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Elaine Jaeger was on her third virgin daiquiri when the vampire in red-lined black cape and black domino mask slid into the seat beside her. "Hi, baby," he drawled in a very bad and slightly drunken Transylvanian accent. "Wanna go upstairs and suck a little blood?"
Ten years ago, she would have called upon her rather extensive martial arts training and knocked him across the room. But a lot had changed since then. One of the things about Kismet that had most surprised Elaine was becoming an object of desire again. On her home station, her hoverchair made her an object of pity and scorn. But missing parts of your body was hardly unusual around here; the vampire, in fact, had a metal claw in place of one hand, which would have bothered her once, but no longer. It was hard not to bask in the newfound attention.
"Sorry," she said with a smile. "I'm a married woman," flashing her ring briefly, just in case he didn't believe her.
"That's okay," the vampire assured her. "He can come too. They have big beds."
Elaine decided that backhanding him might not be such a bad idea after all, then squinted at him closer. That voice was familiar. Curly hair, missing left hand, sarcastic sense of humor -- "Shelley?"
Shelley Fleetwood tilted his mask up briefly, then let it back down. "That's all right. Your husband's not really my type anyway. Too tall. But I'll buy you a drink."
Elaine tilted back the last of her daiquiri. "Sure."
Fleetwood gestured to the bartender, and set his drink on the bar. "So where is tall, scarred and ugly, anyway? He let you out alone?"
Elaine gestured at her neck. "What, do you see a leash here?" She grinned to show him she wasn't actually upset. "He's back there by the wall," pointing with her empty daiquiri glass. "Got to talking shop with one of his buddies. It was boring the hell out of me, so I came up here to get a drink."
On cue, the bartender brought their next round. He was wearing a small red sequined mask. Fleetwood grinned upon seeing him. "Hi, Sagan. Gone native, I see."
The bartender set their drinks in front of them. "Just stretching my salary a bit."
"What do you spend your money on, 'way out here?"
"I have expenses," Sagan said vaguely.
"Have you two met?" Fleetwood asked, and when Elaine shook her head, "Elaine, meet Sagan, Tertian spy. Sagan, meet Elaine, smuggler."
"I believe the correct term is 'independent courier,'" Elaine said primly.
"Anyone else you'd care to tell?" Sagan said at the same time, to Fleetwood. "The newsfeeds, maybe? Take out an ad on a holoboard?"
"May as well," Fleetwood retorted. "Everyone in this town knows who you are."
"I'd noticed that. Yesterday I had lunch in a little restaurant where I've never been before. The wait-bot asked me how the undercover business is going. Do I have 'Please feed me, I'm an employee of the Tertian government' written on my forehead?"
"I didn't know Tertians had a sense of humor," Elaine said. "Thought it got amputated at birth or something."
"No, you're just used to Linton," Fleetwood said.
A couple down the bar gestured to the spy-come-bartender. Sagan bowed briefly. "Duty calls. Well, one of my duties. Pleasure to meet you." He went to attend to his customers.
"Nice guy," Elaine said, sipping her daiquiri. "What's he doing here?"
"Keeping tabs on Linton and Signy," Fleetwood said, "with orders to kill them eventually, I'd assume. He hasn't mentioned it, which is good, because I'm not looking forward to killing him. You're right, he is a nice guy." He picked up his beer delicately in his artificial hand.
Elaine had lived in Kismet almost two years now, but had yet to get used to their casual acceptance of death and murder. She cast about almost desperately for something else to talk about. "When are you getting that replaced?" she asked him, nodding toward the hand.
"Dunno." He drank, set the beer down, and rotated his hand thoughtfully, all the way around. "I think I'm getting attached to this one. I mean, besides being literally attached to it. Chicks dig it."
"Yeah. it's like a war wound. Very rakish. They think I'm brave and all that."
"Before or after you tell them how you lost it?" Elaine asked drily.
"I give them a version thereof," Fleetwood retorted.
"So you're wearing a mechanical hand to pick up girls, basically, is what you're saying."
"Why else? Actually, it's pretty useful to have around, too. A lot more versatile than your average hand. Do you know how many attachments they make for these things? It's like having a Swiss army hand. There's even a bottle top remover."
Elaine laughed. "Well, my husband opens beers with his kraken, so I shouldn't say anything."
"With his what?" Fleetwood said, wondering if when a wife said something like that about her husband, it was one of those comments better left alone.
"Kraken. His pet plant," Elaine said, relieving Fleetwood slightly, but only slightly. "I'll have to show you. It's really funny to watch."
"Hey." Fleetwood nudged Elaine. "Speaking of watching, check out the cute brunette at the end of the bar. The one in black."
Elaine stole a glance in spite of herself. The woman was leaning one elbow on the bar, trailing her little finger idly in her drink. She was not looking in their direction. "What about her?"
"She was watching the hand
"Oh, for Pete's sake. She's not even looking at us. I hate to break it to you, Casanova, but women do not fall over themselves for a prosthetic limb."
"Oh, really? Watch this."
He took another drink, raising it slowly and deliberately in his artificial hand. Elaine wanted to burst out laughing, but she found herself darting another glance toward the brunette, and damned if the woman wasn't
watching them. Or at least Elaine assumed she was. Like most of the other patrons of the bar's Halloween party, she was wearing a small black mask, similar to Fleetwood's but more tastefully feminine. Her eyes were not visible. Her face was, however, turned in their general direction. When Elaine looked at her, the woman looked away, as if she had been just in the process of shifting position on her stool.
"See? See?" Fleetwood nudged Elaine again. "I'd better go over there and say hi, before she gets the impression I'm with you."
"God, we wouldn't want her to think that." She raised her glass, and drained it. "Thanks for the drink. Lots of luck."
"You're welcome, and thanks." Fleetwood winked, or she supposed he did; all she caught was the flicker of his eyelid. "Maybe I'll get laid at this party yet."
Shelley Fleetwood was any number of things, but he certainly wasn't an introvert, Elaine mused, watching him wend his way toward the brunette. She took a look in Dusty's direction to see if he was still talking to Floyd. She couldn't see Dusty, but she could see Floyd's back, in the same approximate place where she'd last seen him. In truth, she didn't really care if the two of them were talking about meching or anything else. She couldn't stand Floyd Penrose. Hadn't been able to stand him from the moment she met him. It's not just a class thing, Elaine thought -- it might be true that on Amaranth Station, no one of her social standing would be seen in public with someone of Floyd's, but she'd mixed with far lower since leaving Amaranth, and some of her best friends now were people that she would have considered gutter trash in her youth. Unfortunately, some people really were
gutter trash, and as far as Elaine was concerned, Floyd was one of them.
"Another?" the bartender, Sagan, asked her as he cleared away her glass.
"Yes, please. Same."
How many drinks had she had tonight? It didn't really matter, Elaine supposed, since none of them had alcohol in them, but she liked to stay consistent. She touched the little control behind her ear gently, giving herself another bit of a high, just enough to stay buzzed and enjoy the party.
God, but it had been a long time since she'd attended any sort of party at all. Dusty had talked her into coming to this one. You need to get out more, he'd said. You'll have fun, he'd said. And in fact she was, although it was very different from Amaranth Station parties. It had been so long since her family had allowed her out in public in Amaranth, still longer since she'd actually wanted to go. She'd thought it would be the same here: people staring, while she found the darkest possible corner and waited until it was time to go home. Instead, no one looked twice at her jetchair, and she was actually enjoying herself, even if her husband was off in lala-land.
Sagan brought her drink, and she took it from him with a nod of thanks.
"I'll pay for that," said a voice at her elbow, from the seat Fleetwood had vacated.
Elaine turned, startled. She hadn't heard anyone sit down, and for a moment she thought that it was
Fleetwood, that his brunette hadn't panned out and he'd come back. But that wasn't Fleetwood's voice, nor his loose, easy carriage. This guy was also wearing a black cape, but his was more like a funeral shroud draped over stark bone. Not a spare bit of flesh on him anywhere. His black mask came halfway down his cheeks, but did not disguise the fact that they were hollow and white.
"Thank you," said Elaine, "but I fear I'll have to decline."
"Nonsense. A lady never buys her own drinks." He had an odd accent that she could not quite place. Almost Anubian, with that distinctive lilt to the vowels, but there was something guttural about it that she'd never heard in Anubian dialects.
Sagan shrugged. "Settle up your bill at the end. I'm hardly keeping track anyway. I'm new at this." He went to attend to someone else.
"I didn't mean to be rude," Elaine said, "but I am a married woman."
"Your gentleman friend purchased a drink for you."
"You said it -- he's my friend, and a friend of my husband. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to accept an offer like that from someone I don't know. I'm sorry," she added, feeling inexplicably guilty.
The stranger turned to her. She couldn't see his eyes, but she sensed them glimmering in the depths of his mask. "You are a woman of virtue. A rare thing to find, rarer by far than diamonds or deep-sea pearls."
"This is an occult night, my dear. All Hallow's Eve. A night when masks cover more than pretty faces, and things walk abroad that are better left unspoken."
Elaine laughed aloud, because he was making her skin crawl and she didn't know a better way to disperse the feeling. "This is the twenty-fifth century, whoever-you-are. We outgrew ghosts and ghouls a long time ago."
"That's a shame," the stranger said, "because they haven't outgrown you
He raised one hand. Long pale fingers touched her neck, so cold they seemed to burn her. Elaine gasped and shivered. It was like having an icicle plunged into her carotid artery. She wanted to slap him silly, put her jetchair in reverse, grab Dusty and clear out of this party before he figured out what hit him. Instead, she found herself staring into the dark hollows where the stranger's mask hid his eyes. There was something about those eyes...if she just stared longer, she could see...
A hand clamped down on her shoulder. Elaine almost jumped out of her skin, and she felt warmth rush up her neck as the icy fingers retreated. The hard hand spun her halfway around and she was facing out into the room, blood pounding in her ears.
"Leave her alone," said the man beside her, his hand still resting on her shoulder. Elaine shrugged away, her heart battering against her ribs.
The dark stranger bowed deeply, and smiled without humor. "I was having a nice conversation with the lady, until you
Elaine recognized the man beside her now, although she was having a hard time putting a face to the name. Unlike almost everyone else at the party, he wasn't wearing a mask. He was a thin, sharp-featured individual, somewhere between thirty and fifty, with a single streak of white in his dark hair. One of her husband's friends. He too was wearing black this evening, with a symbol in the shape of a white olive branch at his collar.
"You are not welcome here," he said.
"What business is it of yours where I go? What I do?"
"You made it my business when you chose to hunt here."
The stranger spread his hands, and smiled again. He had a very odd smile, Elaine noticed -- he never opened his lips, and barely moved them when he spoke. "What would be acceptable to you, then?"
"Somewhere other than here."
The stranger did not so much slide off the stool as flow, waterlike, from sitting to standing. "Eventually you'll die," he said, still smiling. "You can't help it. But we go on."
"There's more than just me. Even after I die, others will continue."
Elaine had the oddest feeling that she was hearing only parts of a conversation, and had no idea how to fill in the rest. It was annoying the hell out of her. "Excuse me," she said loudly.
"Elaine," the man said, between his teeth, gripping her shoulder again, "do shut up."
Dammit, he remembered her name. What was his? Someone had told her. Sometime. She really hated that feeling. And how dare he tell her to shut up, like some little girl? She opened her mouth and froze, paralyzed, as the dark stranger looked at her from his eyeless mask. She felt as if all the air had been sucked out of her lungs.
"We shall meet again, my dear," he said, bowing even more deeply.
"No you will not," the man beside her said. Keane! She remembered his name. It was Keane. He was some sort of -- darn it, what did he do for a living? She ought to know.
"You won't always be here, priest."
Yeah, that's right, he was a priest. She recognized the white olive branch now. It was the symbol of his order. The Humanist Church.
"I'll be where I need to be," Keane said.
The stranger shrugged, and faded into the crowd. Literally. Elaine wasn't quite sure how he did it, but he vanished among the milling half-drunk revelers so completely that half a second later, she couldn't even figure out which one he was. There were a lot of masked men in dark capes out there.
"Are you all right?" Keane asked her.
Her initial reaction was chilly disdain. She had, after all, been doing just fine; she was hardly unaccustomed to fending off unwelcome advances in bars. She hadn't needed anyone to come barging in like a white knight and rescue her. The old Elaine would have probably slapped the creep at the bar silly, and Keane for good measure.
The new Elaine, the post-Dusty, post-hoverchair Elaine, was a lot more mellow. She had to be.
"Yes," she said. "Thank you." Although she couldn't help adding, "I was doing fine, you know. I've been in much more dangerous situations back on Amaranth."
"I doubt it," Keane said quietly. "Look, take some advice. Go home. It's getting late, and it's not a good idea to be wandering about on Halloween night. The ... weirdos come out."
"Exactly like him."
Elaine was going to argue, was going to protest that she was having a good time, that it wasn't even midnight yet. But she looked into Keane's quiet gray eyes, and realized that she wasn't really having a good time any more. She hadn't been ever since the nut in the cape sat down next to her. She didn't need reminders that there were plenty of nasty people in the world.
"Yeah," she said. "I guess you're right. Uh...thanks, again."
"Don't mention it," Keane said, and then stiffened, looking past her, down the bar. Elaine looked too, and saw Fleetwood and the brunette in a bit of a clinch. Damn, the chick was nibbling at his neck already! Fast work.
Keane gripped her shoulders. "Go home. You and Dusty. It's too crazy out here. Okay? I've got to go."
He headed away from her, toward Fleetwood and the brunette. Fleetwood was stretched out like a cat, and Elaine suspected that Keane was going to get a bit of a chilly reception down there. What was the guy's problem, anyway? The priest had to be celibate, so he was going around playing self-appointed relationship police? Guy's got issues, Elaine thought.
Still, going home wasn't a bad idea. It was early yet, and she could think of lots of things to do once they got back to the Keys
. Staying in wasn't necessarily a bad thing...She looked about for Dusty.
At the other side of the room, Signy Valantine put her feet up on the table and sighed. "President, this rocks."
Linton glanced at her. She'd gone all the way for this "holiday," which as far as he could tell consisted mostly of making oneself up to look like a fool and proceeding to act like one too. Signy was wearing a fluffy pink confection of a dress, her face and hair glitter-painted in complementary shades. She had apparently had enough to drink to have forgotten why one wasn't supposed to put one's feet on the table while wearing a skirt. Linton averted his eyes.
"Where'd Fleetwood get off to, anyway?"
"I think he's having sex with a girl at the bar," Linton said under his breath.
Signy set her feet back on the floor, to Linton's vast relief, and leaned forward. "Come on, relax. Have a little fun."
"Signy, this Halloween isn't just not fun -- it's idiotic. Moronic. Who dreamed up this stuff, anyway?"
"It's a tradition,
Linton. From Earth
." Signy's multicolored eyes glowed. For some reason, any tradition fascinated her. Even the stupid ones. Maybe it had something to do with growing up on Tertia, where the past had been forcibly declared dead and buried, but if that was it, he certainly hadn't been afflicted the same way.
"Oh, check him out," Signy murmured.
Linton looked, reluctantly. She was gazing at a tall, skinny guy in a black cape. One of a zillion vampire knockoffs at this party. Probably wearing fake fangs and the works. If this was tradition, give him the modern world any day.
"I think I'm going to go say hi," Signy said.
"Aw, Linton, relax. Have some fun. Get laid." Signy got up, carrying her drink, and went off to say hello to her vampire.
Linton leaned back, trying to enjoy the peace and quiet of Signy's absence, such as it was with the noise and music of the party swirling around him. He did not enjoy these social functions. He'd rather be home. By himself. At least without Signy, he could retreat into his head and ignore the outside world for a while, until he decided he'd suffered long enough for the sake of form and could retreat back to his apartment.
It wasn't meant to be. Someone sat down at his table. Linton looked up reluctantly, and found that Someone was female, a bit plump, and rather cute, although he couldn't see her eyes behind her mask. Her hair was straight, waist length and jet black. She was also young enough to be his daughter.
"Hi, handsome," the girl said, toying with the glass of wine in her chubby little hand.
"Hello," Linton said, thinking, All I want is to be left alone. That isn't too much to ask. Which offworld god hates me?
The girl leaned forward. "Ooh," she cooed. "You have nice eyes."
"Uh, thanks." Not once had Linton ever thought to list his eyes among his rather short list of physical assets. His eyes could most charitably be described as nondescript.
"And such beautiful, uh, hands," the girl continued doggedly.
Hands? Linton looked down at his hands. They were hands. Plain and simple.
"Wanda go upstairs?" the girl asked.
"No," Linton said. "I mean, no thanks. No offense."
"Don't you find me beautiful?" the girl asked. He could hear tears in her voice, and felt his heart begin to melt. But her round little face remained serene, and he realized he was being manipulated.
"Sorry. You're not my type."
"What do you mean, not your type?" she demanded.
"About twenty years too young. At least. No offense."
"Fine." She stood up, her black velvet dress swirling about her. "You'd probably make me ill, anyway."
Linton wondered what the hell that
meant, and he felt that he ought to go after her and apologize, but he was too depressed and irritated to bother.
"The guy at the bar was much
handsomer," the girl said, and flounced off.
Linton looked around, and decided that he'd had about as much as he could handle of this offworld custom known as Halloween. As the night wore on, the ordinary social drinkers and casual partiers had been replaced by a much more hard-core crowd, many of them pale and black-clad as the girl had been. It had never been his place, but it certainly wasn't now. He rose and headed for the door, without bothering to say goodnight to anyone. No one would notice his absence anyway. He jostled a couple of elbows on his way out, murmuring apologies, and didn't really notice that a dancer or two hissed at him in irritation, just like a snake, as he made his way past them.
The party wound down, and Sagan ran an antiseptic cloth down the bar and prepared to close up.
Almost everyone had left, most of them arm in arm with someone else. One of the few people remaining was Signy Valantine, sitting at a table in deep conversation with some guy in a black cloak. Sagan glanced him over and memorized a few notes about him to record later, just in case she wound up staying with the guy for more than one night, and he, Sagan, needed to include him in his next report to Tertia. That done, he approached her deferentially, wipe-rag in hand.
"Excuse me, ma'am, but we're closing. You'll have to--"
"Oh, hi, Sagan. We were just leaving. And for the record, to save you the trouble," she added, "we're going back to my place to fuck. In case your employers wondered. I can get a full report for you first thing in the morning."
"Thanks," Sagan muttered, and wandered back to the bar, musing that these had to be the most insanely infuriating people that he'd ever spied on in his life.
One of the other few remaining people in the building was a short, plump girl with long black hair, nursing a glass of wine at the bar. Sagan had been carrying on brief conversations with her throughout the evening. Now he turned to her to suggest that it might be time to leave.
"Oh," she said. "Are you going home?"
"Soon," he said. "We're closing."
"Oh," she said, again, and took the last swallow of her much-attended glass of wine, which Sagan did not recall her ordering. "Would I be much too forward if I asked to come?"
Sagan thought about it. He thought about his employers, light-years away on Tertia, ordering him, on an apparent whim, to stay here on this nothing of a moon and keep tabs two of the most boring people he'd ever had the misfortune to encounter in his intelligence career. "Sure," he said.
He turned to ask Signy to leave, but she and the big guy in black had already gone.
They were several streets away, in an alley.
"Oh," Signy gasped, "oh, Vladimir...do you mind if I call you that?"
"Not at all," he breathed into her ear.
"Oh. That was good. There. Again."
"As you wish," he whispered, drawing his lips across her ear and down her smooth, pale expanse of neck. She gasped, shivered. He let his teeth touch her skin, ever so slightly. She almost cried out. He could feel the throb of the veins beneath the sweat-slick surface of her skin. Hunger overcame him, and he bit down, hard.
She whipped around automatically and delivered him a vicious kick in the nuts.
With a faint moan, Vladimir sank to the stone floor of the alley.
"Ooh," he whimpered, sprawled on the ground.
Signy scrambled quickly to her feet. He remained prone for a few minutes, then climbed, slowly and painfully, upright. His hands were still pressed between his legs. "Being as you're a woman," he gasped, "there is no way you could possibly appreciate how much that hurts."
"I'm sorry," Signy said, rubbing her neck. Her hand came away with traces of blood where he'd bitten her. "You were getting a bit...forward."
"And you...!" He brought his hands up, and started toward her, still limping slightly. "Fortunately for you, my beauty, my kind have remarkable recuperative powers. Such fire! Such spark! The blood flows hotly in you, lovely one--"
"You are quite insane," Signy interrupted, backing away until she was stopped by the wall, and fumbling underneath her jacket with one hand. "I am a highly trained professional in the Tertian service, and if you don't stop right now, I shall be forced to do something I'll regret..."
"I can smell it," he breathed, his eyes, behind the mask, burning like white-hot coals. "Your heart beats with your fear, your passion. Throbs in your neck. That little vein in your neck... pulsing... ah, I feel the tension of your--"
Signy stabbed him.
"..." he said, and fell over as she continued to stab him repeatedly in the stomach, chest and neck. Finally she stopped stabbing and stood up, her hands covered with blood.
"Sorry," she said. "I did warn you."
Her first instinct was to wonder what to do with the body, but then she remembered that this was Kismet. All she had to do was leave it here in the alley, and let nature take its course. The body, or at least anything on it that could possibly be of any use to anyone, including internal organs, should be gone within the hour.
"Sorry," she said again, and found an un-bloodstained part of his cloak to wipe the knife and her hands. Her clothes were splattered as well, but she assumed (correctly) that in Kismet, especially on Halloween, she could easily walk home without drawing a second glance.
She strolled off, affecting nonchalance, and in true Kismetian fashion, turned the corner without looking back. Therefore, she did not see the corpse in the alley stir, and then lurch unsteadily to its feet. It touched its neck, tenderly feeling the edges of one of the knife wounds.
"Bitch," it muttered, the voice rasping because one of her stabs had severed a vocal cord or two. "I hate it when good food goes bad."
The dark-clad figure stumbled off, clutching its torn chest.
At about the same time, Sagan was moving about the bar, turning over chairs, locking doors. He took off his sequined mask with a sigh of relief, tossed it behind the bar. "My place, or yours?" he asked her.
"Better make it yours," she murmured, and seized his arm as he went past, running her hand up to his shoulder. Her fingers were startlingly cold. "My place is a long ways away. I don't think I can wait."
Sagan laughed. "Forward little devil, now that we're alone, aren't you?"
"I am very forward," she agreed, stroking her cold fingers along his neckline. It was like being caressed with an ice cube, and he found it intensely erotic after an initial, startled shiver. "Better yet, what about here? Why go anywhere?"
Sagan looked around. "Here?"
"Why not? We are alone."
She was right, and Sagan grinned. She wasn't the only one who was eager. He hadn't had a one-night stand, let alone any sort of lasting relationship, in far longer than he cared to contemplate. The life of a spy was supposed to be erotic and exciting, filled with beautiful, exotic women who wanted nothing more than to tear his clothes off. In reality, his employers strongly discouraged liaisons except when he was off duty -- and Sagan hadn't been off duty in a long time. But he was far from home, and she was very beautiful, though the mask still concealed her eyes. He cupped his hand behind her head and tilted it back for a kiss. Her lips were cold, too, her teeth sharp and pointy. He wondered if it was part of her costume or if she was one of those who went in for the current teeth-sharpening fashion fad.
"On the floor?" he asked, breathlessly, when their lips parted.
She grinned, exposing those pointy teeth. A tinge of color had come into her pale lips. "On the bar," she whispered.
"You bad girl," Sagan muttered, half-leading and half being led in a flurry of undressing that ended with him lying on his back, half-naked, with the girl leaning over him, one cold hand resting against his neck, fingers curling gently around his throat.
"Are you going to do it with the mask on?" he asked.
"Does that turn you on?" she whispered back.
"I'd like to be able to see your eyes."
"Very well." She propped herself on her elbow and pushed up the mask on top of her head.
Looking into her eyes was like looking into eternity. He was falling -- falling into a black pit filled with stars, with snowflakes, with shards of glass that spun about and lacerated him. He thought he cried out. He tried to pull back, but she held him with a grip like iron. He couldn't believe such a small woman could be so strong. Her hands were colder than the vacuum of space.
"Now you have seen my eyes," she murmured, her lips, flushed red now, pulling back from her fangs.
"What are you?" Sagan whispered hoarsely, trying vainly to pull her hands away from his windpipe so he could breathe.
"Your nightmare. Your legend. We went to the stars with you, human, or maybe we were here all along. You wanted to see my eyes, and they will be the last thing you ever see."
He tried to struggle, but he couldn't move. The cold of her hands, of her eyes, had seeped through his skin and all he could do was shiver helplessly as she leaned over him. The black, hungry pits of her eyes consumed his world. He was falling again, and this time could not find a way to pull himself out.
Distantly, he heard a crash. An almost familiar sound, and he groped to understand what it might have been. Then the woman blinked, lowering bluish-pale lids, framed with dark lashes -- and suddenly he could breathe again, for her attention was no longer on him.
"You," she said, and Sagan had never heard so much hate contained in one syllable.
He tried to look where she was looking, twisting his head on the bar. Someone was standing by the open door. Sagan realized that the sound he'd heard was the door being slammed open, and he thought dumbly, Didn't I lock that?
"I've warned you and your kind about hunting here. Again and again," the newcomer said, and Sagan recognized his voice. It was that priest who'd been here earlier.
The woman laughed, a sound like the rattle of broken glass. "Your
kind has no power over us. You can't tell us what to d--"
Her voice trailed off in a scream and the crackle of charged particles snapped in the air. Her hands withdrew from Sagan's throat and he sat up, coughing, still feeling the imprint of her icy fingers. She was stumbling backwards, clutching her shoulder. Sagan looked at the priest. He held a small laser in one hand.
"The sun never shines here, but you're not safe," the priest said quietly. "We carry our own light."
"That hurt!" she gasped. "What happened to crosses and holy water, you bastard?"
"This is much more effective." Sagan heard sadness in the priest's voice. "You know I don't want to do this. The most basic creed of my order is to avoid the taking of life. Any life. You, and the others like you, give me no choice."
"No!" she shrieked, trying to run. The priest's next shot hit her in the back and, impossibly, she burst into flames. Falling, still flaming, she triggered the bar's fire extinguishing system and jets of anti-combustible foam sprayed her from several directions. It made no difference. By the time she hit the ground, nothing was left but little lumps of blackened foam.
Sagan stared. No matter how hot the fire was, there should have been a pile of charred bones, bit of clothing, ashes. Even professional cremation did not consume the body completely. But all he could see was a faint, powdery dusting of ash on some of the nearby tables.
Just like the legends say, he thought stupidly.
Keane tucked the laser away beneath his robes and crossed to give Sagan a hand up. "You okay?"
"Yes, uh....thank you."
Sagan remembered then that he was stripped to the waist. Without speaking, he found his shirt, crumpled on the floor, and wrapped it around his shoulders. He was still shivering and his legs were shaky. He cautiously approached the place where the woman had been, and touched some of the pale ash dusting the tables. It was slightly gritty.
"Did, uh...did you do that?"
"What do you mean?" the priest said.
"Cause her to burn. I've never seen a laser do that, except on heatwash, and that range was too far."
"No, you're right. That was an ordinary laser shot. She burned because I wounded her mortally. It's what her kind do when they die."
Sagan decided that he really didn't want to know the answer to this question, but he asked it anyway. "What is...her kind?"
The priest looked at him. "I think you know."
He did know, deep down, but he didn't want to say the words, as if it made more sense if it remained unspoken, not dredged into the cold light of science and logic.
"Are there a lot of them?" Sagan asked quietly, rubbing his neck.
"More in some places than others. There are quite a few of them here, in Kismet. They find good hunting here, I think, and safe places to hide in the tunnels."
"I don't understand how they can just do...what they do...and no one knows," Sagan said. But even as he spoke, he did understand. What would the priest have seen if he'd come in five minutes later, or ten? A corpse. Just another corpse in Kismet.
"I think you should be getting home," the priest said. "It's relatively safe in the streets, as long as you avoid alleys. Their continued existence depends on keeping their presence secret, so they won't accost anyone in public. Just keep your door locked until morning, and you'll be all right."
"Where will you be?"
The priest smiled faintly. "I have work to do. I will be where my work takes me."
"Your work is pretty dangerous, sounds to me."
"At times," the priest said.
"Do you need someone to watch your back?"
The priest raised his head, surprised.
"Look," Sagan said. "I don't believe in this sort of thing. I mean, even after what I just saw, I still don't really believe in it. But regardless of what's actually happening out there, I do know that you just saved my life, and if you're going to be risking yours out there, I'd like to help. I know I didn't do too well just now, but --" He shrugged, smiled. "She caught me off guard. I know what to expect now. I'm skilled in the use of sixty-seven different weapons and eight schools of hand-to-hand combat. I think I could help you."
The priest hesitated. "It would be ... appreciated," he said at last.
They shook hands. "I'm Father Keane Telgenhoff," the priest said. "Call me Keane."
"The Tertian spy. Yes, I know."
"How does everyone know I'm a spy?" Sagan demanded, frustrated.
Keane grinned. "I'll give you some pointers at blending in. I think you could use them."
"While you're at it," Sagan said, "could you show me how you just opened a locked door?"
"Trick of the trade," Keane said. "Why don't you finish getting dressed?"
"Yeah. Right." Sagan shrugged into the sleeves of his shirt, tucked it into his pants.
"Here. You'll need these." Keane handed him a small laser, and something else: a crucifix.
"I'm afraid I'm a bit of an atheist, Father, at least where your particular religion is concerned," Sagan admitted. "Will it still work for me?"
"Your hand's not bursting into flames upon touching it," Keane said drily. "That is a good sign."
Sagan shook his head and tucked the crucifix into his pocket. "Great. A wise-ass priest. Ready to go vampire hunting, Father?"
Keane held the door for him. Sagan closed and re-locked it, noticing as he did so that the lock did not appear to be damaged or tampered with in any way. I'll have to get him to show me how he does that, he thought.
"So where do they hide out?" Sagan asked.
"They're everywhere," Keane said quietly. "Walking among us. Blending with us. Come with me, Sagan of Tertia. I'll show you how to see them."
Like the beings they hunted, the two men walked into the shadows, and vanished in the darkness of the Kismetian night.
:: back to fiction ::