The first time I died, they broke my neck.
Not that I remember it. He tells me. Every time he comes to wipe my mind, Cal Kairov tells me the story of how the guards didn’t even bother to shoot me. They were ordered not to. My neck clicks with the remembrance buried in my bones whenever he reaches the point in the story where the guard’s gloved fist smashed the base of my skull. I’m lucky, Kairov says. If they had shot me, I wouldn’t have been suitable for the process. Wouldn’t have been special. Wouldn’t be abandoned in this dark box with nothing but stolen blood and reprocessed air. I think he enjoys telling me the story.
I wish I’d stayed dead.
Or that I could die again.
But Kairov won’t let me. Instead he drags me out for more treatments whenever the desire takes him. Hours of more pain, more stories, before throwing me back into my box like a crumpled, discarded doll.
A dispenser, stocked with test tubes filled with the blood serum I need to live, sits in the corner of my cell. With barely enough room to stretch, I curse but still reach for the cold glass with shaking hands as the need devours me. Mists of sweat condense under my latex coveralls and my breathing quickens, my heart drumming a desperate beat. The serum has no smell. If I shake the tubes, sometimes I can hear the liquid splashing against the side. But that’s just my imagination. My need to experience something beyond this sterile box. Unfortunately, splashing drops in a test tube were no discarded sea shell transporting me to oceans blue and wild.
Six months. That’s how long it’s been since Kairov last visited. Six months since I had seen the light, felt the warmth of anything other than my stiff coveralls and heat stored in the metal walls. Six months since I had heard any sound except my own unpractised voice singing guttural hymns of hope. I would have gone mad had Kairov allowed it, had he not altered my brain to handle the deprivation. I wasn’t human anymore. I was a walking data chip with better security features.
Light burst in. Beautiful, burning light carving its way into my eyes. Blinking, my senses are overwhelmed by the pungent musk of fear. Two men, one nervous like a small rodent, the other coiled like a snake about to strike, stare at me.
“Well, this isn’t what I was expecting,” the snake-like one says.
The Great People’s Federation of Planets was nothing more than a collection of legitimised thieves and murderers. The people’s opposition to the Federation were no more than outlawed thieves and murderers. The masses, the people both parties claimed to represent, cared little, spending their days in monotonous drudgery and indifferent continuance. Each day merged quietly into the other as the mechanical cog of government whirred. The massive bureaucratic engines crushing any real rebellion.
The Federation grew outwards from Earth, rising and falling ripples from this small rock thrown in the waters of the universe. Nothing could resist the inevitable progression of the Federation ships, of their armies and their technology.
Until the rise of Che Hani.
“I need you to rob a bank. That’s what you said. A bank. Somewhere with money,” the rodent man moaned.
Hours had passed since my cell door had opened and my world changed. I was in a room, full of off-white surfaces and polished edges. The three men, the two who found me and a curly haired third, ignored me. Back in my cell, I had fainted, overloaded by the flood of stimulants beating my senses as the door opened.
“Which you did,” said the third man. Che himself. Freedom fighter. Political criminal. Innocent. The information rose unsought from my mind. The snake-like one was Alexsandr Olek, a dangerous man. Assassin, fraud, former intelligence officer with the Federation. He was a genius with a set of personalised morals that filtered his values based on his own advantage. The third man, the rodent-like one, was an unimportant petty thief called Veniamin Popov. A greed-driven coward with an all-encompassing desire to preserve his own skin. He was only there because of his ability to open doors that should remain closed.
No, only the first two mattered.
“But there was no money,” Veniamin argued. “Kairov’s one of the richest men in the galaxy and his vault was empty.”
Except for me.
“I didn’t send you there for money.”
“But we found exactly what you wanted, didn’t we, Che?” Alexsandr crossed his arms behind his back, a lecturer preparing to bore his students. “Did you think if you told us the nature of the treasure you sought we wouldn’t go?”
“Well, why would we?” Veniamin piped up, his eyes flickering between the two as though watching a ball in an electronic game of squash.
Alexsandr didn’t bother to reply. His eyes narrowed on Che. It had all been prepared. The extra space on the shuttle, allegedly to hold the treasure, held a spare enviro crib fitted exactly to my size.
“Next time, let us in on what you’re planning,” Alexsandr snarled. “We’re not simple pawns to push around a board at your whim.”
Che shrugged. “I told you what you needed to know.”
“What’s so valuable about her anyway,” Veniamin demanded, his whining voice rising like steam through a kettle. “She’s just a vamp.”
For the first time I saw myself reflected in the surfaces of the ship. The black dataport on my head through which Kairov could reprogram my mind, pointing skywards awaiting instructions. Hair shaved in a mock tonsure. Patchy, pale skin, the whites of my eyes scratched with lines of red blood. A ceramic doll to be tossed aside when my masters finished with me. Indistinguishable from hundreds of other vamps straight off the Federation’s production lines.
Vamps. Corpses rescued from the brink of death, mind-wiped and used for whatever purpose their new masters desired. Little more than reengineered slaves for the rich and powerful. For the process to work we needed to be brain dead, though not physically dead. Our minds ceased while our bodies held onto the last dribbles of life. Fed on the blood serum from which we derived our name, my body remained young and firm, though pale. I could see the mix of lust and revulsion in Veniamin’s eyes.
So could Che, who staked the cowering man with a stare which drove him backwards. “She’s power, Veniamin. Not a toy to sate your failure to get a girlfriend. The key to bringing down the Federation. During his years as an ambassador, Kairov collected secrets on most of the Federation’s key people, information that could set the outer worlds against the Terran heartland.”
He swung to face Alexsandr. “You always say we rush blindly into everything. With her on our side, we won’t. We’ll know who paid for the right to build the casino on Yeoman-Clark and with what. We’d be able to lay bare proof that political dissidents are being brainwashed to recant their beliefs. We could even prove we were innocent, that we didn’t deserve to be sent to penal planet. That the charges against us were faked.”
“They weren’t,” Alexsandr said coldly, quietly. “You might be innocent, but we weren’t.” He looked towards me, appraising me like an item at the auction house, waiting to determine my value. No lust or emotion in his eyes. “And nothing that thing can say will change our guilt.”
I wanted to scream, to leap up and pledge my allegiance to Che and his passion. I wanted to follow the lion into battle, enflamed by his cause, by his innocence, which rang clearly through my soul.
Instead, I screamed in pain and crumbled like a marionette whose strings have been cut.
Like all vamps, I remembered my life before I became a fleshy tool. I had met Che before. Admired him from afar. Joined the rallies that flooded Cygnus before the Federation armies drowned the infant revolution in a sea of blood.
I remembered lying in the cell, waiting for Kairov’s goons to break my neck.
I remembered waking, shaking, a slave entangled in my need for blood, blood which only a monster like Kairov could supply.
Popular mythology says vamps can’t feel emotions. That they burn love and hate and happiness from our bodies when they brand our minds with whatever mark they wish to leave.
It isn’t true.
Every emotion bites painfully at our minds. Every hint of gladness brings an automatic reprisal of agony. Tears breed more tears until vamps control our own emotions, self-brainwashed to avoid pain. It was just another game the Federation ‘repatriation’ squad invented when we were designed.
I woke to feel Che’s fingers draped against my skin, tracing the salty trails of my tears along my cheeks.
“I remember you,” he said softly. “From Cygnus. From Gamma Beta.” That’s why they chose me. Why Kairov wanted me as the host for his knowledge about Che and his revolution of cutthroats and thieves. “Manya Akinova. You were a believer. Your father died in the diamond mines on Aatlje. I know you, Manya Akinova.”
He seemed agitated, his breathing quickened not in passion but anger. The hairs on his arms standing to attention, saluting his concern. He stroked the grey bruise where they broke my neck. My mark of submission which would never heal. The Federation almost always broke our necks. It made it easier to kill the brain but preserve the body.
“You’re a trap.”
I woke screaming. Cables ran from the dataport in my head to the medlab computer. Only Alexsandr was there and he simply ignored my cries. In fact, his brutal bypassing of my brain’s security protocols were the cause of my pain.
Sweat dripped from my pores, coating my pale skin with a moist sheen. My back arched in torture, not pleasure, forming a bridge between me and the chair under which a boat could sail. Alexsandsr did not even look. His attention was focussed on the numbers and letters scrolling across the data terminal.
Eventually the rain of illuminated characters slowed to a stop and the torment ceased.
“You were booby trapped, you know.” Alexsandr held a small radioactive explosive in his hand. Rubbing my stomach, I could feel the ridge where he had operated. “It was linked to a particular dataset. As soon as we tried to access it, the bomb would have exploded. They were probably hoping Che would be standing nearby at the time.”
My head drooped in a resigned nod. I looked towards the data terminal, which held the information retrieved from the recesses of my head.
“Most of it is worthless,” he said. “There’s some surface stuff that might be useful, probably put there to make us think there was something hidden in the rest. In fact, following it would have led to the trigger for the bomb.”
“And me?” The first words I had spoken since they rescued me from Kairov’s cell.
Alexsandr said nothing. He didn’t need to. I had no value beyond my body. A husk of a vamp filled with worthless knowledge. Even if they analysed every segment of code they could never be sure there was not another trap hidden in my programming.
I knew why he was there and not Che. Why the great and noble man, so filled with his moral certitude, could not be in the room. I still believed in his cause.
I needed to be wiped clean. Reset. Rebooted. Reborn.
I had died for Che once.
I would do so again.
I embraced the chance of a new death.
My eyes met Alexsandr’s and I understood this was why Che kept him around. The edge of his lips curved up in a grim smile.
Then he raised a black-gloved fist and slammed it into my neck.