As quietly as he could, Jonafan Chan broke the rusty, old lock on the postern door, and they were out, into the cold, dim darkness of the tube's permanent night-time. A glimmering patch of glow-bush beckoned them, a hundred metres downslope. Crouching amid the waist-high, luminescent shrubs, they ran as best they could towards the warm waters of the Badwedom river, where they might be able to hide their infra-red signatures from the enhanced eyes of the Convocation.
Anjel Anqier was wearing only the shift the Convocation doctor had given her; she stumbled like someone in a dream, every now and then standing bolt upright to listen to something Jonafan could not hear. She whispered, "Now; they are coming, now. Be silent! You breathe so hard they could hear you, were you twice as far from the castle!" In the blue, green and purple light from the bushes she looked spectral and gaunt, but her grip on his arm was strong.
began to call unseen from the bushes; a small sound, it seemed, but to Anjel it was deafening. "By all that is merciful - such a noise! Come, Jonafan; they won't be able to hear us while that is shrieking so. We must move quickly." She darted off down the hill, dragging her rescuer behind her. He lost his hat as he struggled to follow.
By the river, up to their knees in tepid mud, they caught their breath. "We are safe now,"she said. "Why, Jonafan; I did not know that you had it in you to come to my rescue. Although, in truth, I am not yet convinced that there was any peril to be rescued from."
"Anjel - I must entreat you to consider that you were in grave peril. Too many of the good people of Agavenny have succumbed to this strange malady; a sickness that was unheard of before the Convocation came to this town. I grant that they have offered to treat the victims without thought of payment, and that many have apparently been cured; but not one of those have seen fit to return to the town. When they took you into the castle to 'cure' you I could stay my hand no more. I could not bear to think of you turning your back on our future, seduced by whatever the outsiders have to offer. I must know whether you would make such a choice of your own free will, or if some devilry were forcing you away."
Anjel grabbed both of his hands and looked into his eyes; in the darkness her expression was unreadable, but her voice was breathless and impassioned. "Jonafan Chan, we have known one another for most of our short lives, and our families betrothed us to one another when we were barely in our teens; but this is the first time I've been sure that you really cared for me." She pulled him towards her, through the sensuous warm mud, by his wrists, and they embraced.
Chan buried his face in her hair, which was barely stirring in the gentle breeze. He tentatively kissed her neck - she cried out in some sort of ecstasy. In the dim light that came down the tube from the distant lighted segments of this vast habitat he could just make out a distinctive pair of scars on her throat- so like the scars carried by all the other victims. He pushed her away, and caught a glint from her teeth as she closed her mouth.
"What have they done to you?" he cried in anguish. Just then she jerked her head around. "Hark!" she cried. "The bridge! They are on the bridge. It is Thane himself. I must go." She waded to the bank and freed herself of the warm mud's embrace, and that of Chan. "No - wait!" he called, as he followed her with difficulty.
The bridge over the Badwedom, on the main road out of Agavenny, was gently illuminated by glowstones set into the coping, allowing them to see the figures upon it with some clarity. There was Herrick Thane, tall, pale and aristocratic, wrapped in an elaborate but anachronistic travel cloak at least two thousand years out of date. Backed by half-a-dozen Convocation representatives, Thane was facing the head-woman of Agavenny, Gildam Sterm, at the head of a deputation of townspeople. Her outlander adviser, a short man, stood next to her. Most of the townsfolk were equipped with projectile weapons of various kinds, or with hand-held illuminators which cast a flickering light on Thane and his companions.
Thane's precise, archaic enunciation was easily audible over the murmurs of the crowd. "We have offered freely our best medical treatment in the hour of your need. It is up to you whether you take advantage of our gift. I suggest you ask the victims themselves whether they are better off without it."
"We cannot ask them, since they will no longer talk to us, once they enter into your fortress. Whatever you do to them in there, it causes them to lose all interest in rejoining their friends and loved ones. Many of my people suspect that you or your doctors wield some species of unholy technology that turns them away from us. You must know that such magic is forbidden here in the Dark."
Herrick smiled, in his pale face bright teeth caught the flickering light momentarily."I do know that your people have come here to hide in the Dark, to hide from everything that makes the Civilised Galaxy interesting. Perhaps if my people show our... patients... a mere fraction of what they are missing, you should not be surprised that it turns their heads."
Sterm was not appeased. "There are those among our people who accuse the Convocation of spreading this - malady - deliberately, in order to entice the victims into your fortress with a false hope of treatment."
Herrick turned to his cohorts, with a sideways grin. "When long-separated tribes encounter one another there is often a risk of infection. Rest assured that there is nothing false about the hope that our treatment brings."
At this point the townspeople parted with a murmur, and Anjel passed ghost-like onto the bridge, followed closely by Jonafan Chan, who had retrieved the claw hammer from his belt which he had previously used to break out of the postern gate. Something told him that he should not go into this meeting entirely devoid of weapons. Anjel walked towards Thane,as if drawn by a magnet; his eyes seemed to flash red, and she stood still, in front of him.
Chan called out "Here is one of your patients! I brought her out of your castle, hoping to get to her before she was changed forever- but I fear I was too late. Your devilry has already begun to turn her away from me; see how she comes to you, like a moth to a candle."
Anjel turned her attention away from Thane,with some apparent difficulty, and faced Chan. "Ah, Jonafan. This little backwoods town in the heart of darkness is so limiting for you. Come with me and let these people show us what we are missing."
"The charming young lady is quite correct," said Herrick. "The leaders of your self-absorbed community must accept the consequences of their actions; hiding here, scared in the Dark, they are denying their own people all the benefits of the great galactic civilisation that exists out there among the stars. You have never seen the stars, my friend; why should your own people prevent you from seeing them? Why, they even deny you access to the 'Net of a billion worlds. What kind of culture would you raise your children in?"
Silent until now, the small, wiry outlander that had been acting as advisor to the head-woman Sterm stepped forward. Chan vaguely knew his name; Coal, or something similar. He said, "Something tells me, Herrick Thane, that you prefer that your victims have no access to the information network. If they did, they'd already know all about you and your kind. Well, I'm under no such restrictions, myself. My name is Colen Coell; I make it my business to help people in situations like this."
"And what sort of situation is this, pray tell?" Herrick said, but with slightly less composure than before.
"A situation where an advanced culture meets a less advanced one, and proceeds to exploit them. You see, I already know quite enough about your people, even if I've never met with you personally, zar Thane. Long ago, too long for accurate, reliable records, some smart-arse genetic artist created your species. I don't know if it was some sort of twisted joke, or some form of exalted artistic statement, but they made you into living examples of an ancient and quite honestly absurd mythological being. The name of this mythic being was, of course, the vampire. Unfortunately, thanks to the self-imposed cultural embargo that the good people of Agavenny have in place, none of them have even heard the word. Which you no doubt are very pleased about, since it allows you to pretend to be noting more than some kind of benevolent charity offering aid in their hour of need."
One of the townspeople pushed forward, holding a shotgun with an illuminator taped roughly to the barrel. "Now, just a ten-second there, mister. We're not all that ignorant, pal. My old grandpy used to tell stories about vampires back in the old days; he got them from his grandpy, for all that I can remember. Nasty, undead, spawn of the evil one himself, whoever he may be, or so he used to say."
Coell smiled wryly. "Well, well; it seems your cultural embargo wasn't as thorough as your Founding Mothers liked to believe. The old stories haven't been entirely stamped out."
The townsman with the shotgun said "If'n that's a vampire, or something like, he's better off dead." He raised the gun and emptied both barrels into Herrick Thane's chest.
Anjel doubled over in agony, the sound of the gunshot assaulting her newly-sensitised ears. Thane fell to the ground, and in the dim flickering light he seemed covered in blood. Slowly he raised his head, and his eyes flashed with the red light once more. Anjel caught the flash and stepped forward to kneel at his side. The other vampires stood impassively around their leader, seemingly unconcerned. Thane waved Anjel away, and got back on his feet unassisted. His ornate shirt was stained, not with blood, but some dark, congealed substance, which had already stopped flowing.
"Have a care," he said, "this garment is nearly as ancient as I am."
Coell said, "Not a bad trick, that, if you want to impress someone who doesn't know anything about vasculoid technology. The good people of Agavenny, for example. But they have come here, to the middle of the Dark, precisely to get away from that sort of trick. Do you really want to confront them with everything they have rejected?"
"These people are victims of their own beliefs, zar Coell. By rejecting everything that civilisation has to offer they have doomed themselves to short and painful lives. Any wound they suffer might kill them; their bodies are as weak as the bodies of the ancient Earthlings, and the span of their years is as limited. People of Agavenny! I offer you new strength, a longer and more passionate life. Only submit to the embrace of one of my people and you will then live as long as you will!"
"Embrace?" Gildam Sterm sneered. "The very same embrace that causes sickness in my people, that you then claim to treat? You admit then, that you are responsible for this malaise?"
"By embrace he means 'bite', ma'am." Coell said, bluntly."That's what vampires do. They infect their victims with microscopic technology that changes them into more vampires. Quite a simple act, but one which changes the victim is many significant ways, almost always without their informed consent."
"Any who join us will be given an immediate initiation in the lore of the Convocation," said Thane. "We are proud of our calling, which is to help people out from under the shadow of death and suffering."
Jonafan cried out, "And you do this by biting them, and affecting them so they reject their lives and their families? This sickness brings with it a delirium, which turns those who are infected into different people. How can you justify such wickedness?"
"You can see that our condition has many benefits." Thane looked down at the holes in his shirt. "You should not be surprised that we see the world differently from yourself."
"Hmm. You might have been singing a different tune if that shot had caught you in the head," said Coell. "Some of these good townspeople have weapons that would cause your kind considerable discomfort if used in the right way."
"Your adviser does you proud, Madame Head-woman; a pity he did not arrive sooner. These weapons do indeed represent a barrier to meaningful negotiations." Thane whispered something in an unfamiliar language, and in an instant dozens of dark-clad figures with pale faces clambered over the parapet of the bridge, wrenching the weapons from the townspeople's' hands and throwing them into the river. Jonafan felt someone snatch the hammer from his hand.
Even though the figures were swift and elusive, the townspeople managed to get off a few shots, and at least two vampires were struck; one in the abdomen, a shot that barely seemed to inconvenience her, and another in the temple. Although no blood flowed, the second vampire was rendered senseless by this wound. Two other vampires wrapped him in a cloak and carried him off, away back to the castle on the hill.
This minor victory seemed to encourage the townsfolk. Although they were separated from Thane and his lieutenants by several outlanders, who faced them silently and implacably, the deputation from Agavenny pushed forward, shouting. Old Gnzeny the fishmonger struck one of the outlanders in the face with his bare fists; the vampire barely blinked, but knocked the old man to the floor with a sweep of his arm.
Now Thane called out, "Enough! Some innocent may come to harm. We have not come here to brawl with one another. My companions, I bid you transform yourselves."
The outlanders drew back a few steps, and from somewhere a smoky emanation began to appear, In the dim light from the bridge it was hard to be sure, but the vampires seemed to be crouching down of all fours. Herrick now stood alone; his companions had all dropped to the ground and joined the other vampires. Only Jonafan, Anjel and Head-woman Sterm were between Herrick and the strange transformation that was taking place. Angel was oblivious to the change occurring behind her, fixated as she was on Herrick himself. But Jonafan, looking behind, could now see that the outlanders had been replaced by a snarling pack of wolves, who advanced slowly on the townspeople, driving them backwards. Even old man Gnzeny struggled to his feet and fell back with the rest.
Anjel gasped in shock. Jonafan looked at her, then at Thane; he seemed to have grown several extra arms. What is this, some new transformation? Jonafan thought. But no; the arms belonged to another. Behind Thane's pale, imperious face another appeared with a look of self-assured amusement; Colen Coell. His arms and legs (which seemed equally dexterous) were wrapped tightly around Thane; in one hand he held a short wooden stake, which was pressed against Thane's clavicle. In one of his feet Coell grasped Jonafan's hammer, poised to drive the stake into Thane's body.
"Really?" Coell said. "A basic u-fog illusion? Hardly worth making the effort to disperse." He made a small nodding motion with his head - the rest of him was more or less engaged with holding onto Thane. The technological fog dispersed, and with it the illusory wolves. A dozen or so outlanders were revealed, standing more-or-less in the same places as their wolf counterparts. They looked around, confused.
"Zar Coell. I am pleased to become so closely acquainted with your good self," said Thane, languidly. "But surely you know that stake will do you no good. There are many legends about my kind; not all of them are true, and if they are, it is because we wish them to be so. The legend that we are vulnerable to stakes is not one which we have accepted, for reasons which should be quite obvious."
"Don't be so sure, zar Thane. I possess certain - countermeasures - against your kind. Don't you think that I could incorporate them into something with a bit of symbolic significance, such as this stake?"
"Is that indeed so? Then I am no longer willing to suffer your impudence. My Convocation! I bid you, remove this - acrobat- from my throat."
Two vampires, a man and a pale woman, moved forwards and plucked Coell from their leader's back. One or two of the others held back, and began to talk in quiet voices amongst themselves. In the gloom Jonafan could not be certain, but it seemed to him that the outlanders were no longer acting in the determined and single-minded fashion which they had previously exhibited. Something important had changed, but he did not know what it was.
Coell, a small man, was suspended with his feet off the ground between the two outlanders, but he seemed perfectly at ease. "It's too late, Thane. My countermeasure has done its work. No need to drive the stake into your body, you see; it works on contact. You should be feeling the effects yourself fairly soon, but I think your thralls have already noticed something."
One of Thane's lieutenants, a tall, gaunt figure dressed in particularly fine vintage clothing, stepped forward, and stood directly in front of Thane, challenging his authority. He said, with a sidelong glance at Coell,"The runt speaks the truth. I no longer feel a compulsion to serve you. Suddenly, I am my own master. You have lost your control over our little clan. Oh, Herrick, my old friend, how could you be so careless?"
Thane seemed absorbed in his own thoughts, but slowly raised his head and looked into the eyes of his fellow."Ah. Sandoza. You sense my weakness. I can no longer influence you as I would. I throw myself upon your mercy. Know this; the reins of control may have slipped from my hands, but as my oldest creation, you can take hold of them yourself; help me now, and I will help you to become my successor."
Sandoza looked around. "Mayhap I will not need your help. You, there;" he said, addressing the man and woman holding Coell above the ground. "This individual has a weapon which threatens our existence; kill him."
The two vampires stared at Sandoza dumbstruck; they were no longer compelled to obey their leader without question, but they could see the wisdom of this course of action. They looked at each other for affirmation, and began to move. "Too slow," said Coell, with a shake of his head, and convulsed his body into action faster than the eye could follow. Even the Convocation members, who were themselves capable of accelerated action in thought and body, could not react fast enough to restrain him. His legs, swinging idly beneath him, twisted round in an impossible fashion, and the long, limber toes of his naked feet struck both of his captors in their eye-sockets. They dropped him in shock.
He flipped a back somersault and landed next to Gildam Sterm, who was entirely unprepared for his arrival. "Zar Coell - what manner of man are you?" she said.
"I'm just a citizen of the Terragen Sphere, with a few advantages that I've picked up over the centuries. There are plenty of others out there like me. Anyhow, that's by-the-by. Zar Thane here is feeling the effects of something else I've picked up, a specific you might call it. It's designed to interfere with several of the technologies he and his friends use to pretend to be vampires. They won't be able to pretend so convincingly now."
Thane, with his head bowed and his discoloured shirt ripped, looked much less impressive than before. "What do you want from us, Coell? Do you simply intend to eliminate our kind with your weapons? Oh, no doubt you think that you have a moral duty to do so. But think on this for a moment. The good people of Agavenny have been enticed into darkness by their leaders, who wish them to live lives that are brutish and short like their ancestors. This is a tyranny which my people can help them to escape. I say to you, let these people make their choice."
"They must be free to make that choice, parasite," said Sterm. "You gave your victims no such choice when you infected their blood with your malaise. There can be no negotiations on this matter; bring them back to us so we may talk with them; then, if your offer has any merit, they can consider it again."
"The head-woman speaks the truth," Coell said. "Of course, if you released your victims I would consider reversing the effects of my anti-vampire specific. Think of it as a bargaining chip."
"We will consider this further," said Sandoza, and half-carried the weakened Herrick Thane off back towards the castle. The other Convocation vampires slowly followed, some of them hesitating as if the experience of making their own decisions was a new and unwelcome one. Jonafan rushed to Anjel's side, and held both her hands; she looked at him as if seeing him for the first time that day, but after a long while her head turned to the side, to catch a glimpse of the figures retreating towards the castle.
With a moan she broke away and ran after them. She ran faster than Jonafan could follow, and before he reached the gates of the dark tower they had closed behind her.
Coell was tinkering with some device when Jonafan burst into his quarters. He casually concealed it beneath a large, dark cloth that was nearby on the bench. Without apology or preamble, Jonafan demanded, "You say you are here to help us. If you have measures that can defeat these creatures, show me what you have got. You cannot keep these weapons to yourself - my people need to know how to defend themselves!"
"Ah, how encouraging to find an enthusiastic volunteer. I have been intending to show you how to use these measures at some point; unfortunately, I can't remain here with you indefinitely. You are Jonafan Chan, am I right? The headwoman says you went into the castle alone, to rescue your betrothed. That was courageous of you, my friend."
"It was of no avail. She ran back into the tower as soon as she was summoned. I have lost her, outlander; she is gone."
"That remains to be seen, The Convocation are still waking up to he full effects of my weapons. She may come back in due course."
"Show me, then, these weapons of yours, that I might use them myself if needs must."
Coell moved like a blur, and a thin, plain, iron bracelet appeared on Jonafan's wrist. "Right. Lesson one. This device will disperse their illusions. It can do a lot more than that, but you haven't got a
neural interface, so it'll have to use induction. Pity. Here; see this flame. Don't worry; it's not real."
A ball of flame appeared on Coell's workbench, a centimetre above the dark cloth, consuming no fuel and burning nothing.
"I need to calibrate it to respond to your thoughts. Say 'Avaunt'."
"Yes, yes, but without the question. I don't want it to be set to respond to the wrong tone of voice. Shout it. Avaunt!"
Jonafan looked at Coell, then at the flame, and shouted "Avaunt!" The flame disappeared.
"Good. That should do it. Now just think the word. Sub-vocalise, if you know what that means."
"Not really, "Jonafan said, but he thought the word as loudly as he could manage, and, once again, the flame went out.
"Brilliant. That's just a basic utility-fog jammer; if you come up against someone who has moderately advanced fog, it won't work so well, so don't rely on it. If you had DNI you could commandeer the fog and make your own illusions, but that isn't going to happen without you travelling way into the Light and finding a friendly neurotech."
"Zar Coell; you must know that all these contrivances are forbidden by the custom of my people. I am breaking with our traditions even asking for your help in these matters. Do not expect me to become like a slave to these things like the citizens of the Light."
"I know, I know. But you are faced with a people who have several hi-tech advantages; I'm hoping just to level the playing field a little. Look here," Coell said, lifting down an elaborately carved wooden box from a high shelf that Jonafan was surprised he could reach. "In this box is my most powerful anti-vampire specific. It's the stuff I had smeared on the end of that little wooden stake; a little bit of symbolism that sometimes works wonders against such superstitious creatures as these children of the night."
The box contained about a dozen waxy, golden pellets, slightly sparkly and greasy to look at. Coell picked one up; it smeared a yellow, almost imperceptible trace onto his fingers. "This is a contact-borne virus that interferes with the effects of the vampire infection itself. You can smear it to any object that the vampires might touch, or use a weapon such as a stake or a cross-bow bolt to transfer it with a little more prejudice. It's perfectly harmless to non-vampires, of course.
"It's not a cure - the medics in the Light can cure the vampiric condition given enough time, but it is a long and tricky process because of the encrypted nature of the beast. Those same medics have devised this countermeasure to weaken the vampire so much that it must seek treatment that only they can give it. Quite clever, really; the vampires use a form of dependence to ensure that their victims remain loyal to them. A vampire's victim will become sick,and even die, if they try to break free of their maker. This virus turns that on its head - the maker becomes sick, and the hold of the master on the victim is broken. But sometimes the hierarchical nature of vampire society can compensate for this disruption, and a new master takes over. You'll have to cross that bridge when you come to it."
Outside in the dark landscape a strange commotion could be now heard. The voices of the townspeople calling to each other in the distance. What now? Jonafan wondered. Are the vampires returning yet again to claim more victims? But the voices seemed to tell a different tale this time.
"They have been allowed to come back. Well, bless my back-up." Coell had swiftly moved to the window, and Jonafan presently joined him. Outside, in the dim light filtering down the tube, the lightly-clad figures of the vampire's many victims were moving slowly down the streets to return to their homes. The clamour was that of joyful reunion.
Coell turned back to Jonafan with a wry smile. "I think my work here is nearly done; but you'd better take possession of these countermeasures yourself just in case. You never know when this sort of situation might arise again. Take that bag," he gestured at a satchel hanging on the door.
Behind the returning victims in their strangely shroud-like garments came another figure, stooped and clad in elaborate but archaic and torn finery. Herrick Thane was unaccompanied by any of his clan, and seemed a sorry sight. Colen Coell went out to meet him. Jonafan stared at the satchel as if undecided, then scooped up the countermeasure and placed it inside. Overcome with curiosity he lifted the dark cloth, and took what was concealed there as well. He checked the window, in case the wily Coell was watching, but he was not. The small, lithe outlander stood talking to the vampire in the middle of the town square. Another figure caught his eye- in the dim light, could it be?
Yes, Anjel was there, wandering towards the town centre as if half asleep. He snapped the satchel shut and rushed out to meet her.
Her gaze met his, and she looked at him for a moment, as if trying to remember who he was. Then she smiled and held out her arms. In the centre of the town square they embraced. At first Jonafan felt nothing but joy that his betrothed had returned once more; the outlander, Coell, had hinted that she might. But her embrace seemed to be more passionate than he was expecting. Although they had been betrothed for several standard years, they had always followed the conventions of their culture, and avoided physical contact. Only recently had they kissed each other, and never yet on the lips. There would be time enough for that when they finally were wed, when they both reached the age of majority. But Anjel held him now so tightly that he could barely move. Her head bent towards his neck, to return the kiss he had given her a few short hours before.
Into his mind's eye flashed the memory of the needle-like teeth he had seen in her mouth earlier. He struggled, and pushed her away once more - she was much stronger than he expected. She made a strange hissing noise, and turned her head from him, but he could see that her fangs were still extended.
"What is this? What are you trying to do to me?" Jonafan gasped. "You are still behaving like one of those - creatures. By the Darkness, Anjel, we must find a way to purge this infection from you! Zar Coell has told me that there is a cure for your condition, but we have to find a medic from the cities of the Light. Let me help you - we can seek the cure together."
"Yes, yes, we should travel to the Light, though it would be painful to me," Angel said slowly. "Now that Thane has been replaced as leader of the Convocation, he is determined to go there himself. We can travel with him."
"I would not go with him anywhere, Anjel; he is the cause of all our misfortunes. You must surely understand that."
"He has brought me a great gift, which I would share with you. If you do not care for him, so be it - but we can still go into the Light together, as immortals. Let me share this gift with you now, then we will have all the time in the universe to explore the world and each other."
"Thane still has a power over you, somehow, doesn't he? I can help you fight this, bring you back to your true self. Listen to me, Anjel! This is wrong,evil!"
"No, it is you who does not understand. It is true that Thane was able to communicate silently with me when first I joined with the Convocation; that is one of the ways that they hold their people together. But when Coell used his specific on Thane, that link was broken. His thoughts no longer sound in my head. Now I follow him only because I respect him; because he is right. Come! Let me make you an immortal, then we can journey into the Light to seek our fortunes. Thane says that vampires are very welcome in some parts."
"Space alone only knows why that should be. Our people came here into the Dark to get away from the corruption and decadence of the cities; the same people who drove us here are the ones who would welcome vampires into their midst. I beg you - let us go to the cities, but only to seek a cure! You need to become a real human once more."
"Hah. You talk of being a real human, with your dark-adapted eyes and skin that has never seen the light of a sun. They changed us, when they brought us into the Dark, Jonafan; you are just as much a construct as the vampire race. I will not go back to that."
"And I will not allow these outlanders to come to our land and change us against our will." Jonafan now stood apart from Anjel, the satchel on his shoulder weighing him down. He wondered if he was going to need to use the weapons within. He glanced away from the woman, towards the corner of the square where Coell and Thane were hectoring each other. Anjel turned her attention that way too, seeming to listen intently with her sharpened senses.
"Enough; if you will not join us, Jonafan. I will rejoin my new kindred. If you change your mind you will need to seek me once again." Like a dark wind, she turned and raced across the square, leaving him once more alone.
Just at that moment the bracelet on Jonafan's wrist began to vibrate. He held it up to his ears, and was surprised to hear Coell's voice.
"You know, a direct neural link is much more convenient when you want to talk to someone, but since you haven't got one, this will have to do. I'm in need of a little help here."
"What - what do you want me to do?"
"Did you pick up my other little present I left on the bench for you? Don't bother to deny it - I can see by the way you are standing that you have something heavy in that bag. Or did you just bring sandwiches?"
"Yes. I have it. But I'm not too sure of how to operate such a thing - they are taboo in my culture, as you must know."
"I'll give you a little tutorial now, but I need you here as quickly as you can. There have been certain - developments."
By the time Jonafan joined the small crowd at the other corner of the town square, Colen Coell was an apparently helpless prisoner. His arms and legs were bound in some kind of shimmering, grey cord, and two of the newly-returned vampire victims were binding him further.
"Hello, again, young Jonafan," said Coell. "Unfortunately I can't shake your hand, but things are a bit tight at the moment."
"Sorry, little man," said his captor, a market-lad who had been one of the first to be struck by the vampire's malaise. "Can't risk you getting up to any more o' your tricks."
Herrick Thane spoke then. "If the acrobat tries anything, my acolytes shall bring one more person into the fold. It is my will that we take him with us back into the castle; with this threat safely out of the way, I will be able to take back the leadership of my Convocation from that usurper Sandoza." Thane gestured towards the head-woman Sterm, who was held tightly by one figure while another bent over her, ready to bite her neck. Jonafan recognised the one holding her.
"Anjel! What do you think you are doing! You are no longer under this monster's influence - why do you still do his bidding?"
"I'm doing it because Herrick Thane is here to bring us a new way of living. Our people have lived here, cowering in the dark, altered to be as meek as mice. This man can help us break away from our mockery of a life. We can begin to live with real feeling, with real passion."
Sterm struggled vainly for a moment, and said, "This is an outrage. You cannot infect me with your poisons against my will. I have chosen my life's course; it does not follow that of your people. Why have you brought your corruption to our quiet land, when you could surely find followers enough in the cities and stews of the Light?"
"Yes, why don't you tell them why you are really here, Thane," Coell said, now little more than a cocoon wrapped in cords. "Tell them that your 'gift' has more-or-less no effect on the citizens of the Light, and of the worlds beyond, most of whom have sufficient anti-viral protection to deactivate your injected venom. You've come here because this is one of the few obscure corners of the Civilised Galaxy where you can find people who are not immune to your bite. You need them more than they need you."
"You do not comprehend, Coell," Thane said. "There are plenty of willing acolytes out there who wish to join our kind. But they do not have the will, the resolve required to remain among my people. Outside of this Darkness there are doctors of many kinds who can reverse our condition. No sooner do the new recruits in those places take on our form than they wish to change back again. And they not only turn from our way of life, but they take others with them; vampires who have followed our way of life for hundreds, or thousands, of years. We have come here for the same reason that the people of Agavenny came; to gain some stability in our long lives."
"Now, Thane. I should expect no better, but you avoid the root of the matter, the reason why your bite is to be avoided. Anyone you or your people infect become ill, and will die if they do not subject themselves to their maker. But there is another effect - they become sterile, and can no longer reproduce except by making new vampires with their bite. You need victims who have no immunity, or your people will die out. The vampire race will vanish next time they go out of fashion."
"You have been using us," cried Anjel. "By the Dark, you have not come here to help us, but only because we are too weak to resist you." She released the head-woman, who stumbled forward. At the same time Coell was released by his captors, who started to untie the many knots with which he was bound.
"No; that one is too valuable to let go, said Thane. "I would take him back to the Convocation. Only with him in my custody can I hope to regain my former status." The vampire moved across the square in a flash, and hoisted the still-bound Coell onto his shoulder.
"You will not take him into your lair, vampire," said Jonafan. He had his hand in the satchel, ready to act. A faint blue light came from the bag.
"How would you stop me?" Thane said."You cannot stop what you cannot see." His body evaporated into a wisp of mist.
"That will not help you," Jonafan said. "Avaunt!" Thane and his burden reappeared, a few steps away. The vampire hissed at Coell with unconcealed anger, "So you have given him some of your toys, then. What else does he wield, meddler?"
"I know one thing that vampires fear," said Jonafan, "and that is light. Why else do they come into the Dark?"
"You are poorly informed," said Thane, now circling Jonafan, still carrying the cocooned Coell as if he was weightless. "The Light hurts our eyes, and our skin, but it will not kill us, not quickly in any case. There are many ways we can survive in the day-time."
Sterm spoke urgently. "Chan; what can you mean? We are in the Dark; there is no light here."
"There is plenty." His hand still inside the bag, Chan pulled the trigger; a blinding green light burst forth. sweeping across the square at shin height, scorching the ground and a low fence beyond. Thane toppled like a tree, dropping Coell, who rolled away with remarkable agility for someone who was so securely bound.
"Perfidy- a laser!" grunted Thane, now on his knees. His feet lay useless a metre or two behind him. "It is fortunate that my blood can seal itself so well, even if you cut off my limbs. Can you say the same?" With remarkable speed the vampire advanced on hands and knees towards his foe, then reared up. The laser gun flashed again.
"Let us see whether you can seal this wound", said Jonafan. Thane's head rolled across the flagstones.
Contorting himself like an escapologist, Coell attempted to free himself, all the while talking to no-one in particular. "I take full responsibility for what's happened, of course; encouraging a poor young innocent lo-tech to decapitate this wretch. Face facts - I've handled this all very poorly. The vampire was only trying to reproduce his kind in the only way open to him; one should lay at least some of the blame on the fools who designed the species. Space knows how long ago that was."
Anjel picked up the head; it blinked. She dropped it. "Careful with that,"said Coell, now completely free. "It's not even nearly dead, although it will be if we don't get it attached to a source of oxygen. Oh, look - here's one."
The torso was still kneeling in front of Jonafan, slowly breathing but completely unaware of it's surroundings. There was no blood, but the neck was blackened with the laser burn. Coell roughly positioned the head back on what was left of the neck. "The blood-tech should attempt to make repairs and reconnections, but they won't be able to fix the spine. He'll be paralysed till we get him to an automedic who can fix this sort of injury. He needs to see a medic anyway, because of my countermeasure; we can spear two fish with one harpoon, so to speak."
"How do you propose that we gain access to an automedic, here in the centre of the Darkness?" said Sterm.
Coell looked at her with a mildly guilty look. "I took it upon myself to call for one, as soon as I became aware of the situation here, two ten-days ago. There is a charity station and airfield a little over two thousand kilometres up-tube from here; they said they would send their best automedic, but it won't get here for another couple of days."
"You knew that a medic was on it's way, and you still forced us into this confrontation?" Sterm fumed."We could have waited until the 'doc arrived, then let it treat all the victims. You appointed yourself to be my advisor - you should have told me this, then I could have made a decision myself."
"The 'doc was taking too long to get here. By the time it arrived the vampires could have converted the rest of your people, or worse. I had to use my countermeasures to stall for time. Things didn't turn out so badly in the end." With Jonafan's help, Coell lowered the paralysed vampire's body into a horizontal position, to wait for the arrival of the medic, and reattached the legs. Thane looked at them with voiceless fury.
"Don't concern yourself, Zar Thane," Coell whispered to him, "I'll accompany you into the Light, and make sure you come to no further harm. Or cause any yourself."
The automedic, a white oval-shaped robot with innumerable arms, arrived two days later accompanied by a small fleet of cybercars. In the event, the medic could not repair Thane, nor could e cure some of the more advanced cases of vampirism, so after a few days the convoy prepared to return to the distant airfield to ferry them to civilisation and more comprehensive medical technology.
Anjel had avoided Jonafan all this time, staying in her parent's lodge and not coming out even when the convoy had arrived. On the day it was set to depart she suddenly appeared at his gate; she would not come in.
"I'm going with them, into the Light,"she said.
"Is it true, then, that the medic could not cure you?"
"I did not seek a cure. I am no longer the girl you were betrothed to - these sorry events have opened my eyes. Consider our plight! We have marooned ourselves in this place as far from the world as we can get, but still the world comes to us, with all its dangers and temptations. This sheltered life we have adopted here in the Dark is a sham, a deliberate rejection of the way most citizens of the galaxy live in this day and age. I've made up my mind; I'm going to leave, to find what this great civilisation really has to offer, out there, in the Light, and beyond. This is something I must do. Come with me, Jonafan!"
"Come with you and become a vampire? You do not say as much, but this is your intention. I fought my way into that castle against all odds, and defeated their leader, all to save you from this very fate. I would fight an army of vampires for you, Anjel. How could you think I would become one?"
"Ah - all this vampire stuff is just an irrelevance. I would give it up in a moment. I - we - can seek a cure once we get out there, in the Light, if something better comes along; they can make you into almost anything you want, out there."
"I want you as you were," Jonafan said.
"I'm sorry, but I can't be that girl any more."
"Anjel - now that Coell is leaving us, I must stay here and protect my people. If you decide to return, then - well, we shall see what we shall see. But if you come back as a vampire, I will have no option but to oppose you."
"By whatever means, I suppose."
"Do not put me to that test. If you must go, then go."
She placed her fingertips of both hands on his cheeks, which were wet, as were hers; then, once again, she vanished into the darkness. Voices: Future Tense - Table of Contents
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