Paradigms Lost — Chapter 22

Chapter 22: Three Conversations, One Problem

I got back to my house, opened the door, and went to the kitchen. A few minutes later, sandwich and soda next to me, I booted up my terminal program. I needed to contact “Manuel Garcia O’Kelly Davis.” Manuel was actually a fairly high-placed military intelligence analyst. I thought he was Air Force, but there was no way to be sure. I sent him a secured e-mail, asking for a conference. He agreed, and we set up the doubly secured relay, with me supplying a few bells and whistles that would make anyone trying to trace either one of us end up chasing their own tails through the telecommunications network. As per our long-established habits, neither of us used the other’s real name; to him, I was “Mentor of Arisia,” and he remained “Manuel.”

>>Hello, Mentor. You ready for the apocalypse? Less than six months to go!<<

I snorted. We often joked around about the “Y2K” problem, but it hadn’t been a joke for a lot of people I knew — it was a costly problem that people had put off for years and in these last few months people were scrambling to put the last patches in. Not that the disasters predicted were ever likely to have happened, but it WAS going to be a major pain in the butt. I typed back,

>>*MY* computer software is up to date. It’s you guys in the government that have to worry about your antiquated systems with two-digit date fields.<<

>>True dat. What’s up?<<

>>Got a problem. You have time?<<

>>Two hours enough?<<

>>Should be.<<

I filled him in on the situation, leaving out the gory details and concentrating on the NSA factors.

>>Can you find out what their angle is?<<

>>Christ. You don’t ask for much, do you. Look, I can check into it, but you’d do better to just drop out, you know?<<

>>I can’t. It’d nag at me forever.<<

>>I know the feeling. :) Just remember, anything I tell you, I didn’t tell you. Right?<<


I signed off, then finally got on to one of the underground boards; one run by a pirate and hacker that I knew pretty well.

>>Hello, Demon? You there?<<

>>Readin’ you loud and clear, Mentor old buddy. You slumming?<<

>>Looking for info, as usual. You still keep up on the doings of the rich and infamous?<<

>>Best I can, you can bet on it.<<

The Demon was a damn good hacker – almost on a par with the legendary Jammer — and very well informed. He kept an eye on criminal doings not merely on the Net, but throughout the world. He viewed his piracy as a matter of free information distribution; since I make my living by distributing information and getting paid for that service, I found myself simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with him. Nonetheless, we got along pretty well since the Demon absolutely hated the real Darksiders — people who destroyed other’s work. To his mind, copying information was one thing. Destroying or corrupting it was another thing entirely.

>>Demon, what’s going on now that might be bothering the Feds?<<

>>You talking big or little?<<

>>Big, but not like countries going to war; NSA stuff.<<

>>Hold on. Lemme think.<<

I waited.

>>Okay, there are about three things I can think of; but lemme ask, did something happen in your area?<<

>>Yes, that’s how I got interested.<<

>>Got you. That only leaves one. NSA and the other agencies have been checking your general area trying to locate a real nasty Darksider who calls himself Gorthaur. He’s a total sleaze. None of the respectable hackers or crackers will deal with him, but no one’s really got the guts to tell him to kiss off. There are a lot of ugly rumors about him. Or her, no one’s really sure either way. Gorthaur’s been heavy into espionage and industrial spying and sabotage. A real prize.<<

>>He ever sign on your board?<<

>>He did until I found out who he was. Far as I know, I’m the only one to tell him what I thought of him. I told him that he’d better not log back on ’cause if I ever got anything on him I’d turn him over to the cops so fast it’d make his chips spin.<<

>>Bet he didn’t like that.<<

>>He told me that it wasn’t healthy to get in his way. I told him to save the threats for the kiddies.<<

I frowned at that.

>>Look, Demon, if it turns out this Gorthaur is part of what I’m involved in, you’d better take his warning seriously. There’s already one corpse and the place is crawling with NSA.<<

>>I’ll be careful then.<<

I got off and sat back. Then I shut the system down and got up, turned around. A tall, angular, dark figure loomed over me, scarcely a foot away.

“Holy CRAP!” I jumped back, tripped over the chair, dropped my glass, fell. My head smacked into the edge of the table and I flopped to the floor and just lay there as the red mist cleared.

“My apologies, Jason. Let me help you up.” Verne Domingo pulled me to my feet as though I were a doll.

I pushed him away; he let go. “Christ! What in hell did you think you were doing? You scared me into next week!” I rubbed the already growing lump on my skull.

“I have said I was sorry. I did not wish to call you via phone; the government has ears, after all. And coming obviously in person would call just as much attention. I had only just materialized when you turned, and I had no chance to warn you.”

“Okay, Okay. Sorry I yelled.” I started for the kitchen, went towards the freezer.

“Sit, Jason. I will take care of that.” He took the hand towel from the countertop, rinsed it, dumped several ice cubes into it. Then he folded the towel into a bundle and squeezed. I heard splintering noises as the ice was crushed. “There. Put that on the swelling.”

I did. The cold helped, even when it started to ache. “What’d you have to see me for?”

“To explain, my friend.” He stood with his back to the refrigerator, stiff and somehow sad. “The story you told me last night… it had very disturbing elements in it, very disturbing indeed. I had to check them before I could believe what my heart knew was the truth. Now I must tell you what is happening here, and for you to understand, you must hear a little history.

“Vampires are among the most powerful of what you would call the supernatural races, but — as I am sure you have guessed — we are not the only such; most have …” he hesitated, then went on, “… either long since died out or else found some way to leave this world that is no longer congenial to them, but a few, either through preference or necessity, still live on. My people are, on the whole, cautious not to arouse the awareness of you mortals, and this suits us. Bound as we are to the world in which we are born, we cannot leave, and so we live as best we can without doing that which could rouse you who now rule it to pursue us.

“There was another race of beings, however, which was not so circumspect. They did not reproduce as we do, by converting mortals; they reproduced themselves as do most races, and this is perhaps why they had less sympathy for your people. But more likely they lacked sympathy because it was not in their nature; for they preyed on us as well.” He looked at me steadily. “Your people call them werewolves.”

I blinked. “Oh, no. Not again.”

“I am afraid so. You have stumbled into the realm of the paranormal once more.”

Vaguely I had the feeling that there was something missing — something Verne was avoiding telling me. But it wasn’t central; the main points, I was sure, were the real thing. But something else wasn’t quite… right. Well, maybe he’d clear that up later. I grimaced. “What was that line from Die Hard 2? ‘How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?’ Look, how could werewolves prey on you? I mean, you guys are awfully hard to kill and once you die, well, you go to dust, at least the older ones. Klein took several days. Not much to eat there. Besides, couldn’t you just turn around and eat them?”

“We are not as invulnerable as you think.” He hesitated. “The truth is that it is not merely wood which can harm us. Wood harms us because it was once living. Any object composed of living or formerly living matter can harm us. Thus the werewolves could kill us with their formidable natural weaponry. As for the feeding… your writers have often glimpsed the truth. They did indeed consume flesh; but more, they fed on the raw emotions. Fear and despair, terror and rage, these things strengthened them; and when their victim finally died, they fed, directly, on the life force, the soul if you will, as it passed from the body. Nor could we return the favor. Their blood-scent was enticing, true; but any attempt to drain them only succeeded in slaying both parties. We immortals were a rare delicacy to them. We hid ourselves well, but they eventually would find ways to locate us. We fought them off on occasion, but they became ever more devious and effective over the centuries, leaving us alone for long enough that we began to feel safe, then returning to feast upon those who did not know their peril and were unready to defend themselves against the monsters.

“That threat accomplished what none of our talking had managed before; all the different … groups of the vampires united against the lycanthropes, and waged a long and bitter war. In the end we destroyed them. I myself confronted the last, and greatest, of the breed, and I slew him with great pleasure. He had been terrorizing the city of London while using a name which he knew would taunt me.”

“Vlad Dracul.”

He nodded.

“And now you wonder if you really killed him at all.”

“No.” He sat slowly. “I do not wonder at all. I know now that I did not kill him; that somehow he survived what I had believed were mortal wounds.”

“You’d better tell me everything about these things. Especially how to kill them.”

“Silver is the only way — at least the only way that you could make use of. I do not know in what manner, but the metal somehow disrupts their internal balance. Both teeth and claws, in their lupine form, are of some crystalline substance of great toughness. Their strength is immense, their cunning formidable, and their ability to shift shape, though confined to a vaguely wolf-like monstrous form on the one hand, is unlimited in the human range; they can be anyone at all. They do not fear night or day, nor does the phase of the moon have any effect upon them. They also have a talent similar to my own to charm and cloud other minds. They do not have my people’s ability to dematerialize, but they can prevent us from using it if they get a hold on us.”

“Ugh. Tell me, do they become stronger with age like you vampires?”

“I am afraid so.”

“And this one was the biggest, oldest, baddest of the werewolves when you fought him?”

“Quite. I was not alone, however.”

“Not alone? You mean you couldn’t handle him by yourself?” The thought was terrifying. I knew how strong Klein had been, how hard he was to kill, and since then I’d seen what Verne was capable of; trying to imagine something powerful enough to beat a vampire as ancient as Verne…

He showed his fangs in a humorless grin. “I will admit that we never found out. I had two companions …” He hesitated again before continuing, “… both of them… leaders of their own clans or families of vampires. Though normally enemies, we had realized that these creatures were more of a threat to us all than any of us. We ambushed him, all striking at once with the silver knives I had prepared for this moment, and threw the body in the Thames, the knives embedded in the corpse, so that his people would not find him in time to have any chance to save him. So swift were we that he never had a chance to strike back.”

“Marvelous.” I shook my head. “Well, at least you’ve eased my mind on one thing.”

“That being…?”

“I hate coincidences. I don’t believe in them. Now I know why he’s ended up here.” I looked across the table. “He’s been tracking you. And he’s going to kill you if he can.”

Verne Domingo nodded slowly.