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Lord, he was hungry.
He groaned and his eyes flickered open, shifting from the darkness of unconsciousness to the literal but less complete darkness of his surroundings. It took him a few moments to remember where he was. As the gauzy cobwebs fell away from his mind, he recalled that he had been attacked in the common area of his housing unit. The scientists at this research facility lived in apartments, eight units per building, each with a lobby area, common recreation facilities, and a secure room in the basement. When the warning klaxons had sounded almost simultaneously with the first explosions from the attacking force he had stumbled out of bed and headed for the hallway, bound for the secure room. But he had dithered, taking time to pull on a robe over his cotton pajamas, wondering whether he should try to grab a laptop or any other personal objects, and by the time he made it to the recreation room, another blast blew in a window and part of the wall, showering him in glass and debris.
He fell behind a couch, hoping its bulk would protect him from further attack.
It was an ugly beast, that couch. School bus yellow, with red, orange, and green stripes on a diagonal, staggered about three and a half feet apart, with a solid wooden frame and what seemed like eighteen inches of foam padding. He and the other scientists laughed about it sometimes, because the couch hadn't just shown up here. Every building had one just like it. Some government procurement officer, probably sitting back in DC, had decided that this particular couch would work well for this particular facility. They wondered what kind of kickback the manufacturer of hideous couches could offer a procurement officer, figured he probably had a houseful of equally ugly chairs by now.
But it was a heavy son of a bitch, that was the thing. All that wood, all that padding. He could barely move it. So when he realized he would never make it to the secure room, he went behind the couch instead. The thing should've have been heavy enough to shield against a nuclear blast. It could keep him safe.
Except it hadn't.
He dragged himself from behind it now, his guts churning. He was cut and bruised, but he didn't think anything was broken. And he was so hungry. There was food in his apartment, and he needed to get something in his stomach. He took a couple of steps when a sharp pain in his left thigh almost dumped him back on the floor. With effort, he made it back to his door and pushed inside. The whole building reeked of smoke and burned electrical wires. He would have to find out if there were any other survivors. Later, though. First he had to eat.
His kitchen appeared intact. He opened the refrigerator. A couple slices of leftover pizza sat on the top shelf, enclosed in a zippered plastic bag. His stomach flipped as he tore into the bag, then shoved the end of one wedge into his mouth and bit down.
As soon as the familiar taste hit, he choked and spat into the open refrigerator. Bile filled his throat. He spat again. Had the pizza gone sour? He had eaten the rest just that night.
There was some chicken in a plastic container, roasted with garlic and rosemary. It didn't sound any better than the pizza, but that furious hunger wouldn't let him go. He popped open the lid and snatched up a leg with his hands, bringing it toward his face.
He couldn't bring himself to bite into it. It smelled rancid, foul.
There was a smell present that made his mouth water, that kept the hunger stalking inside him like a wild beast, but it didn't come from the refrigerator.
He let the door swing shut and stood in the kitchen for a minute, trying to isolate the aroma. When he realized what it was, his stomach lurched again. He understood, finally, what had happened.
Rushing into the bathroom, he flipped open the toilet lid and tried to vomit. Nothing came out but a few drops of bile. He spat, ran some water in the sink, ducked his hands under the stream, and doused his face and hair.
Wet faced, light filtering in from the hall illuminating him, he looked at himself in the mirror. He thought he knew what to expect. Larry Greenbarger. Thirty-nine, he looked forty-five easy. He carried forty pounds more than he should have, on a small frame, with skinny legs and puny arms and sloping shoulders that bowed toward the center of his chest. His brown hair was curly, receding prematurely from a high, freckled forehead. His eyes were blue and clear, and he had never needed glasses. Not many of the scientists he knew could make that claim.
At the moment, he wouldn't have minded a little blurriness in his vision.
He was still Larry Greenbarger. There was a familiarity in his eyes, in the curl and cut of his hair.
But beyond that, all was new.
His face had gone gaunt, his chin distended, his forehead elongated. Ears that had once been small and tucked close to his head flapped out like bat wings. Skin that had been tanned by months spent in the Nevada desert never mind that he worked indoors, just walking from the residence to the lab or over to the commissary or snack bar was enough to bake a man had gone pale, almost as porcelain white as the sink he leaned on.
The worst was his mouth; once small and pursed, it gapped like a briefcase opened wide, filled with what seemed like hundreds of needle-sharp teeth.
The lacerations and bruises covering his body came not just from the glass and bits of wall that had struck him but also from the brief, fruitless struggle he had forgotten about until now.
He swung away from the mirror, unable to face himself any longer. He knew what he had become. He had studied enough of them to recognize it.
And he knew with utter certainty what it was he hungered for. He wouldn't find sustenance in his refrigerator, or anywhere in his apartment. Out there, though, in the hallways and common areas, maybe even in the so-called secure room that he suspected had proved more trap than salvation? Oh, yes, he would find it there, and plenty of it.
As he stalked from the apartment, he tried to remember his attacker. It had been dark, except for the uneven light cast by flickering flames, but it seemed that it had been a female, young at least in appearance, if not years on this earth slight. Black hair, cropped short, black clothing. Tights, he recalled, striped tights on her legs, pink and white, incongruous with the rest of her look. Little girl tights, he had thought.
He had been hiding behind that heinous couch, blubbering softly, even as he told himself that only steely silence could protect him. And he had wet himself, to his mortification. But he believed himself safe from harm just the same, as if the couch could cast some sort of force field around him. Then he felt an iron grip on his right ankle, just above his sock (Larry had always worn socks to bed, since childhood, although he had tried unsuccessfully to break the habit in college), and something yanked him from hiding as easily as he might have pulled a child's doll from the same location.
He remembered screaming, batting at the person the young woman who held him. Her claws had dug into his ankle and his thigh and she had pressed him down onto the couch, slithered into his lap like a lover, her breath fetid and hot, and she had slapped him once across the face, stinging him and silencing his cries, and then she had pressed her mouth against his neck, almost tenderly at first, again like a lover. He remembered swelling inside his soaked pants, the moment more erotically charged than any he had experienced in years, since college really (with Verna McFall, who had been the reason he'd tried to break the socks habit), and thrusting up against her. And then white-hot pain, blinding, and he must have passed out because there were no memories after that, nothing until he woke up, once again behind the couch.
Touching his neck, he found the slash there, the skin dried out, tissuelike, but he could shove the end of his index finger into the hole and wiggle it around.
Larry made it to the secure room and punched in the code on the keypad mounted beside the door. Beeping noises sounded and the lock ground open and he pushed the door in. A light inside blasted like full sun, so he slapped the wall switch, shutting it off. He didn't need it.
He could see just fine in the dark.
He went to the nearest body. Andrea Harmon, he remembered. Midfifties, thick around the middle, as smart as any human being he had ever met. She had published four books, three of them obscure scientific texts, but the fourth a popular science book about the biological similarities and differences of immediate family members, and how those things might influence family dynamics. She had even appeared on one of the morning news shows, a network, though he couldn't recall which one. He had always felt somehow inferior to her and to other, more well-known scientists he met. He wanted to make a difference in the world, to be recognized for his intellectual accomplishments.
Andrea Harmon wouldn't be writing any more books, though. She was dead, bled out through gaping wounds in her chest and neck. He put his hand in the tacky pool on the floor beside her, then brought it to his face, sniffed it, licked it.
The hunger raged harder, consuming him. He lapped every drop off his palm and fingers, then dropped his face to her body, to one of the biggest wounds, tearing it wider with his many teeth. He shoved his tongue into the opening. No use she had lived long enough with her wounds to lose most of her blood onto the floor, and he could find only traces, enough to make him feel starved.
He grunted and shoved her aside.
"Who's there?" a weak voice asked.
He peered through the gloom. More corpses littered the floor, but behind them, tucked into a niche between a big stainless steel freezer and a shelving unit that held emergency blankets, first aid kits, and other supplies, a wounded man huddled, blinking against the darkness. "It's me."
"That's right. Come on out, Ron."
Ronald Tapper, that was his name. He and Larry had not been friends, but they knew each other, all the scientists at the facility knew each other. He and Ron had often competed for attention, for the best assistants, the better lab space.
"I'm afraid, Larry. You're..."
"It's nothing, Ron. You're suffering from shock." His voice didn't sound the same anymore, the new shapes of mouth and tongue and throat altering it. But it must have sounded similar enough for Ron to recognize. "We need to get you some medical help."
He stepped over the corpses on the ground. Ron stayed in his niche, thrusting out a hand to ward Larry off.
Larry grabbed Ron's wrist and pulled (remembering the sensation of being tugged by the ankle, the terror that powerful grip had inspired). Ron burst from the niche into his arms. He opened his mouth and wailed.
And Larry hauled him to his feet, shoved his head back into the wall hard enough to break plaster, and raked his fingertips (no, his claws, he realized, more than an inch long, jagged and strong) across Ron's exposed throat.
Blood sprayed from the wound. Larry clamped his mouth over the opening and drank deep.
At last, his hunger could be sated.
This, he knew, was the stuff he craved.
Larry Greenbarger had become nosferatu. A vampire. Undead.
Other people might have doubted their senses, questioned that conclusion. But Larry had known plenty of vampires, had studied them, undead and completely dead. He and the other scientists working at this former military base in northern Nevada's Great Basin country did so on behalf of Operation Red-Blooded, a top-secret government operation dedicated to the eradication of that awful species. He had been probing them for weaknesses, trying to find new ways to exploit their vulnerability to sunlight. Other weapons, crucifixes for example, had long since been proven ineffective, their power to harm vampires relegated to the stuff of mythology. He had been trying to understand what had come to be known as the "Immortal Cell," with hopes of turning that understanding against them.
Larry knew what he had become, and that realization told him something else: the attackers who had stormed the base had been vampires. Scouring the grounds, it didn't take long to discover that they had won, for the most part. They had destroyed most of the main lab. Red-Blooded Director Dan Bradstreet had been pleading for death, drenched in blood. Darrel Keating and some of the other top scientists on staff were dead, along with most of the soldiers tasked with force protection. They had blown up the power plant. They had almost totally crushed one of the American government's most secret facilities.
What they might not have known was that Red-Blooded's tendrils stretched far and wide. They had destroyed the on-site computers, but all the data from those computers was captured on servers buried deep beneath Virginia hillsides, in caverns that could withstand a strategic nuclear strike, and mirrored in still other sites. They had killed scientists, but they had not eliminated data, or science. Red-Blooded paid well and would have no trouble finding new researchers.
Larry loved science. And like many scientists, he was a realist, not a romantic. So then: he had become a vampire, and there was nothing he could do to change that. The temptation to lash himself to some immovable object that would greet the rising sun came and went with barely a moment's consideration. The urge to survive ran strong in him.
At the same time, he knew that he had access to something most other vampires couldn't imagine. All the knowledge that Red-Blooded had about his kind his new kind was here, at his fingertips. His allegiance was to science, to knowledge, not to humanity. Human beings had never been particularly nice to him when he was alive they had tolerated him, they had valued the things his intelligence could do for them. But most people didn't understand science or scientists, thought of them as some sort of useful subspecies if they thought of them at all.
He couldn't stay for long. By now there would be choppers en route, fighters scrambling, convoys rolling across desert highways. Sunrise would find clean-up teams already scrubbing the place.
Larry found some laptops and started downloading. Someone in Virginia or elsewhere might clue in to the fact that classified data was being snatched. But that someone might not have heard about the attack, and even if he or she raised an alarm, soldiers could only get here as fast as they could get here. Since they were already on the way, he wouldn't be changing that. As long as they didn't shut him out of the system, he would get the data he wanted, spread across several laptops because no single one had enough memory to capture it all.
When he finally left the facility in a stolen truck, Larry still had just over an hour of darkness. Not a lot, but enough to get him safely away. He could hole up for the day, and keep traveling when the sun fell again.
Larry Greenbarger's world had been reversed in an instant; he had become that which he had worked against, his days had become nights, and hungers once repulsive to him were suddenly as familiar and mundane as a young boy's attraction to peanut butter and jelly.
He was nothing if not adaptable. It was all about survival.
With a couple of fresh corpses rolled in a tarp in the back of the truck, laptops safely in the foot well of the passenger seat, he pressed the accelerator to the floor and drove.
Copyright © 2009 by Steve Niles, Ben Templesmith and Idea + Design Works, LLC