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A TAINT IN THE BLOOD

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER NINE:

 

The two killers snarled as they spread out in the big sauna and advanced, lips pulled back to show the wide white gape of their teeth. The air was rank with the scent of their aggression. Adrian answered with a snarl of his own, one that turned into a full-throated racking scream. The wordless challenge-cry of the king predator:

Mine! Mine the land, the herds, the blood, the mates! Mine!

It checked them for the merest fraction of a second. He could feel their intent narrow again, focused like the edge of their knives; they were Shadowspawn, and powerful. Not as powerful as he, but there were two of them and the silver-inlaid, glyph-warded knives were deadly, annulling luck, canceling the Power’s ability to heal the wounds they made. Adrian knew a single instant of irony; that was the same sort of weapon he’d learned to use when he was the Brotherhood’s fosterling. The two sides of the ancient struggle were more closely linked than either would admit.

Then his intent was as pure as theirs. One came in, lunging leopard-fast up the stair-like seats, sweat gleaming across the bright patterns printed into his skin. The knife ripped upwards towards belly and genitals. Adrian swayed his hips aside, fluid and sure, and lashed out with the ball of his foot as he pivoted on the other. The man rode it, flinging up one arm to take the impact and tumbling down the wood-sheathed tile of the benches, coming to his feet and shaking his head at the base.

His companion was already attacking, the knife flashing in a blurring X-figure of slashes before him. Some remote part of his mind spoke in Harvey’s voice; memory held a tinge of sunlight filtering through the boards of a barn somewhere in the Texas hill country too, and the sweaty feel of a practice-hilt in his hand.

If it’s a knife-fight, accept that you’re going to get cut and cut bad. Just make sure the other mook’s worse-off.

Adrian lunged into the other’s attack. That broke his rhythm for the merest second; he’d been counting on the unarmed man retreating. Silver-veined steel slashed down his deflecting forearm and into his thigh, like a razor of sun-hot fire.

Pain! Painpainpainpain—

Blood-scent, his own, rank and terrible; the knife-arm slipped free of his grip and whipped back for the stab up under the short-ribs. For an instant they were locked chest-to-chest, and Adrian’s other hand flashed up and clamped on the back of the knife-man’s head with fingers like iron rods.

Sh’tzeeeez ak-ot!” he spat, while their faces were close as lovers’.

Mhabrogast commanded the mind; the Power flowed out of him. The man’s galvanic reaction sent him to the floor in a twitching, writhing, heel-drumming fit, and hurled Adrian back. A thin keening sound came out of him, endlessly. Adrian snatched up the knife where it had fallen; more pain lanced up his right arm, without the shielding glove. The other blade-man halted his rush and poised in a wary guard.

Then he smiled thinly. Adrian’s leg buckled under him. The blood was flowing too fast, and he couldn’t spare the focus to clamp the vessels from within. On one knee he kept the blade pointed out, swaying as gray gathered around the edges of his vision. Cold seemed to be blowing around him, despite the dry heat of the sauna—

“Hey, asshole!” a gravelly voice said cheerfully.

The tattooed Shadowspawn turned in a blur of speed. The massive bummpf! of Harvey’s coach gun seemed to flow into the motion, and the knife-man jerked backward as the soft slug struck his face just above the nose and smashed open his skull with a dull wet cracking sound. Pinkish-white-gray tissue and blood spattered on the tiles and mats. Harvey took another step forward and brought the other barrel to bear on the head of the convulsing figure on the floor.

Bummpf!

“Good Shadowspawn,” he said with satisfaction, breaking opening the weapon’s mechanism and slipping in two more shells. “Good ‘n dead. Dead-dead, too, not just body-dead.”

Adrian let the savage focus slip away from his mind. Harvey caught him as he buckled; even the burn of silver in the leather jacket was distant. He felt himself laid down, and the towels turned into tourniquets.

“Let’s let the Council cover things up, ol’ buddy,” he heard, as if from another room or another year. “Got to get you to a doc.”

Hands clamped on his wounded arm and thigh. The pain was there, but didn’t matter.

“And let’s see if I can Wreak a little, here, partner, before we move you.”

“Ellen,” Adrian whispered.

Then he screamed, as Power flowed into the open wounds.

 

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The welcome wagon hadn’t tried to unpack her personal possessions. Ellen’s bags rested on the king-sized bed. It was made up with fresh sheets, and the walk-in closets and the drawers of a tall rubbed-oak armoire held the sort of thing Monica had mentioned, clothing that could be bought off the shelf on short notice. The room had a half-empty feel anyway, no knickknacks or pictures on the walls. The window opened onto the small interior yard between the house and the Casa Grande’s perimeter wall; it let in a sweet scent of cut grass.

She’d packed the bags to a quick command of: Take what you can’t replace with money, and evidently her subconscious had been functioning. All she remembered from the time was a blur of terror, but they were full of a jumble of things like Mister Wabbit—loved into shapelessness when she was small—and her family photographs and other mementoes. She hesitated; taking any of them out would be like admitting she was living here. Then she defiantly put Mister Wabbit on the shelf over the head of the bed.

“There. Keep an eye on things, you wascally wabbit!”

She dressed in sweats with a sports bra beneath and a headband and a pair of very good running hightops, and started stretching outside the house. The Lane was very quiet; Jamal had finished his routine with the weights and was sitting on the bench. He stared expressionlessly at her, made no response to her wave and then went inside.

Peter showed up; his gear was well-worn. The bruises and sore spots made her wince a little and go slowly at the limbering-up motions; he waited patiently.

“Ummm... Jamal really isn’t friendly, is he?”

Peter sighed. “I’ve had exactly one sentence from him since he arrived last September. From LA, I think.”

“What was that?”

I’m nobody’s bitch, you faggot, so fuck off.

“Ouch!”

“Yes.” A hesitation. “I usually sort of resent that; I’m not gay, I’m just small, for Christ’s sake! But... it’s hard to feel hostile to someone in his position. And I have this horrible feeling that he replaced me at the bottom of the list.”

“The list?”

“The one she’d kill if she felt in the mood for that. The one she would miss least afterwards. Don’t mention that to the others, by the way. I just violated the Lucy Code.”

Ellen winced. “Double ouch. Let’s run, shall we?”

He nodded, relief on his face: “How tough do you want it?”

“Not too-too, in new shoes—though these feel like suede gloves for the feet. And I’m still feeling a bit rocky in spots.”

“I usually run in the mornings, when I can. Care to join me?” He held up a hand. “I’m not hitting on you. Not that you’re not attractive, but... that sort of thing is not really practical for any of us here.”

“Why do men always apologize for not hitting on you all the time including the grossly inappropriate ones?” Ellen asked, with a wry quirk to one corner of her mouth. “It’s like sorry for not interrupting you incessantly or I regret that I can’t breathe onion in your face.”

“Because we wish women would hit on us all the time,” he answered promptly. “I realize the reverse isn’t true.”

They set out slowly, warming up as they left the end of the cul-de-sac. There was a brick bicycle path at first; that faded out as they worked their way onto a dirt path that snaked beside a seasonal brook under eucalyptus and native oaks. She kept quiet for half an hour, simply feeling the push of legs and flex of muscle, enjoying the body doing what it was supposed to do. It cleared her head as well.

“Did you... have anyone in Los Alamos?” she asked after a while, pacing the words to her breath.

“Not seriously, lately. And I’m very glad things were that way.”

She nodded. He went on: “You were really involved with Adrienne’s brother? And he didn’t...”

“No. Things got sticky, but he never... well, obviously he never drank my blood! I didn’t know about any of this stuff; that was a big part of why we were splitting up, he wouldn’t tell me things. I knew he was keeping a lot of secrets. He’s a good guy, basically. I can see now looking back how hard he had to fight not to... do things. I may have unintentionally been tempting him.”

Peter nodded. “Left up here, past that clump of bamboo. You know, they can play games with your memories, if they can get close to you for a while. Break your brain-codes. You sure he didn’t do that?”

That made her miss a stride; then she laughed harshly. “That’s like trying to prove that the world wasn’t created six minutes ago!”

“Yeah, classic non-falsifiable hypothesis. Sorry!”

“No, I can’t be sure. I’m morally certain, though. Thanks for giving me another creepy thought to keep me awake!”

De nada. Do you hate him for getting you into this?”

“No,” she said.

Odd. I wasn’t certain that I didn’t until just now.

Aloud: “No, what Adrienne’s done is Adrienne’s fault, and they hadn’t had any contact for years. She’s got some twisted love-hate-desire thing going on with him, at least on her part; he hates her and he’s afraid of her. All he wanted was to be left alone and live something as close to a normal life as he could. I was part of that, I think. And she... wants... me because he did. I get this really creepy feeling that to her... messing... with me is like fucking him.”

“I don’t know if I could be that objective. And yes, the Doña tends to give you that creepy feeling, doesn’t she?”

Soon they were moving up a pair of ruts through dense pasture and onto a ridge. The conversation went in spurts; the usual origin-story you exchanged with a new friend. Her small-town Pennsylvania coal-country roots, the struggle to get to New York and work her way through NYU, the way paintings had taken her to another world. His professional-class Minnesota background, physics a door into the nature of things. The way they’d been fifty miles apart for years and never even dreamed the other existed.

“This rock is a good place to turn. It’s all chaparral for a bit after this—limestone slope. Good steep ground but not this late and not unless you’re up to it.”

“Woof!” Ellen said, leaning over to get her breath under control.

Her lungs seemed dry and inflexible for a few moments, and her skin heated by a flush like an interior sunlamp. The air was cooling, but that felt good.

“I needed to run off the sugar but I’m still more wiped than I thought.”

Peter nodded. They trotted on a little more; the sun was to the left and a little ahead, making the bare branches ahead black outlines. She stopped again when they rounded a clump of oaks and found themselves facing a small group of white-face cattle, up to their bellies in the deep green grass.

“They’re OK,” he said as he noticed her freeze.

“They’re big. I like cows best already disassembled.”

When they’d moved off she turned and said: “You got in trouble for something about the Power, didn’t you? That’s why... they... wanted you dead. Or someplace like this, fully under control.”

Peter nodded. His handsome mobile face turned to the shadows in the east. “How much mathematics do you have?”

“Hey, Art History BA, remember,” she said. “I can use TurboTax if I concentrate very very hard. If it’s obscure technical terms in Renaissance Italian painting you want, I’m your gal.”

He sat down on a stump. “OK, short form. The Power doesn’t come from inside the Shadowspawn brains. It can’t. Brains just don’t generate that much energy. What they do is modulate the Power, tapping it from a deep level. Like a transistor in a radar set. They step it up or down and shape it. But the energy comes from somewhere else. Follow me so far?”

She nodded, and he continued: “What put me on to it was results on probabilistic analysis of—

“Woah! Artsie math aversion reflexes kickin in! Let’s get going, then. You know, what puzzles me is that we... our ancestors... were ever able to overthrow them.”

He rose and they trotted slowly downward. “I suspect it’s because there just weren’t many in any given spot, back when humans were rare.”

“A sort of lions vs. zebra thing?”

“Exactly. But now the upper limit’s vanished. And their numbers and their genetic purity have been increasing fast the last hundred years. It explains a lot. Think of the early legends... you know those?”

She smiled at him, mopping at her face with the sleeve of her sweats. “Art History, remember? It’s obligatory to know the loves of Zeus and that sort of thing.”

“You know how crazy the world seems in those myths? How... anything-can-happen? Dreamlike and arbitrary?”

Her eyes went wide in alarm. “You mean it was like that?”

“Around the Shadowspawn, yes. Probabilities start to blur into each other. The damned luck! They’re probably the reason we believe in luck in the first place. There’s no such thing, really—not as sort of a personal possession, or a muscle that’s stronger in some people than in others.”

“Except for them it actually does work that way.”

“Right. And it explains so much else, too.”

“Like why the Greeks thought ghosts needed blood? And why so many gods demanded human sacrifices?”

“Yeah, but more fundamental things as well. Why do humans want gods at all? Why do we believe in them without proof?”

“Oh. There was proof.”

He nodded. “For a hundred thousand years we had gods, for 96% of the existence of the human race. And spirits and ghosts and survival after death—for some.”

She shuddered, and he made a hands-in-the-air gesture.

“You know the really ironic thing?” he said. “I think that if we could understand the Power, we could use it. I mean, everyone could. We’d need something like a very capable, very specifically tailored quantum computer. But all they’re interested in is keeping potential competition down.”

She frowned. Running downhill was harder, or trickier, than going up, but her balance adjusted automatically.

“Why don’t they do that themselves? Surely they’d be in the best position to investigate the Power.”

Peter laughed, half genuine amusement, half bitterness. “What animal does Adrienne remind you of? Not a bitch, please. Really.”

“A cat,” she said instantly. “I like cats, but they’re not tame. We can have them around because we’re stronger and smarter. The big ones we put in zoos or nature parks.”

“Smart! We’re apes that became more like wolves. Shadowspawn are apes who became like wolves and then decided they’d rather become like cats instead. And what do cats do if you leave them to themselves?”

“Hunt and play at hunting. Torture mice. Eat. Sleep. Groom themselves. Fight other cats for territory and mates. Screw.”

“Exactly. I—”

An engine sounded from around the curve of the track ahead, the whining burble-hum of a new electric-drive hybrid. They stopped in surprise as a tardec utility vehicle stopped, a low-slung boxy body of angled plates on four oversize wheels, the sort of thing you saw on news reports from dry dusty places where things went boom a lot. It didn’t bristle with weapons, but there were antennae and the man beside the driver was looking down at some sort of display screen. Another followed it.

The riders looked like soldiers; at least they had body armor, which Ellen could recognize from the news, and bulbous helmets with sensor visors ready to be flipped down, and each had an ear-mike with a little thread-microphone at one corner of their mouths. They carried odd foreign-looking assault rifles as well.

Eight of them were Asian, but not quite like any she’d seen before. Short barrel-chested bandy-legged men, tough and stocky with the weathered skin of those who’d always been out-of-doors in all weathers; they swung down and spread out, going down on one knee facing outward. They were relaxed and alert, their eyes never stopping; their sense of tensile presence reminded her of good tennis players, even in their heavy boots and gear. Besides the usual military paraphernalia their belts held big inward-curving chopping knives.

They don’t seem like a brute squad, she thought. Just... focused.

The ninth was a white man, older but very fit, with gray threads in his clipped brown mustache, and very cold gray eyes. They met hers through the growing shadows...

This one knows, she thought. He’s not one of them, but he knows. Maybe the others don’t, maybe they do, but he really knows who he’s working for. What he’s working for.

“Hello, Dr. Boase,” he said; his voice was clipped upper-class British.

“Captain Bates,” Peter replied neutrally.

Then he turned his head to her: “I’m Harold Bates, head of site security here for Brézé Enterprises, Ms. Tarnowski. Were you heading in for the evening? It’s a biggish bit of wilderness to be out in, on foot and after dark.”

His voice was impeccably respectful. Ellen nodded when Peter said cautiously: “Yes, just heading home.”

“Cheerio, then.”

He switched to a fast-moving language, evidently the one the soldiers spoke, and the two runners stood aside as they climbed back into their vehicles and drove by.

 “Who are the soldiers for? It’s not as if they need guns to keep us from running away.”

“They have enemies,” he said, and shook his head when she would have gone on. “Later.”

Adrian! Be careful! she thought. Then: Would men with guns have any chance against... well, he must be able to do all that stuff too?

It was full dark when they were at the head of the trail again where it joined the Lane, and chilly enough that she felt she’d be glad to get indoors; during the day this gentle climate was enough to make you forget it was only the middle of February. There weren’t any streetlamps along Lucy Lane, only little lights over the courtyard doors. That left the ambient level low enough that the frosting of stars and crescent moon were helpful. And a trickle came through an open window in Number One.

They were about to walk by when a shriek of raw pain stopped her in her tracks. Peter took her arm and tried to urge her along. Then she heard pleading. Monica’s voice, high-pitched and urgent:

“Oh, Addi, don’t. Don’t! Please! Not there—ow! That hurts. It hurts so bad!

Another scream, then a delighted laugh, and a low moan broken with choked-off muffled sobs: “Ow... ow... oh, owwwww... ow... ow...”

The noise fell behind her. They stopped outside Number Five.

“I guess this wasn’t a milk-and-cookies sort of evening,” Peter said quietly. Then: “And Monica keeps forgiving!”

He was quivering; she could feel that. She touched his arm.

“This is just so totally awful, isn’t it?” she said quietly.

He nodded. She took his arm again and felt it rigid. Then he began to shake; she hesitated, then pulled his head down on her shoulder. The sobs were soundless, but the tears soaked through the fabric of the sweatsuit. His arms came up to embrace her clumsily. After a moment he straightened and wiped at his eyes with the palms of his hands.

“Thank you,” he said, and cleared his throat. “Sorry.”

“Sorry for what, Pete? Look, I’m not hitting on you either, but I don’t want to spend the evening with a pillow over my head. Come on in and have dinner and we’ll talk about something else. Maybe watch a movie. OK?”

He nodded wordless gratitude.

 

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Copyright © 2009-2010 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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