Paradigms Lost — Chapter 32
Chapter 32: Upgrades and Relationships
“I must thank you, Jason,” Verne said, surveying the mound of equipment assembled in his dining room. “The advice of an expert is always appreciated.”
Verne had decided to fully enter the fast-approaching twenty-first century, adding telecommunications and computers to his formidable range of resources. I grinned. “No thanks needed. Advising someone on what to buy is always fun, especially when you know that the person in question doesn’t have a limited budget.” One of the workmen looked at me with a question in his eyes. “Oh, yeah. Verne, how many places are you going to want to be able to plug in a computer? I mean to the Ethernet lines.” Extra jacks were a good idea; cable didn’t yet run out to Verne’s house, so at the moment we were going with a dedicated satellite hookup and a LAN on Ethernet through the house.
“Ah, yes. I would sayâ€¦ Hmm. Morgan?”
“Are any of the staff likely to need such access?”
Morgan smiled slightly. “I would say most of them, sir.” While Verne was modernizing, he was still not quite grasping how much of a change it was going to bring to his household.
Verne sighed theatrically. “Very well, then.” He turned to the workman. “You might as well rewire the entire house, first, second, and third floors, and put two of these Ethernet jacks in every bedroom and study, as well as one here in the living room,” he pointed, “and another three in my office, marked there. Make sure there are also enough phone connections for everyone; several of my staff would like their own private lines.”
Ed Sommer, the head contractor, smiled broadly, obviously thinking of the money involved, and glanced at the plans. “We’ll write up a work order. What about the basement?”
“No need for anything there.”
Sommer cut the work order quickly — I’d recommended his company because of their efficiency, despite the fact that they were the new kids on the block — Verne signed it, and we left the rest of the work in Morgan’s hands. “Coming, Verne? Syl’s out of town on a convention and I’m up for a game of chess if you’re interested.”
He hesitated, the light glinting off the ruby ring he never removed. “Perhaps tomorrow, Jason. All these strangers in the house are upsetting.”
“Then get away from them for a while. Morgan can handle things here. Besides, how could anything upset you?” This was partly a reference to his vampire nature — I’d kinda expect a man who’s umpteen thousands of years old to be comfortable everywhere — but also to his constant old-world calm approach, which was rarely disturbed by anything except major disasters.
“You may be right. Very well, Jason, let us go.”
The night was still fairly young as we got into my new Infiniti. Verne nodded appreciatively. “Moving a bit up in the world, my friend?”
“The only advantage of being attacked by ancient werewolves is that the interview fees alone become impressive. And the publicity for WIS has made sure I’ve got more work than I can handle, even if I do have to turn down about a thousand screwballs a day wanting me to investigate their alien abduction cases. Not to mention that the government groups involved in the ‘Morgantown Incident’ investigation would rather use me as a researcher than an outsider.” I gave a slightly sad smile. “And age, plus being hacked at by werewolves, finally caught up with old Mjolnir.”
“He served you well. Have you named this one yet?”
“Nope. I was thinking of Hugin or Munin — it’s black and shiny like raven feathers.” We pulled out of his driveway and onto the main road into town. We drove for a couple minutes in silence.
“I was not deliberately changing the subject,” Verne said finally. “I understand how you would find it hard to imagine me being disturbed by anything. I was thinking on how to answer you.”
I was momentarily confused, then remembered my earlier comment. It was sometimes disconcerting talking to Verne; his long life made time compress from his point of view, so that a conversation that seemed quite distant to me was still extremely recent for him, and he sometimes forgot that the rest of us didn’t have his manner of thinking.
“You have to remember that one with myâ€¦ peculiarities rarely can have an actual long-lasting home.” Verne continued. “So instead, one attempts to bring one’s life with one in each move. Rather like a hermit crab, we move from one shell to another, none of them actually being our own, yet being for that time a place of safety. Anything that enters your house, then, may be encroaching on all those things you bring with you — both physical and spiritual. Workmen and such are things beyond my direct control, especially in a society such as this one.”
“Are you afraid they’ll find out about you?”
Verne shrugged, then smiled slightly, his large dark eyes twinkling momentarily in the lights of a passing car. “Not really. Besides the fact that Morgan would be unlikely to miss anyone trying to enter the basement, the basement itself contains little of value for those seeking the unusual; the entrance to the vault and my true sanctum sanctorum is hidden very carefully indeed, and it’s quite difficult to open even if found. And my personal refrigerator in my upstairs room is secured very carefully, as you know well.” Verne referred to the fact that I’d installed the security there myself. “No, Jason. It is simply that my home is the last fading remnant of my own world, even if all that remains there is my memory and a few truly ancient relics. The mass entry of so many people of this worldâ€¦ somehow it once more reminds me how alone I am.”
I pulled into my new garage, built after werewolves nearly whacked me on the way to my car, and shut off the engine. “I understand. But now you’re reaching out to this world, Verne. You’re not alone. If something in your house concerns you, come to mine. I mean it; you were willing to die to protect me and Syl.”
“And you revived my spirit, Jason. I had let myself die in a sense a long time ago; only now am I becoming what I once was.”
The kitchen was warm and well-lighted — I like leaving those lights on — and the aroma of baking Ten Spice Chicken filled the room. I was slightly embarrassed by Verne’s words, but at the same time I knew he meant them. Our first meeting had struck a long-dead chord in him; during our apocalyptic confrontation with Virigar I’d discovered just how much he valued friendshipâ€¦ and how much I valued him. “I’d offer you some, but it’s not quite to your taste.”
“Indeed, though I assure you I appreciate both the thought and the scent; I may be unable to eat ordinary food without pain, but my sense of smell is undiminishedâ€¦. You still have some of my stock here?”
“Yep.” I reached into the fridge and pitched him a bottle which he caught easily. “I never thought I’d get to the point that I wouldn’t notice a bottle of blood in the fridge any more than I would a can of beer.” Yanking on a potholder, I reached into the oven and pulled out the chicken, coated in honey with a touch of Inner Beauty and Worcestershire sauce and garlic, cilantro, pepper, cardamom, cumin, red pepper, oregano, basil, turmeric, and a pinch of saffron. I put that on the stovetop, pulled out two baked potatoes (crunchy the way I like ’em) and set the microwave to heat up the formerly frozen vegetables I’d put in there before leaving for Verne’s.
By the time I had my place set, my water glass filled, and the chicken and potatoes on the plate, the veggies were done and I sat down to eat. Verne had poured his scarlet meal into the crystal glass reserved for him and he sat across from me, dressed as usual in the manner one expected a genteel vampire to dress: evening clothes, immaculately pressed, with a sharp contrast between the midnight black of his hair and jacket and the blinding white of his teeth and shirt.
“I haven’t asked you lately — how’s the art business going?”
Verne smiled. “Very well indeed. Expect an invitation from our friend Mr. Hashima in the mail soon, in fact; young Star is recovering nicely, and he will be having an exhibition in New York in a month or so.”
“Great!” I said. “I’m looking forward to it. I was a bit concerned, to be honest — it seemed that he was hemming and hawing about doing anything with you for a while.”
Verne nodded, momentarily pensive. “True. There were some oddities, some reluctance which I do not entirely understandâ€¦ but it is none of our business, really. What is important is that he and I are now enjoying working together.” He leaned back. “In other related areas, I’m sure you saw the news about Akhenaten being returned to Egypt, but thus far the archaeological world is keeping the other treasures quiet while they’re examining them. Most of the truly unique artworks are already elsewhere, and I confess to feeling quite some relief. As their custodian, it was something of a strain, I came to realize, to have to be concerned about their preservation along with my own whenever I was forced to move.”
“You can’t tell me you’ve emptied that vault?” I asked in surprise.
He laughed. “Hardly, my friend. There are pieces there I keep for beauty’s sake alone, others for historical value, ones which are personally important, and so on. And even of those I would consider selling or donating there remain quite some number; it would be unwise for me to either flood the market, or to risk eliminating one of my major reserves of wealth in case some disaster occurs.”
I couldn’t argue that. “But let’s hope there aren’t any more disasters. I’ve had enough of ’em.”
“To that I can wholeheartedly agree.”
We finished dinner and went to my living room, where I set up the chessboard. Playing chess was fun, but for us it was more an excuse for staying and talking. Neither Verne nor I tended to feel comfortable “just talking”; we had to be doing something.
“So,” I said after we began, “what did you mean about ‘letting yourself die’ a while back?”
Verne took a deep breath and moved his pawn. As I considered that position, he answered. “Perhaps the first thing I need to do to answer you is to clarify something which I should have done some time ago. I am not a vampire.”
“Or perhaps I should say, not a vampire in any ordinary sense of the term. True, I drink blood and have a number of supernatural abilities and weaknesses. But these are not the result of being infected by a vampire of any sort. To me, my abilities were a blessing, a gift, not a curse. I am not driven by those impulses that other, more ‘normal’ vampires must follow.”
“So why didn’t you tell me this before?” I decided to continue with the standard opening strategy. Getting fancy with Verne usually resulted in my getting roundly trounced in fifteen or twenty moves. “It does explain a few things — I remember thinking that you seemed to hesitate at times when talking about vampires. But why dance around the subject?”
Verne smiled. “It was much easier to just go with the obvious assumptions, Jason. And by doing so, I minimized the chance of anything being learned that I wished kept secret. And it was much simpler. The word ‘vampire’ can be applied to any one of several sorts of beings, not merely one, and â€“ for the most basic purposes â€“ calling me a ‘vampire’ was and, to some extent still is, sufficient to the moment.” His smile faded. “Your friend Eliasâ€¦ he was of a type which, typically, go mad as they gain their power, until they have grown used to it. They were made in mockery of what I am.”
“And what is that?”
He hesitated, not even seeming to see the board. When he finally answered, his voice was softer, and touched with a faint musical accent unlike any I had ever heard. “A remnant of the greatest days of this world, my friend. In the ending of that time, I was wounded unto death; but I refused to die. I would not die, for there were those who needed me and I would not betray them by failing to reach them, even if that failure was through death itself.
“Perhaps there was something different about me even then, or it was something about the difference between the world that was and the world that is now, for certainly I cannot have been the only man to ever attempt to hold Death at bay with pure will; because I did not die. I rose and staggered onward, to find that my solitary triumph had been in vain.” I heard echoes of pain and rage in his voice, tears he’d shed long ago still bringing a phantom stinging to the eye, a hoarseness to his words.
“Of those who had been my charges, none remained; and all was ruins. But in the moment I would have despairedâ€¦ She came.” He moved again.
I could hear the capital letter in “She” when he spoke. “She?”
“The Lady Herself.” The accent was stronger now, and I was certain I’d never heard anything quite like it. Not even really close to it. The accent was of a language whose very echoes were gone from this world. Then it was as though a door suddenly closed in his mind, for he glanced up quickly. When he spoke again, the accent was gone, replaced by the faint trace of Central European I was used to. “I’m sorry, Jason. No more.”
He looked at me narrowly, his eyes unfathomable. “Too dangerous.”
“No. To you.”