I love a good B-Movie.
I’m talking about something lightweight and fun, something best enjoyed when you’re a little drunk, surrounded by friends and Nachos. Something that wouldn’t be out of place on a VHS tape, gathering dust in the video store while the flashier, better known movies are plucked off the shelf for sober viewing. Something starring John Saxon, or Cameron Mitchell, or Sybil Danning. Movies like Starcrash, or Zone Troopers, or Message From Space, or Godzilla Vs King Kong, or Eliminators. I could go on (and some would argue that I already have) but the point is that what these movies lack in technical proficiency or script or … y’know, actual acting, they often make up for in enthusiasm and a wild, enviable energy. The best ones are like listening to ‘Ace Of Spades’ while being punched in the face.
With the following story, I wanted to at least touch the surface of that kind of pulp filmmaking. As with the movies I’ve mentioned, you’ll recognise some of the props from other, better media (Phantom Empire, I think, features a car from Logan’s Run, though I’m prepared to be called out on this – you take my point, though). There’s no CGI, all the special FX are taped together with back projection and animatronics. The dialogue is written with scenery chewing in mind. I’ve even left deliberate plot holes. No, honestly, I did it on purpose.
So, break open the beer, grab the Nachos and dive in. Those of you with any respect for quality, or the rules of good taste, or indeed the laws of Physics, might want to look away now …
It might have been funnier, Gabriel reflected, if the existence of Humanity hadn’t been at stake.
The hatchway to the monitoring suite at Temporal Control irised open and he entered with as much nonchalance as the bulky combat suit would allow. It was one of the older models, all that the armoury could provide at such short notice – all of the newer stuff had been requisitioned by the military for that big H-Quadrant offensive – and as such the suit probably hadn’t seen action since the Vampire War ended in 2095, but it was more than adequate for a simple terminate and retrieve mission like this one. The right gauntlet was equipped with a machine pistol, the left with a focussed UV projector that Gabriel thought looked suspiciously new and, deployed at the flick of the wrist, ladies and gentlemen, a twelve-inch steel gutting blade.
Gabriel Vawn, it said on his interquadrant passport, underneath the holoimage of the handsome black devil with the cobalt blue eyes. Temporal Crisis Operative.
The monitoring suite was in chaos. That was what was making him smile and yet feel, as they said in the trashy foilbooks he was so fond of, the icy fingers of dread scratching at his heart. Techkids in red velvet, none of them more than eighteen, were rushing from terminal to terminal, accessing, downloading, bumping into each other. That was the joke, all of those flashy young things with their intelligence quotients way up there with the orbital traffic, going apeshit-loco because someone had stolen one of their little toys, invaded the temporal matrix and was threatening to fuck up History As We Know It.
But Gabriel guessed that the real punchline to all this was seeing Cameca LeGault panicking right along with them. Cameca LeGault, respected Supervisor of A-Quadrant’s Temporal Control Division: half-Aztec, half-New French, all power crazed ice maiden. Gabriel could feel the surrounding unease infecting him like a flu virus, but it was fun seeing LeGault melt a little just the same.
He half-expected the frantic crossfire of reports and warnings to dwindle into an awed hush as soon as he entered the room – he was, after all, the best – but of course it didn’t. All that happened was that some Techkid with a pretty bad case of acne had looked up and said, ‘He’s here, Supervisor.’
LeGault glanced across at Gabriel, impolitely failing to disengage the data relay monocle over her left eye. ‘About time.’ she scowled.
‘Time is my business, Cameca.’ Gabriel responded smartly, and immediately felt like a prick. ‘Lovely to be here.’ he added coolly, as if that would help.
LeGault turned back to her console. ‘Somebody get the damn helmet on him!’ she shouted. Two Techkids ran across to Gabriel and began fitting the angular black headgear over his angular black features. As they did so, the Supervisor began giving him the story so far.
‘Your target is Julius Lindstrom.’ she said. ‘A terrorist, former infiltrative nanotechnology expert for the Black Crescent Triumvirate.’ Gabriel heard LeGault’s voice alter as the helmet’s audio-sensors activated. Unbelievably, she sounded even more soulless and machine-like. ‘He escaped from the D-Quadrant Imprisonment Compound during the riots there last month. We traced his penetration into the matrix nine minutes ago, heading for Zero Point.’
‘Anybody know how he got hold of a Timepod?’ Gabriel asked, his own voice sounding strangely filtered and distant.
‘Who gives a fuck?’ LeGault snapped, turning on him. Her data monocle flashed amber, barcodes of information streaming vertically past her eye. ‘All that matters is that he’s probably pissing into the primordial pool by now.’
‘Negative on that, Supervisor.’ One of the Techkids called tonelessly from her console. ‘T-pod still in temporal transit.’
‘Any way in particular you’d like him terminated?’ smiled Gabriel through the helmet’s tinted faceplate.
LeGault’s eyes narrowed. ‘You might find your options a little limited in that respect, Vawn.’
‘He’s a Vamp, isn’t he?’ Gabriel asked her. ‘Something one of those damned Frankensteins at the Tech Service cooked up. That’s why they gave me the UV unit.’
LeGault nodded. ‘Apparently not all the Vampire DNA was destroyed in the War.’ she informed him gravely, as though that explained everything. ‘The military managed to recover some from those corpses they found in the Arctic. Lindstrom was one of several state captives deemed as acceptable subjects for … experimentation.’
Gabriel could hear the disgust in LeGault’s voice as she revealed this, and for the first and last time in his life, he liked her. Just for a moment, but even so it was a weirdly pleasant experience.
One of the Techkids was struggling with the locking mechanism that sealed the helmet to the combat suit’s collar. Gabriel waved him away and did it himself. ‘I presume you have a pod ready for me?’
LeGault nodded again. On the other side of the monitoring suite, the hatchway to the temporal transit chamber dilated smoothly. Another Techkid, the one with the pustules, mounted the little ramp that led into its gleaming white confines a few steps ahead of Gabriel and opened up the black bubble of the Timepod. He stepped back respectfully as Gabriel climbed in, then ran back into the monitoring suite moments before the hatchway closed again.
Gabriel sealed the pod, strapping himself in and rebooting the Transtemporal communications link; now he would be able to shoot annoying little quips at LeGault from across the millennia, at least until he got out of the pod. As yet, no one had perfected a portable translink for travellers to carry around with them in their selected time zone, though Gabriel suspected that the Tech Service had a twelve year old working on it somewhere.
‘I’m locked down.’ he reported to the monitoring suite. ‘Initiate transit protocols when ready.’
He looked at the pod’s brightly-lit control panel – it registered the invisible shroud coalescing around the little black bubble, the force field necessary to prevent objects disintegrating the nanosecond they entered the turbulence of the temporal matrix. Some Techkid had once tried to explain the workings of time-travel to him – something about tachyons interacting with the Sterling/Gorski theory of fusion accelerated quantum reality curves, or something – but Gabriel wasn’t that interested. He didn’t much care how his aircar or his coffee percolator worked either.
‘Remember,’ he heard LeGault saying through the translink. ‘Minimal timeline disruption is your main priority. Just -‘
‘I know, I know.’ Gabriel sliced off her warning. He’d heard it a thousand times before. ‘Don’t step on any butterflies. Don’t fret, Cameca. I’ll be back with Count Dracula’s carcass before I’ve even left.’
He smiled, imagining LeGault’s expression as she started to worry about the paradoxical repercussions if he did just that. The last thing he heard before Temporal Control plunged him into the matrix was one of the Techkids muttering to another over the translink: ‘Count Who?’
* * * * *
‘Groovy.’ Gabriel said. ‘Special FX.’
Above him, the sky boiled. The black clouds were stitched together with flashes of lightning, illuminating the rocky desolation that stretched as far as the horizon in every direction. Erupting volcanoes thrust up into the turbulent heavens, vomiting smoke and lava that drizzled down to earth that was like blackened glass, zigzagged with fractures. The wind screamed. There were no butterflies, no buildings. No vehicles, no people. This was Zero Point, and people hadn’t been invented yet.
He left his own T-Pod parked in the blasted hollow of black rock that it had landed in, and went looking for Lindstrom’s craft. It was exactly where the short-range scan had promised, lying intact at the very edge of a high cliff that plunged down into a molten sea.
Gabriel scanned the pod for booby-traps, found none and sprung the lock. The pod’s interior was much the same as his own craft, he saw, a single high-backed seat and a panel of touch-sensitive controls, currently in unlit standby mode. A closer look brought a grimace to his features, and he wondered disgustedly if vampires were prey to the common cold. It certainly looked as though Lindstrom had gotten off a couple of good sneezes while inside the pod – the control panel glistened with a covering of some watery greenish gel that made Gabriel’s innards lurch unpleasantly. He scanned it, and the combat suit’s computer sent back the revelation that the ichor was in all probability the protective mucus that vampires secreted naturally to shield them against ambient solar radiation. The thought didn’t faze Gabriel, though: sunblock factor 1000 or not, the focussed emission of the UV projector at his wrist would fry Julius Lindstrom like a strip of synthetic pig-meat.
He reached inside the pod, jabbing experimentally at the panel and the display illuminated, showing him that the craft had exited the temporal matrix less than two minutes ago. That meant that Lindstrom couldn’t have got far. Good.
He slid his fingers down and activated the pod’s targeter, inlaying the co-ords that would send it back to Temporal Control and finishing off with a ten-second countdown command. He snatched his hand back as the pod began to close, feeling a little flash of satisfaction that LeGault would be as revolted by that greenish muck as he had been, hopefully more so. Ten seconds later, the pod vanished.
He scrambled to the top of a rocky outcrop, looking over the landscape like a general surveying conquered territory. From here on in, Gabriel knew, he was relying on visual tracking and instinct – no point in looking for a lifesign when your target was undead. Overhead, purple-white lightning streaked through the clouds, showing him a dark shape, navigating the fractured plateau below him with heavy, awkward strides, heading for the shadowed maw of a cave.
Gabriel leaped. He hit the quivering ground and ran, the fog of smoke and fiery embers swirling around him – at one point, a long, narrow fissure opened up before him and he sprang across it, his heart fluttering like a frightened bird. He reached the cave in less than two minutes, his mouth coppery and too wet with the adrenaline rush. He told the combat suit to prime the UV gauntlet, offered a quick prayer, and went inside.
A few metres in, he found what he was looking for, and something else besides. A wide, shallow well in the fractured ground, filled with some bubbling colourless soup and steaming like a cauldron full of witch’s brew. He scanned it and frowned, recognising his computer’s analysis with an unexpected reverence. It was the great amino acid meet and greet in that gunk, it seemed, the fusion into proteins that were the building blocks of what humans called life. The primordial pool.
Standing over the pool, though thankfully not urinating into it as LeGault had feared, was Julius Lindstrom.
He was a monster, plain and simple, parsecs removed from the romanticised Vamps of foilbooks and holomovies and VR sims, the elegantly wasted wraiths that were pale and slender and immaculately dressed. His genes were the genuine article, reaching back to touch the carrion-breathed bloodsuckers of Ancient Romania. His torso was bloated, leech-like, perched on legs as thick as tree stumps and sprouting arms layered with coiled muscle. Above the tattered collar of his tunic, his smooth head was a livid crimson, the shade of a man choking on his tongue. When he saw Gabriel and smiled, it was with a mouth full of barbed, metallic teeth.
‘I knew they would send someone.’ He chuckled. Even through the audio sensors of Gabriel’s helmet, the chuckle sounded like it came from a throatful of blood. ‘But I didn’t think they’d send someone so little.’
‘Fuck you.’ Gabriel snapped back. As cavalier quips went, it was the best his brain could offer. He raised the UV gauntlet. ‘I’m taking you back, maggotdick. Dead or Undead.’
‘You, little man?’ Lindstrom took a step forward, his towering bulk shuddering. ‘I don’t think so. Before this day is over, I’ll be dining on your intestines.’
Gabriel fired. He closed his eyes, aware that the reflex was redundant; his faceplate was wired to polarise as soon as he hit the trigger. He waited for the pleasant chime that would tell him that his target had been barbequed. It never came.
He opened his eyes. Lindstrom’s wide, lipless grin had broadened considerably. ‘Oh, your little toy is broken, little man.’ The ground cracked as he advanced. ‘Never mind, let me give you a squeeeeze.’
The UV gauntlet had failed, Gabriel realised with a dreamily untethered terror. He made a mental note to kill whoever invented them, if he ever got back. It hadn’t fired, and the faceplate hadn’t turned opaque. He knew that, because when Lindstrom had whispered squeeeeze, the tinted glass in front of his eyes had steamed suddenly with the monster’s graveyard breath.
‘My nanites have invaded your little toy,’ the beast whispered. ‘I knew you’d met them, your gloves are covered with them.’
The mucus, Gabriel realised dismally. He put them in the fucking –
Before he could move, Lindstrom’s corpulent arms were enfolding him, lifting him from the ground. As good as his word, the vampire tightened his hold; the combat suit took most of the pressure, but Gabriel still felt a couple of ribs give way with sickening snaps that lanced agonisingly through his chest.
His arms were pinned to his sides as surely as if he’d been straight jacketed; Lindstrom was laughing and snapping at the faceplate with steely teeth. Gabriel saw clots of somebody’s blood fly from them and spatter against the faceplate like summer raindrops. The monster squeezed. His crimson moon-face filled Gabriel’s vision, the yellow irises bright with homicidal joy. Another rib snapped and Gabriel cried out, his finger tightening spasmodically on the trigger of the machine pistol implanted into his right gauntlet. He expected the shots to go wild, ricocheting off the blasted stone metres beneath his kicking boots. Instead, they blew Lindstrom’s toes off.
The vampire roared, and threw Gabriel away from him. Gabriel crashed and rolled, the impact shunting the breath from his lungs as he brought the pistol up to snap off another shot, and Lindstrom fell on him, his thick fingers seizing the gun and ripping it from its mountings. The combat suit’s computer helpfully informed Gabriel of its removal, but it needn’t have bothered. His eyes were wide as he watched Lindstrom crush the weapon in his palm and toss it away like an empty drinks can.
He squirmed like an insect beneath the monster’s elephantine weight, feeling its ragged nails tear at the combat suit’s rubberised collar, long and razorlike and silted with filth, tearing, tearing, tearing. In moments, they were tearing at Gabriel’s throat.
They pierced the stubbled skin, sinking into the soft meat beneath, and Gabriel felt a cold grip enfolding his windpipe – he had the happy thought that the vampire might simply tear the organ free and be done with it, but no such good fortune; he meant to make his victim suffer, it seemed.
Gabriel choked, his legs kicking uselessly and his own fingers clawing at Lindstrom’s wrists. He tried to take hold of them, praying that he could pull them away from his throat with some miraculous display of adrenaline-fuelled strength that would give this adventure extra frisson when he related it to his fellow Operatives back at Temporal Control. But unfortunately, as Gabriel knew all too well, such things only happened in trashy foilbooks.
The world beyond his faceplate began to dim around the edges, and he realised what a joke it was to send such a little man as himself after a giant like Lindstrom. Gabriel had inherited his mother’s hands, the wide palms and long fingers of a born pianist, but his suddenly strengthless grip didn’t even come close to encircling Lindstrom’s wrists.
It might even be funnier, he reflected in what he knew were his last moments, If the existence of … Humanity … wasn’t at … wasn’t at …
‘Stake!’ he tried to shout, though nothing came out of his throat but a breathless whisper. He worked his left hand between their bodies and, with a flick of the wrist, ladies and gentlemen, extended twelve inches of serrated steel from its metal sleeve.
The blade pierced Lindstrom’s belly an inch above the navel; his yellow eyes widened in sudden, comical surprise. As best he could under the monster’s bulk, Gabriel twisted the knife, feeling it snag against loops of gut and stomach lining and then slice through them. When he sawed into Lindstrom’s aorta, he felt a rush of steaming black gore spill over his gauntlet and still he pushed upwards, until he felt the blade lodge solidly in one of the vampire’s ribs.
Lindstrom fell back, the saw-toothed steel pulling free with a ghastly grating sound that made Gabriel feel simultaneously sickened and exultant. He scrambled backwards, away from the beast. His breath whistled jaggedly between his clenched teeth, the song of a punctured lung. Strings of Lindstrom’s pipework swung from the blade like rotten party favours. Gabriel could see the vampire sprawled on the ground several feet away now, distractedly trying to jam the rest of it back into his stomach cavity.
He could see into the wound, see Lindstrom’s rent tissues knitting themselves back together with invisible stitches. Already the flow of vampiric blood had slowed to a trickle, although Lindstrom seemed to have lost gallons of the stuff. He sat in a black slick of it; rivulets ran along the cracks in the earth like tar.
Gabriel rolled over on to his belly, crying out inside his helmet as his own broken ribs tore up his innards. He crawled spider-like across the ground –
And Lindstrom’s thick fingers wrapped around his ankle.
‘Do you know nothing of my kind, little man?’ he asked Gabriel evenly, flipping his prey on to his back. Gabriel screamed in agony and terror. He saw that the gut wound had healed flawlessly, a smooth patch of crimson flesh visible through the rip in the monster’s tunic, and some circuit in his mind blew without fuss.
‘Spontaneous regeneration!’ Lindstrom cried, dragging the human by his ankle deeper into the cave. Gabriel’s head went bumping painfully against the rocks as they went, but he found that he no longer cared. A warm, pleasant feeling was creeping into his mind, like drifting off to sleep in a warm bed. ‘The implement has to be wooden to do any lasting damage,’ the vampire continued cheerfully. ‘And thrust directly into the heart, never to be removed.’
With a swing of his massive arm, he hurled Gabriel over his head like a rag doll and into the dark. He splashed down in the filthy mess of Lindstrom’s blood. The impact broke his right arm and legs like twigs, but he hardly noticed. He lay in the shadows, staring with too-wide pupils at the black liquid he lay in, watching the rivulets of it zigzag through the cracks in the earth, trickling unstoppably towards –
NO! his dying sanity screamed.
‘Why do you think I came back, little man?’ Lindstrom was saying from a thousand miles away. ‘To see the sights? To witness the insignificant genesis of the human cattle?’ He squatted down beside Gabriel, laying a vast, gentle hand upon his shoulder. It felt like the touch of God. ‘No … when we return to our time, little man,’ Lindstrom whispered. ‘You and I shall be brothers.’
The primordial pool turned black.
Instantly Gabriel felt himself changing, felt his DNA weaving itself into new and wondrous patterns. His wounds, his broken bones, all healed in moments. Spontaneous regeneration, he thought dreamily. Quite suddenly, he pictured what his interquadrant passport might look like when he got back. Gabriel Vawn, it would say, underneath the holoimage of the handsome black devil with the yellow eyes and the smile full of barbed, metallic teeth.