William A. Hainline: Reality Engineer

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Chapter One: Let the revels begin

Note: This Material Has Been Proofread, But Not Professionally Edited For Content

 

 

The sound of thunder exploded in the clouds above, and a blue-white arc of lightning struck down, reflected in the glass and steel of the thirteen-story building, which—with its two adjacent auditoriums and conference halls, and two large wings of buildings housing guest rooms—sat smack in the center of downtown Boston, Massachusetts. The lone figure in scarlet, thigh-high boots got out of her cab in the pouring rain and hustled her way—useless, cherry-red umbrella in hand—to the front. The rain obviously hadn't deterred the guests of the Renaissance Regency Hotel And Convention Center from opening their balcony sliding-glass doors, nor had it deterred them from hanging out on the balconies and relishing the storm and the rain. The roar of the thunder competed with the sounds of symphonic fantasy metal, good old rock and roll, dubstep, and—of course—filk music pouring out of the hotel; the lone figure had not come here by chance; she knew that this week, the hotel was home to PhantasmagoriCON XVIII, a grand bacchanal—or was it more of a hootenanny, or a shindig?—of debauchery and imagination that would rage like a gamma-irradiated scientist for the next five days. It was Friday, April the 9th, 2027, at 9:47 P.M.; Day Number One. The lone figure in the crimson-red miniskirt and corset knew the con would be revving-up its engines toward escape velocity, but that it would not have reached peak-madness just yet. Perfect timing on her part.

On one fifth-floor balcony, a starry-eyed Wonder Woman in star-spangled panties and a bright red corset, wearing golden vambraces, made out with a drunken Spiderman. The blue and red ridges on his costume branched out from the spider insignia at its center, a web of interlacing facets and honeycombs; the lone figure who had gotten out of the cab—whose eyesight was much clearer than any mortal’s was—could see the details of it, even at this distance, and admired the job he had done crafting it. A lot of love had gone into that cosplay.

Heh. Now only if I was in costume, then I might be okay, maybe, the lone figure in the miniskirt and corset thought. Yes, maybe. But only the mental Discipline of Sho-Ren Ka, and the Vampiric Gift of Arcanic Occlumency, could shield one from the prying minds’-eyes of the Na Gaisgich Inntinn Klythe. If, in fact, Krycek had brought any of them with him on the hunt. If he had, they would find her soon enough . . . if she didn’t use the Gift. Then again, they might already been in the area, and might even detect her using the Gift. And if they found her, she would meet her Eternal Death, and then the beginning of the end of the Mortal, Human Realm would begin here, tonight.

Across from Spiderman and Wonder Woman, a ruggedly-handsome Han Solo—sporting a black vest and a plastic blaster gun on his hip—snogged a short-skirted Sailor Moon who also wore a bright-blue sailor’s tunic (of course) and a red ascot. Below her, several dorky dudes wearing bedsheets as togas egged on a Starfleet cadet in full dress-uniform—replete with white braids and tassels on the shoulders of his scarlet tunic, with golden rank-pips on the collar—who chugged from long tube attached to a small keg of beer. Foam squirted out around his mouth and he laughed as beer sprayed all over him and his costume. His friends laughed and cheered, and he held up his fists in triumph, and high-fived the one wearing a black Darth Vader helmet and mask. “The force is strong with this one!” intoned Lord Vader. The Starfleet cadet wiped off his mouth, and grabbed another small keg; one of the guys wearing a toga stepped up and grabbed the tube, and the game began anew.

Yes, this was certainly everything she remembered PhantasmagoriCON being, alright. The lone figure walked through the front doors of the hotel.  She stepped through carrying a battered, red duffle bag in her left hand, and over her right shoulder, a equally-battered, black briefcase. Her pale, alabaster skin gleamed with the sheen of fresh raindrops, and her curly, jet-black hair coruscated down her back and stuck to her high-boned cheeks in wet ringlets. Her studded, crimson-red leather corset, matching red leather jacket, and matching crimson miniskirt were also all soaked, as were her boots; the storm outside had done its due diligence in giving her one hell of a good bath. She reached up and wiped under her eyes and then looked at her fingers; her mascara had run a little too, dammit. The umbrella she carried had done her little good; the storm had blown the rain sideways and straight into her no matter which way she had held it. Because of course it had. Just her goddamn luck. It was a good thing the old legends about Vampires fearing to cross running water weren’t true; otherwise, she would’ve been screwed, given the sidewalks and the overflowing sewer drains in the streets. Of course, the ones who were after her couldn’t be stopped by that, either; so maybe that wasn’t a good thing. Oh well. She hoped the Uber she’d taken hadn’t been followed; she looked out the glass double doors of the hotel and peered into the rain and street outside. She didn’t see any of the black SUVs or sedans she’d seen in Cambridge. Maybe Krycek hadn’t caught up with her. Yet. Maybe she was safe. For now.

Klingons—their foreheads ridged, and sporting bat’leths—and Elves—dressed in woodland greens, blossom white, and earthen brows, and carrying longbows—and Jedi—in their dark clerics’ robes and armed with glowing, toy lightsabers—surrounded her. She could suddenly hear, off in the distance, the jangling of acoustic guitars of the jam session; the dull roar of the crowd in the dealer’s room; and that of the crowd in the game room, too, where brave adventurers went in search of dragons’ gold, their fates determined by a roll of the die. Of course, regrettably, she wasn’t here to partake of the fellowship of her fellow crazy, wonderful fen. She had been a rabid fan of science fiction and fantasy in her life as a Mortal, and had come here every year with her friends Gadget and Gygax—not their real names, of course—before she had had that awful falling out with them over that bitch Trillian—which, oddly enough, was actually the woman’s real name. But, no, she was not here because she was one of these dear people whom she had missed these three years since taking the blood into her mouth and becoming an Immortal. Rojetta Arkenvalen—or as she called herself since Krycek had Created her in his dark image, “Akasha Blackthorne”—knew that if her Bloodmaker caught up with her tonight, then both worlds—the secret world of the Vampire Kingdom, and the Mortal Realm of Human society—would be in danger. Because he would kill her rather than let the Prophecy come true.

She had memorized most of the words of the ancient Prophecy, which had been reaffirmed via telepathic transmissions with the fallen alien demigod of Orogrü-Nathräk—one of the mythic Eidolon, the only one of His kind written of in the Histories to have been known to actually exist, and to still exist, in the flesh—using a psionic interface provided by the Great Family known as the Vampyrica Simulacra. (Though some of the others did not even consider the Simulacra worthy to even be  among the Families.) Almost word for word, the Prophecy said:

“There will come a Chosen One, a Champion . . . and He will rise above the rabble of the Eleven Families, the Seventeen Klythes, and the Noble Houses. He will be more powerful than all of them . . . and He will show them the way toward a new tomorrow, one where Vampires may walk freely under the light of the sun, unafraid of death by its light, and may go among Mortals unafraid as well, and may live on, without the need to feast upon the Mortals any longer, free of their curse of the thirst, for He shall quench it with a draught of his fellow Questers’ own making. He will be Created by a Vampire less than four years of age; and she will have been Created by one less than one hundred years of age; and they will dwell in the City of the Scholars, in the land of the Eagle and the Statue. And they will have been lovers in Mortal life for only a very short time; and they will be of the Family Krovafeyri.

It was undeniable that the Prophecy referred to her and Krycek. All eyes had turned to the two of them when the fallen alien god’s mouthpiece—a member of the Legion of Orogrü-Nathräk—had fallen silent, her glazed-over eyes fltuttering closed as she collapsed to the floor, the gauges of the machines connected to her all falling to zero. And Krycek had turned to Akasha, and she had seen a plan for murder forming in his eyes even then. It had been obvious that he had not liked what he had heard. Krycek was a rather conservative Vampire. But a small part of her still  couldn’t help thinking—how cool it it that Vampires and alien gods are actually a thing? And that I’m one of the former?

The real Vampires of the world didn’t want mortals to know they existed. Or, at least, most of them didn’t. Theirs was a secret world; a hidden and highly-organized nation of monsters that existed just beneath the surface of—and that, truthfully, often manipulated the strings of—ordinary Mortal society. They remained out of sight, out of mind, the inner-workings of their vast and labyrinthine Kingdom veiled behind a clever “Façade”—for that was exactly what they called it—until, of course, their fangs were at their victims’ throats. But that world, that secret Kingdom, had—since the revelation of the Prophecy—been plunged into utter chaos, with some Vampires fighting on the side of the Chosen One—whoever that might yet turn out to be—and some fighting on the side of the Vampire Kingdom’s purity of spirit and essence, saying that Vampires would never, ever coexist alongside Mortals without feeding upon them as predators . . . with Krycek leading the latter as though commanding a Jihad against the Mortal Realm itself. And coming after her, for she was the one fated to bring the Chosen One into existence. (But didn’t she have to actually cooperate with fate and destiny in order for that to happen? Didn’t she have to want to do it? What if she refused?) The War had pitted Klythe against Klythe, and Great Family against Great Family. The corridors of the Noble Houses ran wet with the blood of internecine strife. Barons struck out against Kings; Klythe Leader fought Klythe Leader—it was madness. One would think The Šialené had taken over the entirety of the Childer’s shadow society, that all of Vampire-Kind had gone insane. Perhaps they had. Perhaps the Discipline of Sho-Ren Ka had failed them all, and everyone had been plunged into a frenzied psychosis, never to return to their right minds. She herself had never been very good at Sho-Ren Ka. She knew she still had a lot to learn. Perhaps now, she never would. For even now, the Great Library—held underground, nearby in Cambridge—burned. 

The crowd of con-goers surrounded her on all sides in the lobby of the hotel as Akasha tried to get through to get to the front desk. Everywhere around her, conversation effervesced: “So who do you think was the best of the Doctors?” chattered a Dwarf from Middle-Earth to he right as she tried to get by. “For me it was either Capaldi or Whittaker. But don’t even get me started on David Tennant; God I had such a huge crush on him.” A black man dressed in a blue tunic and black slacks, and wearing a pair of pointed ears and with slanted eyebrows, argued with a petite blonde woman wearing a furry bikini, furry boots, and carrying a peacebonded spear: “So let me get this straight. You actually think the Hulk could defeat Superman, if he got mad enough. Come on. You gotta be kidding me!” A short man wearing round glasses, black robes, a tie, and with a lightning bolt scar etched on his forehead, gestured exaggeratedly as he explained laboriously to his companion, a woman with a huge mass of curly red hair on her head, wearing a dark green dress, and carrying a bow and arrow: “Okay, listen. What you’ve got to understand is that I love Harry Potter. I adore J.K. Rowling. But Harry didn’t win against Voldemort because he’s a great wizard or a great guy or even a mediocre hero. No, he won because of the dumb luck of wand mechanics!” Across from them, as Akasha squeezed by, still trying to get to the front desk, she heard, “Well, me personally, I don’t think Spike really deserved a relationship with Buffy. Not after he sexually assaulted her like that!” Akasha slipped past them, and moved through the throng and crept by two young sylphs of girls, both dressed as Harley Quinn: Sparkling red short-shorts showing plenty of leg, go-go boots, a t-shirt that said, Daddy’s Li’l Monster on it, pig-tails in their blonde hair, way too much make-up, and carrying bloody baseball bats: “So when we finally get our asses off this rock,” one said to the other, “do you really think we’ll meet Anne McCaffrey’s dragons? Y’know, will we go to Pern? Or will the first things we run into be the Go’a’uld from Stargate?” She was almost there, almost to the front desk. She overheard someone say, in a British accent: “What’s the average airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” Someone else, inevitably: “The African or European variety?” Another person: “Well, how about in a warp bubble?” The fourth guy: “Well how about in a warp bubble designed by Wesley Crusher?” Laughter, some of it hers, despite herself; that had been a good one. She finally made it to the front desk, and heard someone else shout: “Oh now you’re just being riddikulus!”

The thin, ruddy-faced clerk at the front desk had dark brown hair and almond eyes, wore a navy-blue suit and tie, and he looked as though he’d had a hard day. There were dark circles under his eyes and he seemed a bit disheveled. His name-tag bore the name, “Neville.”

“Hi, welcome to the Renaissance Regency,” he said as she walked up to the front desk, forcing a smile at her. “How can I help you?”

“Hi—Neville, is it?” she began. It always helped to address people by name, she had found.

“Yes,” he said, still forcing the smile. “And please don’t ask me if my last name is ‘Longbottom.’”

“Oh, yeah, right,” she said, and grinned despite the direness of her situation. She couldn’t help it; that was a pretty good one, too. “Sorry. I’d like a room, please, Neville.”

“You must be joking,” he said, with a small, disbelieving laugh. “I don’t even need to look at the computer for that one. We’re full, ma’am. Sorry.”

“Well could you at least check, please?” she said, already out of patience with him.

“Sure,” he said, with a shrug, “but I already know what the machine’s going to tell me.”

He turned to his computer terminal and typed on the keyboard for a moment. Then hit a few more keys after that, and moved the mouse, and clicked it a few times.

“Nope, sorry, I was right,” he said. “We’re booked solid. I could try to book you a room for next week, if you like. Plenty of rooms then.”

“Well that scarcely does me any good now, does it?” she said, letting out a panicked, pissed-off breath through her nostrils. It would do no good to take out her frustration on Neville, though. After all, he hadn’t filled the hotel with guests.

“My advice,” he said, “would be to find a friend here, and maybe bunk with them. Lots of people do it. Again, sorry I couldn’t help.”

“That’s . . . it’s . . . it’s not your fault,” she said, the anger subsiding and her heart slowly sinking into her stomach. What the hell was she going to do now?

To her left, a group of three Ghostbusters—two male, one female—their outfits complete with intricately made proton pack props (they looked like they had been custom built from various machine parts, and they matched the look of the machines from the movies perfectly)—admired a set of comic books laid out on a table attended by a short man who wore a tweed suit, bow tie, and a red fez. Akasha overheard him say, “I wear a bow tie now. Bow ties are cool.” The metal boots of the woman behind him clinked together as she adjusted her silver-metal bikini bottom and armored halter-top. She picked up her rifle-like ray gun and ran a hand through her auburn hair. She then smiled and put her arms around two young men dressed in black suits and wearing RayBan sunglasses, and their friend took a picture of them. Barbarella and the Men In Black, maybe?

Who cared. This was deadly serious. If she couldn’t get a room, she would have no base of operations; and more importantly, no bathroom in which to spend the days locked up while the sun was in the sky and shining through every window in the place. And no sanctum to which to flee if Krycek and his blood-hunters came knocking . . .

She simply stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do next. To her right was a guy dressed as Naruto, a popular anime character: His spiked yellow hair ascended about six inches into the air. His headband, with its large metal plate in the front, engraved with a spiral insignia, bobbed up and down as he spoke. He wore a zip-up black-and-orange sweatshirt, orange sweat-trousers striped with black to match, and a peacebonded dagger on his hip. The edges of the jet-black, Victorian-era tea dress of the green-skinned girl standing next to him whirled in the air as she pirouetted in place like a dancer, laughing. The dress had shoulder pads and lacing around the collar, with long sleeves, and black-lace ruffles at the cuffs. Her skin was a lovely shade of emerald; and it was a good makeup job, too—it covered her whole head, except for her raven-black hair, which she wore in a bun. She gave Naruto a friendly bonk on the head with her long, old-fashioned witch’s broom, and tipped her crooked black witch’s hat to the man they were both animatedly talking to. For a brief moment, the green-skinned girl turned, and made eye contact with Akasha. She blinked, held the girl’s eyes for a moment, and then the girl looked away, and back to Naruto and the other man, who stood six feet tall and weighed at least three hundred and fifty pounds.

The man wore a bright green, plaid kilt and a white shirt, with a green sash thrown across his shoulders and  chest, with fuzzy pauldrons on his shoulders, and a green golf cap. His great bushy beard of red hair covered his chest. He carried a set of bagpipes, and momentarily, he put the longest of the black reed-pipes to his mouth and gave the green-plaid bag a squeeze, and out came the loudest, strangest, yet most hauntingly beautiful, mournful sound Akasha had ever heard. He proceeded to play a jaunty melody on the pipes, and people nearby started clapping . . . and then doing little jig-like dances . . . and then he quit playing. Bursts of applause went up all around him, and he took a short few bows and smiled.

Pretty and funny, but of no use to her. Damn. How to get a room. That was the question. She wandered over to the ornate, wooden-framed, plush-cushioned orange couch that sat against the wall opposite the registration desk, set down her bags, and tried to think. She would have to try and meet someone. Was it her imagination, or was that green-skinned girl looking at her again?

 She took a breath, and looked around. And then it hit her. She was here, at PhantasmagoriCON once again, for the first time in four years’ time. Four years. Had it been that long? A rekindled warmth spread through her chest as she took in the sights and sounds around her. She felt it in her bones: At last she had come home, once more. It felt like it had been longer than it had. These were her people. Or at least, they had been, before her Bloodmaker had Created her in his image and taken it all away from her. A coldness enveloped her heart as she thought of Krycek. The bastard. He had stolen this from her—all of this, including the people. He had taken all of that which had comprised her Mortal life. The thought that she had gone along with it willingly only sickened her further. She had, in her life as a Mortal, once been a part of this, the fandom scene. And God, how she missed it. She had, in those days, worked part-time at the school bookstore at Miskatromyk University, in Cambridge, on a work-study program. She had been studying theoretical physics—String Theory and M-Theory; the super-unification of quantum physics and relativity; the study of higher dimensional spaces and of high-energy physics—and had hoped to one day be a teacher herself; maybe she’d even teach at Miskatromyk U someday, she had thought dreamily in those days. Previous to that, she had received a Master’s Degree in Electronics Engineering, and had been damned good at her job at Joe’s Radio Repair Shop. She could still remember the smell of melting solder; she had always loved that smell. It reminded her of her friend Gadget, and of her ex-boyfriend Gygax, Gadget’s best friend. They had slept together, she and Gadget. Only just the once, though. It had meant more to him than to her; it had been his first time, after all. Now whenever she slept with someone, she usually drained them of their blood and then shoved their body into a dumpster afterwards. But that night with Gadget had been special, in its own way. And it had happened right here, at PhantasmagoriCON.

She had come here, each and every year, with Gadget and Gygax—god how she missed them, even though she’d had that nasty falling out with Gygax over Trillian, once Gygax had started dating her—to celebrate her mad love of sci-fi and fantasy with her fellow fen. But all of that . . . was gone now. Obliterated. Burned in the cold fires of the Making Ritual. Reduced to ashes of memory that would fade with time as those around her grew older, grew sick, and died, but as she stayed young, healthy, and beautiful. But also grew older. And older. And watched loved ones die. And then watched even more die.  Loved ones like her father, Viktor. God, how she missed him now. She had run away from him for her own safety; after the split in his personality had appeared, after that horrid creature named Ravenkroft had bubbled up out of his psyche from out of nowhere and had begun hitting her, cursing her, and beating her . . . coming after her at night . . . she had had to get the fuck out of Dodge. And quick. But still, she loved her father Viktor. She didn’t blame him because he was sick, ill, and needed help. She wanted to help him; she just didn’t know how. And now, she couldn’t help him. Because her Mortal life—and he along with it—was now beyond her reach. She was Vampire-kind now, and he was Human. If anything, she was a danger to him, now. And he would grow old, while she remained young. And beautiful. And healthy. While he grew sick, and sicker . . . and breathed his last one day . . .

Akasha then reminded herself that she would not live much longer if Krycek caught up with her. She looked over at Naruto, the Scottish bagpipe-player, and the girl with the green skin again—whom she saw chance another look at her; their eyes met for a second or two, and then the girl quickly looked away again. She chanced a stolen glance at the threesome again, and they were all three looking in her direction now, and whispering amongst themselves. The next thing she knew, they were all three headed in her direction. Akasha froze on the spot. They couldn’t be Human agents of Krycek’s; they were too . . . well, they were too fannish. Too downright dorky looking, to be honest. No, these were ordinary con-goers, all right. What did they want? Akasha stood up from where she sat and grabbed her bags again.

“Hello there,” said the green-skinned witch with the broom as they came to a stop in front of her. “We are well-met along the path, fellow traveler. Might I inquire, what is thine handle? Methinks I’ve seen thee somewherest elst.”

“Uh, who, me?” said Akasha, pointing to herself. There was no one else in the vicinity; it felt like a stupid question to even be asking.

“Yes, you,” said the witch. “Who else would I be talking to?”

“Er, no one, I suppose. Who are you, again?”

“My name is Elphion,” said the witch, sticking out a hand meant for shaking. Now that she had gotten closer, Akasha could see that there were integrated circuit pathways drawn into her green make-up. “Get it? A cross between Evangelion and Elphaba. But my real name is Michele Robinson. My whole ‘nym is Elphion Imajica Dangerzone.

“Er, pleased to meet you,” said Akasha, and shook her hand. “That’s a real mouthful. My name’s Akasha. My real name is . . . well, it’s unimportant.”

“Oh, that’s fine!” said Elphion, and she smiled a pretty smile. It lit up her entire face, an angelic beam of light on her green features. “Lots of people use ‘nyms because they don’t want to use their real name! Is this your first year here at con?”

“Er, no,” said Akasha, looking furtively toward the hotel’s front doors again, trying to see if she could spot the vehicles that had spelled doom for her back in Cambridge. “No, I’ve been here before.”

“Excellent! Boys, we have a veteran on our hands!” cried Elphion to her companions. “Moreover, a homeless veteran!”

“Excuse me,” said Akasha, “but isn’t that a rather tasteless way to put it?”

“Oh we’re very tasteless, us three,” said Elphion. “The worst.” Her smoldering bedroom eyes—an emerald green, Akasha’s favorite eye color; because of course they were—were alive with fire as she looked Akasha up and down and smiled wickedly. “Allow me to introduce my compatriots in crime. This is Naruto Bladerunner and Phineas Highlander O’Brien, also known as the Scotsman Clad In Kilt Who Left The Bar One Ev’nin’ Fair. We just call him Phineas, for short.”

“Nice ‘nyms,” said Akasha, and she allowed herself a small smile in the midst of her anxiety. “I like the reference to the song.”

“Why, thankee lass,” said Phineas, in a thick—but obviously fake—Scottish accent. “I been meanin’ ter maybe change my ’nym to maybe Conner McCloud, or somethin’ rather catchy like tha’, y’know, ter be more in line with th’ whole ‘Highlander’ theme, but Phineas O’Brien just has a kinder ring ter it, ye know?”

“Er, yeah,” said Akasha. She considered this for a moment. “I think Phineas O’Brien suits you better.”

“Aye, an’ I ‘ave the gift o’ technobabble to prove it. Cap’n! I think I ken re-route the hotel’s transporter buffer into a matrix o’ nano-cathode flux-coupling butt-plugs that—!”

“Er—” began Akasha. “Yeeeaaah . . . I’m gonna go ahead and stop you right there.”

“Hi,” said Naruto, waving at her. He smiled a bashful smile at her and shoved his hands in his pockets nervously. “Don’t mind me. I have—have—have—”

“He has social anxiety issues,” said Elphion, by way of explanation, nodding to Akasha as though she understood this implicitly.

“Ah, okay,” said Akasha. She waved back at Naruto and offered him a broader smile than she had Phineas. “Hi, Naruto.”

“Anyway. I overheard your conversation at the front desk,” said Elphion. “Yeah, the hotel is full to the brim of its transporter buffer . . . or its Sorting Hat, take your pick.”

“Yeah, so it would appear,” said Akasha, her anxiety ebbing back. She chanced another look out the hotel’s front doors. Still no black sedans. Thank the gods.

“Did you know?” said Naruto, speaking rapidly, but softly, “There’s a theory that the Sorting Hat is actually a Horcrux with pieces of the four Founders’ souls in it, so they could always be a part of Hogwarts. If that’s true, then there are four dead—dead—dead motherfuckers buried somewhere at Hogwarts who died so that students could always be—be sorted into their proper Houses.” He tittered nervous laughter, and then fell silent.

“So I figured,” said Elphion, grasping Akasha’s hand in hers, “‘here’s this beautiful woman. She obviously needs a room. And she’s obviously committed to Vampire fandom and has this great Queen of the Damned cosplay going on. Very subtle touches—I definitely approve. So it’s a pity she can’t stay for all five days of PhantasmagoriCON! Without a room, I mean. So, she should stay with us!’ So, I talked it over with my loyal companions—”

“Righ’ lass, it’s already been discussed, y’see,” said Phineas. “We took a vote an ev’rythin’.”

“It was unanimous,” squeaked Naruto.

“—And we decided amongst ourselves,” said Elphion, “‘Hey, why doesn’t she stay with us?’ We have room in our suite. Plenty of room. It has a comfy couch, and a comfy chair—”

“‘Not! The comfy! Chair!’” cried Phineas, suddenly, as though in a great deal of pain and with no small amount of fear in his voice. Elphion regarded him for a moment with a raised eyebrow.

“Monty Python,” he offered, by way of explanation. A pause. “No-buddy? No-buddy got tha’? Ah well. Continyer on, Elphion.”

“—And I even have some dry clothes for you to change into,” said Elphion, turning back around to face her. “I think they’ll fit you just fine.”

“Why . . . er, thank you,” said Akasha, taken aback with surprise. Why was Elphion still grasping her hand? “But . . . I don’t even know you. You don’t even know me. I mean, why would you do all that for someone you don’t even know? I could be an axe murderer. I could kill you all in your sleep!”

“I don’t need to know you, to know you’re a soul in desperate need,” said Elphion. She gripped Akasha’s hand a little tighter, and ran her other hand over her thumb softly. “You need a room and besides, you look . . .” She smiled at her with just a hint of seduction lurking behind her eyes. “Intriguing. So you can room with us, whoever you are. Alright?”

“Er, alright.” Akasha glanced down. The witch still had her by the hand. She could have ripped the witch’s arm off and beat her with it, if had she wanted to. The average Vampire had the strength of twelve ordinary mortals. Their bodies also had the speed of hummingbird wings; had she wanted to, she could’ve run, bolted through the hotel lobby, and been out the front doors and across the street in four seconds flat, a literal blur to the eyes of Elphion and the other mortals here. But something in Elphion’s eyes held her there; she didn’t really want to look away. She was a gorgeous and delicious-looking woman with a slender nose, full lips, large eyes, and a soft chin; green skin and all, she looked amazing. And those eyes, a jade color deeper than the green of her skin, and Akasha had always been a sucker for deep green eyes. This was it—she was the one. Elphion would not only provide her with a place to stay, but . . . she would be her victim for tonight. Her dinner. Not only for tonight, but the next several nights.

But if  she was going to feed on her, she would have to seduce her, properly. And then finally kill her on the last night of the convention. Otherwise she wouldn’t have a room to stay in for the full length of the con. Priorities. It wasn’t personal; and she hated to kill one so young and vibrant. Of course, there was always the other option . . . and that would certainly piss of Krycek. Of course, that would also condemn Elphion to a tortured existence as one of the Emarginato, the Outcasts and Anarchists: Those Created without the permission of one’s Bloodmaker, Klythe Leader, Baron, or King, doomed to wander in the wilderness between Parishes. No . . .  she couldn’t do that. Not to anyone. Better to feed on her for a few nights of passionate sexual ecstasy, then kill her. The other two she could kill, and then feed on them as well. 

Good. It was decided, then.

So why did she feel so damn guilty about it? They were just Humans, weren’t they? Her natural prey. Why feel guilty about killing  . . . Humans?

Akasha managed a smile back at Elphion and said, “Okay. You’ve got a deal.”

Elphion smiled back. “Excellent. We’re in room 203. Come on, we’re headed there now. I need to touch-up my skin; it’s getting pasty.”

“Aye, an’ it’s a pleasure to be meetin’ ya, lassie,” said Phineas. Before Akasha could say anything else, he took her hand and kissed it. Akasha quickly withdrew her hand and wiped it on her miniskirt. “Well now! Aren’t ye the wee little OCD firecracker! Heh! I like ye already!”

“Uh, yeah,” said Akasha, not sure whether to grin or to grimace. “I’m honored.”

“Heya,” said Naruto with a small nod and a cheesy, attempt-at-cool smile. “My real name’s Jeff.”

“Pleased to meet you, Jeffrey,” said Akasha, and smiled at him. He blushed, and shrugged his head down a bit, as though attempting to hide it like a turtle might hide within his shell, though there was no place for his head to go but into his sweatshirt.

“I love your cosplay, by the way,” said Elphion. The four of them started walking toward the elevators against the far wall of the hotel lobby, with Elphion in the lead.

“My cosplay?” said Akasha. “Oh, right, the whole—”

“Yeah, the whole Vampire thing,” said Elphion, nodding to her over her shoulder. “The fangs look great—I can’t even tell where your real teeth stop and those start. And your makeup job—it’s damn-near perfect. Your lips . . . they really do look blood-stained. And how did you get your skin so perfectly pale like that? And without showing any build-up or anything! And it hasn’t even smeared or run at all from the rain! Tell me—just for starters—what kind of foundation did you use?”

“Oh, that. Well . . .” She smiled sweetly at Elphion and then her smile broke into a grin. “I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.” She put a finger to her lips. “Shh! Or I’ll hypnotize you, turn into a bat, and bite you!”

Elphion threw back her head and laughed. “Right, right! Abracadabra, I’m a bat!”

“Oh yeah?” piped up Naruto, in a perfect imitation of Bugs Bunny. “‘Well Abra-ca-pocus! I’m a baseball bat!’”

“‘You wouldn’t hit a bat with glasses on . . . would you?’” intoned Phineas, in his best Bela Lugosi.

Once again, despite herself, Akasha laughed, as did Elphion and the others. It felt good to laugh . . . but another twinge of guilt ran through her, this one stronger than the last one. She knew why it was there. Elphion was one of her people. So were the other two—they were of her people. They weren’t a pack of homeless veterans lingering on the street. They weren’t criminals loitering after committing a robbery or a rape. They weren’t just a group of random yuppies, hippies, neo-Nazis, gang members, punks, hitchhikers, lost children, or wayward police officers. No, these were fen. They were part of the fandom “family.” Her own people she was thinking of murdering. But what else could she do? She had to feed—and soon. It was imperative. And there were no large animals around, or cribs to rob of infants. And she had a real opening here. It had to be Elphion—and her friends.

“No seriously,” said Elphion, “how the hell did you do it? I am so jealous of your mad makeup skills, Akasha.”

“I’ll  . . . tell you later,” said Akasha. “Promise.” She looked back over her shoulder toward the hotel’s entrance. The black SUVs and sedans still weren’t outside. Good. Thank the gods. Of course, they could’ve just been in the parking garage across the street. Fuck. She hadn’t thought of that. Krycek could already be here.

“Well c’mon!” said Elphion, grinning. “Let’s head to the room already. I’ve got a bottle of Aftershock with our names on it.”

They made it to the elevators, and Elphion punched the “up” button. The elevator dinged and the doors opened. There they beheld a Klingon making out with a blue-body-painted Delvian priestess in flowing robes of silver. Akasha chanced another look back. No sign of Krycek. They got onboard the elevator. Elphion cleared her throat. The Klingon and the Delvian broke off their make-out session and looked up, startled, and both grinned sheepishly, and hurried off the elevator holding hands. The Klingon took a moment and shrugged at them, as though to say, Hey man, she’s my parmaqqay; what else am I supposed to do? They got on the elevator, the doors closed, Elphion punched the button for the second floor, and the elevator ascended.

“Aye, I’ll be glad when we get ta the room,” said Phineas. “I gotta straighten me underwear. ’Tis ridin’ up in the crotch, it is.” He glanced over at Akasha, then Elphion. “Er, not that either o’ ye ladies needed ter know that, o’ course.”

“Charming,” said Akasha. She turned to Elphion and shook her head, smiling; that guilty feeling was more pronounced, now. “Does he always broadcast these things?”

“Yes,” said Elphion. “We try to discourage him, but that only seems to encourage him. So we tried reverse psychology and tried encouraging him. But that only encouraged him further. So we gave up.”

“Aye, I’m incorrigible,” said Phineas. “Ye lads and lassies were usin’ the wrong word, ye see.”

“Phineas, do you have to stay in-character all the time?” asked Naruto. The elevator dinged, the doors opened.

“Well, lemme see, do ye have ter always be such an annoyin’ piss-ant git, lad?” asked Phineas. “‘Cause I’m thinkin’ the answers are one an’ the same. Aye, I dun’ even know why we brought ye along this year if all ’n yer gonna do is ask stupid questions.”

They got off the elevator, and with Elphion in the lead, they got off, and headed down the second floor hallway.

“Because I’m c—c—cool, that’s w—why, said Naruto. “You . . . you people n—need me. I’m a vital, uh, vital part of this group’s dynamic c—c—chemistry. With—without me, the myth—mythic power of our little ka-tet is w—woefully incomplete.”

“Well, tha’s a matter o’ opinion, lad.” Naruto only glared at him sullenly. Phineas winked at him and clapped him on the back and laughed. “Oh don’ get yer knickers in a twist, laddie! I’m only jokin’ with ye! O’ course we need ye! Who else would frighten away all the rabid lassies who wanna taste o’ me bahoogies? Besides, yes, yer cool. The coolest.” He put a hand on Naruto’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t ever be wantin’ ter ride inter battle without ye, lad. Not on a dare.”

Naruto smiled at him. More con-goers in sometimes-amazing cosplay surrounded them on all sides as they made their way down the hall. Akasha grinned, too. She couldn’t help it; they were fun, this lot. She decided that she might have to make other feeding arrangements. Maybe. She wasn’t sure yet. Guilt gnawed at her already, and she hadn’t even done anything yet.

They made it to the room. Elphion inserted the white keycard into the door handle, and then opened the door. They ventured inside. The room was like any other fancy, well-appointed hotel suite: Two queen-sized beds, a table between them with a lamp and cordless telephone on it; a flat-screen television hanging on the wall before them; a large table over in the corner, with chairs apportioned around it; a couch against one wall; an air conditioning unit; a large dresser unit with drawers, underneath the television; a small refrigerator; a closet for hanging clothes. On each bed, someone had thrown a couple of suitcases, and clothes and had thrown bits of costuming all around the room. Makeup products and tools lay scattered on the dresser. Elphion walked in threw herself on the couch against the wall.

“Whew!” she said, letting out a breath. She dug in the small refrigerator next to the couch and got herself a Coke. “You want one, Akasha? The corporate slogan says we’re supposed to share a Coke and a smile, so . . .”

“Er, no thanks,” she said. “But your smile is nice.” Vampires could eat and drink Human food, but they took no nourishment from it. Sugar, drugs, and alcohol were different stories, though; things like chocolate, booze, and drugs, they could eat drink, and take, and they would have the same effects as they did upon humans: Drunkenness, hyperactivity, or a high. The same went for feeding off a Human who had done drugs, gotten drunk, or eaten sugar. The effects were greater than what they were for Humans, too, though they would fade more quickly. And, the risk of addiction was also greater. So was the risk of poisoning—a Vampire could easily meet their Eternal Death from drinking too much, just as well as they could from walking out into the sun, being cast into a fire, being hit with a silver bullet, or having their head chopped off.

“Aw, thanks,” said Elphion, her eyes penetrating her. “Yours too. But anyway.” She looked away, still smiling. “Enough of that happy horseshit! First things first. Akasha, you need clothes. Look in that suitcase on the first bed. Find the black jeans with the silver buttons on the front pockets. I think those might fit you. Then find the oversize Star Wars t-shirt that has Kylo Ren on it. And I think I brought an extra pair of combat boots; they’re in the big suitcase next to the bed if you want to ditch the thigh-high ones. Which, by the way, I fucking love. Kudos on your Vampiric fashion sense. And hey guys; you too Akasha, after you change; would the three of you be up for a friendly game of Magic: The Gathering? We can get to know Akasha while we play.”

“Hell y—yeah, I’m up—up for that,” said Naruto. “S—sure. D—d—deal me i—in. Just—just—just don’t play with your u—usual deck, Elphion. That thing is w—way too p—powerful. You always k—k—kkick everyone’s ah—asses with it within like . . . like ten turns or so.”

“Aw, well shit, that’s no fun then,” said Elphion, mock-pouting. “But oh well. If you insist, I’ll use one of my low-powered decks. Okay?”

“Okay,” said Naruto. “Sounds—sounds fair.”

“Aye, she’s lyin’ to ya laddie,” said Phineas, chuckling. “She says it’s low-powered. But remember—for her, tha’s a relative term!”

“Yeah, I kn—know,” said Naruto. “B—b—believe me. That only muh—means she’ll k—k—kick our ass—asses in w—w—what, luh—like, what, only tw—tw—twelve turns?” He laughed.

“Now yer gettin’ the idea,” said Phineas. “And I’ve got dibs on the bathroom after Akasha uses it.”

“Thanks,” said Akasha. She rummaged in the suitcase Elphion had pointed out to her and found the clothes in question, the black jeans and the t-shirt, and also a hairbrush. The clothes did indeed look like they would fit, even though they might be a little loose; Elphion’s thighs were slightly wider than hers was, and her waist was a tiny bit thicker. The t-shirt would fit no problem. She unzipped the larger suitcase by the bed and found the combat boots; she held one up to her boots. She looked up at Elphion and smiled. “These are a perfect match, size-wise.”

“Well, go try them on!” said Elphion. “Shoo! Away with you then!”

Akasha shook her head and laughed, and went into the bathroom. She set the boots, t-shirt, and jeans down on the vanity countertop. She leaned on the countertop, closed her eyes, and breathed. Just breathed. In. And out. Slowly. Then again, and again after that. Then, she looked back up and into her own eyes. Her thoughts drifted. Krycek. He could be here, right now. Right here, at this convention. If he was here, then it was only a matter of time until he found her. She could use Arcanic Occlumency to hide her presence here, but that would only get her so far; if Krycek had any of the Na Gaisgich Inntinn Klythe with him, then they would detect her use of her Vampiric psionic Gifts; they would know that someone here was using Arcanic Occlumency, and would thus know she was here. And then they would find her, drag her to the roof, lock her up there. wait for dawn to come, and listen to her screams as the sunlight obliterated her.

What the hell could she do? Her only choice would be to stand and fight. But last time she had tried that, she had gotten three broken bones and two nasty cuts on her face and arm, plus a laceration on her leg. And had barely escaped with her life. Vampires had amazing healing abilities; broken bones would practically reset themselves and typically heal within an hour; even the most severe wounds would close within minutes; blood clotted almost immediately; bullets would pop back out of their holes as bones and organs re-knitted themselves back together from the lacerations; their bodies could fight off infections—within minutes—that would slaughter most mortals within hours. But they were not impervious to the pain, torture, or agony that wounds could inflict; nor were they immune to the lingering memory of said pain and agony. Nor were they immune to the fear and terror that pain and suffering could elicit. And, always, there was the fear of the Eternal Death that awaited beyond the touch of fire, silver, or sunlight. But of course, those things could be harnessed—in just the right measure—for the purposes of torture, as well.

She changed clothes, took off her boots and pulled on Elphion’s, and checked herself out in the mirror. She looked good. Well, that much was a given; she always looked good. Her hair was a right mess, but otherwise, she looked fine as thread. Presently, she ran the brush through her hair, and attempted to tame it. Right, then. She gazed into the mirror, into her own eyes, attempting to psych herself up for what came next. The first phases of seduction. And of course, the psionic trick of Vampiric Arcanic Occlumency, one of the Gifts that came with being one of the Childer.

Akasha closed her eyes and concentrated, feeling the thread of thought in her mind. It appeared in her mind’s eye like a silver rope, glowing in the center of a cave. She walked forward and grasped it in her hand; it was hot to the touch. She focused all her mental effort upon it, and it burst into blue flame. As she concentrated harder upon it, it fractured into filaments that spread out around her like the wires in an umbrella; they bent in the air and wrapped down and around her into a sphere-like shape that surrounded her on all sides. Between the wires, a ghostly, filmy soap-bubble-like surface began to spread out and coagulate, forming a protective shell around her, until she was fully enclosed within it, with no way in or out. The shell glowed a soft blue color and floated around her. Satisfied, she opened her eyes. She was still in the bathroom; but now, everything around her had a slight, almost imperceptible glimmer to it. Good. Her power of Arcanic Occlumency was working. She was now hidden from the sight, and psionic scans, of most other Vampires, unless they specifically scanned for someone using this power. They would not see her, even if she walked right in front of them. She would fade from the minds of most mortals she encountered, but only if they had only met in passing. She let out a sigh of relief, and exited the bathroom.

“Well!” said Phineas. “Good thing’n ye finally decided ter come outta there! ‘Wot th’ ‘ell are ye doin’ in the bathroom day ‘an noight! Why don’ ye git outta there an’ give someone else a chance!’” He shuffled into the bathroom and shut the door.

Y—y—young Fruh—fruh—Frankenstein!’” laughed Naruto, calling after him. He shook his head. “G—g—good reference! God, I ha—ha—haven’t s—s—een th—th—that one in like y—years.”

“Me either,” said Elphion. “Good ol’ Mel Brooks.” She lifted her shot-glass full of Aftershock. “We pour one out for him. Well, not literally. That would ruin the carpet. Here, Akasha. Cheers.” She handed her a shot-glass.

Akasha would have demurred, but figured there was no avoiding it. She would have to drink it. Oh well. Maybe just the one wouldn’t hurt.

She kicked the shot back—it burned her throat and mouth—and immediately felt the effects of the alcohol. Dizziness hit her, and lightheadedness. Her vision blurred a bit. She leaned on the wall for support. Goddammit. Alcohol and Vampiric physiology. The two did not mix well. Elphion and Naruto immediately got up from where they sat and came at her.

“Oh my God, are you okay?” asked Elphion, racing toward her, and grabbing her by the arm.

“I’m . . . I’m fine,” said Akasha, steadying herself. The glimmer that shined out from everything around her flickered for a moment, then Akasha forced her mind to behave, and the glimmer came back. Arcanic Occlumency would not work if she allowed her mind to become unfocused. The alcohol would not help, but its effects would fade quickly enough, so long as she didn’t drink any more.

Elphion stroked her arm. “No, you’re not. Come over here and lie down. Here. Jeff, clear the suitcases off the bed.”

“R—right,” said Naruto. He did as she asked, and Elphion led Akasha over to one of the beds, where she also gently helped her lie down. She wasn’t that bad off, or that ill. But she let Elphion tend to her; it was all a part of the game of seducing her.

“I should have remembered,” she lied, “I’m on . . . medication that doesn’t react well with alcohol.”

Elphion simply looked at her for a moment, then cocked her head at her. “Oh you poor dear,” she said, and shook her head. “And you foolish one, you! You should’ve refused that shot! Here, prop your head up. There you go. Now, you just rest for a moment. You still want to play Magic whenever Phineas gets done clogging up the toilet?”

Akasha laughed. She couldn’t help it. The image was too funny. “Sure,” she said. “Why not?”

She thought she remembered how to play Magic: The Gathering. It had been a while, though; the last time she had played, she had been a Mortal, and it had been in the back of the bookstore at Miskatromyk U, with Gadget and Gygax. It had been the day before her last visit to PhantasmagoriCON, in fact, the day before she had taken Gadget’s virginity. The week before Gygax had started dating Trillian, and they had all had that huge falling out, and she had left the group in rage and in tears. The next week, she had met Krycek, and they had started dating. He had seemed like such a normal guy at first, except for his aversion to sunlight. A little creepy, but on the whole, nice and polite, and very romantic. Supremely goth, though. But, Gygax had been goth too, so that hadn’t bothered her. But then, she had discovered the truth. About who he really was. About what he really was. About their society, their world. Their secret kingdom that existed just below the surface of—and that pulled the strings of—Human society and existence.

Krycek had told her that she only had only two choices: One, he could kill her, for  no ordinary Human was permitted to know the Secrets of the Façade. Or, he could kill her . . . and then make her one of what he was. He had, he said, already obtained the permission of his Klythe Leader, whoever or whatever that was. Live forever; stay young; carry on your scientific work, forever, he had said. It had sounded too good to be true. And of course, it had been. Oh, but it had been. And now, thanks to that Prophecy, and The Legion of Orogrü-Nathräk, and their resurrection of the Prophecy here in the twenty-first century, Civil War had enveloped the entire Vampire Kingdom, and Krycek wanted her dead. But how could an alien god confirm a prophecy made by Earthbound Vampires? And if the future was set and one could see into it, what was the point of trying to kill her if she was somehow special and played a role in it? Unless, of course, her role was to die. Sobering thought, that.

Akasha sat up on her elbows, sighed, and grinned at Elphion as though she hadn’t a care in the world. She wiggled her eyebrows up and down mischievously.

“C’mon,” she said. “Let’s play some Magic.”

 

The Visitor to Earth—whose actual name was unpronounceable in any Human tongue, nor would he ever wish it to be sullied so—wrapped one of his eight tentacle-arms around the second control crystal of the panel in front of him, lifted it out of place, and set it into the empty shaft beside it, locking it in. A soft purple glow emanated from beneath it, indicating the ship’s computer reading the photonic memories encoded within it. The holographic projection in front of him shifted to a wide-angle view of the Human city below his ship. He rested the same tentacle-arm on the control stick next to the crystal, and put another tentacle-arm on the controls opposite it, on the other side of the console, which was home to the myriad of other crystals and their shafts. He began to guide the ship on manual approach toward his chosen landing site.

In the center of the ship's bridge, there sat the a raised metal dais, before which sat the Visitor. Floating around the dais, like electrons orbiting a model atom, there danced a series of small metal spheres that projected bright, dispersing beams of light from their “eyes,” which struck the crystalline control surfaces that sprouted from the dais, but that cast no shadows. These were the holo-matter projectors that caused the material manifestation of the ship’s interior systems to spring into existence. The controls were all made of crystaL, and took the form of shards and chutes embedded in a strange, geometric rock formation, in addition to many small holographic dials, gauges, and readouts that also “grew” there. One readout showed a hologram of the ship’s exterior and immediate surroundings, with the ship rotating in three dimensions.

The Visitor used two of his four feelers to activate the ship’s cloaking device, concealing the craft from all the Humans’ various primitive methods of detecting airborne vessels. Within seconds, he heard the ship’s engines whine and hum, cycling-up as the cloaking device drew extra power from them in order to do its job. The insides of the ship already required quite a lot of the engines’ power to maintain; the interior of the ship was far larger than its exterior would’ve suggested . . . and by quite a large factor, too: The exterior of the ship was a saucer-shaped disc that measured only thirty kelinars across (the stupid Humans might have said “meters”) and eight kelinars deep, with a hemispherical dome protruding from the center at the top , and another dome protruding from the center on the bottom, each measuring a kelinar in radius, and each alive with dancing filaments of rainbow-hued light—the plasmic discharge of the ship's engines, which the Visitor had designed himself. (He felt a keen sense of pride surge through him every time he heard the engine core cycle-up.) Together, the domes generated the spacetime-warping field that kept the craft aloft and that allowed it to tunnel through hyperspace. Within the ship, a five-dimensional tesseract contained a stabilized pocket universe far larger than the ship’s exterior, and contained the bridge; a transdimensional conduit that led to the exterior; the engineering section—connected through two more transdimensional conduits to the domes on the top and bottom—the med bay; the storage locker; the work room; and the living facility. If the ship’s engines ever failed, or became unstable, then the pocket universe inside the ship would simply collapse into a singularity and be destroyed. This was not a comforting thought.

As such, the Visitor kept a wary eye on the engine-output monitor, looking for any signs of instability, as well as the antimatter-containment monitor. These Scientific Scout Craft were tricky on this krevachaga planet—oh how he missed the deep green waters of his homeworld!—so one had to keep an eye on the antimatter containment field when flying a ship within one of the Humans’ cities, due to all the interference their primitive electronic devices put out. One had to be careful, because the krevachaga Humans certainly weren’t! Praise the Eidolon, but he hated them so! He strived to remain objective, as any good scientist should . . . but oh, how he loathed these ape-descended idiots! The future of the entire cosmos would be so much more secure once “the Human Problem”—as he and many others had come to call it—had been taken care of . . . Once they had been properly contained, put in their proper place, and put to work for the greater good and in service to their superiors: His race, the Zarcturean, of the planet Zarctur, they who had conquered other worlds before this one, and would conquer still others long after the dust had settled here. The Humans were no different than the Zerg on Arcturus Betag Nine, or the Palgranatha on Jentara Four, or the Homnorthids on Oturon Zetam Eight; all had fallen before the might of the Zarcturean, and others would fall long after the Humans had been enslaved and domesticated as servants and laborers, their population culled to a more manageable number. The task would be accomplished in due course; the Queen-Mother's will would be done. The other Visitors—strewn across this filthy planet in their own Scientific Scout Craft, going about their business preparing for the Invasion—would see to that. But preparing for the Invasion was not part of this Visitor's Mission. No, the Queen-Mother had chosen for him a different task. And more importantly, the Eidolon themselves had chosen him—and him alone—to carry it out. The Visitor had always harbored doubts about the Eidolons' actual existence, but after this, he doubted no more.

Indeed, it was the highest honor ever afforded one of their race, to have the Gods themselves actually materialize from out of the Cosmic Ether they called home (in point of fact, a higher-order dimensional membrane, the mathematical structure of which allowed them to store their consciousness there in its purest form, absent physical bodies like the Visitor’s) and choose—from out of the millions of his race’s number—one of their humble Creations to carry out a piece of their Divine Will. The Visitor’s very breath had been stolen away when the Queen-Mother had summoned him and told him of his assignment . . . and his face had nearly scraped the floor of her royal chamber-pod as he had knelt before the Eidolon itself, squinting in the light the Divine Creature had given off as he had basked in Its ethereal, mystic presence. It had filled his mind with the complex details of his assignment, of his Mission, and slowly but surely—for it had taken him a while to digest all the information—he had comprehended. It had taken many hardwired telepathic connections with many different Human subjects to glean the necessary background information for this Mission. They had needed to abduct and process “high risk” Human targets in order to obtain the answers to their questions, targets whose absence on Earth had a higher chance of being “noticed. But they had done it anyway, and the reward had been great. The background on the Mission had also opened the Visitor's eyes to another fact: The Eidolon were, perhaps, not gods at all . . . but just another race of beings, as prone to mistakes and errors as he was. And if that were true . . .

Long ago, in aeons past, as difficult as it was to imagine, the Eidolon had been not so different from the Zarcturean; they had possessed physical bodies, and had lived upon a planet much like this one, this foul place known as Earth. Then, the Eidolons’ ancient enemy—a race they referred to as “the Watchers”—had discovered a means to transcend the limits of physical form, using a mechanism called “the Transcendence Engine.” Not long after the Watchers had achieved Transcendence, the Eidolon had gained access to the Engine, and had followed them. There, on the dimensional membrane the Watchers then inhabited as pure consciousness, their long war had continued . . . and still continued, only fought now with unimaginable consequences for the physical universe that that membrane now intersected. For the Eidolon and the Watchers both “fed upon” the hopes and dreams—and fears, and nightmares—of the still-mortal races that still inhabited the physical universe; to them, the minds of these races were the fuel that drove their far more powerful minds.

(Interesting . . .)

They acted now as gods acted—creating new races in their former images, and destroying those that displeased them (though the Eidolon had proven to be the more capricious of the two). The Zarcturean had been created in the former image of the Eidolon, for instance; the Humans, as it so happened, in that of the Watchers. They also shepherded the destinies of these races: For the Watchers part, they tended to guide races toward working together cooperatively and toward working together to solve common problems; toward reaching shared goals. The Eidolon tended to guide races they favored toward the conquest of others, toward victory in warfare against those they did not favor, toward winning evolution’s long battle for survival and supremacy by beating others to the prizes of resources and territory. And, as it so happened, the Eidolon favored the Zarcturean; they did not favor Earth.

(Who else did they favor? The Visitor wondered.)

As for the ultimate prize—the Transcendence Engine—and its secrets, that had been lost millennia—no, aeons, ago—in the last battle ever fought between the Eidolon and the Watchers within the bounds of the physical universe, somewhere near the Watchers’ original homeworld before it had fallen into ruin and decay, in a long-forgotten segment of the universe, so long ago that its location was now lost to history. The Eidolon wanted the Transcendence Engine, and they wanted it badly; for it  alone held the secrets to wiping out the Watchers entirely.

(Did they, now.)

Unbeknownst to the Eidolon, the Queen-Mother had told the Visitor (after the Eidolon had departed her chamber-pod, the matter-projectors there dematerializing it back into the Ether), she wanted it, as well: For it held, for the Zarcturean, a secret pathway to joining the Eidolon as pure consciousness in that strange, other dimension, and perhaps even challenging them for their throne of supremacy over the physical realm. Alas, the Transcendence Engine remained lost, hidden, buried somewhere deep within the vast, nearly-infinite recesses of the cosmos, never to be found.

Until now.

For it had been found . . . and on Earth, of all places. An Earth corporation, a defense contractor and technology conglomerate called Mjölnir Dynamics—founded and chaired by a Human named Walter Weatherspark, a preeminent scientist and engineer—had, in the Earth year of 2001 C.E., dug a remarkable artifact out of the Arctic ice: An “alien”—well, alien to Earth, at least—spacecraft, the first of its kind ever recovered there. The company had of course kept this a secret—even from the Earth’s many governments (stupid krevachaga Humans couldn’t even unite their planet’s governments under one banner! What morons!)—and had chosen to keep the craft all to themselves, and to mine its secrets for profit . . . and then sell them, in the form of new defense sciences, to the government of their home-country, the United States of America, as well as sell them to its public, in the form of new computer and other technologies.

One of the many things the Humans had discovered aboard the ship had been a reflective, obsidian-colored cylinder measuring one kelinar in length, a quarter of a kelinar in diameter, with rounded corners, a top and bottom of what appeared to be some sort of colored glass, and no discernible controls or methods of input or output. It had proved indestructible so far—not even a laser could cut into it; the light merely bounced off—and it emitted a powerful electromagnetic field that interfered with radios, computers, cell-phones, and televisions whenever any types of current was applied to its surface, or whenever someone touched it . . . especially if that person had proven to test positively on tests for Extrasensory Perception or other “paranormal” abilities that Human science had—until now—thought mere pseudoscience (idiot krevachaga Humans!). It could be none other than the Transcendence Engine. It matched the descriptions in the Histories perfectly, and the “last known position” star-charts that the Humans had found stored in the “alien” ship’s navigational computer—for that had been the first thing they had been able to figure out how to access and decode—had roughly matched the coordinates where the Watchers’ original homeworld was said to have once been located—accounting for interstellar drift and  cosmological expansion. And the ship matched the design of the ships the Watchers had once flown in far-ago, half-remembered legends . . .

The trouble was, none of the Humans that the Zarcturean Intelligence Forces had interrogated via hardwire telepathy knew exactly where Mjölnir Dynamics kept the Transcendence Engine. Or rather, they had each provided a different location—and had each apparently been telling the “truth,” or at least believed themselves to be—so the interrogations were all equally useless. But, all of the subjects had shared a key memory in common. One name had kept cropping up in conjunction with the image of the Transcendence Engine, the same mental image, over and over: A pale but athletic young female with purple, bob-cut hair, wearing leather pants, a black leather jacket zipped all the way up, and a cybernetic-and-mechanical exosuit that came with a power source of some kind built into the chest-piece, with what appeared to be advanced pulse weapons mounted to the wrists, robotic gauntlets that had delicate, highly-articulate fingers, and propulsors of some kind built into both the gauntlets and the boots. This was, the Visitor had learned, none other than Dr. Desirée "Dizzy" Weatherspark, who sometimes went by the nickname of “Dizzy,” the daughter of Mjölnir Dynamics’ founder and CEO, Walter Weatherspark. She was the head of the Special Projects Division at the company. If they wanted to find the Transcendence Engine, she was the key. She had the answer. She knew where it was. Abduct her. Directly interrogate her brain via hardwire telepathy, even if it killed her. And then Transcendence would be his.

And, the Visitor knew just where to find her. The last Human they had interrogated had had access to the Weatherspark Human female’s itinerary for this week; she would be attending a celebration of sorts, one she had marked down on her calendar as a vacation week: A Human gathering that went by the designation “PhantasmagoriCON XVIII.” They knew when the convention had begun. All the Visitor had to do was go there, locate her, and abduct her. Simple operation. It would require disguising himself as a Human—a process he loathed, due to what it involved—but that was nothing to worry about.

There were bound to be plenty of Humans there whose lives and bodies he could sacrifice to that cause.

Their lives were so short, anyway. A mere seventy to eighty years, and they died. Poof, gone. They hadn’t even learned how to download their consciousness into machines, yet, the pitiful creatures. And really, they were pitiful. He would’ve felt sorry for them, had the Eidolon not told the Queen-Mother of what was to come if the Humans were not stopped. (The Eidolon existed outside of normal time and space, and while they could not see the absolute future—they claimed such a thing was impossible—they could see the possible future.) The Eidolon had said that they saw a flaming hand—a Human hand—reaching out into the stars, and crushing, burning, destroying everything within the iron grip of its fist . . . including—and especially—the Zarcturean. And, it had told the Queen-Mother, if they were not stopped now, before they got out into open space, there would be no stopping them. Hence everything the Queeen-Mother had done after that.

Hence, the massive Invasion Force that even now, stood by in hyperspace, a fleet of a thousand ships, all awaiting the order to advance on Earth.

Hence, his Mission, to obtain the Transcendence Engine, and deliver it straight to the Queen-Mother who was—appropriately—stationed on the Mothership, at the heart of the Fleet.

The Visitor pulled back on his secondary feelers, and used his third tentacle-arm to insert another holographic crystal into the control console, engaging the Scout Craft’s “park and hover” mode. The force-field that erupted from beneath the Craft caught the ship lightly in its cushioning grip and caused the Craft to buoyantly float above the gravel rooftop of the Renaissance Regency Hotel And Convention Center of Boston, Massachusetts.

I shall find the Weatherspark female, he thought, something like a smile curling across his the slit over his maw. And I will force her neurons to tell me where it is . . . and when her brain-cells betray her, I will return to the Queen-Mother with the Prize in hand . . . Transcendence. And then we will become the new Gods, my People and I. And then it is we who will rule the cosmos. And then the Invasion of this filthy backwater planet can finally begin, and these krevachaga Humans will finally know Order, and Discipline, and Purpose, as they have never known it before! So shall it be now, and so shall it be, forever! Perhaps I will even be awarded a governorship over one of its continents, as a reward for delivering the Engine . . .

He cut the power to the ship’s engines, and heard them cycle down, and then eyed the external holo-camera feeds. No other creatures in sight. No Humans. Good. 

The Visitor rearranged several of the crystalline chutes on the control console, and behind him, a portal to another area of the ship irised open from out of seemingly nowhere—though in truth from out of n-dimensional space—revealing the Storage Locker. He oozed out of his seat at the raised dais in the center of the bridge, and, with four of his eight tentacle arms and all four of his tentacles supporting his weight like eight undulating, curled legs, he stood up, and motivated over toward the Locker.

With a twelve kelinar clearance, about thirty kelinars across, and eighty kelinars deep, the Locker held a vast array of weapons and tools, practically any sort of gear he might ever need on any sort of Mission. Racks upon racks of digging tools, assembly tools, particle-beam weapons, wrenches, phase-pulse cannons, screwdrivers, plasma-bolt throwers, blasting equipment, and laser-cutting tools stood all arrayed before him. The ship’s designers—himself included—had intended the ship for a crew of up to eleven, and the Locker had been outfitted to match a similarly-sized roster. And there, amidst the other weapons and devices, a hatch now slid open at the touch of his tentacle-arm to reveal a combination between a space-suit and a suit of tactical battle armor, one of eleven such suits stored here. He had designed these suits himself, and had worn them on many missions.

The Tactical Battle System was a mechanized exploratory suit designed to augment Zarcturean physiology with enhanced strength, dexterity, speed, and ability. It featured an armored helmet, and sprouting from the shoulder-pieces of the armored torso’s chest piece, it featured two hydraulic-powered servo-sleeves meant to enhance the strength and rigidity of the two primate-like arms that extended from his upper body torso. Descending from the bottom of the lower half of the suit, beneath a bell-shaped concavity—a sort of armored skirt—there dangled eight segmented, metal enclosures, each four designed to embrace a different appendage: Four for his larger, mobility-granting tentacle-arms, four for his smaller gripper-feelers. The armor came equipped with an Interdimensional Matter-Shifter—for shifting the mass of an object (or his own mass) into n-dimensional space, thereby shrinking it (or himself); or, returning an objects mass (or his own) from n-dimensional space, thereby re-enlarging it (or him)—and a Laser Scalpel, as well as two Phase-Disruption Pistols mounted to the forearms. It was a fearsome machine, designed to support his life in a toxic alien atmosphere, as well as to strike fear into whosoever beheld it. If all went well, however, the Humans would never see any sign of him. Until, of course, he had the Weatherspark girl in his clutches. Then she would see him. “Up close and personal,” as the Humans liked to say.

He rearranged two crystal chutes on the wall panel, and the suit levitated to the floor and rotated. The backside split open, as did the segmented metal tentacle-housings. He smooshed himself down into it, a comfortable fit. His compound eyes fit perfectly into the eye-sockets of the teardrop-shaped, armored helmet. He felt his brain interface with the neuromorphic circuits of the suit, and he mentally commanded it to close up and contain him. It did so. It felt snug around him, the cold of its metal comforting in its technological embrace.

The Visitor turned around, now one with the suit, the visor before him feeding his eyes a constant hololenticular readout full of data. The mechanized tentacle-arms of the suit spread out beneath him like spider-legs, holding him up on their tips, and he rose to his full height, his arms to either side of him. He commanded the transdimensional conduit that led to the ship’s exterior to open. It did so: Opposite the Storage Locker, another section of the smooth, featureless space of the control center irised open, revealing a glowing, white light. The visitor scuttled on his mechanical tentacles, over and through the control center until he reached it—passing through the conduit always made him nervous, for some reason—took a breath, and stepped into the light.

He emerged outside the ship, an identical portal of light projected against its saucer-shaped hull at an angle. He looked around, and saw nothing but the air conditioning units for the building, the gravel of the rooftop bathed in moonlight. Heard the noises of the city through the suit’s microphones. Felt the cool of the night air through the suit’s tactile, haptic transmission systems. The building was enormous: Thirteen stories tall, and the roof spread out for a few hundred “feet,” as the Humans measured, in each direction; he had apparently landed right in the center of it. Then, he saw what he was after; it had been right in front of him the whole time: There, about ten kelinars away, stood the small canopied stairwell entrance; access to the rest of the building. He scuttled forward, his mechanical tentacles making small crunching noises on the gravel, and tried the door handle. Locked from the inside.

He took out his Laser-Scalpel, and cut it open. Smoke rose from the point where the red light flashed in the dark, and the door handle and lock fell to the ground, smoldering. The door swung open. The Visitor made his way into the lighted stairwell—it was a tight fit; at his full height, in the suit, he was seven feet tall and three feet wide—the motors of his suit whirring, the ends of his mechanical tentacles clicking and clacking against the concrete steps. He would have to do something about all this noise he was making! He reached down to his utility belt and touched one of the buttons there with one of the three fingers on his left hand. Sonic disruption field; now no one could hear him . . . all sound within a five foot radius of him would be muffled, drowned out by a field of automatic noise-cancelling waveforms. Ah, that was better.

The Visitor made his way down two short flights of steps, and made it to the top floor of the building. The door leading out into the hotel hallway was not locked. He peeked through the door’s small rectangular window made of safety glass and saw Humans moving around out there. They were all dressed in fanciful costumes. Some were dressed as Human myths and legends; others as what Humans thought “alien life” might look like (stupid methakras!); still others as what he presumed were characters from Human fiction . . . specifically, the only two genres of fiction that he had encountered on this planet that had given him any hope for Humans as a species—science fiction and fantasy. And they seemed to be enjoying themselves, if their facial expressions and body language were any indicator. For a moment, he wondered: If he ventured out among them, would they simply presume he was another Human—albeit a very short one—dressed up in some fantastical mechanical costume that had mechanized tentacles for legs, but that retained its wearer’s upper arms and head, albeit in heavy-duty make-up? Could he actually “pull that off,” as the Humans liked to say? The suit had a built-in translator circuit, which could form and speak basic sentences in some Human languages, including English in a roughly believable, lifelike voice. It would be a terrible risk to take. But his Mission called for it. Practically demanded it, at this point. He saw no other way to proceed. He—

He saw someone headed toward the stairwell.

Quickly, he scurried on his mechanical tentacles back up the stairs to the rooftop doorway, exiting the stairwell, and let the lockless door close behind him. He watched, though, through the empty hole in the door where the lock and doorknob had once been, as two Human females—one with exceedingly pale skin, and dressed in a t-shirt and black jeans, the other in a long, slinky black dress, with green-painted skin, and raven-black hair—entered the stairwell laughing and smiling, their arms around one another. Perhaps he would not need to go hunting for his prey, his sacrifice to the cause, the one whose body he would hide inside, control the mind of, and use as his vehicle for abducting the Weatherspark female. Perhaps she had just come to him.

The Visitor watched, and waited for his moment.

 

Akasha led Elphion into the stairwell, her arm wrapped around her, her hand resting against her hip, smiling at her. She liked that she didn’t have to hide her fangs from her. It made this easier. Elphion smiled back at her, touching the corners of her mouth; a slight blush rose in her cheeks, visible even beneath the green body-paint she wore on her face. They looked into each other’s eyes, Akasha using her peripheral vision and her free hand to yank open the door to the stairwell and keep it open as she hustled Elphion inside, the both of them in a hurry. They both knew what they were going there to do. Well, at least they both knew one of the things they were going there to do. And it had to be now; Akasha couldn’t stand it anymore; the urges stirring inside her were too titanic and powerful. Vampires were susceptible to lust more than any other emotion, and more so than any other creatures on Earth. Akasha’s blood throbbed in her veins; her face felt hot; her heart beat wildly. But sex was just the bonus here . . . it was the promise of something else, far more life-giving, that Akasha wanted from her newfound girlfriend . . .

Contrary to popular belief, Vampires exhibited all the signs of life—they breathed; they had heartbeats and a pulse; they had brainwaves, a blush response, their pupils dilated, and their skin responded to touch. Akasha’s skin responded now to Elphion’s touch; light as a feather, soft and electric, her fingers on the nape of Akasha’s neck, pressing into her flesh, her other hand gripping Akasha’s lower back with all the force her Human body was capable of . . . an intensity that Akasha had felt before. Vampires inspired their prey with such passion. It was their eyes, the spell they cast. The Hypnotic Stare, another psionic gift of the Childer. Also contrary to popular belief, Vampires were not the “living dead.” They were just another species of Humankind, an evolutionary offshoot. They had been created in an experiment gone wrong on the Ancient Isle of Atlantis, ten thousand years ago, an experiment involving a gateway to other worlds, the ancient Eidolon race, and their minions, the Draketh, who had possessed the bodies of twenty-one Centurions and several others . . .

Once inside the stairwell, they embraced. Akasha’s lips found Elphion’s, and they kissed. Akasha’s tongue explored the warmth of Elphion’s mouth as she wrapped her arms around her and held her tightly, pressing her right hand to her buttocks and her left hand to her back. Her dress was silky smooth to the touch; she could feel the warmth and  firm, reassuring solidity of Elphion’s body through it. The curve of her buttocks felt enticing in her hand, making her want to grip Elphion even tighter . . . but she knew that if she did, her Vampiric strength would kick in, and she might accidentally crush the poor girl. She cradled her instead as they kissed, their lips working against each other, suckling and gliding across one another, their tongues moving across each other, their heads gradually bobbing together as they danced the dance of passion together in the stairwell, lost in the consummation of mutual desire. Akasha’s head spun; she felt lightheaded with ecstasy, as she knew Elphion probably did and more so . . . the thrill of the climax of the hunt filled her with a boiling hunger.

She withdrew her lips from Elphion’s, parting their kiss, and heard a soft click of moisture as she did—and heard Elphion utter a small moan, her brow contorted into a kind of mesmeric concentration, her eyes shut tight—and then moved to unbutton the dress at Elphion’s neck. Elphion obediently bent her head to the side to allow it. Once she had the buttons there undone, Akasha parted the folds of the dress at the neck, revealing Elphion’s soft, pink, unblemished skin. Akasha could see the veins running beneath it with her Vampire’s sight, and the ravenous hunger within her leapt into her throat like a tiger pouncing upon its prey. She swallowed it, holding it at bay for the moment, as she gently kissed Elphion’s skin and pulled her close again, planting small kisses there upon her neck and shoulder, as Elphion likewise tugged her closer to her, resting her head upon Akasha’s shoulder and releasing tiny moans as Akasha’s kisses approached her ear, and breathing fast, deep, hungry breaths.

Akasha licked her lips and started to pull away suddenly, but jerked herself to a stop. She suddenly found she didn’t want to do this. No. She couldn’t do this. Not one so young and beautiful. So precious. To drain her of her life would be a crime . . . a sin against Humankind. But then again, she was no longer Human, was she? She was of the Childer, of the Vampire Kingdom. So what did Humankind matter to her? What did she owe the Mortal Realm? Nothing. But this one . . . this one so young and full of promise, so full of life and charm, and the spark of ingenuity . . . But then again, she had to feed. She could feel the gnawing thirst inside her, practically chewing its way through her internal organs, clawing its way out of her, the animal within her, the Beast, longing to be freed to do what needed doing in order to sustain her life. It raged and churned within her. She felt herself open her mouth, unhinge her jaw, bearing her fangs. She closed her eyes, almost unwillingly. And in a second, the battle within her was over. Yes, she would feed on her; for several nights in a row. She would reveal herself to this Mortal, reveal what she was . . . and entrust her with the secret of her existence as one of the Immortals, and hope that she could handle the Truth. Hope that her complete seduction of her could balance out the shock of her learning that there existed, just beyond her Mortal sight, an invisible world of Immortal beasts who fed upon Humans in the night, and that she was one of their number.

“Akasha?” asked Elphion in a small voice, raising her head from her shoulder slightly. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes,” she whispered. “Everything’s fine. I have something to show you.”

“What?”

“This. Lie still. This . . . may sting a little. Tell me. Do you trust me?”

Elphion hesitated. “Yes. I trust you.”

‘Good. Hold still, okay?”

“Um, okay.”

Elphion gripped her slightly more tightly, and Akasha descended toward her neck. She closed her eyes and felt her fangs pierce Elphion’s flesh. Elphion sucked in a sudden breath and clung to her even more tightly, her grip on her body like a vice as the sweet, sweet taste of her blood flooded into Akasha’s mouth and relief—sweet, blessed relief from the gnawing hunger—flooded through Akasha’s body, like a rushing waterfall of orgasmic pleasure washing over her suddenly. It was pure, ecstatic bliss. Nothing compared to this feeling, this baptism of fire and ice and this feeling of the ultimate in thirst-quenching satisfaction.

And then came the flood of memories. Elphion’s memories. This part of the Vampiric rite of feeding was always the most intimate, always the most terrifying. This was the most primal part of the Vampire’s connection  to their victim—partly through the leucocytes in their blood, some of their memories were transferred to the mind of the Vampire. She smelled burning incense, and she saw Phineas, the tall, overweight veteran of the radio world who had tutored Elphion through her ham radio Advanced Operator’s License exam, which had made her cry in frustration it was so hard. She met Elphion’s mother, a kindly women named Joyce who smelled like lilacs and whose eyes were soft and weary, and were the color of dandelions, her smile bright and able to soothe any hurt that ailed you. She skinned her knee riding her bike at age eleven, and her father had hugged her, held her close, had sprayed Bactine on the wound, and had put a Mickey Mouse bandaid over it. She had done a book report on a book about witches and faeries in the eighth grade and had gotten a bad grade because the teacher had told her that witches were evil, a tool of the devil; her parents had been outraged, and had called the school, demanding that the teacher be fired, because of something to do with the first amendment . . . and she had had a pet goat she had named Anton, and she had fed it cabbage, and . . .

Elphion moaned with pleasure, a cry of utter bliss and contentment—the Vampiric embrace completely sated the victim’s own pleasure-centers—but, Akasha knew, she could not take too much. She had to restrain herself. She had to give Elphion’s body time to regenerate. Now that she had resolved not to take her life—not under any circumstances; no, she would not kill Elphion, ever, nor her friends; in fact, she swore in this moment to protect them from other Vampires, including and especially Krycek—she had to be careful not to overindulge.

With a feeling of great, almost-instinctual sadness—almost a feeling like cutting off one of her own limbs—she forced herself to stop drinking. She yanked herself back, opening her jaw again and pulling her head away, her lips smeared with blood and more of it tricking down her chin. The connection broken, Elphion moaned again, now with a tone of disappointment.

The moment lingered, and silence reigned. She turned to look Elphion in the eyes, and began to say something, but she saw that Elphion’s eyes were on something else, something just over her shoulder, and that she had a terrified look on her face. Akasha turned to look, but it was too late. She saw the strange, mechanical-tentacled monster only briefly—too briefly to even form a thought as to what the hell it was or wasn’t—and then there was a flash of purple light, and the world went dark.

 

The Visitor raised his Phase-Disruption Pistol, mentally switched it to the Stun setting, and fired twice in rapid succession. The two Human females crumpled to the concrete floor of the stairwell landing like marionettes whose strings had been cut, their eyes rolling up into their heads. He had to work fast, now, before anyone else came into the stairwell; for all he knew, they had friends who might come looking for them . . . or others who might follow in their wake. And of course, sooner or later, they would regain consciousness; the Stun setting only had a short time-range of effectiveness, and when it came to Humans, the results could be wildly unpredictable.

He chose the pale-skinned Human wearing the t-shirt rather than the one in the long black dress. He took out the Laser Scalpel and dialed down the strength of the beam, and adjusted its focus, narrowing it down to a much smaller scale. He leaned forward, and aimed it at the area just below the right side of her neck. He fired the Scalpel, and held it steady, opening an inch-wide incision. He would use chemical agents to close it once he was inside. He stowed the Scalpel away as blood ran from the incision. He had to work fast, now. He moved forward, positioning himself directly above the female. Strangely, even without his use of the chemical agents, the wound had already begun to close. How odd. But, no matter.

He detached the Phase-Disruption Pistol from the arm of his suit and set it down on the ground beside him. He would have need of it in a moment or two, once he was inside.

The Visitor activated the Interdimensional Matter-Shifter in the suit, and the walls of the stairwell suddenly rushed away from him at lightning speed, the lights growing brighter, the rush of air past him louder, and he fell through the air, tumbling. He activated the electromagnetic field propulsors within the suit, and guided himself as he fell, down, down, down, piloting himself precisely  into the incision. A flash of pink, and then a sea of crimson red surrounded him. He deployed the chemical agents from the suit, and behind him, the incision finished closing-up quickly. He activated the suit’s propeller-jet thrusters—of which it had two, mounted in the rear—and, now the size of the currency-unit the Humans called a “dime,” he navigated his way through the female’s body, the bright glow of his suit’s exterior illumination providing him with light to see by. The red of blood surrounded him, the gleaming white of bone arching overhead. He could see his target—her spinal column.

He pulled alongside it, and latched his mechanized tentacled onto it, using the motors in the suit to augment his own strength, so that he didn’t have to exert himself in order to do it or in order to maintain his hold on it. He then engaged the conductive needles. They extended from the surface of the tentacles and crunched into the bone of her spinal column, piercing it, and sank into the flesh of the nerve within, connecting his tentacles and the suit’s onboard computer with her nervous system.

The Visitor closed his eyes, and concentrated, calling up the hardwire telepathy interface with his mind . . . . stretching out his mental field of vision to encompass the realm of her subconscious and autonomic functions . . . and it was then that he knew he had made a grave mistake.

This creature was not Human.

Whatever she was—however possible it was that she looked and acted Human, and walked around in Human skin—she was not a normal Human being. She was something other than Human. Something more than Human.

This creature’s digestive tract differed wildly from what was normally found in Humans. For one thing, it ran on blood—Human or otherwise—its components wired to extract nourishment from it. Her skin, hair, and eyes had chemical similarities to those of Humans, but their cellular makeup was different: They had photosensitive chemical triggers built into them that would cause them to immediately break down and become caustic if exposed to sunlight or . . . the element known as Silver? Odd. Her teeth were different, as well; such that her incisors and canine teeth had become enlarged, pointed, and sharp. Her genetic code was different, as well; something had rewritten her DNA so that it passed along species-traits retrovirally, and her reproductive system, while seemingly in good enough order for her to have and enjoy sexual intercourse, found her lacking in the ability to either incept or gestate new life. Also rewritten, the DNA that controlled her aging process now worked differently; for every normal “Human” year that passed, she would only age the equivalent of a day or so; that, and something had removed the nucleonic circuitry that processed the cascading “cell death” response.

Other processes had rewired her immune and endocrine systems, as well; she could heal from even catastrophic injuries almost instantly, or in very short order. Her brain seemed more complex than most Human brains; hers had more folds, wrinkles, synapses dedicated to spatial and temporal reasoning, and had developed rudimentary telepathic powers, such as the ability to hold her prey in thrall. Her mind seemed powerful—the Visitor had to work hard just to keep himself hidden from her thoughts, his psionic presence cloaked. Her muscles, skin, and bones felt twelve times stronger; her reflexes felt twelve times faster; her senses twelve times as sharp. She had perhaps at one time been fully Human, but at some point, she had been reborn as a huntress of the night, an evolutionarily-superior predator who could take down her prey with maximum speed and efficiency. She was “alive,” yet not alive in the same sense as other Humans. Her metabolism could work at varying “speeds,” granting her enhanced homeostasis.

How was this possible? They had surveyed the planet; they had sampled its population; they had abducted hundreds of test subjects; they had tested its water, its air, its plant life, and its soil. They had scanned its surface. They had studied its culture, its history, its myths, its legends, its—

Its myths and legends.

He remotely called up the ship’s computer, and searched its databank, and found what he was looking for, the creature that fit the description.

Given Human culture as a context, along with her practical immortality, her need to feed on blood, her abilities, and her well-night indestructibility, it was hard to come to any other name for what she was other than the oldest of Human names for the legend—“Vampire.”

The Visitor was astonished . . . not just at this creature’s phenomenal anatomy or its capabilities. It was unlikely that this creature existed in a vacuum; there had to be others of her kind walking around, somewhere. Many others. So why had he and his fellow Visitors not detected them before now? Why had they gone unnoticed in their dozens of sweeps of the planet, their many scans of its surface, their hardwire-telepathy interrogations of dozens of Human subjects? How had they missed this entire evolutionary offshoot of Humanity and their entire existence on the planet? And did this throw a kink into their plans for the Invasion?

He had to report this. Yes. Definitely. But in the meantime, he would continue on with his Mission: Find and apprehend the Weatherspark female, wherever she was at this convention thing. Then take her back to the ship. Then exit this Vampire creature, and perhaps dissect it, for future scientific investigation. It was a solid plan.

The Visitor sent a signal to the Vampire creature’s brain, telling her to wake up . . . and then sent a signal to her subconscious that told her she had blacked out from the swoon of feeding on the Human female. He watched through her eyes as they fluttered open, heard through her ears, and felt her/himself say . . .

 

“Elphion?” said Akasha, shaking Elphion awake. Elphion blinked awake from where the lie against the wall of the stairwell. What had happened? She had the instinctive feeling that she had taken too much from Elphion, had swooned, and had passed out. That had never happened before, though, so why had it happened now?

Akasha looked to her left and saw the ray gun. That hadn’t been there before. What was it doing there now? Had someone else been here? For a moment, she worried—Krycek. Had he been here?

No. Vampires—even the Vampyrica Simulacra—didn’t have this kind of technology. Akasha picked it up and examined it. It was vaguely ellipsoid, with a fat body that tapered on both ends, about a foot and a half in length and seven or so inches in width. It was a shiny silver color, with what looked like dense circuit pathways etched into its surface. On one end, it had a short, cylindrical barrel about five inches wide protruding from its body, a deep gunmetal grey in color. On the other end, what looked like a large electrical coil encased in glass stuck out, and on its underside, a large mechanical switch—a trigger of some kind?

No matter. The important thing was to see that Elphion was alright. She had this nagging feeling, though, that not everything was alright with her. She felt something . . . almost a presence, a disturbance . . . as though someone were watching her every move . . . Could it be the psionic warriors of the Na Gaisgich Inntinn Klythe? Could they be here already? No; no, it wasn’t them. This felt different. Like some watchful eye, from a distance, scrutinizing her coldly . . .

She shook it off. Probably nothing.

“Uh, hmm?” said Elphion, waking up. She sat up. “Yeah, yeah, that . . .” She looked around, a confused look on her face. “What just happened?”

“You passed out,” said Akasha. “I . . . I took too much.”

“Took too much of what,” said Elphion, suddenly looking very afraid. She jerked away from Akasha’s touch, her eyes full of fear, her gaze apprehensive.

“Of your blood,” said Akasha softly. “Elphie, I hate to tell you this, but the fangs—they’re real.”

They’re what?”

“They’re real.”

“What the fuck do you mean ‘they’re real.’”

“They’re real,” said Akasha, trying to sound as matter-of-fact as possible. “The fangs. The pale skin. It’s real. I'm real. I’m a Vampire, Elphie. I’m—we’re—for real. We exist.”

“Bull—bullshit,” said Elphie, in a voice barely above a whisper. “You’re a fucking psycho, is what you are.”

“No, Elphie, I’m not. Here, let me prove it to you.” She took off the leather belt that Elphion had also loaned her—to help hold up the pants because they had been a little big on her—and took the center pin that held the buckle in place, and cut her palm open with it, a deep gash that went from wrist to middle finger. Elphion sucked in a breath, wincing at the wound. Akasha held it up for her to see. The wound closed itself up almost immediately, the cut sealing itself and vanishing in just under a minute as Elphion watched, mesmerized. All that was left on Akasha’s palm was a smear of blood. “You see?” she said. “Vampiric healing powers.”

“No—no fucking way,” said Elphion, again in barely a whisper, her eyes wide.

Yes way,” said Akasha. “Now look at the fangs. Look closely.” She pulled her upper lip upward and leaned in close to her. Elphion did not lean away, but instead leaned a little closer. Akasha then put her lip back down. “Did you see any seams? Any indication that they’re false teeth, or dental appliances? That’s because they’re not. They’re real, Michele. The real deal. Vampires exist. We’ve existed for thousands of years, just below the radar of Human society. In fact we have our own society. We call it the Vampire Kingdom. What keeps it hidden from your society is a tradition of secrecy called the Façade that all—well, most—Vampires obey without question. To speak of it to Mortals—or at least the wrong Mortals—is a crime punishable by the Eternal Death. You can guess what that means, I take it?”

“So—so why are you telling me this?” squeaked Elphion. Akasha stood up, and offered Elphion a helping hand. Elphion, unsure and hesitating, and not taking her eyes off of Akasha’s eyes, eventually took it, and stood with her. She gazed into Akasha’s eyes for a long, seemingly eternal moment. “Why?” she repeated. “Why tell me?”

“Because,” said Akasha, offering her a small smile, “I like you. You seem trustworthy and open-minded. And because I’m an outcast, Emarginato, either way. My Great Family—the Krovavfeyri—have turned against me, made me Emarginato, and my Bloodmaker, a guy I used to date named Krycek, is after me because he thinks I’m going to fulfill an ancient Prophecy made by members of this Klythe—that’s something like a guild, or a Masonic society—called The Legion of Orogrü-Nathräk.” Elphion looked utterly confused. She opened her mouth to speak—probably to ask a question. Akasha held up a hand to stop her. “I know it sounds complicated,” she said. “But that’s why I came to con this year. Or rather, came back to con this year. To blend in with all the cosplayers, people dressed like Vampires, and other otherworldly beings. Because here, I stood a chance.

“Um, okay,” said Elphion. She thought for a moment, then rubbed her neck, then frowned. “Hey, wait a second.” She took a step back. “You were feeding on me! Weren’t you! You were sucking my blood! You were going to kill me!”

“No! No I wasn’t!” protested Akasha, holding up both hands in a gesture of innocence. “I promise, I wasn’t!”

“Yes, yes you were! That’s what Vampires do!”

“No, I swear it,” said Akasha, pleading with her. Tears welled in her eyes. There was nothing she could offer in the way of evidence to refute this, she knew. She had no way to convince Elphion of the truth. All she could do now was plead her innocence, and hope that Elphion saw the truth in her eyes. That feeling of being watched returned to her momentarily. Why did she feel that so strongly?

“Then how come I’ve got two bleeding fang-holes in my neck right now!” shouted Elphion.

“Because I needed to feed,” said Akasha, “and, I wasn’t going to kill you. Vampires can feed without killing someone. And, the feeding rite is a sexual one. It’s an act of intimacy, Elphie. It’s a . . . it’s a bonding. A mingling of essences. Besides, you enjoyed it, right?”

“Well—I—yes, but—” Elphion sputtered. “But—but that’s not the point!”

“Well it sort of is the point, isn’t it?” said Akasha quietly, taking a step toward her, her hands still raised in a gesture of peace. “I mean, think about it. We shared something a minute ago that is really special. For a moment, didn’t it seem like the only thing that existed in the world was the two of us, together in this stairwell?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“And wasn’t that the most wonderful feeling you ever felt in the world?”

“I suppose it was rather blissful, yes. But—!”

“And your body will regenerate the blood cells you lost,” said Akasha. She took another step toward her, and lowered her hands. “I was only doing what comes naturally to me. And I was starving." And she had been; she still felt the thirst within her, clawing to be free of her throat, begging to get out of her and to positively devour Elphion. She fought against it; she swallowed the dryness in her mouth, and the iron taste of the last of Elphion's blood. "So hungry. And you were so impossible to resist. Because you. For us—for Vampires—lust and desire are all caught up with our natural thirst for blood. We . . . we can't help it. It's part of our . . . it's just part of us."

"Um, okay . . . So you reached a point where you just couldn't stop yourself. Heh. Isn't that what rapists like to say?"

Akasha blinked, taken aback. She felt as though Elphion had struck her. An few uneasy moments of silence passed between them. Akasha sucked in a breath. Mortals. Perhaps this—right here—was the true reason the Façade existed.

"Can I at least trust you to keep the secret?" said Akasha at last. "The secret of what I am? That I exist . . . ? That we exist?"

Another long silence passed.

“So,” began Elphion, “Vampires . . . are a thing?”

“Yes,” said Akasha. “Vampires are a thing.”

“And . . . they . . . I mean, you . . . have this whole . . . ‘secret society’ . . . that exists, what, like, right ‘beneath’ ordinary society? Like some kind of shadow society? An Like a real-life ‘Underworld?’”

“Yeah, something like that,” said Akasha.

“So it’s just like Vampire: The Masquerade, then,” said Elphion, nodding. “Just like that.”

“Well, not quite,” said Akasha, and she sighed. “We’re not the living dead. We’re very much alive. But here’s the thing about Vampire: The Masquerade and how it fits in. It’s weird, and get ready for another revelation about what’s real and what’s not. Are you ready?”

“I . . . I guess,” said Elphion.

Akasha sucked in a breath. If the poor girl hadn’t already had her mind blown by the first revelation, then this one would surely do the trick.

“We didn’t find this out, fully, until the 1990’s, when White Wolf published the game, and the truth of it shocked the hell out of us. But. About two thousand years ago, a manuscript showed up in France. A book. With a colorful cover depicting a Vampire feeding on a Human victim. It described a game in which players gathered to pretend they were Vampires, and within its pages, it described, in detail, a make-believe Vampire society. Some of our kind got hold of it, and up until then, our existence had been fairly chaotic. The Noble Houses of the Ten Great Families fought constantly, and the Klythes didn’t exist yet. But that game book . . . it served as an inspiration to us. So it was passed around, and became something of a sacred artifact to us. From it, we drew the inspiration to create the first Nine Klythes—which later became the Seventeen Klythes—and also, the Noble Houses got their shit together and organized themselves, too. That book saved Vampire society, and was responsible for our kind’s continued survival. And as it turned out, come 1991, that book was the Player’s Handbook for Vampire: The Masquerade. Someone—somehow—took it back in time and left it there for us to find. Someone, post-1991, had a fucking time machine, and used it to save the great Vampire Kingdom from destroying itself.”

Elphion gaped. She laughed. “There’s no way you can expect me to believe that.”

“No,” said Akasha, “I guess there’s not, except . . . you believe that I’m a Vampire, right?”

‘Well . . .” said Elphion. “Mostly, so far.”

“And you believe we have a secret society?”

“For now, I’ll entertain the possibility.”

“Okay. So entertain that possibility as well. Everything I’m telling you is the truth, Elphie. I was shocked to learn these things, too. I was shocked when I discovered that my boyfriend was a Vampire . . . and that he wanted to make me one of them.”

“So why did you let him?” asked Elphion. “It sounds like a sucky way to live, pardon the pun.”

“Because,” said Akasha, and she sighed again, not wanting to revisit the topic, “he was going to kill me either way.”

Another long silence passed between them.

"Look," said Elphion, stepping toward her now, with a sigh, and rubbing her neck. "I'm not that mad at you. Not really. It's just . . . it's a lot to take in, y'know? And I . . . I think I understand. You have a . . . a thing. It's an animal thing. I get that. But Jesus, did you have to bite so hard?" She gave a nervous laugh. "Did you have to make me pass out from freaking blood loss?"

"Well, admittedly," said Akasha, "I hadn't planned on that, no."

Yet another quiet moment passed between them.

"Hey," said Elphion. "Let's go back to the room. Whadda ya say. We'll just . . . we'll go back to the room with the rest of the guys, we'll hang out, we'll forget it happened. And maybe you and me, we can . . . well, we can make up later, if you get what I'm sayin'. When the others have gone to sleep. If we're quiet about it. So long as you promise not to bite me so hard. Deal?"

"Deal," said Akasha, and she smiled, genuinely. A feeling of relief flooded her veins. She relaxed a little. No; she relaxed a lot. Why had she been so tense? Had she really been more concerned with rejection than she had anything else? Why had that been so important to her? She didn't quite know, but it had been, and that was what mattered. Elphion still liked her, and that mattered a great deal, for whatever reason, so she was glad she hadn't damaged their strange, thus-far-short-but-good relationship. She approached her, and they hugged, awkwardly at first, but then more closely, and finally they embraced and they kissed again, Akasha's lips touching hers and the two interlocking, moist tenderness upon gentle caresses, and when they parted, Akasha looked into Elphion's eyes and without even hypnotizing her, she saw her fall under an intoxicated spell. The corners of Elphion's mouth teased into a smile. Akasha stroked her hair and they walked, arm in arm, toward the stairwell door. Akasha opened it for them, and they departed out into the hustle and bustle of the other con-goers in the hallway outside.

“So,” said Elphion. “You going to tell me what that thing is, and where it came from?” She glanced at the ray gun.

“Oh, this?” said Akasha. She lifted it up. “No idea. It was in the stairwell when I woke up.”

“You mean somebody just left it there, while we were knocked out?”

“Yeah, it looks that way.”

That weird feeling of being watched returned to her momentarily, and once again, she explored it for a moment. Was it the Na Gaisgich Inntinn Klythe? Were they here? Again . . . no . . . it didn't feel like them. This felt . . . closer. Like someone looking over her shoulder, scrutinizing everything she did. She tried to psionically pinpoint where it was coming from, but couldn't put her psychic finger on it. That worried her . . .

“Well maybe we should try to find out whose it is,” said Elphion.

“Nah,” said Akasha, and she grinned. “Finders keepers, I say.”

It was probably just her imagination, probably just her fear of Krycek. He probably wasn't anywhere near this place, probably didn't even have a clue where she was. Most likely, she had left him behind in Cambridge. Good riddance if she had. For now, she was content to walk with her arm around Elphion, and enjoy the sights of cosplaying con-goers, and perhaps another game of Magic wherein Elphion kicked everyone's ass.

Elphion shrugged. “Your call, I guess. Just don’t point it at me. That thing looks real.”

“Yeah,” said Akasha. Now that Elphion mentioned it, it did look real. “Hmm, yeah it kinda does, doesn’t it.”

They continued to walk back to the room where the others were waiting on them. They had supposedly been going to fetch some chipped ice, so Akasha figured they had better stop off and do that. For some reason, she couldn’t get her mind off of that thought now: The ray gun did look real. And where had it come from? She had this feeling that somewhere in her mind lay the answer, and that it was on the tip of her mind’s tongue but that it was just out of reach . . . just beyond the edge of reason’s grasp. That frustrated her. She had this feeling that she was supposed to have found it, like she had been meant to find it. Like it was hers, meant for her and her alone. As though she had been chosen to have it. Weird. It only served to increase her paranoia. Was Krycek here already? And had he brought any of Na Gaisgich Inntinn with him? Did they know she was using the power of Arcanic Occlumency? Was she being a fool, thinking she could hide here? When they got back to the room, would  she find Naruto and Phineas dead, their blood drained, and Krycek and his goons there, waiting for them? She hoped not. All she could do was wait . . . and feel that terrible feeling, of being watched . . .