Authors: Rob Preece
Copyright ©2005 by Rob Preece
The alarm's eerie wail cut through Warder Cadet Danielle Goodman's sleep like a blade, jolting her awake. Around her, fellow warders stirred, snapped on equipment, grabbed a quick jolt of coffee—or something stronger. Time to get to work.
Danielle jerked on her bulletproof vest, the fabric heavy and cold to the touch, then snapped on the baby-blue helmet of the warders. This felt good, right.
"Ready, Danielle? Good work.” Sergeant Mansfield, a crusty woman of indeterminate age, had been a cop way back, even before the return. Now she was a favorite mentor for graduating officers of the Warder Academy—and the Academy's toughest martial arts instructor.
"Any word on the alert?” Danielle asked.
The sergeant shrugged. “Two quicks, one slow. Got to be a vampire."
Danielle had known that, of course. You couldn't watch television without being bombarded by public service announcements about the warning signs, or by semi-fictionalized accounts of the great battles between normal humans and those afflicted with the return of magic, the impaired.
She pulled the coordinates off the computer, handed them to the sergeant, then climbed into the shotgun position in the heavy half-track the Los Angeles Warders used as assault transportation.
The diesel rumble and muffled clank of Kevlar treads set Danielle's heart beating faster than the alarm. After years of study, countless hours of simulation, and thousands of bruises in the ring, this was the real thing. Her chance to strike back at the bastards who had killed her mother and threatened the lives of countless thousands every day. She'd show her mentor, Joe Smealy, that she was worth the efforts he'd made to get her into the Academy.
The GPS offered driving suggestions, but Mansfield ignored those, taking shortcuts that only a native of Los Angeles would know: alleys that the maps showed had been blocked decades before but weren't, and burned out shells of buildings that a carefully managed assault vehicle could climb through.
The sergeant spun around the final corner and jammed on the brakes in front of an ancient motel that had been dilapidated when built in the late twentieth century and had only fallen on harder times since. They were barely a mile from the zone and few normals want to live that close to the infestation of magic. Only those too poor to have any other choice and those who would rather risk their lives and souls than come into contact with the authorities would live in a place like this.
According to the report, though, at least two who had made that choice could no longer be counted among the living. Whether they were safely dead was yet to be determined.
"Think you're ready?” Mansfield glared at her as if expecting a negative answer.
"I've been looking forward to this all my life,” Danielle admitted.
"Right. I'm putting you in charge then.” The sergeant punched a couple of keys in the truck's computer, then spoke over her radio. “Cadet Goodman has the command. Two confirmed casualties already. Let's not make a third, Warders."
For a fraction of a second, Danielle's brain blanked in panic. She was just a cadet. She had planned on taking part in the raid, not leading it. What if she messed up? What if she got a warder killed? What if, after years of work, she didn't have what it took and washed out of the Academy?
Then she caught her breath and nodded. She had the training. She could do this. “Squad two, go left. Squad three, take the right. I want Sergeant Mansfield and two others to circle around back and make sure he doesn't get away. Jones, Peterson, and Cortez, we're going in. One hundred seconds. Travel."
Mansfield nodded, but patted her sidearm.
Damn, she'd almost forgotten the most basic lesson of all.
"Load with silver, Warders,” she concluded. “It may not kill the monster, but solid silver shot will sure slow it down."
Danielle bailed out of the half-track, rolling away quickly in case of sniper fire. Nothing.
Once Jones, Peterson, and Cortez had joined Danielle, Mansfield zoomed off in a cloud of blue diesel fumes, the assault vehicle's treads biting into already eroded concrete.
Danielle's helmet visor included a heads-up display and it ticked off the seconds until her assault was to begin.
With ten seconds left, she took conscious control over her body, sending a massive surge of adrenaline and endorphins through her system.
Time seemed to slow, something the Academy trainers called the
. That blur, along with the rest of her training, were what gave a Warder Academy graduate the advantage over the magically impaired. Those and massive firepower, of course.
The last five seconds seemed to take forever. With every sense keyed, Danielle could hear the distinctive breathing of the three men she'd detailed to accompany her into the run-down apartment. Cortez was breathing normally, but both Jones and Peterson were sweating and gasping for breath.
She opened her mouth to reassure them, then remembered that she would sound like a cartoon to them. The blur affected her vocal cords just as it did her larger muscles. Instead, she hand-signed to them to take out their weapons.
She double-checked to ensure that she had a silver clip in the assault rifle she carried. Cortez and Peterson carried huge-caliber shotguns that would send dozens of silver slugs through any magical assailant. Like her, Jones carried the standard issue sub-machine gun.
"Now.” She signaled as well as speaking, coding the others to move. She hadn't considered how the blur would affect her ability to send orders to the bulk of the warders. It was the type of practical problem that could get a warder killed. Well, this was why they sent academy students into the field for months of internship. To learn the differences between practice and reality.
She fired a pattern at the motel's reinforced steel door and then slammed a kick into it.
The door flew off its hinges, cartwheeled through the apartment lobby, and slid to a stop.
Beyond the echo of the door's final crash, silence greeted her.
The building stank of stale urine. Ancient gang graffiti covered the walls. Trash lay in heaps throughout the lobby and down the long hallway that led to the individual units.
She took a step forward and then stopped suddenly, Jones and Cortez both piling into her back.
One of those trash heaps moved.
Peterson swung his shotgun around, his finger squeezing on the trigger.
"Hold your fire.” She spoke as slowly as she could, fighting the speedup of blur.
She might as well have lectured the ocean. Peterson's face was covered with sweat. In slow motion compared to her blur, his finger tightened on the trigger.
Impatiently, Danielle knocked the barrel of Peterson's shotgun toward the ceiling, then ducked as ricocheting slugs flattened themselves around the room.
"Damn it, Peterson, that's one of the victims. I think she's alive."
Peterson glared at her and she detailed Cortez to get the moaning woman out of the apartment.
"Alive or undead,” Peterson grumbled. “We might as well kill her. Once a vampire has bitten her it's only a matter of time before she turns."
That could happen, Danielle knew. But it didn't always happen. Besides, even if the woman turned, that didn't mean she had to be killed. Impaired who followed orders and stayed in their zones weren't targeted. The warders’ credo was protection of the normals, not violence against the impaired.
"Stuff it,” she ordered, cutting off any debate. “We're here for the vampire. Now follow me."
She relied on her nose, sniffing for the faint ozone flavor that the textbooks insisted was always associated with vampire.
Peterson and Jones followed her down the hallway, stepping over mounds of petrifying newspaper, human feces, and abandoned hypodermic needles. Despite everything that the warders could do, the nearby zone created a sort of negative energy that, like the real vampires that escaped the zone, sucked vitality from the surrounding neighborhoods. Evil clung to the zone like ticks to a dog.
She couldn't solve all the world's problems today, but she could see that one escaped vampire was brought down. If this mission helped reach her goal of becoming a full-time vampire hunter, that was fine too.
Peterson was still grumbling to himself, but once she made him take his complaints off the warder band, she ignored him. It wasn't as if the vampire didn't know they were coming.
Finally she caught the scent she was searching for.
It grew stronger as she approached a closed door.
She threw it open, then rolled through, her rifle ready, safety off.
Jones laughed at her as she realized she'd only found a stairwell. “A little paranoid, are we? Your vest should keep you safe from most of what they throw at you."
The Academy taught an ultra-safe approach to vampire hunting, and frankly, Danielle didn't mind the bruised shoulders she got from her rolls if they kept her from getting killed. Jones might be right most of the time. It only took once to get into serious trouble—or dead.
She took the narrow flight of stairs that led to the second floor of the low walk-up. The scent of vampire lingered inside like an ugly scar.
"Climbing toward the second floor,” she reported. “Unit one, any sign of movement through the upstairs windows?"
"Repeat please. Your voice is garbled."
Mansfield sounded like she was talking through molasses. She was one of the top blur coaches but hadn't even bothered to blur herself.
Take your time, Danielle reminded herself. That vampire isn't going anywhere.
She repeated her query, speaking as slowly as she could. Other than the victim, the downstairs had appeared empty. She couldn't be sure the residents of the second floor had all been evacuated. Where vampires were involved, the warders cut some slack on collateral damage, but Danielle wanted her first command mission to be perfect.
She controlled her patience, drawing on the years of training in the martial arts to achieve the inner peace of waiting.
Finally, two warders reported movement in separate second-story windows. Either could be the vampire. Or neither.
"Right. I'm going in. Hold the perimeter. Peterson, Jones, stay close. We don't want this one to get away."
She matched her action to her words, running up the stairwell and throwing open the door.
The second victim was past rescue. Two deep punctures proved that a vampire had been at work. Still, she touched a finger to the man's throat to be certain. Her gloved hand came away bloody.
The stench of death warred with the acidic taste of ozone in the musty air of the apartment. But her training had prepared her for that. She looked around the room for any clue to the vampire's plan or weaponry, ignoring the open door behind her.
She had told her partners to follow, expected them to be behind her. When she heard the noise directly to her rear, she assumed it was Peterson.
But the soft footstep resonated wrong. Peterson wore heavy boots.
Danielle whirled around in time to see a black-clad figure step from a supply closet.
The vampire's face was a pale white, marred only by a trail of blood down his chin.
She flashed back to her youth, when she'd discovered her stepfather drinking her mother's blood, then brutally forced down the memory. Then, she'd been helpless. Now, she was a warder intern, intensively trained, already in full blur mode.
She fired three short bursts, silver bullets cutting through the vampire's body like a chainsaw.
The bloodsucker stumbled back as if slammed by a heavy fist. But he shook it off and started back toward her.
She pulled the trigger again and realized she'd emptied the clip.
Damn. Where was Peterson with his shotgun when she needed him? Her high-powered shells pierced through the impaired and exited, allowing his magic-impaired body to repair itself. Silver shotgun slugs, in contrast, might have stayed inside his body disturbing the electrical elements of his magic.
Even in blur mode, she didn't have time to reload. The vampire closed the distance, moving almost as quickly as she could.
Danielle reversed her weapon, slapping it into his head, and blinked as he yanked it away from her.
He laughed, the sound high and piercing, then licked his lips. “I hear warder blood is doubly sweet."
"Why don't you come and try to find out, slimeball?"
"A generous offer."
He reached for her, an obvious feint, then knife-handed toward her eyes.
Danielle ignored the feint and blocked the strike, following her block with a kick to his head.