Horror Science Fiction

Origin of Species

By A.M. Dellamonica
Mar 16, 2020 · 5,481 words · 20 minutes

Galaxy's Edge: Disneyland California

Photo by Rod Long via Unsplash.

From the author: A vampire hunter aboard a generation ship must decide whether to make a possibly unholy alliance with a poltervirus, or perhaps opt to evolve.


Origin of Species

by A.M. Dellamonica

 

 

The vampire devoured the woman slowly, making it a show. Theater in the park, with a backdrop of hydroccultured flowers.  It clasped one of the victim's hands, hushing her as she fought, as she fell beneath him.

As their eyes met her struggles lessened, cries quieting to sobs as if she was comforted by its lingering gaze. Metal-tipped fangs edged past its lips, closing on her throat. Her fingers twitched as, crooning like a lover, it punctured the carotid and drained her life's blood into the unholy vault of its storage tank.

As the victim's heart stuttered and stopped, the vampire brushed hair from her forehead, as if she were a sleeping child.  Then, with a cluck and a glance toward its audience of one, it brandished delicate scalpel-tipped fingernails. Cutting away the victim’s uniform, it slit her abdominal cavity, working a hand inside to extract the cooling organs. Slick and red, one by one, it eased them out... and swallowed them.

Helpless and despairing, Helsing Seventeen could only watch as the creature brought its bloody performance to a close. He was fresh from the Order's assembly manger, and this vampire should have been his first kill. Armed with confidence and an array of offensive upgrades, he'd confronted the damned and tattered creature.

He'd lost that fight, in spectacular fashion.

Now he was trapped, all but buried under molten metal--heavy pieces of debris the vampire had torn from the spaceship's upper bulkhead. The beams had Seventeen pinned so that only his head and one shoulder poked above the pile. Even had he wished to, he could not turn his face from the slaughter.

As the beams had fallen toward him, Seventeen had hardened his skin, encasing himself in thick layers of fingernail-hardy-tissue. Thus armored, he had weathered the impact of the debris. The heat was another question: coolant fizzed frantically about his body cavities, protecting the bioccultured tissues of his systems.

He ran his diagnostic catechism, stumbling on the useless preliminaries (I am a made thing, lacking in spirit or holy essence, and yet you have given me purpose, oh Lord...) The feedback was instant and unsurprising: cells were burning by the hundreds of thousands. There was no recommended escape from this predicament, and his online confessor, Mina, was inexplicably unreachable. He could sense her presence in the ether, but something was frazzing his uplink.

The vampire retracted its fangs, wiping its mouth on the corpse's sleeve. Reaching back to the hydroflorium, it cut free a rose and fixed it in the buttonhole of its ratty jacket. Then it closed the dead woman's eyes and, giving a bow to its helpless foe, sauntered out of the artificial park. It would vanish down one of the ship's endless corridors, losing itself among the crew. Concealing itself among the sheep, until it was hungry again.

"Mina?" Seventeen sent a subvocalized message into the ether, trying to reach his confessor. He could smell his tissues burning; the coolant in his rosary was almost exhausted.

Between imminent death and the fading hope of a helpdesk rescue, a single text packet fluttered, like a dust wraith caught in the breeze of a shipboard ventilation duct. Its label was nonsensical, just a name. "Annie?" Seventeen read it aloud, confused.

The air shivered, warped by heat, and a girl stepped out of the bower of the hydroflorium. Barefoot, she wore a striped dress. Her hair was parted down the middle so it was flat against her head, then braided and bound with ribbons. Her eyes were deep and hopeful, her face sensitive. Her feet left no impressions in the short-bladed grass of the park lawn.

"Danger, do not appro--" His words died as, impossibly, the child drifted into flight, rising above the sizzling metal beams to peer into his face.

Oh, dear, Seventeen thought.

"Mina." He subvoked the confession through his faulty etherlink. "I've attracted a poltervirus."

"Don't," the girl whispered. "They'll deactivate you."

"Seventeen?" That was his cyberconfessor at last, Mother Mina Magdelene, reply crackling through a tenuous-sounding ether channel. "What was that? Repeat please."

"I'll help you get the vampire if you don't tell," the girl--Annie, presumably--said.

The vampire. Seventeen's gaze turned to the ravaged corpse. The sight--crushed daisy petals lying slick on her face, gored neck, the sweep of golden hair mashed into the sod by the print of the vampire's knee--triggered rage subroutines deep in his constructed personality.

If I'd only had time to activate my Bait feature, he thought...

"They'll shut you down and you'll fry," the poltervirus insisted.

"Seventeen, what's your status?"

Impulse took over: he would gamble on his firewalls. "I'm trapped under debris," he told Mina. "All systems are functioning."

"Debris... Pilgrimage?"

"Damage to the ship appears minimal. I'll free myself and continue pursuit."

"Acknowledged. Blessings--" A spatter of hot metal on his face made Seventeen howl, and Mina cut off. A sign he'd chosen wrong?

He scowled at Annie. "Well?"

"Can you free yourself, Abraham?"

"Call me Seventeen. And no, I can't. I'm barely fending off meltdown."

She nodded, and through the ether he sensed her accessing forbidden spaceship systems. Then iced coolant gusted over him, an artificial blizzard pouring from a gap in the torn wall. False snow met fiery metal in a hiss, a stench of chemicals steaming. The beams began to cool.

He turned his face upward, uttering a thankful prayer for the chill and blessed relief. Then his flesh tightened with soreness, freezing. He switched off his own coolant.

"Can you seal this area before the vampire gets away?" he asked Annie, steeling himself to ignore the sudden cold with dignity.

She nodded. "Can you get out now?"

"Yes." Seventeen slackened his bioccultured flesh, softening the protective outer layer of skin and then reducing himself to a skeleton covered in ground meat, a mush-monster.

Wiggling and oozing, he slid his trapped shoulder through the gap where his upper body had been exposed. He twisted, working to free the cage of his ribs, the basket of curved bones where his weapons rosary coiled like a holy serpent. Slowly he disentangled himself, edging upward to freedom.

He was almost out when the pile shifted. His foot wrenched, sending pain in a sandpaper burn up his leg. Something clamped his ankle, crushing bones, and he was caught again.

Seventeen lunged against the restraint, pulling himself taut, testing. No good--brute strength wouldn't do.

"Stuck?" Annie asked.

"No," he gritted. He jellied the bioccultured tissue on his lower leg and pulled it as far from the foot as he could. Loose skin puddled on his calf like the fabric of a sock that had lost its elastic. A few sticky tendrils clung to the intractable bone, pink and glistening.

Seventeen growled. Most of his tissue could transub into dedifferentiated mush, but the bones were his foundation; there was only so much he could do. He drew his blade and, uttering an automatic prayer, chopped--above the joint, close to the malleoli.

The tibula and fibula were severed cleanly, the foot dropping away in a blaze of discomfort. Seventeen tumbled off the debris pile, landing beside the corpse in a drift of flaked coolant. He was momentarily disconnected from himself, seeming to exist only in the ether as he watched his meat-covered frame clutching at the fractured ends of his severed bones, grunting.

"It's pain," the poltervirus said, voice awed, as if it was making a discovery.

Her words slammed him back to himself. "Of course it's painful," he moaned, withdrawing nerve cells from the site of the amputation. The agony receded, and he reassembled in the shape of a man, smooth of skin, with two pristine feet. Standing, he pressed down experimentally. The new foot flopped; boneless, it would not bear weight.

Seventeen let the tissues below the bone harden, giving him the support he needed to walk.

"Pain disrupts your etherlink to the Order." Annie said.

"Quiet, child." Taking a hesitant step, he struggled for focus. "Is the vampire truly trapped?"

"Yes." The poltervirus stared up at him. "You mustn't let the Order suspect I'm here. Pain disabled their defenses against my trojan... don't numb out everything, please?"

His voice was ragged. "I shall hardly be fit opposition for a vampire if I stagger about groaning until it returns."

"That's good." She smiled. "You're talking like him."

Superb. A mad poltervirus with free run of Pilgrimage's automated systems.

He circled the tower of the hydroflorium, a column of blooms that stretched to an overhead portal through which shone the cold light of the stars. No sign of the vampire there, nor under the benches that encircled the flowers. He scanned the artificial streambed that circled the perimeter of the park. The water had stopped flowing when the vampire tore the bulkhead down. The pebbles welded to its banks were drying in the full-spectrum light shining on the flowers.

"No sign of the creature in the common green," he reported. There was no reply from Mina.

Corridors led outward from the park like the spokes of a bicycle, all but one of them safely sealed. Shining, neon-colored wards glittered on the surfaces of the lockdown bulkheads, sigils to fend off the Undead. Mina would swear--face pinched in exasperation--that the wards were obsolete, that vampires had moved beyond them. People would persist in their superstitions, though.

One open corridor remained. "Why didn't you seal that?"

"It's where your monster went," Annie said.

"Crew quarters?" He viewed them with concern. Cabins were easy to search, and the vampire had only a few dozen bunks to hide in. Unfortunately, those bunks might be occupied.

He stepped over the threshold. "Seal us in."

She skipped ahead, small black shoes soundless on the deck as the heavy door clamped shut.

The corridor was a standard metal hallway, fifteen feet high, ten across. Its bulkheads were painted to resemble a planet-bound neighborhood, with sidewalks and false house facades. Casketbound trees exhaled oxygen and a light scent of apple blossoms into the air. Ornately decorated doorframes surrounded the portals that led into each of the private bunks, a ship-sanctioned venue for crew members to assert some individuality, to personalize their limited territory.

Seventeen limped to the first portal, distantly noting the cherubs on its doorframe as he used the Order's standing warrant to override the lock. It slid open soundlessly, revealing a standard one-bunk configuration: cursory kitchenette, dining table that folded into the wall, a closed portal that would lead to the head. A privacy screen divided the small living area from the sleeping quarters, giving an illusion of space, multiple rooms.

As he stepped fully inside, Seventeen found himself staring at the corpse again: the privacy screen was live, showing an image of the battle-damaged park.

"Seventeen, are you there?" Mina was back online--he had reflexively damped the last twinges of pain coming from his ankle.

"Searching crew quarters," he subvoked, "Please ask Parish Control to shut off the hydroflorium cam on Revelations Deck. Residents are picking up the park feeds."

"Of course." The screen before him blanked.

There was a sudden long cry, neither a sob nor scream but a disturbing fusion of both. A woman.

Seventeen found himself unable to move as the cry came again.

"Hello?" he managed, triggering his catechism again. (...a made thing, and yet buoyed up by God...)

"Are you all right, my son?"

"Her screams... bother me," he subvoked to Mina.

"Here--use this patch." The confessor sent a squib through the ether and the distress vanished. "Better?"

"Yes. Thank you."

"Records says quarters on this deck are assigned to astrologists and navigators," Mina said.

"Resident's name?"

The woman lunged into sight, clad in a rose-colored slip and clawing at the head portal. She spotted Seventeen and shrieked.

"Catherine," Mina said.

"It's all right, Catherine." Seventeen brought a gentle sedative from the rosary up through his throat, invisibly lacing the air with the drug as he exhaled. "You witnessed a terrible thing, but the creature has fed; it's no threat to you."

"I've located the vampire," Annie announced, sauntering into view. "It's doubling back this way."

Hands outstretched, Seventeen accessed the counseling ethercache and approached the shaking woman--Catherine--murmuring reassurances. He did not answer Annie, barely sparing her a glance.

Looking wounded, Annie reached for his essence through the ether. "Don't you remember me, Seventeen? We met at Malvern when we were sick. I died and you lived. My father took you in as a sort of pupil..."

The story was in his historical ethercache. It almost seemed he did remember. But...

"I am not Abraham Van Helsing," he mouthed as the woman broke down in sobs and fell against his shoulder, weeping.

"You could be." Annie pouted with heartbreaking sincerity--a look, he thought, that only a ten year old could muster. "Elementary possession physics. If you build a vessel and name it for someone, their spirit will come to reside within."

"May come to reside," he corrected, still voiceless, letting the words form as impressions in the ether and hoping Mina would not hear.

"If the vessel is worthy."

"And the spirit is restless. While we're talking possessics, why should I believe you're Anne Darwin?"

Her ethereal presence splashed against his firewall, playfully looking for weak points. "Where do you think polterviruses came from? Old ghosts, it's that simple. I've had centuries to reinvent myself since your death."

"I have no interest in your history." The drugged woman twitched groggily; this time he had spoken aloud.

Mina's voice, sharp, rippled through the ether. "Seventeen?"

Guiltily, he lied again. "It's nothing. The astrologist is sedated. I'll bless her quarters and lock her in until the area is secured for paramedium access."

"The vampire is relic-resistant; it might break in."

"He's trapped; he'll be looking for me. She'll be safer if I leave her."

"Affirmed. But spray her anyway."

He did, bringing a mixture of garlic and holy water up from his rosary and misting the sleeping woman's body as he tucked her into bed. On his way out of her quarters he sealed the portal again, briefly fingering the cherubs and angels on the astrologist's ornately carved doorframe. Coughing up another spray attachment from the rosary, Seventeen pursed his lips and let a stream of golden paint play over the door, covering it with crosses.

He stared at Annie, willing her to tell him where the vampire was.

"Are you that eager to die? Sweep another cabin as the Order expects. It's coming, I promise you."

Seventeen opened the next portal, which was unadorned.

"Vampires evolved," Annie lectured as he searched the space. It was unoccupied, sterile, appealingly clean and free of clutter. One quick look at the head and the air ducts confirmed the vampire had not been inside. "Can't you accept that a ghost would evolve too? Papa laid it all out for you. Competition, adaptation. Granted, he didn't think it would happen in the spirit world... he didn't believe there was a supernatural."

An image whisked through Seventeen's mind: Charles Darwin, eyes sharp, hands clamped white-knuckled on a walnut desk, voice brittle as he denounced the very idea of a caring God.

Uneasily, he checked the historical ethercache, failing to find this event on record. How could he know of it then?

For I am a made thing, lacking in spirit... He began the diagnostic again.

"Trouble?" Mina asked sharply. He jumped; he kept forgetting she was tracking catechism hits.

"I am afraid," he told his confessor. It was true. This sense of recollection, of a personal encounter with Van Helsing's mentor--terrified him more than the vampire had.

"Have faith," Mina said, voice so intense he nodded as if she was there.

It was certainly true the vampires of the present day were nothing like those of the prespace era. Sanctioned records showed that his namesake had hunted the creatures to the edge of extinction. And they had evolved--that was solid historical fact. Enchanted species mutated more quickly than live ones. As an aged Abraham Van Helsing had shuffled toward death, his daughter was already battling the Undead's next generation, vampires who wore toughened scales of demon-flesh, coal black in color, in hard-to-pierce sheaths from their throats down to their navels.

He remembered seeing one... no, not remembered. Someone must have taken a photograph. They were becoming more common by then.

And if the image was in color, rather than black and white?

He set the unease aside, driving it away by thinking instead of the vampire he had just fought: its youthful face, carrion and machine-oil smell, the unexpected and frightening compassion in its eyes.

"Consider the battle just now," Annie said coolly as Seventeen sealed the unoccupied cabin. "Your lovely new weapon, the cage of pure starlight. The vampire had countermeasures, didn't it? And the fog vacuum the nuns were so proud of--ineffectual. Your ability to pass for human, to play bait or victim--"

"I had no chance to test that."

"Seventeen, you are the Order's newest Van Helsing prototype. You're a week old and your prey has already adapted to techniques you've never used in the field."

Suddenly the corridor faded into blackness amid a banshee whine of starving power circuits. Annie remained clear and crisply visible, glowing ectoplasm-green, a shade reminiscent of operating theaters.

"Here it comes," he said, spying a trail of fog on the move behind a potted elm.

"Nothing you do will work," Annie said. "The Order's ethercache has been compromised. This thing knows what you will do before you do it."

He nudged his confessional. "Mina, did you hear? I have it in sight."

"Try out new features L through P," Mina said.

"There's no point in this." Annie stamped her foot.

"Affirmative, Mina. But--may I ask?"

"Your questions are always welcome, my son..."

"New features A through K seemed to have been anticipated."

"Pardon?"

"When we fought... the vampire seemed prepared." It was ridiculously hard to keep his voice even. "Could my specifications have been compromised in preproduction?"

"Whatever gave you that idea?" His confessor's voice was sharp. Annie stuck out her tongue.

"Merely an observation." It wasn't exactly a lie.

"Run your catechism again," she ordered. "And activate feature L."

"Affirmative." Seventeen gagged a capsule up from his rosary, settling it behind his tongue. It was an expanding capsule of jellied garlic laced with genenchanteered nettles, meant to bind the vampire and then cut it to pieces. He limped forward on the stiffened, boneless foot. Let the creature think him weakened...

I am weakened, he thought. One extremity lost, fraternizing with a damned virus--

The vampire solidified just within range, a sweet smile on its face, fangs edging through the slit of its thin-lipped mouth.

Annie's right, Seventeen thought, it's prepared. He spat the garlic at it anyway.

The vampire shifted back to its fog state, making the transition faster than Order Intelligence claimed was possible. The gel passed through it harmlessly, expanding into a jellied ball. There was a dense smell of restaurant, sizzling spices, as the capsule dropped to the deck.

"It didn't work," he reported.

"And yet we shall persevere," intoned Mina. "Try feature M."

"This isn't working." The vampire was solid again, a knowing expression on its youthful face. Seventeen could smell the rosebud in its lapel.

"Have faith, my son. Should you fail, die knowing that your sacrifice was for a greater good."

"Why, oh why won't you ever let me in? I can help!" Annie threw her ethereal self against his firewall again.

Seventeen let himself stumble, grinding down on the edge of his severed tibia, sending agony through his body and into the ether. His confessor's voice was silenced.

"Please," Annie begged. "Please, Seventeen."

Why not? He was going to die anyway.

He made his defenses porous. The poltervirus did not hesitate, penetrating swiftly to the marrow of his programmed self. She corrupted his historical ethercache, releasing a flood of memories that could not be real. The sustained low screams of his insane wife, so much like those of the astrologist just now. Mina Harker's face, vivid and terrified. Her warmth, so unlike his confessor's clipped reassurances. Successful hunts... and unsuccessful ones.

Now he remembered Annie herself, clothed always in her best striped dress, pale and persistent, trying to console, to help...

"Haunted," he murmured. "You haunted me."

"Through all your days and nights," said Annie Darwin.

He remembered her death at the Malvern Spa. The sounds of vomiting, Darwin's rising fear and repeated dashed hopes. They'd talked sometimes, she and he, girl and boy, when they were taking the water cure for their respective ailments. He had strengthened as she wasted, he praying over her bedside, even asking God to take him instead. Finally she was so ill that nobody but family could be admitted to the sickroom.

After she was buried, he'd visited her grave as his own recovery progressed, sometimes reading to her in his heavily accented English.

Annie had appeared to him during the last of his boyish fevers... and she'd never left. Following him to her parents' home on a visit, she had laughed sadly at her father's hard new devotion to science, his veneration of nothing but what he could see with his own eyes, touch with his own hands.

Charles and the young Van Helsing had broken over the invisible world, over the possibility of rapid evolution among the Undead. He had left, and to his surprise Annie had been with him at the train station, on the ship back to Amsterdam, and ever after.

Memories of small joys and great pains ran through Seventeen like a spreading blaze. Triumphs. Deaths and horrors. And faith. Like Darwin, he had lost a child. Unlike him, he never stopped believing.

The Order had bound Seventeen to Church practice with a billion subroutines, but they never imbued him with the faith he felt now. His constructed sense of purpose burned away, leaving fervor, leaving determination, passion.

"Yes!" the ghost of Annie Darwin cried.

The transformation took place at etherspeed, in just a fraction of a second. But the vampire was fast too. It was upon him, stroking Seventeen gently, sensitive scalpel-nails peeling little strips of his skin away. It had adopted the shining golden hair of its recent victim, rebuilding itself in her image. Its eyes were pools deep enough to swim in, inviting, calming...

"Feature M," Mina shouted through the ether as jolts of pain pushed her away. Seventeen groped to remember what she meant. Ah--injecting chilled holy water directly into the vampire's body cavities. Ridiculous. It had closed the distance just hoping he would try it.

"I used my coolant," he subvoked, not knowing if Mina heard.

He drove his flesh into an orgy of growth, generating a hard pair of spikes that grew from his own palms, pegs made of the hardest tissue he could muster. Milk-white, like fingernails, they formed in his hands, cruelly sharp points. Bellowing, he drove them into the vampire's soft fish-pale palms. It was a crude move, all but a tackle, far removed from the finesse programmed into him by the Order.

The vampire fetched up against a doorway, laughing, and Seventeen pushed harder. They were belly to belly as he pierced the foul creature's hands. The vampire's fangs flashed out, and it bit into Seventeen's face.

Seventeen screamed. Blood flowed over one eye, blinding him as he brought out his arms, dragging the vampire into a outstretched position. Thus spread, he jerked his wrists upward, breaking the spikes free of his arms before hammering at them with hardened fists. It was the work of an instant to force them into the decorative doorframe surrounding the bunk portal.

The vampire ignored its position for a critical moment, continuing to worry at Seventeen's head like a dog shaking a toy. An audible crunch and a white blaze of suffering told him the precious bone case of his skull was breaking.

Moaning now, Seventeen triggered the paint sprayer, spurting gold between his lips to etch an image into the bulkhead around the vampire. He pressed his hands against the vampire's chest, pushing himself backward. The creature bit down, and the hunk of skull broke away, remaining clamped in its teeth as Seventeen pulled away. Flesh and blood hung in strings, dangling between his cracked-open head and the vampire's jaws.

Seventeen dropped to his knees, still directing paint, completing the image.

A cross.

"Please, God," he prayed, spitting up staples to fix the vampire's ankles against the wall.

The vampire began to smoke. It turned to fog but did not drift away. Writhing, it solidified again, keening in distress.

"You put him on a cross? Isn't that blasphemous?" Annie asked.

Seventeen ignored her, kneeling with one hand on the vampire's knee, praying. It's relic resistant, he thought, not faith resistant.

Not yet, anyway.

"The vampire is transmitting details of your fight to its home ethercache," Annie reported. "Shall I stop the transmission?"

"Can you trace the cache location?"

"I'm not sure."

Under his hand, the vampire went slack. Looking upward, Seventeen saw an expression take hold on its face. It was the look that had kept Van Helsing going during all those years of his earthly life--gratitude. Another tormented soul released from damnation.

Sighing, the vampire died.

Annie said, "I can't trace it. Not without letting the information about your kill go into its cache."

"Let them have the data," he said. "I'll think of some other way to kill the next one."

"There won't be a next one," Annie said softly.

She was so close that, had she been solid, he could have touched her shoulder. He could remember trying to do so, time after time, in the distant past. "Pardon?"

"If you make a vessel and name it for someone, their spirit can come to inhabit it."

"Basic possessics," he replied, voice faint. "Are you saying..."

"Can't you tell?"

And he could. Memories of summer rain and barking dogs, a million details of life on Earth that had long ago been lost to the ship's ethercache, glimmered like sunlight on beach sand. He was truly himself, at long last.

"Extraordinary," he murmured.

"But temporary." Soberly the ghost-child teased his product scriptures out of another off-limits section of the ether. The Order had been evolving its hunters on a strictly doctrined path for some time. Possession was distinctly unwelcome, as was associating with a proscribed poltervirus.

"They'll dismantle you," Annie said. "I'm sorry."

The truth of her words was there in the ether. Seventeen would be dissected and studied. Mina would oblige him to confess that physical pain disrupted the etherlink, that this was what had given Annie access to him.

"They'll find a countermeasure," he murmured.

"I'll find another way in." The child lowered her gaze to the bulkhead, her fragile forever-young neck stubbornly bent. Trying to be brave. Still ten after all these centuries.

"No," Seventeen said.

"You'll join me in the ether?" She began to smile, then drooped at his expression.

"The vampires are out here, Annie. But--" He dug his hand into the ruined bioccultured tissue of his ravaged face and surprised himself by crying out. Pain rippled through the ether, breaking up any recall code the Order might issue.

Then he threw up the rosary.

It came in ropey lumps, bringing with it all his weaponry. The holy water, the holographic bishop, the garlic sprayer, the cross painter. He brought it up and wrapped the strands in the dead vampire's pinioned claws, making it look as if the monster had torn his arsenal out of him bodily.

"What are you doing?"

"Necessary sacrifice," he said as with one last retch his airway cleared. "Annie. My bait feature--I'm supposed to be able to transub into a potential victim, indistinguishable from human."

"I told you, you're compromised. It's seen your specs, it can tell."

"And the Order can too, presumably?"

"What do you--" The ghost's eyes widened. "You want to escape them?"

"Can it work?" He was already softening his flesh again, almost collapsing as his ankle became mere putty. Cool ship's air brushed his flesh as he let some of his tissues leak to the deck, making a ragged stump at the end of his calf and leaving a puddle of himself below the vampire.

She flickered, scanning. "Perhaps if you can escape from here. But if they can't account for you..."

"I'll leave them enough of a body to distract them for a time." Aching, unbalanced on his remaining foot, Seventeen groped at the vampire's crucified body, unzipping its organ banks. The murdered woman's organs splashed to the deck: heart, lungs, kidneys, spleen. Puncturing the tank, he released a torrent of her blood. Then, reaching down to fumble through the rosary, he found the incineration bead. Hopefully he could make it appear that Seventeen's genetically enchanteered body had been fried in a final battle with the monster.

"Annie, can you hack me an identity?"

"As many as you need."

His mind raced. If the paramediums carried him out of here, he might escape into the ship's population... "Let the record show I'm another victim from this neighborhood," he said. He pulled the piece of his skull out of the vampire's jaw, leaving behind a burnt cap of skin and hair--his own scalp. Fingering the edges of the bone, he assessed its shape, finally sliding it back into place like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

Then he triggered the bait feature.

Preset tissue drivers took over, modeling an organic brain for him, creating a heart and a pair of lungs where his rosary had been before. Kidneys, stomach, pancreas...

Then the process aborted, amid a welter of error messages, leaving his abdomen loose and empty.

"There isn't enough of you to make a whole person," Annie said. "Not if you're leaving all that tissue behind on the floor."

"The Order will need evidence that I died here," he said. The bait program had given him veins and filled them to bursting with tempting reservoirs of blood. He pulled the cells back into his body cavity, dedifferentiated them again, made the vital organs one by one. Then he cut a pair of exsanguination punctures into his throat with the point of his blade.

The pain increased as his body and nervous system became more complex, the connection to the Order becoming ever more and more tenuous. He fought to construct one last burst of false data. The pinned vampire awoke, he recorded. There was a great struggle, and then the mutual incineration.

He could feel Annie working with him, smoothing the edges in the tale, making the story conform to the evidence. Finally they let it go, a single packet of data shooting through the ether, Order-bound.

He hopped back two paces, setting the incineration bead of the rosary manually. With one last look at the crucified vampire, the torn flesh and spilled organs, he tossed the bead into the pile. It flared like a rocket; the corridor filled with a reek of burning meat.

"Your head looks terrible," Annie said. "Like you've been mauled."

"I'll survive." The paramediums would come soon, now that the vampire was dead. If they believed he was human, they would give him a transfusion--one his new laboring heart was desperate for--right away. They'd fix his face, give him a prosthetic foot, and release him onto the ship like any other human. God willing, the Order would be none the wiser.

"It'll work," Annie said, apparently reading his intentions.

"I have faith," Seventeen agreed.

He lurched to the portal of the empty apartment and collapsed there, making himself easy to find.

"Annie," he said. "Can you reduce my ether privileges? Install a regular crew uplink?"

"Of course," she said. For the last time, he sensed her shifting through the caches, marshalling her ethereal resources.

He drew as much of his consciousness into the partial, human-seeming body as he could, pulling against his own firewalls. He strained to load his history, his personality, and the Order's vast knowledge into the newly-formed neurons inside his broken skull.

"I've got it all backed up," Annie said. The poltervirus seemed incredibly close at hand. They mingled, just for an instant, and he saw himself through her eyes, a young man in a long-ago time, haunted and struggling with horrors.

"And yet buoyed up by God," Annie murmured, slapping restrictions on his etherlink, blinding him as she squeezed his consciousness into his frail organic brain.

The pain doubled, trebled. He cried out in anguish.

"Rest, Seventeen," Annie said. "The paramediums just reached Revelations Deck."

"Call me Abraham," he rasped, and as he slid into what he hoped would be a temporary state of shock, he saw that the poltervirus's cheeks were wet with another impossibility. She had learned to cry spectral tears.

This story originally appeared in The Many Faces of Van Helsing.


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A.M. Dellamonica

Award-winning ecofantasy and near future science fiction, often with stand-up comedy, art galleries, and aliens.