Drawing closer to Florida gave me the time that I needed for the reality of our situation to come crashing down on me. There I was, in a military turret, praying to a Goddess I wasn’t sure I believed in, heading to a city where I planned to kill humans, then steal their identity so that I could kill more humans, and all of this was to get the opportunity to kill my maker.
I could only assume that I was having this crisis of conscience because I hadn’t actually let it all sink in. I’d taken the truth, wrapped it up neatly, and stowed it away somewhere deep within me, somewhere that I wouldn’t have to see it or acknowledge it, somewhere that I wouldn’t want to venture, and knew that I shouldn’t.
I had spent decades pushing the monster into the background, burying it, honing in on what it means to be softer, gentler, kinder… compassionate. And then I tried to just forget it was there, force myself into a state of selective amnesia.
But that’s the thing: when you do something so well and for so long, you forget to be careful. You start to believe your own bullshit, and then you wind up stepping in it. My mind was giving me a warning before it was too late; it was forcing me to see, to acknowledge, and give me the opportunity to turn back.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t abandon my wife and my child to this… this nothingness.
I’d promised her… so many things, and it then occurred to me that I could only keep one of them. I could choose to turn back and live to find her, letting what may happen, just… happen, or I could lose myself in this madness and accept the fact that I wouldn’t be able to come back from it.
It was hard enough the first time, nearly impossible. It was all so melodramatic, I admit. But the reason that it was so difficult, so excruciatingly painful, was because the weight on my soul was a century deep pile of mutilated, tortured, and defiled corpses. Tina’s love only barely gave me the strength to not only defeat the beast that I’d become, but tear open a canyon in my soul to trap it. And then… one body at a time, I had to work tirelessly to throw them in with their murderer.
But that’s the thing about souls riddled with guilt, regret, and remorse: even if the blame was on that beast’s shoulders, that beast was still me. I couldn’t just write it off, shut the canyon. I couldn’t even fill it up. All I could do was ignore it and side step around it.
To anyone looking in, nothing would be out of the ordinary, but they didn’t know. How could they? They couldn’t see what was hidden down below.
They weren’t me.
No one, not even Tina, the one person who had seen past all of my barriers, could ever fully understand just how terrifying deep my sickness ran. Nothing could completely abolish it, not even the love that I felt for her, not even our child.
But I knew all too well. I was trapped in that soul, forced to share my life with that abyss. And I deserved it. Nothing could mask the stench of rot, of death, of shame. No matter how beautiful Tina’s distraction was, that emptiness was always there clawing at my ankles to pull me under.
And while others may only have seen the small tells on the surface, and while I had tried to ignore it and them, while I worked so hard to be better than myself, it would never go away… I would never go away. I knew just how easily all of my hard work would unravel with even the tiniest misstep, and I would go tumbling in.
Decades of work, hope, careful guidance, moving around the edges of that chasm but never daring to do more than peek into it, all of that trying and struggling… and in the span of an hour, with careful deliberation, I knew that all I had to do was simply fall…
I’m going to steal life; I’m going to take it, not to feed or to survive, not really. No, I’m going to murder with cold, lusty intent so that I can infiltrate a camp full of innocent, ignorant, and desperate humans to leverage them to meet my ends.
These are things that a good person would not do. And for all of my practice, I couldn’t deny it anymore. I am not a good person. And I wouldn’t be able to claw my way out this time. It was all or nothing, one way or the other, but I couldn’t have both.
I had to choose, and I had to choose quickly.
So I took a step. I let the putrid and horribly diseased part that I didn’t even have to hone because a lifetime of pain gave it to me on instinct, swallow me up. I sunk deep within the fold in the wake. I pulled that thin thread holding me together and watched as everything that I wanted unraveled at my feet.
And in that moment of freefall, in that moment of panic, I finally realized that this was always going to happen. If I hadn’t conquered my worst already, I never would. And I was unwilling to pretend anymore.
Initially, the abyss wasn’t as bad as I had thought that it would be. The corpses were no longer there, just the beast lounging on a bed of bones. It glanced up at me, stood, flexed its jaws, and stretched long unused muscles.
I gazed into its cold eyes and reached out to let it lick my hand. I made peace with it, accepted it, stopped fighting it, and stopped hiding it. And I did it so that it could serve its purpose, a purpose that who I had tried to be would be too weak to serve.
And that’s when I realized that I’d been denying myself the freedom to do what comes naturally to me. Some might say that my motivations were noble, however cold in delivery – that I’m just trying to make the world better for my family and anyone else willing to live in peace – but I finally understood just how absurd that is.
I am no better than those that I want to remove from power.
They won’t do what I say, what I want, so I will kill them.
Isn’t that what Lilith is like, what the humans are like?
Maybe she was right. Maybe I do belong to her because we are kindred.
I couldn’t say for sure. I could only wish that it weren’t true. But, it must be. This is who… what, I am. At least I was no longer a hypocrite. For the first time in a very long time, I was being honest about myself. I can hate what I am, what is really inside of me. I can even be ashamed of it because those emotions are honest as well.
But it changes nothing.
I’m a monster.
This is not who I wanted to be.
I am someone, some… thing, that deserves to die.
All I wanted, all I needed, is all that I gave up.
And in giving it up, all that I was left with was this truth: who I am is not something that I can live with.
I could finally see myself clearly.
Tina never did. She always saw the best in me, and while I’m grateful for that, I feel as though I’ve deceived her, however unintentionally. She would have saved me if she could, and she tried, but she couldn’t. No amount of good was ever going to get rid of the bad.
Either way, there are no more regrets; there cannot be on either side of this equation. I had lived and loved as fully as I was able. I had been as close to the sort of person that I had wanted to be as I was ever going to get, even if it wasn’t real. I got a diluted taste of a life that someone like me should never even dream to experience.
And it was a sweet dream while it lasted.
That time is over. The sun has set on the best parts of me and now I must pay what’s due. It’s a terrible feeling if I let myself dwell on it, so I don’t. I look instead to my penance. If this is what I really am, and of that I have no doubt, then at least I will have a single last purpose: I will end Lilith and I will end any human who gets in my way. But more than that, I will allow myself to enjoy it so much that I cannot fail. I will seek out the bad, absorb it, revel in it, and see Lilith crumble before I go down with her.
And in doing so, once it’s over, my family will be free of mine and Lilith’s disease.
And maybe, so will I.
Despite all that I am, for all of my inability to feel regret for what I’m about to do, I still love her and the baby that I’ll never know. Even at my worst, even from the depths of the abyss, that will never change.
It may be the only noble thing, the only right thing that I ever do.
But it’s enough.
I’m going to put on the show of a lifetime. I am not human, and if I ever was, I don’t remember it. I see that now. Humanity is a word born of fairytales. It no longer exists, if it even ever did.
We are all beasts.
The humans don’t see themselves that way. That may be the only aspect in which I can honestly say that I am better than they are. I no longer wear a white hat and delude myself. And because of that, because I’m no longer a liar, I will have to lie to them.
I will look the part; I will act the part, and I will devour them from the inside out.
By the time we reached the city limits of Jacksonville, Florida, all had been lost so that the lesser of two evils could be achieved. I had planned to do it alone, but for all of my callousness, for as much as those who know me now reproach me, there are those few who still see something in me that they should not. They believed the lie as much as I did, as much as Tina still does, and as much as I hope our child will in the future.
Our convoy stopped near the marshes just outside of the city, and that’s when I learned that I would not be going in alone. So I, and those stupid enough to still believe in me, wait in the cover of swamp grass and mud while the others retrieve our prey.
If I allow myself, I could feel thankful for these few, these genuinely good souls who prepare themselves to do what does not come naturally to them. I can see it on their faces. They hate this. Their hearts war with their minds as they try to reconcile murder.
Me? I am calm. There is no war inside of me, not anymore. Unlike me, they do this for the right reasons. They do this because they believe in something right, because they’re strong, because they care, because they see a way back once it’s over. Oh, what it would be to have hope, to be compassionate, to be genuinely good.
But I’ve never been. And yet, here they are with me, willing to kill for a tyrant who wants to overthrow another tyrant.
For illconceived reasons, they don’t fear me or my cruelty.
They don’t fear Lilith.
They don’t fear the humans.
And they don’t fear the highly probable death that awaits us at the gates of what remains of human civilization.
They fear nothing.
Even Duffy, for all of her flaws…
These three see danger and pain and darkness but they do not shrink away from it or become completely immersed in it. Duffy may be hard, proud, and rash, but she’s not lost, not yet, not like me.
And unlike me, they are still holding fast to hope.
I cannot dare contemplate such a notion.
Coming with me is foolishness, but I did not waste my breath arguing with them. At this point, I don’t care if anyone makes it out of this alive but Tina. And to be honest, I wanted them to be right. I wanted them to be strong in this aspect where I cannot bring myself to find even a modicum of strength, and in turn, I will be strong where they fail.
The beast is no longer just inside of me. The beast is me, and we are ready.
The beast wants blood; we both want Lilith, and I… I just want this to be over.
We will get along fine.
I hear the grumble of engines and turn to see four Humvees headed straight for us. We all duck down and wait for them to stop or pass as other vehicles and parties have. But finally, this party stops. And as Helena steps out and removes her helmet, I realize that it’s time.
The beast smiles inside of me.
Other doors open and I can already hear the whimpers of terror from those destined to die. I can taste the thready rhythm of several pulses ticking frightfully against a thin membrane of panicked slicked skin. I can smell the endorphins flooding a ceaseless network of delicious veins and feel my mouth water.
Vampyrs spill out of the cars and drag us these humans so that we can wear their proverbial skins. It all feels so familiar and so macabre. Humans write horror stories about these things and gasp as they watch the unthinkable play out before their eyes. It’s entertainment to them.
Again, we are all beasts.
Helena’s face is stoic as she approaches, pulling a reluctant woman by the elbow. This human’s hands are bound with rope, burns marring the deep, mocha-colored skin at her wrists. She must be mine. Three other humans in similar condition are brought forward, but I pay them no attention. I focus in on my charge.
Almond colored eyes are wide with fright as I slink near to her. Great gusts of worried air flare her nostrils, and her white, even teeth bite hard on the cloth cutting into her mouth as this woman, this stranger, this new blanket of bones to pad the beast’s bed finally sees that there is no entertainment in fear when you’re living it.
I want to tell her that I’m sorry, that I wish that it didn’t have to be this way. But that would mean caring, and caring is weakness, a weakness that will get us all killed before our time.
That time will come, but it isn’t now.
I cannot die until Lilith is gone. That is all that matters now.
Alice and Dana are waiting for me to make a move, to take the lead, while they search themselves for the strength to test their conviction. Duffy is ready. I can see that she’s conquered this struggle of right and wrong. She is capable of anything. She will live with anything. We are not so different, she and I, not really, except that I know that she won’t enjoy what we’re about to do.
I know that I will.
I find that the only consolation that I can give this woman, the only comfort that I am even remotely willing to offer, is that I will make this quick and painless. But as I hand the beast the reigns, I am not sure that I want to…
“It’s okay,” I lie to her.
She calms against her will, her soul bending to my words even as it’s already been tarnished by Lilith’s touch. I imagine that I can feel that dark fingers of my maker as I pull this woman’s essence forward, and that thought sends a thrill through me. It’s almost as if there is this black, sucking sludge that’s snared this woman right at the edge of deliverance, the promise of hope… but while it’s just within sight, it’s always just out of reach.
This is what Lilith has done to her.
Maybe this woman and I are alike as well.
But then she strives for hope, for freedom, not realizing that she’ll never find either. She’ll never be allowed to enter into any peace, unless death is indeed peaceful. My experience with it has not been. Either way, this woman is not her own and I cannot compel her from her folly even if I wanted to.
And I find that I don’t want to. In fact, as I search this compulsion, as I read her very soul, I find that Lilith’s hold on her is tenuous as best. This knowledge makes what I’m about to do all the more delightful. She could break it if she really wanted to.
I lift a hand to stroke her cheek, pulling the gag away to release her mouth. “Tell me about yourself.”
She swallows hard before speaking. Her accent is thick, almost sing-song, and her voice rich and beautiful as she speaks perfect English. “My name is Sinethemba Green, but I’m called Inez. I’m thirty-two, and I am… was, a homemaker with a family.”
“Tell me about your family,” I say.
“I met my husband, Sean, in Port Elizabeth while he was on holiday. We were young, and fell in love. I married him and came with him to the United States. We were married for fifteen years and had three sons: the eldest thirteen, another ten, and the youngest, four.”
She smiles wistfully for a moment before it fades. “But… they are all gone now.”
I step closer. “What were your son’s names?”
Tears sting her eyes but she still knows that everything is going to be okay, just as I have told her. “Deene, Daijon, and Raza.”
I look deep within her, knowing that I have all that I’ll need, except for one more thing: her life.
No, I will not apologize.
No, I will not thank her.
But I will make this quick and painless.
I do not waste another moment before snapping her neck, the sound reverberating through my soul with its hollow crunch and causing the beast inside to purr as fresh meat rains down on him.
The other humans cry out against their gags and I look to my reluctant companions, quietly commanding them to take necessary steps of their own. Each has already collected what they need: something small, something personal, but they hesitate.
Duffy is the first to deliver a quick blow but Alice and Dana are not pulling through.
“They don’t need to die,” one reasons.
“We can just take the chip and leave them…,” the other echoes.
I suppose that we could just leave them, but I don’t want to. And even if I did, “We can’t have loose ends. If we don’t kill them, they will tell. They’re compelled to, and we can’t undo that compulsion. Their lives are forfeit.”
“Bette, this is slaughter. They’re just civilians…”
I step forward, grab each remaining human by the neck, lift them high, and squeeze hard enough to cut off their air without ending their lives. They wobble and retch in my arms, and several voices shout at me to stop, but I ignore them.
Alice comes forward to strike me down, and I know that she could, but I face her, holding tight, and meeting her eyes. “They could have died quickly but you were too weak. If you can’t do it right the first time then I will, only I won’t make it so easy and painless. This…” I shake the flailing bodies at her. “…is on you.”
Alice’s mouth gapes and the bodies above me finally gurgle out into stillness. I drop them carelessly at her feet and she moves to rush me in her anger, but Dana stops her.
“You think that you have to be this way, Bette, but you don’t,” Dana reasons.
She still doesn’t understand. How sad for her to be so ignorant. “Maybe I don’t, Dana, but I am. This is me. At least I’m being honest about what has to happen here. And if you were honest with yourself, you’d realize that you have to be this way if you really want to come, because once we’re inside, if you hesitate for even a moment, you’ll be killed.”
She scrubs the back of her neck as she exhales heavily. She knows that I’m right; they all do, but like the humans they can’t face themselves. It’s of no consequence. She still wants to see good in me, in this war, then she will die with her nobility.
I set about making quick work of gathering my RFID chip to a deafening silence. I know that I should feel burdened but I don’t. It is for others to mourn, and while it doesn’t touch me, even the swamp creatures dare not make a sound against the backdrop of what they’ve just witnessed.
The others finally start to move, and once dressed and defiled with stolen technology, we start our trek toward the airport. The rest of our group will be heading back to the CDC. It is their task to survive a close proximity to the compound and offer assistance as requested..
But we four, we will be catching a plane that will bring us to the doorstep of our enemy.
Who will answer: death, Lilith, or something seemingly less sinister?
It doesn’t matter. Either way, at that doorstep, we will find ourselves at the beginning of the end.
We’ve been walking for about an hour in silence, and only now is the airport finally in view. I had forgotten what it was like to be human, how slow and tedious even the most mundane tasks are. We’d have been here in minutes if we could have run. But, we’re human now… so to speak.
Droves of humans are flocking together at the airport like lambs for the slaughter. They seek someone to make it okay, to offer them false reassurances, to protect them from themselves, from us, but their vacant faces and eerily quiet pliability are testament to the fact that they know deep down that there is nowhere safe.
I can feel eyes on me and turn my head to see that my companions have stopped. They are still fighting the inevitable. Duffy has compartmentalized her actions and hides her regret well, but Alice and Dana… they have no stomach for this kind of work.
I have to wonder why they’re still here. They saw what I did, got a mere glimpse at what I’m willing to do, to enjoy, and yet… here they are, still looking to me, believing in me. And just like the humans, they want some reassurances.
Everyone needs someone to lie to them evidently.
Well I am not that person.
I address them calmly. “You have all of the information that you need to pretend to be these women and you have the chip. If something goes wrong, use the crowd for cover and run for the Humvee we left in the swamp. Otherwise, only speak when spoken to and keep your answers short. You both certainly look pathetic enough to blend in. Either way, pull it the fuck together.”
Dana just shakes her head at me and Alice glares, but at least they’re both quiet. I have no desire or need to justify anything to them. I give them a moment longer, but when I hear the plane engines in the distance roar to life, I lose my already thinned patience.
There’s no time for this.
But there is something else that they should know: “If you fuck this up and give us away, and if we are somehow lucky enough to make it out alive, I’ll kill you myself.”
I don’t wait for the shock of my words to register. Instead, I continue ahead. It takes a minute, but I finally hear the crunching of footsteps behind me and by the long gait, I know that it’s Duffy.
“You know, I’ve never really liked you, but I’ve never hated you either.” She chuckles quietly. “And it wasn’t for a lack of trying, I assure you. I even thought that I did. I’ve always found you to be insufferably selfish and cold. But for some reason, if you haven’t noticed, I still try to work with you. Have you ever asked yourself why?”
I know that words are coming out of her mouth, but they’re so incomprehensible that all I hear is something along the lines of, ‘Blah, blah, blah, I’m a dirty whore.’
I wonder if I actually said that to her if any of the humans would notice us fighting to the death in the street. But really, the important questions is if they did notice us, would it break our cover?
I sigh. “I don’t care to ask that question because I don’t care to know the answer. Think what you like, do what you like, just help me get this done or stay out of my way.”
She snorts condescendingly. “Well that response wasn’t predictable or anything. You may not care, but I’m going to tell you anyway.”
It’s quiet for a moment and I can tell that Alice and Dana have decided to continue on. I guess that they finally made a decision. I’d hate to have to kill them if it was the wrong one.
Well, I may enjoy killing Alice…
“I still try to work with you because despite what you want people to believe, I know that it’s a lie.”
It’s my turn to snort. She has no idea who I am. I glance over at her to find her eyes straight ahead and smirk on her face. And yet again, her lips move. “You’re so good at lying because you’ve convinced yourself that it’s the truth. But you don’t seem to realize that you wear your heart on your sleeve.”
Okay, this is utterly ridiculous. In all of my years, I’ve never been accused of being tender-hearted. And now I’m curious as to what insanity makes her say such a thing. I’m still not going to give her the satisfaction of knowing it. And, I don’t have to, because just as she said, some people are predictable. She’ll speak though unsolicited.
“You love Tina. There is no doubt about that to anyone who’s ever met you. I’ve never seen someone so completely besotted. You’d do anything and everything for her. I’m not even sure if I loved my own family that… desperately. I’d like to think that I did, but it’s been so long that I don’t remember anymore.”
She’s quiet for a moment. “But anyone who can love someone that much, can’t be all bad. And if you’re not all bad, you’re still good.”
With that she walks ahead of me and I focus on the beast, what I am, and it comforts me. Fuck Duffy. It’s no secret that I love Tina. I already knew it; the beast knew it, but it changed nothing. The beast is still here grinning at me with sharp teeth, wooing me with the lull of no remorse.
How strange that when I finally start to be honest about myself I’m accused of lying.
I look up as we draw closer; military personal are stationed at the fence around the airport as people wordlessly and quickly shuffle through. We find our place in the crowd, losing ourselves among them. For a moment I wonder if this is really going to be so easy, but then I see that once inside, people are being filtered into a single file lines and loaded onto huge, commercial jetliners, a guard with a scanner working his way from front to back on each chain.
It’s oddly noisy for so little sound. The scent of fear is thick on the air, and it’s all so… calmly chaotic, if such a contradiction can exist.
We each find a place in line, Dana and Alice a few people behind me and Duffy a few people in front of me. At least we’re moving quickly. I hear a beeping sound drawing closer and look up to see that the scanner is drawing near, and unwittingly stroke that part of my wrist where I implanted the chip. A quick scan after injection showed that it was working just fine, but everything is hinged on this one microscopic piece of technology. A deep breath centers me as wrist after wrist is thrust forward and scanned. After a quick look at the screen with each high-pitched tone, he continues down the line.
I feel something tighten in my guts when his progress is halted by a man in line. This man’s wrist didn’t beep when scanned. Everyone watches intently as those around him fan out and away from him. The guard scans him again but still no beep.
A third try and still no response.
Other guards move in on him, baton stakes at the ready. He turns in his ever widening circle, looking to those around him, beseeching someone, anyone for help with wide, frightened eyes, but there is no one. They all just pull away and cast their eyes to the tarmac.
He’s damned, and he knows it.
They know it.
I know it.
But all I can think about is how his chip didn’t work.
He was human before, chipped before, but now…
“No… no, no, no, no,” he stutters as he lifts his hands in a placating gesture. “I’m human!”
They don’t believe him.
And if anyone else does, no one’s stepping forward. “HELP, PLEASE! DON’T LET THEM KILL ME! I’M HUMAN!”
The guards constrict in on him cautiously and his search becomes frantic circles. He’s alone, left to die, and I feel nauseated as I can’t find a reason for his chip to have failed, unless of course they have a failsafe that triggers upon transition.
I stroke the chip site on my wrist again, staring at him and trying to determine if we need to abort this plan this very instant.
But this is all we have, all I have. There’s no going back for me. I can’t go back now…
His eyes land on mine and it’s then that I realize that I’m the only one who hasn’t backed away. How quickly I’ve become distracted; how quickly I fail at this task to blend in because my mind is too preoccupied with this unpredicted problem.
We scanned them after we injected them and they worked…
He points at me and takes a step in my direction. “You! Pleas-”
A sharp explosion cracks the air and blood spatter hits me in the face before the man drops to the ground in a heap, a hole in his chest where his heart once was.
I don’t even flinch. Instead, I just cock my head and stare down at him.
Perhaps he and I are alike as well.
But there’s no sand…
He was human, but his chip didn’t work…
All eyes have now focused on me and I realize that this task of acting human is going to be difficult. I quickly lift my hand to my mouth, trying to find a way to fake it, to recover.
The guards approach me carefully. I’m grabbed and held, and I don’t move a muscle, hoping that they will view my lassitude as frailty, as humanity. My wrist is scanned and there’s no beep.
Again, he scans my wrist, the hold on my arms tighter.
‘Relax,’ I repeat to myself. ‘They worked after we injected them…’
A third time, and like music to my ears, the beep resounds through the impossibly quiet air.
Once he sees my fake life on his screen, he signals to the other officers and they let me go.
I rub at my left arm, still warm from the guard’s gloved hand. It doesn’t hurt, but this is what a human would do… I hope.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Green, but we had to be sure,” he says.
I swallow hard and nod my head once as he thunks the side of the scanner a couple of times with his fist. “Shit, the battery’s dying…”
He looks to the body at our feet and exhales heavily before pulling a pack of travel tissues from his pocket and handing them to me.
“For your… face,” he says.
The other guards grab the body and everyone watches as he’s drug away. I’d say it’s sad, that he was innocent and died for nothing, but then no one’s innocent, especially not these butchers, and I’m not sad. That was my deal with the beast.
Besides, now there’s one less human to contend with in this war.
I go to resituate myself in line, but the guard with the scanner puts a hand to my shoulder to stop me.
Oh for fuck’s sake. What now…?
He waits for me to look up at him and while I can’t see his eyes, I can feel them as he studies my face. “Why did that… person, come for you?”
“I have no idea. I’ve never seen him before.”
He’s quiet for a moment. “You’re sure?”
He holds me for a moment longer, as if he’s trying to piece something together, and I take deep breaths, my desire to kill him nearly overwhelming at this point.
Lilith… I remind myself of the real goal.
He steps closer, and just when I believe that he knows what I am, he releases me. “Go on ahead of the line.”
I nod, keep my head lowered, and work my way past those in front of me, ignoring the fact that I’m being carefully scrutinized. I’m assisted up into the plane and ushered into an overcrowded hold. The inside of has been stripped out, leaving the cabin a long, open room with nothing but nylon straps hanging from the ceiling and short, thin rows of walls sticking up out of the floor to make a grid.
People are being packed in lines like sardines to sit on the floor against the walls. I take the next opening, crossing my legs and lowering myself next to another woman as more fill in around us. My long legs are squeezed in so tight in the cramped space that I’m forced to raise my knees to my chin. More and more are packed in shoulder to shoulder, and I keep an eye on those entering even as I keep my head down.
The way the guard looked at me, through me, it’s unnerved me. It’s like he recognized me…
“Are you as nervous as I am,” the low voice next to me asks.
I lift my head and see Duffy enter the plane before glancing to my right to see who is speaking to me. She’s young, maybe eighteen. She looks like she hasn’t slept in days, as indicated by the purplish bruising beneath her bloodshot eyes. She smiles anyway and I imagine that she would have been a kind person, maybe even beautiful if her pale skin and blonde hair weren’t so filthy.
In a way, she reminds me of…
I quickly look down into my lap. I don’t want to be reminded of… her.
Maybe not ever again…
“Your face…,” she says before gesturing to the tissues in my hand.
I sigh and quickly open the plastic to retrieve a few and start scrubbing at my face.
“Here, let me help…,” she tries again and reaches for the tissues.
I pull away from her and smile tightly. “Thank you, but I can handle it.”
I continue to swipe at the areas on my cheeks and forehead that feel sticky, and I can hear the rueful smile in her voice as she tries yet again. “It’s okay to let me help you, you know? I promise that I won’t bite.”
I glance over at her curiously and fight the urge to laugh. What an odd thing to say…
She blushes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… well, it’s just a saying but I guess it’s not the same now.”
It only takes a moment for her to collect herself. “I’m Leah.”
She extends her hand to me, and after a few moments of deliberation, I decide not to take it. We have a pulse now, but we still don’t become overly hot or cold. I’m not sure how we feel to humans and she’s not wearing gloves like the guards do.
I pointedly glance away from her as others enter and see Dana and Alice. It’s in this moment, even as I pretend that I don’t know them, that I exhale with a small measure of relief.
We only need to make it past the scanners at the CDC and we’re inside. We’re nearly past the first hurdle. And then… who knows what?
Leah, finally taking the hint and drops her hand. But apparently my ignoring her won’t be enough.
She’s oddly persistent, just like…
“Look, I know it’s been hard out there, and this sucks, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make the best of it.”
Her voice turns solemn. “We’re all that’s left now, you know? We need to stick together.”
I want to laugh at her words… my words. How different a face they take when spoken by an enemy. But she’s not the enemy right now, or at least she doesn’t know that she is. I wonder how she would feel about that fact without the compulsion. Would she still be so… irritatingly friendly? Would she still be kind? Probably not, but that’s a moot point. She’ll change and die hating herself. It’s inevitable. I… she… will never know how she actually feels.
I know how we’re supposed to feel, though. So I decide to play nice. “Do you think that we can stop the vampyrs… and stay human?”
She shakes her head and picks at the lint on her jeans. “I don’t know, but I hope so. If I ever get sick, then I hope they kill me. That’s something that I don’t understand: why do those… things, fight? Why would you want to be a monster?”
She shrugs. “I couldn’t live like that.”
The door to the plane slams shut with a startling bang that echoes her words as they rattle around in my skull. The propellers roar and try unsuccessfully to drown her words out, and all that I’m left with is a headache and a single, unspoken answer: why indeed…
Quiet continues to reign as we start to move, and I’m thankful. The initial burst of gaining speed forces us to reach up and grab the nylon straps hanging above our heads, and the steep incline presses us hard against the short wall behind us until we eventually even out high above the clouds.
I rest my head back against the wall for the hour-long flight and stroke a thumb over my wrist. We’re nearly at Lilith’s front door.
I allow myself to smile. I can’t wait to see her. We have so much to catch up on.
After we arrived at the airport in Atlanta, we were crammed into a fleet of busses for transport to the CDC. It’s been slow going through the demolished streets, and the constant bumping and weaving has given me vertigo. But we’ve been moving steadily for an hour now in the stuffy, cramped, and uncomfortable bus. And while public transport and sharing space with unwashed, noisy commuters is not something that I have ever relished about city life, the ceaseless quiet that has persisted has suddenly become perverse.
I’ve spent at least a normal human lifetime living in the city: New York, LA… I love being surrounded by all of the sights, smells, and sounds, the whole of the world at my fingertips. I could have anything that I wanted with one quick word and an unblinking gaze. But this time is so very different than what I am used to, what I had come to love.
There are no children to irritate with their vocal rebellions and nervous energy. There are no nasally declarations on the intercom to highlight how historic and tourist friendly this city can be. There are no sprawling, historic campuses full of bustling life blurring outside of the windows or the sounds of traffic horns and commuters.
It’s like the wasteland just beyond the rusted, gray hull of this groaning bus has settled in somewhere deeper, into each and every soul. Few people speak, and when they do, it’s only when absolutely necessary. Even Leah has stopped trying to pester people into a dialogue. I’m beginning to wonder why the humans would want to survive in circumstances such as these, and then I remember that they created this.
This is their doing.
This is Lilith’s doing.
But more than that, this is spiritual annihilation.
It happens to all living things given enough time and rope to hang themselves. It would seem that mother nature is a staunch environmentalist, recycling life habitually. What will she birth next after this fiasco, or will she take a few million years hiatus before starting over?
Or is it this mother that Lilith spoke of to be held responsible for the state of the world? Is there truly a creator, a Goddess?
If there is, if she made us, made humans, then why is this happening? Or more poignantly, why is she allowing this to happen? Could she not fix it, stop it, set it right?
To believe her capable of creation would mean believing her capable of destruction. But she chooses not to intervene…
Or maybe this is her destruction.
It’s strange. For all intents and purposes it would seem that a real answer to one of life’s biggest questions may have a definitive answer: there is a creator. Lilith is old, by far the oldest of our kind and undoubtedly the originator of all vampyrs that were made, not recently born. If anyone would know history, it would be her.
She says that there is a creator.
But, while with time comes knowledge and more importantly, experience, she is not to be trusted. As much as she’s witnessed and survived, she is a deep well from which to draw out so many secrets and bring them into the light. But with knowledge and experience comes a loss of lucidity, an overload of the mind, a blurring and warping of events and details. But worst of all, it breeds loneliness, especially for someone with Lilith’s temperament.
There is no way to know if what she says is the truth. For one, is she remembering things correctly or has she somehow mixed up the details as time has lapsed. And of course, the most evident concern with the things that spring forth from her mouth is that even if she did know the answer, she could and would twist the truth to fit her own machinations.
She said that she was the unloved one of all her mother’s creations; she was cast off and her human siblings placed at their mother’s right hand while she was forced to take scraps from their table like a dog. I can relate to such a thing. I was the cast off, the bastard tarnishing her father’s name with darker skin.
And just as she lashes out at the humans, I lashed out at my family as well. And did they ever feel that lash…
I can’t help but smile. Those memories will forever be with me, a part of me, because they helped birth the beast. They shaped me into what I am. This is how I know the truth of myself. And given my new propensity for being honest about it, I can admit that I find the memories of their demise to be fond.
I remember when I hated myself for those things. More than a few of the corpses locked in the abyss had been my own ilk. But all of that is gone now, leaving only bones and a beast to neatly clean up the mess.
What a pair we make…
The brakes of the bus squeal as we slow down and it’s then that I lift my head from the window and notice that we’ve arrived. The helicopters beat us here but the gate is clear which means that this should move quickly.
I notice that the others on the bus are perking up, pulling themselves together, and some are already standing and ready to make their departure.
The doors open with a rattle and a guard steps up into the front of the cab. His heavy feet have barely settled on the landing before he starts shouting an endless litany of rules at break-neck speed. “Listen up! You’ll exit the bus single file and stay that way as you move to the guards at the gate! Anything brought with you will be searched and contraband items confiscated! If you’re looking for a lost loved one, don’t bother the guards until we’ve cataloged all new comers at the end of each day! Each of you will be given a few personal necessities and a tent after you’ve been cleared to enter! Food will be provided twice a day for two hours starting at seven in the morning and ending at seven in the evening! If you miss a meal, you will have to wait until the next! There are public latrines stationed strategically throughout the camp and there is a strict curfew of nine o’clock every night, lasting until six every morning! You will be in your tent during those hours! If you have been found outside of your tent after hours without a legitimate emergency or quick use of the latrines, you will be shot without exception! There is no electricity and there are no showers! Water is rationed to each individual each week for personal use! Drinking water will be supplied with meals! You will be required to be at the daily clinical at ten in the morning, no exceptions! Fires are only allowed during the day and only within the designated zones! Any questions?!”
I’m certain that there are many questions, but I highly doubt that anyone here has remembered enough of what he has just spewed forth to pose them.
“MOVE,” is the last unnecessarily screamed command, and they do.
I sit and watch as they file off of the bus, waiting for everyone to be out of the way before attempting my own escape. I’m not entirely sure what I was thinking with this plan. It almost feels like I’m willingly venturing into a concentration camp, or maybe an end of life facility where all geriatrics go to die.
I’m finally able to stretch my legs out, and I quickly scan the crowds for Dana, Alice, and Duffy. I don’t see them, but then again, in this environment, we don’t really know one another so maybe it’s for the best. I wait in yet another line while yet another guard moves down a seemingly endless human chain to catalog us. This is the last of this game of Russian Roulette, at least until we start the daily clinicals…
Whatever that means…
I feel a tug on my arm and instinctively resist the movement. Of course, he isn’t strong enough to have forced me, so I didn’t move an inch. This causes him to scrutinize me, his head bobbing curiously from my arm where he’s still gripping me to my face. I clench my jaw. If I don’t get my head into this game, I’ll never make it to Lilith.
I hold my arm out to him and this time, the beep is immediate. I can’t imagine why it would matter now though. But, to my surprise, it doesn’t. He releases me without question, and I get the feeling that there is something strange going on here.
He moves past me and I’m ushered through the gate, my eyes landing on the steel beam and glass structure that is the completely and miraculously untouched CDC. The sharp edges of the architecture are both aesthetically appealing and foreboding as the overcast, silver gray sky reflects off of its tall, sharp angles.
A chill races up my spine and settles low in my stomach. It’s a strange feeling, but familiar. It takes me a few minutes, but I finally remember what it means: Lilith is in there.
“Lift your arms.”
I look over at the guard and lift my arms as instructed. I didn’t bring anything with me, so other than a quick pat down of my pockets, I’m quickly through to the next booth in line where a few women are passing out supplies from the flatbed of a large truck. A sleeping bag and small sack of travel toiletries is shoved into my hands and I’m ushered into a similarly burdened group waiting for their next instruction.
We wait until we have about twenty, Duffy included, before a guard instructs us to follow him. We are led through another locked gate and into the camp proper. From a distance, the camp ring around the facility was large, but I had greatly underestimated the number of humans. Being inside, I realize that there must be at least five thousand humans, small packs of them huddled together at fires or milling about aimlessly.
We wind our way through a labyrinth of narrow passages for what seems like forever before we arrive at the very edge of the camp near the outer fence. Several small, uninhabited, white tents await, the wind ruffling any loose flaps where stakes are pulled up or the entire structure was collapsed either by force or lack of care. By the random bouts of blood spatter on the fraying canvas and the light dusting of red sand flitting across the concrete, I gather a rather gruesome tale.
A sick smell hangs heavy in the air and I look out through the fence to locate its source. My eyes land on a giant pit, shards of scorched bone and chunks of black and red ash filling it roughly halfway. It’s a burning pit. And while I do not relish the idea of smelling that for any length of time, this could prove to work in our favor at some point.
I glance out into the horizon, the ruined city scape stabbing up from where heaven meets earth, and wonder where the others are hiding. The search parties, as expected, are doubled. They give themselves away by the random dust clouds and the occasional flash of searchlights in the distance.
“Pick one and get settled for the night. Your week’s ration of water is inside. You don’t get more, so use it wisely. The closest latrine is there.”
I look up at the guard to see him point to a row of portable toilets stacked against the fence near the burning pit. With that, the guard walks away, leaving everyone to become acclimatize on their own. People start shuffling into tents and I can’t help but look back to the towering figure of the CDC.
She’s in there, so close and yet so far away…
When I turn to pick a tent, I find that the worst of them has been left for me. It doesn’t matter. I set my things down to start putting it back together, knowing that if I do this right, I won’t need it for long. The beast is ready to meet her maker, and I’m ready to put an end to it all.
Sleep is an elusive lover when a calculating mind is your mistress. All night my synapses were firing, preoccupying my exhaustion. All I could do was focus on the feeling in my stomach, my connection to Lilith. It’s oddly comforting. I know it well, but it hasn’t felt quite like this in ages.
Well, I won’t think of that, of her. I will only allow myself to realize how different it feels with Lilith. It’s harsher, almost a pain but somehow straddling that fine line of pleasure. It’s like that feeling you get when you hear a particularly dissonant note in a song that causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand on end, or when you find yourself gazing at a masterful work of art, its vibrant, angry colors running an icy pin prick down your spine.
With… with her, it was raw yearning, a hum radiating warmth and an overwhelming sense of completeness, as if there was nothing more on this earth worth searching for because everything was already inside of you. You could see it and feel it and hold it, this glowing ball of light and joy right in the palm of your hand. But more than that, the connection was so strong that all of her emotions and feelings were communicated as well, stirring something so powerful in my soul that I felt this zing through my nerves.
I can tell nothing of how Lilith feels or what she is thinking. With her, everything is instinct, visceral, a game of guess and chance that throws caution to the wind. It took all of my willpower not to leave my tent and go searching for her. But it would be no use. They would never let me near her. They’d kill me, and I’m not ready to die yet.
I tried to distract myself with plans, but it was difficult, and not just because of my preoccupation with Lilith, but because I just didn’t have enough information to put anything useful in motion yet. I don’t know enough to make plans, so I have to wait. I hate waiting, especially now when what I want is so close that I can touch it.
I hear the first stirrings of wakefulness in the camp, and while I am ready to get started, there are other ways in which I am filled with frustration and dread.
First, I will have to pretend to use the toilet. And while this is a small thing in the grand scheme, I have no desire to stand in a stinking, unwashed, overused cesspool of human excrement for appearances sake.
Then there’s a human breakfast. I have no idea what will happen if I eat human food now. Before, liquid absorbed just fine. Wine, beer, liquor, opiates… just like blood, they were not something that sat like a clump of sludge in a stomach no longer built to function as it once did.
But solids, well…
Human food tastes like dirt, and once it hits the stomach, it is quickly rejected. And since it has nowhere else to go, the forgone conclusion is that what goes down must come up.
That will not go over well here. If this aspect of vampyrism hasn’t changed, I will have to get all of it down and keep it down long enough to get back to the latrine before I retch.
It’s like an anorexic nightmare: binge and then purge.
And I’ll have to do it twice a day.
Lastly, the worst of it all is that I will have to report to a daily clinical for any number of tests that could give up my ghost.
If all of this wasn’t enough, and if we can survive it, then the rest of the day will be recognizance. First, we need to locate a food source, a real food source. This would not be a difficult task if we were not camping on mostly concrete. There are random patches earth here and there, but pulling up a root just anywhere might be a little conspicuous.
Next, we’ll need to gather information on the CDCs entrances without drawing attention to ourselves. There has to be a way in that isn’t entirely electronically controlled. And then, if we do find one, we only have to get inside without setting off any number of security devices, none of which are we yet aware of.
Easy, I’m sure.
And then, once inside, we’ll be completely blind. There are no schematics. There is no internet. We can’t compel anyone, and we’re infinitely outnumbered.
And all of these things, things we had no choice but to leave to chance until we were inside, could very well be impossible. If that’s the case, we will die here. But there’s no way out now. It was a high stakes gamble, a risk, and all risks have consequences.
With a sigh, I sit up and crawl out of my tent to see droves of people heading for the Northern side of the CDC. I glance over at the latrine with disgust before deciding to just get it over with. The inside is everything that I’d dreamed it would be. It appears to be cleaned very rarely, if at all, and the stench is so overwhelming that I’m convinced the smell will cling to me for the rest of my short life.
But I bear it, tighten my jaw and count each second. How long should this take? I don’t really remember. I decide on thirty seconds and almost get there, but quickly find myself nearly running from the contraption and bowling over the human waiting his turn.
I get that humans don’t have a choice in this aspect of their lives, but I’m a vampyr. My sense of smell is ten times more powerful. I don’t just smell something that I should stay far away from, I can pinpoint everything about it with disgusting accuracy.
And now, I assume everyone is headed toward breakfast, and so I follow them. It takes about ten minutes, but I finally see the largest tent in the camp. Its front is completely open, rows of plastic tables creating a massive grid both inside and out, and each with small chairs crammed tightly around every edge.
Hundreds of people are packed into every available space, eating what appears to be some form of cold, clumpy, pseudo oatmeal. In the very back of the tent is a serving area where workers are decked out in their once-white aprons, plastic gloves, and hairnets. They form an assembly line as they repetitively pass bowl after bowl to the string of hungry people in front of them.
As I’m coming to expect, everyone’s overly quiet. There’s nothing but the random cough, polite excuse, or banging of utensils. I can’t help but wonder if Lilith has compelled silence into them as well. The mass compulsion is still a mystery to me. There’s no way that Lilith has clocked face time with each and every single human on the planet individually. And yet somehow, they’ve all been reached, touched, owned, however weakly.
We all are…
Perhaps she has a few trusted individuals that act as missionaries of a sort? I frown. No. That would require trust, and she hates us now as much, maybe even more, than she hates the humans. I take my place in line and look around for the nearest latrine. Once I down this slop, there’s no way I’ll make it back to my own campsite before losing it.
The closest that I can find is about one hundred yards away and I sigh. I just need to get this over with, at least for today. While the line moves forward, I take a moment to scan faces. No one looks sick. They’re skinny and tired, but not sick. I hone in on my senses and try to feel out any that might have transitioned and are just hiding. A sour expression while they play with their food would be a good indication, but to a seasoned vampyr, it’s a sixth sense, something just… felt.
It’s a little distracting with so many people around, but not one of them pings on my radar. I furrow my brows. In our time watching from the city, we calculated an average of one transition per hour from a distance, but I’ve been here for close to fourteen hours now and I’ve not seen one person turn.
At least, I’ve not seen them discovered.
Have they finally come to their senses and found a way to hide, have they realized that they can break the thin, compulsive thread holding them in their anger? No, even if that were true, they don’t know about the root. They’d be starving and out themselves eventually. And again, not one of the people here are giving me any indication of immortality.
I begin to deeply search each person individually just to be sure that I’m not missing something because of how many there are. But still, no one registers as anything but human…
I snap my head around to see a large man with hairy forearms, unkempt facial hair, and sour disposition on his face holding a plastic bowl of sludge out for me to take. He shakes it, his limited patience dwindling further.
“I ain’t got all day, lady. You gonna take it or not?”
I take the bowl and focus on retrieving the water and utensils so that I don’t draw any more attention to myself. It seems ironic that I’d given Alice and Dana such a hard time about fucking this up when I’ve been consistently failing since before we even got here.
I take my… food… outside and make my way to the tables closest to the latrines. All of the seats are full, but a man stands to leave. He dumps his empty bowl in the bin at the end of the table and before I know it, I’m reluctantly swirling my spoon around in the muck that I’m supposed to eat.
Lifting a portion, I stare at it. Its color is more of a gray shade than brown, and the oats look like soggy clusters. Turning the spoon, I find that not even gravity can counteract its adhesive qualities and I’m reminded of paint that’s been left open for a few days to dry and then stirred.
Looking at those around me, I see that they’re eating it without thought or complaint. But there is definitely no joy, and by their gaunt expressions, it’s not even doing its job. Blood doesn’t just give life, it tastes like life. It’s rich, a little salty, but mildly sweet. Its texture is smooth and slightly thick, and when you taste it, it’s almost as if your insides begin to glow with vitality.
My eyes track to the pulse point easily visible on the woman next to me and I swallow against my suddenly dry tongue. I’m not incredibly hungry yet, but this is cruel and unusual punishment. I close my eyes and center myself. I will find a root today.
I open my eyes and look at the sludge on my spoon. But until then…
Without another thought, I decide to just jump in. Before I can stop myself, it’s in my mouth and I’ve swallow it. I had hoped that if I moved fast enough, the taste wouldn’t have time to register. But no, there’s no such luck. It’s repulsive, like eating a grub worm, all slime and guts exploding in your mouth, and I have to guzzle some water to force it down. It’s even worse than it used to be.
That was a mistake.
The minute it hits my stomach, the gagging starts. I give it just a moment to see if it will settle, but it’s no use. I don’t have much time. Deciding quickly, I tear into what’s left in the bowl, thanking the war effort for making rations small. I do little less than inhale the rest of it within a minute’s time and chug the remainder of my water.
It tries to slide back up, but I cover my mouth to hold it in and force myself to swallow.
I want so badly to run. I need to run, but to add insult to my injury, I have to move as slow and humanlike as I can. I’m almost positive that I broke the dishes I dumped them so quickly, and I decided to compromise on my speed. I hope that this is what powerwalking should look like. But as my ever dwindling luck would have it, the latrines are all occupied.
This is the nightmare that keeps on giving.
I pace, holding it in and trying not to be noticed, but it’s not working on either count.
Lunging behind the latrines, I fall to my knees and retch. The relief is instantaneous and I give myself a moment to catch my breath. The taste is stuck in my mouth, grating across my tongue, and I find that no amount of spitting or swallowing will wash it away, so I decide to go back to my tent and clean myself up, starting with the thoughtfully provided travel toothbrush. But when I stand and turn, I find myself face to helmet with a guard.
“Are you alright?”
I want to scream and then tear his head from his shoulders. He must think that I’m changing. I think hard and fast, looking for anything to get out of this predicament.
“That oatmeal takes a little getting used to.” I smirk at him, hoping that he’ll see it for what it is.
“You’re one of the ones that arrived yesterday?”
I feel my fingernails bite into my palms as my fists tighten. Perhaps, given my inability to blend, I should just stay in my fucking tent.
“Well, perhaps we should get you to the clinic for your checkup.”
I exhale and push open my hands to stretch out my fingers. I can’t hide now. Besides, I have to get through the daily clinical no matter what. If they know, they know. I’ll fight until I’m dead. That’s all that I have left. But, there’s no sense in giving anything away until I have to. Besides, maybe if I go along with this charade long enough to get me into the building, I’ll have a better chance of finding Lilith before I’m taken down.
I lay my hand over my stomach and consider his request thoughtfully. I feel like an idiot. Something tells me that I’m a terrible actress, but I know that I’m a good liar.
I hope that my indifference shows my innocence. “Actually, that might not be such a bad idea.”
He puts his hand around my arm, his grip firm but not overly tight, and we start to walk towards the CDC. People notice us, but the minute that they register what’s happening, they divert their eyes. I feel as though I’m a condemned man headed for the guillotine, just like the one at the airport yesterday.
About halfway there, two other guards file in behind us and my mind starts whirring. How far should I let this go before I fight free? If I let them get me to wherever they’re taking me, fighting might be futile at that point.
I can’t seem to find the correct course of action, but as we step up to the steel shudders on the front of the building and the doors open to permit us inside, I realize that I’m out of time. I fight now, or I see this through.
Taking a calming breath, I decide to wait. The deeper that they take me, the shorter the distance I’ll have to fight through. I’m led through what used to be a reception area and then another set of secured doors to the right.
The hallway beyond is long, sterile, and ends with an elevator. My escort opens a door immediately to our right, but I don’t take my eyes off of that elevator. Something tells me that this is where I’ll need to go. The guard pushes me in front of him and into the long room beyond.
It’s a fully functional lab. Along the wall to my left is a cache of testing and research equipment laid out neatly on sterile work surfaces. A few lab rats are scurrying around in their coats and other protective gear, and appear to be testing samples of some sort. Whatever it is, it’s not blood like I would expect. The vials they’re messing with contain something clear, like water, and they’re dumping them into a gallon milk jug with a black label.
To my right is a line of medical bays, each outfitted with all of the technology that you’d expect to find in an emergency room. Each bay is partitioned with curtains so I can’t see them, but there are other people waiting in a few of them. Maybe even Alice, Dana, or Duffy.
I hope that they’ve faired better than I have.
One of the scientists looks up from her work and looks down her nose at me before frowning. After she finishes making me even more uncomfortable, she finally approaches us. I can’t help but frown myself. There’s something about this woman that niggles in the back of my mind, but I can’t place what it means.
I don’t know her; that much is clear.
Her hair is cropped close to her head on the sides with loose curls on the top, and the color is dark brown with a few strands of gray throughout. She’s older, a medium height, and of diminutive bone structure. But unlike those outside, she appears to be healthy.
The fine lines around her eyes crinkle her darker skin when she smiles at us. “What can I do for you both,” she asks.
The guard speaks. “I found this one coughing up her breakfast behind a latrine and thought you should have a look at her, doc.”
Her smile fades a little. “Ah, yes, come with me.”
She pushes her glasses up her nose and puts a hand on my back to guide me into the nearest available medical bay. “I haven’t seen you before. You new?”
“Yesterday,” I say.
She motions to the bed and I reluctantly rest against its edge. I definitely don’t want to be on my back if I get into any more trouble.
She smiles again. “Well, I’m Doctor Wilson. And you are…?” She picks up the scanner on a small stand next to us and runs it over my wrist. “Inez Green.” She looks up and quirks a smile. “Pretty name.”
I quirk an awkward smile of my own. She uses her finger to flip through a few items on the screen before setting it down and pulling a clunky pin from her coat pocket.
Clicking the tip, a light appears at the other end and she holds up a finger. “Look just here.”
I stare at her finger as she flashes the light in my eyes and find myself gripping the edge of the mattress as another of my heightened senses attempts to give me away.
I never realized how the smallest of things would be the most difficult in this ploy. Like blinking… I can’t. This shouldn’t hurt this badly… but we see more clearly than humans.
After a few swipes of the agonizing light, she drops her hand and picks up a computer pad to make some notes with a stylus. She speaks as she writes. “Well, we know that there’s vomiting, but any nausea, headache, or fever?”
I release my grip on the bed and fold my arms over my chest to keep my hands from attracting any attention. “No, I was fine. I mean, I was before I tried to eat breakfast.”
She pauses in her writing when I say breakfast and I hear her heart rate increase a little.
“And how are you now,” she asks.
I watch her closely. “Oh, I feel fine now. The oatmeal just didn’t sit well… at breakfast.”
She doesn’t flinch this time and I listen to her heart even out. Why would the word breakfast have made her so nervous?
She puts the pad down and smiles warmly at me. “Well, it’ll fill you up if you can keep it down.”
I can’t help but laugh at the irony of that statement and she chuckles with me. Her teeth are very white and very even. They almost look…
She grabs a device from a charger on the counter, sticks the bent tip into a small cup, and then puts it in my ear. We both wait quietly for the two beeps that may as well be a death knell. The weather is warm, but I still don’t know how temperate we are.
She reads the display, notates it on the pad, and pulls the stethoscope from her neck. Once it’s settled in her ears, she lifts the piece to my chest. If she found anything irregular in my temperature, she made no indication.
I let her listen, knowing that I have a heartbeat and I breathe. I’m less concerned with her possible findings at this point than I am with my own. Are they putting something in the food? I wouldn’t put it past them. I wouldn’t put anything past them. But what is it, why, and how am I going to get around actually eating it?
She pulls away, resettles the stethoscope around her neck, and resumes writing on the pad. I try to read from it, but at this angle, it’s impossible to make out what’s on the screen.
“Okay, well…” She exchanges the pad for a pair of rubber gloves. “…your vitals are fine and you’re not running a temp. I don’t see anything wrong with you at all.”
I smile at her and hope it doesn’t look as forced as it feels. “Well that’s good.”
I move to lift away from the bed, but the guard that wasn’t there just moments ago is magically at my side with a restraining hand on my shoulder.
“Not just yet,” the doctor says. “I’ll just take a blood sample, have a look under the scope, and then you’ll be free to head over to the theatre.”
The guard moves away when I relax again. “The theatre?”
I feel a cool touch to the bare skin of my arm and watch as it’s swabbed with alcohol. “Yes. It’s nearly time for the daily clinical. Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.”
She pats my arm in a comforting gesture and I frown. A tourniquet tightens and a needle pierces my skin, but none that matters. I finally decide to just ask. “You mean that this isn’t what the daily clinical is all about?”
She sticks the vacuum tube into the catheter and I watch it fill with my blood. “Oh no. We only do this if you’re showing symptoms. From this appointment on, I probably won’t see you unless you fall ill again.”
“But… what about the, well, you know… I’m not changing, am I?”
With the vial full, she meets my eyes seriously as she removes the tourniquet. I hold the cotton of the puncture site and bend my arm up before she can do anything else. I hadn’t considered healing in front of her… or anyone else for that matter.
She pats me on the shoulder before turning to the testing counter on the other side of the room.
The guard and I follow and she finally starts to answer my question. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a way to tell if someone’s changing. There are signs that indicate it may be starting: fever, nausea, vomiting, headache, etcetera. But those could be anything really.”
She stops at the counter and holds up my blood. “That’s what this is for.”
I watch as she deposits a small amount onto a slide and sticks it under a microscope. Just a few moments later she smiles at me. “No, you’re not changing.”
I let out a relieved breath and she squeezes my shoulder. “I think that it’s just all of the changes, the shock, the trauma. People generally have a rough first few days here, and then things start to settle down… become more routine. I think you’ll be just fine.”
I smile. “Well, thank you.”
She returns the smile and starts to remove her gloves, and I find that I don’t trust this woman at all. “You’re most welcome. Now you better go. You don’t want to be late for the best part of the day.”
The guard escorts me back out into the hallway and we head straight across to another door. I glance back over toward the elevator to see the doors closing on a couple of guards while one presses a button. A normal person wouldn’t be able to see the read out at the top from this distance, but I’m neither of those things.
“In here,” my escort says. “You won’t come back out this way when it’s done. Just follow the others and you’ll find your way.”
The minute that I open the door, a blast of sound greets me. The room beyond is a massive, open expanse. It must be five stories high, with just as many deep balconies from floor to ceiling. The room is tall and deep enough to seat at least ten thousand people, and for a moment I have to remind myself that I’m at the CDC for the end of the world and not at the superbowl for the half-time show.
Either way, this is an amphitheatre…
A state of the art amphitheatre…
People are excitedly crowding in from a larger entrance on the other side of the room. They’re talking, lively, unusually so. To the right, where I would expect a stage, is nothing more than an enormous projector screen and I have no clue what is about to happen here.
It all seems so… happy. These people rarely say a word and here they are, acting as if they’re at a Bon Jovi concert.
Suddenly, the lights go out as the screen comes to life. Instantly, all movement and excitement is drained away, bodies lower themselves into seats, and a otherworldly serenity focuses their attention to the screen.
I realize that I’m still standing and slightly panicking, and this combination makes me stick out like Courtney Love at a Promise Keeper’s convention. I quickly locate a seat and try to look as excited as the others, but somehow, I just can’t bring myself to gaze up unblinkingly in wonder, as if the Goddess herself were descending from the screen.
But when Lilith appears standing at a podium, that same insignia from the Milli Millu outpost hanging behind her, I can understand why they’re looking to her like she’s their savior.
The high definition makes me feel like I’m standing in front of her, like she’s here in the room alone with me. The lens focuses in on the unnaturally clear blue of her eyes and so many things start to fall into place.
“I need each of you to focus on me, only me, and listen closely. We are getting closer and closer to stopping the vampyrs and ending this war. As of today, the remaining rebel factions in Telaviv have been neutralized. New information found in their possession may provide details on how to stop the plague that they’ve unleashed.”
There’s a round of applause and even a few tears from those around me and Lilith graciously smiles for the camera, her white, even, sharp teeth glinting from the screen. She claps along for a few moments before wiping her watery eyes and lifting her arms.
The crowd immediately quiets, and I have to admit, even I feel the pull to listen to her, to believe her. I feel… closer to her. The beast inside of me purrs, that thrill in my guts tightens, and I find that I can easily bring myself to just gaze at her unblinking.
“Okay, I know that this is good news. And believe me, I share in your joy.”
It seems as if her eyes focus on me and me alone.
“I love you,” she continues. “I am doing everything that I can to stop our enemies, to save your lives, and to make it possible for you to live the right way, the only way. It is I… who will keep you safe. It is I… who will protect you. Do you love me?”
Like one, the crowd answers. “Yes.”
“Are you devoted to me?”
“Yes,” I echo.
The screen pans away from her eyes and I take a moment to blink as she smiles adoringly.
“Good. The time is coming where you will have to prove yourselves. And if you do, I promise you… the world will be yours.”
She fades out of focus as the lights come on, and I find myself just sitting there in silence as everyone else stands. It’s quiet, as if all of the joy in the world has been leeched away and that one bright ray of sun in the fog that had offered hope has faded out.
I feel strangely isolated and dreary, and my mind fights to know what’s happening.
It’s so quiet that I wonder for a moment if I’m hearing voices in my mind, but then it calls out again.
Just as I’m about to look up, I realize that Bette’s not my name, not here.
“Bette…,” she murmurs again, this time a little louder, and I feel slightly hysterical with relief as I recognize the voice. It’s Dana. She’s speaking lowly, so lowly that only a vampyr would hear. We need to talk, but even like this it’s too dangerous.
“Shut up,” I say.
These people make so little noise, at least when they’re not ready for their daily clinical, that the drop of a pin would seem like a concussion grenade. Thinking as quickly as I can in my befuddled state, I stand and lose myself in the crowd as they exit.
Once outside, I clear the walkway and drop to one knee, slowly and deliberately adjusting my shoelaces so that I can find her as she exits. Finally I see her, and once I’m sure that she’s seen me, I get to my feet and make my way to the nearest cluster of latrines.
Just as I arrive, another woman is vacating a stall and I choose it because its neighbor is free. The smell is everything that I remembered and more. Do they never clean these? Folding my arms across my chest, I try not to touch anything as I wait. Thankfully, it’s not long before I hear the door next to me open, close, and lock.
“Dana,” I whisper.
“It’s me,” she replies. “What the fuck just happened in there,” she nearly hisses.
I feel so… detached, but I’m still capable of the most reasonable answer I can find. “Mass compulsion, manipulation, a dictator’s historic rise to power…”
There’s a moment of quiet before she continues. “Bette, even I felt… weird, after that.”
I close my eyes. Nothing’s wrong with me then. “I know. It’s like it was working… but that’s impossible.”
There’s a long moment of silence. “No…,” she extends her answer into three syllables. “I meant that it creeped me out. The way that they were looking at her, answering her. It was like… like church, not compulsion.”
I grip the bridge of my nose as the smell starts up a pounding headache. If I don’t pull myself together, Lilith will get away with this.
“Bette, are you okay?”
“Yes,” I lie.
“I think that they’re putting something in the food.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, that explains why it tasted even worse than I remember. I swear… I haven’t had anything that disgusting in my mouth since my marriage.”
I grimace. “Thanks for that visual. Now, can you focus for five fucking seconds?” I hear a sigh. “Look, I don’t know why or what it is. I just know that we can’t eat it. No one should.”
“We can skip a meal here and there, Bette, but failing to eat at all is bound to be noticed, and it’s not like the people here are going to protest the conditions.”
She’s right. “Okay, I’ll check the kitchen tent tonight at dinner and try to find out. You and Alice need to find us a real food source.”
“Please be careful, Bette.”
“Just do your job…” I clench my jaw. “…please.”
I’m trying to be nice.
“Fine, but you’ll be careful?”
“For fuck’s sake, Dana. You’re not my keeper.”
“No, I’m your fucking friend.”
“I don’t need you to be my friend; I need you to do what you’re told.”
“Bette, if you want to revert to being a psychotic bitch, fine. I get it. Hell, I even wish I could turn it off like you do sometimes, but then I’m not that fucking stupid. I won’t stop caring no matter how much you fucking suck, so get over it and just promise me.”
“Just get with Alice, find us some food, and meet me in the latrines by the food tent tomorrow after daily clinical. Oh, and don’t eat tonight.”
I unlock the door and step out, not turning back as she calls for me to wait, not even when she suggests that I take Duffy with me. There is no careful in this world, not anymore. I set course for my campsite and Duffy. Whatever happens, we need to do something fast. After Lilith’s broadcast and all of the ways that this foray into the ninth circle of hell is going wrong, time is quite obviously not on our side.
As it turns out, Dana’s last minute suggestion to bring Duffy wasn’t a bad one. Not because I’m worried for my safety, but because a distraction is always a good way to… well, distract. After my talk with Duffy, I decided to have a look at the tent as best as I could before they started dinner preparations. She’ll meet me here when it’s time. Until then, I’ve been trying to formulate a plan.
Mostly, I’ve just been sitting here for several hours, learning the guard patrol patterns from the towers, the roof of the CDC, the cameras, and the foot soldiers, as well as studying the tent. The servers start cooking about three hours before dinner, but I couldn’t watch what they used because they don’t cook in the tent itself. The back of the tent is nestled up against the north wall of the CDC building. There’s a double door in the center of that wall that they leave open to the serving area in the tent, and they cook inside the main building. The tent is just an easy way to serve as well as a place to eat.
However, the serving tables block access to the kitchen door, leaving me only one other option to access it. I’ll have to slip through the dark, narrow opening between the wall and the tent, and then into the kitchen.
My main issue with this isn’t getting past the security. Every inch of this place may be monitored, but there’s no way to see everything at every moment. They’re only humans, after all. My main obstacle is that, once inside, I’ll have no idea what I’m looking for. I’m only going to get one chance at this and only minutes to find whatever this consumable something is.
This is the best that I could come up with, and now as people spill in from all directions, I know that I’m out of time to find something better. Watching the camera at the corner of the building, I wait for it to turn away from me and then enter into the stream of people, cross though, and slide into the crevice where canvas and stone meet.
I watch to be sure that I wasn’t seen, and with everyone staring at their feet, I’m in the clear for at least the moment. Crouching as low as I can, I inch my way up toward the door to the kitchen, staying just far enough back that I won’t be noticed by the servers as they pass through.
Now, I wait some more. Thankfully, it’s a short wait.
“Ready when you are,” Duffy’s low voice intones quietly.
She sounds close. I lean forward to see her moving through the line of assembly servers holding her bowl of gruel and take a deep breath.
She takes an innocent spoonful of slop and puts in her mouth, and I grimace when I see her grab her throat and retch. It’s authentic, and I can commiserate. It doesn’t take long for panicked shouts to disturb the tedious quiet, and I want to laugh when I see her play it for all it’s worth.
She throws herself onto the serving table and grabs one of them by his collar, coughing and choking and gagging. The other servers try to pull her off of their companion, but they can’t and the table gives way under their groping weight. They collapse in a heap, food, water, bowls, spoons, cups, limbs… it all comes crashing loudly to the ground on top of them as guards try to push through frightened onlookers to converge on the scene.
Now’s my chance.
I slip through the door, check for anyone I’m not expecting, and find only one. His back is to me as he talks into the phone on the wall and I curse his name, partly because he’s still in here and mostly because I can’t kill him.
He hangs up very suddenly and I dive down to the floor, using the island between us as cover. Fortunately, his panic and my stillness blind him to my existence and he runs right past me. I scramble to my feet, searching every counter and cupboard for anything unusual.
And that’s when I see a milk jug filled with what appears to be water, a black sticker on the front. It’s just like the one that was being filled in Doctor Wilson’s lab earlier that day.
I read the label. “Mutagenesis Inhibitor…”
Hurried feet come careening for the door and I barely duck down in time. This server speeds through the kitchen, unlocks the door behind me with his wrist, and is gone just as quickly as he appeared.
For fuck’s sake. I have to move.
Peeking over the counter and out into the tent, I realize that while Duffy is trying, it’s starting to calm down.
I pull the cap off of the jug and immediately the smell of… something akin to lemon-scented bleach, permeates the air. This has to be it, and I have no idea what to do with it… and no time to do whatever it is that I don’t know that I need to do.
Looking around, without thinking, without having any idea why, I grab one of the plastic gloves off of the counter and pour some into it.
I don’t bother returning the cap; I don’t even bother to tie off the glove before slinking back out the door and into the narrow crawl space. I close my eyes and take a moment to calm myself before glancing back into the tent. Duffy’s pretending to be passed out while they strap her into a gurney and I only barely pull back before the same server comes running back out with a couple of guards.
Knotting off the glove, I whisper to her. “Duffy, they’ll take you to Doctor Wilson’s lab. You HAVE to swipe her computer pad.” No, that will surely get her caught. “Or… or at least find the information on a chemical called Mutagenesis Inhibitor.”
She can’t really speak at the moment, but I’m confident that she heard me when she releases a low groan. Grinning, I stuff the closed glove into my pocket and move back out around the edge of the building where I lean heavily against the wall beneath the camera.
Duffy had better come through…