Archive for the 'fiction' Category



16
Feb
20

Vampire 2.0 – Wayback Machine (Part 1)

Missed where it began? Slide on over here…

Wayback Machine

Monica stared at the intersection’s crosswalk light, as though sheer force of will could make it change. Lord knew she had a surplus of angry willpower this evening. Having been dragged away from studying by Lucita for the purpose of attending a pre-convention party, forced into an outfit she would have described as questionable at best, and subjected to a series of bizarre, fetish-obsessed males in the throes of a feeding frenzy that would have made a shark envious, she was in no mood to be balked by the absence of one little green man on a sign.
Taking a deep breath and feeling slightly better about herself for having decided to buck the system – even in such a small fashion as walking against the light – Monica took a step forward. Almost immediately she heard a horn blare, and she jumped backward on sheer reflex. Half a second later, a Hummer painted the most obnoxiously violent shade of yellow she had ever seen blew through the space she had been occupying. A small red fist – that looked to be missing fingers – shot out of the window and shook at her as the vehicle passed, while an angry voice with a thick New York accent drifted through the slipstream and back to her.
“Watch where ya goin’, ya dumb broad!”
She raised her middle finger and shook her fist at the motorist.
“Watch this, asshole!”
Lowering her arm, she sighed, staring down at her feet and the ridiculous thigh-high boots she was wearing.
“It’s what you get, Monica, thinking you could come out and play,” she muttered to herself.
All in all, it had been a terrible evening. Maybe she’d have been better off if the misogynistic idiot in the yellow Hummer had run her down; at least then her physical state would have matched the mental one.
Giving her head a brisk shake in an attempt to clear it, Monica took another glance up and down the street, checking for any other stray military vehicles. Seeing none, she scurried across.
As she got one foot mounted on the opposing sidewalk, vibrations began assaulting her thighs. Monica took a moment to realize it was her cellphone, trapped in the waistband of the Lycra pants she had donned that evening. Pulling out the phone, she scowled at the screen for a moment before swiping it and placing the device to her ear.
“Date not going so well, Lucy?”
Monica glanced around herself, orienting the neon haze of the strip to her right, before continuing down the street. Part of her wanted to call a cab, but after her experiences tonight, she thought the walk would do her good.
“Eh, Paolo was a turd. But there’s plenty of other guys, you know, lots of opportunity. I think there’s even a firefighter or two!”
Monica sighed, careful to turn her mouth away from the phone first. Lucita’s obsession with public servants – particularly of the tall, strong and dumb variety – had always been a mystery to her.
“You’re doing that sideways sigh thing again, aren’t you, Mon? I totally you know you’re doing it. You know you snort right before, right? Just because I can’t hear the sigh doesn’t mean I don’t know.”
Monica coughed, sputtering for a moment. She considered half a dozen responses, looking for the one earmarked get out of jail free, but before she could decide on one, Lucita was already prattling on.
“Besides, you could do with someone throwing you over their shoulder and lugging you up some stairs. Maybe with a little pole action…” Lucita’s voice became reflective. The addition of a throaty moan did nothing to improve Monica’s mood.
“Why, yes, Lucy. That’s just what I need. To be lugged. Way to make a girl feel special, honey.”
Monica blew an errant lock of her chestnut hair from her face, glancing behind her again to make sure the Vegas strip was still in the right place. She’d been strutting while Lucita daydreamed without paying much attention to her direction. Thankfully, she was still on course. Three more blocks, and she’d be at the Dunkin’ Donuts. A right turn and two more blocks, and she’d be home. She tried to tell herself that the donut shop was merely a helpful landmark and not a destination in and of itself, but the rumbling in her stomach seemed to feel otherwise.
“Oh, come on, Mon. I didn’t mean it like that. Jeez, you know if you’d stop whinging about it less people’d care, right? We get it, you’re fat. Deal. Isn’t like I let that stop me, am I right?”
Monica rolled her eyes again, cringing at Lucy’s use of the word “whinging.” She must have been on thesaurus.com again. The flickering of shame at the edge of her mind was tempered by a bit of anger. Of course Lucy didn’t complain; she also didn’t mind throwing herself with desperation at anyone who looked at her, like she was somehow desperate to prove every stereotype about bigger girls ever spilled on the internet.
“Lucy, look, I’m kind of busy right now… if you had a point, maybe you could get to it?”
She tried her best to sound laughing and light, but Monica wasn’t really in the mood. Between the walk, almost being turned into dog food by a lemon-yellow war machine, and the latest aborted attempt at socializing, all she wanted was a Bavarian cream and the safety of her bed and a book.
Lucy didn’t seem about to give up, however. Whether she was ignoring the undertone of irritation in Monica’s voice or quite simply didn’t hear it was open for debate. Lucy was not known for her social awareness.
“Well, duh, I have a point. Two of them, in fact, and in just the right places, if you know what I mean.”
She laughed deep in the back of her throat in a poor impression of suggestive allure. Monica knew what she meant; it was doubtful anyone, when subjected to something Lucy thought was innuendo, wouldn’t catch it.”
“But… I also had a reason. I’m switching venues and I need a wingman. So what do you say, Mon?I mean, I’m sure there’s a donut calling your name, or one of your dumb books, but it’ll be better this time, I promise!”
 Monica sighed, this time not bothering with the charade of turning the phone away. She knew she should tell Lucy to stuff it – the comment about books and donuts had riled her up – but she also knew she was going to go, regardless. Her friend wanted her – or perhaps needed her, for some sort of self-validation – and Monica discovered that maybe she wanted a drink more than that donut. Besides, what could it hurt?
Diverting her course from the street that would have eventually taken her home, Monica started glancing around for a cab.
“Fine. Where?”
Lucy squealed, forcing Monica to pull the phone from the side of her head until the feedback whine died down.
“I knew it, I knew it! The place is called Gothique, and trust me, it’s way cool. Much better guys there. Guys that you might like, the kind who read and know what a Shelly or a Stoker are? I think.”
Monica had her arm up, trying to signal the cab that was rolling down the otherwise mostly deserted side street, but stopped to put it to her forehead instead. Between the name and Lucy’s description of the men on display there – always the most important part of a venue in Lucy’s universe – she had an idea of what sorts of folks would be hanging out there. It left her less than enthused. Still, Lucy was trying to be helpful and friendly in her own bizarre way, and that mollified Monica. Somewhat.
“Right. Okay. I’ll be there in a few. Try not to fall out of any windows or be lugged off by any firemen before I get there, okay?”
The cab was pulling up to the curb, the driver glaring at her and pointedly glancing at his meter and his watch. Taking the hint, Monica squeezed in to the back seat, hanging up on Lucy without a trace of guilt. If it became an issue later, she’d just claim her phone lost signal. Happened all the time anyway.
“Where to, lady?”
The cabbie didn’t sound at all pleased; Monica suspected he’d been on the side street hoping to sneak through the last few minutes of his shift without any more troublesome customers. She was beyond caring at this point, though. She flapped her hand in the general direction of the strip as she answered.
“Place called Gothique. Not sure where it’s at, exactly.”
“Ah, the vamp club? Don’t know why you’d wanna go there, especially crammed into that outfit, but hey, what does Dmitri know?”
He yanked down on the gearshift and lurched into the street, flipping an illegal u-turn that made Monica nauseous.
Sure, Monica. This sounds like it’ll be great fun. A scream, in fact. She shrugged, huffing to herself. Something to do, anyway.

 

(The story continues here!)

10
Feb
20

Vampire 2.0 – Schematic Acquired

(Enjoying the read? The story begins over yonder…)

Schematic Acquired

Through much of the flight, Vlad was silent. Staring down at the earth below as they skimmed over it, one knuckle in the corner of his jaw, Brand thought the Boss might have been asleep. Even if his eyes were open, which was incredibly creepy to the gargoyle. Keeping still in his own seat was almost impossible; he wanted to squirm, to chatter, to tell the Boss how great things were going to be. Or maybe just to ask what the vampire was planning.
His issues began to fade as the neon oasis of Vegas began to loom in the windshield, creating an artificial sunlight with the thousands of kilowatt hours they were burning every second down there.His mind turned to the convention, and excuses he might use to slip away – just for an hour or two – and check it out.
Brand was rudely yanked from his fantasy of Rubenesque flesh in one hand and an appletini in the other by Vlad’s voice.
“There.” The vampire was leaning over the pilot’s shoulder, pointing with one gloved finger. “That’s the place.”
Maxwell bobbed her helmeted head, and began bringing the helicopter around, pointing it towards the Bellagio. He felt a moment of pride, having been the one to suggest they apply for permits to land on most of the local casinos; like many of his suggestions, it had initially met with resistance from the Boss, but his determination had won through. Now, look: here they were, using it. Just like most of his other suggestions.
Vlad had settled back into the cushy pleather seat, and was looking down at the gargoyle, his expression unreadable between the absolute stillness of his face and the wide mirrored lenses he was wearing. Brand glanced down, picking at a bit of imaginary lint on his slacks.
“So, uh, Boss…” Brand coughed into his taloned fist. “You didn’t say why we’re here. I mean, I’m cool with it, don’t get me wrong, I love the night life, gotta boogie and all that, but I don’t think ya picked here just because of the cons, ya know?”
Vlad snorted, shaking his head.
“No, Brand, I did not. The fact that your beloved convention is in town has little to do with our business. Though…”
Vlad tapped his finger against his pointed chin for a moment, cocking his head as though considering. Brand felt a small flower of hope blossom in his blackened heart.
“If we conclude our business quickly, we might find time to attend. Perhaps.”
Brand had to clench his talons together in his lap to avoid applauding. Of course, there was still the issue of what exactly their business was, but he was used to such things. He wasn’t the idea man, and he wasn’t the plotter; he knew his place. He was the one who got things done. Always had been, and always would be.
“That’s great, Boss, you’s a prince, a real prince, and not just of darkness, ya know what I’m sayin’?”
He cawed avian laughter at his own joke, raising a placating hand as Vlad’s lips began to turn down in a scowl.
“Just kiddin’, just kiddin’. But, I still don’t know what our business is, ya know? I mean, what, we’re lookin’ for somethin’ in particular, or you just wanna try out the superhero routine out here where nobody’d notice much or what?”
Vlad’s scowl reversed itself, twisting his full lips upward in a smile that allowed the smallest hint of his fangs to peek through. Brand shuddered, glad – as always – that it wasn’t directed at him. People who got that smile pointed at them had a tendency to disappear, and not in the concrete overshoes way that Brand preferred.
“Van Helsing. He’s still here. And we are going to find him, and have a small…”
He tapped his chin again, his slightly forked tongue flicking out over the tips of his fangs.
“…discussion. Yes. A discussion. With him.”
Vlad glanced out the window as the helicopter began descending, the lenses of his sunglasses reflecting the dancing fountains as they began their routine. Brand shook his head, wondering – and not for the first time – what the Boss had been like when he’d been alive. If he’d been half as crazy as we was now, it was no wonder his brother had tried to kill him and the devil had gone out of his way to recruit him.
“Well, alright, Boss. Gonna rock his socks, eh, give him the ol’ one-two, teach him to mess with you?”
Vlad’s smile didn’t change.
“All in good time, Brand. All in good time. Suffice it to say that Mr. Van Helsing will be suffering an unfortunate change in his living conditions.”
Brand’s forehead raised up an inch as he cocked his head.
“His livin’ conditions, eh, Boss? That’s a good one. Should I call my guy, see what kinda price we can get on concrete at this time of night? Maybe a bulldozer?”
Vlad shook his head, reaching down to straighten his sport coat and fluff the crease in his slacks.
“Not in the slightest. Once he is located, I will be tending to him. Personally.”
Brand opened his mouth, though what might have come out was unknown; as he was preparing to speak, the helicopter bobbed and shuddered briefly. Maxwell glanced over her shoulder.
“Sorry, boys. Bit of a crosswind.”
Vlad flapped a hand dismissively, unconcerned. Brand found himself gripping the edges of his seat and forced himself to relax before his claws ruined the leather. He had never been a big fan of flying when not under his own power. Plus, Maxwell just creeped him out. Always with that bubble-shaped helmet and aviator shades, never moving anything except her hands while flying, speaking in brief monotones. She made him think of robots, and that made him think of the puppets at Disneyland, and that was just a terrible train of thought for him to be boarding when things were already pretty bad.
The helicopter gave one final shudder followed by a thump as it touched down. Brand could hear Maxwell muttering into her microphone, probably letting the staff know they had visitors. He released his deathgrip on the seat and stood up, making a show of spiffing out his lapels.
Vlad rose, brushing past him and hopping down to the concrete before taking a few ducking steps away from the spinning rotors and turning back. He arched a brow at Brand, making a beckoning gesture.
Brand sighed and tucked his head down into his shoulders. Turtle-like, he scuttled out the door and away from the helicopter with none of his employer’s grace or poised. Vlad sighed, shaking his head.
“I will never understand how a creature capable of flight can be so unnerved by the experience.”
Rolling his shoulders, Brand curled his beak downward in a poor approximation of a grimace.
“You just don’t get it, Boss. When I take the duct tape off, take to the skies… that’s me. That’s all me. I was born to do it. Well, among other things, know what I mean?”
He elbowed Vlad’s knee, punctuating it with a chuckle. Watching the vampire’s frown deepen, he continued.
“That thing over there?” He gestured toward the helicopter. “Ain’t natural. Besides, even havin’ wings and all, that thing goes down…”
He shook his head and pursed what lips he did have, emitting a whistle that swung downward through several octaves.
“Poof. I’m gonna make myself a very nice piece of street art, capische?”
Vlad continued staring down at his servant for several seconds, prompting Brand to start tugging at his collar self-consciously. The vampire sighed, casting his gaze skyward for a moment as though collecting himself.
“I suppose. Perhaps my recent encounters with mechanical transportation have made me more sympathetic to such notions. Anyway. Come along, Brand. We have much to do.”
Vlad turned on his heel, stalking towards the elevator that serviced the helipad. Brand fell into step behind his master, nodding.
“Right. Gonna find Isaac, give him the ol’ one-two. So… uh… Boss?”
Vlad pressed the button that summoned the elevator, glancing down at the gargoyle and arching a brow.
“How we gonna find him? I mean, Vegas is kinda a big place, and I don’t think he’s gonna be puttin’ signs up saying’ ‘One incompetent vampire-hunter, right here!’ I mean, he is pretty stupid, and he might even be that stupid, but still, I gotta give him at least a little credit. Ain’t like we knew he was in town until he shot up your love nest, ya know? And he’s probably keepin’ his head so far down he’s looking between his legs these days, at least if he’s got anything in that fat little head of his besides jello.”
Vlad nodded.
“Quite right.”
The elevator made a small musical chime, and the doors slid open. Not one to waste time, Vlad slid into the cabin the moment the door was wide enough to admit him, Brand cramming in a moment later.
“But he is a dedicated shopper,” Vlad continued. “And dragon’s breath rounds are a particularly rare commodity. Not a lot of traffic in them. But someone did make a purchase of fifty such shells less than twenty-four hours after his pathetic attempt at a home invasion.”
Brand’s forehead creased. He tapped one talon against his chin.
“Well, I guess that does sound kinda suggestive; probably needed to replace what he tried to use on you or somethin’, or maybe he was tryin’ to stay prepared if you came after him. But how d’ya know it was him and not some other schmuck who likes playin’ with fire?”
Vlad’s full lips twitched. Had the movement been more prolonged, it might have been considered a smile. As it was, Brand caught the briefest hint of Vlad’s fangs protruding and little else.
“There are cameras everywhere these days, Brand. Everywhere. And while I may not the entirely certain that these… upgrades… are quite as impressive as Dr. Franks claims, I find that their best usage is the ability to tap into those cameras.”
Vlad slid a hand into his pocket and produced a small square of celluloid. Handing it over to the gargoyle, his smile surfaced again.
Brand looked at it, puzzled for a moment at the plain white square. Then he slapped his forehead and flipped it over.
It looked like a grainy printout from a bad mobster movie. Brand would know; the walls of his house were decorated with dozens of similar stills, often autographed by the actors in them. Two of the three men in the shot could have been extras in any of his beloved flicks, but the third man looked like he’d taken a wrong turn on his way to the anime convention.
Isaac Van Helsing was standing in the center of a warehouse room filled with crates, most of them with the distinct grease stains that indicated car parts, automatic weapons, or both. He was holding out a backpack, unzipped, that seemed to contain a healthy amount of cash. The idea that Isaac could pull together that much scratch on short notice was vaguely distasteful to Brand; he wondered where the little geek had gotten it from. Probably from Gramps’ retirement fund, he decided.
“You got picks for the dweeb buyin’ his shit, Boss?”
Brand couldn’t keep the lilting note of amused excitement out of his voice. After all, if the Boss could dredge up pictures of illegal weapons deals, who knew what other sorts of cameras he could dig into? The real question was whether he’d be willing to do it for Brand… or if Brand could find a way to do it himself. Maybe the hackers weren’t so crazy after all.
Vlad nodded.
“Yes. I have pictures. Full video as well, when and if I want. With an exquisite audio track. I suppose I should thank those arms merchants for being so paranoid as to install such a fully featured system. But think, Brand; don’t you suppose that the local authorities might be interested in such items? Perhaps even find it worthwhile to commence a search and seizure, hmmm?”
Brand clapped his claws and cawed with delight.
“Oh, that’s beautiful, Boss! They’ll drag him in for us! And then, when he’s alone in his cell…”
Dozens of images danced in the gargoyle’s head. The ladies at the convention were momentarily forgotten as he contemplated driving a burning cigar into the webbing between the dweeb’s fingers. It’d be the last time Van Hamstring messed with the Boss. Or directed any short jokes at Brand.
“Contain your excitement, Brand. There will be time enough for it later.”
Vlad pressed the button for the parking garage.
“And please tell me we have something other than that obnoxious battle tank you call a car in storage here?”
Brand arched his shoulders and narrowed his eyes.
“Um. Well, about that, see, you know we were looking into cutting costs, and hey, that long term parking, that’s a killer, ya know? I mean, you’ve got the Audi at your place… well, you had your Audi at your place, and that seemed like enough, so I might have had the guys ship most of the stuff back to the place in Cali.”
Vlad pulled his glasses down to the top of his nose, skewering Brand with his bale, mechanical gaze.
“Most,” he said. His voice was slow, dripping with the rain of pending stormclouds of rage.
“Yeah, s’what I said, most,” Brand replied, beginning to twist his hands together as though playing cat’s crade. “I left one here, just in case, but… yeah. You’re not gonna like it.”
Vlad sighed, pushing his glances back into place and resting his fingers against his temples.
“The battle tank,” he sighed.
Brand tried to put on a facade of good cheer, and almost made it. It probably would have fooled anyone who didn’t know him well, but the smile and expressive hand gestures were red flags for folks like the Boss.
“Yep! The tank! C’mon, Boss, it ain’t so bad. Sure, the mileage is a bitch, but them Hummers, you can’t beat ’em!”
“Right,” Vlad muttered.
Brand relaxed as the elevator put an end to their discussion. It didn’t seem like there would be any further storms about the car. The pair stepped out and into the garage, walking towards long-term storage. Vlad remained silent, though Brand continued to prattle about the advantages of owning a decommissioned military vehicle – not the lease of which would be the opportunity to drive it over Van Helsing’s cojones if given half a chance – the whole way.

(The story continues here…)

09
Feb
20

Vampire 2.0: File Trace

(Enjoying the story? It starts over here!)

File Trace

An hour later, the sun safely shrouded behind the hills, Vlad was boarding his private helicopter, stalking away from an angry Dr. Franks. The gargoyle was already aboard alongside the pilot, a sullen young woman by the name of Maxwell; both of them were watching with barely disguised amusement as the doctor limped after the vampire, shouting warnings and demands.
“I am telling you, the systems, they are not ready! We must perform stress tests and brain scans and-”
Vlad, appearing to grow tired of the tirade by the way his face dropped and his lips pursed, spun towards the doctor, raising one metallic finger in warning.
“Yes, yes. You have warned me of all the difficulties inherent to my new… condition.”
His face puckered at the word, as though he would have preferred something other, perhaps more biting.
“But I will perform my own stress tests, my own assessment of functionality. If that is displeasing to you, then perhaps you should find another employer.”
Without waiting for a response – in his own mind, such logic could have no argument – Vlad spun on his heel and boarded the helicopter. Settling in, he tapped the pilot’s shoulder and then spun his finger skyward. Nodding, Maxwell flipped a series of switches, and the helicopter became airborne, bobbing once before the rotors caught fully and then lifting into the air.
Franks bared his teeth at the departing group, shaking one fist. His pet project – his ultimate success – was even now fleeing his grasp, off to do who knew what. In all likelihood, Tepes would get himself injured or suffer some form of mechanical breakdown or unknown glitch in the system, and then he’d come crawling back – assuming the so-called Dark Lord was still capable of crawling at that point – expecting Franks to repair it, to diagnose it, to make it right.
Franks sighed, lowering his fist. He knew, given the situation, that he’d do exactly as asked. The opportunity to practice his theories on such an august personage was simply too great to pass up. The fact that his work was unappreciated came as no surprise to him; such had always been his lot.
He turned, shuffling back to the elevator and pressed the button that would return him to the lab level. A voice intruded on his melancholy.
“But what if you were the master, and he the slave?”
He started, one hand clutching at the neckline of his lab coat, jerking his head back and forth in an attempt to locate the source of the voice. After a moment, he realized it had been his own. He clapped a hand over his mouth, shocked.
Certainly, the idea had a certain amount of attraction to it; he had often thought things would be different – both at the university he had come from and in his employment under Tepes and the imp – if he had greater free reign, more control. But to speak such blasphemy aloud – whether or not he had initially realized it or meant to do so – was almost unforgivable. The world would recognize his genius. One day. Or so he told himself.
The voice came again, unbidden, slipping between his fingers like rancid frosting from an ancient can.
“The world recognizes those who force that recognition.”
Realizing the attempt to keep himself quiet by gripping his jaw was futile, Franks lowered his hand. As the elevator slid open to reveal his lab – now looking empty and useless, the equipment pushed against the walls for the crime of being in Vlad’s way when he had come through an hour before, no projects bubbling, no creatures relating on the combination massage and operating table – he pondered the idea. He knew Tepes had chosen this life, somehow. Had ripped the title of Prince of Darkness from the ether and exerted his control over the other entities that existed beyond the understanding of most mortal men.
“But how…?” Franks asked himself, tapping his chin as he strode towards the computer. When Tepes had first risen from the table, the vampire had barely been aware of being alive, let alone who he was and what his powers were. Then the imp had taken Tepes somewhere, and when he returned the vampire was more his old self.
His lips splitting in a grin, Franks congratulated himself on his forward thinking. Brand had approved all the blueprints, but Franks was certain the little dullard had understood very little of the technical details. Most importantly, he’d missed the tracking device Franks had planted in Vlad’s CPU.
Humming again – Fur Elise, this time – Franks tapped a series of keys. The archaic CRT – he refused to procure new screens, considering the older equipment one of his marks of style as well as keeping his department under budget and thus Brand out of his business – obediently switched to a radar display. Twisting a dial on the side of the monitor sent several blips scurrying backwards about the rudimentary map overlaid on the radar, which Franks ignored until he saw a throbbing red dot appear.
Leaning over the keyboard, staring intently at the dot, Franks tracked the movement of the blip as it retraced the path from the helipad back into the house, then to the lab, and then…
“Aha! Mein Gott, hidden there?!”
Franks giggled, tapping another series of keys. The display switched from the radar to a grainy image of the main hall elevator. With another series of arcane adjustments, Franks managed to get the focus applied to the floor selection buttons, eyes wide with anticipation as Vlad stepped into the elevator and reached for the them. His laughter reached a new level, stopping just short of maniacal, as he saw Vlad’s metal thumb depress a hidden switch just beneath the actual floor buttons.
“Ah, keeping secrets are we? Not for long, Mister Tepes. Not for very long at all!”
Flicking the mouse to bring the radar up again, then pressing a key to switch it to global view, Franks nodded to himself as he saw the Vlad’s blip was still moving away at a satisfactory pace. The Dark Lord was indeed heading out, it would seem. Excellent.
Franks flipped off the CRT, snatched up his clipboard, and scurried off to the elevator. Time to find out what Tepes was hiding.

(Enjoying the tale? It continues right here…)

05
Feb
20

Vampire 2.0 – Change of Venue

(Missed the beginning? It starts right here…)

Change of Venue

When he emerged from the chamber, feeling as though he had spent decades within, although the chronometer on his digital readout claimed it had been only an hour, Vlad was unsurprised to find Brand waiting for him.
The gargoyle was perched on a wooden stool, swinging his legs like a three-year-old and perusing a girlie magazine. The readout began spitting out details of previous issues and provided full-color displays of previous centerfolds, but Vlad banished them with an irritated thought. Good to know it could be commanded in such a way, he supposed.
Brand glanced up, managing to look sheepish as he rolled the magazine and stuffed it into the back of his waistband. He hopped down from the stool, advancing towards Vlad, already waving his hands in the air.
“Hey, Boss! You doin’ okay? You’re looking a little red around the eyes. And I mean red, like, what you need to clean up or something? Or is it some new look? The ladies love a man in touch with his emotions, you know they say that, but I don’t think that many of ’em are all that into the bleeding-from-the-eyes routine, you know?”
Brand rummaged in the pocket of his coat, producing a pair of handkerchiefs; the first he sniffed, scowled at and tossed over his shoulder. Apparently he was unconcerned about the idea that someone would have to come and collect the foul-looking rag and deposit it in the bin later. The second, after sniffing, apparently passed muster. He handed it up to Vlad.
The vampire took the proffered hanky, blotting absently at his cheeks. The crimson stains that marked it when he stopped told him that he had indeed been weeping. This didn’t surprise him; when one is forced to relive centuries of a painful existence – especially the time with his lost Elizabetha – were a few tears not to be expected, even appreciated? It was merely his nature that made the show of emotion so ghastly. There were few fluids in him beyond the blood. Or perhaps motor oil, he mused.
Brand winced, accepting his hanky back by pinching it daintily between his talons and eyeing it for a long moment before stuffing it back in his pocket. Vlad watched, faintly amused, as Brand returned his gaze to him and shrugged.
“What? It’s a good snotrag; ‘sides, dry cleaning’s tomorrow. It’ll be fine. You, on the other hand… Well, before you looked like a raccoon. A bloody one, but you know… Raccoony. You still do, I guess, just like a plastic, bloody, racc…”
Brand trailed off, coughed into his claw, and started over.
“So, Boss, you good now? A spit-shine, gas up the chopper, paint the town red, so to speak?”
Vlad moved past the gargoyle, through the short hallway that connected his sanctum to an elevator that would bring him back to the house. He had determined that what he needed – besides a few quarts of O-negative, preferably straight from the tap – was information, and his new internal systems had helpfully shown him where to find it.
Brand fell into line behind him and together they boarded the elevator. While hunting for the hidden thumb scanner – a task made more difficult by the numbness in his digits – Vlad answered the imp’s question.
“Yes. Get the helicopter prepared. And one of my suits. A nice one, new gloves and glasses.”
“A’course it’d be a nice one, Boss!” The gargoyle sounded offended that the mere suggestion of the idea that his fashion selections would be anything but nice. “What, d’ya think I am, some schmuck who’s gonna doll ya out Duck Dynasty style?”
Vlad glanced down at the imp, his digitally-enhanced and recently restored memory conjuring up images of some of Brand’s more interesting style choices. Of particular offense was the banana yellow suit – with lime green spats – that Brand had chosen to wear to the last blood drive Vlad had hosted. Pictures of that particular affair were still circulating around the internet. While Brand had never been so ostentatious with his selections when it came to Vlad’s attire, there was no proof that he might not one day commit such a faux pas.
As if sensing the run of his master’s thoughts, Brand shuffled his feet and glanced away, coughing into one talon.
“Right. I’ll make sure it’s somethin’ nice and time. But I’m tellin’ ya, Boss, you could use a little more color in the dressin’ room, you know? Everything in there is black or red or purple! I mean, would it kill ya to try some blues…? Well, I guess nothin’ is really gonna kill you, but you know what I mean…”
Brand trailed off, withering a bit under Vlad’s glance. Scratching his scaly dome, he shuffled his feet again before assuming a more businesslike stance and squaring his shoulders.
“Right. New suit, new gloves, new glasses, same colors.” Perking up, his beak stretching into a semblance of a smile, he continued. “And how much gas we need in the ride? How far we goin’? Please say Vegas. There’s a convention this week, Big Babes Bouncin’, it’ll be great, like an all you can eat buffet, maybe we can have some R&R while we’re out there, and you…”
 The elevator doors slid open with an almost-silent hiss, and Vlad silenced Brand with a quick slice of his hand through the air.
“Enough. Assume a full tank will be necessary. I haven’t decided how far we’re going yet.”
Brand’s face sank into a pout as he rolled his shoulders, massaging one of them as though it pained him. Vlad supposed it did; Brand keeping his bony wings tied down and bound beneath those ridiculous shoulder pads all day had to be uncomfortable.
“All right, you’re the Boss. But I’m tellin’ ya, think Vegas.” He paused, tapping his nonexistent chin for a moment. “Or Disneyland. As long as we don’t have to listen to the singing dollies.”
The gargoyle performed a burlesque shudder, hugging himself.
“Those things creep me out.”
Vlad watched, smirking, as Brand limped out of the elevator and went scurrying off to make preparations. Shaking his head, Vlad turned the other direction, moving towards the lab. According to the readouts, Franks’ computer systems would have the information he needed; with his so-called upgrades, interfacing with them and finding what he needed should be simple enough.

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04
Feb
20

Vampire 2.0 – It Looks Like You’re Trying To…

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It Looks Like You’re Trying To…

Vlad sat in the palatial chamber that was hidden beneath the center of the house. A similar room was in most of his lodgings – at least, the ones that could accommodate it – and, according to the imp, at least, was where he got much of his best thinking done. Brand had claimed not to know why that would be, but Vlad had seen a mischievous sparkle in his attendant’s eyes and suspected the gargoyle knew more than he was letting on. He sensed no malice behind the withheld information, however, and the vocal analysis his so-called “upgrades” provided detected no danger or sense of betrayal. Vlad suspected that Brand was merely of the opinion that there were some things he should learn – or relearn – for himself.
The room was fifteen feet to a side, with he arched ceiling some twenty feet up at the apex. Painstakingly hewn from the bedrock and then remodeled with imported basalt to form the walls and marble flooring, Vlad suspected that it had probably taken years to prepare it. There were few furnishings – tall candelabras spaced along the walls in five foot intervals, a raised dais with what appeared to be some form of alter in the center of the room, and the chair in which he now sat – but the walls were lavishly appointed with gold etchings of old runes, long velvet drapes the color of wine and family portraits. These last, though purporting to be of Vlad’s ancestors, were actually all of himself. He should know; had he not painted some of them? His internal systems, apparently not recognizing an internalized rhetorical question, helpfully pointed out that he had, indeed.
He sighed, rubbing his temple. He knew he had done so – knew, in fact, the names, looks, dispositions, favorite foods and blood types of all the painters who had taken his portrait through the centuries – but not because he could remember them well. Some were just shadows of memory at best, others completely blank, but again the visual overlay that stained everything seen through his left eye informed him of such things. He found the sensation of being reminded of his own past by a computerized intruder he couldn’t banish to be unpleasant, to say the least.
On the nature of the room – for example, the function of the altar, if that’s indeed what it was – his mechanized hitchhiker was less than helpful. It identified the substances used in the construction, certainly. It determined that the deep maroon color of the stone was not natural, but rather accumulated bloodstains, and further provided the information that most of it bore the genetic and mystical markers unique to his own blood. But what purpose the carved stand, with its prancing goat base and rounded, horned top served… on that subject, all was silent, including his own stubborn memory.
Vlad remembered the chair he sat in, at least; for him that was something of a victory. It was eight feet tall, carved of ebony and inlaid with runners of silver. The back had been lushly upholstered with thick silk cushions, black with a red dragon stitched into them. He’d had it uprooted from the ancestral home and placed here, his first den in the Americas, and still found sitting in it to be comforting. Memories of his mortal life were thick here, penetrating the haze that covered so much of his existence. Memories of himself as a child, watching his father issue dictates and greet the boyars from it; himself as an adult seated in it while he watched his enemies suffer and his bride, his lost Elizabetha, perched on the arm and playfully tweaking his beard as she groomed him. The thoughts served to remind him of who he was, but still did nothing for his disquiet and inability to remember much beyond drinking from the cursed chalice and assuming the mantle that Brand assured him was his and his alone.
“Prince of Darkness,” he muttered. “What does that even mean?”
Vlad slammed one hand down onto the armrest, wincing at the unnatural clang of his metal fingers against the thick wood. His face turned skyward as he glared at the ceiling, teeth clenched in a snarl.
“What am I supposed to do, eh?”
As though his voice had been loud enough to dislodge something, perhaps to send the whole works tumbling down around him – and a part of him seemed to wish for just that – Vlad heard the harsh grating sound of stone against stone. Glancing down towards the altar, he saw the rounded top had slid open, revealing a silver bowl, filled nearly to the brim with a thick red liquid. His readouts indicated it was primarily blood – and like that which stained the altar’s surface, it was mostly his own – but a red blinking indicator claimed that it was “10% unknown substance, potentially dangerous.”
Despite the sense of unease that his internal computer had summoned, Vlad rose from his throne and approached the altar. He dipped one steel fingertip into the fluid, swirling it in a semicircle. In the ripples left by that questing finger, he felt he could almost see images, flickering holograms of the past; emboldened, he dipped the flesh parks of his other hand and repeated the motion.
The response was immediate; his vision of the room – both as it was and as his internal circuits processed it – were washed away, leaving him standing on soil he almost remembered, staring about as the carnage and clash of war sprung up around him. Dozens of men wearing the same sigil stitched into the pillows of his chair were charging into the fray around him, their enemy outnumbering them ten to one and dressed in thick robes and turbans as they shouted in foreign tongues and swung long, curved blades.
“The Ottomans…” Vlad whispered to himself.
Driven by instinct, his hand dropped to his sash, clutching for his sword. He barely noticed that the hand was once again flesh and blood – mortal flesh and blood, warm and throbbing with the angry pulse that had once driven him – or that his clothes had been replaced with thick, charred armor.
Buried in his memories, Vlad drew steel and charged his enemy.

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03
Feb
20

Vampire 2.0 – Reboot

Reboot

He awoke to sensations that were foreign to him, the way he imagined a New Yorker might find it foreign to wake in the morning with birdsong in their ears instead of traffic and gunfire. For centuries, there had been very little to divide his time awake from his time asleep; at one moment, he might be mistaken for a corpse, still and silent, while in the next his eyes would be open and full of a hellish awareness, though otherwise remaining still and silent. Internally it was only slightly different; he would leave the black oblivion of sleep and enter wakefulness with the only difference being that he could see. He had no heartbeat with which to measure time, no sudden rush of blood from one part of his body to another to mark a limb that had fallen asleep. He did not dream, and whatever sounds there were, he heard peripherally while sleep so they weren’t startling or remarkable when he awakened.
But this time, something was different. He lay still, somewhat perplexed at the darkness before him, for he was certain his eyes were open. He tried to determine what had changed. Finally, it came to him.
Always before there had been silence within. The only time he heard his body working was shortly after feeding, when the sweet wine of his victim’s blood would rush about his body, revitalizing him and making him feel – for a few minutes, at least – truly alive. but now there were sounds within, and not sounds that he connected to any of his experiences, be they the last few centuries as a corpse that walked and talked like a man, nor the thirty-some years he had spent as a mortal before that.
Clicks and whirs were coming from within him, mechanical sounds that seemed more at home in a grandfather clock than his own body. A little beep every ten seconds. A thrumming sound, more felt than heard, somewhere in his lower back.
More disturbing than the blackness in front of his eyes or the strange sounds was the way he felt. When one spends eternity in a given shape, one knows the feel of one’s self; one knows where a leg lies and to what degree it is cocked at the knee, or how tightly the hands were clasped in the night. But he felt strange, not himself. Parts of himself he was unable to feel; at his elbows, the right side of his face, much of his chest, the right leg. Other parts he could feel, but wrongly, like his left leg. That felt as though it was packed in ice, and there were numb spots scattered through it, full of the tingling of a limb that is trying to wake itself back up. That was a sensation he had almost forgotten, a small benefit of having been bereft of a working circulatory system for the majority of his existence.
Majority of my existence? What does that mean?
The thought sounded strange to him, and he stopped examining his externap input in favor of digging into his own mind. What he found there was slightly frightening. There were images there, feelings, discarded moments in time, but none of them seemed to flow in a linear way. There seemed to be no connection between them. What was worse is the number of faces he saw there that he was unable to name – the one he suspected of being himself was only the most obvious. The thought that he could know something was wrong without even knowing who or where he was was even worse, and he jerked upright, almost frantic as he pawed at his own face, trying to cement it by his touch and thus put a name to it.
“Hey, hey, easy there, Boss! Don’t hurt yaself!”
The voice, a nasal mess with a horrid New York accent, came from his left. He turned, and while what he saw might have disturbed most people, it eased his mind. The red-skinned dwarf in the business suit sitting beside him was a known quantity, one of the few faces in his memory that he could put a name to. He couldn’t remember everything, but there was a sense of trust and familiarity that he chose to allow in.
Brand was hopping down from the stool he’d been sitting on, coming towards the body on the table and reaching up with his tridactyl talons to pull his master’s hands away before they did any damage to his face. He smiled – as best as he was able, given the beak-shape of his face, anyway – and laid the man’s hands down before putting his own up in a conciliatory gesture.
“S’okay, Boss. Just simmer down. S’okay, am I right?” Brand glanced over his shoulder, bellowing out to someone out of sight. “Hey! The Boss is awake, get some damn grub in here already!”
He returned his sparkling black eyes to the man, giving him an appraising look before continuing.
“You hungry? Sure ya are. After what you’ve been through, hell, it’ll probably take a hundred of them fat chicks from that con in Vegas to set you right, am I right?”
The little red monster snickered, shaking his head.
The man glanced into his lap, where his hands now rested. The first thing that struck him was the sensible reason for his apparent blindness, and its quick departure when he sat up: he had been covered with a sheet that was no cast adrift around his waist. The second was that his hands weren’t hands, precisely; the wrists were okay, and the palm of the right was fine. Likewise, all but the index finger on his left hand and the ring and pinky fingers on the right. Simple flesh – ghastly pale with a bluish cast under the nails that was a trifle disturbing but that his gut told him was simple enough to remedy, though it chose not to elaborate on the how of it – marked those places. The palm and index finger on his left hand, and the thumb and first two fingers of his right were certainly not all right, however. There flesh ended and cold steel began. The index finger resembled a carving knife more than anything, and while the altered fingers on his right hand had the proper shape, there were all manner of strange extrusions along them. Almost as quickly as he thought it, the barbs, hooks and nodules along them withdrew, leaving smooth silver behind. He flexed his hands a time or two, and discovered that they responded as fingers should… except for the near total lack of feeling in them, of course.
His eyes trailed up his arms, noting that both of his elbows appeared to have been replaced by silver and copper cog wheels, and that there were numerous patches where the skin was broken, revealing gleaming steel beneath. His chest appeared to have been replaced with a metal plate, which seemed to be the source of most of the clicks, beeps and hums that he had awakened to. On the left side, a single greed LED pulsed, and after a moment, he realized the pulse was in sync with the beep he kept hearing.
“What am I?”
His voice sounded strange to his own ears, layered in a way that the fragments of memory he could find hadn’t suggested. There seemed to be a queer doubling, a reverb that started somewhere in the back of his throat that added a mechanical, artificial chorus to his formerly melodious bass tone.
Brand glanced downward, steepling his fingers and for a moment looking like he wished he could be anywhere but here. He cleared his throat, staring down into the darkness between his palms.
“Well, er… you’re the Boss. You know. Lord of the Castle. Master of the NIght, Prince of Darkness, all that shit. Just… um. Well, a little different. Upgraded, like. You know?”
 He tried to smile, his eyes flickering over the unimpressed and unamused expression of his employer – which the man knew himself to be, in some manner – then dropped again to his closed hands.
“The… Prince of Darkness?”
Somewhere inside, the title tickled a memory. Something about a church, a woman crying somewhere inside. A taste in his mouth, salty, sweet, hideous, delightful, and most of all, crimson. Thoughts of that taste brought a rumbling from down below, and he realized that the demon had been correct: he was hungry. His tongue – thankfully not “upgraded,” whatever that meant, but still lasciviously long and serpentine – flicked out over his lips.
“But… who… ugh. What’s wrong with me?”
Brand continued to look uncomfortable, shooting glances over his shoulder and towards the door as though hoping for a distraction. When none came, he sighed.
“Well, nothing, now. But jeez, when I brought you in, you were a mess, Boss. Head was all crushed, leg missing. Chest was blown out like you’d gotten into it with Elliot Ness or some shit. I mean, you looked like a paper dolly that some girl tried to rip in half.”
He glanced upward, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.
“Stupidest part was that most of it was done by the cops, fa chrissakes! Stupid sons of bitches ran you down by accident! I mean, really, how hard is it to operate a basic motor vehicle? I manage, and I’ve gotta have all these extra dials and levers. Jeez, I mean, you think it’s easy to drive when you’re three feet tall, can’t reach the pedals, and have to work with these…” He splayed his tridactyl hands in front of him to illustrate. “…while you’re running all those extra things they snap onto the steering wheel to make up for it? but I never ran nobody over.”
He paused in his monologue, his eyes going skyward for a moment.
“Well. Not by accident, anyway.”
The man on the table found he could do nothing but stare at the demon as he ranted. The back of his mind said this was common behavior for Brand, generally tolerated because the imp was useful more often than not, but often frustrating. He raised his steel hand, shaking his head.
“Save the sidelines, Brand.”
The imp appeared both pleased and troubled that his name had been remembered, but quieted.
“Tell me who I am, why I’m here, and what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Brand stood straighter, spiffing the collar of his suit coat briefly before assuming a full at-attention posture.
“You’re Vlad Tepes, Boss. Prince of Darkness, King of the Vampires, Lord of the Dead. You’re in your estate in Palm Springs, because that’s where we put the lab – didn’t want it too close to your digs in Vegas, couldn’t handle the electrical modifications to the family castle, too much drywalling and drilling and messing with the portraits you said – and you needed the lab so we could fix ya.”
A smarmy smirk spread across his features as he continued.
“And you remember, five years ago, I told you, Boss, we’re gonna need a mad scientist, and you said ‘Oh, but that’s so expensive. You don’t think we really need one, do you?’ And, Boss, I says, you gotta have a mad scientist with an evil lab. It’s the in thing now. And you say…”
He was silenced as Vlad raised his hand and shook his head again, cutting him off. He continued, looking chastened.
“Anyway. We built the lab – under budget, I’d point out – and that’s where we are because you’d be dead, otherwise. Or… well. I dunno how to say it, but you know what I mean. Off to the fuckin’ Cadillac Ranch, you know? Not dead, anyway, because you’re always kinda dead, well, undead, but anyway. Yeah. So we’re at the lab and as far as what you’re supposed to be doing, hell, how should I know? You’re the Boss. But, and this is only a bit, you know, nothing personal, don’t let me tell you how to do things, but I’d say you should be getting better, getting your shit together, and kicking that little fucker Van Helsing’s ass from here to Coney Island.” He shrugged. “But, hey, like I said. I’m just the help, Boss. Your call.”
Vlad steepled his fingers in the front of his mouth, the gesture coming without forethought but seeming to calm him as he studied Brand. He realized he wasn’t seeing the gargoyle the way he had previous to his accident, though part of him was; on one level, he was looking at Brand the way he always had, but there were also strange floating words surrounding him, and there were brief flickers of other color spectrums running across the demon. Vlad closed his left eye, and saw nothing but the imp watching him warily. He closed his right, and saw Brand in thermal vision with a digital readout calling out the imp’s name, demonic classification, known weaknesses, age, blood type, sexual preference and six last known addresses and phone numbers. Vlad opened both eyes again and saw both images overlaid on one another. Disturbing.
“Van Helsing.”
He whispered the name, letting it roll over both his tongue and his strangely doubled vocal chords. The name evoked many conflicting emotions, foremost among them utter contempt mingled with traces of affection and competitive camaraderie. Closing his eyes, faces bubbled forth: one a fat, surly young man, tagged by the digital readout as Isaac Van Helsing, age 26, born 1986. That was the source of the contempt, Vlad was certain. His certainty was only increased when the readout scrolled slightly to highly “Van Hamstring’ as a popular nickname for the boy. The other was an elderly gent with slicked back hair, a thick mustache, and deep-set green eyes that reflected an agrressive sparkle. The ever-helpful readout tagged this one as Abraham Van Helsing, age 54, born 1862, died 1916. That was the source of the amused rivalry. He opened his eyes again, settling them on Brand.
“Isaac. He did this.”
Brand was nodding with excitement.
“Yeah, that was him, Boss. Best we figure, he busted in while you were… ah… occupied with dinner. Phosphorous rounds. Nasty, nasty shit, you know? Bastard ran off while the cops were busy trying to dig out out of their mudflaps, and the chick didn’t know nothin’ useful. Said some fat kid shot in the door and shot you.”
His eyes dipped slyly sideways for a moment as his mouth split in his version of a grin.
“Too bad you didn’t close escrow with her, Boss. I mean, I wouldn’t kick her outta the castle for eatin’ kittens, am I right?” He punctuated this with a cackle, shaking his head.
“Anyways, yeah, Isaac, he’s the one. Got most of the boys lookin’ for him.” He lifted one hand as though warding off interruption, though Vlad was still and watchful. “Don’t worry, Boss, they’re not gonna hurt him none. I know you’ll want him fresh. No fun fuckin’ him up when you’re just gettin’ the ghouls’ sloppy seconds, am I right? I know, I know, no need to thank me.”
Vlad opened his mouth – though what he might ask, he wasn’t entirely certain – then closed it again as the door opened and a giant string-bean of a man entered. Nearly seven feet tall and painfully thin, with thick white hair that sprung out from his head as though he’d recently been struct by lightening, Dr. Franks appeared out of breath and wild with excitement as he burst through the door, carrying a jelly-glass filled with thick red liquid. Vlad could smell it from the table, and as he focused on the glass, the readout helpfully informed him that it was blood. Type O, taken from a virgin female seventeen years old, clear of disease and spiced with a spring of mint and a dash of lemon-pepper. The blinking display indicated that it was his favorite, though he wasn’t entirely certain of that.
Franks stumpled, almost dropping the glass and sending it’s cavalcade of Pac-Man characters and the precious fluid within splattering across the floor. He managed to untangle his feet before that happened, and Brand moved to steady the doctor almost immediately. Taking the glass from the tall man’s shaking hand, Brand carried it over to Vlad, dropped to one knee and held it aloft like a priest’s chalice.
“To you, Boss. Drink up, and let’s blow this popsicle stand.”
Vlad took the glass – some internal instinct warning him not to grip the glass too tightly, lest his unnatural strength and steel fingers crush it – and drained it in a single humongous gulp. The taste of it set his brain alight, flooding him with the desire for more. He could feel it running down his throat – though there were numb patches there as well, and part of his mind seemed to be processing the chemical makeup of the blood rather than just enjoying the taste – and exploding in his stomach, suffusing him with the delirious feeling of pure life taken straight from the tap. Somewhere inside was comparing it to the first taste, the chalice in the church back in Romania, the first taste that all the others had tried to compare to and failed, and this time he found it equally as satisfying. It was like being reborn all over again. His fingers spasmed – crushing the jelly-glass into dust and provoking a pained wince from Dr. Franks – and his eyes rolled back in hsi head as the feeling surged over him. He felt some of the holes in his flesh knitting back together and knew without looking that the blood was surging to the places where his flesh didn’t entirely cover the steel beneath, pulling at it and trying to bring it more into alignment with his memories of himself. Finally, when the surge receded and he could think clearly again, he leveled his eyes at Brand.
“I need more. Then we will tend to other matters. Yes?”
Brand nodded, shooting an irritated glance over his shoulder at Franks. The doctor was muttering “Mein Gott, it’s alive” repeatedly, as though trying to force the sense of it into his skull. Brand returned his gaze to Vlad, shaking his head and twirling one finger beside his ear.
“See, you should be glad I fought to get that mad scientist thing through…” His voice dropped to what the gargoyle probably thought of as a conspiratorial whisper, though was closer in volume to a loud mutter. “But I think maybe I got one a little too mad, you know?”
Franks glowered down at the imp, his repeated mutterings ending as he clenched his hands into tight little fists, popping the veins in his forearms and the cords in his neck into vivid relief. His breath was coming in heavy, ragged gasps as he snarled at Brand.
“I am not mad! Merely eccentric!”
Brand wave this away with one hand, while using the other to steady Vlad as the vampire rose from the table.
“Yeah, yeah, not mad, I got it. Right, Boss? Just eccentric, he says. And Paris Hilton’s just a little slutty, too, right?”
The gargoyle squawked his cawing laugh as he led Vlad out of the lab, unheeding of the venom dripping from Franks’ eyes as the doctor watched them go.

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02
Feb
20

Vampire 2.0 – Installation

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Installation

Dr. Franks worked quickly and efficiently, humming the Ride of the Valkyries under his breath while he bustled between different stations in the gleaming steel laboratory. He’d glance at one gauge, turn a dial, cluck contentedly before making a checkmark on his clipboard, turning to a different system and repeating the process. Every three or four circuits of the room, he moved towards the large table in the center, lifted up the sheet that covered the shape laying on it, then would shake his head and move away again for another check of all his instruments. The only sound besides his footsteps and humming was the crackling of the Jacob’s Ladder in the corner and the faint whirring of the artificial respirator that sat beside it, looking dejected and useless.
As he was making his twentieth trip around the room, the door beside the respirator inched open, and a tiny knock drifted towards him. Dr. Franks snapped his head towards it, ceased his humming and snarled.
“Who is it?! I am busy, the patient, he is not doing so well!”
 His thick German accent made the already gruff tone sound even worse, and the figure outside of the lab seemed to hesitate. Then the door opened the rest of the way, and the visitor walked through. Franks seemed to relax – slightly – after determining that his guest was supposed to be here, and went back to his dials and clipboard.
“There is not yet a change, Mr. Brand. Still he doesn’t wake.”
Brand stepped towards the table at the center of the room, lifting the sheet that covered it and squinting a little at the high-intensity bulbs that glowered down from above, giving it the look of a macabre pool table.
He was short and squat, barely three feet tall, and powerfully muscled; he hid it well under an immaculately tailored suit. His facial features appeared to have been made by an apprentice sculptor making a caricature of a bird, with no lips to speak of at the end of a protruding beak; tiny holes for a nose, and deep set eyes the shade of polished ebony. His skin was red; not merely sunburned, like some of the other residents of this place, but a literal bright fire-engine red. If Dr. Franks found anything odd about his guest’s appearance, it didn’t show.
Brand winced, dropping the sheet and turning his avian gaze back to the doctor.
“He don’t look so good. He ain’t gonna be happen when he wakes up and checks a mirror. And what’s with the bolts, Doc? I mean, really? Bolts?”
He rolled his shoulders, a brief pained expression wandering across his face, then crossed his arms and tapped one clawed bare foot on the ground as though awaiting an explanation.
Franks dropped his clipboard atop one of the stainless steel counters, internally pleased by the theatric gong noise it made when he did so. He turned towards the little monstrosity, placing his hands on his hips and adopting his best lecturing tone – the same one, he thought, that he had once used before they chased him off the campus for his crazy ideas. Crazy, indeed; let them call him crazy! Here was the fruit of his labor!
“Yes, bolts! There must be somewhere too hook up the generator, jah? And what of it?! It is my style, it is my… signature! Better than that one on the television, always adding an extra buttock to this or that, eh?”
He shook his head and flapped a hand at Brand.
“And if he is not happy with the looking, then he can fix it on his own. You give me terrible materials – Terrible! That one leg, the femur was cracked in six places! – but when he wakes, his flesh is malleable to him, is it not? Then he can fix the rest. I… I… I gave him life!”
He shook his fist in the air, tilting his head upward as though no longer speaking to Brand, but rather some invisible other that hovered overhead. The Jacob’s Ladder sparked as if in response.
Brand sighed, shaking his head.
“Yeah, yeah. Just call me when he wakes up. And get one of the ghouls to get some dinner for him. The boss’s always hungry when he wakes up from a nap.”
Franks lowered his fist, looking puzzled. For a moment he had forgotten he wasn’t alone in the room, able to rant at his uncaring God as he pleased. He coughed lightly into his fist and nodded.
“Of course. He will be tended to.”
Brand sighed and slipped out of the lab, muttering to himself. Franks didn’t catch most of it, but his ears were well attuned to a specific phrase, and they caught them here.
“I am not mad!” he shouted out after the beast as it left. “Only eccentric! True genius is never properly recognized!”
Sighing, realizing Brand was already gone – and likely wouldn’t have cared to listen, anyway – Franks picked up his clipboard, shook his head, and resumed his vigil.

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