My morning started out like any other, late for work, hung over, and wearing sunglasses. My car was in the shop, again, piece of shyte, so I was on the train.
A quick sprint turns my cheap poly-blend suit into an oven in the early morning heatwave, with the added humidity ensuring I will never be dry again over the course of the day; wonderful way to start work, hot, sticky, stinky and late.
I never would make it to work, though. I was listening to the radio and things sounded like they were getting tense since the Red Star Amnesty. Damn vampires. Last year, they were nothing more than bad myth, now they were national news. Every day, there was something new about them being discussed, fought over, fawned over or lamented.
Especially hard hit were the celebrities; those people famous for saying things they would never say in real life, dressed in clothing they could only afford after they became rich, getting paid to play “let’s pretend” in front of cameras for obscene salaries, and wearing enough makeup to choke a rodeo clown. They were mad as hell, being massive attention whores, they were forgotten almost overnight. Personally, I thought it was funny watching them doing more ridiculous things to make their way into the news.
At least I used to. I make my living as a police sketch artist. When I need extra cash, and who doesn’t these days, I paint Red Star ID portraits. Yes, the euphemism for vampire is Red Star. Some psychologist said the word vampire was too loaded with baggage so the government thought it would make relationships between Us and Them go better if we could easily identify Them. So in an act of genius, someone decided to make all vampires who were out, and they are supposed to be, wear a red eight pointedstar visible at all times.
Civil rights groups had kittens. Just like that, they had forgotten vampires weren’t even human. Then some scientists weighed in and explained it so guys like me who have art degrees could understand it.
“‘Homo Sapiens Vampyr’ is an evolutionary offshoot of ‘Homo Sapien Sapiens.’ What we once called “junk DNA” in the 1990s, is now forty years later a sophisticated blend of genomic markers with unknown and untapped potential. Homo Sapiens Vampyr is a regularly occurring pattern of mutation with specific traits and advantages.”
And just like that, the German Übermensch had been found.
Except he came in a variety of colors, cultures and in every social group in the human populace. And within their population there was such a wide array of differences so people were just as confused about vampires as they were before you could meet one in a coffee shop.
Standing on the platform in the early morning sun, I could tell it was going to be a scorcher, my armpits were already dripping and I once again regretted the creation of polyester. When the door opened, people poured out onto the platform rushing away as if they were being chased from the train. Once they left, the people on the platform stood there transfixed.Then almost collectively they looked down and moved onto the train looking away; looking away from him.
I saw him standing in the train, the car was hot and as usual the AC didn’t work. He stood there nonchalantly apparently oblivious to the wide berth people had given him, a space of easily fifteen feet. I knew what he was even before I saw his Star. Why would he travel this way? Most Red Stars kept to themselves, had their own private vehicles and wanted little to do with people despite their claims of wanting to help Humanity as a whole.
The Plague had made humans much less inclined to gather together during the early years, but as it became more contained, people started returning to work and after the revelation of the Red Stars, humanity was simply too tired, too wrung out to care. Nearly a billion people had died from the plague and every city maintained several hospice centers where the infected waited to die. This disease had a ninety percent mortality rate. It resembled a staph infection, causing necrosis, first in small patches, then spreading and consuming the flesh in an orgy of devastation. Within a month, sometimes two, depending on your initial state of health, you were dead. First thought to be a bioweapon, no nation or faction ever claimed it. Eventually fingers were pointed but no one recognized it. No one wanted to be associated with a disease which showed the potential to wipe out the human race within the next year, unless drastic measures were taken.
Infection screening checkpoints had been developed and you were constantly being scanned as you moved from one part of the city to another. Every checkpoint was well-manned by hazard-suited police who tolerated no disobedience. Follow the rules or be shot, immediately. Order was maintained. But even this order was breaking down as the vector for the disease remained mysteriously absent. People who had never traveled, drank bottled water, ate nothing new or unique would wake with the disease. Once it claimed a victim, it would usually claim the family as well. Only early treatment with the strongest antibiotics money could buy had a chance. As the year dragged on, those antibiotics were in short supply. Eventually they were gone. But almost at the same time, the disease appeared to go into remission. New infections appeared to have stopped and mankind breathed a sigh of relief.
Then they came; the Vampir, dwellers in the darkness, masters of science, technology and some claimed magic, monsters which feasted upon the flesh and souls of men. They were called all of these things and more. One year after the great Wasting Death, they appeared in large numbers in public places, at sites of government, science, museums and collectively told Humanity, the Great Wasting was not over. It had only just begun. They claimed they were here to help.
The unwashed masses accused them of causing the disease. Even as they explain who and what they were, humanity was already blaming them for the horrors it had experienced. There were still five hundred million people suffering from the Great Wasting, and while few new cases had been seen, there was no doubt others would be found.
The Vampir offered technology, serums and expertise gathered through lifetimes of scientific exploration. We could slow the disease, but we could not stop its march. But the real question no one wanted to ask but which was on everyone’s mind was ‘Why are you helping us?’ The answer was equally terrifying. We were their primary food group.
Hating the press of the crowd when there was perfectly good space being wasted, I slid up to the pole where the Red Star stood. He was, as most tended to be, impeccably dressed. His suit was something from about a decade ago, but the lines were clean and the fabric well-cared for. He wore a long coat made of some material I could not identify, but it had a subtle shimmer and shouted expensive to the world.
His hair was slicked back into a style worn by almost no one today, a throwback to around the 1950s. His hands revealed something of him, though. They were rough, skin calloused, like the hands of a dock worker and each nail ended in a grey sharpened claw, reputed to be able to cut through flesh and bone, like a scissor through paper. His grasp of the pole on the train was casual and his body swayed gently in rhythm with the movement. It was hypnotic to watch him.
His face was the most compelling thing about him. His eyes were positively chilling. Though he tried to affect an apparent devil-may care smirk, his eyes told of a smoldering and impotent rage. The look of a man who was used to a different lifestyle, of being in control, no, of being a power in his own right. I caught only a glimpse of this before he turned to me and smiled; a predator’s smile complete with razor sharp teeth.
“You’re bold. A man among mice, perhaps. Do you know what I am?”
“Of course, you are a Red Star, a citizen of these United States, subject to its laws and beneficiary of its privileges few though they may be these days.”
“You recite the litany as if you were one of us.”
“I am an identity portrait creator. I work with Red Stars every day.”
The problems including the Red Stars into society were numerous, they had been among us so long they had altered our ability to see them, each was born with a psychic gift allowing them to be unperceived by most of humanity. It wasn’t invisibility. You simply didn’t notice them. There were a tiny segment of the human population who could perceive them and others of their kind with similar “perception-blocking” abilities.
“So does your vocation make you loathe us more or less?” His voice was soft but carried through the background roar of the train. I suspect he was using his gifts to ensure I could hear him. “Don’t bother to answer, it was mostly a rhetorical question. I already know what the answer is.”
Emboldened by his turn of phrase, I spoke. “Actually, I have no problem with what you are. Having had the opportunity to paint dozens of Red Stars, I recognize your true nature and have moved past blind fear and panic. Now, it is a controlled fear. Something I recognize as dangerous but have no choice but to learn to accept it.”
“Have you now.” He moved very close to me, into my personal space, but I knew I couldn’t and shouldn’t back away. I had to control my fear, lest he feast upon it. His breath was hot, furnace hot and I realized the Hunger was upon him. “So you think you have mastered your fear? I assure you, you have not. Sweet, like a redolent wine, it rises from your flesh, the stink of it, like a fetid cheese, permeates your hair, your clothes. You live in fear of the unknown, the dangerous, the wretched state of humanity, our appearance, your military and the ultimate horror, that in three years, all of you may cease to exist. You have not mastered your fear, you simply stew in it like a lamb in a crockpot.” He sniffs me and then moves slowly away.
“You have nothing to worry about, young man. Your compatriots on this train give me more than enough to feed upon and I don’t have to do anything at all. Would you like to see?” He grabs my hand, tight, hot, rough and his grip is a thing of iron, inescapable. “Look at them.”
The room was awash in colors, while the train and all of its surfaces were almost black, the people faded into a kaleidoscope of colors, sounds and most importantly smells. I couldn’t distinguish what I was seeing at first, there was so much information, my mind wasn’t comprehending everything, it was a new sense, filled with information I had never known existed. My mind was mapping it on top of my existing senses with a riot of data. The artist in me was astounded and I found myself wanting to keep seeing it, feeling it. I could feel them, their fear was a palpable thing, a living organism whose heartbeat was suddenly synced with my own.
“Do you feel that? That beating, throbbing thing? That is the taste or sound of fear. All of you make that sound now; your entire species. Only the children seem immune to its crushing weight. There is a purple sound, listen for it.” I understood what he meant as he guided me through my, no our, new vision.
I could feel a pain forming behind my eyes, but I could not stop. “What is it?”
“Your plague, not the disease, but the fear of it. Do you see how pervasive it is? Can you see how all-consuming it is? This is why I need not feed from you, Artist. I am awash in all of the emotion I can consume, all the time. My greatest desire is to be away from humans now. This,” he says tapping his Red Star Amulet, “is the only reason any of us has to keep from feasting upon you and killing you all. Only in death would you stop. Only in death are we relieved from your emotional cataclysm. This cacophony is why so many of us in the early days killed so many of you. To make the noise which is you, stop.”
He lets go of my hand and my vision fades. The pain remains, throbbing, filling the space in my head until it feels as if my brain would burst.
“So much for controlled fear.”
“I never said I was good at it.”
“You are better than most. My name is Maximilian Oak. Virologist, student of Jonas Salk, and I have been alive for five hundred years give or take.”
“I am Ben Szandro. Artist, writer, student of hard knocks and I have been alive for thirty years give or take.” I was about to lie and say I was pleased to make his acquaintance but I wasn’t really sure that I was. The Red Stars are big on propriety when they bother to acknowledge us at all. His introduction struck me as strange, as if there were more to it. He had no reason to introduce himself.
“You are a suspicious man, Ben Szandro. I like that. No. I did not read your mind. Your face is like an open book to one such as myself. Have you ever heard of the White Sun Movement?”
I was sorry to say I did. A group of crazed terrorist humans who take every opportunity to harass and kill Red Stars who live and work in the open with humans. “Yes.” I whispered.
“There are six members on this train. I have watched them for days now, wondering when they would make their move. I am a creature of habit. I arrive at the train the same time every day, catch the same train, every day. It never occurred to me this might be a problem, until a few days ago. You see, I believe there is a bomb on board this train.”
My blank stare seemed to amuse him. He smiled and continued.
“Their anticipation and heart rates are elevated. I hear whispers between them and each is wearing or carrying a White Sun rosary necklace; their annoying prayer and clicking drives me mad.”
“But what makes you think it’s a bomb?”
“I can smell it. I have lived through a number of wars, military events or otherwise uncivilized periods between humans. I know what a bomb smells like before and after its detonated. Do you doubt my senses?”
After what I had seen, no. “Then why didn’t you get off the train? How long have you known?”
“Since I stepped onto the train.”
“Does your plan include getting off the train Max?”
“No. It includes killing those members of the White Sun.”
This had just moved from frightening to outright dangerous. You have to understand a little about the Red Stars to appreciate what was about to happen. A bomb, unless it is laced with the right materials, will not kill a Red Star. And each one is different, so what might work for one may do nothing to another. Some are so damage resistant, they can bounce bullets like you and I deflect raindrops.
Honestly more than a bit concerned, I turned to look into the crowd of people pressing against each other on the distant end of the car. They all appeared to be just frightened people huddled against their inevitable fear of the strange and different.
Except for him. One fellow looked back at me. His eyes were not filled with fear. Or not just fear. He was filled with hate. Eyes tight with the hatred of something so great, it takes all of your willpower not to spit directly at this object of your loathing.
Okay, hatred greater than his willpower. He was a man of middling height, but a strong build, rare in this day and age, it seemed the plague had a taste for body builders or those with high muscle definition, so many of the first to die were those with a low percentage of body fat. Scientists and doctors all laughed, when they could laugh, at the irony. His sandy hair was combed but uncut, his clothing looked serviceable but worn. Once I knew what to look for, the others weren’t hard to find. As I scrutinized their faces, I could see their resolve growing firm. They looked as if they were steeling themselves. Almost like they were counting down. But where was the bomb?
Max turned away from them and turned his gaze to the floor. And almost as I thought it, he answered my question. “I believe we’re standing on it.” The train groaned as it rounded the curve into the tunnel and day turned to night.
Before I could gather myself for the realization, I could feel a flash of heat coming from the Red Star, his clothing appeared to catch fire, and he whispered. “Forgive me.” The world slowed down, his long coat flashed out over his shoulders, flung back as he pulled me to him.
I heard flap of something like wings. There was sound and light everywhere, filling every crack of my consciousness. And then nothing but the screams of terror. Eventually they too faded.
Red Star © Thaddeus Howze 2012, All Rights Reserved
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