A Space Vampire Novel
(Opening Chapters Only)
Copyright 2017 by Rob Preece, all rights reserved. No portion of this document may be copied or duplicated in any way without express written permission from the publisher.
Cover design by Rob Preece. Image of floating woman by Quinn Dombrowski under creative commons license. Star background by o-thellr under creative commons license. Airlock photo in public domain. Text by cooltext.com. Floating woman was altered by creating a new background, color changes and rotation.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people, places or products is coincidental.
“Kari. There’s something strange outside. You and your sister better to get to safety.” Bert Harding’s voice in my radio-implant was low, but insistent.
‘Outside’ meant the near-vacuum of Mjolnir, the small moon where our lab was hidden. Nobody was likely to randomly wander anywhere within a hundred kilometers. Of course, it was completely possible that Harding was pulling a gag.
“Yeah, sure, Mr. Harding,” I sent back. Harding was big on having me and my sister run around doing his work for him. I suspected this was just another example.
I’d slaved the lab’s proximity warning systems to my implant months earlier so I double-checked to see what Harding was reading. Sure enough, no alarms registered. Harding was a bit of a creep, always staring at me and my sister, so I figured he was probably getting his jollies watching us wiggle into one of our hiding places. Plus, he enjoyed pulling his weight by ordering us around. Still, Harding was in charge of security. If I didn’t do what he said, my whole family could get kicked out of the lab. Sure, the lab was a dump. Both the people who worked there and the equipment that kept us alive were rejects nobody else wanted. Which meant, dump or not, we didn’t have anyplace else to go.
Maybe Harding had seen something the outside triggers hadn’t picked up. The sensors were as trashed as everything else in the lab. Or maybe he’d just got drugged out eating too much of the hasro our lab made. Either way, until I found a way to get off of the lab and on my own, I had to follow orders.
I headed for the hideout I’d discovered inside the oxygen recirculation system. As I ran, I scared up my sister Shena on the phone.
“Harding is weird,” she said when I’d relayed the message. “I don’t like the way he stares at me.”
“He probably just thinks you’re a spy.”
She giggled. “Like anyone would spy on us.”
She had a point. Our lab had to be the least important, least watchable and most boring place in the universe. Still, the Security Corporation didn’t like the competition, even from a cut-rate lab like ours. So our boss, Captain Russart, did what he could to keep us low profile and safe.
A minute after I’d burrowed into the soft matting of the scrubbers, my sister piled on top of me. She was eleven and I was fifteen. That, plus the low grav on Mjolnir, meant so she couldn’t hurt me no matter how hard she tried but that didn’t stop her from trying to knock my wind out. Shena always did her best to be annoying.
“Kari, how come Russart hired Harding anyway?” she whispered. “You did a better job than he ever could.”
“Yeah, like anyone will trust a kid with anything important.”
“No kidding,” Shena said. “It’s ridiculous that—”
“Kari.” My mother’s voice sounded hoarse over the phone. “There’s something wrong.”
I re-checked with the alarm system artificial intelligence but it showed all systems okay.
“It’s probably another of Harding’s drills.” I’d hate to say that my mother was paranoid, but it seemed I split my life between my father’s Kung Fu lessons and my mother’s detailed escape plans.
“What drill? There’s no notice…” A loud series of coughs cut off whatever she’d intended to say.
“Mother? Are you okay?” We’d been isolated long enough that there was no disease on our lab… so why the coughing?
“Take…” hacking, like she was heaving out the inside of her lungs, “…take care of Shena. You’re the strong one.”
I hated being the strong one.
Although the atmosphere scrubbing system where we were hiding was pretty dark, I could make out my sister’s face. She looked like she was about to be sick. Not a good idea.
Over my radio-implant, I heard more coughing. Then, from my dad, the single word “gas.”
Russart took way too many shortcuts, pushing to make quota regardless of safety. Over the three years my parents had worked there, I’d lost count of the times the lab had sprung leaks. We all wore skinsuits all the time, of course. But Russart never bothered supplying gas masks.
I blinked my heads-up alive again, just in case, although surely a spill would have triggered an alarm.
Everything still glowed green. According to the lab’s A.I. there wasn’t a thing wrong in the universe. Everybody was healthy and all of the equipment was fine.
Except now I heard more coughing. It wasn’t just our parents. It seemed to be everyone.
I sat up so quickly I almost got dizzy. Harding had been right and this wasn’t a drill.
“I’m scared,” Shena allowed.
I’m sure my mother would have told me to comfort her. That wasn’t happening. “Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”
As I watched, one of the green bars twisted red. External failure? Sure the lab could rupture. But that didn’t match the coughing or Harding knowing in advance.
“Stay here,” I signed rather than spoke. “Keep radio silence and don’t make a sound.”
If it weren’t for the coughing, I would have bet the lab’s ancient A.I. was giving us another false alarm. Everything in Captain Russart’s rundown lab, definitely including the A.I., had been rejected by somebody else, tossed out to make way for modern equipment, abandoned when the platform’s population shrank or emigrated, or been sold at a discount as sub-standard. In a real lab, nobody would have been needed to monitor the systems. Here, though, we had some sort of incident just about every day. In the previous week alone we’d had three filtration malfunctions, which was how I’d found my hiding place in the graphene CO2 scrubber. We’d also had a major rupture of the lab’s exterior skin, venting oxygen to the vacuum outside the station itself, and there was a continual trickle of drug contamination, often leading to temporary poisonings, as just one result of getting by with inadequate manufacturing equipment.
No wonder I wanted out. Not to mention I was tired of working my rear end off for nothing because Russart considered I was just a sort of attachment to my parents… whom he underpaid anyway.
Substandard hardware or not, repair-bots were cheap and Russart hadn’t scrimped on them. No matter what disaster hit the lab, the A.I. should have bots in place within seconds, sealing any breaches, cleaning up contamination. No way should an external breach go code-red.
“Stay here,” I signed again.
It took less than twenty seconds for me to remove the cover from the air recirculation system, slip out, and re-latch it.
During that time, though, the sounds of coughing faded. That had to be good news, right?
I re-checked my display, hoping to see the indicators flickering back to green.
The reds, and there were more of them now, were slowly flashing out but I didn’t get any comfort from that. They weren’t going back to amber or green. They were going black. Which meant system shut-down.
Then the rest of them went black at once—at the same time as an annoying buzz filled the lab.
I recognized the high-pitched zing—slow, slow, quick-quick. Everyone knew this alarm. Everyone dreaded it. We were venting atmosphere to space and someone, or something, was coming in.
I almost called Harding but he could hear the alarm as well as I could and radio silence might be important. For sure he had to have his hands full.
I sucked in as much oxygen as I could before it was gone. I didn’t have much hope of doing anything useful if the lab’s repair-bots couldn’t handle the breach, but I made my way to the central console anyway.
The lab’s lights went out before I’d taken ten steps, replaced by the underpowered emergency system—I remembered my mother complaining about Russart diverting emergency power to help churn out more Hasro but hadn’t really thought about the consequences. Of course, nobody expects multiple catastrophic system failure.
Although the emergency system lighting was dim, it shed enough photons for me to make my way across the floor.
I stumbled over something as I reached the console but I ignored whatever it was and slapped the override buttons to rev up atmosphere generation, flush toxins and reboot the artificial intelligence.
Only when I’d taken care of basic emergency procedure did I look around.
I’d missed my adult eye implants when I hit twelve—I was small for my size and my parents were saving money. Which meant I couldn’t see much into the infrared spectrum. So it seemed strange that I could see anything at all when the emergency lighting went black.
Being able to see in near-pitch darkness wasn’t what I wanted right then. Because what I saw in the putrid glow put out by the emergency systems was too horrid.
Bodies lay strewn around the lab floor. The thing I’d stumbled over on my way to the control board turned out to be my mother... or rather her body. She lay in a pool of blood.
Seeing that black blood made me dizzy so tried not to think and just let my training do its job. I reached for her throat, desperately feeling for a pulse.
Can’t be, I promised myself. I wiggled my fingers. It was getting cold in the dark lab. Maybe I’d missed her artery. Maybe I needed to try harder. Maybe…
“Come on.” My voice sounded squeaky and weak in the thinning atmosphere. “You’ve got to be all right.”
She wasn’t all right though, and she didn’t reply.
This was more important than any security risk. I broke radio silence to emergency-link from my implant to hers, signaling it to take her into life-preservation mode, shutting down unnecessary systems and pumping what blood she had to the brain.
Mom’s implant signal was weak. All I could get from it was that she’d suffered multiple simultaneous organ failure. But it did confirm it was activating emergency mode.
A part of me wanted to stay by her side, howl at Thor overhead, rage against an unfair universe. But both my parents had raised me to respond to crisis through action.
She must have known she was dying when she’d told me to take care of Shena. Instead of following her last wishes, I’d abandoned my sister.
Turned out, all those drills she’d taken us through hadn’t been so silly after all. They were finally going to come in handy… if I hadn’t already ruined everything.
I’ll take care of Shena, I mentally promised the corpse that had been my mother. You’ve got my word.
I’d already broken radio silence once, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to do it again. My sister had a bad habit of following me around and I definitely didn’t want her to see this. “Stay quiet and stay hidden,” I radioed to Shena. “I’m coming back as soon as I can.” At least the atmosphere scrubbing plant was probably the safest place in the lab for her to wait.
Then I switched off my radio implant.
“Okay.” The sound of my own voice startled me and only partly because of the squeaky sound. “Think, don’t just react.”
I needed to get back to Shena, but first, I needed to get my mother to cryo. If I could get her frozen in time, the hospital on Gardenia should be able to revive her. We’d be in debt for the rest of our lives from what they’d charge us, but at least she’d be alive.
I ignored the dizzy feeling I got when I stood, figuring I could deal with my shock later. My mother was bigger than me but Mjolnir didn’t have much gravity so when I grabbed her under her armpits and dragged her toward the emergency cryo system, her body came along. I’d just made it to the hatch when my heads-up went into display mode without authorization.
Multiple organ failure.
It took me a long second to realize what I was seeing. This wasn’t my mother’s failure report—it was mine.
I tried to turn around but my legs had stopped listening and I pitched forward into the cryo.
The last thing I saw, as my consciousness faded, was the black uniform of the Security Corporation.
Security was never good news, especially for a lab that violated station rules. Still, any help was better than dying there. I needed to tell them about my mother. They would surely shut down the lab so I needed to let them know where Shena was hiding. I needed…
Then I didn’t think any more.
“Well, will you look at this?”
Normally when someone talks, I open my eyes and pretend to pay attention. My father used to slap me in the head when I didn’t show him what he called “respect,” and what I called, but only in my own mind, “slavish devotion.”
I didn’t recognize this voice, which was odd considering only twelve people lived at the lab and I knew all of them. Still, something in the male speaker’s tone warned me to stay calm and listen.
“Lab results finally in?” The second voice was female but it sounded just as indifferent.
“Could have saved us a lot of work if we’d gotten them earlier.”
“You mean she’s—”
“No, she’s not dead. Yet. Might as well be, though. She got a good dose of the gas. I guess she’s at that, well, uncomfortable age.”
“You mean… oh, no.” For the first time I thought I heard compassion in the woman’s voice. “She looks so young. She doesn’t even have her adult implants.”
“I’m sure that’s why they brought her in. Fooled them too but it turns out she’s a teen.”
A long pause. I came up empty when I tried to call the heads-up from my implants, so I used a meditation I’d learned during kung-fu practice to steady my pulse and keep my breathing slow and even.
“At least she hasn’t wakened,” the female said. “I don’t know if I could terminate a kid once I’d talked with her.”
Terminated? I didn’t like that word, especially in connection with me.
“She’s not a kid anymore.”
“Still looks like one. You know, I just don’t—”
“Don’t even think that way or you’ll be as dead as she is. Besides, we don’t have to do anything. We’ll message Security that we’re ready for them to pick up their merchandise. When they get here, I’ll let them know the details.”
“Oh, that’s brilliant. You tell them she’s you-know-what before we hand her over and they’ll find some reason they can’t stop by.”
“So we keep that part a secret.” The male sounded cheerful. “No reason for us to worry about terminating the little thing. We tell Security when they show up and it’s their job—they’ll have to handle the dirty work. In the meantime, we can get back to our job healing actual people.”
“I guess that should be comforting.”
It didn’t seem comforting to me.
“I hate those—”
“Don’t even say the word. You don’t think Security A.I. monitors for key tags? Just let it go.”
The voices moved on, but I waited another minute before cautiously opening one eye.
I’d never been in a hospital before, but I’d seen plenty of tri-Ds. The blinking monitors, the ozone stink, and the white sheets weren’t exactly the same as those in the tri-ds. For one thing, this wasn’t as clean and organized. Still, it didn’t take any great genius to realize I’d somehow ended up in a major medical clinic.
When I remembered the last read-out on my pop-up, I realized I shouldn’t be too surprised. A hospital was the best chance after multiple organ failure.
Recalling that display made me remember the rest of it—my mother’s body lying on the floor, almost but not quite to the cryo, the harsh buzz of the intrusion alarm and … and my sister hiding in the air filtration system.
For a moment I let myself hope. They’d found me in the cryo near my mother. If they’d brought me, maybe they’d brought her.
But there wasn’t much market for full-grown adults and we didn’t have much money in our account, not hospital-paying money. Which meant Security probably wouldn’t bother bringing mom in, even if it hadn’t been too late. I tried to remember where my father had been before Harding had called in his warning and decided he’d been in the Hasro lab. It would take a miracle for either of them to have gotten away.
Thinking about my family messed with my meditation and my heart started pounding uncomfortably.
Once the emergency hit the lab, I’d been responsible for two things. First, my mother had told me to take care of Shena. Second, I’d needed to get my mother frozen before her death could become permanent. I’d failed at both of them.
A part of me wanted to give up. After all, what could Security do to me that would make matters worse? Then, even though my radio implant was inoperative, I somehow heard the echo of my mother’s voice in my head. “You’re the strong one.”
Yeah, right. I was so strong I didn’t know if I could lift the sheet off my hospital bed.
A picture of Shena popped into my head. She’d be hiding and waiting in the atmosphere scrubber, certain I’d return to rescue her. She’d be getting cold but the scrubber would retain enough oxygen to keep her alive for days even if the lab was completely without power. I didn’t have time to lie in a hospital bed feeling sorry for myself. Maybe there was nothing I could do for my mother. Maybe my father had gotten caught in the disaster as well. I’d mourn them later. For now, though, I was going to do what I could for my sister.
I looked around, moving just my eyes. A physical call button, glowing bright red, was within easy reach. In a weak moment, I stretched my hand toward it. Remembering those doctors talking about termination made me yank my hand back. Right then, they were calling Security in to deal with me so they wouldn’t have to kill me themselves. If they knew I was awake, they’d tell Security to hurry. Or maybe they’d just overcome their scruples. Either way, I was dead.
I ignored the part of me that wanted to give up. I’d promised my mother I’d take care of Shena and I intended to do just that. First, though, I had to get away from the hospital and back to the lab.
From what I’d seen in the vids, the first thing they do in the hospital is slave your implant to their systems. That lets them monitor and regulate your heartbeat, detect any failures, and pump you with whatever drugs their A.I. decides you need. The process also cuts off voluntary muscle control, which means a patient can’t just get up and walk away.
Still, my hand had jerked just slightly when I’d seen the call button. And I was pretty sure I’d voluntarily opened my eyes. Could my implants have failed as a result of my cryonic failure rather than from the hospital’s hacking?
Despite an irrational fear that if I shut my eyes they’d stay shut, I tried a blink.
Next, I tried moving a finger. That worked too.
I checked everywhere I could without moving my head, then ran my right hand down my body.
I was in the standard jell-bath bed, completely naked beneath the decorative white sheet that provided minimal decency. From what I could tell, I wasn’t physically attached to anything.
A lot of the supplies we got at lab came shipped in jell, so I knew to move in it … slowly. Jells are designed to prevent impact damage, so the harder you push, the more firmly they push back.
At the back of my brain, some part of me kept shouting to hurry, to get away from there before Security came. My sense of being lost in the world without my parents added to the panic. But I forced myself to stay calm as I gently eased my way free from the sticky stuff.
People are supposed to get their adult software upgrades for their implants when they turn twelve. Shena would have gotten hers on her birthday, a week away and I would have gone along and gotten mine at the same time, my parents lying about my age. Even the kid version has a lot of features, though. I depended on mine for a heads-up display monitoring my health, tracking the time I spent in the centrifuge to keep my muscles and bones from atrophying, sending videos, talking, watching tri-ds, and just about everything else. Losing it added to the weight of losing everything else.
Losing my implant did have a couple of advantages. First, it meant that the hospital wasn’t using it to monitor me and couldn’t use it to track me if I got out. Second, if it were working, I’d monitor my condition and, when I did I’d get a visual reminder of finding my mother and then failing to get her to cryo in time.
Thinking of my mother stalled me for a second, and during that moment I gave up a bit of the progress I’d made through the jell. So I forced the memories right back down. My parents had made some bad decisions and had nothing but rotten luck all their lives, but they were my parents and I didn’t want to remember them lying on the ground, their lungs and blood coughed out around them. For sure, I didn’t want to play back any video of finding them that way.
Getting free seemed to take forever, but finally I stood beside the hospital bed, gently tugging free my right arm—the last part of me embedded in the jell.
The jell gave a hiss when my arm came free.
I was completely naked, so I yanked the decorative sheet off the jell-bed, wrapped it around myself, and took a big step toward the EXIT sign.
That’s when a thought hit me. Clearly the doctors had been horrified by whatever had happened to me. Maybe I had some contagious disease that might infect the entire station. Maybe alien babies had embedded themselves in my stomach and would burrow their way out through my guts and skin when they became viable. At any rate, I needed to know why my implant had told me my body had gone through major organ failure and figure out whether I was going to go out and kill everyone.
With my implant off-line, I couldn’t read the memory stick at the foot of the jell-bed but I grabbed it anyway. When I got my systems working again, I’d scan it and figure out what had the doctors so bent. I just had to hope I wouldn’t kill everyone in Gardenia before I had that chance.
Only when I had the memory stick firmly in hand did I head for the exit.
People said that our lab stank.
It hadn’t seemed that bad to me: maybe because I was used to it or maybe because my implant had been programmed to set the odors of sweating humans, recycled air, and failing electronics as normal. There was no mistaking the miasma of whatever pit I’d fallen into in the misnamed Gardenia, though. This was truly rank.
I hadn’t been into Gardenia, the only real town on the mini-moon Mjolnir, for nearly a year. Back then, we hadn’t stayed in the nicer areas, but at least it had been clean.
I choked down a sob when I remembered my family had planned to come to Gardenia in just a few days for my sister’s and my adult implant upgrades. Mom had talked about a ‘real’ vacation together although I had no idea how we would afford it. Instead of a family vacation in a mid-priced hotel, I huddled alone, behind a slag pile with severe halitosis, and wondered where to go next.
The name Gardenia was supposed to evoke the idea of a beautiful garden. The reality: not so much. Like the entire mined-out moon on which it sat, Gardenia had already been a pit when my family had arrived on Mjolnir orbit more than a decade earlier. From the looks of the slum outside the hospital, things had gotten worse. Lots worse.
The planetoid wasn’t completely devoid of beauty. Overhead, Thor, the gas giant Mjolnir orbited, gleamed red and purple—an impressive vision even through the scratched and battered diamond dome that kept Gardenia’s fouled atmosphere from drifting off into space.
Light from Asgard, the distant sun, provided a gentle and constant glow as it refracted off millions of orbital solar collectors that theoretically grabbed every erg of power that reached them in the ever-more difficult task of suppling visiting ships and keeping the platform alive one more day.
Many of the structures inside the dome had been constructed with stark lines and sharp angles that would have been impossible except in microgravity. Some even retained artistic embellishments going back to the days when Gardenia was rich, the center of trade for a dozen star systems, and a growing hub.
Although spots of beauty remained, they didn’t even come close to hiding the ugly. The orbital power arrays covered the heavens, but half those systems were out of phase or had been damaged by collisions or solar storms. From what my parents told me, Security refused to let anyone replace the defective ones without paying a fine many times higher than the launch cost. Instead of being a gleaming vision of light, Gardenia sat in perpetual dusk, its temperatures hovering at a miserable chill just above the freezing point of water… or blood.
While Gardenia was faded, it remained an active refining site and the road where I huddled served as a route for minerals destined for the refineries. Without my implant working, I used the rumble of ore transports to judge the passage of time.
The dust those transports raised hung in the air, then slowly dispersed, with Brownian motion spreading the filth throughout the city, creating layer after layer of grime everywhere I could see.
From time to time as I peeked from my hiding place behind what had been the doorway to an abandoned shop, I caught sight of other humans—mostly peering out of windows or half-closed doors. Like the structures and the trash, the people too seemed covered by layers of slowly falling dust.
At first, I thought those searching eyes might be looking for me. The hospital might have put out some notice of an escaped patient, especially if I had some weird contagious disease that implants couldn’t cope with. But people looking for escaped, dangerous prisoners should have expressions on their faces—whether hopeful of reward, fearful of contagion or something. These people were just staring. As my panic subsided, I realized most of them didn’t know what they were looking for—and wouldn’t recognize it if self-adhered to their hands. All had the glazed look of the Hasro addict. Hasro, the drug we’d manufactured at the lab, was the crutch of choice for everyone living in a depressing or hopeless situation. The drug enhanced sensitivity to the implant, letting the user taste wonderful cuisine when eating the gruel their constructors extruded, see fairy castles instead of slums built out of refinery slag, and experience magnificent passion when viewing a cheap tri-D. That last, at least, was what my friend Jack, with the experience of his seventeen years, had told me. My parents had just told me to stay away from both Hasro and the cheap tri-Ds, although we’d had enough lab accidents and spills to give everyone more than a taste of the drug’s effects. When I asked them why they spent their lives working in an unlicensed Hasro plant if the drug was too dangerous for me to use, they’d explained that people were going to use it and they were undermining Security’s Hasro prices, making them like Robin Hood. I hadn’t been convinced. I suspected they’d taken the only jobs they could find. It wasn’t as if Mjolnir system offered a lot of choices.
As I shivered under the hospital sheet I’d wrapped around my scrawny body, I wondered if the people wandering around with blank looks saw beautiful skyscapes rather than grime and filth. I also wondered how they saw me. Was I a fairy princess? Or maybe a monster?
With only the sheet wrapped around my body, I’d stand out if I left my hiding spot. But I couldn’t stay so close to the hospital. Sooner or later, Security would come looking.
What I needed was an ally, someone who knew her way around Gardenia. Someone who had access to medical facilities so I could re-install my implants, maybe even figure out a way to get the adult upgrade. And most of all, I had to find someone who could help me get back to the lab to dig out Shena before it was too late. But who could I trust? Who would want to help an escapee from the hospital, especially one the cops were hunting?
I waited until I saw a kid, maybe a year or so older than my own fifteen, skulk out of one of the structures carrying what looked like a couple of meal-sticks.
He was skinny, with ribs sticking out under a thin gray shirt. His dark hair flopped forward mostly covering eyes that darted everywhere, as if he expected someone to grab him. Despite his dark hair, his skin was pale—Gardenia’s dome and the solar collectors kept out most radiation. From the grease-caked dirt on his knees and backside, I figured he didn’t have a regular place to wash or sleep.
Approaching him could be the last mistake I ever made.
I took another look at his food-sticks. My stomach growled.
“You gonna share that,” I whispered as I slunk behind him. “Or do I have to report you for thieving?”
He jumped like I’d hit him with a shock-prod. “I didn’t do nothing. It’s my food.”
I’d just been guessing he’d stolen the food. When he lied, I knew I was right.
I grinned at him. “Your food? Oh, yeah. Right. No problem then. Security checks you out, sees that you’re just minding your own business with your own property and pats you on the head and sends you on your way. You’ve got nothing to worry about. Unless you’re lying, of course. Then—”
He shook his shaggy head. “Security comes, they’ll take you first. You’re a girl.”
He had a point. Security had to turn a profit like anyone else, and they lowballed their oversight-and-monitoring bids on places like Gardenia precisely because they expected some chances to grab merchandise. From what my parents had told me, a fifteen-year-old girl wasn’t worth what a twelve-year-old could bring but she still had some value. Security would catch me and sell me … unless they killed me first.
“Guess we’d both be better off if Security stays far away,” I admitted.
“Pretty much always a good idea.”
I didn’t need my implant to get the flashback of those black uniform trousers I’d seen when I’d fallen into the cryo, my brain managed that all by itself. I’d thought ‘Security’ then and I still thought so. Which made some sense. Maybe our Hasro lab hadn’t been Robin Hood, but security was still the Sheriff of Nottingham. They didn’t want anyone else grabbing any of the drug money.
“Need you to scan something for me.” I shoved the memory strip I’d pulled off my hospital bed in his direction.
He stared at it like it might jump out of my hand and bite him. “Why don’t you do it? Trying to infect me with something?”
“I can’t scan it myself. My systems got scrambled is all. You can see the strip is from the hospital—they’re about curing, not giving you an implant virus.”
He gave me a speculative look. A homeless kid would be looking for a way to make some money and he wouldn’t have to go to Security to find a market for a teenage girl. If he knew the right people, he could probably trade me for a month’s supply of Hasro. Of course, he had to know where … and have a lot of trust. People who would pay for me would take a teenage boy as well. There were plenty of customers for both.
“All right.” He held out a dirty hand. “Give me the strip.”
I prepared for him to grab me. When that didn’t happen, I handed over the plastic data store.
He ran a finger over it, sucking the information into his implant, then rolling back his eyes as he checked it out on his heads-up. “Okay,” he said. “Looks like you were hospitalized with a severe … oh, hell.”
He dropped his food-sticks and backed away.
I tackled him as he turned to run, falling on top of him. The food he’d stolen rolled away, but food was tough. We could dust it off and eat it later.
I’m a girl and not especially big for my age. The boy had six inches on me and, while he was skinny, he also had some muscle. I thought he should fight better, at least give me a challenge.
To make matters worse, my sheet came off in the scramble.
He looked up at me like I was something out of a horror tri-d. “Don’t hurt me.”
“Tell me what it says.”
“It says you’re supposed to be terminated.”
“Terminated, not enslaved?”
The doctors had said something like that but hearing it from the kid made it official. Security hadn’t killed me when they’d raided our lab because they’d thought I was worth something. But they’d been wrong. Why wasn’t I worth anything, though? Yeah, I was skinny and looked enough like a kid my parents had saved on getting adult implants, but some gross people paid for that kind of look. I tried to think of any diseases that would cost more to cure than a slave would be worth and came up empty. “Why?” I demanded.
The kid shook his head. “Who’d dare enslave a vampire?”
There was no such thing as a real vampire—like in the tri-ds. Even with modern sculpts, people still couldn’t turn into bats. As for flying, there was nothing to it. Just about anyone on a low-grav planet or ship could fly… as long as they weren’t in a spin-up zone. And nobody was idiot enough to make themselves so light sensitive they’d turn to dust if hit by a few stray UV rays. What there was turned out to be close enough, though. Modern vampires had a disease and needed a steady supply of human blood to keep healthy. According to the kid, I was now one of them. From everything I’d heard, vampires weren’t sold as slaves. They were… we were hunted for sport and for the bounty Security put out for us.
For the past couple of years, tri-ds had shown constant variations of brave Security agents battling hordes of blood-sucking vampires. The news was filled with stories of vampire invasion, attacks on humans and especially on medical facilities where blood might be kept and where their potential victims would be unable to fight back, strapped down in jell-beds with their implants slaved to the hospital’s A.I. No wonder the doctors had been afraid of me.
In all those tri-ds, both the outright fictional and the supposedly factual, vampires were a mystery—they’d just started appearing out of nowhere. Thanks to the kid’s reading of the data stick, though, I had a pretty good idea how they’d got their start. Whatever attack weapons Security used to clean out unauthorized labs had killed the others and caused my condition.
Captain Russart had warned us about Security’s latest tool—a custom virus designed specifically to kill adults but not the children—who were then sold into slavery. He’d claimed he’d sprung for the heavy-duty filters and that his new assistant, Bert Harding, was some sort of expert at combatting the virus. I wondered if Security had tracked Harding’s purchases, creating the very problem he’d been trying to prevent. At fifteen, I wasn’t an adult, but I wasn’t a kid either. Apparently Security’s attack virus had thought I was somewhere in between ‘spare’ and ‘kill.’ According to legend, vampires, as a sort of undead, were supposed to between alive and dead so I guessed it made a sick kind of sense.
“I’m new to this.” I stayed on top of the kid and twisted his arm behind his back. “Does the data strip say anything else?”
“Uh, could you get off of me?”
“Oh, that would be smart. I get off and you run away. You want me to let you go, you answer my questions first.”
He shook his head. “No way would I run. A vampire could hunt me down and swallow me before I moved two steps. Just like you did a second ago.”
I was busy trying not to panic about being a vampire but his saying that word out loud startled me. Still, I wondered if the tri-ds were right, if I’d become faster. Or maybe stronger. I didn’t notice any differences but the dirty kid wouldn’t know that.
“Answer my questions,” I said, “and I’ll think about letting you survive.”
“Uh, you’re naked.” He seemed embarrassed by this fact.
He couldn’t be half as embarrassed as I was, but that didn’t mean I was going to let him get away.
“If I’m a vampire, that means I’m not human. You shouldn’t care whether I have clothes on or not. Are you some kind of sicko or something, wanting to mess around with non-humans?”
He looked confused. “Maybe you’re not human. But, ah, you’re still a girl.”
I couldn’t argue with that—I was a girl, but I was so skinny I hardly had any figure at all—a combination of the workout routines my father had insisted on and a tiny mother. So, it wasn’t as if I came over-endowed with the body parts that guys supposedly found so distracting. Still, it was embarrassing to be naked in front of a boy and humiliating to have him remind me about it.
A part of me wanted to grab the sheet and hide. But this wasn’t just about me. I’d promised my mother I’d take care of my sister and that wasn’t going to get done if I hid somewhere waiting for Security to hunt me down and execute me.
Right now, I needed to figure out how to stay alive long enough to help Shena. Which meant pretending the whole naked thing wasn’t happening.
“What else does the memory stick say?”
It turned out it said a lot. Specifically, the virus had killed my body’s ability to create white blood cells, which meant, if I didn’t get a regular infusion, I’d catch every disease out there and die. Fortunately, the jell I’d been soaking in had loaded me with antibodies so I was okay for the moment. I wondered, though, how long that would last. Without my implant, I had no way of knowing.
Still, the scientific language on the memory stick comforted me a little. Being a vampire didn’t make me a monster the way the tri-ds showed. How was needing a regular fix of fresh blood different from being hooked on Hasro, except Hasro made people happy and white blood cell transfusions only kept people alive?
When the kid had given me everything that sounded useful off the memory stick, I got off of him and grabbed my sheet.
I expected him to run away but instead he gathered up the food-sticks he’d dropped. He broke one in half, and handed the smaller chunk to me. The look he gave me was truly weird. Then again, how was he supposed to look at a vampire?
“Can you, maybe, put on the sheet?”
I covered up, but the wrap remained an obvious hospital sheet, which simply screamed that it was out of place here.
“You have anything else I can wear?”
He shook his head. “Do I look like I drag a wardrobe behind me?”
“I’m Kari, by the way.”
“As in some kind of unemployed samurai?” Like most of us, Ronin was a sort of ethnic mix. He might have some Japanese in him, but there was a lot of other stuff, too, giving him both dark hair and pale gray eyes. Under other circumstances, I would have thought he was cute. With my sister’s life hanging in the balance and my new status, I wasn’t going to waste time thinking about physical looks.
He shrugged. “Apparently my parents were fans of old tri-ds. That a problem for you?”
“No problem, just checking. Anyway, you have a knife?”
He backed off like I’d threatened him.
“Not to slice your arteries with,” although I would need to figure out a way to get some blood eventually. Those hospital antibodies wouldn’t last forever. “To fix up my sheet.”
“Tell me where you want it sliced.”
He didn’t have a knife but he had a little laser-cutter. On my instructions, he carved out a round head-hole in the center of the sheet.
When I put my newly created poncho on, it felt like a tent. I wasn’t sure it was much of an improvement from the standpoint of looking like a hospital sheet, but at least it wouldn’t fall off every time I moved.
Ronin sighed when I covered myself up. I wasn’t the most beautiful female in the world and my figure hadn’t developed much yet—at least I’d hoped there was more development to come back when I imagined living more than another day or two. Still, I’d never thought of myself as scary-ugly before. Then again, I’d never thought of myself as a vampire, either.
“Looks like you’re wearing something you stole from a fat lady,” he admitted.
That made me feel better … not. “Yeah?” I said. “Well, I’m not exactly a tailor.”
He unfastened his belt and I got a little nervous. What happened to him being afraid of the big mean vampire?
“Hey. What do you think—”
He handed over the belt, then stepped quickly away. “Put this on and tighten it up. Maybe it’ll, you know, make it look like you’re wearing some sort of toga or something. Still odd considering most everyone wears skintights, but not as noticeable.”
“Maybe.” I followed his instructions. The thin fabric of the sheet clung to me, which wasn’t exactly modest. But he was right—with the belt, the whole thing looked a lot more like a badly designed dress and less like a hospital sheet. That was an improvement.
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks for your help and for the food-stick. I’m going to be leaving now.”
Again, he surprised me. “Where are you going to go? With no implant, you won’t be able to contact anyone, you won’t be able to pay for anything, you won’t be able to use transportation.”
He was right, but that didn’t mean I could tell him where I was going. By now, Security would have learned that I’d gotten away. I suspected they’d post a reward. Ronin couldn’t collect it himself—Security would snag a cute kid for their own purposes instead of paying him. But Ronin couldn’t have survived for long without making contacts who could.
All of which made telling him my plans very dangerous.
“I’m a vampire, remember. You should be thanking your lucky stars I’m letting you walk away. After all, I am hungry.” I tried to stick my canines out. “And not just for a food-stick.”
He nodded. “You got problems, I got problems. We stick together, maybe we can help each other.”
“What sort of problems do you have?” I really didn’t need anything new to worry about.
He ignored my question. “And the way I see it, you’re going to have to deal with the whole blood feeding thing. Right?”
“Why? You offering?”
He took a step backward, shaking his head. “People look at me and they’re suspicious. A kid, by himself, is either trouble or he’s prey. A pair of teens together, though, could be a young couple on a date. We could be shopping or looking for an apartment. And besides, no offense…”
He trailed off, which meant he knew I’d be offended by whatever came next.
“All right,” I said. “I won’t bite your head off. What?”
He flinched when I used the word “bite” but he didn’t back off and I liked that. “You’re a girl. We pull a scam together and people will get looking at you, thinking about whether they could grab you and, you know, sell you or keep you for themselves. While they’re doing that, they won’t pay no attention to me. Not as much, anyway. If I happen to grab a food-stick, or some other swag, they won’t notice.”
“Unless they’ve got their A.I. watching.”
“Yeah. Can’t get away from that, can we? But where I’m talking about, people don’t like A.I.s watching them, know what I mean?”
“You’re crazy. Everyone has A.I.s.”
He shook his head. “Not the bars where sailors hang out.”
He took his laser-cutter and trimmed my sheet so it showed my knees and half my thighs. “They get off their ships flush with cash—the kind they can spend without an I.D. because they want to buy things Security can’t officially approve of but doesn’t bother preventing either. Hasro and girls and alcohol.”
“So here’s what we’ll do. You promise them girly action, make them come out with you to some hidden place where nobody can see. When you’ve got them distracted, I come up behind and bash them over the head. We split any cash, I get like jewels or whatever, you drink their blood, I pay off what I owe, and we both stay free and alive.”
“You’d kill them?”
He giggled. “Gotta kill them, what else? I mean, if you just rob them, they’ll run to Security. And Security doesn’t like it when freelancers mess with sailors. If Security gets on our trail, then we’re the ones dead.”
Ronin’s plan sounded incredibly dangerous, not to mention stupid. First, everyone knew sailors traveled together, including when they took girls. Second, Security cared more about protecting sailors than they did locals because Gardenia needed shipping more than the shippers needed Gardenia. If the sailors didn’t think Security’s A.I.s would be watching, they were wrong. And third, it sounded like I’d be the one who’d be in trouble if anyone got caught. If nothing else, Security would pull up pictures of me from the dead sailors’ implants when it recovered the bodies.
“You can’t drink blood from locals,” Ronin reminded me. “People would complain. Nobody would notice if a few sailors went missing, though.”
Should the idea of killing strangers bother me? I wondered. After all, I was a vampire—I was supposed to be evil and blood-thirsty.
I told myself couldn’t kill anyone just to drink his blood. When I got really thirsty, though, I wondered if, maybe, I would change my mind.
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