What precisely makes us human? Is it biology, love, pain, the ability to reason past instinct? What makes us any different from the animals that scour the earth, living each day like it’s the last in order to survive because maybe it is?
I thought, and maybe it was a grand notion, that it was as simple as choice and consequence, trying to do what’s right, showing compassion, all of these things that I so tidily wrapped up into Tina and so fully lacked. I placed her on this pedestal. Why? Because she was the best of us. She was able to retain her humanity even when, through my inexperienced fumbling, she transcended.
But I was wrong. Not about the fact that Tina was the best of us, but about what it means to be human. I still believe that Tina is our only hope, that her humanity is the only common denominator in this twisted reality of fractional chance that we have found ourselves in. But what that humanity actually means… It feels like it’s all a game of chance. And as I dig deeper, I am questioning everything, and as a result, I am learning. That doesn’t mean that I like what I’m discovering. But I suppose that finding the truth relies on asking the right questions.
So allow me to further granulate: what precisely gives a human humanity? Some argue that it is biology, at least that’s what the humans say. I’ve successfully managed to access satellite on the touchpad that I snagged, and the more that I see, the less that I’m certain. So, I try to look at this from their point-of-view, to see how and why they are so afraid.
And I get it. It’s not a difficult line of reasoning to follow. We are different from them; we are stronger than them; and so they fear us. More importantly, they distance themselves from us, from what we are. They make themselves a different class and us an abomination in order to justify that fear, and to further justify the tyranny that they impose on us. Is it cruelty, or is it just survival? Is there any difference? I don’t believe that there is.
Lilith had said that humanity was weakness. Is that theory the truth? Well, what is weakness? Is it weak to try when there’s no reason to? Is it weak to love when watching that loved one crumble to nothing before your eyes can tear you asunder? Perhaps so.
I know what it means to have humanity if this is the case. As I sit here and ponder our predicament, Tina is losing her grip on life. She’s lying prone on her side of the cot like the fallen statue of some long-ancient goddess ravaged by time and neglect at the hand of some shadow that has inexplicably claimed her ability to survive. There is no reason that I can find, and no frantic attempt that has corrected the situation.
And I am most definitely frantic, and yes I do feel weak… weak, helpless, and frustrated. Even her thoughts are lost to me she is so deep in her sleep. And I am left here, feeling so lost, as if I never found her, as if she is still dead though she is lying right next to me. The only indication that she is not yet fully taken is the minute rise and fall of shallow breaths and a weak pulse tapping against her cool, hardening skin.
It started slowly, right from the moment that we burrowed down into the tunnels for safety, quite literally the very next day. It was as if she was coming down with some sickness, a disease that made her ravenously hungry only to force the blood back up. It progressively got worse from there. And as of two days ago, her lethargy grew into something more: desiccation.
It’s unprecedented. Our physiology does not allow for illness and full desiccation takes much longer than this. So far the only lead that I have is that we, perhaps, are no longer dead. When Lilith died, when the earth changed, we changed with it. That is the only explanation that I can see as to why she has suffered so. But for all that I don’t know, I am certain that I can’t lose her… not like this.
We have grown ever closer these last few weeks despite her illness, closer than I thought was at all possible. There is nothing in her or about her that I don’t know, not one inch of flesh or synapse that I am not personally and deeply privileged to be intimate with. And there is nothing of myself that she is not privy too, each dark thought, each emotion, each fear, all tangled together with an immense and fathomless devotion.
It seemed that the more sick that she became, the more she began to accept all that has happened and her hand to play in it. I can’t help but wonder if her ailment, a looming death, was in some way helping her with that acceptance. It is a haunting peace that has stolen over her and threatens to steal her away from me completely. And for all of my worry, she was just happy to have this moment with me, even as her time was beginning to slowly dwindle. And while I share those feelings, I refuse to let it be or accept defeat, even when it would in some ways remove the heavy burden that I carry.
She needs blood and we were already in short supply before the illness took hold. As it is, we spent nearly five bags trying to help her, only to see it all bubble back up wasted. And now, through starving ourselves, we have one bag left between the eight of us. That gives me roughly a week at the most before we are completely out and begin to join her. We’re already weak, but I will not be taking my rations of what’s left, choosing instead to continue to at least try to forestall the inevitable. With our myriad of problems, that is the best that I can do: continue to try, to seek, to forestall.
But how? How am I going to fix this for her?
Shane, Dana, and I have made several trips to the top over the last month, scavenging, learning, and trying to strategize an escape. And each time, not only are we unable to find what we need, our stake in this war is also growing progressively worse and worse. The city has been transformed while we’ve been hiding underground. And what it’s transformed into is nothing less than a concentration camp.
It was a gradual process to start, the humans reclaiming of the city. Foot soldiers took to the streets using advanced technology bio suits to give them the edge that they needed to protect themselves from vampyrs and much, much more.
I’ve done some research, and while I can’t find a name for the material, it’s synthetic and biological in nature, associated with the plaque found in Alzheimer’s patients of all things. The humans, in their hubris, are very proud of themselves for this achievement.
Hard, lightweight armor is standard for any soldier, but this armor has been retrofitted with this biological compound. And not only do they become impenetrable, but they can become invisible at will – the only indication of their presence is the slight bending of light as they become a living, breathing mirror of death.
I cannot help but thank all the powers that be for the evolution of the sun, removing sheer blackness and giving us round the clock silver light, because if it hadn’t, we would have little to no way of seeing them at night. Add to this the fact that they are armed with wooden bullets and wood-tipped retractable batons, we don’t stand a chance. More importantly, they know it.
After they entered the city, they first began to round up any all within their grasp. Humans were led from the shores of the East River by boat and back into civilization. They set up base in the Waldorf and began to build large, steel, pre-manufactured facilities throughout the city. And while I’ve not had the misfortune to be inside, I know that these are laboratories. Men and women in white coats are escorted to and from these stations weekly. And there’s just no other reason or explanation for the haggard appearance of the vampyrs under their care.
These vampyrs are allowed to roam the streets, if that’s what you want to call them. By all rights they are little more than automatons. It seems that they have made a deal with the humans, have accepted surrender. Acceptance includes being fitted with an RFID microchip under the skin and the forced removal of fangs. Furthermore, they are given a synthetic blood that will keep them alive but weak.
These vampyrs are easily identified by their gaunt faces and strange bruises on their arms, as well as their lethargy and general disorientation. They are, for lack of a better word, zombies, only far less volatile. They roam aimlessly, a haunted look in their eyes, nothing of life or vigor or fervor. The media calls it rehabilitation; they call it mercy, and the human civilians that see these broadcasts are quick to believe it, to accept it, because it’s easy to sweep their own darkness under a rug for what they want. And what they want is the illusion of safety.
From there, they imposed a curfew between six pm and six am. Any found on the streets in that timeframe are killed without warning, whether they have been rehabilitated or not. And those who have not surrendered are destroyed, either by wood through the heart to reduce them to a pile of red sand, or a gory dismemberment and culling by fire.
The stench of many such fires still permeates the air, even underground, and leaves the smell of death clinging to everything, just like the red dust that has yet to fully settle from the countless slain in the righteous quest for human safety. It’s all an illusion, spoon fed and easy to swallow, at least when you’re not the one living it.
Buildings and subways have been barricaded with the same thick steel, again coated in their indestructible substance. These dreary gray walls encompass more and more of Manhattan every day, shutting us in little by little and providing shelter to those policing the internal powers at play to impose a new order.
However, from inside, what this really means is that they’ve taken to harassing and abusing those in the city to bend them to their will. What that will is, I still do not know, and they aren’t about to broadcast those facts over the news.
We have risked being topside many times, though it has become too dangerous to continue. Each trip was fruitless and the last attempt nearly lost us two of our number. I’m truly beginning to believe that hope is the real illusion, though not nearly as easily swallowed.
This is all so heinous and well-planned. It’s almost as if the humans have someone, a vampyr, telling them what they need to know, helping them to box us in. Either way, we are truly on our own in here, rats hidden underneath a city that Hilter would be so proud of. And Duffy… I’m not sure what’s happening with her.
At first she fought valiantly, hiding and using guerilla warfare to try and beat the humans back out of the city. Her attacks were strong and fast coming, explosions and fires set strategically and indiscriminately. It was these attacks that gave us the opportunity to venture up in relative safety and look for something, anything to get us through.
We found nothing, but we still had hope. For about two weeks I believed that Duffy may actually be able to pull it off. She was relentless. Her forces were strong and well organized. But it was all a waiting game, and the humans had the time and resources, whereas Duffy did not.
That single determining factor would have been enough, but with the armor, the sensors, and sheer numbers employed by the humans… there was only so much damage that she could do. And with the military’s every growing presence, her attempts have grown weaker and weaker, as I assume those in her care are starting to become. I know that we are.
As a result, I have seen many of Duffy’s rogues captured on the news, and from there either rehabilitated or destroyed. The attacks have dwindled in both frequency and purpose, and the humans have begun to search for those still hiding. One such raid retrieved a large cache of humans. It was evident by their pasty pallor, thin, brittle bodies, and limbs riddled with bite marks that they were in Duffy’s service.
I assume that she has managed to elude capture as it would have undoubtedly been all over the news, and no such capture has been televised. Her crimes at the gate right at the end of the first stage of this war are now a human legacy. She is a household name, the enemy of order, and we are all paying the price for it.
With Duffy forced into deep seclusion, most of our kind rounded up and little less than lobotomized, and our band of misfits having no way to stop this let alone just scavenge, it is only a matter of time before it’s over. Either way, I would be lying if I said that I’m not scared senseless.
I don’t know how we have managed to stay hidden, alive, and our group intact for as long as we have. Would it be callous of me to say that none of this matters? For all of this, my thoughts are cluttered and obscured by the shadows of doubt and fear that are all wrapped up Tina. And as much as I hate to say it, and I won’t out loud, she is my only concern at this point.
Right or wrong, she is the priority. She needs blood. But outside of finding and dragging a human down here, we cannot get our hands on it. So, maybe that’s what I’ll have to do. Even still, that doesn’t solve the problem of getting it successfully into her system and stopping this illness that has sapped even the hope of survival from her grasp and my heart.
But tonight, I’m going to give all that I have: one final push to stop this. It puts us at risk of capture if I’m not impeccably careful, but I plan to sneak away and escape into the facility that the humans have created of the Waldorf. I will not come back without something, or I will die trying. I owe her no less.
Does that make me selfish? Does that make me weak? And if so, does that make me human or at the very least give me humanity? I still believe that it’s all relative. Humanity is nothing without a human to uphold that very definition and make it real, make it solid, make it truth that supersedes philosophy and bias. Ultimately, I am what I choose to be, and what I choose to be is Tina’s. One thing is for certain in that ideal: where Tina goes, I will follow, no matter the sacrifice.
“I’m going with you, Bette.”
“No, you’re not.”
“You can’t stop me.”
“Yes, I can.”
I sling my duffel onto my back and stand to my full height to force Dana to back off. Her arms are crossed over her chest, and despite my threat, she’s anything but intimidated. Thankfully, she’s at least keeping her voice low. Everyone else is asleep, and while it appears that she was keeping watch a little too well, I don’t want to deal with anyone else. I don’t know how she heard me, and I confirmed that her back was turned when I tried to sneak through the back. It didn’t work, obviously.
She adjusts the duffel on her own back. “Then you’re going to have to stop me, and in the process, wake everyone else up.”
I feel my teeth grind as I clench my jaw in frustration and step up close to hiss at her. “And what happens if neither of us makes it back? They need you. You have to stay here.”
She shakes her head. “If anything, with your knowledge of electronics, you’re the one who needs to stay. Let me go instea-”
“Absolutely not. You wouldn’t even know what I need to help her.”
“Blood and something to help her keep it down. I’m not completely stupid, Bette.”
I exhale heavily and close my eyes for a moment. “I don’t think that you’re stupid, Dana. But I don’t even know what I’m looking for yet, and I’m the closest that we have to a doctor here.”
“All the more reason for you to stay and let me go.”
“Do you have any idea what I’m doing? I’m going into the Waldorf, right into the enemy camp.”
She shrugs. “And?”
I stare at her disbelievingly. “I probably won’t survive to return.”
She pats my shoulder condescendingly. “That’s why I’m coming.”
I splutter a little bit in my frustration, trying to find another excuse. “Look, Tina’s my life, not yours. This has nothing to do with you.”
Her eyes, normally so warm, lose their playfulness and grow cold. “You don’t think that I love her too? That I want to find a way to help her? That you aren’t just as important to me… to Alice?”
She snorts indelicately. “We’ve stuck by her through thick and thin. We’ve put our lives on the line for her, for you, more times than I can count. You can’t expect that to change now, even as you continue to say and do asinine things.”
I sigh and look away from her. “Dana, that’s not what I meant.”
“No, I understood what you meant. You think that you’re protecting us by trying to distance yourself from us because let’s face it, when it comes to Tina, anyone and anything is expendable, right? Well, I get that. Truly. Alice means everything to me. But what you don’t seem to realize is that I’d do anything for Tina too. So, get over yourself. You need us… just as much as we need you.”
I continue to stare at her, completely at a loss on how to argue, especially as the corners of her mouth curve into a smug smile. I want to throw my hands up and scream with frustration, but we’re burning the candle at both ends here.
I can feel the first tendrils of defeat, but that doesn’t mean that I have to go down gracefully. “Weren’t you supposed to be looking the other way for intruders?”
Her smile turns into a grin. “You do realize that those windows on the front act like a mirror, right?”
I close my eyes, swallowing my desire to berate myself for something so very small and so very stupid. “…FINE,” I snap quietly. “But who’s going to keep watch?”
I turn to see Shane leaning against the wall, Alice next to her with another duffel on her back. Alice speaks next. “And I’m going with you two. Shane is next oldest, so she can protect those here. And let’s be honest, you’re going to need someone as strong as me in enemy territory.”
I look at Dana accusingly. “Did you wake everyone up?”
She smirks. “Tina knew you’d do something suicidal when things started to get bad. She asked us to keep an eye on you. So, we’ve all been waiting for this to happen.”
I stare at them completely taken aback. But when I really think about it, it’s typical, especially of Tina. I turn and make my way out the back of the train car without a word, of course with Dana and Alice in tow.
“Be careful,” Shane says as she shuts the door behind us.
The wall of our avalanche isn’t far, especially when fuelled by anger, and within minutes, we’re opening the pass and squeezing through the inside wall. Alice and Dana proceed forward and I quietly start moving the rocks back in place to cover our tracks.
They both stop when they notice that I’m not following, and Alice protests. “There’s no need. We may need to escape back through quickly.”
I continue what I’m doing. “No, if we’re caught and they give chase, we can’t run down here or they’ll find everyone. We’ll have to take our chances topside until we lose them before we attempt to come back.”
They start to realize why I wanted to do this alone and I stop what I’m doing to glance back at them. “It’s not too late for you to turn back.”
It takes a moment and a roll of Alice’s eyes, but they both start to help me cover the pass. I’m grateful for the help, but not at the expense of their lives. I just wish Tina had left me alone in this, but I can’t blame her. I’d have done the same thing if our places were reversed.
Alice places the last rock back over the narrow passage and turns to me dusting her hands. “So, do you even have a plan?”
I brush my hands off on my jeans. “Well, other than snooping around quietly until I find something helpful, not really.”
We start to move forward and Dana pipes in. “Well, I think it’s obvious that we need to treat this like any other run to the top: stick together and avoid detection.”
I frown. “I don’t think that will be enough this time. It’s not like the streets where there are buildings and holes to hide or open space to run away. We also don’t have the rebel factions as a distraction. This is a government facility filled with highly armed and impossible to kill humans. One false step, and we’ll be lucky to just be captured and rehabilitated, let alone survive. Also, I’m not just looking for blood; I need a way find out what’s happening to Tina.”
A terrible stench fills the acrid air, causing us all to stop and cover our mouths. “Fuck… what is that?”
I glance at Alice annoyed and we all start looking around in the tunnel. There are several dead rats, maggots crawling over them, and while I can’t imagine that they’d be the source of this magnitude of odor, there’s nothing more than rocks, dirt, and rusted tracks to explain it.
Something in me knows this smell, something dark, but I refuse to give it voice, instead resuming my forward momentum in silence. But the further we progress, the worse the smell becomes.
Alice turns to me with a pinched face and asks, “Do you think that the humans have created some sort of vampyr virus?”
I nod slowly as I consider her words. “I’m not sure, but that’s plausible. However, there’s nothing on the net about it. It could just be something natural with all the changes that took place. But then again, if nature decided to create such a thing when it changed, or just make us susceptible to something already existing, then that doesn’t explain why Tina’s the only one afflicted. Obviously, we’ve all been exposed to it.”
She blows out a breath, her expression one of deep thought and worry, and I can see the entrance to the Waldorf in the distance. It looks like the far wall of the tunnel near the staircase has collapsed, probably from one of the rebel explosions.
I notice that Dana’s eyes are watering from the smell as she looks over at me and says, “So other than blood, is there anything specific that you can think of that would help?”
Again I frown. I know that there are human drugs that will settle an upset stomach. In fact, I could use some now. The smell is becoming overbearing, even for someone who’s had experience with rotting things, and this is undoubtedly a rotting thing. But even if I had them, I have no way of knowing whether it would work on a vampyr. Psychotropic drugs, alcohol, and other paraphernalia have different effects, or at least they used to, on vampyr physiology. Ultimately, I just need to stop Tina from desiccating, which is really just dehydration when you think about it.
I stop, the smell completely forgotten as I groan at my own stupidity.
Alice’s voice is wary. “Bette, what is it?”
I glance over at her. “I’m fucking stupid, that’s what. I’ve been so focused on how to help Tina keep the blood down, that I didn’t even consider that we can bypass her stomach altogether. Lilith did it to me while she was torturing me. We need blood and an IV; that’s it.”
She grins and tilts her head back as understanding dawns. “Right. Why didn’t you think of that before?”
I glare at her. Why indeed. I guess I’ve just been so distracted. Besides, reading books and understanding things, does not a good doctor make. I have no conception of diagnosis, testing, or cures. “Look, just grab what you can, but make sure that you get what we need. And check paperwork. If it is a virus, they’re the only ones that can stop it.”
She nods and we all stop as we find ourselves closer to the staircase. The pile of rocks in front of the large, maintenance elevator just past the landing comes into focus, but it isn’t rocks at all. There are at least fifty vampyrs, evident by their black eyes fixed in an expression of pain, withering and rotting in a pile of macabre stench.
I fight the lurch of my stomach when I realize that they’re just kids, none older than seven. “My God, are they turning kids?”
The sour feeling inside of me curdles as my thoughts try to find reason in this beyond sadism. “I… they must have been, Dane.”
There are a couple of fresher bodies on top, the sunken faces the same as those vampyrs that have been rehabilitated. I don’t want to, but I force myself to reach forward and pull up the hospital gown on the nearest little girl to expose the rest of her bloated body. Her arms bear the evidence of needle tracks and her abdomen appears to have been autopsied.
I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I expected them to be doing something with vampyrs, but children?
“They’re just kids…”
“I know, Al.”
“Wouldn’t they have enough rebels and Loyalists within the city to study without turning children?”
I frown. Dana’s right. Why would they make more, and use children no less? I glance at the door at the top of the stairs, new understanding coming to light with just what sort of danger we’re about to walk into.
I turn to Alice and Dana. “Okay, you two wanted to come. I appreciate that you want to help me and Tina. And more than that, I’m thankful for you even as much as I want to throttle you both right now. But if we’re in a situation where we can’t all make it out…”
I gesture to the insanity rotting at our feet. “…whoever can… has to go. I hadn’t planned to have to sacrifice anyone but myself on this trip, but if I have to, I will. You should too.”
Alice shakes her head in annoyance and slinks up the steps past me, and Dana, her expression exasperated, turns me around and shoves me forward. “Bette, just… shut the fuck up…”
I dart quietly up the stairs, grabbing the handle to the door before Alice can open it and turn to them both. “I mean it.”
Dana scrubs at the back of her neck before meeting my eyes. “Oh, I know you do. I just think that you’re ridiculous. I don’t leave anyone behind, especially not to that fate.”
Alice looks up at me, her voice scathing. “Me neither.”
It’s all so noble, isn’t it? But nobility isn’t going to save Tina’s life, or anyone else’s for that matter. Don’t they understand yet that there really is no greater good? Tina’s utopian ideals are dying with her and they didn’t really have a chance to begin with. Why? Because that would require the whole of the earth to be willing, and that’s obviously not going to happen.
The most that we can hope for is that some will survive but it’s clear that most won’t. That’s something that we all have to come to terms with. My goal is that Tina will be a survivor. I would like for all of my group to survive, but every single one of them made the decision to put themselves in this position when they chose to come with us. I didn’t want to drag them into this.
“Do you think that I want to do that?”
They’re quiet and I realize that I’m a hard woman, maybe harder than I need to be, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t care. “Look, I may not say it often, but I’m not completely uncaring. I do love you guys. This isn’t something that I’m taking lightly.”
They both seem shocked, and Dana splutters, “You’ve never said that before.”
Surely I have? I’ve felt it. But even still… “Well, does it matter?”
I glance at Alice’s surprised face and fight the incessant urge to shake her. “Haven’t we proven that we’re family? That we look out for each other? That we care about and love each other? Doesn’t that mean more than a word?”
They’re both silent and I can’t tell if they’re listening or shocked mute. Am I really that bad? “I mean, fuck, Alice. We can’t stand each other… but we still look out for one another. Do you need me to spell it out for you?”
She grins and shakes her head, putting up a hand. “Actually, I’d prefer that you didn’t. You’re really freaking me out right now… like a lot.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose in frustration. “So we’re in agreement?”
Alice puts her hand on my shoulder and Dana crosses her arms over her chest. “Bette, as much as I want to slap you most of the time, Tina scares me more. There’s no way that I’m coming back without you, or Dana, or what we need from this place. I don’t care what you say; so no, we don’t agree. And, we’re not going to.”
She pats me twice before releasing me. “So, suck it up, grumpy ass. You leave me here to become a zombie, and I will find you… and eat your face.”
I’m getting a headache. This isn’t a joke. Dana steps forward. “Bette, let’s just stay together and play this smart. That’s the only way we’re going to make it out of any of this.”
With that Alice brushes my hand from the door knob and easily opens the door. Light spills out from the opening and she looks back to us a little surprised that it’s unlocked. I have to admit that I’m surprised as well. They must not feel that this entrance is a threat. I suppose that it makes sense. From all appearances, there’s no other way to access this tunnel, and the pile of dead children would send any living creature running the opposite direction.
Alice’s head disappears through the gap in the door before the rest of her crosses through. It’s with anxiousness that Dana and I follow, shutting the heavy, steel door behind us.
The hallway that we find ourselves in stretches to the left in a straight path that seems to go on forever into the distance. It’s bisected by other hallways to make what I assume is an organized grid. It’s obvious that this sub-basement level used to be a massive, open room, as indicated by the way the militarized walls don’t actually touch the ceiling. The humans have filled the space with labyrinth-like structures, each erected with the same sturdy, gray metal used in the other buildings embedded throughout the city.
Pocket-doors dot randomly along the corridors, secured with what appear to be biometric clearance panels and looking very much like something from one of Tina’s reruns of Star Trek. Strange, swirling plumes of white fog rise from grates along the bottoms of the walls, indicating that these are primarily clean room environments. Additionally, the overhead lights are bright, fluorescent bulbs that sting the eyes and skin. I smirk as I realize that they must be ultra-violet – an added precaution though only sometimes useful.
To our immediate right, what would be the end of this hallway, is the open mouth of Roosevelt’s maintenance elevator, a long, deep rolling cart sitting within.
I step closer to it and see that the stainless steel walls inside are smeared with blood, small tufts of limp hair knotted in the sticky matter. And in the bottom two small vampyr children wait in horrific repose to be disposed of. It’s clear what this bin’s purpose is.
I back away and close my eyes. It’s an old human idiom that all things happen for a reason, but I cannot find the reason in this. Either way, I feel like I need to get out of here, but Tina needs help, so I pull on the darkest parts of me to focus past what I’m finding and let my anxiousness become numb anger.
Obviously, we have no idea which door will give us what we need, if any of them will. I suppose the only way to find out, is to take it one door at a time, but that could take weeks. The closest door is about one hundred feet down on the right, and to my surprise, it slides open with a hiss.
I hear Alice’s frightened murmur of, “Fuck…,” and we scramble into the elevator behind the bin to duck down. If not for our disposition for speed, we’d have surely been caught when a man in a white lab coat entered the hall. But as his head was bowed over the touchpad in his hands, his hand furiously scribbling across the screen with a thin, white stylus, we got lucky.
The door beeps to a close behind him, but he’s so absorbed in his work that he doesn’t even glance our way before he moves further in the other direction and rounds a corner. We all release a heavy breath, but the relief quickly fades as I realize what we’re truly up against. We’re outnumbered, weak, and very exposed. We’re in for a great deal of trouble.
We sit here and wait, for what I’m not certain, but I can’t seem to find an answer to the question that Alice finally asks under her breath.
What now indeed. I don’t answer, just continue to study the environment and wrack my brain. This place is huge, well-organized, and the individuals inside more sinister than I’d anticipated. There are infinite options from which to choose, and there’s no way to know which one is the best one so that we can make this quick and get out undetected. Our only option is to stick to this back corner and get into the nearest lab.
I listen in around me for any useful information, but the walls must be soundproof. Aside from the distant footsteps in corridors unseen, the only other sound that I can hear is the slight groan of gears. Seeking its source, my eyes track to the corner near the closest door. There, on the ceiling across from it, is a small camera.
It’s moving our way and I begin to panic until I see it stop, its range no further than the very right edge of the lab door. It starts to move back the other way, and I suppose it makes sense that it doesn’t capture this corner given that they don’t even lock this door. Or… perhaps, they don’t want their dumping activities immortalized on film. They are few, but some humans on youtube are protesting what’s happening. It would be safe to not even create footage that you didn’t want leaking to the public.
I point to the camera and that seems to mollify Alice as I continue to sit listlessly, trying to figure out how we’re going to get through that door without being seen, let alone get out without being chased. There is a vent just outside of the elevator, but it’s small. There’s no way that Alice or I could fit. Dana… maybe…
Movement in the distance brings my attention to two men. They move like black specters, their armor glinting blue in the florescent lighting. Guns are strapped to their thighs, and long, sleek, black batons tipped with wood are held in front of them as they stiffly head our way.
I suck in a breath, hoping and praying that they’ll turn at one of the available corners, but they don’t. They just keep coming. I’m frozen in place and unable to do anything. If we run for the door, even as far away as they are, in this light they’ll see us. We’re trapped.
Closer and closer, passing each turn that would keep us hidden, their regimented steps carry them every nearer. For all I know, they’ve somehow been alerted to our presence. I suppose I can just be honest with myself: I know nothing except that this is going to be a most impossible task.
They reach the last corner before this final stretch to our location, and only one of them turns. The other keeps moving ominously forward like a wraith, his booted feet ringing through the quiet corridor like a death knell.
“Bette,” Alice breathes at me, asking me for something, anything to get us out of this mess.
I grab Alice by her neck and shove her down into Dana’s lap, forcing both tight into the corner against the back wall of the elevator. I grab the bottom of the bin, and every so slowly pull it back to box us in tighter against the wall behind us so that we’re fully obscured.
The wheel squeaks, and I stop.
He keeps coming. I pull again, even slower this time, the squeak now a dull groan so low that even I can barely hear it.
He’s nearly here.
If I could sweat, I would be soaked. Finally, we’re low and flattened to the back wall.
I listen intently as the footman stops in front of us. He pauses, and we hold our breath as we wait. Just when I think that he’s just toying with us, he turns on his heel to head back the way that he came.
Alice and Dana exhale with relief, but I have to do something. He must just be patrol, but even still… I push the bin away slightly, and pull myself to my feet. Dana’s hand reaches for my forearm, her eyes wide, but I dodge her and move out from behind the bin with inhuman grace. Using my focus and rising anger to sneak up behind him, I snag him just before he gets back within range of the camera.
Without knowing if it will work, I grab his head and twist. The resounding crack of vertebra displacing is almost as grotesque as the feel of it popping in my hands. His body goes leaden in my arms and I only barely have time to catch him and his baton before either slam against the floor and draw attention.
Hauling him up over my shoulder, I return to the door and disappear through it, Alice and Dana close on my heels. I go down the steps, drop him next to the pile of bodies, and take a moment to gather myself. That was unnervingly close, and I still have no clue what to do from here.
Tina, I’m doing this for Tina. I have to keep reminding myself of that.
I lean down and inspect the armor. It’s light and efficient, protecting every inch of vulnerable skin just as the online news report indicated. The helmet is much like that of a well-fitting motorcycle mask, replete with visor, and completely obscuring the face. It would make a decent disguise.
I start removing his armor, and once they catch on, Alice and Dana begin to help me. After I get the pants loose, I tug them on over my clothes and start accepting the items from Alice and Dana as they are freed and offered. Fortunately, I’m tall and fairly muscular for a woman. It’s still a little loose in the shoulders and inseam, but the hardness of the outer shell of the material helps to hide some of that. I have to get back before the other guard notices his companion is missing.
“So the neck is their weakness,” Dana says. “That was ingenious, Bette.”
I stand squeezing the helmet in-between my knees as I pull my hair up. “Yeah, but you have to get close enough first.”
She nods and grimaces. “Now what?”
“This guy is obviously just a patrol. I have to get back in there before his buddy misses him. I’ll wait for him at the corner and try to lead him here. I need you two be ready.”
Alice grins and looks over at Dana. “No problem.”
They both transition and I can’t help but smirk. They make quick work of hiding the man behind the bodies, and I situate the helmet on my head. The brightness of the visor nearly blinds me, and I snap my eyes shut before tugging it off with frustration.
I look into the helmet as I answer Alice. “Some sort of enhanced vision in the visor.”
I find a small switch on the outside edge of the visor and press it before putting it back on. My vision is now mostly normal, though a little dulled by the added shading. I spread my arms for approval and Dana gives me a thumbs up, her fanged grin and black eyes eerie in comparison to her kind personality. I strap his guns about my thighs and pick up his baton before moving back up to the door.
Just as I poke my head through, I feel a hand grip my arm. “What’s going on, Dave?”
Shit… I must have taken longer than I thought. After a moment of hesitation where I scramble to pull my heart up out of my toes, I point down into the tunnel, hoping that if he notices my panic he will attribute it to what’s inside.
He hesitates for a moment, but follows me down the stairs where Dana is lying face down on the ground appearing to be dead. Alice is nowhere in sight.
“What is that,” he asks as he steps up next to Dana and nudges her with his boot. She flops but doesn’t respond, her black eyes gazing at nothing and her fangs sharply glinting off of the light spilling in from the open door.
“Fucking vamps must have been drawn by the smell.”
He glances behind him at the bodies. “How’d it get down here though…”
He faces me. “And why didn’t you call this in on the comm?”
His shrouded head cocks to one side and I almost hear the squeak of the wheel in his mind as he starts to realize something’s not quite right. But now that his head is cocked, I notice one of the bodies on the pile over his shoulder twitch. A lifeless arm slowly rises, followed by an emaciated torso, the head dangling down at an unnatural angle and lolling limply. The child looks like a twisted marionette being manipulated as Alice shifts from beneath it.
The man takes a step back from me, raising his baton while he reaches up to press a button on the jaw of his helmet.
“No, wait,” I nearly yell as I hold my hands out, and both he and Alice pause. “We need him alive.”
My voice and my demeanor give me away and just as his finger makes contact with the button, his helmet is snatched up and he’s been knocked unconscious with it.
He collapses on top of Dana with a dull thud, and she sits up to shove him off. “Thanks a lot, Al.”
I run up the steps and peek into the hallway to find the corridor blessedly empty before shutting the door and taking a deep breath.
Tina, this is for Tina.
“Alice, put on his armor. Dana, you’re going to have to squeeze through a shaft.”
Alice starts to strip the man and Dana steps forward, her head titled to the side. “Why do I have to go through the vent,” she asks.
“Because Alice and I are too big.”
Alice stops and glares up at me. “Thanks a lot.”
I’d laugh at her expression if my heart wasn’t pumping so hard that I feel slightly dizzy. She grumbles something under her breath, and continues to strip the man. “Why’d you stop me from killing him?”
I sigh. “Blood and information, Alice.”
She pulls the breast armor over her head, her head caught, arms flailing, and voice muffled. “Oh, right.”
“Dana, get on the phone with Shane and get someone over here to collect him. We can’t leave him unattended but we’re not done here.”
She nods, pulling the sat phone from her pocket and making the call while I poke my head back inside to see that it’s still clear.
“Hurry up. I want to get what we need and get out of here.”
Dana hangs up the phone and Alice lets out a muffled curse before pulling off the helmet and hitting the same button that I had to.
I smirk and wait for her to finish. The armor is obviously too large, but at least it will protect her if and when someone notices. “Al, start clearing the path for our pick up. Dana, let’s go.”
Alice sighs and heads back down the tunnel and Dana follows me back inside, shutting the door behind us. I point to the vent and pull the bin up in front of it to give her some cover. She crouches down and I keep watch down the hallway as the groan of metal that won’t give pierces the air.
She stops and peers back up at me. “You’re making too much noise.”
She rolls her eyes and turns back to her work. “Bette, it’s not going to budge unless I can lay into it.”
I sigh. Noting’s ever easy. Just then, the same scientist from earlier rounds the corner and lifts his hand to open the door only to stop short. He turns to me and stares, a curious expression on his face, and I feel my heart pounding in my ears. It takes me a moment, but I finally motion for him to come toward me.
He looks at me skeptically and I lower my voice as best I can and keep my words few, hoping that he won’t catch on right away. “It’s me… Dave.” I point into the bin. “One’s still alive.”
He frowns and hesitates, stopping just inside the range of the camera and looking at me again as if he’s scrutinizing me. Fuck, he knows.
He stares at me for what feels like forever before he finally walks forward, a look of distaste on his face. “You know, Dave, you’re sort of twisted. You spend way too much time with the bodies. Don’t think I haven’t noticed how you’re always lurking back here by the d-”
His words are cut off by his startled yelp as I pull him to me, spin him around, and choke off the scream that nearly made it out of his throat by clamping my hand hard over his mouth. His touchpad hits the ground with a sharp crack and clatter, and I stop in my tracks, cursing myself for having missed it. This place is really starting to piss me off.
I hold still and look around, waiting for someone to come around the corner, but thankfully, no one does.
Dana comes out from behind the bin and carefully retrieves the pad, and together, the three of us stumble through the door. Dana shuts the door behind us and I sigh with relief when I see Alice talking to Helena, the guard at her feet bound with duct tape.
Both of their eyes grow wide as we approach with the scientist. “Help me strip this one too.”
They begin to pull his clothes off, and he responds by head butting me and squirming unsteadily. The fact that he nearly knocked himself out on the helmet would have been funny if I didn’t need him conscious right now.
I jerk him back and lean in close to his ear. “If you don’t stop struggling, you’ll lose more than your shirt. Understand?”
He goes still, aside from his heaving chest and the slight shuddering through his limbs. “Good, now, do you have anything on you: a transmitter, a weapon?”
He shakes his head and I sigh. “You know that if you don’t tell me, I’ll just pull you apart piece by piece until I find it, don’t you?”
He’s deathly still for a moment before he mumbles something against my hand that I can’t understand. “If I let go of your mouth and you scream, I will rip out your tongue and let you stare mutely at your own intestines while you wait for help.”
He glances at me, almost defiantly, and for once I appreciate Alice’s timing. “Don’t underestimate her. She’s once forced a guy to impale himself through his rectum with a field plow and eat his own entrails…”
A thin sheen of sweat starts to gather at his temples, his eyes go glassy, and his heart is racing so hard that I fear it might burst from his chest as he stares at me. It takes him a moment to stew in his panic before he nods just once, almost in resignation.
I relax my grip on is mouth slowly and he splutters, “I have the RFID chip. It-it’s mandatory.”
“N-now look, you have to promise me that you’ll-”
Why do they always think that they can bargain? “WHERE?!”
“W-we tag the left arm… a-at the wrist.”
I look to Helena and motion to the roll of duct tape in her hands. Obligingly, she tears a piece off, the sound raking shrilly against the tunnel walls.
She steps close, her voice low and her eyes diverted as she asks, “Is what Alice said true?”
“Yes,” I say.
The scientist struggles again and this time, his cries are choked off by the tape. Helena just nods, still not meeting my eyes as she grips his right arm to hold him still. I pull his left away from his body and turn it palm up to see a small tattoo-like mark on his inner wrist.
Shit. “Al, does the guard have one too?”
She crouches down near the guard and pulls up his bound hands, finding the same mark. “Yes.”
“We need to get rid of them.”
She runs her finger over the tattoo. “How? It has to be tiny.”
I sigh. “Yeah, microscopic. It’ll have to be the whole part.”
The scientist panics again and grunts something against the tape, and that’s when I notice that he’s choking, something whitish brown dripping from his chin as he shakes his head, the terror clear in his eyes. I tear the tape off without warning and vomit comes sputtering out of him. I don’t really have a choice but to give him a moment, so i pull my helmet off as I wait.
Once he’s done heaving, his pleading eyes meet mine. “L-look… on my pad… there’s an app. I-I can disable the chips from there. Please…,” he chokes. “You don’t have to take my h-hand…”
I shake my head “Too risky. You could alert someone or set off a distress signal. You’ll forgive me, but I don’t trust you.”
I jerk my head to the wreaking pile of bodies and he blanches, sweat now pouring so profusely from his brow that I can barely grip his scalp.
I’m still able to get him to focus on me. “Did you assholes release some sort of new bioweapon, a vampyr virus?”
He shakes his head and I study his eyes. I can tell that he’s telling the truth, and while his answer holds some relief, it’s bittersweet. This means I have no help with Tina. I’m not a doctor, not really…
But he is.
I smile at him and all color drains from his face. “Inside, in your lab, is there an IV?”
He nods, quiet tears rolling down his cheeks.
“And blood? Is there blood in your lab?”
He swallows hard and shakes his head.
He’s trembling with sobs and I slap him to refocus him. “Where do they store blood?”
His shoulders convulse and his lips pull back as he starts to sob. “P-please… don’t k-kill… me…!”
“Answer my questions, and I’ll consider it.”
“Okay…” He closes his eyes. “Okay, okay, okay….” He swallows harshly, looking like he might pass out. “The lab near the E-East river…”
Fuck. “Are there any other humans in your lab?”
He can’t seem to focus so I slap him again. “How many?!”
I don’t want to put him at ease. Given what he’s doing here, he deserves to suffer, but I just don’t have time for this and I really don’t have the desire to see him piss himself.
I lift his head and meet his eyes, pushing into his soul and forcing him to calm. “Look, you’re fine. I’m not going to kill you, okay?”
He sways almost drunkenly on his feet, his tears drying up as his shoulders going slack.
He sniffles. “Okay…”
I smile reassuringly at him. “Good, now… if you were going to try and diagnose a disease on a vampyr, what would you need from your lab?”
He wobbles a little, his eyes never leaving mine. “It depends on the symptoms.”
“Vomiting and desiccation,” I say quickly.
He frowns. “I’d start with a physical exam and a blood test.”
I smile again at him. “That’s good. So, what would you need for those tests?”
He grins back at me, his expression almost goofy. “Um, droppers, slides, a microscope, saline solution, vacuum tubes, catheters, a stethoscope, an anti-coagulant, my POC analyzers…” He shrugs. “You know, the regular stuff.”
I pat his cheek. “Okay, my friend here is going to take you to my place. You be good and follow her there, and wait for me to get back, okay?”
He nods, smiling again and I look to Helena. “Do you have a knife?”
She raises an eyebrow at me. “Yes…”
I hold my hand out and she pulls one out of her jeans and hands it to me. “What are you going to do?”
I glance at her, trying to indicate that I don’t need her to question me right now. She seems to get the point as she steps away from me.
I face my charge again, sucking his soul to the front of his eyes to do my bidding. “Okay, you’re numb. You can’t feel a thing and you won’t, so long as you don’t move or make a sound. Do you understand?”
He frowns but nods, and I brace his left arm against my chest. Flipping open the blade, I quickly reach around, press deep into the top of his flesh and in until I feel the tip hit bone. He does as commanded, holding still and saying nothing, even as blood pools around the blade. I pull it around in quick, jagged jerks, making sure to keep the tip against bone until the flesh has been completely rendered. I notice that my companions have turned away in disgust, but this has to be done.
I drop the knife and grip each side of the deep wound before slamming it down on my upraised knee. The bone gives way with a terrible crunch, and I release him. The mangled appendage rests loosely at his side, blood spirting in several directions, and I can tell that he’s going into shock, pain or not.
Quickly, I transition, sink my teeth into my wrist, and thrust the slowly seeping punctures into his mouth. It takes just a moment, but I watch as his wound begins to heal. It will never grow back, but at least he’ll survive. And this way, Helena won’t have to carry him back.
I pick up her knife and hand it to her. Her expression is almost accusing and I feel the hair at the back of my neck bristle. “Believe it or not, I didn’t enjoy that.”
I raise the dead limb in my hand. “But we’re going to need this to get into his lab. And you’re going to have to do that to his friend when you get back to the train car.”
She exhales heavily and nods once, taking the knife. “Once it’s done, build a small fire pit near the water main with some of the loose rock. Burn the extremity and wash the ash down the drain. We’ll burn this one when we get back.”
She steps forward and takes his right arm, and he follows her like a faithful puppy dog. “Also, you’ll need to bunk with Dylan so that we’ll have a place to house them.”
She pushes him ahead of her and slings the other man over her shoulder. “No problem. Hurry up, all of you… and be safe.”
Dana walks with her to close up the path behind her, and I pick up my helmet to resettle it on my head, trying my best to ignore the strange look that Alice is giving me. There’s slight chatter in the comm, but from what the humans are saying, they’re not aware of what’s been happening at their backdoor yet.
And we have to keep it that way.
Alice and I stand in silence and wait for Dana to return. I can feel her eyes on me and it’s making me uncomfortable.
“Did you really not enjoy hurting him,” she finally asks in a small voice.
I cross my arms over my chest and consider her question, slightly affronted by the insinuation. Did I? I look down at the rocks at my feet, blood glistening darkly on their rough surface, and I’m not sure how to answer her. “He deserved to feel every moment of that and much more, but no… I didn’t enjoy myself.”
I look back at the pile of bodies behind us, feeling as if I’m somehow let those souls down. She nods and I find myself meeting her gaze, taking comfort in the fact that we can’t really see one another’s eyes through the visors.
As if to remedy that, she reaches forward and rests her hand on my forearm. “Tina would be really proud of you right now.”
I frown. “What do you mean?”
I can’t see it, but I can tell that she’s smiling as she squeezes my arm and drops her hand, no answer forthcoming. Tina loves me whether I enjoyed that or not. I don’t see how it matters. Just as I’m about to ask her again, Dana comes walking towards us. She doesn’t waste a moment, pulling the scientists coat, shirt, and trousers on over her own. She looks like a child wearing her father’s clothes, but it’ll have to do.
She picks up the broken touchpad and fingers the badge clipped to the coat pocket. “Okay, so what now?”
I run a hand through my hair and notice the chunk of duct tape lying at my feet. I pick it up, holding it away from me and shaking the worst of the vomit off of it. Fortunately, it’s still duct tape. It should stick. “Well, once we cover the camera…” I hand it to her and she accepts it with a grimace. “I give it maybe a minute at the most before we have company.”
I sigh and glance at the door thinking. I tip Dana’s badge up and stare at the name and face proudly displayed for such a butcher. “Dane, you don’t have armor, so you can cover the camera. Once we’re inside the lab, remove the tape and hide in here. So long as they don’t know what’s happening inside of the lab, and they don’t see anything wrong with the camera, they should leave. We’ll knock on the lab door when we’re ready to come out.”
She nods her acceptance and we again return to the door. I realize that for all that we’ve done, we’ve not actually made it inside. This is just… impossible.
But it’s for Tina.
I stop them when I realize something more. “You guys realize that we can’t leave the humans in that lab alive, right? We can’t risk them telling the others about us. They’ll send a search party.”
Alice’s sighs. “Then, let’s at least make their death mean something.”
It takes a moment, but understanding dawns. My mouth waters at the thought, and I feel the pang of transition sting my gums. We’re all hungry. But there’s still a minor problem, and Dana points it out. “Okay, but what about the bodies? They’ll be found.”
For the record, I’d like it to be known that some things should be easy, even just once. I sling my duffel over my back, Alice and Dana doing the same with theirs. I stare at the door with a sense of utter frustration. But it just never is simple. Nope. Nothing. Ever. Not one damn thing. For fuck’s sake, I have to calm down and focus. How do I usually cover my tracks?
An idea comes to mind, but it’s insane. “What if we blow the lab?”
They look to each other before training their eyes on me and I lift my hands. “Hear me out. If we just hide the bodies down here, they’ll find them eventually and start searching the tunnel. If we leave the bodies dead in the lab, they’ll notice that they’ve been murdered and again, they might search this tunnel. Either way… we give our presence away. But if we blow the lab, they might attribute those missing to having died in the explosion or subsequent fire, bodies recovered or not. And it’s easy to stage an accident in a place with so many volatile substances. Accidents happen all of the time in labs. But at least this way, they’ll doubt that it was an infiltration.”
It takes just a moment but they both finally smile. “Okay, so, Dana, come into the lab with us and feed. There’s one each. Then take the hand, the tape, and hide.”
She pats me on the shoulder and steeling my breath, reminding myself that this part is almost over and it wouldn’t matter either way because it’s for Tina, I stride back through the door as if I own the place. Two scientists pass by our hallway and I watch them disappear before signaling Alice and Dana to come in. Dana shuts the door and presses herself against the wall to slide up under the camera.
She stops at the corner and checks all directions. It must be clear because she nods at us before slipping the tape up onto the tiny camera lens. Not a nanosecond later, I’m at the door. I wave the dismembered hand over the electronic pad and watch as the small LED turns green. With a swish, it opens, and we all step inside.
The door shuts and I hear the guards summoned in my helmet, but I’m only half aware of what they’re saying as I turn to see three startled scientists gazing up at us from their work. We move quickly, Alice and I removing our helmets as all three of close in on one with practiced ease.
I unleash years of experience as I descend on my startled prey, my teeth plunging right into the artery at the crux of the neck where the blood pounds from the wound right into my waiting mouth. It’s warm and rich and revitalizing, filling me with bloodlust and the heady buzz of invincibility. I feel my skin flush as I drop my empty victim to the floor, not a single drop spilled, and lean my head back to relish the fullness of a real meal.
It takes a moment, but I’m finally able to focus on the task at hand, and I replace my helmet before tossing the hand to Dana in exchange for her duffel.
She darts from the room and I turn to Alice. “Get what you can. Let’s make this quick.”
We both tear into the cabinets that line the walls. I’m not sure what all I’m grabbing, but I see several of the items that the doctor listed safely deposited into the bag until it’s stuffed to maximum capacity. The comm in my helmet tells me that Dana’s not been discovered and the guards are returning to their post.
I zip the bursting duffel closed and open the other before turning to the large workstation table that runs down the middle length of the room. Various devices, some big, some small, dot the surface and I start tucking things inside when something catches the corner of my eye.
In the back corner, there’s an area that’s been curtained off. I walk over to pull the curtain back, and what I see makes me imagine a very terrible future for Doctor Shapiro, despite my lack of desire to torture him senseless.
There are three medical beds, and in each bed is a full-grown woman. They’re all wearing thin gowns with bright blossoms of blood soaking their midsections. Stirrups hang stiffly from the end near their feet and again, I want to be sick. The humans are obviously focused on the abdomen.
I walk up to the IV and look at the bag hanging high from the hook.
“MethylprednisoloneI…” I frown, searching my mind for information that I hope is stored in there. Morning sickness?
The blood-soaked abdomens, the stirrups, the children… All of these things scream that they’re studying the reproductive cycle, but the dots don’t fully connect. I step up to the body nearest me and gingerly lift her top lip. No fangs.
She’s a human…
“What the fuck…,” Alice breathes behind me.
There’s a long moment of silence, neither of us knowing what to say. I don’t even know what to think. None of this makes sense, but you can bet the good doctor will have some explaining to do.
Finally, Alice breaks the silence. “Bette, Dana’s starting to get worried.”
I glance at Alice and without any another word, we both start to move even more quickly. I grab a few of the full IV bags on a small rolling stand near one of the dead women and stuff it in my duffel. There is a cache of IV catheters in sterile packages on another stand, and I snag them as well.
Turning to the central island again, I’m able to grab a small microscope and one of the lab touchpads sitting next to it. I’m not sure what other equipment he will need, but these are the only items small enough to carry from here. The microscope and other small devices makes my duffel sink awkwardly, but several more hastily packed items make their way inside before it’s full.
I take one last look around me. There’s no blood, as the doctor stated, and the human women would explain why.
I hear the zipper on Alice’s duffel slide shut and turn to her. “Go ahead and get out of here. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Bette, I’m not going to leave without you.”
I walk to the door, speaking as calmly as I can. “I’ll need someone aware if I get trapped in here.”
Alice gives me a frustrated expression. “Dana and I will be waiting on the stairs.”
I hand her my duffels. “No, go down to the avalanche wall on the opposite end just in case.”
She looks at me skeptically and I put my hand on her shoulder. “Trust me, please…”
She finally nods once and raps twice on the door, and I turn to look around the room for anything explosive. I’ve got to make this quick. I hear the door open and close behind me and see a couple of oxygen cylinders in the corner by the beds.
I move quickly, pulling one into the middle of the room before retrieving the other. Using careful force, I lift it and bang the valve on the hard edge of the middle workstation countertop. The pressure of the leak rockets the canister from my arms to slam into the wall behind me with a crash.
Cursing under my breath, I kick the other canister over to rest beneath it. It clangs to a stop just as I hear that new guards are on their way. Quickly, I turn the gas valve for the Bunsen burner near the microscope that I grabbed earlier, and take a deep breath to prepare for a hasty retreat. I click the igniter at the base and a small, blue flame flickers to life.
I jet from the room, pulling the tape off of the camera as I make my way to the door. Just as I close it, the explosion on the other side sends me rocketing over the steps to land hard in the pile of bodies at the bottom. With a creaking groan, the tunnel collapses down on top of me, forcing my breath from my lungs.
“Al-” I try to wheeze. “Dane…?”
I try to curl in on myself, but my legs are pinned. I gasp and splutter, my muscles convulsing and somewhere in the back of my mind I register that I’m not injured. In fact, outside of the dust and stench I’m trying to suck in and the forced confinement of the weight resting on me, I feel fine.
“You guys…?” This call for help was slightly more successful, though it sends me into a coughing fit.
It takes a few moments, but I finally hear Alice. “Hold on…”
The voices in the helmet are panicked and I take a slight satisfaction in that as I continue to gawp at the rancid air. After a few more moments, I hear the rocks above me groaning and scattering to shift away, and I can finally move my arms. I cough again, and find that I can sit up.
A hand materializes in my field of vision, and I reach up to take it. Alice hauls me up and out of what would have been a tomb, and I stumble a bit on the now uneven surface.
I find my feet just fast enough to take off my helmet, bend at my waist, and gag as I finally get my first gasping breath. Resting my hands on my knees, I notice that the bio suit isn’t even dented and that Alice is just fine as well, though the tunnel is all but completely blown in.
“The explosion killed her, but she’ll be fine. We’ll have to carry her back… and she’ll need blood.”
I nod. “Sorry…”
She exhales heavily. “She’ll be okay.”
I look up at the door to find that the cave in has truly sealed it off. Most of the wall has collapsed. A tendril of fear clutches at my heart and I look to Alice. “The train car…”
Her expression falls and we both scramble over the rocks around us to get to the path. We have to clear the wall again, and I start to panic as we frantically pull rock after rock away. It seems like it takes forever before I get to the other side, and I heave a breath of relief when I see that the remaining tunnel is clear. Breaking those sections saved us more than once it would seem.
“It’s okay, Al,” I call back to her.
I squeeze back through to help with Dana and find Alice is already trying to free one of her feet that’s still trapped beneath a large piece of concrete. I wince at how bad that must have hurt and help Alice dig at the dirt and roots around it so that we can lift it off of her.
With each deep scoop, I notice that the dirt seems to be getting muddy. Confused, I lift my hands to find them covered with a dark, red substance. “What is this?”
I glance over at Alice to see her staring at her own hands, and I lift mine to my nose. Something about it smells sweet, delicious even. I frown as I look again to Dana. Her breaks are mending, all but the still trapped foot, but she’s not bleeding this heavily. I dig around in the dirt a bit more and see a steady stream coming from one of the ends of a stalky root.
I pick it up and yank to release it, but it’s too deep. The vine stretches a good two feet before disappearing in to the earth and rubble beyond, and its ruined end is gushing with the substance. I see Alice approach me and we both stare it in bewilderment.
“That vine is… bleeding,” she asks.
I hold my hand under the flow at the end and watch the blood pool in my gloved palm. I grimace, knowing what I’ll have to do next. “Well, there’s only one way to find out.”
I clean as much of the mud off of the stalk as I can before lowering my head and tentatively sticking my tongue under the flow. It’s definitely blood. It’s even warm. I find myself transitioning as I take a long pull off of the vine like a straw. It wells in my mouth and I release a moan as I tilt my head back and swallow.
I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t tried it. A root… that bleeds.
I smile and lift it to her. “Al, try it. It’s like… well, remember the stew in Peru?”
She stares at me like I’m off my meds. “Stew…?”
“Yeah, our Peruvian pals at the village?” She’s still looking at me like I’m insane and that’s when I realize that when I’d called it stew, I’d done it internally. “Nevermind. Just… try it.”
She stares at the stalk with distaste and I nudge her. “Trust me.”
Her face screws up but she leans in anyway, tentatively touching the end with her tongue. It’s not long before she’s gulping at it and I chuckle at her when she pulls away and licks her now red lips.
“Holy shit…,” is all she says.
I stand and place the end of the stalk out of the way. “Let’s get Dana free, and then you’re going to find what plant this root belongs to while I work on Tina.”
She stands and I gaze down on her with a smile. “You realize what this means, right?”
She grins. “We may not even need humans.”
My smile broadens and we both laugh a little in shock. Dana groans behind us and with newfound energy we start to dig her out. I need to get to Tina. She needs this blood, and I’m going to make sure that she gets what she needs.