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Dark cumulus castles in the sky appeared as a startling new dimension on a flat slate of sky. The strength of the approaching winds could be seen in the roiling smoke of the cloudbank. Down at the bottom of the bluff frothing swells toppled in, spinning spray high over jagged rocks. If Steve was sensible he would've been in the shelter with the others, waiting for the dragon tail of hurricane Zeno to whip past. But he wasn't in command of his faculties; depression had sent him out wandering in the blow. Thoughts of Mina and Danny were on the leading edge of the inner storm.

Danny had always been a monster - a blond monster. Steve understood that now. Danny's human mask was an unusual one; he came disguised as a gift giver. Giving you anything; his old jeans, T-shirts, leather jackets, surprise cases of beer, CDs and more expensive items. The catch being that he wasn't at all generous. Steve had thought that in the beginning, and if they weren't pals he would have always been fooled. Danny's goal was to own people. His heart was as hollow as his eyes. He was the sort of guy who'd buy a coffin to bury you in so he could feel he possessed you and your soul.

A kick of wind puffed Steve's nylon windbreaker, and he thought he understood the wish of Icarus - to escape and fly above the hordes who only wished to crawl on their bellies. People in Toronto were lacking in wishes, mainly they were too uninspired to fly. Of course everyone was into self-development these days, everything from weight lifting to New Age stuff, but only for vanity, image or financial gain. And since the inner self was granted no real value on its own it never really got developed. People were getting to be like gasoline -- all additives and no substance. Steve believed the truth was in the core of a person, in the heart, so if you had a heart the rest of life would fall into proper place. He felt he was born with an even spirit. Most people were trying to regain what they had lost, and because they didn't know it, they were going about it in the wrong way.

Danny had a totally different philosophy of life. His one great need was to do everything better than Steve. He had firmer pectorals, his eyes were bluer, his clothes sharper. You would expect his woman to be superior, but that wasn't the case. Like other men that consider themselves studs, Danny's instincts were predatory. Ultimately incapable of love, he believed himself a great lover. He was one of those guys who would explode with violence when the day of rejection forced a final confrontation with inadequacy. In the present, the predator's blood lent him the desire to possess Steve's woman, and in turn possess him through the theft of his virility.

Danny had stolen Mina, calculating his every move with the coldness of emotion only a robber planning a Brinks job could own. Bubbling conversation, flowers and gifts, he whirled her through the best social circles, took advantage of her love of dancing. He molded himself from clay to become Mina's dream lover . . . and he wasn't genuine at all. Steve saw warped desire and a faceless hunger behind the masks. The job was thorough, he'd put Steve on the bluffs, firm in his decision to end a game he could neither win nor stand to play.

Skeletal forms mixed in the shadows racing before the storm; a crowd, malformed and morphing like dark ink … the vision had grown stronger in his subconscious with every new day of failure. Inside were symbols of a life of remorse, bitter years suspended from a wish that the events of yesterday might've been different. A line of blood-red showed in a sudden cloud split, and he saw it like he saw Danny's face -- an evil god bleeding on all of the things it possessed. Then he jumped . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . and flew, the wind ballooning in his windbreaker. The upward surf of the air was incredible, but not potent enough to halt his plunge to the sand and rocks below. Steve expected his life to flash before him but it didn't happen. A black grid unfolded in his head, fine wires warping through strange dimensions; time stretched beyond the limits. Rivers of light exploding as several Steves swung down toward the rocks on a number of alternate worlds.

He saw the pocked beach blast up to meet him like stony knuckles of a new demon -- one much larger than ancient idols. A blow that was beyond feeling hit him, intense like a rose of blood bursting in a universe of dark matter. Fire in his flesh that left him scorched and numb, then the curtain of death and a dark, empty place swallowed him.

. . . . . . the roar of rushing waters, a steady and eternal sound touched his ears. A line of waves, scarlet and florescent, washed over his thoughts. By small degrees a cloud was lifting, one storm passing to make way for another. A weird duality of mind was present; he knew he had died - the Steves of several worlds had hit the rocks. There'd been a crossover of sorts and his mind was living in the body of the one Steve who had escaped death and oblivion. It was like a delusion, an unreal thing that he couldn't shake loose, and the reason for his survival loomed like a hideous shadow.

Hypothermia and blood loss had done their work; he was freezing and numb. Tendrils of unendurable pain were spreading through him. His bloodshot eyes opened; through sand-crusted lids he saw a picture worse than grim. Plastic straws were embedded in a heap of broken driftwood logs. The head of a carp stared, its gutted body dripping on a jagged rock. A car engine hung broken from the side of the sandstone bluff. Wreaths of broken pine boughs ornamented with dead gulls and crows covered the sand. Steve shuddered, but it was emotional, not physical. He wasn't capable of anything physical, not with what was left of his body. He could see his opened stomach spread before him … a dark soup of blood on the sand … red membrane of lung, the blood-rich meat of his spleen … intestines, shining and violet, erupting with a vomit of undigested food.

The most terrible fact in the universe was the fact that he wasn't dead. There was also the certain knowledge that he would live. He would heal because in this alternate world he knew he was immortal -- a vampire. He’d landed dead in all worlds, but in this world some of the dead lived.

It was deadly fusion, the predator in him resented this new more human Steve and longed to remain in control . . . and the predator was content in the knowledge that Steve would endure the agony of healing. Hissing and blood came to his lips; a rasp of anguish passed his fangs. His intestines were gathering snakelike before him in the sand. Blood was rising and pooling, lung tissue was palpitating and bits of flesh were crawling. Raging pain took him as the healing progressed. The torment became wailing that slowly melted to thoughts. He felt like a fool who'd set himself on fire, only to awaken with nerves burning with a blaze that would never end.

Although his suffering took place in a brief time period, it was more than any feeling being could withstand. A ghost sledgehammer moved in his torso, and nerves burned down to the ends like wicks into wax as his flesh warmed. His mind emerged, hatching from a womb of black thoughts, and the memory of the incident was much less vivid than the reality. He was filled with cool fire. In two ways he'd been crushed; emotionally and physically. Now the knowledge of his vampirism threatened him spiritually. Hopeless as the situation was, the awareness of having died and lived served as Novocain to deaden remorse, self-pity and the shock of changing worlds.

Sweat showered from him as he got to his knees and looked at his hands. His Save-the-Rainforest T-shirt was shredded; chest hair was flecked with blood and scar lines shifted from blue to white as they faded. The outline of his stiffening penis showed in the tightness of his jeans. The denim was torn at the knees, so that except for his moccasins and beads he resembled a frame from an Incredible Hulk comic. Powerful feelings were returning like a diamond of energy burning in his chest, growing stronger as an inner vampire resurfaced.

Cracked slate clouds slid across the sun and beams like shards of bronze bit at his eyes. His face was puckered by a squint but his vision was clear enough for him to see a dark shape flying down at the bluff-top. It arced out, trailing strings of light, thumped the sand with heavy boots, tumbled and rolled erect. It was Vince and he clicked his cowboy boots and grinned behind ragged wisps of dark hair. Three more figures leapt from the top and a few moments later Steve was facing four men in the sand.

Danny's fangs sparkled like he was a TV vampire; he had a halo of arrogance and his thin blond whiskers had a girlish transparency. He was the first to speak, and his tone was mocking, “Lying around on the beach in a hurricane, Steve.” His lips formed a cruel razor. “Next time you screw up my plans for Mina I'll toss you in the grid instead of on the rocks.”

“Let's drop the infighting and move,” Vince said. “If the grid's been knocked out we're headed for the big time.”

“All right, grid mission impossible here we come,” Danny said, and then he whooped like a crazy teenager, slapped his knees and flew straight up, a power of transvection carrying him to the weed-tufted bluff-top. The others weren't as able and they followed him up, leaping from hold to hold on the sheer embankment. Tagging along reluctantly, Steve wondered if the others really intended to challenge the grid.

An aggressive dash through thistle-spiked crabgrass and over piles of boulders took them to the pinnacle and a view of the territory. To the south, the gray lake was a debris-flecked carpet stretching to the city. The CN Tower stood far enough off to appear as a big needle impaling a ring of smoke. More greasy smoke clouded the scrapers of downtown Toronto. Fires were burning in the aftermath of the hurricane, but since fires were always smoldering there in the blood zone, all was normal.

A glance east should've sent their hands to their eyes, fending off light dazzles from the big lasers that fired the inner ring of the grid, but the huge silver lattice wasn't there in the sky. They saw pleasant gloom, and that meant power outages had knocked out the grid. Silence was their reaction, Steve being the only one not swallowed by amazement and animal blood dreams. When the others began to whoop and shout with joy, he followed suit, jumping up highest of all.

Right out on the edge, Danny opened his zipper. He was erect, his thighs sweating with sticky blood. The bleeding came from the permanent arousal that was part of the hunger. “Once we cross that grid we're going to screw the whole world,” he said, and then he urinated. He hissed as the fast stream of blood and urine spilled over the cliff. “We'll take the car,” he said as he zipped himself up.

Steve didn't care much for Danny's gross gesture or his apish power trip, but he said nothing as they went to get the car. It was a battered red Ford convertible and they descended to the highway in it. There was no traffic this far out, and they knew any vehicles they encountered would belong to either the military or mercenaries. The grid was the military's line of containment for the vampires. It held back a plague of vampirism that had started when the vampire blood cells escaped at a Toronto lab. Infected people became either vampires or bloodless ones -- walking corpses without red blood cells. In this world Toronto was a rubble heap populated by vampires, the bloodless ones, military and Red Cross personnel … and criminals shipped in by various governments. Undesirables from many countries were dumped in Toronto as food for the vampires. It was illegal of course, but international law meant little when corrupt military leaders could exploit the people and their fears.

Highway 401 fanned out to several new lanes ending at the grid. Danny's assessment was that the military would move in strong there to guard against the possibility of vampires breaching the checkpoint. Well before the apron they turned down a stony cutoff and headed north with scudding clouds. Gusting wind was drying the narrow highway and kicking up grit. The road shrank to two ruts in a weed bed. A farmhouse and barn stood like heaps of overgrown rot just off the roadside, driveways running up to them like paths to burial mounds. Farther on what had been modern homes and bedroom communities were now rows of splintered boxes on the hillsides.

A thin fringe of sumac, birch and deer forest was the last cover before the grid lands. They ditched the convertible there, its flaking paint giving it the appearance of a natural wreck. Green foliage swirled overhead as they set out on foot, then nature faded into the smoke of the sky. Trees were suddenly stark and shattered and the ground napalm ashen. Mutant toadstools were the survivors and their spores blew out to the fields of the grid. Pylons towered, crackling sparks across discs and a metal framework that looked like a cross between the rides at a fair and man-on-the-moon technology. A smell of ozone was in the air, the lasers had been snuffed, and chaotic sparking meant most of the other devices weren't working either. Yet even in such a degraded state, the grid loomed like the skeleton of an electric dinosaur . . . and they knew there were other things - silver mines, death rays, killer magnetic fields and acids.

It brought them to an awed halt, Vince and Jimmy spinning on their heels to face the others in the blowing dust. All of them had moon-big eyes. The grid sure looked unbeatable, like it was the king of vampires.

Steve's lips remained drawn, thin and white. Danny drew a red kerchief over his mouth and stared with a fiend's intensity into the ghosting dust. This was all a put-on, Steve was sure of it. Mina was the object of Danny's desire and she was back in Toronto, a Red Cross worker in one of the medical fortresses used to treat the bloodless ones. Once across the grid there'd be no coming back, so that meant Danny was only here to prove himself. The others wouldn't go into the grid through any courage of their own, the first laser flash and they'd retreat. All Danny was going to do was step farther into the fire, so that his position of mastery would be reaffirmed.

“We'll file in. I'll take the lead,” Danny said.

Scarlet earth resembled patches of blood under the skeletal shadows of the towers. The ground seemed more ersatz than real. In spite of the hurricane rains there were lines of dry red powder that created the dust. The air was electrified and snapping with static, crackling ran over their heads, sounding like weird guitar riffs and feedback buzz.

Steve wasn't far off Danny's heels and he saw his hair shoot up Van de Graaf stiff. He could feel it himself, a crawling mesh of electricity turning body hair to wire. Dust sheeted into him and he couldn't quite tell if his skin was on fire, frozen, acid burned or just plain numb.

Mirror-bright twinkling forced sudden yelps from all of them. At first Steve thought the lasers had come back on, and then he realized it was bits of dust exploding in his eyes. A glance at his hand showed flesh being eaten from the bone. Turning he checked Mike, who was immediately behind him - his face was ravaged, boiling fat glistened on red char. An understanding of the grid grew in Steve's mind. It was a conglomeration of disruptors that disintegrate vampiric cells. Chemical dust, acids, electric fields softened the body for vaporization by the lasers.

Danny suddenly whipped around, his eyes glazed like melting glass, his face nearly a skull behind the kerchief. “I'm melting, damn it!” he choked. “We'll have to go back or we'll be disintegrated.”

“I'm going to get through,” Steve said.

The others had already been turning away. They looked to Steve, and then to Danny, who was stuck without an option. If Steve proved more daring he'd lose the respect of his men. In a pack of predators that meant they'd turn on him and do a ritual killing. Maybe cut off his head and stuff his mouth with silver.

A sudden ear-popping thrum gave Danny an out.

“Silver mine!” Vince yelled as lifting silver closed over Mike like the petals of a molten flower. The liquid hit with a scorching hiss and Mike lifted his arms, throwing up a plume of fire and distortion. Razor ribbons of silver twisted on his body and when he screamed, spritzing blood, the flesh of his throat and lips and silver steam arced high, spattering the dust with color.

An eyeful was enough, Danny and the others fled, looking like a collection of grim reapers trying to save themselves from the death they already were. The voltage of fear hit Steve so hard he was sure he'd been scalped by lightning. He leapt to Mike and threw him over his shoulder in one fluid motion, and the touch of the silver froze him in his tracks. Gummy flesh dripped. The smell was as putrid as it was acrid. He wanted to run with the body but he couldn't when his legs were disintegrating. Drawing on a reserve of vampire strength, he transvected, and they both flew, arcing through the billowing dust, trailing greasy melt that sizzled and smoked like snuffed candles. They came clear of the grid, going right into a wall of agony that was the beginning of healing.

A fuzzed glow of sun hung like a red badge in the colored haze of the west, and another fire was fading in Steve's brain. Darkness was arriving as a comforter, cooling sweat to dew. Steve sat up, finding himself buck-naked on the flatbed of a pickup. Mike lay beside him, still far from healed; burn tissue was bubbling, blood coagulating. A webbing of deep scars pulsed. Steve's own body was covered with patches of flaking skin but doing well. Someone had thrown clean clothes in beside them so he dressed - jeans, cowboy boots and a T-shirt.

He popped down to the street and the unmistakable death stink of Toronto filled his nostrils. A huge rat scurried at his feet, so he booted it, sending it away in a hissing hurry. He was out front of The Saloon, a C&W bar that his gang controlled. Rodeo Boys was the band on the faded bill. As he turned to go in, he saw a bony blond woman coming up the street. She was pale with a blade-sharp nose and eyes sunken into shadow. Her look was that of a vampire, but blood instinct told him she was an uninfected addict, just dumped in by the military.

Her hollow cheeks were a turn-off, but his erection still ground painfully into his jeans. She didn't appear frightened by his garish complexion, which was amazing.

“I was told to come here,” she said. “You know what I need.”

Steve knew what she'd get too. He nodded and she followed as he went inside. A number of bribed soldiers and mercenaries sent them fresh convicts, mainly because fed vampires were easier to control. The only protected people were medical personnel and officials.

It was a barnlike room, beer tags and banner ads festooning the high polished beams. Bright light poured down from an empty stage and a number of patrons sat in the smoky haze. The jukebox was playing a country version of STAND BY ME. It was too early for a crowd.

Steve's gang was farthest from the lights. They were the boys with the nuclear acne, their animate and burned faces demonically radiant. Danny was alone at the end of a long shuffleboard bar, head cast down, chewing on his failure. Steve was unable to suppress a satisfied grin. Danny couldn't accept his own lack of balls, and fear of losing Mina and power was likely eating at him. No one could have sympathy for Danny. His motives stank. He wanted Mina because he thought it would be nice to have a gal helping him slaughter and rape. It was something that Steve wouldn't consider for himself. He'd lost Mina in this world too. At the very least, he wanted to know he hadn't lost her to Danny again.

Mina, maybe he could save her by killing Danny and his fixation, but this burned-out lady he couldn't help. She was in the lion's den and the fiery furnace. Two big black cowboys rose from a table near the stage, putting the fade on Steve's grin. Since they were visitors here at The Saloon, it was out of order for them to move in on the blood supply. Especially when Steve was her escort. It meant a fight.

Vince turned suddenly, wearing an unreal face of scorch and stubble. A sixth sense woke Danny and he spun around on his stool, sizing-up the situation with blood-glazed eyes. Danny didn't like what he saw. He swept his glass of beer off the bar and it smashed on the floor. The black vampires halted, halfway to Steve, their eyes flaring beneath their hat brims, and they didn't back off. Their lips twisted to snarls that meant they were hungry enough to fight.

Danny looked to Vince and Rico. “Our hospitality has been abused. Kill them!”

The moment was tenuous as Vince clearly didn't want to obey Danny, but in the end the drift had to go Danny's way. The turf had to be defended.

Rico unsheathed a Trail Master knife and Vince drew out the Intruder Bowie he kept on a magnet under the table. Momentarily off balance, the blacks glanced to Steve and then back to Vince who was flying to his feet. Overhanding his chair with cruel speed, Vince busted it to pieces across the empty table beside him.

Faced with the possibility of all of them rushing to fight over the woman, Steve seized her and sent her flying marionette-style across the floor. She went stumbling into a dim corridor that dead-ended at the men's room and fell against the wall.

At the same time, Vince leapt up; doing a high flip that put him on thundering heels directly in front of the black vampires. The violators moved into defensive posture, knives at ready, and the cooling fire in their eyes said they knew they'd made a very big mistake.

A close knife fight began with Vince managing to parry them back while Rico moved up. No one was faster with a blade than Vince, and he countered a lunge by severing a hand clean at the wrist and throwing a solid boot to the groin. Vince also knew enough to duck, a move that left Rico with blood seltzering into his face.

Steve wasn't needed so he kept back. Tables crashed over, flesh ripped and blood splashed up to inkblot the ceiling; the battle was turning into a dance of dismemberment and blood loss. Since the trespassers were well under heel, their fate would be to dangle from a rope and spar outside The Saloon, minus their arms and legs.

Danny had kept back, and with no one looking, he made a hunched dash for the dazed girl. Steve caught the action from the corner of his eye. She was up and looking for a way out, but Danny raced out of the shadows before she had a chance to move. He swung the blade so fast it glinted sickle-like in the air. It connected, cut into her throat, and the strain showed on Danny's face as he threw his weight behind it and opened a deep wound. An expression of surprise was frozen on her face as her head lolled back, almost severed. There was a fountain of blood and drops rained on Danny's face as he leaned over and sank his fangs into the wound.

He held the quivering corpse with a firm hand, sucking blood and making noises like he was pulling bubbles through a straw. His other hand was at work forcing down her jeans, and he took the body to the floor as his pitted and burned erection was freed. His hissing grew more and more animal-like as he prepared to seed the corpse; he wanted this one to rise again, infected with the vampire madness.

The job was almost finished on the trespassers, they were down in pools of their own blood and Vince was busting heads open with a chair leg, just for fun. Steve went over behind the bar and got two coils of rope for the hanging. He wasn't worried about Danny, not any more. Once the others found out he'd spoiled their fun with a quick greedy kill they'd probably hang him too.

A yellow apron spread from the bright electric sign out front of The Saloon. Farther down, the street trickled with sewer water and shadows crept with other repulsive things in the gutters. Danny's face was garish, puffed with bruises and boils that moved under the skin as they healed. Sweat glistened on his forehead, his lips were lime-white behind dirty stubble and his eyes burned faintly in a flares-at-the-bottom-of-the-river way. If his thoughts weren't under water, they were underworld.

Steve puffed on a counterfeit Lucky Strike, watching Danny dangle on the rope. Steve thoughts grew ugly, his brow stormy. He was considering Danny's fixation on Mina and what he'd have to do about it.

Wind moaned and wood creaked as a gust rocked the black vampires on their pole. The raw meat of their faces was neon-enhanced like steak under a counter. They were minus limbs but still had their hats propped on above eyes gone lifeless and milky from the silver dust filling their bellies.

A midnight church bell tolled mournfully at the heart of the city, carrying a painful image of a cross. Scattered panes of light twinkled, some high up so that the buildings seemed to be floating in the sky. Deep black squares made-up the skyline, defining it in the same way missing teeth define a mouth. Toronto was a city of darkness with a few blazing areas of military and medical activity.

It was a setting that went well with vengeful thoughts, and Steve could feel his mind sinking into an evil quagmire. The rot would be inside him soon, he'd lose his human qualities and surrender to beastliness. Tonight was the only night he had. He flicked his smoke away and went over to cut Danny down.

Steve had a flask of blood and he poured it down Danny's throat. It brought about swift and vile healing and soon he was glancing around … somewhat hunted, somewhat bitter. A drummer was warming up and a raucous din was rising in the bar. Danny's mouth twisted, it was arson-ugly as he studied the doors. Like a revelation, his mental focus suddenly returned and he stood up, resembling a cross between Billy the Kid and a sick puppy as confusion and anger welled in his eyes.

The time was right for Steve to follow through with his plan; he went ahead and Danny swallowed it. By one a.m., they were near the waterfront.

A narrow makeshift road showed on the other side of a tumbled expressway. Walled by twelve-foot heaps of broken concrete and rusty metal and scattered with skeletons it was called Vampire Alley. The name rooted in the fact that convicts and other exiles traveled it into the city after being dumped from the boats. Usually they were slaughtered by the hungry vampires before they got out of the alley.

It was empty tonight, no victims; atop the rubble heap, they looked over at the medical buildings. The entire waterfront strip was a blistering of light, a belt of life at the foot of a fallen city. A solid wall of laser tanks and armored vehicles guarded the area and specially armed soldiers were streaming on the access roads. Fresh-blood civilians were also out, they could hear piano notes and a sax, strains of a jazz band playing in the waterfront square. A smoke-blackened CN Tower soared above them and the scene. Cut out of darkness by the spotlights, the tower was a sleeping monster in a city of devils -- the only being big enough to sleep at night when the vampires had full powers. Steve figured the vampires could defeat the military if they used weapons. It was a good thing that vampire machismo worked the way it did -- a vampire with a gun was considered to be a coward.

“It's that small squat compound,” Danny said. “My sources say Mina's been working there for a while.”

“How well guarded is it?”

“A couple of mercenaries and a security system. Mina and a few other medical people are the only fresh blood there. No vampires will go near the place; the doctors are treating bloodless ones in the last stages of the disease -- that's the point where they can only live on by devouring vampire cells. They're horrible, mindless zombies, but they can still suck the life out you.”

“Have you tried to get in before?”

“No. I didn't want to go it alone, not with those bloodless zombies in there.”

At the end of Vampire Alley, the rubble heaps bristled with sharpened stakes. A booby-trapped field was on the other side. Silver razor wire ran through it like tinsel, there were pits lined with punji sticks, laser traps, dismemberment bombs and other nightmarish things. Spying from behind the rocks, they could see soldiers moving in the moonlight on the far side of the field. They were wearing protective gear that resembled decontamination suits and knew how to pick their way through the hazards.

A bad odor was on the lake breeze. It touched their lungs like fingers of moist clay, and it was a toss-up as to what caused it. Maybe dead fish or bloated corpses floating out on the waves like schools of whales. Blood fragrances, smoke and some of the fine odors of the old life were woven in with the stench, so that both Steve and Danny stared at the shifting crowd in the square with longing in their eyes. They felt like nasty boys who could never get back into the dance of life, and because of it, rage was growing inside.

They had one option - the sewer, and they followed the dark hole underground with great reluctance. Although they could see in the dark, they wished they couldn't. Poisoned rats were chattering madly as they dashed about in the sludge, their fur spotted by running sores. They retreated at the scent of the vampires, hordes of them snarling and spitting from ledges. The water foamed and deepened, carrying filth over their boot-tops, and the wisps of gas thickened until the air was greenish and poisonous. Ordinary mortals would die just from the crawling of their flesh, but vampires couldn't die so they pressed through as swiftly as possible.

When they were at what they hoped was the right place they used night strength to pop off a welded metal cap and emerged in a field of thistles and goldenrod. Dripping with noodles and slime and steaming they looked more like swamp things than vampires. Yet they felt good, being suddenly exhilarated by the fresh air. Big military spotlights flashing nearby put a damper on their enthusiasm. Keeping low, they moved into wind-slithering grass and got past a guard tower. Finding cover in some brush, they stayed out of view as they leapfrogged along a ditch to the medical compound.

Wetting his finger, Danny stuck it into the wind.

“Wind's off the lake. Can't you smell?” Steve said.

“I want to be sure those bloodless things aren't catching our scent.”

More like a prison than a hospital, the concrete building stood before them. The front was grassy and there were willows and flowerbeds. The entrance was security gated. A gravel lot filled with military and medical supply trucks surrounded the rest of the structure. A few lights were on in windows that resembled the gun slits in the tanks. A blinding spotlight was rotating on the roof, the beam following a programmed pattern over the grounds.

Ducking the beam, they moved around the compound and decided to break in at a back door they believed led to the kitchen and mess hall. Quicker than any cat burglars, they ran up and pounced on the door, prying the hinges out of the concrete with their fingers. They tried to throw it down gently, but the heavy metal door slipped and crashed in the gravel. No alarm sounded so they went in and down a narrow hall, coming to a room stacked with drums of the gross mush the bloodless ones ate. They knew they had to go up a floor to get to the staff area and Mina, so they took the stairs. Danny cursed and spat when he found the only exit to be three flights up. The damn place was a security maze, designed to keep the bloodless ones inside.

A positively eerie feeling took them as they began to move down a shockingly bright fourth floor hall. A huge door was at the end where the hall took a ninety-degree turn. It was metal and rivets and had a small window of mesh and Plexiglas.

Marching into the lead, Steve halted and gazed through the window. Unclean figures moved in the dim light, their motion aimless and zombielike. A head turned, a gross caricature of the living dead, oozing pus and milky slime from a skinless but whiskered face. Splintered bone made a crude nose below eyes that were black with paranoid horror.

Danny had gladly stayed back, but now he was edging over for a look. “Get back!” Steve suddenly whispered, pulling Danny away before he could get a glimpse at the monsters.

They crouched a ways back from the door. “There's a guard near the window. I don't want to tip him off. Mina is the only other person inside. I saw her working at a medical desk by the window.”

“Has the guard got a laser?”

“No, he appears to be one of the goons they use for strong-arming the bloodless ones. Guess he's off duty right now. He probably has a weapon in there somewhere. What we can do is rush him before he gets it. I'll take another peek and if it's clear I'll tear open the door so you can leap in and overpower him.”

“Sounds good to me,” Danny said, lusty-eyed with thoughts of things he might do to Mina. “Let's do it.”

Easing the door back a crack, Steve began to work at the bolt and its casing. Concrete broke away and he tore some flesh off his fingers before he managed to bend the metal. Gripping the handle, he signaled Danny with his left hand. One finger, two fingers, then a wave that meant go. The bolt whammed and snapped free of the casing as Steve jerked the door wide. And Danny sprang, whooping Indian-style as he flew into the room. Then the door slammed behind him and Steve bent the bolt and casing back together as he held the door shut with his shoulder.

Danny's whooping died in a gag of silence and came back up as a scream. A maniacal mix of fright and loathing was in its tones. The low moaning of the bloodless ones began, wanton and hideous. Hissing with stark terror, Danny threw himself against the door. He hit it with hinge-shaking force, but Steve held it fast, glancing through the window at Danny's clawing hands. The Plexiglas was smeared with blood and perhaps Danny was seeing the face of his death in the pattern. It would be immortality melting to bodily fluids, because immortality had always been make-believe. The fates hadn't surrendered their role as executioner at all.

There was no need to look again; Steve could picture it well enough. As Danny screeched and struggled, the bloodless ones were on him like vile leeches, using a gruesome power of osmosis to suck the red blood cells right out of his body. In the end immortality would be splintered, marrow-less bones and rot on the floor.

Steve ground his teeth, but his blood refused to boil. Revenge was no pleasure at all. Instead, he felt cold and hollow inside. It wasn't really like being a killer; it was more like being Father Time, exterminating vermin that had been crawling around too long.

Danny was getting drained fast, his blows against the door grew feeble, and finally he slid to the floor. He smacked the tiles with the sound of sweet meat and looked like a huge smear of blood. Then he was buried under the vile sexual moaning and gross sucking of the bloodless zombies.

No amount of feeding could warm the dead flesh of the bloodless ones. And Steve felt somewhat cold and dead himself. The sounds sickened him. Drawing away from the door, he began to wonder what to do next. He hadn't expected the trap to swallow Danny so easily and so quickly. His plans had been of a more romantic nature; he'd hoped they'd get to Mina first so she could see him finish Danny and know he'd saved her.

Footsteps rang in the hall. Steve spun around. Once again, he found fate to be ahead of him. It was an orderly dressed in white, and Mina, who was wearing a nurse's smock. They weren't armed and must have assumed the noise typical of the disturbances created by the bloodless ones.

Catching sight of Steve, they froze in their tracks. Steve also went rigid, awed by Mina. Her golden curls were beautiful, her face open and rosy. The scent of her blood and perfume was an aphrodisiac he wouldn't be able to resist for long. He felt the pain of lost love sinking in his heart, and he wanted to speak -- just to say something human. Anything at all, but he couldn't, so he just stood there with trembling hands.

The orderly acted first. Showing despicable cowardice, he turned and fled, banging through a stairwell door.

A tear formed in the corner of Mina's eye, and he could see her knees weakening. Perhaps she was weeping because she had loved him; his heart leapt at the thought. Then he saw the lines deepen on her face, the depths of her fear, and the truth was obvious. Mina didn't even recognize him, he was a hideous creature from some slimy underworld, and she was weeping at the thought of the fate she was sure was upon her.

Mina's lips quivered, she was too scared to scream. And she didn't have to; Steve walked up, turned and went into the stairwell. He hoped she hadn't noticed the tears in his eyes. That way she would never guess his identity. This was another world and another Mina, and he'd been hiding, refusing to admit that he'd died. The game had ended on home Earth when he'd followed through on his decision to jump. Death was the only answer he could ever have.

Laser beams sliced the night over the alley, and from the top of the rubble heap Steve could see the vampires running in the shadows below. The alley was a tunnel of night, fear, ecstasy. A huge vein channeling creatures of evil and lust. The last figure to fade was Vince, and then he saw the bloodless ones, a crowd of them, driven by hunger and the soldiers at their rear. With their crumbling flesh and hollow bones, they belonged to the alley. Steve felt he belonged too, he was a proper citizen of death row, and he felt the rage take him as he hissed and leapt down among the soulless zombies.

He went wild, ripping them apart, tearing rotted arms from their sockets, and he wasn't cowering or weakening as they'd expected. The soldiers retreated, leaving him with the creatures and it got so he was afraid he wouldn't die as he'd hoped. Then he grinned madly as he remembered there was always the grid … and certain death.

---- the end -----