If someone had sat me down all of those years ago, when I was young and brutal and living solely in my mind, and told me what the world – my world – would be like right now, today… I wouldn’t have just laughed at them; I’d have probably killed them. No, more than that, I’d have tortured them first and gloried at the blood sticking to my hands.
Why? Well, there’s not just one reason. I would have found their nonsense insulting, not just to my sensibilities and self-proclaimed superiority, but to my intelligence as well. I would have found this messenger of false promises to be absurd and irritating, and that would have been enough all on its own to torture and consume their life. But mostly, I would have cowered at the fact that this person knew me to my very core, that they’d seen through all of my anger, bluster, and bravado to the very heart of me and what I wanted… what I needed.
These are things that I didn’t want to want. And I most certainly did not want anyone else to know of my desires. No, I wanted to believe that I’d killed the best parts of me. I wanted to believe that they didn’t matter and that the cards were just inexplicably stacked against me. No, my destiny was to be bigger, better, stronger, beyond all things mundane and soul-stirring.
But, this need is the one thing that all creatures have in common: a longing for love, freedom, and community. It doesn’t matter what class or subclass we belong to, we all want that… that comfort, that support… It may seem like a small thing to ask for, but in reality, it’s something that very few actually know. And what’s more confusing is that even those who’ve never experienced it still want it with a lusty desperation.
Why? How can someone want what they’ve never known?
It’s innate. It’s just part of us. We are born and reborn longing for that… thing… that connection. We yearn for it despite all efforts to quell our insides. And when we never find it, our souls continue to scream for it like neglected infants. But when those cries go unheard, that infant begins to die and rot from the inside, the emptiness swallowing up all that’s left of a malnourished soul until there’s nothing left at all.
That youth, that innocence, it fades away until the empty remnants become something else entirely; it becomes a husk, a beast that’s constantly clawing, longing, opening its jaws to howl in isolation for retribution. It sees all of the things that it doesn’t have and hates those who have them. It turns green and putrid and wants to fill that emptiness the only way that it knows how, so it seeks to make a family of its own.
It finds the most fortuitous for victims, and then it tortures and kills the same parts of them that it no longer has and can’t re-attain. It creates more beasts, a band of empty, soulless shells left to wander the void, and all so that this beast doesn’t have to be alone anymore.
That yearning causes it to take what it wants by any means necessary. And in turn, it finds its own brand of family. But in doing so it’s destroyed the very thing that it needed the most and all that it’s left with is a crowded void that’s just as lonely as it always was. That family may be there, a small bit of cold comfort that reminds the beast of the fact that even if it’s unloved, unwanted, and uninvited… someone somewhere is at least obligated to feel some twisted facsimile of caring. But it’s still not enough and it’s for all of the wrong reasons.
The beast quickly learns that it can’t force someone to feel, not genuinely. It can’t bleed love from flesh or torture loyalty from a soul. No amount of bastardizing those feelings will fill that void with light and laughter, even as hard as the beast may try.
It’s a cruel world we live in. Some are just unworthy from birth. Some just don’t have what it takes to mean even a little to a few. By some cruel twist of fate, some are born simply… unlucky. For some inexplicable reason, for this single person, no one cares. Not a soul; not really, not in a way that banishes insecurities and brings light to the darkness.
I spent the majority of my life that way. I let the unlucky beast that I’d become have control because there was no reason not to. And I had Lilith, my own brand of family. I hadn’t realized it until now, but I’m coming to see that this may be what I was to her, why she tried so hard to bring me back. I was, in some twisted, warped, and empty way, that cold comfort in the void for her.
But then the miraculous happened, not for her, but for me.
The unlucky one…
The unwanted one…
The uninvited one…
Someone… this at first annoyingly light and generous soul found me and chose me, even for the beast that I was. I cannot say why and I don’t care to fathom how. To ponder such things would be as futile as screaming at the ocean to stop it from churning.
And as I sit here with her next to the warm glow of a small fire, feel the gentle way she strokes my fingers absentmindedly, watch the flickering flames dance off of her smooth complexion as she throws her head back and chuckles at some inane thing that Alice has said, I know what it means to be loved for no other reason than just… because.
Everything I have ever wanted is right here, right now – warming me, soothing me, breathing life into my tarnished soul. Does it have anything to do with luck or worthiness? Even as long as I suffered, has life really been so cruel and unjust? Sure, the beast is purring now, but if I’d never known her, would I have had the strength to live with conviction, to find warmth, to realize that if I could only become like those that I so desperately needed around me, that I would no longer be alone, and it would be for the right reasons?
I can’t know that for sure. And it’s scary to think that it’s improbable. If not for her, I’d most likely still be stuck there, in that place with Lilith, but completely alone, endlessly angry, and searching for answers in all the wrong places. Does all of the pain and suffering have a reason? Do we have to pay the price to know full joy? If so, knowing what I know now, I’d pay it again.
It took me more than two hundred years to realize that all are worthy and luck has nothing to do with it. I just had to find the opportunity in the pain and turn it into strength. It’s difficult, maybe impossible, especially while weathering the storm. And maybe, we all need that person, that family to give us a reason, a goal in sight. But to have it, we have to fight for it; we have to earn it.
This life that’s growing inside of Tina, blood of my blood and flesh of my flesh, a physical manifestation of our love for one another, has terrible timing or maybe impeccable timing. But either way, I find myself in love, not just with Tina, but this person that I’ve never even met, that I’ve never even seen, but I know they’re there.
And because of them, I’m changed.
The beast is dead, and the husk is filled with life.
Tina… this child… they are my very heart.
And it beats… passionately.
I am lucky, despite my past, or maybe because of my past. I really don’t know how or why. I only know that my very insides are smiling. The future is terrifying and daunting, and the weight of what could happen is crippling, but I feel achingly beautiful inside.
Tina turns to me, her expression knowing. She… is achingly beautiful inside… and out.
I would tell her that I love her, but those words, and even those thoughts, pale in comparison to the fact that it’s in every pore of my body and soul. Those words would only taint what is so painfully evident.
Her fingers lace with mine and she pulls my arm to rest gently across her stomach. She has a small bump now where it was once flat and I find my thumb absently stroking her with awed devotion. She laughs again and my insides beam out through my face.
I look around me. I’m so much luckier than I can even comprehend. My family is growing. Each face around this fire is a flesh and blood representation of a life worth living, and I didn’t have to force anything. They are here simply because they want to be. I couldn’t ask for better or for more.
For once in my life, I am satisfied.
The lights against the walls dim and stutter but don’t reignite. It’s almost as if the darkness of our situation is trying to remind us that it’s there, creeping ever closer, but we won’t waste a moment on it. It can’t have us, even as it tries with incredible ferocity.
I know that we should all be resting right now. Very soon Helena and I will be going topside dressed as soldiers to try to compel humanity to prove itself humane. It’s an empty victory if it works, but it’s the less violent of the options available.
There was an argument about who should be going, but Helena and I were the only ones who could mostly fill out the suits, and this one day is going to make or break the entire operation. If we are to avoid discovery, we have to blend in seamlessly.
If it doesn’t work… well, a swift death is the most that I can hope for. I’m not afraid to die, but I have so much to live for. I laugh at myself. Yes, if someone had told me then what I feel now, I’d have killed them. What a sad person I’d become and what an incredible life I have lived. Despite it all, it led me here – to these people, to this family. That is the only thing that is going to pull me through this task. I know that, whatever it takes, my family will survive. I will make that happen, one way or the other.
Tina and I spent most of the day making love and trying to find reassurance in our connection. It helped us to escape into that place beyond where the world and all of its struggles don’t exist. And while I am determined to come back to her, to find a way to make this work according to plan, if the worst were to happen, it’s an odd feeling to know that either way, my soul is at peace.
The lights flicker back on and I sigh when I see Shapiro come out of the car. The light-hearted conversation ends so abruptly that it’s almost as if it was a speeding vehicle that crashed into the wall. A somber expression settles heavily over faces that were just seconds before carrying delighted smiles.
“It’s time,” he says.
I look to Helena and we communicate wordlessly. Her expression is apprehensive but determined, mirroring my own. We’re not the best of friends and we know little of each other, but I know that I can trust her and rely on her. I’m thankful for her.
With a loaded silence, we all stand. I pick up the helmet that was resting next to me on the ground and turn to Tina. The atmosphere is heavy but my heart refuses to be as she takes the helmet from my hands and places it on the makeshift bench of broken concrete we were using.
She stretches her arms up and around my neck, and my hands instinctively find her waist.
‘Thank you for this incredible life.’
I’m not sure why I felt the need to say that just now, except for the fact that it’s true. She leans up to give me an achingly tender kiss, and in that contact I know everything. The secrets of the universe are opened up to me and I sigh, reaffirmed and revitalized. She leans back, her eyes still closed as she exhales deeply. One of my hands ventures up to cup her cheek as my thumb traces a delicate cheekbone.
I’ve never known anything so exquisite, so strong and yet so fragile, much like her soul. Her arms slide from my shoulders, smoothing a path down my chest before a small, warm hand rests atop my own, pressing… burning my touch into her face and inking it onto her memory.
She opens her eyes; those wondrously beautiful orbs are alight with wordless adoration. The weight of her gaze lances through me and I realize that no matter what happens, she’s satisfied as well. The deep slope of her eyelashes drop slightly and the delicate skin at the corners crinkles as a genuine smile pulls at the corners of her mouth.
There are no tears. She is strong and steady in her conviction and love.
Again, my insides smile.
‘I’ve loved you since the day I met you,’ her mind echoes.
I close my eyes and savor the feelings caused by her words.
‘And you’re my heart,’ I reply.
She turns her head and kisses my palm, but that’s not nearly enough. I lean in and press my lips to hers once more, lingering and sharing the air with her. She is chemically, irrevocably, a part of me now.
Moving to my knees, I rest my forehead to her stomach. It’s a strange peace, complex in its composition but simple in my innate understanding. I lift the thin material of her tank top and smooth my hands across the firm, slightly round shape of our child before leaning in and leaving a lingering kiss. Her hands smooth my hair back and bind it in a tight pony tail and reluctantly, I get to my feet.
She picks up the helmet and holds it out to me in a gesture of understanding and confidence. I remove the gloves from inside and put them on before securing the helmet in place. I look over to the opening against the wall that leads to Grand Central to find Helena hugging Dylan.
The rest of the group has retreated into the car to give us this moment, and maybe that’s why the stoic, seemingly cold Helena is allowing the contact. They separate, and while I know that Tina can’t see my face through my helmet, she knows how much she’s loved.
I touch her face once more. There are no promises or assurances, only love and hope. Maybe that can be enough. Either way, this is not goodbye. I drop my hand down her arm as I move past her, holding onto her fingers until the last minute as I make my way to wall.
Helena moves into the opening and I wedge in behind her, stopping to look at Tina once more. She stands alone by the fire, her hands resting on her stomach and the crumbled remains of another world littered at her feet. She’s like a vision of an angel amidst the destruction of the world around her, and that vision is the last that I take with me into the unknown.
Helena and I wait in the copse of trees that line the dock of the East River just inside the perimeter. My muscles ache with rigidity as we sit in nervous silence, the ship being loaded and unloaded with large crates that I assume are supplies. We’ve been waiting here for more than an hour, just watching, and figuratively sweating.
We wanted to be sure that we had enough time to get through the city unseen and locate the ship that will hold this conference, this meeting that will change the course of history. The ship has only been docked for about twenty minutes and it would have been difficult to miss.
It’s huge, flat surface holds a large, single military helicopter. Both the ship and the chopper are heavily armored and patrolled, and given the seal adorning the sides of both vessels, I am coming to believe that perhaps President Wischnia is present.
Shapiro and Pooky Bear the Guard have been infinitely helpful in understanding the mechanics of what’s been happening throughout the city, as well as how the humans operate, but it was Dylan’s idea that led us to the information that we really needed to put, what I thought was, a decent plan together.
The perimeter works for animal and manimal alike. If it has a pulse, it won’t once it passes through, and this death trap runs solely on electrical sensors. We already knew all of that, but the flickering lights are what put us on the right track. Dylan suggested that we blow the city’s power grid, effectively disabling the sensors. It was an excellent idea, but the execution is not something that we were equipped to achieve.
We’d need explosives… explosives that we don’t have and lots of them. It would mean more trips to the top and a long arduous process of planning to steal such supplies before we could plan the actual coup. Furthermore, the humans are bound to have a backup and we’d need time to get around generators and solar panels should those problems then arise. It just wasn’t immediate enough. We needed something useful now.
It would be possible to hack the power grid, but while I’m fully capable with computer hardware and software, I’m no hacker. And the rest of our crew is even less aware of how to accomplish something so complicated. It’s not like you can buy a book about hacking. But after this mess has ended, if that happens, I intend to try and find one. Either way, I did begin to think.
One question that I had spent several nights puzzling over was what brought us to our breakthrough: how is that a human and a vampyr can pass through the perimeter and only the vampyr fall to pieces? I’m not aware of a sensor that can determine chromosomal structures to pass validation. That sort of technology just isn’t available yet. And that’s when it hit me… the RFID chip.
Of course, that didn’t explain why the rehabilitated vampyrs were still trapped, and we didn’t have a physical chip available for us to study. I had both of them destroyed in my not so unnecessary paranoia. And we most certainly weren’t going to turn ourselves over to the humans to get fitted with one. But taking a risk, I had Shapiro log in to the database on his touchpad. He was then able to locate an online request form for RFID security clearance with the barriers for military personnel.
That’s when it hit me: if a creature has a pulse, it won’t once it passes through the perimeter… unless that creature has been fitted with an RFID chip with the appropriate security clearance. A little more digging on the network, and I discovered that the chip emits an electromagnetic shield around the wearer. That shield scrambles the sensors as the host passes through, giving them full freedom in and out of the city at will.
Unfortunately, we can’t just high-jack a human and waltz in there piggy-back, which is precisely what we had planned to do with the scientists. But as we were able to actually assess the situation at the dock, it’s clear that executing that plan will get us killed. There’s no way around it. It’s nerve-wracking the security measures that the humans have taken.
There are two rigidly alert guards standing at the lip of the ramp to the carrier. And then between the perimeter sensors, the snipers stationed on the rooftops overlooking the wide-open clearing at the dock, the stationary guards keeping watch, and patrols regimentally covering nearly every inch of ground and ship with methodical scrutiny… it’s worse than we’d imagined.
And I have a very healthy imagination.
After a small discussion, Helena and I decided that we’d have to abort this mission. A quick call to the train car, and Shapiro and his boy toy had another idea. They gave us intel on how the guard rotations work as well as shift changes. So now, we’re no longer focused on the ship or even the soon-to-arrive scientists, but two innocuous guards that will be rotating with those on the ramp any minute now.
This also changed our plan in another way. No longer would we just hide in the scientist entourage and go to the meeting; we’ve decided to act pre-emptively. Once we snag the guards, we’re going to take ownership of the craft via compulsion before the scientists even arrive.
This plan, in my opinion, is less problematic than the first. But, if it goes south, if they somehow discover us before we can successfully board the ship… from there, all that will be left is to flee the city, if we can survive the fallout.
I shake my head to clear it and remind myself to focus on one plan at a time. Besides, it’s time. The shift change guards we’ve been waiting for just exited the barracks building. As Pooky stated, these two intend to relieve the guards stationed at the ramp, and this is our opportunity to gain access before the scientists arrive.
I look at Helena and we both nod in understanding. She shifts closer to the wooded edge under the cover of trees and shrubs, waiting in the gray light. I lay myself down in the leaves and hold my breath as I listen for them to get close enough to put this ridiculous, but hopefully effective, plan in action.
“Have you heard from Mike,” one of the guards asks the other.
“Nah… but I don’t think he’s doin’ too good,” the other replies.
They’re close enough now that I can hear the other sigh. “I still don’t see why we’re holding these vamps.”
His friend agrees. “Yeah, we should just wipe em’ out and be done with it.”
“Poor Mike… I can’t imagine losing my whole family… especially like that…”
They fall silent but I can tell by their heavily booted steps that they’re close enough now, and steeling my nerves, I let out a pathetic groan.
The footsteps stop. “What the hell was that?”
I moan again.
“It sounds like a dying animal.”
The footsteps get closer, but not close enough. “Maybe another got caught by the infrared wall?”
I finally hear the crunch of dry leaves as they enter the tree line, but they stop again and I start to panic when I hear the unsnapping of a gun holster and the increasing thump of an anxious heart.
I’m not sure if it’s one of theirs or mine.
“That’s not an animal.”
“Who’s there,” the more forceful one asks.
I don’t move or speak. “We’re armed. You need to identify yourself. Now.”
I groan again, as low and desperate as I can in my throat, and twitch a little. The steps hesitantly move forward, slow and purposeful as they converge on my location.
“Shit…,” one of them says. “He’s one of ours.” He’s moves right up to me and lands on his knees next to me. I feel a tug on my helmet.
“Call it in on the comm.” He pulls the helmet from my head. “Hey, can you hear me?”
Just as it’s freed, with nary a whisper of a sound, Helena attacks the still standing guard, causing him to yelp in surprise. I snap my hand out to knock the helmet from the head of the guard who’s kneeling next to me. I’m already sitting up, gazing into his terrified eyes, and calling up his soul to order it into silence and subservience.
The motion of the gun he was about to swing up stops and slowly lowers as he’s forced to comply. I glance at Helena to be sure that she’s had the same effect and exhale when I see her charge standing mutely in place, shock still expressing itself on his face.
We leave them there and inch toward the tree line to be sure that none of the other lookouts have been alerted to anything. If they did, it’s not evident. We caught them before they entered the clearing of the dock.
From there, we move quickly and purposefully. We force our blood down their throats and snap their necks. I glance at my watch. We should have about one more hour before the scientists arrive at the dock. By that time, these two will be up and hopefully the ship will be ours.
Helena sits next to the waiting vampyrs and I rest against a tree. “Helena, if this goes badly…”
She sighs. “Bette, I know all about your quest for martyrdom. Just drop it.”
I shake my head. “No, no, it’s nothing like that. I just…”
I swallow harshly. I’ve been waiting until we were alone, away from the probing fingers of Tina’s mind to go into this territory. “I just wanted to say that if something happens, and we can’t get away together, then someone has to get back to the group.”
She gazes at me for a moment. “Bette, we don’t know each other that well…,” she begins. And I know that what she says is true. That’s part of the reason that I’m glad that she, specifically, is with me. She’s unbiased, less invested in me personally, and her mind is sharp. She’ll do what needs to be done. I’m counting on it.
“But this isn’t going to be a suicide mission for either of us,” she finishes.
I smile wryly. “I don’t intend for it to become that. I have everything to live for. But someone has to get back to the group and let them know to get out, or at least live long enough to make the call. Tina won’t leave if she’s not fully convinced that I’m gone.”
She nods. “Okay, so let’s stick to this new plan and there won’t be any need for that.”
I sigh. “Plans don’t always work, as we just saw. I’m just asking you to look out for them first.”
She’s quiet, and I go in for the truth of it. “I would consider it a favor.”
I look over at her to see her gazing out at the river, a pensively dark look in her green eyes. “If it comes to that, I’ll make sure that you get out.” Her voice turns slightly bitter. “God knows that I have nothing to lose anymore.”
I know little of what she’s lost, but the magnitude of it is clear. Maybe it was true, before, but I don’t think that it’s true anymore. “It didn’t look that way to me earlier.”
She snaps her gaze to mine. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
She’s good – cool as a cucumber – but her green eyes are intensely expressive. “I think that you do.”
She snorts primly and looks back to the river. “Dylan might agree with you, but I’m sorry to say that I’m not as convinced.”
I stare at her quizzically. Her aloof, casual demeanor and biting words are almost convincing, but I know this dance all too well. I’ve mastered it. She doesn’t want to care and so she pretends that she just doesn’t. And maybe, somewhere inside, she’s deluded herself into believing it’s true. I understand that, but I also understand that not caring is a losing battle when, despite your efforts, you just do.
It certainly was for me. I laugh ironically and she looks over at me a little indignant. “You’re rather arrogant, aren’t you?”
I smile ruefully at that. I’m sure to most it would appear that way because I don’t take the time to sugarcoat the truth or placate nonsense. I say what I mean and expect people to follow the logic without inane questions. Little does she know that my insides don’t always match my outsides.
I suppose a little explanation can’t hurt. Our progenies have not yet awakened, though they’re starting to twitch, their hearts racing, and their faces flushed with an angry sweat as their minds start to become readable. They’re getting close.
“I wasn’t trying to insult you or laugh at you. But I know how you feel and I also know that pretending that you don’t care is futile.”
“It doesn’t matter if I do or not.” She looks hard at me. “And I don’t.”
I smile, placating her, and she sighs. “If I don’t come back with you, Tina will kill me anyway.”
For such a diminutive, compassionate person, Tina certainly inspires fear. Maybe her insides don’t always match her outsides either, though that’s never been my experience. I suppose I have the unfair advantage of hearing her mind.
I grin again. “So then, you have nothing to worry about. Either way, you’re dead.”
Her face is shocked at first, but then a stuttering laugh starts to spill out of her, and I join her. It feels good to break the tension, but it’s not to last long; our new progenies are waking.
We get to our feet, ready to proceed. They’ll be hungry. I kick around on the forest floor, hoping to spot one of the stalks and notice a few threading through the roots at the base of one of the trees. I dig around the edges to free it while Helena explains to the men what’s happened to them and how this is their problem now too.
We can’t compel them any longer. However, any compulsion prior to a change is still in effect. It’s strange how it works. They’ll even know that they’re compelled now, but they still have to obey it. Fortunately, we won’t need to compel them for this part. Their lives will be riding on this as well because they’re like us. And we’re their makers; they’ll do as asked.
Before I know it, they’ve fed and the four of us are moving toward the dock ramp, the two formerly alive guards chatting again as if nothing’s changed, just as instructed.
As we approach the ramp, the other guards stationed there seem to noticeably sigh in relief. “You guys are late, as usual,” one says testily.
He stops in his self-righteous indignation and cocks his head at us. “Who’s this?”
My progeny steps in. “They’re here to meet the scientists and escort them onto the ship.”
He stares for a long moment as if scrutinizing us before shrugging with indifference. “Whatever. I’m exhausted.”
He motions to his friend and both move to leave but Helena’s progeny stops them. “Wait, fellas.” He points to the grumpy guard’s helmet. “Both of ya have a crack in your visors.”
Each of them sighs and removes their helmet to peer down at it curiously while grumbling under their breath. I watch, slightly proud, as our progenies casually tilt the visors to uncover their own eyes and compel their colleagues without missing a beat. To anyone at a distance, this would appear to be a normal conversation amongst friends.
I look over at Helena and smile. We just might pull this off.
“See,” she says as if she’s heard my thoughts.
I glance down at my watch and see that we have about fifteen minutes until the scientists are due to arrive. That should be enough time to compel those already aboard. But it’s Masters, and maybe Wischnia, that we need to get to, and that’s precisely what I plan to do.
The two tired guards put their helmets on, unable to stop themselves from doing a double shift, and I address our new vamps. “You two are coming with me. I want you both to compel any and every one you come in contact with to keep quiet and help us if they need to.”
They both agree and I look over at Helena but she forestalls my words with a lifted hand. “We went over this a hundred times earlier. I know what to do. I’ll see you in there.”
I nod and hesitantly follow the others across the ramp and through the perimeter. For a moment the hair stands up on my neck and I fear that I’ll become a grotesque jigsaw puzzle, but I stay right on their heels and it doesn’t happen.
I glance back at Helena from the other side and her obscured head nods, her shoulders relaxing slightly. Our progenies start their work, striking up conversations with the patrolling forces on the ship about the condition of their visors, and I take off to locate our targets.
I wind my way down into the bowels of this beast, finding sprawling corridors dotted with tiny rounded doors. I move quickly and methodically, mapping the ship in my mind as I go, the gangway beneath me clanking loudly even as I tread lightly, and the hollow, metal hull of the ship groaning against the river’s current like a beached whale. I’m passed several times as I make my way through the maze, but they don’t seem to notice me. Come to think of it, they don’t even look at me.
A sense of dread envelops me as I check rooms and walk endless hallways, but find nothing. I’m certain that I’ve checked every inch. None of my heightened senses are useful in this place, even as I reach out and listen. I don’t hear any voices anywhere, not even in the comm. It’s all so… eerily quiet.
I double back, checking again for our favorite general and finally I hear my progeny’s thoughts. The scientists are here, but the rest of the ship has been secured. I decide to head back and meet the entourage. Something about this just feels wrong. There’s no one here for the scientists to meet.
I arrive at the deck of the ship to find that the scientists have already been compelled and breathe a sigh of relief. I guess now we just need to find out who they’re to be meeting where. I realize that my relief was premature when as I start to ask one of the scientists and several things happen at once:
I hear a voice that sends icy tendrils racing down my spine.
I turn to the shore to find the source of the sickening sound and blink my eyes, hoping that this is a hallucination.
Something low in the ship shakes, snaps, and explodes.
I fall to the ground against the deck, but even the harsh explosion of air from my lungs can’t cause me to take my eyes off of her. She’s standing on the edge of the shore casually, a smirk on her face as she watches me.
The soldiers and scientists that just entered the ship turn on us, killing one progeny and swiping at Helena with a baton as the deck starts to slope steeply.
The ship shrieks and splits in half, and we’re all thrown into the air, only this time when we land, we’re slowly sliding downward.
Fire erupts from the split hull of the ship, coating the water in gasoline and setting it ablaze while the front and back ends of the craft push higher into the air.
The snipers and soldiers on the shore open fire on us, killing everyone on the ship, even those trying to attack us on the sloped terrain. Red sand bursts around me, and I can’t find any footing as I begin to fall faster and faster toward the fire and water opening up beneath my feet.
My hand blindly reaches out and snags one of the many structures dotting the surface as I knock into it. I grip it tightly, pulling myself to a painful stop that nearly dislocates my arm. Somehow, I’m still looking at Lilith and trying to process what’s happening. She’s like a wraith waiting on the shore for her long lost love. Her hair is pulled high in a tight, long ponytail that billows out behind her head like a black flag. Masters leans into her ear and says something. She turns to glare angrily at him and he steps back and shuts up, returning her other-worldly eyes to mine.
I don’t understand how… or why the humans would have put her back together, let alone that they are in collusion with her. And why would she be in collusion with them? She hates them. I guess that I can’t be surprised that our trepidation in turning her over was founded, but I wasn’t even sure if they could revive her. I’ve never tried to piece a vampyr back together. Either way, she’s alive, we’re dying, and she’s going to get away with whatever this is as the river sucks us down.
She turns, giving me one last glance before they get into one of the vehicles now parked in the opening, and I finally look around me. Screams are howling hauntingly against my eardrums. Burning flesh is thick on the choking, black smoke. One soldier slides right past me screaming before slamming hard into jagged edge of the other half of the ship and impaling himself. He gurgles as death claims him.
There’s a scuffle taking place on the shore, but I don’t understand why the human soldiers are turning on each other or how the compulsion with the scientists on the ship failed to work. None of this should be happening.
My mind reels but I finally connect the need to retreat with my body. I search every anguished face available for Helena, but some are still wearing helmets, others dumped into the burning ocean, and my vision is impaired by all of the smoke and chaos.
The ship groans, the tail of the half I’m holding onto moving up so high that what remains of the deck is now almost perfectly vertical and I’m fully suspended in air. I hear a groan and look out to the other half. It’s less titled but my half is making quick work of that that as the helicopter starts to slide toward me with the shriek of metal on metal.
I start to climb as much as a can, but feel the hard impact of its long tail slam into my lower back with a sickening crunch. I scream and something sharp sears a terrible path through my ribs and my now tenuous hold slips.
I fall heavily, my body slamming hard on any object in the path of my rapid descent, some so big and so sharp that they send me into a tailspin, cracking bones so deep within me that I didn’t know I had them. The helmet is knocked from my head and my vision swims as what’s left of the air in my lungs is forced out. And then finally, I’m crushed through a curtain of blazing agony and extinguished in the nearly boiling water below.
The force of the fall and the sucking motion of the sinking ship pulls me deep, so deep that it’s almost like another world as the water starts to cool. All of the noise falls away into muffled explosions; the orange glow of the fire bouncing off of the water’s surface dances in the opaque liquid like candlelight.
And for a moment, it’s almost peaceful. It’s almost as if I’m still in the safe at the bottom of the ocean. All of this is just a dream as I watch bodies float lifelessly in the gray haze, the swirling torrent of flame above looking like the maw of hell opening up to drink deeply and swallow me with it. I sink further, as if I’ve been caught in the pull of a giant vacuum. Great bubbles of air escape from the helicopter beneath and float to the surface where they evaporate as steam.
It’s all so familiar in its terrifying glory, but still… it’s just… peaceful. I feel my arms go slack and float up at my sides and I watch the fiery jaws above me start to shrink further and further away as I move down into a watery grave.
My family will be okay without me, won’t they?
Something pangs inside of me and forces me to move, to claw at the water in a vain effort to reach up as the wooden bullet in my ribs scrapes harshly against my organs.
But my legs, they won’t obey, and my lungs fully collapse.
It’s no use.
I can’t make it.
And even if I do, the world above will see me torched.
But I keep trying, desperately so.
My lethargic limbs falter and slow, my mind screaming at them as the water around me streaks with inky red trails, and I succumb to death.
I open my eyes to the sound of water rushing painfully in my ears. It bubbles up my throat and streams past my lips, only to well in my mouth and choke me. I convulse and roll over, my body curling in on itself as horrid torrents of liquid salt scrape up my esophagus and soak into the cold stone beneath me.
The spasms finally subside and I collapse, pressing my cheek against the coolness supporting me and gasping at the air.
It takes a few moments for awareness to find me, and I’m sorry that it did.
My nerves are singing with anguish…
I sit up sharply, too sharply, and my ribs protest. I hiss out in pain and put a shaking hand to the searing agony in my chest. The bullet’s still in there. I pull my gloved hand away and look at the blood liberally coating the surface.
Fuck. I’m going to have to dig this out.
I pale at the thought and lean back to just take a minute. My face feels like it’s been held over a candle, but taking the pressure off of my ribs at least allows me to catch my breath, gather my thoughts, and assess the situation around me. The last thing that I remember is dying in the East River, Lilith standing on the shore, but now I’m in some sort of… cave? Underground maybe?
For fuck’s sake… I groan out as I collapse back against the hard ground completely. She’s alive, and if I’m honest with myself, she’s probably trapped me here, wherever here is. The cave is small, dark, and dank, smelling heavily of mildew and moss. There are several steady drips echoing hollowly somewhere in the corners of this cavern, and I look around me for any indication of how to get out of here.
That’s when a voice from the past speaks. “I couldn’t get to the bullet without opening you up, and given the fact that we don’t have any blood, I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to heal well enough from the burns, let alone exploratory surgery.”
I look over at Duffy with surprise burning in my stomach. I want to feel relieved that this isn’t Lilith’s doing, but I’m not sure if I’m with an enemy or a friend. Either way, anything is better than Lilith.
She seems to understand my need for clarification. “Look, why don’t we get the worst of it over…?”
She gestures to my seeping chest wound and I nod, relaxing against the ground for what I know is about to come. Pain is definitely nothing new to me, but even as used to it as I am, it’s not something that I can train my nerves to stop feeling.
Duffy gets to work. Somewhere in the back of my mind it registers that someone is helping her, but I’m quickly and efficiently sent over the edge into the comforting hand of unconsciousness, my screams following me.
I come around slowly. I’m tired and aching, but my chest is less heavy. It’s amazing how little things like air can mean so much when you don’t have the luxury of taking them for granted. I notice Duffy first, and then Tasha and Jamie, and then a few others littered throughout the room.
I can also see a few bodies lying in the far corner, the shadow of that section unable to conceal the clearly drained humans, two of which I recognize as the scientists that were the last to board the ship. Everyone else here is a vampyr, and I notice that one of them is Helena’s progeny.
I sit up more alertly and start to scan faces, but none of them are her.
“Helena,” I call out, somehow hopeful.
Duffy glances over at me. “Helena got away.”
I frown. “What do you mean?”
“After the fight broke out, she managed to pull herself ashore and use one of the dead guards as a shield to get through the fire fight on the dock. I have no idea how she passed through the barrier, but she did. We tried to get to her, but we couldn’t follow.”
I close my eyes. She did as I asked and she’ll head straight for Tina. I urgently press my hand into the cargo pocket low on the pants but my phone is gone.
I close my eyes. Fuck.
I try to push to my feet, but I’m only able to get weakly to my knees. My body took a hell of a beating prior to death. I need blood, lots of it.
Duffy seems to read my thoughts. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have anything to offer to help you heal, and you won’t be able to get back through the perimeter.”
This time, when I look at her, I notice that she’s gaunt, deep purplish bruises deeply offsetting her pale blue eyes. Tasha and Jamie aren’t much better. In fact, as I look around to all here besides Helena’s seemingly traumatized progeny, I realize that this rag tag team is all that Duffy has left, and they’re definitely starving.
I sweep my eyes around the cave for some roots. I don’t see any exposed, but portions of the walls are dirt. I crawl over to the nearest one and lethargically start to dig at the caked mud, thankful for the moisture having softened it.
“What are you doing,” Duffy asks.
I ignore her. I don’t have time to answer her questions. I need to get back to the group before they follow through with plan B and attempt to escape the city. My fingers finally hook onto a root and after a few weak tugs I’m able to pull it out a few inches.
I grip it as tightly as I can, which isn’t much, and give one last great effort. It stretches slightly before it snaps in half, blood flowing freely from the end like a spout in the wall. I lean in and drink, feeling relief when the itchy burns along my face and scalp start to fade away and the hole in my chest stops weeping.
Once I know that I’ve had enough, I lean back to find every living vampyr in the room gathered around me and staring incredulously at the wall. I get to my feet, completely revitalized, and don’t even have to explain as each of them step up and take a turn getting their fill, their questions dying away in groans of pleasure.
I wait for Duffy to drink before getting to the task at hand: getting out of here. “Duffy, where are we?”
“Bette, how… what is this? A root?”
I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Look, I understand that you want answers, but I have to get to Tina… now. If you want to come with, that’s fine. I’ll fill you in on the way, but I just don’t have the time now. I have to get to her.”
“Bette, is she inside the city?”
I nod and she shakes her head. “Then there’s no way. We’re on the other side of the East River, outside the perimeter, in a cave that’s only accessible from under the water.”
She points to a small sloping portion of the cave that ends in a pool. “The five of us got blown past the perimeter during a skirmish a few days ago. I don’t know how we survived passing through, but we did.”
I frown. “Why didn’t you just leave?”
“There are more of us on the other side, but we have no way of getting to them. We’d been planning this attack on the carrier for more than a week, so we decided to stay close and help.”
Ah, fuck. “So it was you who blew up the ship?”
She nods and I run a hand through my salt-coarsed hair. That explains the fire fight, but not how the humans knew about the attack.
I look over into the dark corner. Either way, we’ll have to figure it out later. “Okay, look, I know how to get in and out of the perimeter…”
She glances up at me, the question just about to form on her tongue, but I stop her. “I don’t have time, but if you want back in, you can come with me and I’ll explain on the way.”
She frowns. “You’d help us?”
I consider her for a moment. I’m not sure what help she’s referring to. “I won’t help you destroy the humans, but I will help you survive or re-enter. It would be nice if you guys would just consider another alternative.” I can’t believe that I just said that like I actually meant it with all that just happened, or what I don’t have the wherewithal to stop myself from saying now. “We need to stick together. We should have from the start.”
She nods, exhaling heavily and running a hand through her wet hair. She glances at her followers and I can see what she’s thinking. It’s written plainly on her face, even as she can’t bring herself to admit it in front of her troops: she was wrong, but she needs to still be strong, save face, and lead.
I put my hand on her shoulder and our eyes meet in quiet understanding. “Okay, look, we have to go now.” I walk to the dark corner where the bodies still lie, and where most of them will lie for eternity, and pick up one of the scientists left arms.
There are about five, total; and while I already don’t want to do this, it might be necessary to take as many as we can.
I look back at Duffy’s confused grimace. “Do you guys have a duffel bag, a purse… anything?”
Tasha steps over to an area of the cave and comes back with a backpack. The thought of getting back to Tina is the only consolation I have for the disgusting task I’m about to undertake as the snap of bone and wetly tearing flesh bounces off of the caverns walls.
I throw one of them to Duffy and she catches it on reflex before looking at me like I’ve lost my mind.
“That’s our ticket in and out of the city.”