By Yvonne Navarro
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Copyright © 2006 Screen Gems, Inc.
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Cover art copyright 2006 by Screen Gems, Inc.
Book design by Giorgetta Bell McRee
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The black helicopter cut through the air above the skyscrapers of Chicago, moving as swiftly and silently as a deadly eel in calm ocean waters. The buildings below it were simple and beautiful, tall lines of elegant silver steel, concealed concrete and alloy that blended well with the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape and contributed rather than detracted from the environment. There was still concrete aplenty—there will always be concrete—but the heavy, ornate stone and gothic architecture of previous centuries was gone, steel and most of the older, cracked concrete had been swept away by the sleeker, cleaner structures of modern day. The shorelines of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River were lined with green-soaked city parks sporting lush grass and spectacular gardens filled with brilliant landscaping. No smoke or other pollutants threatened the purity of the air, no unnatural clouds marred the crystalline loveliness of the blue sky above the citizens who drank their coffee beneath brightly colored umbrellas and mosaic-covered tables. For as far as the eye could see, nothing disturbed the seamless, balanced blend of mankind and its surroundings—
Except for that dark, windowless helicopter.
Inside its cockpit, the pilot and copilot worked single-mindedly at the controls, navigating via a bank of liquid crystal screens, watching as the display followed the changing terrain and constantly updated the information about altitude, airspeed, and distance. Dressed in black from head to toe, they were sleek and featureless behind helmets with fitted black visors. Their gloved fingers moved over the buttons and controls with impressive speed and efficiency.
"Coming up," the pilot said suddenly. The screen to his right rapid-fired coordinates and a directional grid in a blazing display of red, green, and blue, and his voice was clear over the microphones built into the helmets. "Holding airspeed."
"Echo altitude," the copilot responded immediately. "Forward and lateral drift, numbers falling fast from here."
"On my mark," the pilot said crisply. "Three, two, one—" He jerked his head. "Mark!"
The copilot, whose forefinger had been holding over a red-labeled button slightly off center on the control panel, pressed it firmly. There was a muffled thump behind the two men as the locking mechanism on the back cargo bay door released, then the hydraulics kicked in and the door dropped open. The interior of the slim helicopter filled with the scream of wind and speed. Then, triggered by the opening of the door, seven two-meter black steel balls spun out of recesses in the side walls like oversized bowling balls; following the track set into the floor of the helicopter, they rolled smoothly out the open door and dropped into the sky.
The helicopter spun up and away, then disappeared into the distance as the seven spheres plummeted toward a spot just outside the southwest corner of the city, falling into a perfect line as they descended. Direction, descent speed, and wind velocity had all been precalculated, and they hit their target with unfailing precision. While the huge white building would have been difficult to miss, even the strike point itself was predetermined—low on the southernmost corner of one specific building, hitting in a precisely spaced horizontal line running left to right. They punctured the outer walls without even slowing; their momentum kept them going, barreling through metal, wood, plaster, and wallboard, never losing speed and guided by a preprogrammed internal navigation system. Anything in their way was obliterated—furniture reduced to splinters, copiers and high-tech equipment crushed into pieces of fluid-leaking twisted metal, cubicles smashed to kindling. Several puny flesh-and-blood office workers were flattened to little more than wet, red puddles that resembled man-sized blots of dropped gelatin. Finally the spheres reeled to a stop in that same, razor-straight line, dead center in the middle of their target: an enormous laboratory.
Too shocked to move, a couple dozen lab workers and scientists gaped as the first of the shining metal spheres suddenly unraveled, opening like a huge steel seed pod. In the next instant a black-clad figure vaulted out of the leftover bands of metal and yanked a three-foot sword from a scabbard at his waistband that was no more than an inch deep; no one within twenty feet had time to decide whether their attacker was a man or woman, and they certainly couldn't call for help or finger an alarm—every last one of them was eviscerated before finishing useless mental questions about gender or spontaneous impulses regarding sirens. By then the other six spheres had split open and spilled their deadly occupants, and within seconds there was no one alive in the room except the seven dark arrivals.
The seven figures exchanged glances, their eyes hidden behind day-vision goggles that transformed the sunlight streaming through the skylights overhead to a more bearable night view. Moving in perfect synchrony, they streamed across the room like liquid oil, nimbly avoiding the splayed, red-splattered corpses, aiming for the door at the far end.
The high-pitched alarms were going off in every direction, but it took nearly no time at all to negotiate the corridors and get to their main target location—they'd all studied the computer floor plans until, if it had been necessary, any one of them could have found anything in the building from memory right down to a specific floor outlet. The only thing that now stood between them and what they wanted most was the vault door, but the leader's laser pistol beam ate through the metal alloy like it was nothing more than slightly stubborn wax. When the starting and ending edges of the laser wound met, the door seemed to float in place for a long, breathless second; then gravity took over and it tumbled outward with a reverberating clank!
The seven figures stepped nimbly over the threshold, then they couldn't help pausing. They had been briefed on what to expect, of course, but what they were facing . . . it was more than big, more than huge. It was monstrous, the stepping stone to an industrial complex the likes of which they'd tried but never been successful at imagining.
The outside of the complex gave no clue about the interior, the way the floor dropped down more than a hundred feet to conceal and protect the endless rows of unbreakable ten-story-tall glass tanks. The blood—millions upon millions of gallons of it—within the refinery tanks glistened in stark crimson relief against the non-color of the sterile white-washed walls and pristine tile floor, the blistering contrast enough to make a normal person's eyes throb with the effort to focus. If it hadn't been for the fact that the silos contained purified human blood, they might have been raiding one of the ancient oil refineries at the height of the long-ago world oil crisis.
The leader of the group was code-named BF-1. He stepped forward, on the verge of ordering the group to fan out—
The rest of his team stopped abruptly, holding their breath and waiting for his next move. BF-1 raised one clenched fist, holding them in position at the foot of one of the huge silos of liquid scarlet. He leaned forward slightly, inhaling and testing the air, straining to be sure he'd heard what he thought he had—
"Trap!" he suddenly bellowed inside his helmet. His hand snapped toward the minigun on his belt, but it was already too late. Shadows slid from behind the silos all around them—fifty or more Command Security Marines, all packing full automatic weapons. There was nowhere for BF-1 and his team to run, no time to so much as draw against the storm of lead cross-fire that enveloped them.
In mere seconds, all seven were nothing but dead, red mist and body fluids leaking all over the floor.
The gunshots finally faded, leaving the blood storage room full of silence and the stink of smoke and gunpowder. "Clear!" the leader of the Marine group finally barked; there were no more shots but none of the servicemen lowered their weapons, just in case. And, of course, they would never dare remove their helmets, gloves, or filter masks.
After a moment, another team, this time from the police and headed by three detectives, trotted from around one of the silos a bit farther back. The most senior of the trio stepped confidently forward, striding up to the stack of bodies while at the same time snapping on a pair of latex gloves, then yanking a rebreather from the pocket of his jacket and jamming it into place over his mouth and nose. The plastic-coated identification card tagging him as DET. E. CROSS clipped to his lapel twinkled in the room's stark light as he sent a practiced, slightly sardonic gaze in the direction of his men. "Touch nothing," he reminded them. "Obviously."
He bent next to the body of the guy he'd pegged as the invading team's leader, then slipped his finger beneath the edge of the face mask on the dead man's helmet. When he tugged it free, the face beneath the helmet was young and Asian, a good-looking kid whose expression was now permanently serene, the look of a man forever sleeping in death's arms. Cross tilted his head, then curiously peeled back the corpse's upper lip, revealing the guy's canines. They were at least a half inch longer than the "eyeteeth" of a normal person. That, of course, could only mean one thing.
"Frickin' vampires," one of his men, Breeder, muttered from a few feet away.
Detective Cross heaved himself to his feet as he sent the other man an annoyed but exaggerated glare. "'Hemophages,' please." He yanked off his gloves and jammed them into his pocket as he stepped away from the cadaver. His tone turned more serious as he regarded each of them. "This is sensitive business," he said shortly. "We're doing everything we can to avoid the appearance of a witch hunt and inflammatory epithets like that don't help."
Breeder shrugged apologetically and tried to look appropriately chastised. Before he could say anything aloud, however, Pedro Endera, the third detective in the group, stepped past him and used a gloved hand to pull a katana halfway out of a tiny scabbard affixed to the belt of one of the dead bodies. He had it out at least eighteen inches before he reversed direction and settled it back into the one-inch-deep scabbard. "Flat-space technology," he said with undisguised admiration. "Dimension compression—very rare, very pricey. The Archdiocese is going to shit when they hear the vam—" He glanced quickly at Cross and choked off the word under the pretext of clearing his throat, but his breathing apparatus did little to hide his mistake. "The, uh, Hemophages have it." He made sure the katana was snug in the scabbard, then crossed his arms. His face was puzzled. "This is almost identical to the attempt they made at the bank in Mid-Delhi last week," he said.
"Not to mention the one in Sub-Ankara," Cross added.
Breeder looked at the pile of bodies, then at his boss. Above his face mask, his eyes widened. "Raul," he said, then hesitated. "We're . . . we're really at war, aren't we?"
Cross let the remark go. It was easier to ignore the comment than say the bitter answer outright, easier to act as though it weren't an issue than admit the massive, ugly truth. He had learned decades ago that words had power, and power could bring out the worst in people. Besides, he thought as he frowned and surveyed the seemingly endless lines of blood-filled tanks, something was wrong here, even though he just couldn't quite wrap his head around it. With a little time, though, he would work it out. He always did. He was good that way with mysteries.
"That's queer," Detective Cross finally said. Breeder and Endera said nothing, but their gazes followed Cross's as it slid across the red glass rows. "How did they expect to transport the blood out of here? What kind of exit strategy did they think they had?" Were they bringing in reinforcements? Expecting a sudden arrival of transport equipment? Doubtful—not in broad daylight, not like this. His frown deepened into a fierce scowl as he turned back to face his two men. "Get people on all levels," he ordered. "They must've had a way out. Find it."
"Unless . . ." Endera had started to walk away, but now he hesitated and turned back. "Unless there was no exit strategy," he finished almost breathlessly. "We couldn't find one in Ankara." Above his rebreather, Endera's gaze brightened with sudden realization as he met his superior's eyes. "Maybe there's not one here, either."
Cross's lips pressed together and he shoved his hands inside his pockets, absently rubbing a stingy spot on one thumb. He took another hard look around the huge room. "Then what's the point?" he demanded.
Endera's throat worked, as though he were having a hard time actually verbalizing his next words. When they finally did come out, he spoke so secretively that his two companions were forced to lean forward to hear him. "Well, what if they didn't come to get the blood out?" He gave them a moment to digest this before adding, "What if they came to infect it?"
Cross and Breeder stopped, then slowly turned their heads toward him and stared. "Ad Sul," Breeder finally managed. "You mean like . . . creating a bomb? An H.P.V. bomb?"
Detective Endera nodded starkly. "One that would go off inside our population," he said hoarsely. "Creating thousands more just like them—"
"Ad Rasul!" Cross cut him off and spun toward the hazard teams that were waiting for orders. "I want a containment brigade on this facility instantly!" The team members leaped to obey, scurrying toward the exits to secure them and babbling instructions into their mouth-mics.
Endera grabbed his boss's elbow and Cross pulled his arm away in irritation as he tried to think. "But . . . Jesus. What about that Mid-Delhi blood?" he asked urgently. "And Ankara? That stuff's already out!"
Detective Breeder suddenly gasped. "Oh, my God—Cross!"
Breeder jerked toward Endera, then followed his coworker's gaze to Cross's thumb, the one the man had used to pull back the dead vampire's lip and expose his canines. Cross was staring at it, too, stunned to see the bright, thin line of blood oozing from a tiny break in the skin—the super sharp edge of the Hemophage's tooth must've sliced right through the protective latex. Their superior's gaze cut to Breeder and his eyes widened, but he already knew it was too late. Before he could bother to protest, Breeder snapped his pistol up and shot Cross right between the eyes.
Six dozen Lockheed F-48s ringed the blood refinery at pre-specified altitudes, circling the facility in a combat pattern to ensure no other aircraft violated the now-prohibited airspace. After the evacuation and sanitization of all personnel, the containment brigade had gone through the building a final time to ensure that all personnel were removed and all potentially hazardous machinery had been shut down and disabled. Then the team had carefully positioned its equipment: sensors throughout the facility, the radio detonator, and finally the explosive device. Only one F-48 flew within the actual range of the coming nuclear blast; this one would drop the laser-targeted FAE—fuel air explosive—at precisely the moment necessary to contain the radiation blowing outward. There was a backup fighter in case something happened to make the lead F-48 fail its mission, but that was a far-fetched and, if it happened, deadly scenario. Failure of the FAE to drop and/or hit the target at the precise moment would mean that most of Chicago—and its residents—would end up nothing more than a nuclear wasteland.
From the ground, the circling military planes looked like a tornado speckled with glittering black and silver triangles. They held their pattern for a good twenty minutes, then there was a sudden, dull WHUMP at ground zero. The refinery and everything inside and around it simply . . . disintegrated in a ball of molten light. The F-48s shot upward, engines screaming as the pilots pushed to stay above the blast zone. Only the lead one lagged slightly so he could release the FAE immediately after the detonation of the mini-nuclear device. As he turned the nose of his jet upward and pulled back on the throttle, the thirty-five-year-old pilot was more concerned about the success of his explosive device than escaping the blossoming cloud. His family was down there, his wife and three kids probably eating lunch right about now in their house in Des Plaines. His two boys and toddler daughter loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and if something went wrong, all three and his wife would end up drenched in radiation poisoning, nothing but walking dead.
The FAE dropped into place and detonated precisely when it was supposed to, right to the millisecond. There was another sound, deeper and more condensed, and suddenly the burgeoning mushroom-shaped cloud collapsed into itself, layer after layer folding in as though an immense, unseen vacuum cleaner was sucking every bit of the poisonous matter out of the air. It took a total of twenty-eight seconds for both the nuclear bomb to obliterate the refinery and the specialized FAE to eliminate the remains of the nuclear bomb.
And then nothing was left except a gigantic, blackened scar on the Illinois soil that the government would surround with twelve-foot electrified fencing and let lie fallow for the next seven decades.
Sometimes, right before some especially important event in her life, Violet would stand at the window and stare at the seemingly endless ocean of buildings outside. It was an impressive thing to view, particularly because of the way mankind's architecture and design had evolved to blend itself with nature. So much effort had gone into ensuring that what man created would harmonize perfectly with the sky and the earth and everything else built around it.
Such a small word.
Had there ever been a word more overused by hypocrites?
The world into which Violet had been born was one that some people found difficult to understand, her included . . . yet in other ways it was all too sadly familiar. It was interesting that only the scholars seemed able to appreciate the mistakes that mankind continued to make again and again, despite their best intentions and their perpetual and sincere belief that they were wiser than the previous generations. Those in power, the elected officials and the people's representatives, were apparently doomed to repeat the errors of the past, each action masked by their oblivious claims to a wisdom they didn't have now and had never possessed.
The root of their difficulties, Violet supposed, lay in the fact that the twenty-first century had been, for all intents and purposes, the last era of any kind of mystery. Mankind had experienced such a sudden upsurge in knowledge and discovery that by the end of the twenty-first century, nearly all riddles had been unraveled, all problems had been solved—even the common cold had been cured. String theory had been unified, the secrets of space revealed, nearly everything that could be known, was. Or at least that's what everyone liked to believe. So if someone had a question, someone else, somewhere, now knew the answer—
Santa Claus? Nope. Loch Ness Monster? Definitely not. Chupacabra? Actually, yes. Will parsley really kill parakeets? Sometimes. Oh, and the one question people had always had:
"Mommy, is there really such a thing as vampires?"
Like the discovery of some previously unknown stinkbug on the Asian subcontinent, the answer turned out to be "Yes." And strangely, many didn't even know what they really were.
The records archives, the older ones, still held the story—apparently no one saw any reason to soften the ugly facts of how everything had started so long ago, how mankind's terror and prejudice had changed and unified and multiplied. Violet knew the facts and figures by heart, had gone over them a thousand times in her studies. For some, that's all it was—statistics, history, a part of the past to be learned about but not actually learned from. The past. But the things that happened before had a nasty way of coming back to haunt what was going on in the here and now.
It was kind of fitting that it would all come down to business here in Chicago. After all, for her the end of everything had started here, with a young woman who'd been a nurse at Loyola Medical Center for three years before she'd gotten pregnant. She and her husband had been trying for a child for quite some time—long before she'd gotten her nursing certificate—and they were overjoyed. Everything went wonderfully the first four months: she didn't have even a hint of morning sickness, she gained weight at a reasonable rate, she even glowed in that elusive, special way that people sometimes say expectant mothers do.
In her fifth month, however, the woman had started feeling a little on the down side. While her husband teased her by calling her "Plumpy," her skin went a little paler than it should have been and she felt more tired than normal given the stage of her pregnancy. Worst of all, after having been an outdoors person all her life, she developed a really annoying allergy to sunlight. All a bit odd, but probably nothing to worry about; even so, she and her doctor decided to do a few routine blood tests, just to be on the safe side.
Every avalanche has to start somewhere, and with this one it had been in a blood analysis lab at Loyola . . . and Northwestern University Hospital . . . and Cook County . . . and a thousand others across the country, nearly simultaneously. An untold number of lab technicians bent over blood spectrograph results and stared at numbers that simply couldn't be true.
But they were.
At ten after six on a Tuesday morning, she was dressed and almost ready to leave for her morning shift when the doorbell rang. Even now she remembered how for no discernible reason her stomach had performed a nasty roll, the kind a person gets when she nearly drops some particularly treasured piece of antique family crystal. For the next few seconds she was left feeling sick and slightly disoriented, then she gathered herself and headed to the front hallway; by the time she got there, she'd already put that feeling—premonition?—out of her mind. When she opened the door and shaded her oversensitive eyes against the morning sunlight, the nurse fully expected to find the paper girl (her husband had forgotten to leave out the monthly check the day before), so she was more than startled to find a pair of federal agents flashing badges at her while a white-coated, thin-faced doctor hovered nervously behind them. Instead of clocking in at seven A.M., she found herself hustled to a stand-alone outbuilding on the Loyola grounds. There she stood, until her back ached and her feet hurt, in a line that was long enough to curve around and out of sight. Like her, no one else in the strangely silent line had a clue as to why they were here beyond some anonymous doctor's terse statement that they were "sick" and the government required them to register because of it. They were told that the armed military men and women patrolling the area were for their safety. That, of course, was a bald-faced lie, just one more added to more incidents of deception than she would ever be able to count.
Really, to use the term "vampire" was nothing short of sensationalism. The condition was nothing more spectacular than a blood anomaly that had probably been around for centuries but never been detected before the latest and greatest improvement in medical equipment. The phrase "blood condition" just didn't pack enough punch for the news, though. VAMPIRES ROAM OUR STREETS! sold a lot more papers and sponsor slots on the expensive satellite television stations. The masses just loved "true" journalism.
In the end, it didn't matter what they were called, although prisoners would have definitely been a far more accurate title. They were all discovered, all documented. All studied.
She didn't know why it was necessary, but she suspected that the rest of the people who'd stood in line with her on registration day had ended up with their heads shaved, too. The medical and military people hadn't given her a choice, just leaned her back on an examining chair, strapped her in before she realized what was going on, and done it. By then, when she was told to shut up, she obeyed. She wasn't allowed to look in a mirror afterward, but the sight of her hair—at the time it was long and dark—dropping to the white floor in clumps had outright terrified her. This was America—no one just got yanked out of their homes, shaved, and held against their will.
She cooperated as best she could. Again, she didn't have much of a choice—any at all, as a matter of fact—but she'd always been an optimistic person and she couldn't let go of the hope that if she did everything they asked, submitted to each and every one of the dizzying and inexplicable array of medical tests without protesting, they—that omnipotent, royal They—would let her, and of course her unborn child, go free.
From her, the feds definitely got their money's worth in terms of interesting information. As it turned out, in some ways the old legends that had grown up around the disease over the years were true . . . well, in a warped, slightly ghoulish sort of way. Most, of course, were not, and more than a few of the government's scientists looked the fool as a result of their silly assumptions. One of those prime times had been when she'd looked puzzled and clearly sardonic as a team of analysts marched into the examination room and showed her, of all things, a gold crucifix.
The disease was ultimately called Hemophagia, and its primary symptom was detrimental to no one but the carrier—that unfortunate man or woman who soon discovered that he or she possessed an aggressively accelerated metabolism. The medical team was intrigued to find her average body temperature was one hundred seven, even though she insisted she felt fine and her pregnancy was advancing normally. Electrocardiogram tapes consistently recorded a strong and steady resting heart rate of an unheard-of hundred fifty beats a minute.
It all seemed good, but as the old saying went, nothing really good comes without a price. All this cellular activity took an unwanted toll on the carrier's body. With their metabolisms speeding along at unprecedented rates, the victims of Hemophagia could expect to survive, if they were lucky, no more than ten years after their first exposure to the disease.
- On Sale
- Dec 14, 2008
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing