for the doctors and psychiatrists – premature burial, rabies, catalepsy, porphyria, ignorance of the way a body decomposes so that even in this so-called enlightened age people still ‘know’ that nails and hair continue to grow after death – all medical explanations of legends along with their judgement of inverts. Now the entire pseudo-science is consigned to the dust-bin of history along with phrenology and graphology – perhaps it was the mother’s fault. Would not decapitation or immolation kill anyone else, too, and do they know of the force required to thrust a stake – why only a wooden one I never did understand – through to someone’s heart?”
“Yet surely there must be some basis in truth?”
“We are preternatural, certainly, but superstition to the contrary we can’t defy the laws of physics.” Her laugh was low, almost contemptuous. “Can doors and windows recognise our presence and so react – to deny us entry to people’s homes – or would some alleged ‘higher power’ control them all and keep mere mortals safe until they are foolish enough to invite us in?”
I smiled. “I must admit that was something I never really understood.”
“It is certainly true we have out own rules for interacting with Humans, but only within the bounds of what is possible, and who else but we would benefit from such a silly superstition, even one that’s so easy to disprove? You see me clearly, but does that same light then somehow vanish on its way to a mirror or can the mirror know what I am so as to suck an image of me – and everything I wear – into oblivion? What, in any case, would you define as a mirror? – silvered glass certainly applies, as would polished metal and a pool of water, but what of a glazed tile?” Her free hand moved slightly to indicate the mosaic at her back. “To admit those beliefs there must be a determining point where surfaces act accordingly, but even a cursory analysis only exposes the underlying flaws of such thinking, though people then were so easily persuaded that one of us was Human simply by standing in front of a mirror that it’s now another part of the underlying mythology. In any case, such alleged ‘rules’ were created long before modern inventions such as cameras which then have to be admitted or rejected from the new canon, and do they then only apply to older SLRs with mirrors and not the newer digital cameras? If anyone is afraid of their reflection or is unable to acknowledge what the mirror reveals of themselves, then it is Humans who can’t accept what they see when they’ve peeled away their thin veneer of civilisation and found nothing but a self-aware animal whose attempt at a conscience always absolves it of all the crimes it knowingly commits for whatever causes it deems expedient.”
“Mirrors were once thought to reveal one’s true soul – as the eyes were windows to it – and photographs to capture it.”
“Just so, and as for not breathing! – though I admit that when we sleep we appear comatose or even dead to those unaware of the signs – or what of having no heartbeat? which makes the sex we are justly famed for somewhat impossible, especially for the men. It is also a fact we don’t actually need normal sustenance, but to relinquish the sensual pleasures of food – why should we? – though perhaps it is also partly habit, but an enjoyable one especially to our senses, which certainly aren’t troubled by a smelly lily. Nor are we afraid of spells chanted in Latin – as if an older language somehow contained more potency – or those most ridiculous of alleged wards, the Christian cross and holy water or a bible, and if that then which version and why not any other similar or far older stories from the same region? How can holding a piece of tortured metal or chanting at mere aqua or quoting a charm from a book of stolen myths have any effect on someone? – least of all of a different faith – or on all of us who have no need of such things and can see no difference between the invention of Ea or Ra or Baal or Yahweh, never mind all the sects you have created and slaughtered in the meantime. Does that disturb you?”
Even more than the others, she had produced a complete history for herself, full of genuine references, yet everything that might be used to expose her as a normal woman with a blood-fetish linked to sex was rationalised by claiming nearly all of the conventional stories were wrong and only she was right. I was almost disappointed at how unimaginative it was, but I would never violate her trust in me by directly challenging anything she said, simply ask her to reveal more of her world of make-believe, and using my own past as a basis for further questions was the easiest and fairest way to proceed, as I had done in previous interviews. “No, not really. I mean, I went the local Catholic school – it was the only alternative to the corporate comprehensive down the road with its womb-to-tomb wall of indoctrinated smiley-happy clones, or the government-sponsored creationist nut-house whose concept of ‘science’ was so wide as to include astrology – and it was still a good place to get a general education, but in all honesty I think I only stayed with it for so long because I was attracted to the ceremonies and the sense of belonging to something greater than myself. I loved the overall atmosphere of the school, it was so – I don’t know – comforting, reassuring, and there was none of the danger that had existed in previous institutions where the girls were laundry-slaves. I suppose what really made me doubt after I left were all the different denominations, each claiming only they were right and that God was on their side, never mind all the other world religions who also argued the same thing with equal passion and lack of evidence, but the real problems for me were sin and hell – what a burden to place on a child who knew nothing of such things and had no need to! – that the God who made you split a part of himself off and then pretended to die to atone for the flaws he was responsible for creating, and then if you didn’t believe it you were condemned to an eternity of suffering for something you had no control over. Perhaps the fact I doubted at all is proof the teaching didn’t take as well as it should have done, but the more I learned the more disheartened I became with the whole thing, and eventually it all just faded away into the pleasant memory it is today. I suppose I’m an atheist, just like a lot of Europe – I completely lack belief in a God or gods, and have no need for any of them in my life, though of course I can appreciate and in fact love all of the rich cultural heritage it’s left behind. If there is a God, then he – it – isn’t a personal saviour who talks back to you – and why on earth would it bother with us anyway unless we’re nothing more than pets? whilst demanding worship is for insecure bullies – but more along the lines of a creator of the universe – is that deism? – or perhaps just a sort-of ‘spirit of nature’ that organises life wherever it can but doesn’t even have to be conscious or involved. Then again, it might all be maths and probability simply saying this universe allows life whilst unknown millions of others don’t, or even the universe itself using us and anyone else to try and learn about itself from the inside – I don’t know.” I felt oddly embarrassed at how vague that last bit sounded, but most of my friends and co-workers were of a similar outlook, either lapsed from the various faiths in which they were raised or just not thinking of it in any formal way at all, whilst most of those who did have faith in something else did not proselytise either because they didn’t feel threatened by different beliefs, or they knew they couldn’t answer the questions asked of them without resorting to excuses grounded in nothing except blind faith, and those few who tried to force their world-view onto us – for our own good, of course – were treated with the contempt they deserved.
“Yet for us there is no death and no hell – unless you consider we are already in it.”
“Someone else’s hell, you mean?”
“No, I was referring to Marlowe rather than Huxley.”
I easily matched her references, and smiled. “‘Deprived of everlasting bliss’? If so, then it’s our own fault, but I think our life is what we make of it, at least for those of us fortunate enough to still have much of a choice, but everything you claim to represent stands in direct violation of religion’s most sacrosanct laws – you’re outside it all. They would consider you damned, soul-less, something to be killed without mercy or pity.”
Eva laughed, but wasn’t mocking me as she ate more ice cream. “As they did to the inhabitants of every country they invaded, all the while boasting of their own ‘Humanity’ and ‘Civilisation’, but then that is a judgement made by people who are ignorant and wish to remain that way – comforted by servile devotion to a master they have no knowledge of beyond their own superstitions, though they try to legitimise their self-imposed slavery by calling them revelations and everyone else a heretic worthy only of conversion or death. As for the soul, since no one has yet demonstrated its existence for you who think so highly of yourselves you made most of your gods in your own image – the conceit of that is no surprise to us – then it’s as true we have none as well and neither does any other animal, but I know what I am and accept it – in fact I celebrate it.”
I poured myself some more wine, and whilst I reluctantly admitted to myself that I agreed with much of what she said, I was a still little unnerved by the calm manner in which she had completely removed herself from earthly affairs, but then she could afford not to be involved. “I’m afraid metaphysics is beyond me – I try and simplify things as much as possible.”
“So many theories over so many years – the search is endless. Hadrons shatter like a game of marbles into further sub-atomic particles that decay into even more, all rising like a phoenix from the ashes of phlogiston theory via electro-magnetism and the Casimir effect to a raging ocean of quantum foam and M-completeness to – whatever next? And then there are your arts and cultures – Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Beethoven, Turner, Friedrich, Shakespeare – all those from only a handful of centuries in Europe, when there is the entire world for richness and variety.”
My science background was minimal, but even I knew the basics of M-completeness – or Unification as it was simply known – for some of the principles were now even more famous than Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence formula, and despite howls of outrage from those whose ignorance led them to believe it meant the universe was as deterministic as a giant mechanical clock, it was as easily demonstrable as the underlying quantum theory, but what were ‘flojiston’ and ‘kazimeer’? Despite my reservations, I was becoming even more intrigued and hoped I wouldn’t become rude because of it, yet she was speaking in such a detached way as if relating a story that had happened to someone else, and despite the personal implications of her actual words, all of her alleged actions seemed distant. How far did she take this? “Don’t you create anything of your own?”
“It’s true that we are now well-organised, but we are also disperse because the risks of centralisation are far too great, though we do have communities and an extensive shared history, and some of our own technology which we use to pursue our own ends. We live on the peripheries of your world and we don’t control you, though there are many things we do to ensure our own comfort and survival, and we don’t want to rule you – to be blunt we would accomplish the task far better than you have managed during the past millennia – it would be too much trouble for us whilst exposing us to every conceivable danger, the least of which is a confirmation of our existence that prevents us from living as we wish. The only time we might risk a consolidated strategy would be if you deliberately threatened to extinguish all life on the planet, then we would either have to prevent you or implement one of our long-term strategies so we outlast the coming decades of chaos. I suppose the ideal scenario – for some of us at least – would be to leave the planet as a mass-grave for your species, a gigantic ossuary to commemorate a stupidity that can’t even ensure its own continuance, but stars are also suns, and finding one that isn’t dangerous to us which also has a suitable planet might not be possible – notwithstanding our immortality makes us better suited than you for stellar exploration – and there are supplies to think of. Besides, living in the ocean offers us so many more advantages which only an asteroid impact would threaten. Some people realise we are all interconnected – living as we are on this ball of rock whirling through space – but not enough that they relinquish their territories and borders, or offer any hope of equality.”
I was amazed at how well she managed to fabricate such a self-contained illusion whilst obviously still being able to function in the real world, but her reference to the various trading blocs was more accurate than harsh, especially since the isolationism had been copied by the older empires in response to growing local civil unrest at their increasingly repressive governments, and a corresponding rise in xenophobia. There were severe limits on what normal people like me could do to prevent it because we never had any real power to begin with – despite regular elections and their pretence of freedom from bureaucratic and corporate control – and any organised action would have been violently suppressed by the same governments who claimed to represent us, as had already happened. “At least you recognise it as well, but then I suppose you need us.”
Eva’s smile was almost feral. “For sustenance? Of course, though there are now alternatives, including hospital supplies that aren’t infected, and individual preferences vary greatly. Some are predators, others opportunists, whereas most invariably take from those who are willing and ensure the experience in enjoyable for both.”
“And have you always lived in Europe?”
She didn’t berate me for my continual questioning as she knew that was the reason we had met, but rather elaborated her alternative existence. “Most of my time has been spent here, yes, though for the first quarter of my life I was what would now be considered a refugee, fleeing from one country to another as you moved your wars like plagues across mountains and rivers, sparing no one, as I in turn did not until I grew up. Even the so-called ‘new world’ which I visited briefly – and with no small amount of danger throughout the long voyage, bringing with me cramped ships full of the desperate and eager and indentured – was no different, with the greedy exploiting the dispossessed and the politicians imposing foreign wars onto the local inhabitants, whose existing rivalries were used against them to hasten their own destruction, but the blood spilled there tasted no different from that which stained the earth of my home, to which I soon returned.”
Assuming that what Eva said contained even a grain of truth, then her status as a refugee explained a great deal of her attitudes, though not her extreme misanthropy and sense of detachment. Perhaps she was now afraid of becoming involved in anything – or anyone – in case it was all torn from her again or she was forced to uproot and seek shelter elsewhere. I pictured her as a child, huddled with her parents and a few belongings in the back of a dilapidated lorry queuing to cross a heavily fortified border, or trudging for weeks along dusty roads, forever fearful of the whims of local militia and foreign air-strikes, and if that image – seen so frequently on telemedia that its impact was now completely impersonal despite the more-than-obvious suffering etched on people’s faces – was indeed true, then she deserved my respect rather than my sympathy, for though it tainted her view of the world she had made a success of herself in financial rather than social terms, which was more than many other dispossessed people had managed to achieve. “But you weren’t actually involved in the fighting?”
“It’s true to say I have survived more wars than a Professor of history has studied, but when Napoleon swept through Europe I was safely here in England feeding off the rich and carefree, and during Hitler’s rampage I was far away in the northern lands with many of my colleagues – relative to those, the other battles were easy to avoid, though their consequences no less devastating to the victims. We knew of the terror-bombings of the later conflicts and the sieges of ravaged cities where the locals were used as cannon-fodder to contest every metre of land, but to hear someone claim they lived through the Great Fire of London and Paris Commune, survived both the Titanic and Hindenburg, and helped storm the Winter Palace – rather than simply living contemporaneously as I have done – is to find only a charlatan not even suited to the dregs of hack fiction. Stalin, Mao, Pol-Pot, and Kym, though they joyously slaughtered millions of their own, were basically local events, and done in such a way that gave those of us who wanted to leave plenty of time to do so, but some of us remained and took advantage of the ensuing carnage – why not? Our only concern is that now warfare is so mechanised the possibility of total annihilation increases, but so far every time a leader has sent forth their people or ideologies to conquer the world you have always – somehow – managed to stop right at the brink, for though on each occasion the world held its breath and wondered if they would see the morrow, still they saw the sun rise, which is more than we can do directly. And what can I say about a species that deliberately creates pathogens to destroy all life including its own? – but our bodies are capable of resisting most infections, including many of those which are fatal to you.”
There was nothing I could really say in response to that, but did she think of herself as some kind of superhuman, or in some way better than others? “So you’ve never fought in any of our conflicts, and you’ve never had any of your own?”
“For the first – we can’t move unprotected during the day – why would we when we are not partisan? And the second – though I admit our history saw people from early city-states fight one another for what were then limited resources, and there is an occasional rabble-rouser who thinks they can enslave your species like the herds of sheep you so often resemble – why would we when there we now have the entire world to live in and feed from? As for fighting the whole of Humanity – you are far more proficient at war than we, and would exterminate us without a care, advertising our destruction as a worthy goal and celebrating our extinction as a victory for your species. You used to send thousands of men to hack each other to death as generals moved flags back and forth on a piece of coloured paper – the start of a distancing of the commanders from the slaughter they supervised, whereas we always see our victims face-to-face – but that wasn’t enough so then they brainwashed myriads of otherwise reasonably sane people to shoot one another whilst fighting for abstract lines drawn on a map of the land due to conflicting ideologies – whether political or religious or both – and yet you think of us as the beasts, we who only take what we need.”
Even though now she had returned to the personal, Eva still managed to put her distinctive slant on things, for without exception all the others I’d spoken to who knew anything of history had tried to implicate themselves in events, some even to the point of being present during major discoveries as they tried to perpetuate their own mythology, which was – as she pointed out – ludicrous. Usually this sense of estrangement would make someone rather anti-social and solitary, but Eva showed none of the usual symptoms as she thoroughly enjoyed her life if the clothes and jewellery she wore were anything to go by, and it didn’t seem to be over-compensation for what may have been a genuinely traumatic childhood. Despite that, she thought of herself as a citizen of the whole world, owing allegiance to neither country nor creed, but how detached was she and how did such an outlook exist side-by-side with the fantasy within her? – where others of her kind roamed at will as externalised projections of her own freed desires. The sense of isolation was mentioned only as part of the general conversation and had neither been eliciting sympathy nor expressing sadness, it was a simple and accepted fact of her life, but surely things couldn’t be so easy – that she was lonely? “Is that why you became involved with blood-rites, because of what they represented?”
Eva looked at me with an expression that was half smile, half frown, but didn’t explain her reaction – had I overstepped some unspecified boundary by directly mentioning it? – simply ate some more ice-cream dipped in coffee and let it melt on her tongue before swallowing languorously in enjoyment. “The underlying assumption to your question is flawed. Unlike the invitation we now give to others, I had no choice in the matter and was turned by a man – then little more than a ravenous beast driven solely by instinct – who had been chased from town to village to farm and was almost mad with hunger. He found me at dusk working alone in what passed for a field and almost drained me, and only then, with my vision blurring and my breathing fading, did he drop me and stare down as I lay dying at his feet, for I expected nothing except an oblivion that would have been almost welcome as a release from the unending hopelessness and drudgery, but he seemed truly shocked by his own actions. Was it my relative youth? I doubt it, for many children died before reaching even their tenth birthday – so perhaps as a kind of perverse reward for saving his life he made mine as eternal as his. I was reborn on the twenty-eighth of June 1597, outside a nameless collection of hovels long ago fallen back into the mud from whence they sprang, and I had to leave my family and all I’d ever known as my body started to change and I grew older beyond my apparent years. Had I been stronger I would probably have tried to kill myself for fear of what I was becoming, but I’ve always been afraid of pain even though I now heal within a few days except for the most serious injuries, and since then I have never once felt the need to end my life, which I enjoy to its fullest extent. There were so many new experiences that I was overwhelmed and initially lost, for all I’d ever known was a few square miles of land whose people were all raised on the same ignorant so-called ‘facts’ and fearful legends, but he was a fair if at times brusque teacher who helped me adjust during the coming months, and after a few decades I reached a peak of physical performance which hasn’t declined in any way since.”
I had never before met anyone with such a detailed story to tell, but her ability to blend what may have been the genuine facts of her childhood with pure fiction – she was after all claiming to have been born over four centuries ago and therefore be ten times older than me! – had me alternating between slight alarm at her way of life and a deepening interest at how elaborate her creation was, or perhaps it was a protective barrier – a form of denial. “It must have been difficult leaving home and adapting.”
As if she could read my shifting opinions of her, Eva smiled again – she didn’t reveal her teeth, only her lips curved in a motion that was alarmingly seductive – but continued with her story. “I had no idea beyond fire-side tales of how large and terrifying the world truly was – it both repulsed and fascinated me – and it wasn’t until I was well into what would for a Human be their adulthood that I visited the sea and was astonished at the endless expanse of water that couldn’t even be drunk, but I soon began to love what I’d become, and revelled in the power I had before settling into a more sedate style of life. Later – tens of years and hundreds of miles away from that devastating awakening – I made use of what I’d already learned, namely that many people were willing to pay generously for certain favours, so I fell easily into pleasing them and satisfying my own needs at the same time, and it was quite safe. I could try and use a softer word such as ‘courtesan’ but in truth I was a prostitute – though a highly-paid one – for in those days it was a simple way for someone like me to advance, and it provided an extensive education by tutors and guides who pandered to my whims and turned a blind eye to my sometimes obscure tastes, as well as providing me with the means to travel and furnish my homes, but all that’s long behind me and now I do what I will simply for the pleasure of it, as I also learned to enjoy other people’s pleasure in what they do.”
“And children – what of them?”
“We are sterile – nature’s little trick on us – but then we have other means of procreation, and sex is so much more than it ever was – we can go on for hours. I’ve raised a few mewling infants – not of my own, obviously – and been happy enough for it, but to see them wither and die can hurt if you let it. As for friends and companions, I remember all those I have met, and none but I and a few others even know they existed beyond names in long-neglected books of dusty records.”
As I had assumed, sex was an important part of what she did, as indicated by her admission of selling herself – assuming that piece of the story was even true – but what did she mean by that last part? “Do you mean not everyone can be converted or whatever you want to call it?”
“We can sense those who will survive the transition, though even then some die from the shock – total systemic failure – but I was mainly referring to those who cannot change because their attitudes prevent them from accepting all that we represent. Outdated mores, cultural restrictions – or simple terror – which cannot be overcome, as I did. Even if their bodies accept the change their minds can’t, and they quickly destroy themselves in self-loathing. Our numbers increase slowly over the years, but in relation to the Human population we are insignificant, despite your growing use of us for the purposes of various entertainments.”
So that was how she reacted to anyone who couldn’t accept her way of life, but at least it was better than feeling persecuted. “You make it sound so sad, as if you’re forever searching for a relationship you can never have. Is that why some of the – how shall I put it? – more fantasy-prone people have given you titles such as ‘the forsaken ones’ or ‘children of the night’ and other epithets they consider tragic in a romantic sort of way?”
“I would say that the children of the night were actually wolves – ‘What music they make!’ – but perhaps that’s too pedantic even for me.” She shrugged in the slightest of movements. “It’s a conceit of theirs – they project their own loneliness onto us and claim we aren’t truly understood even as those who hunt us know precisely what we are – they who can’t find a friend in a bustling city or even say ‘hello’ to their neighbours lest they be rejected, who externalise their insecurities and reduce us to their level in the same way they initially demonise and then romanticise someone of another culture. All those attributes are magnified in us, for we are the embodiment of everything they claim to reject as primitive or despise as immoral even as a part of them yearns for what they want us to represent – freedom without a conscience – and I won’t even go into the entire other-world of allegedly genuine demons of which we are supposed to be a part, living our own oh-so poor and tortured lives parallel to your own yet forever in the shadows – as indeed we are – but they are merely similes for your own fears and fantasies, metaphors for an animal heritage you smothered under centuries of dogma which reduced your actual and wonderful existence to that of a mere creature – a literal created being made by a petulant demiurge who denied his parentage and claimed he was the only god, wanting everyone to praise his might and punishing them when they didn’t.”
I almost laughed at Eva’s concise description. “Is there nothing you miss?”
“Sunlight, of course – our only natural enemy other than Man – but that’s a small price to pay, for you can’t possibly understand how much we enjoy life – our life as we live it in actuality, not yours or what you think ours to be – we celebrate it in everything we do, for there is so much beauty in this world if only you would look, and feel. It’s intoxicating!”
“And yet you’re supposed to bring death to others.”
“Oh, but we do, and to refute that would be a lie which panders to those misguided groupies who consider us misunderstood and longing for redemption before we gladly seek death – a welcome release from our allegedly innate seclusion and unending torment. How morbidly Human that is! In my past I have drunk from those who were unwilling and watched them cower as I bent over them like some dark angel from their cruellest myths, or seduced them in a shadowy corner and nearly drained them to satiate myself, but nowadays I take only what I need from those who wish to live afterwards, who think I am merely playing a game. As for the few who genuinely desire death – I know them easily enough – they even judge it a kindness, for there is someone to hold them as they slip quietly away, and I enjoy that too.”
Her completely indifferent talk of murder was at such odds with our wonderfully relaxed conversation that it unnerved me for a moment. “How many people have you met in those circumstances?”
“More than a dozen – less than a thousand.” She chuckled quietly at her deliberate repetition of some minutes ago. “We can’t use them all, for some are diseased, but each type of blood has its own properties – like a subtle bouquet.”
I felt relieved, then, as I knew she wasn’t admitting to having actually killed anyone, for such things were either allegorical or part of the intimate game itself – le petit mort – or in more extreme cases the inclusion of partial suffocation or strangulation, but her description was something I’d not heard before, though it made a kind of sense. “Does it help you determine if someone is a suitable donor or not?”
“Just so. Hold out your arm.”
“What? I mean, why?” Even though we were sheltered in the alcove, was she seriously thinking of blood-letting in the middle of such a public place?
“A simple demonstration, nothing more. Remember it was you who requested this meeting – I wouldn’t be here without your invitation – and if you wish full disclosure then you’ll need to consent to something other than mere questions, otherwise this will be so one-sided as to be biased beyond use, for how can you report on what you have not experienced?”
Her words were not accusatory, but she was right, and I knew it, so I slowly extended my left arm, suddenly overly-conscious of the faint tracery of veins leading to my wrist, but Eva shook her head in the slightest of motions as she stood and walked to the end of our table, her skirt momentarily brushing the curtain.
She sat beside me on the left and, rather than taking my proffered arm, stretched over and lifted my right hand so I had to turn to fully face her, then in a surprisingly tender movement she ran the pad of her thumb over my skin as she leaned forward and pushed up the sleeve of my sweater.
My past needs mixed with no small amount of recklessness had drawn me to various forms of the sport, for I had no qualms about it although I was always the donor and knew how to safeguard myself as I always carried my own equipment when anticipating meetings – and a small medical kit, as I did now, though for reasons of general safety rather than involvement in any rituals – but what Eva wanted was so unexpected I was intrigued rather than disturbed, especially bearing in mind our surroundings which placed severe limits on what we could do.
Despite myself, I almost shivered at the contact as memories of hard sharp cold metal against soft pliant warm flesh returned to me, along with my eager anticipation before the first glossy red bead sprang out and slowly trickled around my arm to form a bracelet of rubies like roses blossoming in the snow, and the sudden high pain from the knife that shot through my body and produced a sensation of such brilliant clarity it was like feeling everything for the first time, before it was smothered in crimson warmth.
Eva’s touch was neither chill nor hot – completely neutral at room-temperature – neither firm nor light, as if my arm was moving of its own volition rather than in response to someone else’s gentle direction, then she detached a small dagger from her bunch of electrikeys and pulled off its narrow sheath to reveal a pristine blade of shimmering steel that she held at the side of the nearest candle-flame.
I watched in calm silence as she sterilised the knife – strangely, I had every reason to think it was already clean as its only purposes would be for such ceremonies – then Eva bent forward slightly as she lifted my wrist to her lowering head. I breathed in the aroma of strong coffee from her open mouth as her tongue licked a meandering path from the hollow of my elbow down to the palm of my open hand. My skin was far more sensitive than usual – almost unnaturally so – and I couldn’t help but shiver in delight even as a part of me wondered if I should pull back and tell her to stop before I fully committed myself, but the actual cut just above my wrist occurred as if it was happening to someone else for I hardly felt a thing, then her lips pressed against my flesh.
Eva drank leisurely, her breathing as slow and deep as since we first met, and after a while that may have been only a few seconds or over a minute she raised her head and licked her mouth clean. Her smile of pleasure revealed creamy-white teeth limned with red near the moist pink gums, and I glimpsed long sharpened canines – some form of extension rather than a permanent re-shaping of her normal teeth as I’d seen in other people – but all the while she watched me as she held my arm so blood dripped slowly into the wine-glass. Eva leaned towards me again, her face filling my vision, then she stretched out her right arm and cupped the back of my neck to draw me into an embrace that seemed so natural my body accepted it without any unease, though not my mind.
I’d only kissed women a few times before – girls really, at school, nothing more than teenage experiments to see what kissing was like and how to make it feel nice – and due to the last vestiges of my upbringing I still thought of gay relationships as slightly wrong even though I knew all that mattered was how happy the partners or their children were, but I was literally backed into a corner – both of the alcove and a situation of my own devising – and had nowhere to go. I could have struggled and tried to rise and push past her, or called for help, but that would have exposed what we were doing and caused more trouble than I felt like dealing with, yet I didn’t think I was in any real danger, certainly far less than with those who would recklessly mix their blood with a stranger’s for mutual consumption as part of a bonding ritual.
Eva’s lips hovered in front of mine before touching them carefully – in any circumstances as considerately as someone with an ingénue they didn’t want to frighten off – allowing me to taste the coffee and chocolate, which meant I was barely conscious of the blood that otherwise would have overlain everything like a thick syrup. The kiss was far from amorous as she tilted my head, just our mouths touching in a brief contact so relaxed we might have been friends greeting one another on the cheek – at least a genuine touch rather than the pathetic ‘air-kisses’ so beloved of TV personalities with their rictus grins and spray-on tans – but my breathing started to quicken because a part of me almost wanted to retch even as my mouth was flooded with a swirling warmth of contrasting flavours that were unexpectedly stimulating.
“Drink, but slowly.” The words drifted into me as I felt something hard against my teeth, and I realised she had taken the glass and was offering me my own blood as a libation whilst she resumed her feasting on my arm in such a way she could look directly into my eyes, though this time her actions were more pronounced and her enjoyment more evident as she swallowed, her eyes not blinking but retaining their intimate contact with my own in a way that was neither challenging nor intrusive, simply accepting of a situation that was as natural to her as eating and drinking.
I knew I should have felt queasy as the thick liquid slid down my throat but could do nothing, for in reality it was no worse than tomato juice even though it was truly blood of my blood and not mere communion wine over which had been cast a transmutation spell, then her lips replaced the glass and somehow managed to soothe my body’s unease as my tongue brushed over the sharp edges of her extensions, and all the while my own mouth was awash with so many textures I felt almost drunk on the jumble of unaccustomed sensations.
“Enough for now.” She sighed as if in regret and blinked languorously – how exhilarating was this for her when she was vastly more experienced and did this regularly?
I took the medical kit from my bag and wiped the cut – there was no discomfort at all and it had almost stopped bleeding – then put on an antiseptic plaster and crunched a pill that would protect me from anything her saliva may have carried. Even though there was something about her that engendered trust – as with the safety of her dagger, I felt sure the pill was unnecessary – I was still amazed and even a little disturbed by my own reactions and why I had allowed her to do that to me. What had I been thinking – had I been thinking?
Eva watched me all the while, idly curious at my own ritual as she licked her dagger in a motion of careless ease that belied its sharp edges, and replaced its sheath. “I am clean, but it’s good that you show care.”
I was far better than I would have thought a few minutes ago, for despite instincts to the contrary I hadn’t felt particularly sick, and neither could I dispute her statement as almost everything I’d ever believed began to disintegrate under the after-effects of the sensory bombardment. I had always remained on the borders of their world, giving without ever taking, but if this was a taste – both literal and metaphorical – of what they experienced, then what had I been missing? I poured myself some more wine, but after the experience of Eva’s kiss it seemed little better than vinegar. “I thought it would be – I had no idea it could be like that.” As with my pulse, my breathing was slightly faster than usual.
“You enjoyed it.”
I didn’t have to consider my response to her statement, for even if I could have tried to lie to myself she would have known, but one aspect of it troubled me. “I don’t know how you drank straight from me like that – it’s far too great a risk. I’m clean too and can prove it, but you shouldn’t have taken the chance.”
“I knew you were safe as soon as we met. You’re O-positive, but I assume you know that already.”
“Of course, but how did—?” I almost frowned, and wondered if – in apparent contradiction to her nonchalant behaviour so far – she had researched me prior to our meeting, but even then I didn’t think my medical records would have been that easily accessible, or had she managed to search for and read the emergency page of my personal communicator when I had left to order the drinks?
Eva reached out, and for an instant I thought she would open her own vein for me to taste, but she merely took the last spoonful of crème-caramel from her side of the table and passed it between her pristine – and now normal – teeth, so she was obviously used to changing quickly back and forth, and I had to admit the results were very effective without being unintentionally comical. “Come home with me.” Her request – as with everything she said – was direct, and a growing part of me actually wanted to enter her private fantasy for a while and go beyond all my previous experiences. She had never once threatened me or given me promises I knew she couldn’t keep, and aside from the manager at my hotel there were my colleagues at work who knew where I was staying – also my car was still outside – so I felt as secure as I could be in such circumstances, which were themselves far safer than other encounters which had been arranged for me in truly underground clubs that even the normal BDSM community avoided.
“Are you going to – what are you going to do?”
“Come home with me.” Eva quietly repeated her invitation without any sense of command as she stroked my arm, though as with everything else that had occurred I felt I had little choice – not because I was under any compulsion or duress, but simply because everything fell into place with a sense of benign inevitability.
It was true I could have left at any moment, but doing so would have meant the loss not only of everything I came for, but also the opportunity to travel further than I had ever gone before, and with a guide who was undeniably experienced. She stood up and collected her things, casually draped her jacket over her shoulders – I noticed neither of her arms were marked at all, there wasn’t the slightest flaw on her pale skin – then continued the motion to pull open the curtain whilst I picked up my own bag and hurriedly pulled down the sleeve of my sweater, knowing I would follow her.
As I stood at the bar to pay our bill, the cashier gave me a more than neutral smile whilst he debited my account – as if he knew exactly what was happening, which if true meant it was a fairly common occurrence. “You’re privileged.”
“What do you mean?” Expecting a different remark, the complimentary statement puzzled me.
“Not many people get to see inside. It’s run by some kind of private health group.”
“Oh, yes.” There was little else I could say, given I didn’t know what he was talking about.
We left the inn and headed towards a glossy black Saab Duette convertible whose windows seemed far darker than usual, though it had full upgrades which gave it an edge over the standard conversions, but her choice was an ironic one considering it was at its greatest efficiency during the day when its driver was supposedly at their most vulnerable, and any final pretence was destroyed by the fact the roof was down.
Eva slid an electrikey into place, and once she had docked the communicator used her thumbprint to switch on the car’s systems, ignoring the displays which showed the latest traffic and weather reports for the region, and turning briefly to look over her shoulder as she reversed us out of the parking space. A light scattering of gravel marked our departure from the car-park, then it was lost to view as we passed from its driveway onto the country road along which I had driven earlier, narrow with undergrowth on both sides and overhung by the barely discernible outlines of trees.
The only sound was of the wheels on old tarmac and a slight whistling around the edges of the windscreen, and it wasn’t until we had been driving for a couple of minutes that I realised the headlights hadn’t been switched on, though she drove as effectively if they were.
“Do you live very far?” I didn’t feel particularly uncomfortable with the silence, but wanted to know more of her intentions.
“A few dozen kilometres – just outside Westhaven.”
“I don’t know this part of the country at all.” Should I have admitted that? “But the magazine knew where I was going when I booked the hotel.”
She didn’t react in any way to my news, which was simply the truth. “Even after all these years it’s still a pleasant part of the coast – convenient for travelling to nearby towns or up to the cities, and the Continent. There’s no need for you to be anxious.” Eva’s attempt at reassurance wasn’t entirely unexpected, though no less genuine because of it.
A slowly growing part of me was looking forward to the promise of more blood-letting – memories of the previous times I had done so came into sharper focus and I almost shivered as I recalled the recent touch of her firm fingers on my skin – but I was still unsure about the seduction aspect as I had never had any desire for another woman, but perhaps she wouldn’t go all the way. Yet, I couldn’t imagine her toying with me, for she had never once seemed manipulative, but neither was she giving any indication of what precisely was to happen. Perhaps that was the idea – to keep me in suspense. “I’m just a bit nervous, that’s all.”
“You’re perfectly safe – I promise I’ll not hurt you, or do anything you don’t want me to. Rest, if you want to, otherwise enjoy the night as best you can.”
I didn’t feel in the mood for any casual conversation, never mind I had no idea what we really had in common beyond our mutual interest – which had in any case been experienced in vastly different ways – that could act as a topic for discussion, so I laid my head back and watched our journey.
We left the narrow road and entered a fairly well-lit street lined by pairs of semi-detached brick houses with garages and small front lawns, which could have been almost anywhere in suburbia. The street merged into others indistinguishable from it, then branched to meet a motorway that appeared from behind, rising and curving to our left in an band of orange lights as it arced around a town twinkling in the near darkness. Perhaps twenty minutes later we turned off beside a glittering industrial plant of low cylindrical tanks surrounded by an intricate lattice-work of gantries, then our journey seemed to be played in reverse as the streets along which we travelled became narrower and lit by ever more infrequent and paler lights, until we might just as well have been returning to the inn.
She drove into a side-road and continued for a few minutes, passing small houses and sheds huddled together at the ends of short lanes, illuminated briefly by lamp-posts that looked so old they could easily have been lit by gas. Five kilometres or so beyond the final one, we arched over a small bridge beneath which a stream gurgled noisily, and turned towards a wide and long, low house of only two storeys.
A faded sign mounted on a partially subsided A-post with its own dim lamp informed me we were entering the grounds of a
By Invitation Only
– which explained the cashier’s approving remark – and though I’d expected security floods to activate in response to our approach, none came on and I had to make use of the small amount of available light to see the wide windows set within walls whose widely-rounded corners made me think of the bridge of an oil-tanker. A flat overhanging roof acted as protection for deep voids in the night that indicated the presence of recessed balconies at either end and in the middle of the first floor, as well as providing a firm base for what was probably a large solar array set between a few domestic wind-turbines, given most country buildings had theirs retro-fitted years ago.
Eva parked her car in an enclosed garage adjoining the house – though still in the same style it was clearly built later – and after she had switched off the engine and undocked her communicator she looked into my eyes and smiled again in a manner that told me I was soon to be bled again, and she would make sure I enjoyed it.
I followed her through a side-door once it had opened to her palm-print and a series of code-words in a guttural language I didn’t recognise, into a wide archway of pale cream walls, polished floorboards, and dim uplighters. From there we went directly to an unbelievably vast room which ran the entire length and width of the house, rising to the ceiling of the first floor for most of the area – it must have been at least sixty metres by thirty, and about eight metres high. There were four stairways, with two at each end of the house going up to a balcony running around three-quarters of the walls, and leading to a smaller area in the middle of one long wall supported by a couple of wide pillars. My reaction was utterly predictable but I had no choice, for the room’s size was as nothing compared to its contents – antiques and furniture and sculptures and other works of art that must have been worth tens of millions.
Eva shrugged off her jacket and dropped it with her keys and communicator onto a chair, then did her best to avoid making me feel embarrassed by not watching me as I surveyed the room, the lighter parts of which had blurred reflections in the long opaque windows.
I could only take in so much of what was spread before me on the ground floor alone, and there was even more above, accessible from the interior balcony. Photographs of high fashion that bordered on the erotic overlooked a grand piano and an inlaid harpsichord – somehow without the styles clashing – whilst a long leather sofa and matching chairs formed an island around a low table of thick glass and polished steel. Small filtered lights shone down onto pictures – some were centuries old – of landscapes, portraits, impressionists, surrealists, abstracts, hand-coloured photo-montages, and the latest digital prints by CG-artists, all interspersed with pottery and glassware covering the past three millennia, with relatively recent Art Nouveau and Art Deco sculptures and figurines. In one alcove was the largest telemedia centre and collection of disks I’d ever seen, with another having at least a couple of thousand books – even scrolls! – of every age and size. It was so overwhelming I almost felt like giggling, but that was more likely due to stress.
“I don’t know what to say – it’s just incredible. I’m sorry, I’m just a bit nervous – would you mind if I had a small drink?” I knew it was rude of me as I should have waited for her to offer, but my lack of experience was betraying me and I needed something to help calm myself.
“No, no more alcohol – I want you to fully appreciate the experience, not deaden yourself to it. Besides, too much spoils the taste.” Even now she remained in character, but in many ways it better fitted our circumstances.
“How are you going to—? I’ve never done this before.” My admission sounded quite pathetic as I sat on an arm of the nearest sofa.
“I know.” Her reassuring voice continued to soothe me. “I told you there would be no pain – did you feel any before? – and there will be none now, so you should be anticipating a new experience rather than fearing it. Come upstairs.” Eva held out her arm in a beckoning motion that even at any other time would still have been an invitation for a night of pleasure, and I was beyond surprise as I placed my hand in hers and was led up the broad curving steps to the part of her museum supported by pillars, which was isolated from the main interior balcony on either side.
There was little up here except the main bedroom with built-in wardrobes and spacious en-suite facilities, but in stark contrast to the rest of the house there were no windows, and as with the ground floor it was predominantly cream and white, though the highly-polished floorboards were here covered by various pale rugs. Her bed was two metres square and quite low, with pillows and cushions and all the covers various shades of white – embroidered with subtle patterns of circles and spirals – and the near side of the room had more railings where it looked down over the abundance of riches, whilst overlooking the bed itself was a stylised mural of Harlequin and Columbine, of the kind so often copied that it had long ago passed beyond a cliché, but this was an original and seemed as new.
I couldn’t believe we were going to do anything beyond sleeping here, for the slightest drop of blood would stain the fabrics, but Eva sat on a stool in front of a short dressing-table and bent languidly to take off her boots. “Do you need to freshen up?”
Was that a request for herself, or simply asked out of concern for me? She was going to bleed me and make love to me – probably at the same time – and despite my reservations no small part of me was almost excited at the possibility, whilst the rest of me was petrified. One of us was slightly insane, and I was beginning to think it wasn’t her, for though I could have refused her invitations I simply didn’t want to, and here I was in her museum – was she some kind of live-in curator?
“Are you long- or short-sighted?” Her query regarding my contact lenses startled me, if only because I wondered what its relevance was, but that she had noticed them at all now came as no surprise.
“Oh, a little short, but they’re mainly for astigmatism.”
“There are some dishes you can use for your things – I assume you have them with you?” She inclined her head to indicate the nearest of two slim arches.
I took off my shoes and entered the bathroom which was far larger than my own bedroom at home and in the same pale style as everywhere else, then leaned over the wash-basin to splash cold water onto my face. Looking at my reflection, I wondered if I really had the strength to accept what was being offered to me – was I being pleasantly adventurous or dangerously reckless? – but I also knew I would forever wonder what I’d missed if I made hasty apologies and just left.
One lens almost fell from my slightly trembling finger before it was safely in its nightly solution with the other, and my mundane actions seemed so formal, as if I was an actor in a highly-structured play where everything had been choreographed so the audience knew exactly what would happen even as they anticipated watching how the performers would try to appear spontaneous, but I was now utterly lost and could only respond to what I thought she wanted from me – which was probably also what I wanted if I had the courage to admit it.
“Are you all right?” Eva stood in the archway as if she was leaning on an invisible support. She had removed all her jewellery and changed her outdoor clothes for a silvery-white pyjama-suit that was strangely asexual – it revealed even less of her body than I had already seen at the inn – and given the luxurious state of her bed I doubted she used them for sleeping, so I assumed she was wearing them for my benefit. She had also changed the colour of her eyes – no longer the palest of blues, they were brilliant amber with specks of topaz rather than the unoriginal glossy black or scarlet overlays I’d seen before.
“I’m fine, really.” I managed to smile, and hastily swallowed a multi-blocker.
As she had done before so disarmingly, Eva held out her hand for me to take, and she led me back into the bedroom to sit beside me at the end of the bed, then she removed the plaster from my arm and momentarily left to drop it into a small mesh bin under the dressing table. She returned, and watching her calm face as it bowed to meet my wrist I realised I hadn’t seen any instruments, not even a small knife to complement the one on her key-chain, but as with her feeding at the inn all her actions were so far in advance of the others I’d been involved with who often made a mess of their drinking – more of a dribbling slurp, really – that it was even more apparent she was highly skilled, which further reassured me.
The sensation of her gorging herself was so seductive as she probed the cut with her tongue and even seemed to enlarge it as if my skin were nothing more than fine paper – I felt as if I was aware of every millilitre of blood that passed from me – and the touch of her mouth against my flesh so smooth, that not until I felt something at my back did I realise she had been slowly bending me over so I lay on the bed, with her next to and partly over me.
Eva raised her head from her feasting and looked down at me with a smile that was so enticing I felt like drowning in it, and the lenses she wore made her eyes sparkle. “Do you trust me?”
I nodded mutely, expecting – no, I realised to my surprise, actually wanting – her to kiss me again, and properly, but she only passed her lips briefly over mine on her way to my neck and shoulders, where her bites were initially so fleeting they felt little different from normal kisses, then she increased the pressure and intensity until she drew blood to the surface. I had seen earlier that her teeth were quite normal in appearance, so she had obviously fitted the extensions again, and despite the potential for amusement they seemed to do a good job and she was certainly very accomplished in their use, for despite their sharpness I felt little discomfort as they occasionally pricked my skin.
One of her legs fell between mine and parted them slightly, but she didn’t follow it through, rather she kissed me on the mouth in a way she had not done at the inn – openly and passionately – and to my surprise I returned her kiss with an fervour that quickly equalled her own, our tongues playing with one another like lovers in their own right before she continued working on my body and I surrendered myself completely.
I knew it was me rather than Eva who managed to unbutton my trousers and push down the zip to free my legs, then she kissed me on the insides of my calves and thighs, leaving a trail of small bite-marks as she alternated between my legs and moved up to my knickers, and though she passed over them to continue working on my tummy I was so turned on I felt obscenely swollen.
The last things I remember clearly were a series of mingling thoughts and realisations, but underpinning them all was the fact my body was experiencing so much pleasure – and a staccato stimulation almost bordering on pain that was transformed by a unique lust into enjoyment – that I was far too delirious to really know which was what. A minuscule part of me thought she was taking me too far too quickly even as her latest bite punctured the skin above my breasts and went far deeper than the others, leaving her lips smeared with my blood, but I was growing more disorientated with the sheer intensity of our love-making – yet we hadn’t even begun to have sex in the conventional sense – and I wondered how much further I could go before my body hit some kind of sensory overload.
I had never felt anything remotely like this before – whether during normal sex or any of the games I’d incorporated – or even dreamed it was possible. Had she somehow drugged me? Incapable of rational thought, I just let her do what she wanted – what I wanted.
How could Eva manage to ingest such a quantity of blood without feeling nauseous? – was it just years of acclimatising herself? – and what about the dozens of carmine specks on the rumpled expanse of white whose contrast alone provided further aesthetic stimulation and an undeniable visual reminder of what we were doing?
I had no idea how much she took from me as she bit straight into my other wrist without me feeling any pain at all and continued drinking, or how much blood she gave back to my now-eager mouth that sought any contact with her, her lips pressing against mine and smothering my moans as if she were swallowing those as well, and her fingers which now moved between my legs worked so deeply inside me it seemed as if I had taken her entire hand. I felt literally consumed, but as the blossoming heat of a second orgasm soon swept through me and rebounded from the extremities of my limbs – the first time I’d ever had two in the same day – I knew that I didn’t care what happened if this was how it made me feel.
She was draining me, and I was powerless to stop her because I’d given myself willingly.
Did I also drink from her, or was that only reflected desire?
Stop. Please don’t—
There’s no safety. Why don’t I care?
If this is dying, why does it feel so good?
The first thing I felt when I awoke and stared up at the pale ceiling was almost a wonder that I was still alive and able to be conscious at all. Then I felt a profound sense of change as I recognised and admitted to myself the passionately severe intimacy of what we had shared throughout the night, for I had hazy recollections of further sessions between short bouts of sleep. The third was a simple and total fatigue that left me barely able to stand and coordinate my limbs, so I lay for a couple of minutes and gradually forced myself to get up.
Eva lay deeply asleep beside me, and the pristine covers were as I had first seen them, as if my blood had never been spilled. She was naked and so vulnerable I might have done anything to her if I had the energy or inclination, but I had neither and could never think of hurting her, for she had kept her promise, and having given her my permission she hadn’t betrayed that trust. The only indication of last night’s events apart from my weariness were the fresh bandages on my wrists – she had no mark anywhere on her immaculate skin – as all other evidence seemed to have disappeared, so she must have cleared up whilst I was asleep.
In the bathroom I found even more surprises, for as I looked at my reflection and carefully studied my body I saw there were hardly any signs of puncture wounds – just a few small dimples in my skin – though my thighs and shoulders and chest were still bruised, and there was a sore area beneath each bandage where she had gone to the deeper artery, but they would all change colour and then fade in a few days or so, a week at most. I didn’t know how long we had slept, for as I turned and looked back into the bedroom I realised there were no clocks anywhere, and apart from the diffuse illumination from various domed lamps on the walls and ceiling there was virtually no light coming from outside as the dark glass held everything at bay, like a barrier of solidified mist. Neither were there any fires or radiators, yet the house was pleasantly warm, and there was subtle evidence of a complex security system, part of which I’d seen when we arrived last night.
I had a quick shower and wrapped a fluffy towelling-robe loosely around me, changed the solution for my lenses and returned to see Eva was still fast asleep, so decided to have a proper look around. Leaving the bedroom and walking down the steps, I paused slightly as another realisation tugged at my mind, for the only doors I’d seen were those in the external walls – to the garage, the balconies, and the front door.
Apart from the bedroom, everything else was a single expanse, but what else was there and would Eva object to me wandering around? I’d already caught more than a glimpse of the museum’s contents when I arrived last night, and a slower examination of the room only reinforced my initial appraisal, but after a while the sheer quality of the items became overwhelming and I had to limit my attention to specific items.
One wide case held Art Deco table-lamps arranged in order of height, and touching the front I felt the slightest of vibrations against the cool glass, which was when I realised most of the displays were hermetically sealed. Another cabinet had row upon row of the most expensive – and seemingly the most complicated rather than the gaudiest – mechanical watches, which made the Jaeger-LeCoultre I’d seen earlier seem almost like a toy, and I couldn’t help but almost drool with envy at the sight of so many names which would forever be so outside my income I might just as well have thought of buying a gold-plated Rolls Royce.
Almost hidden behind the piano and harpsichord – both of which were spotlessly clean and in tune, as I discovered when I gently touched a few of the keys – a slight change in the inner curve of the main wall gave way to an arch that was not a door, and as I approached it my suspicions were confirmed as a stairway lead to the basement, but as with everything else it was not what I expected.
The first room was a small kitchen with work-surfaces that were so smooth they seemed never to have been used, and neither were there any signs of pots or pans. I was aware of a slight aroma which I took a few seconds to identify as coffee rather than anything decayed or related to drugs, for the scent seemed to have permeated the wood. Then, nosy and guilty at the same time, I opened a cupboard to see nearly bare shelves – the only occupants were small bags of coffee beans imported at great expense from various small farms in South America – whilst the refrigerator was almost empty apart from some butter, fruit-juice, and dozens of bars of the darkest, strongest chocolate I’d ever seen – also imported – though thankfully there weren’t any cartons of tomato juice to simulate blood, which I’d seen in other places. Didn’t she ever eat at home? or did she just live elsewhere and only come here when she wanted to impress her conquests? If so, she had certainly succeeded.
Next door to this – more accurately through the next arch – was a waste-disposal unit, incinerator, separate bins for recyclables, and behind a thick mesh screen an old generator with drums of fuel locked safely away. Beyond that, another room ran directly beneath the lounge, and it was everything the most exclusive health centre should be, with a fully equipped gymnasium, a unusual climbing-frame that also went across the ceiling, and a narrow yet long swimming-pool, but behind a padded partition and sharing the same length was a highly illegal shooting range whose walls were adorned with countless types of weapons from swords to hand-guns, knives to throwing-stars, and dozens of other things I partially recognised from action films but couldn’t name.
Who was Eva, and what had I stumbled into? Though it may not have been her actual home it was certainly real, for the artefacts were genuine rather than the result of personal riches spent on the realisation of a personal fantasy – or a delusion – and the surroundings only helped reinforce her imagination.
I already knew her story contained many holes and inconsistencies, as was to be expected with someone fabricating such an extended life, and the museum was merely another part of her existence, but what about the weapons? They were metal – deadly sharp – and though such things had long been banned over here in a failed attempt at making people feel safe they could easily be purchased from various suppliers abroad so normal people had at least some chance of defending themselves from the equally parasitical criminals and police, but were they only for display as well?
Returning to the ground floor, I peered through one of the long windows to vaguely see the beginnings of a small garden, but everything beyond that was indistinct though it was apparently beginning to get light, so I went up to the bedroom to retrieve my bag and take out my camera, for much as I wanted to catalogue at least some of Eva’s extraordinary museum it was far too much of an intrusion, and I would have to satisfy myself with some exteriors and perhaps a few individual figurines or close-ups.
With the camera’s display glowed back at me, for a few moments I didn’t understand what I was seeing, then I realised Eva must have looked at my images – when? – and accidentally gone into the set-up screens, for the date was now showing the 15’th although I had met her on the evening of the 11’th. I turned the knob on my watch to show the digital display, and felt suddenly cold as I saw the later date, then double-checked by looking at my communicator, only to see the same, with almost twenty messages awaiting my attention, mostly regarding work.
Four days! How could—? It was impossible.
“Eva!” She was completely unresponsive to my vigorous shaking.
I sat on the bed to read the first few emails and even some of the automated returns, then managed to piece together a scenario that made perfect sense, yet none at all.
Eva had settled my hotel bill – that was one receipt – and called work to say she was looking after me for a few days as I had been taken ill with what looked like the latest ‘flu bug, which explained most of the later messages of wishes for a speedy recovery. She had created an entire fiction about what we had done, yet at the same time told people who knew me that I was with her and all right, which was not a lie – at least then – but four days! How? Eva couldn’t have kept me under for that length of time unless she had sedated me whilst I was sleeping, but everything else pointed to her caring about my welfare and she had not misled my colleagues about my location – simply the reason for my being with her – which most of them already knew and some might even guess the truth of what had happened, as my predilections were hardly a secret.
I phoned Stuart but the call went straight to his answering service, so I left a quick message to the effect I was feeling better and would return tomorrow. Another call to Mary rang for what seemed like ages, then before I realised I should have chosen someone a bit more reliable she picked up and spoke drowsily. “Huh – hello?”
I was so relieved I didn’t say anything for a few moments. “It’s Susanna.”
“Oh, hi. How are you feeling?”
“Better, thanks, I think, but listen – I need to talk to you about something. I know this will sound weird but—”
“Um, can it wait? Do you know what time it is?”
“No.” I hadn’t really taken that in until now even though I was looking at dates, and saw it was 06:19. “I didn’t know.”
“Okay Suzy, I’ll catch you later.” Mary disconnected, but at least I had spoken to someone who could pass on the information, and my message to Stuart confirmed I was all right.
Except I wasn’t – far from it. Rage and puzzlement vied with one another as the dominant emotion, but I was still weak and could do little except either call for a taxi and leave immediately with the intention of returning to the inn for my car – without any answers or explanations – or wait for Eva to awaken of her own accord.
She had brought me here, we’d made love to one another – I knew I hadn’t remained passive for very long but eagerly reciprocated – and she had bled me. Now it was four days later and I had no recollection of eating or drinking – my own blood and possibly hers notwithstanding – talking, or even leaving the bedroom at all. In my past I had taken more than my share of drugs, including some powerful hallucinogens, but none of them had made me lose so much time so completely. In fact, the opposite had usually occurred and I thought I’d been away for hours because of the tremendously detailed images and emotions when in fact only a few minutes had passed. At least I was alive, and well, but was I actually safe? Had I ever been?
I tried to retrace what had happened and played my recorder – standard practice for any interviews, though I had told her beforehand it would be done, and in some cases the rituals I’d been invited to had been videod – there were sounds of my entering the inn, then Eva’s arrival, and everything was as I remembered as I skipped forward a few minutes at a time until our departure, then the memory filled up some time during the evening of that day. Nothing made any sense.
Eva still did not awaken as I shook her body far more roughly than before – was she also drugged? – so I went downstairs and tried to open the front door, but as expected it was locked, as were the two doors leading out to the garden. My only other options were the balconies, and once I’d gone up to the first floor by one of the other stairways I opened a door there easily enough, but as I stepped through to the exterior balcony a warning message from the security system alerted me. “Sunrise will be in eleven minutes.”
I wondered why that should be relevant, and then despite my anger and anxiety almost laughed as I realised it was just another part of Eva’s elaborate imagination – she had set alarms to inform her when she would be ‘vulnerable’.
Once outside, I realised how thick were the walls – almost a metre, with the door thickly rebated – and the sky was so much brighter than I’d thought because of the windows blocking almost everything, whilst I could smell a slight tang of salt, so we must have been fairly near the coast.
I tried to calm myself by previewing the images in my camera, deleting a couple of sunsets from last week that were too similar to others I already had and wondering what this morning would bring, as I could see that the rear of the house looked out onto a large field, in the far corner of which was a dilapidated barn next to what might at one time have been small stables. There were fields on either side as well, a series of lamp-posts marking a road, and a double line of trees curving away – perhaps bordering the stream we had crossed on our way here – and in the far distance a low and pale whitish haze which might have been the horizon at sea.
“Sunrise will be in five minutes.” There was something so relaxing about this time of day – perhaps because I had always enjoyed watching and photographing the sky in all its variety – that I found myself falling easily into the old ways of thinking and looking at the screen, ready to change the aspect ratio of the next image to whatever best suited the view, though with only a few wispy clouds high overhead there was little of real interest.
“Sunrise will be in two minutes.” Hopefully Eva would wake up soon – why hadn’t she reacted to all my shaking? – and she could tell me what she had done, and why.
“Sunrise will be in one minute.” The house reminded me of the time yet again, and for a moment I thought there might have been a high-pitched wailing just beyond the limits of my hearing, but I didn’t really care why I was being told something so obvious and when the first rays of dawn flickered through the trees on my left, I felt my face and hands tingle as the light shone on my body, though because of my weakness stimulate my skin as if it was the height of summer and the sunlight was almost a physical force pressing against me.
“Susanna!” The intensity of Eva’s cry startled me and I turned to see her on the other side of the house, standing in the bedroom and staring across at me as she clutched the railings. She wore a tight-fitting vest and shorts of pale grey – as if she were on her way down to the gym, but they were slightly lop-sided, put on in a hurry – and she looked across at me with such a look of horror on her face that for a moment I completely forgot my own antagonism. “Come inside, I beg you. Let the door close.” I watched as she squinted against the light streaming in around me and bouncing from the far wall, and she moved carefully, as if at any moment she would be incinerated by a glancing reflection.
“What have you done? I trusted you – you had no right!” My voice was far louder than I’d intended, but there was no reason to apologise.
She seemed genuinely unable to look straight at me, and as with nearly everything else her explanation made no sense. “I have blood-rights, and I’ve only ever done what you wanted.”
“It’s been four days! What did you do to me?”
“I gave you what you asked – I turned you.”
Faced with an answer that was both simple – spoken in a completely innocent way – and completely ridiculous, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Vampires don’t really exist, you know that – somewhere deep inside, you must do.” I realised it was the first time since our meeting that either of us had actually used the ‘v’ word, and it sounded bizarre in such rich surroundings.
Eva shielded her eyes with the palm of one hand, and though she had only just got up, she was already in character for she had put in her coloured amber lenses. “I know what I am – so do you.”
I was now seriously worried about her precarious state of mind, and beginning to be concerned for my own safety. Did she really believe everything she said? “Stop it, Eva – please don’t spoil everything.”
“I know you don’t remember – it doesn’t work like that – but you soon will.” In a series of movements that were too quick for my eyes to track properly and which should have been impossible anyway, she vaulted over the bedroom railings and landed on the ground floor – her legs bent into a squat as they absorbed the impact but otherwise she showed no signs of any stress at the drop – then she ran across the room until she was almost beneath me and dived onto her hands, flipped over, and sprang forward onto her feet to gain momentum, as if by magic landing on the interior balcony in front of me. She’d jumped well over four metres by passing straight over the railings, and done so completely upright rather than arcing her back over a horizontal bar. “If I showed you even more than before, would you be as convinced now as you were then?” Eva stood just behind the shimmering border between shadow and light, trembling slightly, but I didn’t think it was from the sudden exertion, for her eyes looked past me with an unmistakeable fear, and they were already watering as if affected by the light, even though it wasn’t that strong.
I was absolutely stunned by what she had just done, and though it was true I’d had difficulty following her movements it wasn’t because of her speed per se as I could easily have watched a car or bike coming towards me, but rather the unaccustomed combination of such speed applied to someone’s personal motion. Right now, though, there were far more important things to consider as I had no idea what to do to bring her back to some semblance of normality – was that even possible, or desirable? – and I almost shuddered at the prospect of having spent so much time in the company of someone who was truly unbalanced. “But it isn’t real!”
“Now and forever, this is my reality, as it will soon be yours.” Her breathing was unusually fast and shallow – not from her extraordinary jump which she didn’t even remark upon, as if it were nothing to her – she was now more terrified than I had ever seen anyone, and locking her gaze with mine she forced herself to stretch out her right arm so the end of it passed across the hazy boundary.
Nothing happened, of course – though such vulnerabilities were a recent invention, did she expect to just burst into flames? – and despite the risk of a violent response as I shattered her illusions I reached out to pull her completely into the light and prove it was harmless, but just before I would have touched her the skin on the tops of her fingers began to split like old parchment being slowly torn apart, then impossibly narrow fissures flared in little bursts of orange like the touch-paper on an old firework as something erupted inside her.
Even before I’d taken in what was happening, her skin and even some of her flesh started to smoulder in flaking shreds of translucence that disintegrated to ash before they’d fallen a handful of centimetres, whilst what could only be the underlying blood dripped and flared like sparklers that might at any moment turn her entire body into a dazzling conflagration, and it was not until I dropped my camera – I was dimly aware of it crashing to the balcony floor as plastics shattered against the smooth concrete – and instinctively reached out to push her back that I realised the screaming I heard was coming as much from me as from her. I knew what I saw, but couldn’t believe it, then I looked down and thought I was going to be sick as I stepped in and away from the door, which automatically closed and locked behind me with a series of metallic clunks that were solid and suddenly very reassuring.
Eva sank to her knees and gave up any pretence at noble strength, clutching the ruins of her hand which was now little more than a claw-shaped mass of bubbling raw flesh as her entire body was wracked by unimaginable pain and tears streamed uncontrollably down her cheeks.
“I didn’t know. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.” There was nothing else I could say in response to such overwhelming evidence that she suffered from something the likes of which I had never seen or even read of before, and now I was suddenly on the defensive. I pulled her up and we reached the corner of the inside balcony, half-fell down those steps and stumbled across the ground floor, then half-tripped up the other steps as we went up to the bedroom and through to the bathroom. I searched frantically for something with which to treat her burns, but found only the normal ointments and bandages of the kind I had at home. “Which group are you with?”
“What?” Her voice was little more than a hoarse whisper as she bent over the wash-basin.
“There’s nothing here I can use to help you, I’m going to have to call an ambulance.”
“I’m not registered.” Despite all the pain, Eva’s voice was tinged with something I could only think of as contempt – not for me as a person, but rather my line of reasoning, my sudden and now desperate ignorance.
How could she not have any medical insurance, or was her self-deception so deep that she actually thought she would never need treatment? “I’ll register you on mine, then.”
“No, you can’t.”
“I don’t care about the money!” I interrupted her with no small amount of rising panic. “You need emergency care otherwise you’ll lose your hand!”
“They’ll not be able to help, and only enjoy dissecting me. I have paramorphine and other things for the pain.” Eva opened one of the larger cabinets and pulled down a white box whose contents scattered into the basin as she fumbled for one of the hypo-sprays amongst dozens of phials and syringes containing drugs that were all as illegal as her shooting gallery, then she used her teeth to pull off its safety cap before pressing it against the flesh above her wrist and thumbing the release valve straight to full.
I couldn’t understand how even in the middle of this horrendous crisis she was still in role, despite the fact she obviously had legitimate reasons to believe. I had met people with conditions like Grave’s disease who wanted to relate to other groups, a handful who suffered from Renfield’s syndrome, some with genuine anaemia who drank blood in the erroneous belief that it helped their condition, and haematophiliacs who were entirely open about their arousal, so they had at least some excuse to consider themselves a kind of vampire, and though they could never fully agree on what the strengths and weaknesses of a vampire actually were – beyond the obvious desire and its supposed effects – I’d never encountered anything remotely like this before. Had she begun the blood-sports to somehow try and explain why she suffered from such a vastly accelerated and devastating reaction? – and what on earth was it? – to create for herself a world in which she felt she could belong, and gravitated towards the museum to give herself physical surroundings that reinforced her vision of an extended life? “Eva, please! This isn’t a game any more. Whatever it is, it can be treated, but we need to—”
“No.” She straightened up and forced her breathing to be calmer, used the back of her good hand to wipe away her tears, and managed a weak yet determined smile. “Now you know what happens when you break the first rule of survival, unless of course you actually want to die like that – I know of many far kinder ways.”
“I didn’t know you would – I’m so sorry.” My repeated apologies sounded lame, and though I didn’t speak with any of the strength I would have used only a couple of minutes ago, still I wanted to know. “Why didn’t you wake up before?”
“You already know we sleep far deeper than Humans – even normally – and I was tired from looking after you. I wasn’t sure if you were going to survive or not – you almost died twice – I didn’t know what was wrong. I only woke up because of the alarm – it’s shrill enough to wake the dead, but then it’s meant to be.” Eva smiled wanly at the bleak humour, then blinked slowly and sighed as the paramorphine kicked in.
Had she not been suffering so much I would have tried to literally shake some sense into her, but I was still in shock. “I know you have something I don’t understand, but if we get you to a hospital—”
She interrupted again. “If this isn’t sufficient proof, then what? Should I knock twenty-five per-cent off the world speed-record for running a kilometre and then pick you up and hurl you across the room without any effort? or take you out at night and describe things no Human eye can possibly see without electronic aids?”
I had no idea what to do now or how to help her, and could only shake my head as I realised I was on the verge of crying.
“You’ll be all right soon.” Eva’s almost unbelievable attempt to reassure me could not possibly have succeeded, but what she said next only made me want to hold her like a frightened child who was lost in a world it had not been prepared for and could never understand. “People go to sleep every night with the assumption they will awaken the following morning, and it’s only that assurance which separates sleep from death, for that is an unending lack of consciousness rather than one lasting a few hours. No one plans to die, they all think they’re going to live forever whilst deep down know they cannot – even martyrs delude themselves into believing there is another life after they renounce this one – but now you’ll not have that realisation tearing you apart. Only if you do not change – if you can’t learn and progress – is immortality the endless tragedy Humans portray it so as to give their deaths some meaning, but then stagnation is a waste of life regardless of how long you live, whether your four decades or my four centuries, or the four millennia of some I’ve known.”
I still tried desperately to bring her back to reality as I unrolled bandages and smeared ointment on them without even knowing if they would actually do any good or only make matters worse. “You said you looked after me – you told my colleagues at work I was with you, so I have to admit you didn’t want to hurt me – but how much blood did you take?”
Eva held out her arm, and I began to cover the appalling damage whilst controlling my own urge to retch. “Initially? About half a litre.”
“But you said I almost died – twice?”
“After you had drunk from me.”
“I didn’t do that.” Even I knew that my denial was too quick, for in the heat of our passion anything might have happened, and there were more-than-vague impressions that refused to go away.
“Yes, you did – you wanted it.”
“I don’t remember most of what we did after we came up here.” I had to be honest about that, and considering all the weapons I’d seen in the basement it would be pointless asking why she also had such powerful drugs at home, as it was clear she lived by her own rules and only ventured into the world outside her door when she had to, so this strange and beautiful museum truly was her home, and she was as wealthy as she was insane.
“You will, soon, I promise, and then I’ll teach you the remainder of what you need to know. You’re not a prisoner – you came here of your own choice and can leave now if you wish – but you’ll have questions and only I can provide you with the answers. Or you can listen to what I told you at the inn, for I’ve never deceived you even when you saw everything as just another story to be documented.”
She was giving me no alternative but to continue playing along with her charade. “And then what happens?”
“To begin with, your skin becomes more susceptible to damage by the sun – it manifests as heightened sensitivity which you should be feeling already, then your blood becomes unstable as you’ve just seen – and your senses grow far more acute, with extended ranges for your vision and hearing. As your bones and tendons get stronger your muscles will become denser, which will initially exhaust you, but I’ll take good care of you. When you’ve turned fully, I’ll train you in how to use all your new skills, and needless to say you will develop sudden cravings, which need to be satisfied. Then, as the transformation reaches its final stage, your jaw will change to accommodate the fangs, and a couple of new glands will form to flood your body with the cells that allow any part to fully heal itself.”
I almost laughed, but had to stop as I fastened the bandages as best I could, bearing in mind what lay beneath them.
“Will you believe me now as you did before you asked me to turn you?” Eva opened her mouth to show me her clean and perfectly normal teeth, with canines that were slightly more pointed than usual without having been obviously reshaped, but as I watched they began to slide from her gums until they were over twice as long as they should have been, and for a brief moment the image of a sabre-toothed tiger’s skull passed through my mind.
There were no extensions added in a passing yawn to mask a sleight-of-hand, no crude plastic fangs pushed on by her tongue having been kept in her cheek, and with no possibility I had been tricked there was only one simple but unbearable conclusion that I couldn’t accept without destroying my entire world-view. “What are you?”
Her reply was blunt but not rude, and in any other circumstances hardly unexpected, except this was supposed to be real life, not a silly novel that demanded to be taken seriously in an over-saturated genre. “A vampire, of course – a creature which can’t possibly exist, yet here I am. We don’t know why we are or how we came to be, and can hardly announce ourselves to Human anthropologists, but we have our own myths in which we were the original hunters, killing for the tribe before it was even fully Human and taking the blood which others didn’t want, but then you shunned us because we gave death but did not die, and thrived in the night of which you were so afraid because you knew only of its dangers whilst being blind to its wonders and extensive benefits. Both sexes are sterile now, but at one time we interbred with Humans and there are still those born today who carry the long-dormant genes, so it’s easy enough for us to recognise them. Like finds like – blood finds blood – to such an extent that for many it is like having a conversation with yourself, though we also convert normal Humans so our population increases slowly over the centuries, keeping pace with theirs, but as I mentioned earlier many can’t be turned for various reasons.”
“You did that – to me.”
“And I actually wanted you to?”
“I don’t remember.” My repetition began to sound more like a excuse even to my own ears.
“The first infusion almost killed you – I honestly don’t know why, you didn’t have any of the normal symptoms of rejection, which are in any case always fatal – and I nursed you through that, then you nearly died again in your first deep sleep – after you had fed again – but I was watching over you all the while and recognised the signs easily enough, as you seemed to have stabilised.”
“What if I don’t do as you say?”
“You saw what happened to me, and I wouldn’t want that for you so early in your new life. I’m more than used to moving around safely during the day – have done it all my life in one way or another – but to deliberately inflict extreme pain on yourself is still an instinct that takes strength to overcome – or desperation, for survival. Besides, you wouldn’t heal properly until you were fully turned, and any serious damage wouldn’t be repaired – if you were badly scarred before your conversion was complete – so any major injuries you have now can’t be restored, but you have none to worry about and hold you back.”
“And you really think your hand is going to heal?”
“I know it, as I know you still don’t – cannot – believe me. Come downstairs and I’ll show you what you need to know.”
Unlike her previous invitations, from the inn to her home, and then to her bed, I had no difficulty in refusing that one and shook my head. “No – I don’t know what to believe any more. I don’t know whether to be so angry with you that I never want to think of you again, or sorry for you and look after you like an abused child, or – I just don’t know. You can’t be a vampire – a real one, I mean, not just someone who thinks they are – they just don’t exist.”
“Yes, I do – we do.” Eva bared her teeth again to show they were now completely normal. “Would you see and hear yourself, or think that is also a deception?”
“What do you mean?”
“My house has a sophisticated surveillance system – it monitors the surroundings and is fully aware of daylight times, as you know – but it works inside as well.”
I felt almost dirty at the thought of having been recorded. “You mean you taped us in bed together?”
“Not intentionally – I like doing, not watching – but the system responds to all movement and sound, and a few things of which even I’m unaware when deeply asleep. After I bled you and we’d made love for the first time, you slept as Humans usually do and awoke to continue as before, then we rested and spoke of various things.”
“So you could show me what happened during that time?”
“If you wish.”
All I knew by now was that I was so tired from so many conflicting emotions that I didn’t really know what I felt. Certainly, there was anger at and frustration with Eva, concern for her mental health and physical well-being, and puzzlement over her entire way of life, yet at the bottom of all that was the beginning of a horrible doubt she was actually telling me the truth as she always maintained, and that therefore every single thing I had ever learned and thought about vampires was completely wrong, but that was impossible. How could an entirely separate species of Human-like animal have existed for so long without being discovered? or were they truly the sources of their own legends as she maintained? “Yes, I do.”
She led me from the bathroom and downstairs to the telemedia centre, switched on the main screen that was almost two metres wide, and after she had verbally unlocked the console began dictating commands, indicating I should sit in one of the chairs.
The screen showed views from nearly a score of cameras with overlapping coverage, then one enlarged and I watched us in the bedroom, with myself asleep and Eva lying naked beside me, for she had worn pyjamas only during the beginning of that first evening so as not to further unsettle me with her blatant sexuality – the date was the 14’th, only last night. The picture began to jump backwards in intervals of about ten minutes, but even during those brief frozen slices of time it was plain she had been awake all the while and that I had mostly slept, awakening only briefly during the 13’th to drink without any hesitation from Eva’s wrist, so by her account that would have been the second time, yet her arm now showed no signs of injury.
“Here.” Eva stopped the reverse preview and began on the morning of the 12’th, then sat in another chair and told the volume to increase.
I watched, and learned, and though initially I saw my previous self as if she were someone else, saying and doing things I had no recollection of and to which I couldn’t entirely relate – especially considering what had just occurred on the balcony – as the images and words were played for me I felt my fragmented memories begin to return to my conscious awareness, bringing with them associated feelings and emotions, needs and desires.
I was a little weak and could see dozens of marks all over my arms and legs and chest as I lay on the bed whose covers were clean – they had evidently been changed while I slept – and I watched Eva return to the room carrying a wide tray. I almost laughed at how innocent everything was. “I haven’t done this in years.”
Eva placed the tray between us and leaned over to kiss me a ‘good morning’ on my cheek – a rather chaste welcome considering what we had done during the night – then smiled impishly as she repeated her question of the previous night, though this time without any of the implications. “Do you trust me?”
I nodded silently.
“Then close your eyes and open your mouth.”
Despite myself I almost laughed, but did as she asked and heard a slight metallic chime as she lifted the lid from one of the silver bowls. “What is it?” I started to frown, but by then it was too late as something landed on my tongue and reaction made me close my mouth and open my eyes. All at the same time it was hot and cold, dry and wet, sweet and sharp and tangy, and as the tastes and textures began to merge into one another I managed to discern individual elements – flaky croissant laced with a creamy unsalted butter, real grapefruit, and an almost bitter orange marmalade. “Wow.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“I buy everything from a local farm so it’s always fresh and untainted by modern chemicals, and they trade with others for various things they can’t grow themselves.” Eva poured hot dark coffee for us both and savoured the aroma for a moment before sipping and swallowing languidly.
“You certainly like odd combinations.” I licked my lips. “First coffee with chocolate and blood, and now this.”
“Our bodies can sense so many things – surely it’s a crime not to give them what they can enjoy?”
I couldn’t think of a contrary reply, and merely smiled at her elegant simplicity. “So, how long have you been doing this?”
“Drinking blood, or seducing strangers?”
“Both.” I laughed easily.
“For the former, ever since I was turned – it is a condition of being a vampire, after all – and as for the other I have relationships with people, not their gender, for I enjoy both for what they are in their different ways so have no overall preference, though I go through phases.” Eva smiled and leaned over to kiss me, cupped my head between her hands for a while as my arms wrapped loosely around her waist, then she laid her head on my shoulder and bit my upper arm playfully. “If you could, if the opportunity was given to you, what would you say to someone who offered you immortality?”
“And the price?”
“Oh, there’s always that – it’s how the universe works. Despite the claims of people who know nothing of the laws of thermodynamics and think the Earth is a closed system, with themselves the product of a miracle which defies such laws, we are all entropy’s children. Life here just means its lack elsewhere – nothing is free.”
Although she was referring to something I had no knowledge of, I didn’t want to spoil the mood by asking of her and diverting from the conversation. “A Faustian bargain?”
“Not at all, for he sought knowledge and power, and how can there be a Devil if there is no God? – they’re part of the same mythology, after all – and such dichotomies are overly-simplistic as well as relatively new. As for the price—” She shrugged carelessly. “What would you think?”
I almost laughed. “Let me guess – I can’t go out in the sun.”
“No – that is now the first rule of survival – and cream will do you no good either. I can assure you, though, there are many compensations – speed, agility, strength, senses and sensations that are beyond your present understanding, a self-knowledge of such clarity it will shock you at first, and the sheer enjoyment of living more fully than you can now think possible.”
“And if I did – for argument’s sake – what would I have to do?”
“Merely ask for it, and accept the responsibility.”
“From you, I suppose?”
“I wouldn’t be offering, otherwise.”
I did laugh, then. “I know you took a lot of blood from me, and I must admit I’m surprised at how much you drank and how easily you took it all, but even though you’ve made some very good teeth for yourself that doesn’t make you a real vampire.” Surprised as myself, I laughed again. “Listen to me – I’m talking as if they really existed!” Then I lifted my left arm and flexed my fingers to relieve an incipient tingling sensation. “There wasn’t as much discomfort as I expected, either.”
“The incisions are usually small unless we’re draining someone, but our feasting is aided by an anaesthetic anti-coagulant in our saliva.”
“Why not drink from the jugular or carotid?”
Now it was Eva’s turn to laugh. “Well, if this were a film then the body would be emptied in a few seconds, without a drop spilled on the floor or anyone’s clothes so the censors could rest easy – think of the poor viewers not being able to judge for themselves what they want to see! though they’d all-too readily prevent anyone else from doing so. You can drink from the neck as from any other vein or artery, but you have to consider your donor’s health, and you can’t consume a whole body’s worth in one session unless you’re draining for storage.”
“What are the other rules?”
“Don’t drink from a corpse unless it’s one you have just made yourself, because once blood is cold it’s almost impossible to sense if it is clean – it starts to coagulate quickly anyway unless they’ve died in a particularly violent fashion – so whilst you can build a reserve from good stock and keep it in the refrigerator, always ensure the source is living and healthy – you’ll easily be able to tell if it’s diseased or not. Whether you drink your blood warm from the donor or a microwave is up to you, but if you can’t obtain fresh Human blood then go to a hospital or, if you really have to, find a slaughter-house and use animal-blood which can sustain you almost as well, but it’s an acquired taste and one I don’t care for.”
“You certainly seem to have thought everything through.”
“We long ago established conventions of behaviour amongst ourselves and for dealing with Humans – we are moral beings, despite accusations to the contrary – but other than those I’ve mentioned there are only a few other rules.”
“Vampire blood is so much stronger than any other and is sometimes the only thing that can help you if you’re badly wounded – its potency can save your life within minutes – but never drink from another vampire without their permission, otherwise it’s nothing more than common assault or murder – leave that for the mortals and their petty conquests – and try to treat your Human donors with some respect unless they want to be slaves, but those kind of games bore me. As for anyone who wishes you to end their lives, simply give them what they wish.”
I felt suddenly uncomfortable at her casual mention of death – though I had nothing against euthanasia despite my upbringing – and silenced her by the easiest means.
After a while, Eva removed her coffee-flavoured lips from mine. “I know these are just words to you at the moment, but this is important.” A strange looked passed across her face and I thought she was sad – the first time I had seen her like that – and when she continued her voice was subdued. “Never – ever – turn children, especially if they learn of your true nature and plead. To pounce upon someone so young is a crime, for they can never fully recover from the trauma and miss out on their normal development – I mean emotional, not physical – and so spend the rest of their years with something damaged or even missing. They can be knowingly cruel beyond measure, or they remain immature and draw far too much attention to what they do, and on the few occasions we have killed our own kind it’s usually been when dealing with such people, or simply those with delusions of conquest who threaten to expose us all.”
I frowned slightly at the curious mixture of what might have been her genuine personal history, and her fantasy. “Yet you said you were turned as a young girl?”
“Which is my point.” Eva smiled wistfully. “I’m four centuries old, and in many ways still a child – ignore my life’s vast experiences and considerable knowledge – and what was stolen from me can never be replaced or returned, but I long ago accepted what I am and I’m not bitter or angry, for my maker only did what he had to, as I have done since. It was part of the time and place in which I was born, and such things never happen now even in remote rural areas, especially when towns and cities offer so much more variety and security. Your only concern will be the hunters we have to contend with – there are also harmless librarians who try and keep track of us through the ages – but enough of that for now.”
“You didn’t believe me then, of course.” Eva played fast forward, skipping our next session of love-making – though still embarrassed at watching myself, I was surprised at how active I became and what I allowed her to do to me, whilst that session included only a small amount of blood-letting on my part – then stopped during the afternoon of the same day.
I lay in bed, much weaker than before but still fully conscious, whilst Eva sat with her back to the wall, listening to my idle rambling. “If it was possible – immortality, I mean – it’s not really a dream come true, is it? You’d have to watch everyone you ever loved grow old and die, and then know that whoever you found afterwards would suffer the same fate. I don’t think I could bear that.”
She smiled down at me. “I mentioned a little of that last evening, and after a fashion you are right, but it’s something you learn to deal with, just as a child finds out its pets will die, for death is the lot of Humans and they accept it albeit reluctantly at times. If you love a Human and so almost by definition trust them, and they know what you are, then you can turn them if they wish it, otherwise you must let them die because it’s part of who and what they are, and to deny that and turn them against their will is a rejection of what you claim to love. They will live on in your own memories as in those of their fellow Humans, and I long ago accepted the inevitability of Human death – though being responsible for so many has helped – and don’t confuse that with those of you who try and bolster their own self-importance by claiming we who can live forever somehow secretly yearn for death just because it’s something you do.” Eva laughed at how absurd was the notion. “Having said that, such hangers-on and groupies are obsessed with morbidity and introspection – they don’t seek real death but only the ceremonies surrounding it, and were they to meet death on its own terms its finality would terrify them, for there is no awakening as after a long sleep. It’s true I live alone, but only because I’m not currently in a relationship, and though I’m isolated in terms of geography – deliberately so, as you can assume from the contents of this museum – I entertain regularly and travel extensively, and know hundreds of my kind in dozens of countries so am far from lonely, but the proportion of us that lead secluded lives is the same as for Humans and the majority of us live in cities and towns, some with partners and jobs and all their attendant problems of secrecy, for that’s the only way we can keep up with your increasingly fast pace of change. This house was originally a series of flats designed on Art Deco principles, when the windows had blinds and drapes and curtains, but we kept the shell and reinforced it, then installed new glass of our own design that blocks specific wavelengths, so it’s perfectly safe even during the height of summer, and as you must have realised by now most of the contents aren’t mine but are being stored here in what is a rather nice repository. I’ll soon move to the Continent for another change of scenery, probably Paris again.” She tilted back her head and closed her eyes, savouring the imagery. “Oh, you should have been there during the revolution! Instead of learning from all that had gone before and appreciating the good that had come from it, what did the teeming masses do with their illusion of freedom? – simply destroyed what they didn’t understand or considered worthless as they in turn were betrayed by their own greedy brethren who cried ‘equality’ and ‘liberty’, and then the new elite purged everything like a child clearing out a cupboard of unwanted toys and gleefully pulling the limbs from old dolls before casting them into the fire. Such a feast it was – though I was used to a finer life – but why pass by when so many free meals were presented to me?” She shrugged. “Now everyone has electronic EUID cards instead of paper passports and a host of other paraphernalia, it’s even easier for us to disappear and arrive somewhere else with a new identity, though of course my true history remains the same even as it moves forward with my new experiences.”
“If that person existed, and if I asked them – what would their warnings be?”
“We usually sense very well if someone is physically suited for turning, but there is still a small chance – less than one in a hundred – your body will reject the infusion, and if that occurs then you will die within a couple of days and even we cannot prevent it, but I can alleviate the pain and you will not die alone, for I’ll remain with you all the while.”
“So you might kill me?” Why wasn’t I surprised by that?
“Yes, but that is what I do – it’s what we are – never doubt that truth. Otherwise we drink but do not drain, as I did with you, and we both benefit from it.”
“It’s strange – or not, I still can’t believe what we did and that I enjoyed it so much – but I think if I had the chance that I would want to enter your world and see it the way you so obviously do. I know I don’t really understand it, but you make it sound so alive – so intense, and passionate – you really love everything you do and everything there is. You even love yourself without being narcissistic, because you know who and what you are.”
Eva frowned momentarily. “At the inn, you invited me into your life, with repercussions you were unaware of at the time. Are you now asking me to bring you into my life, with all that it entails?”
“I suppose I am, yes.”
“And the implications – all that I’ve told you so far, though I know you don’t yet believe them to be true, assume for the sake of this argument they are – are you prepared to accept them?”
I almost asked her why she had just qualified everything she told me earlier, for she was now more in character than I had ever seen her, but I simply nodded.
Her voice changed timbre to emphasise the importance of what she said. “I’m not speaking of you and I being lovers for a while, though that will certainly be the case if you wish – I know I do, and you’ve fully enjoyed all that we did together – but of becoming one of us. You’ve given blood, and more than willingly, but do you think you could take it?” Eva raised her left arm and without pause used the nail of her right thumb to slice through the flesh just below her elbow – blood trickled down to her wrist as she turned her arm and watched the muscles twist with a look of open enjoyment at what her body could do. “A small amount won’t hurt you.” She smiled, offering her cupped hand.
Even as I was shaking my head in denial I was also leaning forward, and without proper thought of the danger – I trusted she was clean, but didn’t have the certainty of knowing she was – cautiously licked the carmine puddle. It tasted as thick as it looked, but strangely I didn’t feel as if I might be sick.
“You don’t yet consider me to be a real vampire, but if I were and I repeated my offer to you, would you take it?”
“I don’t know.” I almost laughed.
“This isn’t a masquerade where you’re wandering through an un-dead existence as part of a game and can reload the last saved file when you’ve made a mistake. If you’re discovered, you will be killed without mercy as if you were nothing more than diseased vermin. Can you accept those risks, small though they are?”
“I think so, yes – why?”
“And would you embrace this?” Eva bared her teeth and extended her canines, watching my reaction which was neither one of horror nor revulsion, fascination nor doubt, but rather a complete and unquestioning acceptance, as if it was the only possible conclusion to all that had gone before – which of course it was – and I finally recognised that fact.
Everything I’d experienced during the past day fell into place with such a sense of inevitability that I felt only a little surprise at my own lack of amazement at what I was actually witnessing. I could make no excuse by saying I was too weak from blood-loss or lack of food to know what I was really seeing – or enervated from making love – and once the canines had reached their full length I sat up and caressed them with my fingertips, beginning at her gums and passing over the long enamel curves to their sharp tips, then I slowly traced a path around Eva’s lips before following with my tongue, and my mouth – still sticky with her blood – covered hers for a while before I told her what I wanted. “Drink from me again – love me again – ‘make me immortal with a kiss’, if you can.”
Eva smiled at the quote and tilted her head slightly, almost as if she were a cat toying with its captured prey, but she simply kissed me again. “‘And none but thou shalt be my paramour.’ For a while, at least – as long as you need me. Are you sure?” As with our meeting at the inn, she asked my consent as part of her own etiquette whilst she looked into my eyes with an unfaltering gaze that left me almost hypnotised by the glittering amber, but I knew what I was doing and simply nodded again.
My memories were now complete, and I knew with a certainty which cut through me like a laser that I’d made a decision based not on blind lust or raging delirium or even as the subject of a cruel deception, but on a desire to experience all that Eva did, and in the same way. She had literally shown me a new world in which I wanted to join her, and I drank eagerly from her wrist as she opened it for me, then our arms lay together with our fingers intertwined as the blood of her body passed into mine and began to infect me.
I couldn’t argue I was under any pressure, or deluded by my own unwillingness to believe, for Eva had never once spoken falsely to me and a part of me recognised that fact even as it fought against a lifetime of ingrained preconception and no small amount of fear of the unknown, despite all she’d told me. She had killed people and probably still did when necessity dictated, but that didn’t make her a killer – or was that mere semantic pedantry?– and despite everything I found that I trusted her and it somehow didn’t matter, as I also knew I needn’t follow that dark path because of the alternatives she had mentioned. Yet, never having been in any situation where I’d had to ask myself the question, could I really take another person’s life even in self-defence, and would I ever have to? Whatever the answer, I would soon have all the advantages on my side simply by being what I was, and flight rather than fight was always the first option.
That I had almost died was also true, for though Eva knew my body was a suitable recipient she couldn’t have known of my years at university when I experimented with blends of designer drugs that had left my natural defences far weaker than they otherwise would have been, and though I had been in hospital a couple of times with various adverse reactions I was at least a lucky survivor, unlike some of my friends who lay in comas for weeks before wasting away.
I slumped in the chair, my body wracked by sobs – not for myself, for I was never someone claiming victimhood by denying responsibility for what they had done, rather a willing and enthusiastic participant – but for all the pain I had made her endure as she demonstrated her vulnerability to me rather than more of her formidable strengths, because I could not remember and so didn’t believe what was happening, or rather what had already happened.
“I’m sorry you had to go through that.” Eva’s words – which should have been mine – startled me as she cleared the screen and placed the remote on a table.
I left the chair and sat on the floor by her legs, rested my head on her legs and vented my tears, but even as my cheek touched the firm flesh of her thigh a strange tingling sensation coursed through my body and for a moment I could have imagined I heard her pulse – and somehow sensed the flow of her blood? – in a way I had never thought of as possible, and I didn’t yet possess the vocabulary to fully describe what I felt. I wiped my tears with the heels of my hands and looked up at her, and as if for the first time noticed her eyes were exactly as they had always been since we arrived here, for I could see her pupils dilating in a way that would have been impossible had she been wearing any form of overlay, as she had done when greeting me at the inn, where her eyes had seemed the palest of blues.
Eva moved her undamaged hand from my hair and, watching me watching her, awkwardly bit into the flesh above her undamaged wrist so that blood oozed from the punctures – I now knew they’d be healed in less than an hour, as the previous cut had – in a formal invitation to drink. “You’ll be fine now, and I have plenty of supplies downstairs.”
The desire was more emotional than anything else and completely smothered any mental doubts I may have had, but I suddenly had none, and in response my need became overpowering even before I clasped my mouth to her fine skin – a combination of sight and scent and taste and an undefined feeling that might have been my heart beating in resonance with something that was so alive – and as I eagerly swallowed her blood I knew beyond any doubt and without any sense of dread what I was becoming, and I wanted it.
I soon learned why Eva behaved as she did, so strangely to my then-Human expectations, for even when there were risks there were never any doubts – decisions and consequences were accepted with the necessary responsibility – and the motivations for what I subsequently did were so different from the way I would have acted before my conversion it only underlined the extent of the changes I had gone through.
We still didn’t know how we originally came to be, and asking ‘why?’ was as pointless as asking why a deer or a rabbit existed – except as part of a diverse food-chain – nor shall we ever, for claiming we’d been created in the form of a deity we’d previously fashioned after ourselves proved nothing except the stupidity of circular reasoning. I knew my life to the smallest detail – my self-knowledge was as total as my acceptance of who and what I was – and I celebrated life in all its variety with each beat of my heart and every drop of blood I consumed.
My body and mind were at a peak of performance they had never known before my rebirth, cleansed of all old impurities, and would always remain that way. Eyes which had once been so darkly green as to be indistinguishable from muddy brown were now – beneath neutral grey contacts – palest green with specks of brilliant orange, and could see so much more than I had ever envisaged – at first certain colours seemed to fluoresce like a computer image having its palette cycled, then they changed hue as if partly solarised or overlaid with a negative after-image, and finally my brain made sense of the extra information being transmitted by changed receptors and showed me a world of increased contrast and definition whose clarity was initially overwhelming.
During the night, my dark-adaptation was almost as clear as a Human’s in daytime – I no longer saw things as a hazy series of dancing coloured motes like a copy of old analogue videotape – and it gave everything a luminescent quality like a black-and-white film seen through a gauze, but in full and vibrant colour which I didn’t really have the vocabulary to describe except to others of my kind, though Vermeer certainly captured some of the almost luminescent qualities. My once mousy brown hair was now darkly glossy, my skin fine and clear with a filigree network of veins beneath the surface, and my nails were sharp and strong, though kept short for convenience and safety.
The only thing about my transformation that had disturbed me when it began was a subtle realignment of my jaw which had caused no end of problems for a few weeks and left me exhausted as my body consumed a phenomenal amount of energy, but Eva ensured I had plenty to drink once I was no longer dependent on her blood to speed the changes, and I certainly welcomed the loss of my periods which I had no need for, both because I had other means of procreation and because the blood was far too important to waste.
As she promised, Eva cared for me until I was able to function independently even though we were inseparable for nearly forty years – socialising and travelling and making love and feeding together – and I had never thought it possible to be so alive and experience so many otherwise mundane things in ways that were totally new and exciting to my enhanced senses. During the initial months she monitored my behaviour to ensure I didn’t attract undue attention to what I had become and so endanger either of us – or more importantly expose the entire concept to a generally unsuspecting public – but I easily adjusted to my new life with fewer changes than I might otherwise have feared.
Although I’d never had a relationship with another woman before I soon grew to love her and all that she represented – for a while, it was almost an obsession – but even now I don’t know how much I was in love with her, though I never tired of her innocent joy in simple pleasures and wonders, for like the child she had never been she delighted in sharing her experiences, whether simple like the ‘taste bomb’ she had given me during my first morning with her, or the chance discovery of a nice restaurant or old building in a city’s narrow back-streets, or revelling in everything her body could do as she ran and jumped and climbed and used her formidable collection of weapons.
Eva owned quite a lot of the contents of her West Country museum, for whilst monetary systems and investments could change overnight as various stock-market crashes and bank collapses had admirably demonstrated, the value of luxury items always increased as they aged, so she was the custodian of a wealth belonging to other vampires, housed in a structure that could withstand attack from all but an army. I met some of them during the following months as they came to collect or swap their possessions or make use of the gymnasium and gallery to maintain their fighting techniques, and though initially wary they later accepted me and introduced me to their own circles of friends, including a few trusted Humans who were fully aware of us and others who were simply unknowing but nevertheless reliable donors, being part of the thriving underground scene that existed away from prying eyes. Despite my protests, Eva gave me a few of her own things so I could start my own small business – she argued they were meant to be used and appreciated, not locked away and left to gather dust – but the majority had been dispersed to other safe houses belonging to vampires whose fictional families could trace their ancestry back many centuries.
We remained for a couple of years in the house where I was born – I continued to write various articles and even some semi-regular columns for various papers, and easily learned how to travel safely during the day – then moved with her to Paris where she stayed under another new identity, using her original given-name again. Neighbours and our small but close circle of Human friends sometimes commented on how much she resembled her alleged predecessors as depicted in the 1739 idyllic ‘Portrait of Sophia’ and a faded daguerreotype of 1852, and they marvelled at the preservation of the historical items in her suburban villa with its patterned brickwork and steep gables overhanging elaborate ironwork, but she obviously came from a good family and had taken care of her inheritance rather than squandered it, so they were happy for her.
The only other thing that really affected us was the growing religious crisis that ended abruptly in what – assuming the convention of WW III being the ‘Cold War’ – might have been WW IV when Jerusalem disappeared beneath the third atomic bomb ever to have been detonated in anger rather than childish posturing, on New Year’s Eve 1999, but most people seemed so shocked it had actually happened – and even now no one except those responsible knows which group actually did it – that reprisals were mostly confined to the expulsion of people who wanted nothing except global domination of their repressive theocracy.
Each fundamentalist group denied the others’ claim of responsibility because they wanted to be seen as the righteous ones who cleansed the ‘holy land’ of the heathens / unbelievers / infidels ready for the new Millennium – an uncertain date at best and in theory any time during the coming 1000 years – and whilst millions of believers wailed to the God who had done nothing to prevent or even warn of the massacre, smaller groups of archaeologists and historians knew that their research had been stopped forever by more than the usual rescinded permits which had been used to block further discovery and exposure of ancient tracts and debates because they conflicted with modern dogma.
Nearly every other union and empire threatened immediate sanctions – even the U.N. before it fell apart due to the deliberate withholding of funds and the use of veto at every opportunity by those who saw themselves as above such international concerns – and I watched with a sad detachment images of ashes settling over barren land, whilst pitch-black roiling smoke from oil-fields burned for years afterwards and resulted in America turning even more bitter with resentment towards the rest of the world for not accepting their magnanimous rule, but they had more immediate concerns as their artificially inflated economy finally imploded and sucked the rest of the world down with them.
Most of the global companies fragmented once they could no longer enforce cheap labour in foreign countries – though they’d exacerbated the situation by behaving like neighbouring provinces of old and demanding tribe-like brand loyalty that repeated to varying degrees the inner-city fashion-wars of the last decade where gangs of children killed one another for wearing the wrong name in the wrong area – but once everything had to be produced and consumed locally at unsubsidised prices, Northern America and Eastern Europe became little more than another third-world country, with the majority of people living in sprawling camps of migrant workers that often merged with the rapidly decaying suburbia their parents had dreamed of joining.
China continued to follow its own path as it always done, airbrushing history and lauding mass-murderers along with everyone else, whilst Europe breathed a collective sigh of relief and congratulated itself on not being involved too deeply – apart from profiting by supplying armaments to all sides – then all the major trading blocs closed their borders to immigrants and removed the final barriers to the creation of another repressive mega-state. Fascist or Communist, Jewish or Christian or Islamic or Hindu fundamentalist, there was no difference in their self-righteous sense of ‘cleanliness’ and contempt for other people – who though initially uncritical of the increasing oppression later banded together in a siege mentality and helped rather than betrayed one another as the governments expected – and the demand for IDs for everything barring food and water and air, though no doubt they would soon be included beyond mere taxes, for of course everything was based on the self-perpetuating lie of ‘security’.
After so many years spending every aspect of my life with Eva / Sophia, the departure was hard for us both, but we knew I needed time to develop independently, and whatever happened I would be bound to her forever, as symbolised by the eternity ring I wore on my left hand – a circle of platinum with ten equally spaced 100-point diamonds. The things we did together were sometimes so intense they seemed like a dream of ecstasy, but they were not rushes of the often tainted chemicals which had almost destroyed my teenage self, rather glorious affirmations of live and love and everything we did. The sex we shared went far beyond all I had previously experienced – that it was with another woman was something I’d never even thought possible until that first night in her bed – and with even the faintest of aromas I could recall in exquisite detail our kisses as coffee or chocolate from her mouth mingled with her blood in mine and formed a combination she found intoxicating, then my bites on her alabastrine skin only sent her into a frenzy she soon returned in equal measure as my body reacted in ways I could never have imagined – a combination of raw lust and lust for blood.
The clubs and bars we often frequented became our hunting-grounds as we sought and easily found Humans willing to engage in the sport, and it flowed from their wounded limbs into our eager mouths as we lay beside them and gave them what they wanted as we took what we needed. Occasionally we added sex to the encounters, but invariably not as we were too full of one another to admit anyone else – certainly not as a voyeur though it was the fantasy of many – and we placed coded advertisements to those who knew what to look for as we expanded our circle of donors, all clean and willing even when they appeared reluctant to give in to their own desires, though none knew what we truly were.
That I was now a strong and capable killer was something I was also fully aware of, but that knowledge did not make me happy other than as a means of maintaining my own life against those who would try and take it. I trained with Eva and a few other vampires, so within a few years matched her speed and almost equalled her agility and skill, achieving a level of expertise that was beyond all except the most accomplished Human martial-arts dans – though we had advantages they could only dream of and so could beat them too – but for a long time I never needed to test my resolve to abstain from taking a life, no matter the circumstances. My innocence was shattered when I had to defend myself against a hunter who couldn’t be reasoned with and wanted only my destruction even at the loss of his own life, but after a fight that was short and brutal I gave him the death he was so eager to give others, and like all my experiences, I learned from it.
Purples and magentas shone from the window – an old dawn elsewhere in the world used as a backdrop for a news broadcast – and I still had a fascination for sunrises and sunsets, perhaps more so now I could not view them directly, but they were recorded by various cameras as technology changed, and my collection grew. There were other sacrifices, as I had been informed decades ago, but back then they were little more than abstract words to me – in the intervening years I had lived them every night and day – though far outweighed by the rewards, the least of which was simply being here, now, in perfect health, enjoying everything and everyone.
The late afternoon sky was clear, not yet showing any signs of the forecast rain which would be here in less than an hour – I could already sense it as increasing pressure and moisture in the air. Otherwise the weather was somewhat cool for this time of year – more so than it would have been before I was reborn – but I hardly felt it now as my new body maintained a temperature that was both comfortable and of maximum benefit for my health and physical efficiency. Behind me I could faintly hear the thrumming of distant wind-turbines, their slim towers thrusting from artificial cliffs protecting more reclaimed land in front of the ancient polder and creating a barrier against which the waves crashed to generate more power, to be used for drainage and providing most of the local energy requirements.
This town which I knew reasonably well was situated on what had been the old coast of the Netherlands – having endured a few decades of increasing appeasement, it was now revelling in its newly-rediscovered yet old freedoms – and had redefined itself again rather than fall into disuse as people otherwise saw no reason to stay. It now teemed with seekers of various pleasures – whether food and drink, soft or hard drugs, the company of others for social or sexual gratification, or just to enjoy themselves in an open and relaxed atmosphere free from censure and the simmering threat of attacks.
The pavements and narrow roads formed a maze-like collection of restaurants and arcades and cafés and bars and small hotels, with local workers and idle shoppers and tourists wandering between the tables and chairs to pause and look at menus, drift into and out of shops, lean against lamp- or comms-posts and drink beverages or partake of other stimulants as they chatted.
I wore a loose blouse with a high collar and slightly puffed sleeves that clasped at the wrists, and a mini-skirt over thin but opaque tights, with a narrow belt-pouch and short boots – all various textures and shades of pale grey with cerulean highlights – which with my gloves fully covered my body against accidental exposure, though they did nothing to prevent me from savouring the emotions and scents and tastes all around me as I drove, shifting my weight slightly on the balanced platform of a Paggio gyrocycle to avoid the manual bicyclists who had long ago made this country their own, the few tourist coaches, and scores of people with various forms of wheeled footwear, whether powered or not.
The gyrocycle’s extra speed meant it was best to wear some protection – which I would have needed anyway when risking contact with sunlight, never mind I was cruising at 30km/h – so I wore a skull-frame that was little more than a stripped-down crash-helmet, with a wrap-around shade to protect my neck and face that also acted as a flexible screen for maps and information projected from beneath the ears, but they were as normal now as the ubiquitous comms-bracelets and -rings, which like their mobile phone and PDA predecessors were as much changing fashion as actual function, with many being directly embedded into someone’s body and responding to neural control, though thankfully the full cyber-brains so beloved of animanga were not yet a reality, as they would bring their own problems of firewalls protecting against viral infections that could directly affect a person’s nervous system, memories, and behaviour.
As for the technology we used to our advantage, Humans initially developed some of the materials to prevent contamination of light-sensitive processes, and then we modified it to suit our requirements, whether for use as a visor or woven from threads to form cloth, and now we could move more freely during the day than at any other time in our long history.
I stopped the gyrocycle a few blocks away from my destination, and once it had been docked with a recharging pillar, ready for another user in a few hours’ time, I crossed the road and passed into the shade before removing my skull-frame to walk the remaining distance. All things considered, I was just another anonymous adventurer, here to enjoy whatever pleasures suited my tastes.
According to most available data I was Susie Cartwright, aged 36 and currently without legal or social partners or dependents, originally from England, a dealer in mechanical antiquities who lived well but not extravagantly above her shop in Kalverstraat, central Amsterdam. Had I been elsewhere in the world I might have possessed an intra-muscular ID chip in my left arm – removal punishable by instant imprisonment and charges of endangering state security – and had to deal with various problems caused by my vastly accelerated regeneration, but here in Europe even the bureaucrats still knew what happened when people were physically stamped and indexed, so we had our mandatory EUID cards imprinted with holographic facial and retinal scans with palm-prints that accomplished the same task as branding us property of the State.
Fortunately, real-time analysis of DNA still wasn’t yet feasible, for it would have shown some peculiar anomalies had we been tested, but if such methods were ever introduced then as with everything else we would work around the system – each vampire already had a few dozen perfectly valid IDs for use in various situations such as the one I was now entering – and all of us either knew directly or could easily contact someone who changed records when we needed to leave behind one life and become someone else for a few decades. Each of us was highly skilled in something – time for learning we had in abundance – and with the means to share information and help one another so readily available our lives were becoming easier even as we never lost sight of who and what we were, and could do.
That the EU currently advertised twenty-five million to anyone who could demonstrate – with immunity from prosecution – a breach of their supposedly impregnable and ever-changing system was of no importance, for our goal was concealment rather than transient infamy, and we all possessed one of the things that money could never buy even though their science now allowed them to live healthily for almost a century and a half – at least based on current predictions as no one had yet reached that age – though by the middle of the next century it would have been achieved.
It was likely they would soon develop a workable solution to delaying death indefinitely – whether by engineering artificial biological organisms that continually repaired the body, or some kind of miniature robot, perhaps a combination of the two – and then they would join us in the realms of the immortals, though they would not possess either our weakness or many strengths and have to contend with an increasing population who consumed ever-more diminishing resources.
How would they cope with an artificial longevity? – which any religiously-inspired slave moralities were never designed for – wars fought for decades by the same people rather than being passed down the generations? tedious repetition? or just a continuance of the status-quo as they built more and larger cities and accompanying slums until the continents were smothered in half-empty gleaming monoliths towering above overflowing sewers? Only time would tell, and the first atmospheric cleansing plants in the EU’s Eastern countries had been operating successfully for over two decades, so their lack of long-term planning – always one of their greatest weaknesses – was something that didn’t concern them as they lived for the now, perhaps because that was all they had ever truly known.
Humans dreamed so much beauty to inspire the angels some of their legends said fathered them, yet created so much ugliness to satisfy their fallen brethren – where else would writing with ink be considered sinful? – and we vampires lived on the borders of both their worlds whilst having one of our own of which they were completely unaware, individual exceptions notwithstanding. Everything they did seemed to pale by comparison, as if they were not even fully convinced of their own ephemeral existence, and yet without that would they possess their tremendous drive to change – not necessarily advance – rather than wallow in a fatalistic acceptance of their relatively brief lives and thus accomplish nothing?
I slowed my pace as I approached the entrance of a bar, for there was a new bank of swirling ultra-black-lights just inside, and whilst I moved so they didn’t shine on me directly, still the diminished amount of UV that reflected from the surrounding surfaces left smeared trails across my vision like strong sunlight on my original eyes, but the after-images faded quickly and there were no other changes of any significance for me to be concerned about. Behind me, a man was chatting with a flirting girl as she checked the safety of her recently-purchased drugs in a public medicomms-post whose other news scrolled past sedately in four languages, then I shivered as I passed someone in a group who reeked of Hepatitis C, and there were the usual number of people who for one reason or another were afraid of something to varying degrees – I could smell it, salty and sweet and tangy all at once, so different from perspiration caused by heat or exertion – but so far there was nothing for me to be wary of from the general population, and no warnings posted in any of the usual public or private locations.
I sat inside a café across from the arranged rendezvous and spent the next half an hour sipping various drug-free beverages and dipping into various news items as their headlines flowed across the table, outwardly relaxed but with all my senses alert for signs of danger. The time passed without anything to cause me alarm, and I watched my contact approach the retro-tech club – a brash example of its kind with fluorescent lines strobing on the walls and disks of red and green and blue spinning in the windows – all gaudy primary colours that reflected on my side of the street and splashed across neighbouring premises. It was not supposed to be an accurate recreation of what no one here had ever experienced directly, just another style adapted to suit the current mood, with the decor predominantly dark metal and neuplastiks, and shiny tubing with back-lit embellishments. Despite sound from the live band leaking up the basement steps – who were doing a fine job of ambient-trance based around reverberating cellos and violas backing a soprano vocalist – there was plenty of opportunity for people to sit and converse, or just watch everyone else amble by.
He wore a black roll-neck pullover, tight black trousers and soft black shoes with a silver trim – all back in fashion again for about the tenth time – had a flexibag spiralling around his upper arm, and sat at a round table of glittering lucite rimmed by dark blue neon, apparently uncomfortable at being so exposed to scrutiny, as if the reason for his being there was obvious to all. He ordered and then nursed a mild narcotic drink, occasionally looking around as if he would identify me from the wandering people, but as he wasn’t rushed I assumed he had arrived in the town some time ago and only now decided to come here, and that he was early was a good sign, so I waited and watched, as ever ready to leave at the slightest sense of unease.
A couple of minutes past the appointed time I crossed the street to approach him, and it was only as I become fully aware of his presence that I realised although he knew what he wanted and was prepared to go as far as necessary to obtain it, he was also torn between fear I was truly as he hoped and concern that his desire would be ridiculed by someone who didn’t have the courage of their convictions, yet he didn’t at the moment have sufficient confidence to do anything except live on the edges of a dream and was wary of venturing into the darkened clubs which catered to the more visceral aspects of the craving as realised by Human proponents. I felt a slight disappointed, but hadn’t tasted fresh Human blood for over a fortnight, and at least he was perfectly clean – otherwise I would have returned home without him even knowing I had arrived – so I stood opposite his table in a motion that made it obvious someone had stopped there deliberately.
He looked up at me, glanced at the skull-frame and shade hanging loosely from my right hand, the latest model of comms-bracelet on my left wrist, a scattering of elegantly simple jewellery on my fingers which included Eva’s parting gift, and seemed almost surprised that anyone was there at all. “Sorry, I’m – oh, are you Susie?”
“Yes, that’s right, and you’re—?” I already knew, but still waited for him to confirm his identity rather than assume it, as he had done with me.
“Pieter, yes.” He indicated I should join him, and as with all the others I gave him the opportunity to send me away.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, of course.”
I smiled, then, which pleased him, sat on a chair made from recycled wood and cardboard, and placed my things on the table. “There’s no need for you to be nervous, though I understand why you are.”
“Well, it’s just that this seems so—” He almost averted his gaze.
“Impersonal? Only if we make it such. I know this is your first time, but surely that should make it interesting, something to anticipate. Why be ashamed?”
“This isn’t what I was expecting. I mean you—” Pieter gestured vaguely. “—you seem very comfortable with the idea.”
“It’s who I am, and I enjoy it.” I caught the attention of a waiter and ordered a hot chocolate, then laughed quietly, though to relax rather than mock him. “I’ll make sure you do, too, unless you want me to—?”
“Leave?” He completed my deliberately open-ended sentence.
“I’ll say this now, before we begin, so you’re clear on the rules. If at any time before I bleed you, you want me to go, then I shall, without obligation or chance of a reunion, but once we’re together I’m in control, and I’m not a prostitute.”
“I know.” Pieter’s voice indicated his sincerity.
“That’s not to preclude anything from happening, but if it does, it will be my decision. Whatever we do, though, I promise you’ll enjoy it.”
He was still concerned. “I was told you’d be safe.”
I smiled at the unvoiced implications. “Our contact is very reliable, and he has your interests at heart as well as mine, which is why he paired us. I am safe – in all respects – and I know what I’m doing.”
“You’ve been doing this a long time, then?”
“It’s my life. It excites you?” My openness surprised him, but he began to relax merely by being with someone who was in harmony with their own desires.
“It makes me feel – I don’t know – I’ve never felt more alive.” Pieter almost frowned, though from curiosity rather than confusion. “There’s something about you – I can’t quite place it – you’re very assured. Oh, let me get that for you.” He beamed a debit from his account to the club’s outside till receiver with his comms-ring as the waiter brought my drink.
I sipped the chocolate and watched him think of the best way to steer the conversation in the direction he wanted it to go, to learn about me so as to comfort himself with a stranger he had to trust if he was to achieve his desires – an attitude which was perfectly understandable.
Had I been so transparent to Eva, or did our discussion flow more smoothly as I remember it? even though she did most of the talking as she gradually seduced me. It was certainly true I had never believed she was speaking of her true self rather than an idealised version, but then none of the people I encountered subsequently – those I drunk from as part of a brief and mutually enjoyable experience or others as part of a deeper ritual – had any idea what I truly was, except perhaps those who wished me to hold them in my arms as they surrendered to me and died. As a new vampire I took from my varied and occasionally unenthusiastic donors as much as they were able – rather than consciously willing – to give, and though I enjoyed feeding in its many forms there were still times when I was forced to defend myself by whatever means necessary. Even before my full conversion I questioned my ability to respond in such an extreme fashion, but when dealing with a foe whose only goal was my destruction, instinct and training came to the fore, and I quickly learned to be merciful, for regrets were a thing of the past.
If Eva had felt uneasy or threatened in any way – even though she’d scouted the inn ahead of my arrival and ensured she was safe, as I had just done with Pieter – then she would have killed me quickly and efficiently, not bleeding me for her own use and drawing attention to my unnatural condition, but perhaps arranging a car accident after it was clear to everyone I had arrived alone and left that way an hour or so later, having been disappointed in meeting no one, or she’d lie in wait for me at my hotel and attack me before I even knew I was in danger. However, there was no need for her to react in such a manner, and had she not been looking for someone suitable to turn – hence the invitation to her home and the disclosure of her true lifestyle, as her prolonged monologues at the inn would easily have been dismissed as fantasies by anyone such as myself who then knew nothing of such things – we would have returned to my room and continued what we began in the alcove, leaving me alive the following morning and carrying within me an acute awareness of my new experiences, and a reawakened desire that would have soon have led me back to her hungry mouth as I became a regular donor for her and perhaps a few others.
As for tonight, it would be enjoyable for us both as I released within him the feelings he was afraid of yet fascinated by, so he would hear a version of the truth even though he could not accept it as anything other than a highly enriched description of the world we shared, and given my safety why should I invent anything when my real life was so much more interesting? “It’s an integral part of who I am – to reject it would be to deny myself.”
“I spent so long doing that – in denial, I mean – but then after that first time everything became so clear, it was like a revelation. Do you ever feel threatened by people who don’t understand?”
“Them?” I waved a hand to indicate the passers-by in a gesture that was casually dismissive rather than contemptuous. “No, for it isn’t a part of their normal lives. As for those who share your needs, they are more than happy to give themselves to what it represents, and despite there being some who treat their donors as little more than slaves, such behaviour isn’t conducive to long-term relationships. Only a handful of times have I been targeted because of my lifestyle – the last attempt was a few years ago – but I dealt with them easily enough.”
“You mean someone set out to hurt you?” He was surprised, then concerned of the implications, wondering how they might affect him.
“I accept the risks, but you needn’t worry. I only feed on willing donors, and whilst a few of us are far more predatory, advertising our existence benefits no one. Other than trusted intermediaries who act as filters and provide warnings if someone appears unreliable or dangerous, and those involved, no one else knows and neither do they need to.”
Pieter frowned at what were to him obscure references, so spoke only of what he could relate to. “I just don’t think they’d be very sympathetic, would they? What happened?”
“Oh, it’s not worth going into details. Suffice to say an appointment was made but they didn’t bother to turn up, and there was no attempt at further communication to apologise for unforeseen circumstances.”
“I suppose I’m lucky, then. I mean, if I’d been delayed I might never have met you.”
“It also shows you made allowances, as you had time to enjoy yourself before I arrived.”
“Yes, I did, but how—?” Pieter was surprised at my observation.
Telling him he had been the subject of my scrutiny for the past hour would have been too unsettling, so I told him another truth based on what my senses informed me. “You’ve been in a club selling narcotics stronger than those obtainable from open places such as this – I can smell the rich atmosphere still on your clothing – and there is the aroma of a drink different to the one you have now.”
“That’s a neat trick.” He didn’t really believe me, though even a sensitive Human such as one accustomed to dealing with perfumes could have discerned as much. “And then?”
That a meeting had not occurred was of no real importance to me – I admit I was a little disappointed at how fickle and inconsiderate people could be – for I still had plenty of stores, but I missed the visceral thrill of drinking from a living host and had to content myself with half a litre of reheated blood, which wasn’t how I had hoped to end the evening, and to make matters worse there was a blanket warning on the public grid of hunters in the area –
2037/02/10 | 22:16 | Centrum News
Major storms on the horizon, local floods expected. Take extra care, all of you.
– so I would have to go armed and armoured when not at home or in the shop where I had more than enough protection at hand, and hope if I was attacked it would not be in too public a place – a strange thing to hope for, as I didn’t want to be exposed at all, but it was far preferable to the alternative.
Two days later, a large but well-dressed middle-aged man puffing a cigar entered my shop to browse the antique clocks and music-boxes and mechanical things such as caged birds and other renovated automata, and for a few minutes there was little to distinguish him from any of the better-off tourists who wandered along Kalverstraat and mostly found all the bland brand-names that existed everywhere – and took perverse pride in being indistinguishable regardless of location, so why bother travelling when everywhere was the same? – but then he approached my assistant to express an interest in the orrery of brass and inlaid wood on an angled shelf inside a large glass cabinet, and despite Ute’s assurances it wasn’t until he had spoken to me that he reluctantly accepted it was a private item for display only.
The orrery itself was almost half a metre across and represented the eight main planets – the rest were just dirty rocks or snowballs, after all – and I still clearly remembered setting it up after I had spent almost a year designing and making it, before starting work on an even more ambitious project that would take me decades to complete. Since then, Saturn had completed over two revolutions and Uranus was almost due to return, and I was looking forward to Neptune completing an orbit, but after some deliberation he mentioned a price that was more than reasonable – at least in relation to its purely intrinsic value and the effort required for its construction – so I again told him it was not for sale, but despite the two rejections he asked me to consider his offer for the clock and a few other items he wanted to purchase, and told me to think things through as he would return for my answer in a day or two.
I had known for a while that something wasn’t quite right with the situation – even though he was asking all the right questions and certainly knew what he was looking for – but I couldn’t identify it, which was very unusual for me. All I knew was that underlying all of his movements was trepidation – though he hid it as well as he was able – so I assumed he was involved in some form of illegal trade or counterfeiting, perhaps so-called ‘protection’, or that he might try and threaten me if he didn’t get his way, but instead we spoke idly for a while of general matters and how fickle the business could be, as according to his business ID he was a dealer based in Rotterdam, specialising in old books. He left without pressuring me further – neither did he provide me with any more information to help ease my rising doubts – and the remainder of the day passed without incident.
That evening, I sent Ute home and carefully locked up as usual, then went upstairs and dressed discreetly for trouble with a pair of the latest Heckler & Koch 5PACEs – compact editions of their programmed automatics that could fire short bursts of between three and five rounds for each pull of the trigger, set to ‘cocked and locked’. That done, some friends and I spent a couple of hours in a favourite restaurant of ours at the end of Damrak – in sight of the narrow boats taking people out for night-time tours of the illuminated canals and bridges – and I bade them farewell just after 01:00 to walk back at a leisurely pace, ready for a few hours of deep sleep.
Even though I knew I wasn’t being followed, all my instincts told me something was still very wrong, so whilst it was true that if anyone was tracking my movements then they would have been on my home-ground – never mind all the natural advantages I had and that within a month of arriving I’d learned the details of every canal and street and park and alley within five kilometres of the centre – it was also very disturbing I had been identified, and how many of them where there?
If the recently-missed appointment was indeed a reconnaissance mission and I’d been trailed ever since, then I was obviously dealing with the best of professionals who were at least equal to the few others I’d encountered, so they would not have done anything as overt as sending an investigator pretending to be a dealer, or even a decoy if my suspicions were aroused. Pros would also be very sure of their target – not from any sense of loyalty to their own species as anyone caught in the crossfire would be written off as ‘collateral damage’ or some other meaningless euphemism such as ‘natural wastage’ – but they had to keep our existence a secret from the public whilst reporting to people who pretended to care about such things and funded the various operations.
The puppeteer who usually slept in a nearby doorway – huddled against the cold beneath layers of old duvets and cradling his immaculate marionettes like fragile babies when not entertaining the tourists who wandered along here in the evening for an after-dinner stroll – remained undisturbed as I passed him and slowed my already quiet pace to listen even more intently to all that was around me. Light foot-falls from a pair of young men holding hands ahead of me passed without interruption or incident into the distance behind, but I heard nothing to indicate potential trouble so returned home as normal.
Whilst the shop itself was based on one of the older commercial premises with the expected modern security system protecting it and the living quarters above, all the walls and windows were proof against even the highest-power bullets, and each room had a few weapons of various kinds in easily-accessible places. Once inside, none of the obvious points of entry had been disturbed and the rooms smelled and sounded as secure as always, so were I a few decades younger then by now I would have dismissed my feelings as wrong or at best reacting to false signals I wasn’t fully conscious of, but given my current level of experience I knew the threat was as real as it was also annoyingly undefined.
I checked all of our on-line resources again, but knowing there was nothing else to do except be more vigilant than usual I posted a quick message –
2037/02/13 | 01:49 | Nightwatch
Hawks may be circling their prey. Follow-up in 24 unless I’m under the weather.
– before having a slow wash and going to bed, where I slept solidly until dawn paled the sky a few hours later.
The shop was opened, Ute arrived, tourists came and browsed and purchased and left, the low winter sun swept across the sky – Kalverstaat became a narrow, dazzling, hectic ribbon of death before the shadows returned, but they did nothing to make me feel any less threatened – then Ute went home and I closed the shop again.
Had any of the normal law enforcement officials been suspicious of me for any reason then they would have visited during the day – anything from a couple of local policemen right up to a fully-equipped anti-terrorist squad that cordoned off the entire block – but on the couple of previous occasions when I had been identified and targeted, my hunters always used the lesser-populated time of night to hide their activities from the general population, despite knowing that night was my domain, and so far never at home, which they correctly guessed to be a fortress with more than one way out for a speedy exit. As for everything else, changing my routine was pointless and might even alert anyone had they been watching that I was suspicious, so unlike the previous night where I’d dressed lightly for combat because of enjoying company, this time I took out a heavier assortment of weapons and made myself ready for a full-scale battle.
Amongst the various hand-guns I possessed were some that were supposedly used only by various security forces due to their range and power, but like all such things they were readily available from a variety of sources – a long-barrelled Beretta loaded with standard tumblers, and a military spec Heckler & Koch carrying armour-piercing rounds. Both weapons might be termed old fashioned in that they were purely mechanical, but that meant they were immune from outside interference, unlike many which contained electronics. I wore the currently fashionable – again! the third time since it came out less than twenty years ago – loose-fitting two-piece quilted coverall under which was shaped body armour that didn’t restrict my movements or slow me down by adding too much weight, but I also had the latest style of wraparound full-length cloak, though mine was much heavier than normal and protected me against far more than just the cold. My boots were normal Merrell Travellers suitable for the recent weather, but hidden behind the snap-clasps on the right was a pair of heavyweight Boker throwing knives, whilst the left boot held a Fällkniven tactical Bowie.
Eva and her friends had taught me everything they could so I was able to defend myself by whatever means necessary if the occasion demanded – we made full use of weapons from every age and culture without becoming reliant on them and never forgetting what our own bodies could do – and though what I had sometimes done to ensure my own survival was not exactly enjoyable, I’d never forgotten my long and sometimes temporarily painful lessons, as a few hunters had learned to their cost in my generally peaceful life-time.
That done, I locked up and left as usual for the first of my twice-weekly visits to a local gym, where I arrived safely and spent the next hour having as good a work-out as was possible in a shared environment where I couldn’t utilise all of my native speed and strength. There were however a few places in every city that catered for such things – along with various sanctuaries and havens we could use in an emergency – and I visited one every fortnight for invigorating sessions with others of my kind where we able to free ourselves as we used our bodies to their fullest extent and delighted in that as well as being in the presence of other vampires, who with me formed a loose-knit group within the city-centre that shared information and maintained links with the suburbs as part of an autonomous collective.
In relation to other cities, Amsterdam was still fairly safe at night, both for the locals and the tourists who – even after all this time – still came to gawp at the sometimes tawdry offers on display in the red-light district and the open sex shops, and I could easily take care of normal muggers, so I had no concerns about walking the two kilometres home rather than taking the tram or using one of the various kinds of cycle. Neither was there was any point in trying to hide from various optics which gave Humans an approximation of my own sight, so I travelled as carefree as always whilst knowing without question I was someone’s target. The ‘why’ was self-evident, ‘who’ didn’t really matter, so my only concern was ‘when’ and ‘where’, and they were currently beyond my control.
A handful of minutes passed without any trouble as I walked through the beginnings of a snow flurry, and then all my senses alerted me to various peripheral movements of people that were co-ordinated rather than noisy, composed of separate paths that would intersect at a common point – me. That they had lain in wait for me to return to a known point indicated they hadn’t wanted to risk alerting me by following me and risking exposing themselves, but other than that I could make no assumptions other than they were serious in their task, and considered themselves equal to it.
I hoped I wasn’t being hunted by ordinary soldiers who had been sent to capture or kill an unidentified but dangerous target, as their reactions to anyone who showed the slightest hesitation because of not knowing what was happening or simply because of the weather – never mind resistance or an overtly aggressive response to further erosions of civil liberties – would be to ‘pacify’ the entire area, and there were still far too many people going about their normal business, regardless of the time.
I kicked the heels of my boots to engage the short but effective snow-spikes, and slid my bag through the remains of this morning’s slush into a doorway where it could either be retrieved later or just left for someone else to find and use – it contained nothing of any value or with which to identify me – and so I couldn’t easily be forced into a corner I moved to the outside of the pavement and walked along the kerb as if I had no concerns, though my actions surely informed my attackers I was aware of them.
Less than half a minute later, four men placed me at the centre of their large but converging square as they started to box me in. They made no pretence at blending into their surroundings and were dressed identically in lightweight armour which thankfully for me still left plenty of soft areas on their limbs, a belt of extra tools including electric batons to complement their automatic rifles and side-arms, and seasonal pale greyish-green apparel that even the normal military still used – though the designs and materials always changed as technology improved and allowed them to incorporate further refinements and smaller gadgets – with sculptured helmets that gave them night-vision as well as various comms options inside their visors.
We each knew what the other represented, so my trying to plead innocence or talk my way out of the situation was pointless, but unlike the first time I had been attacked – which saw me react effectively but with an underlying hesitancy as I’d really only wanted to protect myself with the minimal amount of force – all my subsequent fights made full use of my extensive abilities, even though it was something I didn’t particularly relish.
On the occasions I had killed someone because they asked it of me rather than in self-defence, I had not emptied them but rather left sufficient blood afterwards to settle into their limbs so as not to make the death appear as anything other than self-inflicted, as a fully-drained body could not occur naturally due to gravity and other factors, so they might be discovered as just another anonymous corpse to be collected and stored for a while – either a suicide that was still legal over here and so without ramifications for the surviving family members, or the result of a brutal fight involving persons unknown. Regardless of the cause, disposing of bodies was a problem and one of many reasons – ethical rather than practical – all but a handful of us didn’t kill our donors any more, but they were rarer than the serial killers that Humans were obsessed about.
Hunters were a different matter entirely, and whilst as a trader I had legitimate access to industrial waste units which took the small amount of things that couldn’t be recycled, it would be impossible for me to collect their bodies so they would be left in the open for anyone to find and opine over, or else picked up by their own squads who could easily remove all evidence of the attempt on my life and arrange further attacks until I had either been killed or driven underground, but whatever happened my present identity and shop were obviously compromised, so that meant moving to another city after my current self had been ‘killed off’ – assuming I wasn’t truly murdered in the next few minutes.
Though I knew they were keyed-up and waiting either for a signal to advance or for me to react to a presence that was now blindingly obvious to someone like me – never mind Humans who paid attention to what surrounded them – I wondered if the hunters even cared about anything other than their objective, as from the amount of armaments we all carried this was going to be a nasty fight, and it couldn’t be contained so as not to affect anyone else.
My query as to their concern was answered a few seconds later when I became aware of a new sound encroaching on my already acute awareness – an ascending high-pitched whine like an old-fashioned camera flash charging – and saw a fifth hunter’s arm as it moved out of cover at the end of the block in front of me, then I collapsed my left leg and rolled lazily sideways to avoid a pre-charged taser bolt that glinted like a chrome moth flickering through the snow, and pulled out my Beretta.
Even over the constant background atmosphere from the trams that created a scent like an exaggerated version of what a Human would sense during a thunder-storm, the aroma was unmistakable – the bitter-sweet and at times almost salty tang that would usually have conjured images of the cliffs near Westhaven had I not suppressed the pleasant memories of Eva’s home because of the circumstances – but after I’d angled my body to avoid a second bolt that whizzed past me and discharged in a brief crackling flash on the nearest cycle-stand, I moved into the road to see my target clearly, and despite the few people who had cast puzzled glances at me because of my actions and remained unaware of the hunters, used the opportunity rather than let it be wasted.
He staggered back and his arms moved up as if to claw at his visor, but it was only a reflex action as he was already dead from the bullet that had gone through his visor and scrambled his brain. Now I had been forced into a fight I wanted to end it as quickly as possible, but I knew things were far too chaotic at the moment even as a sixth hunter appeared on the other side of the narrow green bisecting Rokin, so I fired another shot into the air and watched with a feeling of grim satisfaction as the obvious noise had its intended effect and locals and tourists alike fled for the shelter of doorways or just lay on the cold pavement, so now there was more room to manoeuvre and less risk to everyone else.
“Firing a gun is easy – all you do is aim and squeeze the trigger – but accepting the consequences is a different thing entirely. Shooting at a passive target is fine for sport as well as practice, but otherwise you must accept your actions will result in the death of another living being, no matter it is for self defence. Once that decision is made and the responsibility accepted, act with all the skill at your command, use the surroundings to your advantage, protect civilians if at all possible, and aim to kill – it’s far safer for you, more efficient in terms of bullets, and in many circumstances actually kinder, if you want to be.”
Eva’s lesson came back to me as I realised the hunters’ distribution meant they wanted to contain me – this agreed with my own priorities as I didn’t want us running all over the place, and I was determined to finish this now, never mind the greater risk of civilian casualties – but as with all the best grid-games it was more effective dealing with opponents close-up and risking injury rather than firing at them from relative safety and having a protracted exchange that quickly exhausted ammunition.
Someone screamed in agony as he caught the edge of the beam directed at me from behind, and unbearable pain flared across the back of my head. Instinct made me duck and raise my hood to block the microwaves that were used regularly from large mobile units against civil protestors and from smaller devices as an invisible means of torture – battlefield use was limited by the kind of protection offered by the outer layer of my cloak – and the poor man who had been briefly affected curled himself into a small bundle of shaking limbs as he tried not to imagine his skin burning off, though there was no physical damage.
Even as the hunters reacted to a command and aimed their rifles in a single motion as they tried to keep pace with my suddenly erratic movements, I took the initiative again and jumped sideways to turn and roll as I aimed with my other gun and flicked the catch to auto, hitting the two behind me. One was dead even before he’d finished collapsing backwards under the impact – the bulky microwave gun fell next to him with a metallic clatter – and the other so badly injured he wouldn’t last more than a minute or two, then the staccato sound of assault rifles echoed around me as muzzle-flashes blinked across the street like gigantic snowflakes caught in a strobe.
The spikes gave me a firmer grip as I ran past a small group of people cowering in a shallow doorway, and behind me the wall erupted in a jagged line of debris and dust as laser dots chased me, but though it was true that at very close quarters it was possible to react to someone’s muscular movements and know when they’d pull the trigger, thus appearing to dodge their fire, even allowing for our vastly superior speed we couldn’t out-manoeuvre multiple bullets from a distance. My cloak’s lining could never be as efficient as my body-armour, but its purpose was slow any armour-piercing rounds sufficiently that they would then be stopped by my main armour, and everything worked as it should, but I was still thrown sideways under the impacts as a handful stitched a diagonal line down my body, then the final bullet passed straight through the flesh at the top of my left calf, fortunately missing the bones.
That I had been wounded didn’t concern me just yet as I knew it wouldn’t slow me down too much, and the pain wasn’t as bad as it could have been – more due to the fact I hadn’t been hit with a shredder – but I still ached from the impacts before regaining my feet, firing a couple of covering shots but wanting to preserve bullets, as I only had one spare clip for each.
“Assess the risks, but don’t overly analyse the situation as that can lead to indecision based on too many variables which you can’t possibly control, then act appropriately.”
I twisted on my good leg and spiralled down into a crouch at the end of a long concrete trough – usually it would have contained small flowers in multi-coloured patterns, but now it was just a line of soil covered in snow and clumps of ice crystals, with a few wilted petals from last week’s false spring – and as the remaining hunters ignored their fallen colleagues and tried to reach their own cover, I flicked the catch back to semi and methodically but quickly shot a few armour-piercing rounds at each of them in turn.
It was a more effective strategy than concentrating on individuals because they were all still closing on me and firing in short bursts as they edged forward from cover to cover, and I watched with neither happiness nor remorse as two more hunters died within a few seconds of one another, but the last risked everything to run across the street, and whilst I managed to avoid most of the bullets because of their slightly erratic trajectories due to his uneven gait, one passed through my damaged cloak and the side of my left shoulder just between my front and back armour, and I screamed.
The shock and pain stunned me to the point where I thought I’d be sick or even lose consciousness, but through the disorientation my instincts kept me moving to avoid further hits, and he fell to the ground as his legs collapsed in response to a couple of bullets from my good arm which almost moved of its own accord. Although less than two minutes had passed since the initial encounter, because of all the gunfire and injuries on both sides I felt as if I’d been fighting for ten times that, but I ran towards him and with my left hand carefully shot him in his head, easily ignoring a nearby shout in reaction to my apparently callous but strategic valid action.
“No matter how beautiful the engraving or aesthetic the feel, remember that guns and knives exist for only one purpose – to maim and kill. One of my purse-pistols – though made of ivory and silver filigree – will still kill you, as will a blade shaped like a leaf with flowing designs along its edges. All weapons must be treated with respect because of the danger they represent, but don’t over-step the mark and – as many people did in the past and some still do now – revere them. They are tools with but one function, nothing else.”
The single remaining hunter was less than twenty metres away and I knew his wounds were fatal, but I still approached him with extreme caution, alert both for his own actions and the possibility of others who hadn’t yet made their presence known, though it was impossible to account for very door or window that might hide someone or – worse – snipers against whom I would have virtually no protection, and who should have been used initially as a ‘surgical’ strike against me in such innocent surroundings rather than to mop up the tactical group’s failure.
I circled around his head, made sure he couldn’t reach his other weapons, then careful of my own injuries kneeled behind him outside the range of the cameras and carefully but quickly slid off his helmet as if he were sitting up, before placing it over my own head – he was very young, not even thirty – to find him staring past me, so near death I doubted he even knew me for his intended target, and it was then that I smelled his disease.
Some hunters deliberately infected themselves with HIV – which though not fatal any more still meant a lifetime of drugs to keep it at bay – so that if they were captured their blood couldn’t be taken by a vampire. Such perversity was beyond my understanding as it was nothing less than a deliberate corruption of the very life they claimed to be protecting – and such was always deemed to be ‘pure’ – but that was another difference between us, for they defended something blindly without appreciating any part of it, never mind enjoying it as fully as we did.
I had originally thought to demand of him where the fat smoker was and gauge his reaction, as my instincts still told me he was involved, but given the hunter’s condition there was nothing I could do except watch for a few seconds of near-silence that seemed unnatural after all the gunfire, then his last breath plumed shallowly into the cold night air. A strange feeling passed through me, and I realised that even with all the pain from my wounds I was suddenly very angry, both for the attack’s effects on me and the underlying mind-set that inspired it.
Fleeting images from previous deaths came back to me, but they were so unlike these as to not bear comparison. Of those people I’d killed because they wished it, with some I left their bodies to be found as if they were the victim of an unfortunate murder, but the others – those I briefly remembered now – were far more intimate as some knew me for what I truly was and even those who were unaware of my true nature still welcomed me as an angel of death. I was invited into their homes and what remained of their brief lives, sat with them and watched their favourite film or listened to their music as they told me of themselves – or at least an idealised version – and all the while drank from them until they fell unconscious against me, and it was then that I killed them so they would not reawaken, leaving only a little blood behind and then carefully staging a suicide so they would be remembered as someone who died with dignity, by their own conscious choice.
Inside the helmet I found the expected maps and overlays – static blocks of solid colour indicated the presence of nearby fallen hunters and their lack of health as well as mobility – and as I had hoped, a larger and slowly-moving blob showed the location of their control as it approached us, but there was nothing else to indicate that they in turn were being directed from elsewhere with back-up, so luckily for me they seemed to be a self-contained unit. Finishing the job and leaving none alive was something I knew I would have to do even before the first shot was fired, thus ensuring not only my own safety but that of the other Centrum vampires as well as those Humans who knew of me, but still it was something I didn’t really want to do, no matter I knew their attitudes towards my kind would have seen us all eliminated at any cost.
“Help me.” I dropped the pitch of my voice and whispered into the mouthpiece, knowing the bio-sensors would register my heart-beat and other vital signs, so it was just as well this was the real world rather than a work of fiction, otherwise I would have had neither pulse nor warmth, and in some cases not even any breath – little more than an animated corpse performing a demon’s bidding. “We hit her, but she’s still out here somewhere.”
“Schmidt.” The response almost startled me, as I hadn’t expected such a simple ploy to work, and it was then I heard sirens in the distance as normal police vehicles converged on the area. “Stay there, we’re cleaning up.”
Well, that was an interesting choice of words, which indicated that had Schmidt not already been dead then he probably soon would be, but given the circumstances they would have to hurry if they were to collect their fallen companions and not leave them as a puzzle for the normal agencies to deal with, though they would likely be told to quietly forget the whole thing.
I leaned against the wall and tried with little success to block out the excruciating pain from my shoulder as I wondered if it would be safer to just walk away, except that in so doing I’d be leaving their operation’s centre able to continue attacking me on their own schedule instead of forcing the issue to a head now. In the brief lull, I was suddenly and acutely aware of how many other people were still in the area, either clustered together in doorways and behind flower-beds or glancing around the corners of nearby roads and alleys, but there was nothing I could do for any of them and had to hope no one had been injured or killed by the hunters, as I knew none of my bullets had gone astray.
Their control sped across Muntplein from Amstel and stopped abruptly alongside what was to me the farthest dead hunter, and despite the increasing risks at being involved with the police who by now could be heard in the distance, two men jumped from the back of the long van and picked up their fallen comrade. I had to allow for a driver and co-rider with at least two controllers, so that made five or six more I would have to deal with, and then I’d leave as quickly as possible, avoiding the surrounding civilians and hoping none of them would risk trying to prevent me from leaving.
Three more bodies were collected in turn as the vehicle moved briskly up Rokin, then I pulled off the helmet as I ran forward so they wouldn’t know my position and fired at the two men who, though wearing the same armour as their colleagues, were far more vulnerable because of their task. Their corpses fell into the road before they’d even had time to recognise the threat, and as I imagined the controllers wondering whether or not to retreat, I changed back to the Beretta and almost emptied the clip into the space between the open doors.
No one returned fire – were there less hunters than I’d thought or were they waiting for me to get closer? – and I safely reached the van’s side to angle the gun around to fire the remaining bullets. I dropped the Beretta and took the H&K from my wounded arm, then ducked and peered into the back to find the control consoles flickering with barely legible data, but no bodies in the chairs or on the floor apart from those just collected, so that could only mean—
I twisted back and up and turned to fire as the van drove over where I’d just been standing, shattering the windows as the vehicle moved past me and we confronted one another, then the driver – not the fat cigar smoker – panicked at our confrontation and left the slightly safer confines of his van to try and run away, only to collapse as a bullet went straight through his armour and pierced his chest.
A low moan sounded behind me and I spun around to stare into the face of a pale teenage boy whose mouth and eyes were almost animanga-wide with fear as he surveyed the carnage from behind the nearest tree, so I raised my hands with exaggerated slowness to try and indicate he was in no danger from me.
“Go home.” I spoke forcefully, knowing he was too frightened to identify me, but even had there been a high risk I would never have hurt him as killing mortals in such circumstances was completely unacceptable, and though his account of my actions might be believed in corroboration of all the other witnesses, his possible recognition of me would not. “Go – now!” I picked up and reloaded my Beretta, holstered it and pocketed the empty clip, then stepped back a couple of metres, turned, and ran along Heiligeweg with all the speed still at my command, which wasn’t very much – barely the same as a Human.
Pain lanced its way up my leg at every impact whilst my arm and shoulder had long-ago passed that point and were now just a solid mass of cold numbness that had begun to seep into the rest of my body, but though such extreme sensation wasn’t something I would usually have embraced it was at least a potent reminder I was still very much alive, as my numerous opponents were not.
Six hunters had met me on the street, and three more were in the van, so how many people would be grieving in the morning when they learned of their deaths? Had any of the hunters led remotely normal lives outside of their training, or were they like the police who loved their families and pets but instantly became robotic agents of the state as soon as they put on their uniforms?
I pushed images of wives / husbands / children / parents to the back of my mind as I continued along Singel and passed the university to reach Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, where I turned into St Lucien Steeg and back to Kalverstraat, but though I knew from the HUDs there were no more hunters in the vicinity or awaiting me at home, even if I was safe until tomorrow morning then whoever had sent the hunters knew where I lived, so Ute and my friends might be in danger should they be asked about my whereabouts.
Lights flashed into the sky from behind the nearby buildings as Rokin was hastily cordoned off, but I passed EngeKapelsteeg without any trouble and saw the backs of people who only a few minutes ago had sought shelter from the beginnings of my running battle. Rather than continue south and home I stepped back into the shadows, then used my communicator to connect in turn to all the surveillance cameras that monitored both my home and shop as well as neighbouring premises, and to make doubly-sure I was safe used one of our access codes to view nearby streets through the traffic control systems.
Everything was clear, but still I waited, for even if I hadn’t known I was being followed – and very badly – since re-entering Kalverstraat, I would have recognised the smell instantly.
He passed me and slowed, certain I hadn’t gone straight ahead but unsure of precisely where I was.
“Boo.” I pressed the back of the Fällkniven’s blade against the side of his neck and he tensed, reeking of fear.
My breath wasn’t as steady as it could have been because I was slipping into full shock, and my relative youth meant I might need over a week to recover properly from what was some quite severe damage, but even without my weapons I still had an advantage over him because of his slow size and general lack of fitness.
“I – I don’t carry any money.” He tried to pass it off as a robbery, though his stress was genuine, and hardly surprising given the circumstances.
“No more games.” I sighed, stepped forward to stand in front of him, and hard light shimmered along cold steel as I spun the Bowie’s sub-hilt around my forefinger as if the blade were a sai, then bent to sheath it in a smooth motion that kept my gaze locked with his. “A new entry in your dusty tomes, another log on your oh-so-precious servers – are you happy now? You have all that information on us but you neither help us nor use it against us – you just collect it and cross-reference it and for all I know write incestuous dissertations on it. I know you don’t care about us, but what about your own kind? Do you care?”
“I—” He relinquished all pretence. “About you? No, but it’s nothing personal.” His tone was without either contempt or compassion. “About them?” He shrugged slightly, risked a sweep of his arm to indicate the nearby buildings and by inference what lay beyond, and admitted. “We don’t sanction what they do, and we never help them – you must know that – but we can’t become involved.”
“You already are. Did you want me in your debt? I knew hunters were in the area before you alerted me, or are you so new to this you didn’t even know I was warned by your arrival?”
“No, it’s not like that at all – we had no idea they would be so aggressive, and so careless of the public! We had to take the chance.”
“Why?” My prompt was probably unnecessary as he seemed more than willing to talk.
He gestured vaguely behind us. “Look at the bloodshed.”
“They were professional killers who knew the risks of their trade. Should I be sorry? No, and in case you weren’t paying attention, I haven’t walked away unscathed.” Telling him something so obvious wouldn’t make me seem vulnerable, though he would never know how much pain I was truly in.
“I know, but that’s not what I meant.” His breath billowed into the air, and his voice was quick at the thought of being misunderstood, though he knew he was safe for now because he was still alive. “I’ve never actually seen one of you move in the heat of battle – I admit it was incredible, I wish I could stu—” He almost said ‘study’, and a sense of urgency crept into his voice. “Even with all your inherent abilities and the best of protection, you were still hurt, and it’s only luck that no one else was. This war has been escalating recently, but now it’s completely out of control.”
“You’re telling that to me?” I was surprised rather than angry at the remark. “They changed the rules forty years ago when they started attacking us in the open. I had a nice life here with friends – Human friends, I might add, though I don’t differentiate – and a little business I really liked, but now I’ll have to move and start all over again.”
“You would have to do that in a few years anyway.”
“Why are you telling me what I already know?” I sighed, and stepped back, ready to leave. “What do you really want?”
“A truce.” Surprisingly, he meant it, rather than being sarcastic.
I shook my head, though not in denial at his wish. “All but a few of us have lived peacefully among you for many centuries, some of us for millennia. You saw what happened here – vampires aren’t the ones you need to speak to, are they? If you really want an end to this, then talk to the hunters. You know as much about them as us – probably more so because some of you were hunters yourselves before you learned the truth about us and realised we weren’t the terrible threat you’d been led to believe – but you changed whereas they can’t, which is why we’ll always win. Go and file your report, and if you really want to end the war, you know what to do, and how to contact us. In fact, I can call you, can’t I? that’s why you came to me – as another line of communication.” I took another step back, turned, and walked away, knowing he could be trusted not to use any of his information against us otherwise I would have killed him before he even knew he was being threatened, but I could never understand the handful of groups like those he represented.
What was the point of recording and storing all that they did if they then didn’t make use of the knowledge? It was the same hoarding mentality as a collector of art who only looked at his works in private like a form of masturbation, or a child obsessively saving thousands of receipts just to complete meaningless sequences of colours and prices in their stamp collection.
Had I not just encountered the librarian or been so badly wounded, I would have crossed the roofs, easily jumping over the small alley that was Watersteeg and so reaching the skylight above my home, but in my present condition I would neither be able to jump properly nor grab onto things if I missed or slipped, so it was with a sense of relief I walked straight to the shop and pressed my fingertips against the lock.
The door opened and I barely stopped myself from falling inside with exhaustion, but after resetting all the alarms and trying not to stumble upstairs to perform a quick but thorough check of all the rooms, it took all of my self-control to carefully undress and examine myself.
Sipping a glass of warmed blood from my stores, I began on my left arm, wiping away my own blood after I’d used some paramorphine and checking to ensure the wounds were clean, but I was lucky and the bullet had gone straight through me. As for my calf, it had bled profusely into my boot and the muscle would take up to a week to repair, but given the amount of fire-power I’d been up against I could have been killed or so badly wounded as to make my survival doubtful, so in that respect I was grateful.
2037/02/14 | 02:38 | Nightwatch
Sick hawks starved of prey, mobile nest destroyed. Sanctuary required. Identity & home compromised, acquaintances need immediate information management. Some good news, at least, if strange: a book-keeper was in the open and even wanted to be a new contact for us, which would be beneficial for us all, I think.
2037/02/14 | 02:41 | Centrum News
Amsterdam & Rotterdam hit by multiple lightning strikes, severe damage reported, also other librarians making overt contact. 2 other nests destroyed. Oppressive clouds remain over the city.
2037/02/14 | 02:57 | Vermeer
ID being processed, rest to follow ASAP. Haven 31 arranged. If you need anything else let me know. Glad you’re OK, we lost one tonight. Good work on the clear-up.
2037/02/14 | 03:02 | Nightwatch
Thanks for all the help. Very tired, have enough to drink but need lots of sleep. Can’t face thinking about losing everyone, but at least I’ll be safe tonight.
“I met him once – very briefly – but he wasn’t a threat to anyone. He was only Human, after all.”
Pieter’s frown at my dismissive attitude was matched by a faint smile. “Is that how you see the rest of us? – ‘Human’, as if we were just food for you, with yourself as something else?”
“Of course, for it differentiates between those who are as I am, and those like yourself who are not, so the distinction is perfectly valid. Remember that it was you who asked me into your life, but if you turn back now you’ll never know what might have been. Do you trust me?”
“I – yes – it’s strange, but I do.” Pieter’s voice almost fractured at the admission – he was also surprised at it, as if the words had emerged without thought of the implications – for whilst he was certain of what he felt, he was still unsure of why or, more importantly, where it would lead him, but then the undercurrent of danger was partly what drove him.
“Well then, it’s settled.” My directness roused him from his indecision, and I smiled. “I know you are concerned – which is good – but don’t let it prevent you from trying new experiences. That was, after all, why you asked for this meeting, was it not? If you wish for complete security we can go to an hotel that provides such things, unless you’ve already arranged somewhere suitable?”
“No, I’m not local.” He shuddered slightly. “You make it all sound so – so clinical – as if it’s nothing more than a donation at a hospital.”
I almost laughed. “Oh, it will be far more than that, but to describe it too much will spoil the surprise for you, and you will be surprised, I guarantee it, for you’ll be with someone who appreciates exactly what it is you’re giving.” I drank the cooling remains of my chocolate and stood up, dropped my gloves into the dome of my inverted skull-cap and held it loosely in one hand as I reached out my other arm. “The night has just begun, and the morning awaits us, but what lies between them is for those who are willing to enjoy it. Carpe noctem.”
I smiled again as I felt his pulse at each of his fingertips resting against my skin – his hand in mine was not a passive lump of flesh indicating his meek submission to me but rather a warm extension of his entire being which I could sense was almost tingling with a combination of apprehension and eagerness – and he relaxed ever further whilst we walked for almost a kilometre as if we were nothing more than happy lovers strolling past the brightly-lit cafés and bars with no thoughts other than of our own pleasure.
We entered a wide street – paved over with dark blue and pale green interlocking tiles of reconstituted marble – whose hotels and shops were somewhat more refined than those to be found immediately at either end of the main sea-front, which catered for casual assignations in a variety of surroundings. The first few premises were little more than quieter bars with private rooms for short-term hire, but further down there were small hostels that catered for more general tourists, and having glanced at a cosy-looking narrow structure of four storeys whose list of facility icons indicated they kept up to date with the latest codes of conduct, we entered together and approached the reception desk.
An over-weight middle-aged woman with newly dyed pinky-blonde hair turned from looking at a pair of telemedia screens showing sports and a subtitled quiz show, and smiled up at us. “What can I do for you, dears?”
“Just a room for the night, please.” I answered. “We’ll not be wanting company or any extras, but we will require full privacy.” That last would ensure we weren’t used as someone else’s entertainment.
She didn’t try to change my mind and sell us additional facilities, which was another good indication of the hotel’s standards, and she easily recognised I knew what I wanted as she opened a new contract on the desk display. “If that’s all you need, there are a couple of rooms on the second floor that should suit you. What level of security would you like?”
I looked at Pieter, as standard liaisons only needed low security because they were over in half an hour or so, whereas we would be there all night. “Medium or high?”
He was surprised, having not fully considered the implications. “I don’t really mind.”
“High, then.” I turned to the receptionist and stretched out my arm so my comms-bracelet rested above an induction plate on the counter and one of my alternative identities was read into the registry.
Pieter did likewise, and as expected he was greatly reassured by knowing that both our records were now locked into an off-the-grid confidential system which could only be accessed locally in the event of an official investigation – it was all part of the agreement between the hotel and its guests which reduced the chances of unsolicited violence to an absolute minimum, so he was as safe as he could be with a stranger, and whilst it was true I could easily have killed him and never been traced, that was not why I was here, for our alternative identities were protection from those who sought patterns as a means of locating and destroying us.
“I like people who know what they want.” She waited a moment whilst our records were validated. “Who will be paying?”
“I shall.” Pieter offered.
“If you’ll just confirm it.” The receptionist smiled again as Pieter authorised the debit. “Room twenty-three, at the front. You obviously know what you’re doing, so I’ll make sure you’re left alone. Enjoy yourselves.”
“Thank you, we will.” I smiled back, then Pieter and I walked up the stairs – we could have used the antiquated cage-lift, but it seemed rather claustrophobic – and unlocked the door which had been programmed to our comms-units.
The room was larger than I had expected given the size of the building, and it had a compact but reasonably equipped telemedia centre beside the usual cupboard of drinks and drugs, but though included with the cost of the room we wouldn’t be needing them, or any other distractions. Pale green coolgas fluorescers stood on the bedside cabinets – their negative after-images were an appropriate shade of red – with the bed itself being decorative but not unduly garish, and the other facilities were cleaner than some I had seen in larger hotels costing over twice as much.
Pieter approached the slightly open window and glanced between the angled slats of its shutters to the street below, turning to face me once I had locked the door. “I haven’t—”
“I know, but I have.” I replied quietly as I entered the bathroom, then saw him relax slightly when I returned with a large towel and clean dish. “We’re both here because we want something from one another, so there’s no need for you to worry.” I placed my skull-cap and gloves on the nearest cabinet, and took off my belt-pouch.
“What happens now?”
I laid out the towel to protect the bed-covers lest any blood escape my attention, then sat down. “I take you right to the edge – slowly – and hold you there for as long as you can survive, then bring you back.”
Pieter interpreted that in the only way he presently could, and smiled in a manner that was rather affecting as he came and sat beside me. “This seems very strange – it’s all so formal.”
“Shh.” I kissed him softly, felt the rising heat from his body as it flushed slightly at the first intimate contact, and kept our mouths playing with one another as he slowly lay back and rested his head on a pillow, then he watched me as I leaned over him and continued. “You know what you want and why I’m here, so just relax.” I gently nibbled his lower lip as if we were any normal lovers engaging in foreplay, then as his entire body began to respond to the stimulation I helped him slide off his jumper and resumed our kissing, occasionally moving down to his neck and shoulders for a fleeting bite that didn’t even draw blood to the surface, or to his chest to kiss him – thankfully it wasn’t very hairy, and his body was relatively firm, though I preferred the tautly-muscular kind. I stroked the palm of his left hand so lightly that at first he wasn’t even consciously aware of what I was doing, then gradually moved my fingers along his arm and began kissing where I had just caressed, increasing the pressure of my mouth and beginning to touch him with my teeth until I was biting his flesh and leaving indentations but not yet breaking the skin.
He suddenly opened his eyes and partly sat up on his bent elbows. “What if something goes wrong?”
I could smell his blood – vibrant and alive – heard it swirling inside his body as his heart pumped faster with a combination of anxiety and anticipation, and the interruption jolted me for a moment. “I’ve never had an accident, but I have medical equipment and drugs in my pouch and I know how to use them, though I’ve never had to. That shouldn’t disturb you, but reassure you.”
“Oh.” Pieter was almost disappointed at how easy was my reply, though it was nothing more than the truth. “What are you going to use?”
“I prefer taking it the old-fashioned way.” I smiled without baring my teeth, then he lay back again as I kissed him.
After I had once again paid full attention to both of his arms, I lifted one and held his left wrist against my mouth, then licked his flesh before lightly puncturing the skin. His body trembled slightly but he didn’t react in any negative way, then a few seconds later I bit into the artery beneath and relished the fresh tang of his clean blood as it passed over my tongue and down my eager throat. His pulse throbbed against my lips – each beat an indication of his vigour – and I curled up beside him to continue feeding whilst he lay as if in a daze. After I had consumed a couple of hundred millilitres at a pace that was deliberately slow – easing his body into the process and prolonging the enjoyment for me – I sat up and left the dish beneath his wound, then crawled over him to lie on his right side where I punctured his other arm and took a similar amount. He tasted wonderful, and as he was healthy he would be in no danger when I later bled him as far as his body would allow and kept him on the edge of consciousness – and life.
Some minutes later, he moaned quietly. “I didn’t know it would be like this.”
I took the dish from beneath his left arm and drank the little from it – small wounds tended to congeal fairly quickly unless we used our anti-coagulant – watching him watching me as I did so, and with a smile licked my lips. He was excited by the sensation of being drained and at being both participant in and observer of my own undeniable pleasure, and that he had no inkling of my true nature only made it sweeter, so he would soon enjoy the approaching helplessness as his body lost control of itself and he lay against me through the night.
Although I had met Pieter with no thought of anything other than taking his blood, still I found myself becoming aroused as I drank – from a living host rather than a warmed bottle – whilst knowing there was no danger or any need to hurry, and though his blood had a slightly sweet quality that might have been caused by the mild drugs he’d taken earlier, still I would have to treat him fairly gently, for like all Humans he was basically a fragile thing and so I had to be careful, as I had not been with Eva, or she with me. A few minutes later I straddled his tummy and leaned forward to kiss him with lips that were slightly sticky, but he barely noticed as his sexual desire increased still further and he began gripping my thighs and waist.
“Don’t stop.” He was unaware or uncaring of the carmine trickling around his arms.
I cupped his face in my hands and kissed him again as his breathing gained intensity, then licked his arms. “Shh, stay calm, it’s all right. There’s no need to rush things.” A drop of blood fell from my lower lip onto my blouse and, like water running over the surface of a repellent raincoat, slowly rolled down my chest, but none of my clothes would stain.
“You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?” Pieter’s breathing was a little faster than I would have liked, but due to excitement rather than stress. “I didn’t think people like you really existed.” He groaned as his pelvis flexed slightly, then an orgasm crashed through his limbs and his skin flushed with heat. “Oh god, I’m sorry, I—”
“We’re here for fun, remember?” I kissed him to quieten his unnecessary apology, then bent to drink again, and pressed down on his chest to restrict his movements.
“You’re so strong.” His breathing and pulse slowed again, and as each of his arms pumped out life in turn I drank the blood as slowly as I could so as to prolong the pleasure.
I heard his heart beat steadily with consistent strength, and after a while it began to slow as he relaxed further into a situation in which he felt secure, and sensations he had never known before, then I stopped for a couple of minutes and made sure he was all right before drinking from him again and gradually – exquisitely – edging him towards unconsciousness, where I would hold him for a while before bringing him back, which was what I proceeded to do.
Pieter’s breathing was shallow but perfectly safe, and his arms were more bruised than I’d expected, but my punctures were clean beneath the plasters and otherwise he was fine. He tried to sit up but only managed to raise his head before it fell back against the pillow, and his eyes followed my actions as I leaned over him to hold a glass of water to his lips and lift his neck so he could drink.
I smiled. “Don’t try to exert yourself just yet – you’re still a little weak. Sleep if you want to – I’ll watch over you – otherwise just lie still, and drink as much as you can.”
“It felt so—” He swallowed. “Is that what dying feels like?”
“You enjoyed it?” Of course he had.
“It’s just that—” Pieter took some more water and lay back again. “It was so much more than I was expecting, like drifting in a fog, knowing you were going somewhere without really knowing precisely where, except I was the fog as well. I was falling into myself. Does that make any sense?”
“It’s different for everyone, though there are some common elements – sometimes a bright light, or a fuzzy darkness that tingles.”
“You really did take me right to the edge, didn’t you? You could have killed me!” His exclamation was subdued but not really angry, just puzzled at his own behaviour. “Why did I let you—? You could have killed me.” He repeated softly.
“There was no need.” I briefly kissed his cheek for reassurance.
“You’re talking as if you’ve actually—” The mere thought forced Pieter to stop talking, betrayed by the sudden fear of how powerless he had been.
“There’s always a first time for everything.”
Years ago and hundreds of miles away, a bland pop song pulsed weakly – even before my transformation I’d never been deaf – from the doors as I drove. “Poor little rich girl, living in the city, pouting at the mirror, she’s so pretty.” I touched the console and changed to some hard rock. “With the eyes of a chy-ald and the soul of a wo-man, yea-ah.” Then switched it off and drove the remainder of the way with anticipation as my company.
During the morning, I’d separated the genuine information from the increasing amount of noise on the public grid –
1991/05/15 | 03:42 | Lord Ruthven
New victims wanted. No time-wasters. No mercy.
1991/05/15 | 05:37 | anonnet57
Ooh, I love a good scare.
1991/05/15 | 14:34 | ShadoWitch
Today is a time for reflection. Water is the boundary between many worlds. Mirrors reflect too little of what they see. Images are only representations. Everything is defined by interpretations.
1991/05/16 | 01:17 | yoursaviour
Turn your back on the Powers of Darkness and look to the LORD for Salvation. I’ll pray for you.
1991/05/16 | 02:23 | sundown
I’ll think for us both.
1991/05/15 | 16:53 | Dark Angel
Sane & clean donors assured of welcome and consideration for start of regular contributions to serious drinker.
1991/05/15 | 17:28 | swordofgod
i hope you all catch aids burn in hell forever you sick fucks
1991/05/15 | 21:56 | ELOHIM
1991/05/15 | 23:12 | sundown
CAPS LOCK stuck again? Stop posting images you wanker.
1991/05/15 | 15:47 | Ravenswing
Storms hovering over Prague, Vienna, Venice. Expect severe downpours for the next few days.
1991/05/16 | 13:01 | Eric Merovian
The body of a man was removed from the Grand Canal after what has been described as a tragic accident when he fell from a crowded bridge late this morning and was caught in the wash of a tourist barge.
1991/05/16 | 18:06 | Gabriel
1 down 2 to go.
1991/05/17 | 01:53 | Mara
Prague is clean again.
1991/05/16 | 05:48 | Michelle
14 y/o, sane, experienced, discreet, into cutting, seeks same in local area only. Own equipment. Nothing rough. No sex.
1991/05/16 | 09:01 | nephilim
Our fathers were angles and our mothers were humans, so what does that make us?
1991/05/16 | 11:31 | sundown
It’s ‘angels’, we’re talking monkeys, and you’re still a wanker.
1991/05/16 | 12:46 | e^(i*pi)+1=0
Then again, everything is geometry and probability, so ‘angles’ isn’t too far off.
1991/05/16 | 12:57 | ShadoWitch
You can be whoever you want to be. The only limitations are in your own mind. Seek answers and they will find you.
– and seen nothing beyond the usual, as most of the serious conversations took place on our own systems, though there were a few genuine adverts and coded messages still doing the rounds on various networks, and being accessible from all the public terminals it was still the best place for urgent news-flashes and updates.
All around me, the roads and pavements were glistening blacks and darkened hues, slick like another oil-spill after the latest rain-storm and reflecting shimmering pools of light from street-lamps and various signs. I was so late – or early, as it was past midnight – there was virtually no other traffic coming in with me as everyone had either already arrived or gone to the country for the week-end, so less than ten minutes later I reached the northern edges of the centre and, needing exercise after the long hours of driving, left my car at our hotel to walk briskly the two kilometres to the shell of a neo-classical department store whose floors had been stripped out and replaced by wide balconies and walkways, overlooking a thriving multi-levelled telemedia café-bar and a neo-industrial discotheque.
I’d returned from a visit to England for a couple of days to work on some of the arrangements Sophia and I took care of, and that I was still so emotionally and passionately involved in a relationship with another woman was something I no longer thought about, for we were just two people in love which was all that mattered, and our Human friends accepted us as any other couple as they had no idea of our true natures. What I felt for her went far beyond anything I’d previously experienced or even thought of as possible – an exhilarating combination of a gentle love I’d never known before, and an at times almost violently primal lust that we could get away with because of our accelerated healing. Even though I had only been three nights without her, I wanted to kiss her and almost devour her as I tasted her skin and her blood and her sex – like a junkie getting their latest fix – but although we weren’t due to return to Paris for another fortnight as we travelled through Europe consolidating our latest business interests we made use of all the local entertainment and had as good a time as we could, which was considerable.
Despite all the noise and conflicting scents of various drinks and drugs, sweat, and the general aroma of blood en masse – mostly clean with a few of the usual diseases, including the newest strain of Hepatitis – I found her quickly enough, dancing opposite a young man who was slowly running his hands over the hips and waist of the thin cream skirt and sleeveless blouse she wore, perhaps hoping things might develop further or merely enjoying the dance for what it was and taking his pleasure from that.
Sophia easily sensed my arrival and turned her head as I approached, but kept her bare arms draped over his shoulders. “Safe journey?”
I nodded, knowing that had I been delayed then nothing would have occurred between them. “Having fun?” The query was without unnecessary sarcasm or accusation, and I smiled.
He quickly ran his eyes up and down my body – loose vest and tight shorts of charcoal-grey with matt black boots – looking at me as I stood watching them, then returned his attention to her. “When you said you were waiting—”
She placed a forefinger on his lips to quieten him, then briefly touched her mouth to his. “Don’t spoil it.”
“Ice.” He momentarily raised his hands and smiled as he left, though given the combination of mixed- and same-sex couples dancing or embracing and kissing nearby he obviously didn’t feel threatened in such company.
Sophia curled an arm around my waist and pulled me against her. “How did it go?”
“There were some minor disagreements to begin with, but otherwise everything went pretty much as expected – our partners will be pleased. I just wish some of them would get used to video-conferencing – it’s not exactly a new invention.”
“It’s because they—”
“—can’t sense what you’re like if they’re not face-to-face with you, and I’m new to them, I know.”
Her kiss was liquid ardour, and one of her hands strayed inside my vest for a few moments.
I could feel the heat radiating from her body, smell the scent of her skin and the blood flowing beneath, and knew it was the same for her as I licked a path from her mouth to her neck and back again.
Sophia nibbled my lower lip and almost bit into it as she partially extended her fangs, then we danced against one another for about fifteen minutes as the roving arcs and spots moved between the balconies overhead and cast our shadows all around us.
Without any warning, a feeling of unease passed through me, but I had no idea what was the cause as we stood slightly apart, our right arms draped over one another’s left shoulders as we continued dancing to a slower beat whilst the lights dimmed and swayed to accompany the phasing shifts of tone-beats and interacting layers of sound which came from different directions to create varying textures as they moved along the speakers from one end of the floor to the other.
“What’s the matter?” She almost frowned.
“I’m not sure – nothing.” I shook my head slightly. “Someone’s just walked over my grave.” I almost laughed at how the phrase could have been applied to those of us whom Humans still thought slept in such surroundings, though the underlying reasoning – finding somewhere safe and secure from the sun during daylight hours – was true enough. “Forget it.”
“No.” Her tone was suddenly so serious I almost stopped dancing. “I know you’ll not be able to give details – things don’t work that way at the beginning – but that you’ve felt something is important. It’s a combination of subliminal messages and awareness that you can’t yet identify and analyse, but even in one so young as you it can save your life.”
I bowed my head for a moment and sighed, trying to recall precisely what I’d felt, but the reaction had been fleeting and unexpected to begin with and was now like a dream fading rapidly upon awakening, leaving only a vague impression. “All I felt was danger. No, that’s too general – a directed threat of some kind, and being watched.”
“Good.” Sophia nodded, which meant both that I was right and that she already knew, but that only unsettled me further.
“The man you were with?” I asked vaguely, then answered my own question. “No, I would have felt something then.” I carefully surveyed the nearest people in such a way I didn’t seem to be looking for anything but just moving naturally. “Why would anyone here want to hurt us?”
“Oh, there are still a lot of sexual bigots, though I don’t know why they’d come to a place like this unless it’s to reassure themselves that in their own estimation they’re somehow better than the rest of us.” Sophia shrugged carelessly, then what she said next almost froze me on the spot. “And then there are hunters.” She held me against her body as she made me continue dancing. “He’s tall and fit with short brown hair and brown eyes, dressed in loose casuals – dull ochre tonight – and he’s made no attempt at hiding himself.”
“A hunter?” I was more startled than afraid, but knew Sophia had done nothing to betray herself.
“He was following a local boy who must have been turned recently by someone who didn’t care to look after him, and he recognised me as kindred, but he was already being tailed – I only met him once, so he may already be dead. As for the hunter, he’s over-confident and has made no attempt to hide, but now he has company – just local help, nothing to worry about. He watched us dance for a while and then left, and as he doesn’t know who you are let’s try to keep it that way for now – you’ve never had to deal with this kind of situation, and though you’ll have to, eventually, it would have been better under different circumstances.”
I had known ever since Sophia turned me – no, she had warned me even before then – that certain Humans gave themselves the duty of tracking us down, but to hear her talk so dispassionately almost unnerved me as much as the entire concept of dedicated hunters. She had certainly killed people – when she was first turned, for sustenance, and later in self-defence – I knew that with as much certainly as I knew all she had been through, but the mere facts of her life took on a sudden intensity as she spoke so easily of the threat they represented. “They’re here to kill you!” I whispered loudly into the side of her neck. “And me.”
“They won’t.” Sophia comforted me. “Despite all your training, you’ve no idea what you’re truly capable of, and even if he’s at the top of his profession I can deal with him easily enough. As for the rabble, you could beat them in your sleep.”
“How can you be so calm?”
“It’s part of who I am.” Her simple reply momentarily sent me back to our first few days together, and her disarmingly casual honesty.
I almost shuddered. “You know I can’t – I don’t think I’ll ever be able to.”
“The thought is always worse than the deed, because you have too much time to analyse it.” Sophia gently steered us towards one of the seated areas as we finished dancing. “It’s surprising what you can do when you want to live.”
“What are they like?” Despite myself, I needed to know what we were up against.
“Solitary hunters are usually people on a mission, either one they’ve given themselves in reaction to a bad personal experience – not helped by the fact their entire world-view has just been overturned by learning we actually exist – or as part of a small group whose common experiences makes them nothing more than a self-reinforcing cult. Others huddle together in the shadows – an ironic choice of location! – to whisper of conspiracy theories and how only they know what’s truly going on in the world, as they want to save the rest of Humanity from us without revealing anything.” She sighed lightly as we reached the perimeter and leaned against heavily riveted girders supporting the ground-floor balconies and lower sets of roving lights, then her tone became more serious. “The Vatican used to have their own section, but it was shut down in the 1960’s because they took the quite reasonable view that – as with witches – we weren’t real. A standard disclaimer and formally trite apology was issued to absolve them of all responsibility for past crimes just like a terrorist getting their Sunday absolution, and officially we heard no more from them. It was a lie, of course, which was only to be expected from such an organisation, so there are still clandestine factions who hunt us with the same zeal they apply to everyone they deem heretical. Then there are those working for various black-ops groups who consider us part of an on-going health crisis – nothing more than diseased vermin to be eradicated – so as part of that they maintain a series of well-stocked hit-squads in the major capitals who can be deployed at a moment’s notice. That’s no different from any government looking to eliminate foreign subversives who represent a so-called threat to their internal security or who dare criticise their repressive regimes, but we infiltrated them years ago and make sure all they do now is chase and destroy their own kind who have been turned and set up as captive scapegoats – you may not think it a particularly nice thing to do, but it’s better than the alternative – and they chalk it all up as another victory for the species. Unlike most hunters, these know they’re not at the top of the food-chain and it terrifies them we’re older and more cultured than they thought they were, so they retreat into dogma about how they were made in the image of their god and so only they have souls, but it’s their fanaticism rather than their knowledge which makes them dangerous, for they are the most vicious yet paranoid of creatures who will use any means to pursue their goals even as they excuse their own violence and brand us as the aggressors.”
“So what are you going to do?”
Her answer was blunt but not aggressive. “Whatever I have to. I’ll not run like a fugitive so they chase us for days – the longer it lasts, the more resources they can draw on – and if necessary I’ll destroy their entire cell.”
I leaned so our foreheads rested together. “You sound as if you actually want this fight. I don’t know if I can – don’t do this, please.”
“Trust me.” Sophia kissed my closed eyelids – our special parting. “I’ll meet you back at the hotel.”
So many conflicting emotions and desires swept through me that I didn’t know what to do. I was concerned for her safety – which meant I wanted to be there to protect and help her, no matter the cost. I was worried about her attitude towards what she saw as an inevitable confrontation – which meant I wanted to take her away so she would be safe. The simple person in me – the smallest part – just wanted the entire situation to go away so we could continue enjoying being at the disco before returning to the hotel and sleeping for a while. A final part of me knew with a combination of fatal acceptance and resignation that not only was she right, but also that I was already an integral part of what would soon transpire. “I know what you’re trying to do, but you can’t keep shielding me from the risks. Whatever happens, we’re in it together – I asked you for this, remember? – and we don’t have to do anything, do we? Can’t we avoid them?”
“If they’re any good they’ll have prepared something, but let things play out as they will.” She took my hand, then together we walked to the main steps and up to the street. “Whatever happens, it’s not your fault – it’s important you remember that.” Sophia tried to reassure me as we walked a few blocks without incident – apparently the only pedestrians going in that direction – then we passed a short block of shuttered shops and reached some darkened cafés near a minor junction.
Should I have brought the car here rather than leaving it at the hotel? If I’d done that, we could have left safely, but would they have followed us and did they already know where she was staying if she had been observed for a couple of days? How determined and prepared were they?
Everything I could have done to protect us flashed before me, but it was now far too late as I heard two sets of heavy footsteps directly behind us on the previous block, a lighter-footed third behind and to the right at about the same distance, a fourth – slower, assured – at the far end of the block directly in front of us, a fifth parallel to him on the other side of the road, and I knew we had no choice. I had no alternative, either, for though it was true that just because I could do something didn’t mean I had to, did it also mean that simply because I could then inevitably I would as I’d be forced into it by circumstances beyond my control? And if I didn’t protect myself I would be attacked and probably killed for no other reason than bigotry, with my death celebrated as something good for whatever cause drove these fanatics.
“Hey girls, fancy some fun?” The fourth man – the hunter – leaned against a lamp-post on the corner a few metres ahead of us as he pretended to be either a normal mugger or someone who fancied his chances with two women who were obviously returning home after a night out.
“Not with you.” Sophia curtly dismissed his invitation, but we had to stop as he was preventing us from moving forward.
He glanced at our intertwined fingers as the other men gained on us. “What have we got here then?”
I looked around as if seeking timorous help from any passers-by and gained precise visual references from what had previously just been audible cues, as their foot-falls already informed me how quickly and in which direction they were all moving. The two directly behind us were fairly thick-set with dark shirts and trousers, and thankfully no jackets that could both hide weapons and act as protective padding against assault, but they moved like the burly thugs they were whereas the third was wiry and didn’t seem to belong with them.
Sophia tried to walk past the hunter, but he side-stepped with easy agility to block our passage. “What’s the hurry?”
The second man in front of us crossed the road diagonally so he would be at the hunter’s side – he was quite bulky too, and though moving with purpose had no real sense of balance – whilst the other three continued their approach to box us in against the shops on our left.
“It’s late.” I replied. “We just want to get back, so leave us alone.”
“Can’t do that.” He barely shifted his glance as he watched the men come within a few metres of us and stop. Then he looked straight at me. “Do you know what she is?”
“She’s my girlfriend.” I didn’t have to feign making myself sound nervous, and knew because of my inexperience in such matters I would have to follow Sophia’s lead.
He nearly laughed, which told us he thought I was an innocent Human caught in something beyond their comprehension, and a part of me was actually glad we had that extra advantage, for though Sophia had mentioned taking on two hunters by herself as if it meant nothing to her, the odds of five to two were far better if the majority were only heavies with no formal training.
“Hold her.” The hunter’s command lashed out and the thug on my left grabbed my upper arm so hard I winced, but did nothing as Sophia’s words came back to me.
“If you’re with me and a situation develops, then follow my lead. If you’re alone then there’s no shame in running away as fast as you can – it’s your life at risk, after all – but if you’re with another vampire and you’re caught in a fight, unless you’re facing a bunch of idiots you’ll be too busy looking after your own survival to try and protect anyone else. I know it sounds selfish, but it isn’t, and if you’ve dealt with your own opponents and made sure they’re no longer a threat, then by all means help, but only then.”
I could easily have thrown him off, and Sophia would have had no difficulty in dealing with two or three of them even if one was a professional, but she was obviously waiting for the right moment to respond, so I turned my head away and tried to appeal to the other man who had been behind on our right as if he was a genuine bystander, though he was now standing in the middle of the road watching events unfold. “Help us, please.”
His reply was a silent smile, so he was definitely another hunter, but did he know about me?
“Don’t just stand there!” I shouted, playing my part with an ease I found almost disturbing even though it was near the truth, but I’d been using the time to tense and relax my body so as to gauge the skill of the man holding me, and I learned he was completely unaware of my actions so he would soon learn he was completely out of his depth.
“Do you know what she is?” The first hunter addressed me again.
My voice almost broke. “I told you – she’s my girlfriend.”
“She’s a vampire.” His reply was surprisingly honest but – assuming me to be ignorant of such things – what did he think I would do?
I laughed – a combination of stress at the entire situation and the expected response to such a ridiculous accusation – and it was if my body already knew what to do, for though I’d spent uncounted time sparring with Sophia and some of her friends I had never needed to actually use any of my skills for anything other than pleasure – whether sex or the enjoyment of exercise – yet without deliberate thought I was already planning moves. “Yeah, right.” Then I tried a gambit to determine how far they were prepared to go. “What are you going to do – are you really willing to kill us both? – because if you rape us we’ll report you, so you will have to kill us, you know that?”
“Not ‘til after we ‘ad some fun widh jou.” The thug holding me answered tonelessly.
The hunter frowned as if not fully sure of my part in this, then a blade slid from the sleeve of his right arm into his hand where he held it with an accustomed ease. “I know what you are.” He smiled at Sophia, then looked at me again as another blade slid into his other hand. “If you want to live, then keep quiet. I know you don’t believe me – likely you can’t – but this is for your own good, and maybe you’ll learn something about what we’re dealing with every day of our lives, keeping you safe from animals like this.”
“What are you talking about?” I tried to protest and used my apparently futile attempt at struggling to shift my posture and balance in readiness for what I knew was to come.
“You’re gonna die ’n’all if you don’ shurrup.” The man on my right spoke contemptuously, so either he had been told something of what Sophia truly was and assumed I was her regular donor, or he just didn’t like the idea of two women together without him being in charge.
“Please – don’t – please, just let us go.” I bowed my head as if to cry, but though it was merely a ruse I really didn’t want to go through with any of this, yet at the same time all my senses were at their highest level of alertness, and even before she said anything I knew Sophia was ready to move.
She began to reply indolently, but when I heard the second syllable I knew what she was about to say, and that the final word was my cue, so I leaned slightly and brought my shoulder in as much as my captor would allow. “I’m bored now.” There was no need to emphasise the final word, and as the hunter’s eyes widened in sudden recognition that he’d lost the initiative, she had already leaned into a cartwheel to scissor her legs around the neck of the man who’d crossed diagonally in front of us, then everything went crazy.
I was almost shocked by the calmly precise manner in which Sophia attacked, but even before she had completed the motion and, in regaining her feet brought the man’s head crashing into the road at an angle that looked completely wrong because his neck was already broken, I’d started my own bid for freedom.
As she collapsed into a roll to give herself time and distance with which to rip the hem of her skirt to increase her manoeuvrability, I stood fully upright and, as I raised my right arm, spun on my left leg and slammed the heel of my hand into ‘fun’-man’s chest, then while he fell away I continued the motion and bent over, drawing my right knee up past my waist and stamping sideways to send ‘sick’-man rolling backwards into the road.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘clean’ fight. The object-lesson here is survival, not gaining kudos or scoring points in a dojo, and to do that it’s best if you beat your opponent before they’ve even had a chance to attack. If the situation allows anything other than brute force, anticipate their actions to limit their responses, and adapt – always adapt – to whatever happens.”
Sophia’s training echoed in my mind, but I was unable to see what she was doing and knew she could more than take care of herself as I ducked and landed my kicking leg to spiral down further and shift the weight from one hand to the other so I could sweep out with my other foot and knock the legs of ‘fun’-man from beneath him. I rolled sideways, then kicked his arm from under his body as he tried to get up, and brought my forearm down onto the base of his neck.
A blurred reflection on the pavement alerted me to a boot arcing towards my head, so I changed balance and lifted one arm to block and the other to grasp then fell back on my bent legs to pull ‘sick’-man over, but my hunter didn’t intervene at all and with sudden insight – and no small amount of dismay – I realised he was both watching how I fought and using the two thugs to try and wear me down, though neither had any skill at all, only strength and bulk.
“The question you asked me this morning – what style will I be teaching? – is meaningless. ‘Style’ is for poseurs in tournaments who go through clockwork sequences of attacks and counters as if they were reading everything from a book or had watched too many staged fights in films where opponents do acrobatic back-flips or side-spins instead of falling unconscious with a broken jaw. Technique – that’s entirely different. You’ll learn to do things properly – to protect yourself from injury as much as simple efficiency – speed and agility and strength, until you can do them all by instinct.”
I continued rolling and came up slightly crouched, in time to see ‘fun’-man rise unsteadily and charge towards me without any thought, but such attacks were the easiest to defend against and all I had to do was side-step and use his own momentum to send him hurtling into the metal grille of a shuttered window, then as he turned I followed with a left jab, a right cross, and a half-strength left uppercut that whipped back his head without breaking his neck and left him an unconscious heap on the pavement with a broken jaw, but then ‘sick’ man tried to kick me so I twisted and leaned back, and even before I was fully upright again saw an opening and took it.
Pain and the shock of recognition of what I’d just done suddenly coursed through me as my fist hit the middle of his chest with so much force it was as if I’d tried to punch straight through him, and the ring on the third finger of my right hand felt as if it had cut to my bone with the impact, but that same blow had – I heard the noises so loudly! – killed him instantly, and he collapsed in a tangled mass of limbs like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
In terms of mere time, less than a couple of seconds passed before I needed to react to the second hunter’s attention, and in that too-short a period I tried to absorb the implications of what I’d done. I had killed someone, though they had tried to kill me, and I was alive rather than they, which from my vantage-point wasn’t a bad thing. But, I had still killed another Human being – no, not another as I hadn’t been Human for over a decade – yet no matter how stupid or criminal he may have been he still had basic rights, and there were supposed to be civil courts for such people, even if the systems were inherently corrupt.
As for Sophia, she was effortlessly avoiding the attacks of her own hunter who had already been reduced to one knife, and I had a feeling she was almost toying with him – not necessarily in a cruel manner but just as an expression of her abilities – but even had she needed any help there was nothing I could do for her as I had my own problems to contend with.
My hunter saw me pause, and though he didn’t use that opportunity to make a move, still he was learning about me, and he attacked in an unexpected direction. “You’ve not done this before, have you?”
“Words are also weapons when used correctly. They can goad an opponent into making a rash move, and as soon as that happens you have won.”
“Neither have you.” My response was automatic – and sarcastic, just to throw the accusation back at him – but I realised it was also true.
He continued his verbal assault. “Once you’ve got a taste for killing, you won’t be able to stop. It can end here, now, if you let it. I’ll make it quick for you.”
“Are you trying to tell me this is my fault?” I didn’t have to fake the tone of disbelief into my voice, but despite my surprise was perfectly calm as he couldn’t affect me in that way.
“What did you expect? – you’re vampires.” He shrugged slightly to indicate my opinion was irrelevant, but the motion didn’t distract me from watching his entire body, then with a metallic ‘swish-ka-ching’ sound he extended a telescopic baton which had a slim blade at the end.
I tried to consciously remember the hundreds of lessons I’d had, the stinging cuts where Sophia had taught me in the hardest of ways what happens when someone – even if they don’t know what they’re doing – attacks you with a knife, but this was the first time I’d ever faced an opponent who wouldn’t hold back from a fatal blow at the last moment and only cut the skin. The baton gave him an extra reach I could never hope to equal, and for now he seemed content to threaten me rather than actually use it – to unnerve me? – which worked to my advantage in that it gave me time to recover, but also against me as I thought of possibilities and pain. “I don’t want to do this.” I had just murdered someone – albeit in self-defence and by accident – and the last thing I wanted was to do it again deliberately, but surely I could just disable him? Even as I formed the thought I knew I couldn’t talk him out of it, and so he would soon be dead too.
“Then don’t.” He swept the baton so the blade formed an arc in front of him as if drawing a protective barrier, but he held it strangely – not with a closed fist but rather with his forefinger extended, a posture which was mirrored by his other hand that weaved what I assumed was meant to be some king of guarding pattern in the air unless it was an attempted distraction.
“We have all our advantages with us as part of who and what we are, whereas Humans always need weapons, so they can be disabled or removed and used against them.”
I stepped nearer to him and raised my right arm to reach beyond the blade and grab the baton’s shaft, but he twisted sideways and the blade caught my arm just below the shoulder, though the cut wasn’t much more than superficial. I was sweating – thinking too much rather than letting my instincts take over so I could anticipate and react – and I glanced momentarily at Sophia who had just kicked her own assailant straight into the corner lamp-post with a dull clunk, but even had she been able to help me I knew I needed to face this situation sooner or later, whether by myself or not.
My hunter stepped forward again, and as I moved back I realised he was using the baton only as a stabbing weapon because he didn’t seem to be thinking of it as a truncheon at all – it was in any case useless as a slashing sword – so he was limiting its effectiveness to a certain distance, and outside that range he had no control. Realising that, I stepped closer, overcoming fear and prompting him to attack again, not now trying to avoid but rather control his moves.
He thrust forward but I’d already seen his body tense for the attack, and as the baton slid past where my chest would have been had I not turned, I slapped his forefinger back and broke it, grasped the baton with my other hand and yanked it down to break his grip, then twirled it around and swung it with full force into his right forearm to smash the ulna. That was how to use a truncheon. Breathing quickly but not panting, and ignoring the stinging near my shoulder, I managed to meet his gaze. “I said I didn’t want to do this, but that doesn’t mean I won’t, or can’t. It’s your choice, not mine.”
“No.” His guttural snarl advertised both his pain and his true feelings – not mere repulsion of an unknown individual, but a visceral hatred of an entire concept – and he continued after me as I stepped back along the road. “You’re an animal.” He shrugged his left shoulder and a knife – whose long and wide blade was split at the tip and had two vicious barbs curving back towards the hilt – slid down into his waiting hand. “I know what to do with you.”
“You know nothing about me.” Were all hunters so utterly convinced of their cause, or was he a vindictive amateur? Either way, he didn’t stand a chance now. I felt so strong and fast it was almost intoxicating, though that was most likely due to endorphins and adrenaline. Was this what he meant when he said I wouldn’t be able to stop killing once I had a taste for it? If so, then he was completely wrong, for the killing wasn’t a goal in itself but only the result of defending myself, and what I rejoiced in was the agility and speed of simply being, able to manifest my desires and both relish them as an expression of myself and appreciate the accompanying sensory experiences, as I did when exercising or drinking from someone or making love.
His kick went higher than intended as I swept my left arm up to push his ankle and overbalance him, then I swung the baton down to deflect his knife and break his other extended forefinger – why was he exposing himself so stupidly like that? His next move was almost in slow-motion, but that was my personal perception rather than any decline in his abilities due to injury, for I was reacting to correct predictions of what he would do and in some cases could only do due to physical limitations of balance and flexibility.
The knife slid past my waist and he grunted as my knee hit his stomach and the baton crashed against his head, then he stumbled against the kerb, lashing out blindly through his concussion as I approached, but it was so easy to avoid and without any real thought I curled one arm over his whilst my other dropped the baton to push his hand back. He fell to his knees and looked at the blade embedded in his chest as if it had suddenly appeared there of its own accord, then stared at me and gasped before falling sideways whilst trying not to further injure himself on the barbs that were supposed to protect his hand, but now only added to his injuries.
I could smell the life ebbing from him into the gutter. “Is this what you wanted?” I still felt high, but wasn’t gloating.
“You’re an animal.” He repeated softly – like a mantra, as if it was the only thing that gave his life any meaning. “You should be put down like a rabid dog.”
“And you’re so superior?” I could have sneered the final word but left it as a simple query. “You used local thugs to attack us without even telling them they were cannon-fodder – brainless heavyweights who’d do anything for a cheap thrill or just the promise of a gang rape.” I shuddered at the prospect of what would have happened had Sophia and I not been as we were.
His good arm moved and I kicked out to knock a second partially-ornamental blade from his damaged hand even before he’d had a chance to try and grasp it – the knife skated across the pavement and came to rest against the wall near a small pile of rubbish bags that would be collected soon after dawn – then he collapsed onto his back, breathing hoarsely with a sound like viscous rasping.
I couldn’t believe what I had done in the past couple of minutes – had it only been that long? – but I’d been forced into it, and I kneeled beside him as we both knew he had very little time remaining. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Show me there’s a part of you that still knows what’s right – let me watch you slit your own throat.” His animosity knew no limits, even then.
“Hasn’t there been enough killing tonight?” My innocent query was overwhelmed by a sudden insight. “Your entire life is spent thinking of death – isn’t it? – it taints your every thought and shapes everything you do. Is this what you really sought all along? And you – you who are so eager to give death to others even when they’re no threat to you – shouldn’t you be as prepared to receive it?” I made a final attempt at conciliation. “Is there anyone who should be told?”
He tried to laugh but convulsed instead – even had he succeeded it would have been a sound of disdain – then sighed his last breath into the night.
I left him as he was, staring unseeing at the overcast sky, for even as a Human I’d never seen the point of closing people’s eyes – they were, after all, dead and not sleeping with the hope of awakening at some later date as so many hurting mourners desperately believed as they were reminded of their own mortality – and slowly walked the dozen or so metres to where Sophia was calmly awaiting me in a shop doorway, her own hunter choking as one of her hands gripped his throat and pressed his body against the door, his arms hanging broken at his side and his legs flailing uselessly.
“You don’t know what you’re doing.” She spoke as if to a troublesome child. “None of you stood a chance against just me, but this, this is her first fight – knowing she had to, she still didn’t want to do it, but you forced her – and even with your protégé she took on more than she wanted. I suppose I ought to thank you for making her initiation an easy one.” Sophia’s hand gripped tighter, and there was a horrible crunching sound, then she let got of him and he collapsed. “Amateurs.” Her voice was not contemptuous, merely resigned, then she looked at me. “Are you all right?” The inquiry had nothing to do with my minor physical injury.
I thought I should have railed against the senseless deaths, but instead felt like smashing something to vent my rage. “I don’t know.”
“Come on, let’s get back to the hotel and clean up.” Her voice was gentle, and she wasn’t even breathing deeper than usual.
“What about—?” I turned my head as we began to leave at a very brisk pace, and gestured vaguely behind us where ‘fun’-man’s prone body lay on the pavement, but his back was twisted like that of a rag doll which had been wrung out to dry. I stopped walking for a moment and stared at her. “Haven’t I killed enough people without you adding to it?” Then I bowed my head and wanted to cry, but I was far too tense, and would they have only been tears of self-pity? Why was I accusing her of that? She had dealt with her own hunter so easily – apart from her torn skirt there didn’t seem to be a mark on her – and had survived attacks from people who were far more experienced whereas this was my first real fight, but no amount of training could possibly have prepared me for its sheer impersonal brutality.
“You took opportunities when they became available, and you did very well, though you could have been so much faster – you still don’t really know what you’re capable of – it would have been far simpler just to poke the first man in the eyes, and you can easily break someone’s spine with a punch.”
I covered my wound to prevent any blood dripping on the pavement and leaving a trail, knowing that any stray specks that might have been left behind would vanish with the dawn. “I didn’t really think about it, it just sort of happened.” Then I almost shouted. “What am I doing? I’ve just killed two men.”
Sophia stopped momentarily to shake me, though not hard. “So don’t tell the locals, some of whom may be interested.” Her quick smile of understanding was of someone who could appreciate only too well what I was experiencing.
My emotions were vacillating wildly, but there was no guilt as I might have called it a few years ago, only anger. “He even tried to blame it on me.” Despite knowing I was probably in shock – which made me shiver as if cold – I felt full of energy, and no small amount of relief the encounter was over.
“That’s all they can do – it’s their only justification. Take that away and they’re nothing but vigilantes lashing out at anyone who’s different. As for the thugs, things never change – a few centuries ago they would have wandered the docks as press-gangs or been cut-purses ambushing you on street-corners, and then as now killed you without a qualm if they didn’t get their way. Would you rather be in their place and have them celebrating your demise in the nearest tavern?”
“No, of course not. It’s just – was there any other way?”
“Usually not – they’re beyond reasoning, as you discovered. I told you at the beginning, and you said so yourself – it’s not your fault.”
I shook my head slightly, and was still puzzled by my reaction to the entire incident. “It can’t be that simple.”
“But I’ve just—”
“—killed two people, and I killed another three, one of whom was unconscious at the time and so died without any of the suffering he would gladly have inflicted upon both of us. It was an experience, and like any other you should accept it for what it was and take from it all that you can, otherwise you become just a passive victim of things – little more than an empty vessel into which are poured events over which you apparently have no control – whereas you now have the chance to welcome rather than reject it and use what happened to learn and grow, and recognise how you did control quite a lot of things, else you wouldn’t be alive now.”
Part of me knew she was right, but was it only her extensive knowledge that made Sophia behave that way, or was there something cold and inhuman about her I’d never before recognised? ‘Inhuman’? I almost laughed to myself. We were vampires, after all, which was why we had been targeted to begin with. “You’re not even scratched.”
“I have a couple of bruises, but not to belittle what you did, in truth it was only a minor scrap. You’ll soon know when you’ve been in a real fight – you’ll be beaten within a hair’s-breadth of your life and need a week or more to fully recuperate when all you can think of is gorging yourself on the first hapless Human who wanders by, or you’ll be semi-delirious with pain in a haven whilst a doctor pulls bullets from you.”
“Thanks for the reassurance.” I actually managed to smile, though at Sophia’s responses rather than the situation. “How good were they? The hunters I mean, not the thugs. Did we really have to kill them as well? I know they seemed ready to murder us without even knowing who we were, but—” I sighed. “It was so easy, really, dealing with them. All I had to do was react.”
“On a scale of ten, mine scored four for effort but only two for skill, whereas yours was a novice brought out to witness what they thought was an easy kill because they only knew about me, or they thought they did, as they even got that wrong – probably thought I was weak and decadent because I like bright clubs instead of skulking in the shadows. He wasn’t supposed to have fought at that early stage, though such people always assume their passion can compensate for a lack of proficiency, and as for the weapons!” She laughed quietly. “They were more suited to show than actual combat – I’ll admit they can still do some damage – except the trouble with all knives is that an opponent who knows what they’re doing can easily use it against them, as you did.”
“And did you see the way he held everything, with his fingers sticking out? – it was so silly!”
“They think it’s magic.”
“Metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. Posing like that is supposed to direct some mystical power, but it’s only another delusion that breaks as easily as their bones when confronted with the truth.”
Thinking back on my hunter’s behaviour, something was still not right. “Even though he wasn’t experienced, he still knew I wasn’t used to fighting.”
Sophia nodded. “He’d probably trained with weakened captives where he wouldn’t be in any real danger – more lies to bolster their confidence.”
I almost stopped walking as I realised the implications. “You mean they—?” I couldn’t bring myself to complete the thought, then her words filled my mind with unwanted images and made me shudder in a combination of fear and a momentary but overwhelming revulsion.
“They can hold you for weeks, using you as target practice and keeping you barely alive, trying to cripple you but also needing you fairly fit otherwise they can’t train properly. They leave you struggling against the ropes or chains, and often so desperate you’d be willing to break the pact and turn on one of your own if given half the chance for some decent blood. It was one of the few times in which I thoroughly enjoyed killing – it was revenge, pure and simple and very, very brutal – but fuelling the cycle of hatred and retaliation proves nothing, and in the end we out-live them.”
“You—” I almost called her a ‘poor thing’, which given the vast richness and experiences of her life was as far from the truth as it was possible to be – and against which I was a mere child – yet she knew of others who were millennia older, so what was I compared to that?
“The scars soon fade.” She tried to reassure me.
“You mean the physical ones.”
“And the others. You have to let the feelings go, otherwise they fester within you, and it means you’ve let them beat you even once they’re dead. Learn, and move on, otherwise you become a Human cliché – a vampire who can’t change and dreams of death as a form of insensibility whilst being as terrified as a Human of its utter finality.”
“No regrets.” I managed to smile as the otherwise trite phrase assumed greater importance.
“And you – do you have any?”
“You mean about the fight?” I sighed. “I don’t know.” Then considered. “No, at least not as I would have thought of it before.”
“Don’t take it to extremes, though. Never deny all you are and everything that happens to you, but don’t detach yourself from events – rather, embrace them.”
I laughed, then stopped, surprised at myself for having done so, and felt something that might once have been called guilt – at the laughter itself rather than the cause – then laughed again, though this time freely. “Who would want to be a Stoic anyway?”
“Oh, there are always those who boast of their self-imposed suffering through abnegation, but such fools reject the very life they claim to celebrate. With the same knives they would use to kill us, they cut their own flesh and endure rather than enjoy the pain, else scourge themselves and deny their enjoyment of the flagellation as they dream of fellation, and whilst none but their own kind ever miss them when they have perished they denounce others who do the same thing for open pleasure, but then as with women, hypocrisy is the fuel of their hatred.”
“Why use knives at all? Not that I’m complaining.”
“Some amateurs do use guns and professionals use nothing else, but many prefer a weapon that gets them close to their quarry so they can inflict the wounds personally, and it’s far more visceral than shooting someone from the other end of a street. There’s also a kind of mythology attached to the whole thing – they make it personal even when it’s not, or ascribe to it some form of orthodoxy – the blade becomes an extension of their hand and so a symbol of their intent, an expression of their desire.”
I sighed again. “He was so self-centred and sure of himself, but not because he had any real knowledge, more like a corporate clone brainwashed into believing the party line without question to create a world of pure black and white, with no allowance for doubt or shades of grey.”
The sound of a warbling siren echoed from buildings nearly a kilometre behind us, then stopped abruptly, and I imagined a police-car reaching the scene of our encounter and puzzled officers trying to piece together events. Had there been witnesses to our fight or were they just responding to the call of a casual passer-by who had discovered the corpses?
We would be back at the hotel in a few more minutes, but though Sophia could probably reach our room without arousing too much undue attention even with her torn skirt, I would have difficulty passing through the foyer due to my wound, and even at that time of night a few staff would be wandering around, but there was a fire-escape that was easily accessible at the side of the hotel and Sophia could let me in that way. Besides, even if Sophia had not been correct in her assertion we were untraceable, no one would suspect two women could have inflicted such damage upon five strong men, so even if anyone remembered us leaving the club together, there would be nothing to link us to the incident.
“Doubt means thought – independence from the mob – which can’t be tolerated lest their authority be challenged, but don’t dwell on it too much otherwise you’ll never be free. They’re driven, but not by the right thing – death, instead of life.” Sophia’s carefree appraisal seemed a good enough end to the current situation, though I wondered how the incident would affect me in the weeks to come.
I smiled at the memories, for after she had tended my wound and I’d bathed in hot scented water, we went to bed and slept soundly, only for me to awaken in the early morning and make love to her with a passion whose intensity almost frightened me whilst at the same time arousing Sophia with its uniqueness – it was pure carnal lust rather than blood-lust, a raw sexual affirmation of my own continuing existence – and though afterwards I felt almost ashamed of my own actions, she just laughed off the bruises, and we both knew how quickly she would heal.
“But you have nothing to fear from me.” I told Pieter with no uncertainty.
“It’s all about the control, isn’t it?” He rationalised it the only way he could. “You have absolute power over me.”
“Only as much as you relinquish. You invited me into your life, so I’m here with your consent.”
He almost laughed. “If vampires really existed, then this would be a kind of surrogate murder.”
I smiled at his observation. “We are real, in as much as we drink regularly and are easily distinguishable from those who merely dress like characters from old films and gather every few months for role-playing games. As for the other, if they existed, I suppose it would be, but why concern yourself with such things when your intentions were honourable and we both enjoyed it so much? That was, after all, why we met – was it not?”
“You’re right. You don’t hurt anyone – do you?” Pieter asked more forcibly, then he relaxed again. “Well, even if you do, as long as whoever is involved enjoys it, what’s the problem? I think I could get to like this quite easily.” He closed his eyes, then opened them again as if seeking reassurance.
“You’ll be fine, don’t worry.” I bent to kiss him but didn’t let the contact linger, as he was in no state to take it any further and I had no desire to, though my own body was tingling all over.
During the next hour or so I cared for Pieter and ensured he was recovering properly, then ordered a very light breakfast for him and made sure he ate slowly, drinking plenty of water, though should he need it I had a few tablets to help boost his metabolism and re-balance his nutrients.
“You did well.” I reassured him in a tone that indicated my immanent departure.
“Will I see you again?”
“I see no reason why not. I have your details, but don’t overdo it. This was your first time, and you’ll need at least a fortnight to recover before another all-nighter – I’d prefer three or four weeks, to be completely safe, until your body acclimatises. Take things easy for a few days, don’t over-exert yourself.”
Pieter knew it was over for the moment, and watched as I collected my cleansed things and adjusted my clothing. “I suppose I’d better—” He touched the intercom and confirmed his safety to the receptionist.
I bent to give him a parting kiss on his cheek, went downstairs and waved a cheery farewell to the man behind the front desk, then stepped out into a new day.
Protected by my gloves and skull-cap, I wandered in the opposite direction to our walk of the previous evening in search of a recharging station, where a handful of gyrocycles would be ready for use. The platform rocked slightly as the cycle found its balance again, then I steered a casual path amongst the other early-risers, or those who hadn’t wanted to rest at all during the night, as I headed back to the mainline station.
“O lente, lente, currite noctis equi!”
I had never for a moment thought of Eva’s turning of me in any Faustian way, for unlike that contract what she had given me was nothing other than an affirmation of all life – more than appropriate for Lucifer Morningstar, Bringer of Light – but as I looked up at the brightening sky for some reason I thought of Marlowe’s doomed alchemist and his thwarted search for knowledge. How ironic that in wishing he might never see the dawn and thus keep his bartered soul, he was quoting lines from Ovid who used them as an expression of desire that he might remain with his mistress, as did Lessingham whilst thinking of his wife in E. R. Eddison’s prose-novel A Fish Dinner In Memison.
The theme of time running out – or the wish for it to never end – was more than apt for the ephemeral Humans, but for we vampires the chariot-horses of night pulled time not slowly but at their own inexorable pace from one day to the next, and brought with them the same boundless energy and thirst for life I now possessed, whether racing until the first rays of dawn appeared on the horizon or treading carefully until the sun set again and we were fully unbound.
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.”