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The Lorraine Project


Volume I



By Just call me Nik



Bête Noir.


... that thing recording ? Okay. Let's walk.

I don't hate Vampires. I don't loathe them either, just their Rogues' excesses...

Tragedy is they're as old as humanity, but they're parasites. Given indefinite life-span, what could you or I achieve ? I don't know. Given time, though, we might think of something. But, Vampires ?? No advance in Art, Science, Mathematics or Technology can they call their own. In fact, they've done their best to hold us back. For them, our ignorance is bliss...

So, why, after millennia of crypto-culture, did they make a grab ? Liz's numbers --Prof Liz to you-- say 'population'. Like locusts, they hit critical mass and swarmed. I'm old-fashioned. I think the hot-heads feared discovery, went for a pre-emptive strike...

I reckon CCTV was the key. Bad enough that cameras can pan & zoom. InfraRed meant even darkness was not safe...

And then came the paranoia over suicide bombers. Even airport X-rays show anomalies if you know where to look, but most can be masked. Terahertz imaging was their worst nightmare: It pierced Glamour, it revealed their gross differences, it could pick them out of a crowd like kudzu on a lawn...

Liz reckons some people have a TeraHertz sensitivity. There is a natural background flux, it would explain Dowsing and such. Whatever, suddenly there were TeraHertz scanners checking for bombers. A Vampire walked through.

Challenged, he charmed his way past two officers. The back-up team jumped him. He forgot himself and fought. He killed one, maimed another, took four 9mm rounds and fled. All on CCTV...

Rumour holds he was Dawn-Staked by his furious Nest-Kin. Other rumour says he was the tripwire for long-set contingency plans. Both could be true...

Yes, there's a lot of nonsense talked about Vampire bites.

Yes, they're after your blood. Some need more than others, depends on their degree of Porphyria. Most manage on very little. The 'classic' blood-thirst is often a learned craving. Like druggies or alcoholics, they've acquired a dependency. They need The Rush. And, the more they get, the more they need to satisfy their addiction...

Oh, yes, many Ferals have a toxic bite. Their fangs carry disease *and* venom. It can be a nasty mix. If the bugs don't kill the victim by multi-organ failure, symptoms can range from Malaria to Lassa Fever. Incidentally, that's how the School of Tropical Medicine got involved. Turns out a course of antibiotics and anti-virals will clean up the bite...

Many Vampires can hold their venom down to anti-coagulants, but Ferals are too excitable, often use their 'fighting' neuro-toxins. Between, there's a full spectrum. Some 'mindbend', their victims are confused, compliant, mildly amnesiac. Others leave 'Zombies'. The worst make their victims psychotic. Hysterical strength and speed, totally off their heads, bad as a wild Angel Duster or Wacko Meth. They can behave like animals. They often think like animals, which may be how WereWolves and the like got started...

Vampires fly ? Er, no. And they don't like high altitudes, or low oxygen. Either can bring on a Porphyria crisis. But they are prenaturally strong, with reflexes like a cat and amazing athleticism. Most could beat 8 seconds for 100 metres-- in bare feet. And those Ninja movies with the flying fights ? Up walls and trees, across roof-tops and never a missed step ? They can do all that. Liz reckons their ancestors stayed tree-apes longer than ours...

Downside is they go anaerobic sooner. Varies, of course. Quarter mile's a general limit and none run marathons. They're not built for it.

Burst range depends on when they fed. A really hungry Vampire is an ambush predator: zero stamina. If they've snacked, or they're interrupted after they get The Rush, they're running on Nitro.

Silver ? That's their Porphyria: The HomoSap version is bad enough-- Vamps also have problems with heavy metals. Any extra makes their photo-sensitivity worse, slows healing. Even a pure Silver blade can leave enough trace to make the wound ulcerate. Organic Silver, Mercury, Lead and the like can give them Minimata Syndrome. Mind you, the Arsenic in old Silver worries them more than the metal: think Nickel Rash...

Stake through the heart ? Yeah, whatever-- The grosser the injury, the less chance they'll walk away...

Another thing: they heal so fast that splinters and bullets can be encysted. Ever get adhesions after an op ? Unpleasant.

Cross ? Never mind any Silver fittings, some of those old crosses doubled as staffs, could land a pretty thump. And leave splinters, of course. Results depend on the wood. Some plants and timbers have toxic sap-- think Poison Ivy. There's on-going work with Taxols and, yes, garlic.

Holy Water ? Bizarrely, there's a germ of truth. The holiest waters came from certain 'blessed' springs, often mineral springs laden with Heavy Metals, Radon and such. Also, the stuff would be rancid with non-local bugs. Even Vampires can take ill...

Radon ? Sure, they don't like Actinides or hot isotopes, they hate the smell of Ozone. Goes with the photo-sensitivity. That fleck of Americium in your old smoke alarm kept you safer from Vampires than from fire. And we've known Vampires abandon attacks on people from high Radon areas. Trade-off is the raised risk of cancer...

Sea Water ?? Fresh or salt, they can drown in the usual way. They shun sea water for its bugs. Remember those Red Tides, the sick shell-fish and sicker people ? Or kids with peanut allergy ? Vampires can get anaphylactic shock from spray or a splash. Immune response makes them burn up with fever, and burst like a rotten corpse. Um, there have been sporadic reports of spontaneous combustion, but takes a proper crematorium to do the honours.

Church-yards and Hallowed Ground ? Yew trees, yew hedges, taxols and lots of bugs, we think. Also, people watch for odd happenings. Much too public. Untidy, old, overgrown cemeteries are better. All those quiet crypts and pseudo-gothic monuments provide good cover...

Clawing their way out of graves ? Yes, but not their own. Human Bums --remember them ??-- slept in door-ways. Vampire Bums bury themselves...

Sorry, didn't catch.. Oh, that 'Three Bites' stuff is a fallacy. You cannot become a true Vampire. Wrong genes. But, their neuro-toxins may seriously screw your mind. Add Stockholm Syndrome and lots can happen. Incredibly, there's plenty of willing Wannabees, Psychos and Goths. We used to call them 'Sucker Bait', but the Vampire term is 'Aspirant'.

Vampire sex ? Never mind the movies, think 'Black Widow'. If their control slips, it gets messy. But only Vampires can breed new Vampires. Our DNA is too different...

Young Vampires ? Before they learn 'Glamour', only their mothers could love them. We reckon those mythical Harpies were juvenile Vampires-- Their table-manners match, that's for sure !! Now, they stay in secure creches until they're educated. Problems start when a creche-Mother loses control. Without social pressure to conform, Juveniles can turn Feral.

Arrogant little sods, Ferals literally cannot accept they're not Lords of Creation. They cannot believe their peers may scramble to take them down before we do. And they do not know fear. That's the worst of it: you can work with the Adults because they'll weigh the odds. Juveniles will try to mob you.

Work with them ? If they've taken Amnesty, they're legitimate. That's the Law. And you must respect them for it. Going Legit is horribly un-natural. We're omnivores, but could you or I go Vegan, lose our booze, sugar, chocolate, coffee and cola without a pang or three ??

Sure, we investigate Ferals and Rogues, but mostly my job is 'Health Visitor'. If their chemistry is off, they get supplements. Oh, human blood, of course, but only ours. SOTM staff are scheme donors. Would you be happy carrying a donor-card otherwise ? No, we don't offer a wrist unless the case is an emergency hypo. We deliver sub-Unit baggies, see that they're taken there and then...

Big Juicy Target ? Yes and no. Taking a Health Visitor is a BIG no-no. We trust them, they trust us. They know we could wipe them out, though at high cost. We know what the civilian casualties could be, they like the benefits of being legit.

Ferals and Rogues are outlaws, they've nothing to lose. After one gang knocked over a 'Milk Run', we upgraded. Same system as cash couriers: bar-codes, passwords, interlocks, anti-tamper devices, coercion codes, panic keys. Some boxes are booby-trapped, some are honesty-checks, some are empty...

Yes, we work with the Police and security industries. They all take a dim view of van-man attacks. Usually different perps, but there is some cross-over. Vampires need money, too, and villains can sell blood...

Big difference is that we're armed. We're not trigger-happy --The 'Due Care' Rule-- but we're allowed 'Reasonable Force'. For Vampires, that means 'Special Loads'...

A couple of stories...

Bandits raided a house thinking our van-man had just delivered valuables. Bad move. They were roughly handled, hog-tied before they knew what hit them. I dare say they were quite pale when the Police led them off...

An armed gang ambushed our van in the dark. It was a classic 'rolling block', professionally done. They had bullet-proofs, shotguns and Uzis, chain-saws for the armour. Should have been a push-over...

Driver and I went 'weapons free', popped the gun-ports, blew away four bandits. They went down too easily for Vampires, may have been Aspirants. I put a 'bear-stop' into one getaway car, which brewed.

That was odd, because Vampires fear fire, prefer Diesel engines. Also, Vampires shunned 'leaded' petrol. One splash meant ghastly burns, like bleach or acid. Towns and cities were so thick with lead particulates that most Vampires fled to the country. Oh, yes, urban Vampires made a come-back after 'unleaded' was introduced. The Utilities' replacement of old Victorian lead plumbing probably helped, too. Timing supports Liz's population statistics, but I'm not convinced...

Where was I ? Okay, the first getaway car had brewed. But it was probably stolen. When I hit the second car and that brewed, too, we started to wonder. Anyhow, remaining bandits were shooting wildly and running around like Masterless Aspirants. Who knew what they'd do ? So we dropped them all...

Blues & Twos arrived very promptly. Turned out the Police had been tipped to a bank-van raid, the gang got suspicious and went for an alternate target...

Hold it-- Okay, leave you here. That call's from Woodside Police. Could be a Rogue, could be a psycho rape/murder, need to check it out...

Take care, now.



Project Lorraine Chapter # 1: Out of Africa...


It all began with another 'local difficulty' in Central Africa.

Many fled, gathered across three borders in make-shift and increasingly insanitary camps. Inevitably, disease and malnutrition ran ahead of the limited aid. Red Cross, Medicin San Frontieres and the others did the impossible, kept the death rate down to the usual grim toll.

When a nurse took ill and died of a high fever, a haemorragic fever, no-one really noticed. What's one such tragedy among thousands ? Close ranks, work on. Then two more nurses and a doctor succumbed. It happens. Three more fell ill. That week put a dozen aid-workers in body-bags. The flares went up...

CDC took point, with a dozen HotZoners plus support. MSF sent seven. SOTM spared three-- Su, Jayne and me. We staged through Cameroon, who provided logistics and Blue Helmets. Our convoy cut across the disputed corner.

The first camp was the stuff of nightmare: Dead and dying everywhere, medics down to a couple of exhausted nurses and volunteers, stores looted and trashed. Those who could walk had fled, spreading disease. The only good news was the victims included most of the local bandits and militias. Gang-raping contagious patients had had Darwinian consequences...

That camp gave us end-stage data. We left a burial detail, moved on. Second camp was worse. Death-rate was peaking. CDC tried to find the agent. Rest of us did what we could, mostly triage...

Then half of us moved to Camp #3, which was reaching collapse. Rest of that month passed in a blur.

We did find the agent, a resistant Pneumococcus with a mutant Phage hitch-hiker -- Like Legionnaires' on steroids. Specialised antibiotics would quell the bug, viral inhibitors would stop the phage. But, this was a triply contested corner of central Africa. Our Blue Helmets faced five or six factions of assorted lawlessness and dubious provenance. Budget 'relief' drugs were few, those new drugs were fewer, and each convoy was 'tolled' four ways.

Then we caught it, too. Blue Helmets went down like flies. Us Hot Zoners were luckier, we'd had umpteen vaccinations. We got an immune response. The only drug we had in quantity seemed to be stale Aspirin, so we took that for our fever and worked on...

Blue Helmets lost half their number. CDC bagged four good people, med-evac'd five. MSF bagged three. Two more never worked HotZones again. Su scraped through. Jayne got a bleeding ulcer, worked until she dropped, carried on with a drip running. I lost 50 pounds and my hair...

The Blue Helmets and quarantine contained the outbreak: too virulent, it killed its carriers...

Yes, I've seen the conspiracy theories. None of them hold even a figment of truth. It certainly was not a BioWar test-run. CDC checked for gene-splices, found nothing un-natural. Whole mess was another 'Out of Africa' event, like Lassa, Ebola or SIV...



Project Lorraine Chapter # 2: Expecting Some-One Taller...


After the three of us returned to UK and checked clear of contagion, we were stuck on 'Light Duties'. At SOTM, that means you're co-opted by any committee that needs another member: keeping quorums is *hard* when folk get bleeped and run...

I was promptly appointed SOTM's representative to a regional panel discussing Vampire issues. It seemed a waste of time because they'd never seen, met or communicated with a live Vampire, never mind had to hunt one. Their entire information was some scanty briefing notes, yet they'd spent a year talking about Vampire crypto-culture, building bridges, building trust, earnestly recycling the usual platitudes on Minorities, getting absolutely no-where. None-the-less, they'd turned out several detailed reports, and seemed determined to continue the series. Naturally, they considered my Vampire hunting experience to be disadvantageous, if not actively counter-productive...

I sat through that interminable meeting, watching the clock count the minutes my next meal was late. I was ravenous. I was only there because a quirk of Amnesty law made Vampirism a 'Notifiable Disease', requiring SOTM input. I was only there because I actually knew a few things about Vampires, mostly how to kill Rogues and survive it. I was only there because I'd run out of better things to do. I was getting really, really hungry, and grumpy with it...

"... Now, before we conclude today's productive session, I must ask if our Member from SOTM has any thoughts on stimulating cross-cultural communication ?"

The words came out before I realised, "Student Exchange ?"

They laughed, applauded my quip and adjourned the meeting. My mistake: it went in the Minutes. Those were circulated, perhaps wider than expected...

I still do not know who whispered the unthinkable, 'Why not ?'

I was dissecting a stack of low-level outbreak reports when Liz called me in, "Hi, Boss, who's died, and where ?" She slid the letter across to me, "Read this." " ... Student Exchange ... Cultural Immersion ... Proposal ... Discussion ... Technical Feasibility ... Confirmed ? Authorised ? Proceed ? Me ?? You cannot be serious !!" "Wait, read this, too..." I skimmed the FX brochure, read it slower, carefully read it again, "Sure you haven't a nice Ebola carrier for me to trace ? Or a contagious TB3 ?" "No, this is your next assignment."

"Why ?" "You are very thin--" "I'm eating a dozen tiny meals a day, re-gained a couple of pounds. Doc's happy." "You'll need to cut back." Liz shrugged, counted fingers, "You're quick witted, you're careful, you get along with the strangest people and, most important--" "Expendable ?" " 'Where Angels Fear To Tread.' " Liz nodded. We don't mention the silent second half of the Hot Zoners' Toast, 'Absent Friends'.

"Okay, so I've done some daft things..." "You have the knack of being in the right place at the right time, and finding the right thing to say or do--" "I've been lucky--" " 'Luck favours the Prepared.' " Liz mis-quoted, "They've asked for you specifically." "Why ?" "It is... complicated." Liz allowed, "Part is your record of kills--" "Revenge ? I've a dozen to my name..." "All Rogues." Liz stated, "Tell me: How many civilians have killed more than one Rogue ?" "Excluding Road Kills ? D'uh, there's Quiet Mac, works out of Formby--" "Ghillie's son, ex Army." "Joe, from Wharton ?" "Retired Safari guide, a White Hunter." "Mike in the Peak District ?" "Outward Bound Centre's Survivalist." "Jones in mid-Wales ?" "Psycho: should be in Broadmoor." "East Coast, the Reverend Peters ?" "Crazy like a fox." Liz rolled her eyes, "Thinks he's a Knight Templar..."

"Hmm... New Forest area, Phil something ?" "Park Ranger, natural woodsman." "L.C. in London ?" "She's a Slayer." "Ah." I'd wondered, "But I'm not--" "A Slayer ? True, you don't have the reflexes." "Or the legs !" I quipped, "At least we can agree on that--" "And, lastly, there's you." Liz stated, "But you're different. You're not a Hunter. You're just a nice bloke with a knack--" "I do the leg-work, flush Rogues and blow them away. Un-sporting, but effective." "As I said, you have a knack... " Liz shuffled her papers, "Might be something more: local Vampire community calls you 'RogueBane'." "What ?" "It's a Vampire title, like an Old West Marshal. You're doing it already, but didn't know. They want to make it official, and help you do it better..."

"You are serious ? They want me --a HomoSap-- to do their internal law-enforcement ?" "Yes." "Shit..." I worked it through, "Guarantees ?" "Three ways: Your swap, hostages and something they call Blood Trade." Liz caught my look, "Purely symbolic, they know we can't digest much blood. Makes you Kin." "Shit..." I shook my head, "They are serious about this. Do I have a choice ?" "Take it or leave it." Yeah, right...

"I'll need to think about this." I hedged, "Do some research..." "You always say that !" Liz grinned, pushed the letter and folder across the desk, "So I'll give you an hour. Then we've a Detox in the DarkRoom. Happens he brought in the offer. Go chat."

My hasty info-search gave me ample food for thought. I emptied my pockets, was scanned and patted down at the security gates. I sat in an alcove until my eyes had adjusted to the dim red lighting, which gave me time to think some more. Usually, Vampires were uncommunicative. Patients would not talk beyond essentials, injured Rogues either stayed silent or shrieked. This could be a first...

I found the private room, knocked on the door. "Come in..." The invitation was weak, but polite.

People still think of Vampires as their movie caricatures. Some do play up to the rôle, but the reality is often disappointing. The original Nosferatu, a wizened, pallid ancient with an odd craving, is a typical, healthy Elder. For youngsters, LOTR's Gollum comes close. This one was middle-aged and unwell. He looked like a little old man, flesh lost to age, wrinkled, parchment-thin skin draped across gaunt bones. He was connected to a Dialysis machine plus an Activated Carbon stack, was obviously unhappy.

"Hello." I offered, "I'm Chris. You asked to talk to me ?" He sat up with some difficulty, "You are the RogueBane ? I-- I was expecting some-one taller..." "I've been ill." "Ah... That terrible business in Africa ?" "Yes." "You hunt Rogues, yet you suggest a 'Student Exchange' ?" "The other committee members had never seen, met or communicated with a live Vampire. Or tried." "They were so ignorant of their ignorance ?" "They convinced me." "Ah ?" A fanged grin, "You made a joke !" I nodded. "That explains much !" He chuckled, "Please, sit ! I regret I cannot offer much hospitality..." "My stomach shrank, and I'm between meals..." I shrugged, perched on the plastic patio-chair. "Do you oppose this proposal ?" "Nu." I stated, "I doubt its success. I doubt I am the correct candidate. I doubt my courage." "I doubt we could find better." "I doubt that, too."

The moment stretched, until, "You were told of the guarantees we would offer ?" "Yes." "Do you doubt them ?" "I doubt all will abide by such guarantees." "Ah, you fear an attack by Rogues ?" "Or a dissident faction." "As do we..." "Unless...?" I offered, "Perhaps there is a solution ?" "We found no certain way..." "What if we accept, but stall in committee ? Argue over details of my agenda, meetings etc. Meanwhile, the proposal goes ahead in secret. If it does not work, it never happened. If it works, then agree my agenda to match events, and I'll take a holiday." "Ahh..." "Now tell me that was your best option, but I had to suggest it." "We did not consider such misdirection..." He chuckled. "You don't have a cousin high in the Civil Service..."

"So, you would do this thing ? You would take our form ? You would live among us ? You would eat, sleep, dress and play as we do ?" "To the extent of my metabolism and ethics." I stated, "So no 'Blood Sports' or overt sexuality. I prefer my steaks 'Medium-to-Well' or braised, my eggs 'Easy-Over' and my position 'Missionary'. But, I enjoy Sushi and know some Yoga." "That is acceptable... What of Black Pudding ?" "Correctly cooked, I enjoy a slice or two. And, yes, I know it is Blood Sausage." That earned a grin, "You are deeper than the reports suggest." "Aren't we all ?" "Hmm... Are you subject to unreasonable fear of close confinement ?" "Claustrophobia ? No." "This is important." "Okay... I've done SCUBA diving and squeeze-caving, even camped in a 'coffin tent' hung off a cliff. And I was held hostage in a packing crate for two weeks." "You were kidnapped, but escaped ? The reports varied..." "One of the Unquiet 'Stans: Faction thought I was valuable. Blue Helmets intervened. I escaped in the confusion." "From a padlocked crate in a guarded cave ?" "They over-nailed the crate and weakened it." "And you killed your captors with bare hands ?" "Untrue." Indeed: I'd used a rock, the first guard's AK, the second's grenades...

"You are an excellent shot, yet you had no prior military or hunting experience ?" "Play Station and Paint Ball." I quipped, "Plus a Canadian Master Sergeant who thought us innocent Medics should know the rudiments. Happens I was a natural shot. After that, I'd familiarise myself with anything I could get my hands on." He considered that, "You do not fear our Glamour ?" "Not worth the risk." I shrugged, left him to wonder exactly what I meant, added, "What does a Blood Trade involve ?" "In this context, a few drops of blood drawn by a stone blade, yet freely given."

"So I've read." I turned my hand, showed the tiny, flint arrow-head I'd found years ago, as sharp as the day it was knapped in pre-history, "Would this do ?" "Yes !" He gasped, "So, you agree ?" "Subject to my metabolism and ethics." "Then scratch a finger-tip for me to take your blood, and thus for mine." I nicked my little finger, offered the welling bead for his taste. He nodded, took the point, pierced his finger, let me lick it. "Now we are Blood Kin." He smiled, "My Taken name is Montague, Monty to friends. Okay, Chris, let's get this show on the road..."



Project Lorraine Chapter # 3: Face / On


The following Monday, I walked around the corner from the nearest Metro stop to that FX Studio outside Manchester. They poured me into a target-tagged body sock, laser-scanned me sitting and standing, walking, bending, turning and jumping. They took unpleasant alginate casts of my head and neck, hands, feet and inside my mouth.

After one week, they had the 'vanilla' latex head-over mask and other prostheses ready to try. They trimmed, adjusted, tweaked and twiddled, then took alginate casts of me wearing them.

After two weeks, the first Goretex 'SecondSkin(TM)' faux-leather mask was ready. I looked in the small mirror, a passable HomoVamp looked back. Even with my green eyes, it was good enough to make my skin crawl. The big mirror still showed a skinny HomoSap in a scary mask, but the FX crew seemed satisfied with progress. After reclaiming the mask, they gave me 'training' dental prostheses and a speech-training booklet, waved me off.

After three weeks, my first body-glove was ready to try. Like the mask, thickness varied from vellum to steak --probably moulded-- but that did not explain the muscle groups, tendons, bony outcrops and veins visible beneath the skin. "Okay, I've a pair of hiking boots in this stuff: How did you vary the texture and heft ?" "You have expensive tastes !" Bill the Boss Modeler chuckled, "Sorry, Commercial Secret." "Hmm..." I'd had a week to wonder, looked closer, picked out a curious speckling on the inner surface, denser near any features. These tiny dimples resembled tattoo damage, or anti-wrinkle lipid injection micro-scars. I smiled, wondered if they had 3D software to plan and predict density changes...

"Put it on." Bill offered a big pot of baby cream, "You'll need lots of this..." It helped. The suit fitted like a ski-glove, had just enough elasticity to slide over my joints. At first, it sat oddly. Given a minute, air escaped from the myriad micro-pores and it settled. True to its 'SecondSkin' tag, it seemed to vanish. I've no nudity taboo but, wearing it, I felt naked. Head-over mask, hand and feet gloves went on, were marked for detail and seams...

Next time would be the finale so, back at SOTM, I worked through my pre-HotZone check-list. Home-minder, aye. Conditional Power of Attorney, aye. Bank(s) warned, aye. PC archived, aye. E-mail redirected, aye. Bequest changes, nay. Pendings listed, aye. ETA (Return), nu.

Friday, I wrote polite letters to my brother, sisters and Favourite Aunt. I enclosed the usual cheques for nieces' and nephews' forthcoming birthdays. I wrote a cheerful letter to my Civil Servant cousin, thanking him for his wonderful --if unattributable-- tales of Byzantine inter- and intra-departmental squabbles. I pre-paid my share of the Department's Lottery entry for twelve weeks, hung the 'Okay To Clean' sign on my office door and left early...

Monday, both sets of contact lenses had arrived. The 'second stage' was ready. My luggage and 'legend' had arrived. Decision time: I gulped, signed the consent form, undressed.

I've often worn a catheter in HotZone suits, so I knew to r_e_l_a_x and NOT squirm. The difference was this ended in a neat valve instead of a catch-bag. The FX crew bonded finger and toe talon nubs to my nails. While those set, they slathered me with baby cream. Still, it took three of them to ease me into my Vampire body-glove and connect the pipe. Mask on, close up, wait. The glove settled. I moved, it moved with me. A crew-member moved a screen. The corner--

I glimpsed a Vampire, spun to a fighting stance despite the glove. The crew scattered. It matched my moves. I looked again-- The room corner was mirrored. I'd seen me. I'd seen me as others would. I forced myself to relax... "Ruddy Hell !!" Bill allowed, "You move like a Velociraptor !" "Thank you, I think..." Talking was difficult, even without fake fangs, "Stage Two ?"

Special, near-opaque, brown contact lenses were next. The outer face had a graded photo-chromic layer to mimic pupil dilation. With them in, I was blind until my own pupils dilated and gave me night-vision. That still left me partially-sighted and somewhat colour-blind.

The bulky 'Human' body-glove came next. It made me look chubby and sallow. Its finger and toe-nails engaged with my talon nubs, oddly lengthened my fingers and feet. Its plumbing engaged with mine. When I moved, I waddled, flat-footed. I slipped in my 'Human' dental prostheses, tongued them to place. "Mum, Um, Bleagh! Ooh, 'hot 'hoo 'halk ah 'hifferent 'hay..." I'd practised with those Mk#1 dentures every night, but not wearing one mask, never mind two ! I tried again, "Ah ham hso ghlad Ah dho hnot hwear dhentutheth..." "You're doing well !" Bill grinned, "How do you feel ?" Should I quote Spock, or tell the truth ? The stink of my sweat was already bleeding through... "Thanity Theck Thailth !" I wheezed, "Thantheth, Thill Thobhinthon !!" "You'll do !!" Bill chuckled, "We've had hardened SF actors freak out with half your FX..." "Thank-k-k thu, Ah thinhk-k-k..." "We've done enough Vampire / Human conversions: You've taken it better than most..." "Oh?" "You would be astonished how many 'Straight To Video' projects quietly fold. Just so long as we're paid..." He chuckled, " But why SOTM ?" "Thtrrrainingh --Ghotcha-a-a ! Trrraining-g-g. E-e-exerrcis-s-se" I allowed, panted, "I. Pulled. Short. Straw....They. Must. Find. Me. And. Take. Me. Alive... D'uh... This. Is. Hard. Work." "All down-hill from here, Chris ! Where do you want your case ?" "T-t-table, p-p-please."

I checked the security seal's code, broke the tie, unlocked the cheap, new case with the key I'd been sent, examined the contents. Cotton socks, large, baggy shorts and large vests, aye. Very large, loose cotton pants and braces, aye. Long, large, loose shirts, aye. Two baggy safari-cut jackets, aye. Foreign slip-on shoes, aye. Cheap expanding-strap watch in sock in shoe, aye. Generic wash-bag with disposable hotel toiletries, aye. Minimum dipotre reading glasses, aye. Zipped waist-pouch with 'valuables', aye.

I tipped this out. A little black note-book had cryptic notes, directions and illegible addresses in several 'hands'. A wallet held assorted Euros, a Metro DayRider ticket, airport shop receipts for the clothes and case, a smudged 'lost baggage' claim-stub and my borrowed ID.

I peered at the card. Though I was no expert and my sight was now impaired, it looked and felt genuine. I'd become 'Brendan Smith', but I'd kept my age, blood-group and such. Curiously, it claimed I was sub-clinically haemophiliac. Why ? No-one would want a blood-sample-- A memory surfaced. I nodded. That comment would bypass most iris recognition checks. Cunning, and a revelation...

There was also a much-folded sheet of paper in the pouch's inner pocket. I opened it out, found a large-print fax from Network Rail telling me to collect my prepaid ticket from Victoria station before 18:35 this day, quoting reference....

I'd have several hours to kill, but I could not delay. I turned to Bill, "You. Have. A. Strict. NDA?" "Of course." He nodded, "SOTM's is civilized compared to a studio lawyer's contract." "Could I. Have. Some help. Getting dressed ?" "No problem--" "And a lift. To. A. Different. Metro stop ?" "Sure ! Which way are you going ?" "Piccadilly. Perhaps.... Then. Wing. It." "Sounds good ! Pete, give this crazy guy a hand with his pants..."



Project Lorraine Chapter # 4: Down The Rabbit Hole


I caught the second Metro tram, rode it two stops, waddled into a Charity shop I'd scouted two weeks earlier. I picked out four large-print books, over-paid in Euros, left the change as a donation. Then I crossed the track and rode back five stops. I let two trams pass, took the third to Victoria.

The booking clerk examined my fax and asked for ID. I showed my 'Brendan Smith'. She peered at us, nodded, produced the ticket and a detailed, large-print itinerary, added, "Platform Three, forty minutes. Coach two. Your seat is reserved. Train won't be in until quarter-past. Grab a coffee here, there's no buffet on this service." "Thank. You... You've. Been. Very. Helpful..." I wheezed. "You're welcome, Mr. Smith! Mind how you go !"

With my dual rig, a mug of coffee was impossible. I struggled into a concourse shop, dropped the first basket, then collected half a dozen mini-carton drinks, the type with straws. I added Astronomy and National Geographic magazines for fun, plus a depressingly down-market Scientific American for its lurid cover-feature, 'Vampires ! Behind the Wall of Silence !' The check-out took Euros without complaint, gave me UK change. I'd been unsure of the 'petty cash' arrangements, so added a wad of my own notes, had plenty to spend. To my embarrassment, a spry old lady held the door for me...

I was still too early, so I waddled along to the toilets and took a wide 'Disabled' booth. That gave me room to put all but one book and two drinks into my tow-along case. Then I went through the inelegant process of aligning my 3rd-person plumbing with the pan. Squeezing the realistic 'ball-valve' was a bizarre experience-- I kept tensing in expectation of excruciating pain ! Bill's instructions had under-stated the problems, but I managed to relieve myself without disaster.

Allowing ten minutes, I made my way to the platform, showed the ticket, boarded. The seat was the inner of two, boldly carded 'B.SMITH'. My case easily slid into the luggage space. A commuter train, there was a last minute rush. A chatty couple came directly to my row, looked between me and my reservation card with surprise, then pushed through to the next section. A middle-aged business woman pounced on the vacancy. She settled into the empty seat with a huge sigh. She glanced at my pudgy features, at my large-print book. She smelled my sweat, looked around hastily, but all other seats had filled. She groaned, busied herself with her 'Evening News'.

I changed trains after half an hour, dragged case and bag across the bridge to the other platform. The twenty minute margin for my connection also gave me time for that first carton of juice. The local train reached my ticket's destination at dusk. Now I just had to wait. I wandered along the empty platform, found a seat, tried to get comfortable. The lights came on, night fell. Trains trundled through, delivered commuters and collected clubbers. I sipped my second carton dry, enjoyed the evening's cool and waited for something to happen.

A mucky van pulled up beyond the fence. Its stocky driver climbed out, walked to the gate and held up a hand-written sign, 'B. SMITH'. I waved from my seat. He strode up, gave me a hug, "Uncle B ! It's good to see you again !" "And, you, Lad !" I wheezed, mischievously adding, "You're late !" "Traffic.." He gestured vaguely, "May I take your case-- and bag ??" "Please..." "This way..." He fussed over my balky seat-belt, then drove off into the night. Beyond the station lights, I was effectively blind. From the twists, turns and road-noises, I estimated we'd doubled back more than once. He did his best to confuse my sense of direction by checking for pursuit. After we crossed the same bridge twice in five minutes, he seemed satisfied and set a course for home.

I glimpsed a tree-shrouded sign for 'Priory Farm Enterprise Centre' before the van turned into its yard. One corner was well lit. "I'll bring the luggage: Go on, you're expected !" I waddled across the yard. Beside the door, neat signs announced 'OFFICE', 'B&B EnSuite' and 'Vacancies'. The door opened, a plump woman called, "Charlie ? Put the van away right now, then bring Uncle B's case !!" "Okay, Ma !" "Come in, Uncle B, come in !" She helped me across the threshold step, steered me through to a sprawling country kitchen, parked me in a big chair, "Poor dear ! You must be exhausted ! Pot of tea ? Or something stronger ?" I shook my head, "Water. Please... Straw ?" "Oh, we don't have none of those !" She announced, drew a generous jug of water, filled a chunky glass. Fortunately I'd kept my two from the mini-cartons, and methodically drained the glass. "Will you be staying long this time ?" "Sorry..." I shook my head, "Depends. Schedule..."

"Ah, there you are, Charlie-- Took you long enough ! Put Uncle B's case-- and bag ?-- in Three, turn the covers back..." She glanced at the unexpected bag, hesitated, "Have you brought something nice ?" That was easy, "Airline. Lost. Baggage..." "So all you have is expensive airport rubbish ?" She shook her head, "Oh, you poor dear ! More water ?" "Please..." I'd rationed myself, but now I could quench my thirst, "Nice ! Your. Own. Well ?" "Oh, yes ! Our own bore-hole ! Very pure, just right for a sensitive tum !" I nodded politely, sucked the refill dry, "Thank. You... Most. Welcome..." "Gosh, you must be parched ! " She shook her head, "Would you like to go up to your room and freshen ? I've not put the wash in yet, so I could add your whites. They'd be ready for breakfast ?" "Please...Long day..." I stood, hesitated, offered my hand. "Oh, everyone calls me 'Ma' !" She chuckled, "Ma, GrandMa, Auntie Ma, Cousin Ma-- All short for Marge !" "Pleasure. To. Meet. You. Ma !" I managed as she pumped my hand. "Now you need to freshen and sit down comfy for a while, get our home under your feet ! Put your washing out, and one of the lads will be up to fetch you later !" "Thank. You. Ma !"

Charlie returned to help me up the stairs, "Here we are, Number Three: Nice bed, en-suite, walk-in wardrobe. Phone on bedside table. Inside bolt. Case on the rack, bag on the coffee-table. Good, solid shutters against the Dawn Chorus ! See you later, Uncle B !" "Thanks. Charlie !"

The bed was a splendid four-poster with drapes, the en-suite was palatial, piled with extra towels. It was a real guest-house, but they were working to a script. My unexpected bag had proved that ! And it would not surprise me if 'Charlie' had used a duplicate key to quickly check my case. I grinned, I had few secrets, but none were in the case !

Enough. I slowly unpacked, shaking and hanging the spare trousers and shirts on the walk-in's rail, putting my oversized 'smalls' in the dresser drawer. I shed my sweat-stained and crumpled clothes, checked their pockets then bundled them ready to wash. I waddled 'naked' into the en-suite, operated my plumbing, rinsed my double-gloved hands from habit. I was going to use a flannel to wipe my salt streaks, but the shower cubicle was generously sized, so I used that for speed. I used the 'blow dry' option rather than towel myself or drip on the carpet, crashed on a bath-towel on the bed.

I'd lain there for ten minutes when the phone rang, "Hello ?" "Uncle B ?" "Yes ?" "Put your washing out, set the bolt, dim the lights then wait for a knock." "Hello, who is this ?" "Put your washing out, set the bolt, dim the lights then wait for a knock." The caller repeated, then rang off. I weighed my options, shrugged. I eased my door ajar, placed my bundle on the threshold, pushed it out with the door. I set the solid bolt. Then I sat on my towel, dimmed the lights to 'night' and waited.

The knock came, but not from the room door. The 'walk-in' creaked open, Gollum's cousin peered out. He wore a loin-cloth, held another, "Hello, Uncle B ! I'm Pete. May I help you dress for dinner ?"

I needed a moment to suppress first a flinch, then a giggle, "Please..." I stood, reached back into the fleshy folds of my nape, found the recessed tag, got the zip open a couple of inches, "Can you work this for me ?" Pete drew it down to my buttocks seam. I spilled out of the fat suit like a moulting cave instar, eased out my head, freed my arms and legs, knelt panting, "Phew !" I popped out my dentures, dropped them in a glass, worked my mouth, "Oh, it is good to talk..." I knelt by my fat-suit, opened the internal pouches that firmed its 'man-boobs'. One had my fangs. I popped them in. The other held my contacts kits. I used my dresser mirror and the sucker to extract my 'puppy browns', blinked with relief. Before I lost my nerve, I put in my blood-red 'Vamps'.

I turned quickly, half-hissed, "Have I time for a shower ?" Pete flinched back, shook himself, nodded, "Yes ! Yes, of course ! Please..." I stood in the shower to wash off the salt, a little longer just to feel clean. The blow-dry meant minimal towelling. I padded back into the bedroom. Pete sniffed the air, nodded his approval, gestured at my remarkably Vampiric 'Second Skin', "We did not expect this: You do us a great honour."

I grinned, making him flinch again, "At least these contacts let me see ! Now, is there a formal style, or just 'Beach Wrap' ?" " 'Old Egyptian'-- don't ask !" Pete chuckled, "I'll show you..." I practised the twist and tuck until he was satisfied, "Good. You will not wear your human form again for several days. What do you need ?" I pointed to my bag, now holding the three magazines, "Also these spare fangs and red contacts." "I will carry them." Pete took the loaded bag, "The way is narrow, steep and dark: you will need both hands." "Thanks ! Okay, Pete, lead on !"



Project Lorraine Chapter # 5: Uncanny Valley


The lower set of my walk-in's blanket-shelves had swung out as a door. "Go left." Pete directed, "I'll close." I ducked through into a narrow passage minimally lit by a red LED pencil-torch on the floor. Behind me, Pete closed the shelves, began to re-fit a thick wall panel, "Go ahead, wait at the stairs. Mind the high step." I crept forwards in total darkness, came to a right turn into a narrower section, sidled through. Another dozen feet found a high threshold. I eased out, felt my way out onto precipitous stone spiral stairs. A well-worn Medieval 'vice', it had irregular, dished steps and no hand-rail. "Go up a few steps..." Pete followed me out. He closed the hatch on our passage, led the way down. Given Pete's fire-fly of a torch, we were climbing mostly by feel. I noticed four narrow recesses, three small hatches and two bricked-up slits, probably missed several more. After an odd step, like a repair, we reached a more irregular section with a different pitch. Given the distance, I felt we'd gone underground.

Another turn and a half, then the Stygian spiral ended at a small, iron-bound postern door. Pete tapped on the frame with his talon nubs. Bolts slid, the door creaked open on another Gollum cousin. Pete handed me through into the dim, barrel-vaulted corridor, followed, adding, "Thanks, Mick !" The gate-keeper nodded politely, hesitated, sniffed, glared at me,"Hey ! You stink of Sap !" "Sure he does." Pete chuckled, "Uncle Brendan's testing a new disguise. Don't worry, Charlie and Ma checked him out." "D'uh..." "Now, Mick, where's your manners ?" "Sorry, Uncle Pete... Sorry, Uncle Brendan..." "That's better, Mick. When are you off duty ?" "Nine ? No, ten !" "Well, come along to the Hall after. We'll still be there." "Wow, thanks, Uncle Pete !" Mick almost danced as he closed the bolts behind us. We'd turned two corners, stepped down into a wider, taller passage, before Pete spoke again, "Some Nests, litters still eat their Runts..."

A dozen yards on, crowd noises drifted from an arched doorway. Pete pushed open the double doors. I blinked. It was a typical, cheerful club-room, with an assortment of coffee tables and seating. There were at least forty Vampires sat or stood. They ranged from Juveniles to Elders, of both sexes. A few sat alone or with papers, most were gossiping in the usual human way. Pete eased me in. We drew glances, but no concern. After all, this was their home...

Then the nearest sniffed, glanced at us, looked between us in confusion. His partner turned. She looked us over, hesitated, stepped back. Her uncertain movement drew others' notice. A ripple of silence rolled out across the room. Forty-something pairs of puzzled blood-red eyes locked upon mine. I looked around calmly, picked out a familiar face. The month had worked wonders on his body, too, "Hello, Monty !"

"Blood and Sand !" Monty exploded. He strode through the shocked crowd, hugged me off my feet, "I would not have believed it-- I did not expect THIS-- Look at you !!" He shivered, turned, raised a hand, called, "Be It Known: Chris, travelling as Brendan, is my BloodKin !" The gasps told me much, the rude exclamations told me more. A tall Vampire stood, made the range of opinions clear, "So this is your Pet Sap, Monty ? That stay in their world has Bent your mind !" "Chris is no Pet, Frank: He is RogueBane." Some looked interested, others were alarmed, most puzzled. Frank was un-impressed, "Ha ? So your Pet catches Fledgelings ?" Monty turned to me, "Chris, how many Rogues, now ?" "As of last week... ? " I grinned, "Fourteen."

Frank froze. Suddenly, there was movement, the crowd opening space between us, and behind him to the wall. It was so like an old Western, it made me grin again. My loin-cloth scarcely had space for an invite, so I wondered what they feared. It didn't matter. "You are Hee-EE ?" Frank's voice cracked, he gulped, "I-- I thought you would be taller..." "I've been ill." "That terrible business in Africa..." Monty kindly explained. "The Haemorragic Fever ?" A Caucasian Vampire, Frank could not be any paler, but he did the next best-- He shivered. His mouth worked. He licked his lips. He drew a careful breath, then a second. Finally, he felt he could trust himself to speak, "Chris, travelling as Brendan, BloodKin of Montague, please forgive my unkind words. I-- I let prejudice rule my speech."

"Apologies accepted." I nodded, grinned, "Hey, your opinions are mild compared to those of the wider HomoSap community: Many would cheerfully Stake me for this !" That earned cautious nods, and a few chuckles. I turned to Monty, "Is it your custom to shake hands on a settlement ?" "Our mores are different: There is a Clasp of Companionship." Monty turned to Frank, lifted an open hand. Frank stiffened, nodded reluctantly, stepped forwards. They met as if about to arm-wrestle, then stepped apart. Frank turned to me. I matched Monty's stance. Frank went for a knuckle-crusher, but I'd tensed my hand. He seemed surprised. He eased back to 'firm', gave me a closer look. I watched his eyes search mine, search my mask's features.

Frank disengaged, stepped back, "Chris, travelling as Brendan, your disguise is artful... May I touch your face ?" I hesitated a bare instant, nodded once. Frank reached s_l_o_w_l_y. He ran a talon nub down my left 'cheekbone', then further, across my neck to the 'carotid'. He stopped there for longer than I liked. He moved out across my shoulder, traced the 'muscle groups', drifted down my arm and onto my hand...

Frank shuddered, stepped back, "How is this done ?" "I don't know." I shrugged, added, "Perhaps a tattoo process guided by software ?" Frank shuddered again, "Your likeness is imperfect-- Yet it is TOO perfect ! You appear un-natural..." "Ah..." I had a thought, " 'Uncanny Valley' ? Person / Non-Person recognition is ambiguous." He took time to think that through, nodded slowly, "Yes... Most disconcerting..." "I'm sorry." "No." Frank stated, "Again, you have held a mirror to my soul: What I see is coloured by my ghosts..." I had the sense to keep my mouth shut.

Frank gathered himself, "Chris, Monty ? Would you dine at my table tonight ? We have much to discuss..." Suddenly, the room was full of grins and smiles. Monty clapped me across the shoulders, "Come, Chris ! Frank and I have tales that would curl your fangs !"



Project Lorraine Chapter # 6: Fast Food


When the side doors opened and we streamed through into their dining room, I did not know what to expect. But a 'normal', if dim staff canteen ? Vinyl tiled floor ? Neatly tabarded Vampire caterers ? A stack of chipped trays ? Plastic on steel-tube stackable chairs ? Laminate tables ?

"Hygiene rules." Monty shrugged, "This is only 'Second Breakfast', so eat light: I can recommend today's Small Bolognese, while those baby carrots and beets are just 'al dente'." "Er, okay... What's to drink ?" Frank grinned, "Make that three, with tomato juice all around !"

The older Vampires chose similar, slow-carb meals. Youngsters piled their plates with protein, mostly braised lamb chops or ribs, plus essential greens and root-veg. There was no cashier. We collected paper napkins and plastic cutlery, found a table.

"Not what I expected..." I sighed with relief. Frank looked to Monty, "You told Chris so little, then ?" "I made a point of not asking." I stated. "Ah ? Monty ?" "Chris asked me --us-- to respect his ethics and digestion. Period." "Ah... What do you know of the arrangements for this week ?" "I'm here. I'm your guest. I'll try to fit in." "Do your people know where you are ?" Frank puzzled. "Know ? Certainly not ! Sure, careful detective work could trace me to that station, but the trail ends there. Charlie was careful, and 'Brendan' is night-blind." "You do not fear we might sacrifice our hostages to remove your threat ?" "It would be a poor trade." I shrugged, "I'm more concerned about faction fights and Rogues."

Frank thought on that for a moment, "Why ?" "Why not ?" I quipped, "If you're going to tell me that you, personally, ate my predecessor, I'd better warn you I'm stringy." "Gah !" Monty dropped his fork, covered his mouth, chuckled, "That was in bad taste !" "Ah. " Frank considered, "You consider yourself expendable ?" "I'm a HotZoner." "Of course..." Frank allowed, "You are not without fear, you are driven by duty..." Monty grinned, "See, Frank ? Chris is no-one's Pet." "Hmm. What were you told of our divisions and politics ?" "Nothing." I stated, "I did not ask, and Monty did not volunteer anything. Yes, there were hints and clues. SOTM knew there were factions."

"As you have deduced, we represent opposing factions." Frank tossed Monty a token snarl, "Monty is considered Progressive, I am very Traditional. Chris, your arrival --your unusual arrival-- has complicated matters. What do you hope to achieve ?" "To see what you want me to see, to learn what you want me to know. Your call." Frank hesitated, drained his tomato juice, "May I try an experiment ?" "Nothing too dangerous, please..." "Surely." Frank stared at me for a long moment, stood and walked towards the soft drink jugs. I noticed Monty watching my gaze, glanced back at Frank's empty chair. Carefully, I waved a hand through the gap. Monty grinned. I resumed my battle with the spaghetti.

Frank returned with three fresh glasses of tomato juice, looked to Monty, "Well ?" "Your Glamour is strong--" Monty began, too politely. "When did you notice ?" Frank asked me. "Notice what ?" "For a moment, Chris suspected your leaving was the attempted illusion." Monty replied for me. Frank sat carefully, "That explains much..." He sipped his juice as I finished my pasta, added, "Most children can pierce Glamour, as can cats and many dogs. Generally, HomoSap children lose the instinct as their schooling advances... You are resistant to hypnotism ?" "Yes." I nodded. "That fits, too..." Frank chuckled, "And you are honest to a fault-- Do not deny this ! You may disguise it as jest, but you WILL speak the truth..." "Huh. You make me sound like a saint-- I'm not even a Doctor !" "You're not ?" Monty seemed surprised, "I'd thought..." "I'm a Medical Technician, with a raft of cross-training. My parents were doctors, my brother, both sisters, an aunt and two uncles are doctors or surgeons. I did one year of Biochemistry.." "Oh ?" Frank puzzled, "What happened ?" "Mum needed nursing. I took a gap year, never went back..."

"Do you regret it ?" Monty wondered. "Sometimes... HotZones are Hell: I've triaged more people than I care to remember--" "But you have saved thousands--" "By leaving more to die." I hissed, "Don't soften it." "I-- I would not dare." Monty shuddered. "Nor I..." Frank shook his head, "And I thought I carried many ghosts..." "So why do you do it ?" "Monty, I don't have much choice. Attrition on new HotZoners is grim: after that, your chances improve..." I chuckled, "Mind you, I didn't apply for the job ! I was the wrong side of a secondary air-lock when the Level 3 alarm went, was stuck there. I knew the basics, learned fast." "You lived." Frank nodded, "So they kept you ?" "I'd done the hard part... Had to swot the courses, but those were easy after three rounds with The Grim Reaper." I raised my half-glass of juice, "Mud In His Eye !" That was something Vampires could sincerely toast, "Mud In His Eye !"

Pete had been lurking, took that opportunity to approach, "Elders ?" "Speak, Nephew." Frank allowed. "Elders, Chris travelling as Brendan, the guest-room is ready." Frank looked to Monty, "Your plans for Chris ?" "Junior school-room Q&A before the rumours fly. Lunch. Senior students' session." "Open Door ?" "If you like, Frank." Monty offered, "Any rules ?" "Keep it clean." I spoke first, "Don't press me for details of Rogue hunting." Frank and Monty looked at each other, nodded agreement. "Chris, Monty, I must wonder if your madcap scheme may work after all ! " Frank grinned, "Now, please, I must reflect at length on what we have discussed..." "And I have Accounts Due to render..." Monty grumbled. We stood. "Thanks for an interesting meal." I nodded to both. "This is but 'Vittles' !" Monty waved, "We feast at New Moon ! Okay, young Pete, would you show Chris to his room ?"

After the ordinary dining room, my basic 'Motel' room was no surprise. Double bed with duvet, en-suite, kettle, wardrobes, hanging spaces and drawers all belonged. Underground, the air-conditioning was essential. My shopping bag waited on the bed-side table, beneath a reading light. Pete opened a built-in wardrobe, lifted out a hangar, "School uniform is Lederhosen. Matching suede smalls. I had to guess at your size." "Er, thanks..." "Some shirt-waister tunics for later, and two sleeping-shirts." He chuckled, "Though what you'd want with those..." I shrugged, "In case I need to wake running ?" "Ah...?" Pete grinned, "And a selection of sleeping arrangements-" A 'corner wardrobe' opened on three close-stacked tube-beds' pillows. The 'window' shutters hid a deeply recessed bed-shelf with futon pad, "But, if you really want 'Traditional'--" Pete lifted the spring-hinged sofa seat to show an archetypal, half-couch oak casket lined with white satin...

When I got my mouth shut, I had to say, "D'you know ? I might try it !" "Over-rated." Pete allowed, "Stuffy. But snug..." "I've woken in a body-bag." I shrugged, "At least this is clean..." "How-- D'uh... Oh, okay... Um, d'you mind a question or two ?" "You heard the rules..." "Did you mean to 'mousetrap' Elder Frank ?" "No." "Could you have taken him down ?" "There and then ? Not likely !" I retorted, "Nor in a fair fight." "We-- We did not believe you would come unarmed and helpless..." "Was there another way ?" Pete thought about it, shook his head, "No... No, there was not." I shrugged, "Don't be offended if my trigger finger twitches a bit, though." "Do you play video games ?" "Some..." "We have '29 Days' networked--" "Wow ! That old 'Humans vs Vampires vs Zombies' classic ?" I laughed, "After Amnesty came in, it was withdrawn-- And you play it ?" "Oh, yes !" Pete chuckled, "After all, we know Zombies don't exist--" He caught my look, "Don't they ?" "I've dealt with some odd diseases, but no genuine Zombies..." I winked, "Not yet, mind ! Hmm, I'm a bit rusty, but..." "Deal ! Might take a few days to set up..."

"Okay." I nodded, "And today ? I need to --er-- wash and dress." "Yes, yes, of course. Half an hour ?" "Sure !" "You'll knock gently ?" "Ohhh, yes !" Pete nodded, "After your little discussion with Elder Frank, everyone I've met has said something like, 'Don't Startle The Rogue Bane !' " "Thank you. Half an hour, then."

I'd need the time. First priority was to shed the Pharaonic loin-cloth, stagger into the wash-room and aim my valve. After the easy part, I reached down, released the bottom end of my zip, got my back-side out. While nature took its course, I reflected that I should have packed that tub of baby cream. Oh, well, the locals could find me some cream, plus a large bottle of hypo-allergenic body-wash. Relieved, I cleaned myself, then used a wet towel-end to mop some itches. After zipping up, I took a long, long shower to shift my body-glove's pore salt. Again, the blow-dry feature saved me wrestling with a towel...

I chuckled: Our strategy team had devised a plan to 'invent' specials, available only from SOTM. Their bar-code numbers would ricochet through the national pharmacy database and flag the order. I turned that down flat. At the very least, it would show 'bad faith'. Also, there were too many ways to go wrong...

I turned on the reading light and took a better look at my 'school' clothes. A plain T-shirt, suede briefs and saddle- stitched, metal-free Lederhosen ? Granted, they'd withstand childish enthusiasm, granted they'd be very hard wearing. I shook my head. I preferred denim, Rohan airweights or an environmental suit. When in Rome, however...

Fortunately, Pete was a good guesser. The outfit fitted well, looked less absurd than I expected. Compared to 'Brendan', it moved better, too. I turned off the reading light, sat to let my eyes adjust. When the knock came at my door, I was pleased to see Pete had a matching outfit...



Project Lorraine Chapter # 7: A Winter's Tale.


"We're early: I'll take you the scenic route." Pete led me into the the Nest's dim maze of un-marked doors and oft-crooked passages. I noted different styles of masonry, plus some modern brick-work, shuttered concrete and RSJ lintels. "Core looks like a Medieval under-croft..." I commented. "We think parts are older..." Pete allowed, "Chronicles mention finding the skull of a cave-bear..." "Makes sense." I nodded, "I'd guess the original builders broke through into natural caves. Alignments keep shifting between orthogonal and the natural faulting." "Does that tell you where you are ?" I thought about it, "No more than the van-ride did. Even if some-one twisted my arm, I could only estimate within a dozen miles." "Good." Pete nodded, "We'd notice a search."

"Okay..." I grinned, plucking my leather braces, "So why Lederhosen ?" "Good question !" Pete laughed, "The Nest's first real Teacher was half-Austrian. She went with what she knew. It wears well. It has pockets, a pouch. And, it has hand-holds-- Our Little Folk are slippery as eels, quick as Imps--" "Imps ?" "Figure of speech..." Pete sighed, "We have old stories, but no proof..." "Ah. Pete, you seem comfortable in 'School Uniform'. Are you so young ?" "Nooo..." Pete grinned, "They are our Romper suits, too ! No other material will endure such rough play ! It also says 'Off Duty'." "One HomoSap expression is, 'Let Your Hair Down'." I chuckled, "Another is, 'School's Out' ! Hmm, are we nearly there yet ?" "Couple more turns..."

The next door was not wood. An old, oval steel sea-door set in a rough concrete bulkhead, it had heavy 'dogs' and a porthole with its permanent deadlight clamped shut. Pete tapped the bulkhead's twin float-gauges, glanced into their drip-catcher, an incongruous yellow plastic bucket, "Dry." He turned the switch on a high-mounted junction box, opened the porthole's cover, peered through the heavy glass, "And low water... Safe to un-dog."

The heavy door opened on a small cave, lit by two bulkhead lamps. Cool, moist air drifted from a deep gulley, small stalagtites hung in a corner, flow-stone smoothed the bedding-plane. "Oh, pretty !" I smiled, glancing about, "Cave fish, too ?" "Sometimes." Pete nodded, "Storms wash them out. And that's the reason I've brought you here." "Er, I don't have much caving experience..." "No need." Pete shook his head, "Fully mapped... But, see the depth gauge ?" I'd given the clearly marked pole a glance. It was clamped between floor and ceiling, had stains around its ankles, "Uh-huh ?" "Behind it ?" "Ah !" Small, arrowed plaques were spiked to the stone. Several were modern. One, remarkably close to the roof, was almost lost to tarnish. It was certainly older than the wall and door, "Wow ! A 'Century Flood' ? There'd be a fair hydraulic head on that-- And if cave syphons fill, you'd get over-pressure, too."

"They did." Pete nodded, "The Old Watergate failed." "Bad..." I whispered, "Very bad..." "The way the Chronicles tell it, the Nest was waist-deep for two days. A dozen drowned. Many were badly injured, most were sick. Much food was spoiled, stocks were halved. They lost their Trustees to the chill--" "Hypothermia." I nodded, "I'm surprised anyone survived..." "But the local village was hit worse. The river burst its bank, washed three cottages away, wrecked others. Cattle drowned in their byres, harvests failed, root-crops rotted. Unseasonal frosts killed the higher plantings..." Pete shivered, "The Summer wasn't, and Winter came early. They would surely freeze or starve..."

I'd been peering at the plaque, had made out the leading 1, an 8, another 1, and, "Of course ! 'Eighteen Hundred and Starved To Death' !! 1816, the 'Year Without A Summer' !! Volcano, volcano-- Tambora ! Erupted 1815, but took six months to veil the planet... Krakatoa was a loud hiccup by comparison." "The Moon was tainted, the very air was fouled." Pete nodded grimly, "But an Elder remembered another time-- and mistakes made. Unless the Nest acted, the local community would perish. Without them, the Nest must move..." "You could warn them of a Wolf-winter--" I shook my head, "They had nothing ! What could they do ?"

"The Nest made a dreadful decision: They must twice break with tradition." Pete stated, "The Acting NestMaster sent a message to the village Elders. He offered to share our food and shelter in return for their silence and lawful help..." "Clever." I nodded, "Even now, Vampirism --per se-- is not unlawful. Which is why SOTM handle it..." "Yes. They must have thought he was a Frenchy, smuggler or Radical, but that 'lawful' provision was the hook. They swore." "They must have had a shock when they saw the truth !!" "I dare say they did ! The Chronicles are, uh, vague on the detail. But the villagers needed food and shelter, no less than the Nest needed the village... " Pete shrugged, "Well, they kept their word. Nest and villagers alike went hungry. All suffered from the cold. None starved, few died. The villagers rebuilt. The Nest endured." "And as for blood-letting--" I chuckled, "Chirurgeons and Barbers did that anyway ! Hence Monty's oath ?" "I'm told so..." Pete nodded, "But the Nest's second step set them apart from all others: This Nest and daughter Nests begat from here would not Bend their HomoSap helpers. Instead, we are BloodKin."

I had to think through the implications, "So Frank is not of this Nest ?" "Elder Frank is from a *very* traditional Nest." Pete grinned, "He was invited to discuss, plan and observe the experiment. Us Progressive Youngsters have been a trial unto him..." "And then I arrived..." I suppressed a giggle, "I reckon he's had his money's worth !! Okay, I'll give you a hand with this door..."



Project Lorraine Chapter # 8: Children's Hour.


Pete led me back a different way. I did not try to keep track, there was no point. In their position, I would add blanking panels and blind doors, move them around at whim...

We stepped down into a wider corridor, passed a dozen newly anonymous doors. The next was still labelled 'Kindergarten' in an old, Gothic script. Pete knocked gently, waited. After a minute, the door was opened by another Gollum cousin in Lederhosen. Off-Season, it is hard to sex Vampires, but the lower shoulder / hip ratio told me Female. Her voice was slightly softer, too, "Hi, Pete ! Chris ?! Come in !"

The cross-vaulted space was a similar size to their 'club' or 'diner', but laid out as a school-room. It was an odd mix of styles. Walls were covered by modern posters, black-boards, white-boards, clip-boards and art-work. At the far end, tiered Victorian desks faced a high Teachers' Table. By the door, tables carried a variety of PCs with hardened keyboards and industrial track-balls. Between, assorted tables, desks, chairs, sand-trays, toys, buckets and bowls distracted a cheerful mob of mini-Vampires.

Two Gollum cousins kept a minimal order, an Elder in a long, black robe spoke with another. "Ma'am ?" Our guide spoke politely, but loud enough to carry. The Elder's head came up, she nodded, clapped her hands twice. Silence fell, the young heads swivelled towards Ma'am, "Our guest has arrived: Please take your seats !" They glanced around at us, downed their toys without complaint, stood and trooped to their places.

Ma'am looked me over, met us part-way, "Greetings, Chris, BloodKin of Montague, I am Elder Vine. Your visit does us great honour !" Didn't take a genius to formulate my reply, "Thank you, Ma'am, it is my honour to be invited. How may I help ?" "Would you say a few words to our young folk, then take questions ?" "I'd be delighted !" I'd rather take on a rabid Rogue, I'd rather be in Philadelphia, but I glanced to Pete, "May Pete stay ?" Ma'am glanced to him, he nodded minutely, "Certainly ! Pete, please sit with my Assistants... Chris ?" I followed her to the Teachers' Table, stood while she spoke, "Children, Chris is the HomoSap Exchange Student we discussed. Chris will say a few words, then take questions. He is our honoured guest, so speak as you would to me." "Thank you, Ma'am."

I took a long breath, "Hello and good evening to you. My name is Chris. I am a young Medical Technician at the School of Tropical Medicine. My specialty is HomoVamp metabolism. I also do field-work in HotZones, to prevent disease outbreaks becoming epidemics or worse. I was involved in that recent incident in Africa. I was very ill, but I survived..."

I paused. Twenty-one mini-Vampires stared at me with open-mouthed fascination. They came as hairless, albino, red-eyed triplets, quads or quins, were dressed identically. I could not tell them apart except by size, with the older and larger sat towards the back. My bemused wits tagged them 'The Family Von Adams', let my mouth work again.

"Your Nest calls me RogueBane. That was a big surprise and a great honour. As yet I know too little of your ways to do this well. I hope to learn more by helping you understand my people... If I do not know how to answer a question, I will say so. If it is properly an Elder's question, I will answer as best I can. If Ma'am does not want me to answer a question, I'll pass to another." Heads nodded. After a few moments' whispering, a forest of small, nub-taloned hands rose. Ma'am pointed to the back row.

"G-- Greetings, Chris, I am Mary. If you are S-- HomoSap, why do you look so like us ?" "Greetings, Mary ! I am wearing a body-glove disguise to help me look, feel and move like a HomoVamp. I hope I still smell like a HomoSap ??" That got giggles, and "Thank you !" "Greetings, Chris. I am Oscar. How is it that you can DayWalk ?" "Greetings, Oscar ! That is a hard question to answer quickly... You know HomoVamps have Porphyria, a problem with their blood ? One side-effect is it makes them very sensitive to the UV-A and UV-B in sunlight. Some HomoSaps have a similar Porphyria, They must avoid sunlight, too. Hmm, you know HomoSap skin colour varies from near-black through browns to near-white ? That is due to our skin Melanin, a brown material that blocks sun-light. My natural colour is close to that pale desk, but I tan to this dark table. Even so, I must use sun-block cream, sun-glasses and a wide hat if the sun-light is strong. Only HomoSaps with naturally dark skin are true DayWalkers." "Thank you !"

"Greetings, Chris, I am David. Are you really a Singleton Birth ?" "Greetings, David, yes. One of my cousins has twin sons. As they do not 'run' in either family, the odds were about four per thousand. Single births are usual." "Were you lonely ?" "No. We were a close family. I have three elder sibs --brother and two sisters-- each separated by several years. Neighbours and cousins had children near my age. Our old cat slept on my head... But a special bond between HomoSap multiples is common." "Thank you !"

"Greetings, Chris, I am Suzanne: Can you really do it all the time ?" All too human sniggers ran around. Ma'am scowled. Pete and the Assistants held their breath. 'Precocious Child !!' I warned myself, chose my words carefully, "Greetings, Suzanne ! Can, yes. May, no." I'd never known a Vampire blush, but she managed it. I added, "As I understand it, HomoVamp females have a 'Season' about twice a year. They develop pink curves and may call for a mate. HomoSap females have a smaller season every month and curves all the time. Their cues are subtle, more social than overt: dress more attractively, wear bolder lip-stick, perhaps use a different perfume." "T-- Thank you !" "You're welcome !" I smiled.

"Greetings, Chris, I am Graham. What is it like to swim in the Sea ?" "Greetings, Graham ! In my opinion, sea-bathing is over-rated. The water is salty, so you float higher. But, below any warm surface layer, the sea is deadly cold. It will suck the heat from your unprotected body in a very short time. Also, sea-water is too salty for us to drink freely. It is a soup of life, ranging from nano-viruses to the size of your net, and may contain many toxins. You must watch for spiny fish, stinging jellies and toothy predators. There are waves and under-currents, rocks and mud. A storm at sea is a Primal experience, with howling winds and wave-crests blown to spray. Rogue-waves thrice the height of this room may strike from an unexpected direction." "Wow ! Thank you !"

"Greetings, Chris, I am Michelle. Do you drive ?" "Greetings, Michelle ! Yes, I do drive. I have a modest Astra Estate with a tow-bar, and I can start and drive almost anything short of a racing car or Abrahms Tank. Neither fast nor well, mind, but mobile. I've been taught how to ford rivers, cross sand and such..." "Thank you !" "Greetings, Chris, I am Maria. Do you have a pet ?" "Greetings, Maria ! My life is too uncertain for a pet of my own, so I share the neighbours' cats." "What are they like ?" "Well, 'Fluffy' is a long-haired tabby, 'Suki' is Seal-point Siamese and 'Kiwi' is a big, black Hunter. They have distinct 'Purrsonalities'. They seem to know when I'm due back from a HotZone, and will wait on my step to greet me." "Thank You !"

"Greetings, Chris, I am Ronald. Which football team do you support ?" "Greetings, Ronald ! I don't have time. But, if I did, Liverpool, of course !" That got a chuckle, "Thank you !" "Greeting, Chris, I am Zöe. Do you watch 'Buffy: Rogue Slayer' ?" "Greetings, Zöe, yes I do. It is so unreal, it makes me laugh. And, after a hard day, that is better for my waistline than a six-pack or a box of chocolates." "Thank you !" From the nods exchanged, that seemed to settle a wager.

"Greetings, Chris, I am Jerome. Are you a Slayer ?" "Greetings, Jerome ! No, I am NOT a Slayer. I do not have the reflexes. I do not have the killer instinct. I'm just a nice bloke with a knack for flushing Rogues..." "Do you know any Slayers ?" "I've met L.C.--" That drew a gasp, "-- at a conference. And, yes, she scared me, too." "What did you talk about ?" "I asked her for her autograph... " It still hurt, "She looked at me, read my badge, muttered something about expecting some-one taller, shook her head then strode away." They laughed. "L.C. is a Slayer-- One look tells you that. She moves like a Big Cat. Ambidextrous, she can kill with bare hands or feet. She's a wicked knife-fighter. She's a lethal shot. And she does not take prisoners-- She can't help it, Slayers leave a trail of bodies..." That drew a mutual shudder. "I do not work like that. Although I have killed 14 Rogues to her 20, another dozen took my offer of Amnesty, and I've captured five who refused. Three of those 5 survived their injuries." "Ooh ! Does she really have those nice legs ?" "And the rest !" I nodded, "Talk about social cues !! Hers' scream AlphaPlus Female..." "Wow !!" "I did get her autographed photo: I queued and paid my £ 5 UKP. She didn't recognise me without the badge..." That earned a chuckle. "Thank you !"

"One more question before lunch ?" Ma'am allowed, "Yes ?" "Greetings, Chris, I am Bertram. If you fought L.C., who would win ?" "Greetings, Bertram ! That is a hard question, but it has an answer: In any fair fight, L.C. of course, of course. Given choice of weapons, me." That prompted some thoughtful mutterings, "Wh-- How-- Er, can you say why ?" "We played 'Scissors, Paper, Rock' in the Conference bar." I stated, "It began as a harmless joke, but she lost 2/3, 3/5 then 6/10. I joked I wasn't dangerous enough to trigger her Slayer reflexes, and we laughed it off. Her eyes weren't laughing, though. To lose at anything was anathema, to be trounced by a skinny Nerd was humiliating. Irony is I didn't beat her, she beat herself. If she'd ever read Poe or Doyle, she might have understood..." Bertram gulped, "Thank you !!"

Ma'am nodded, clapped her hands twice, "Time for lunch ! Remember, walk, don't run in the corridors !" They skipped the obstacles, slowed for the doorway, poured left into the corridor. Their voices rose as they went, so we could hear them to a surprising distance. "Well !" Ma'am seemed almost as bemused as her young students, "That was an interesting discussion !" She'd surely used 'interesting' in the sense of the old Chinese curse, and I wished her well. Judging by Pete and the Assistants' expressions, they'd be doing some hasty research, too. "Well ! Thank you, Chris, BloodKin of Montague ! You are here for some days ? Perhaps we can talk some more ?" "I would be delighted, Ma'am ! Thank you for inviting me. I've learned a lot, today." "I dare say..." She allowed, "I have heard of the incident with Elder Frank: Did you mean to 'mousetrap' him ?" "Pete also asked me. No. I am not that brave or that clever. He trapped himself." "He is not foolish. He was blinded by his ghosts." "I understand, I think..." I hesitated, "No, I don't. Not really. I lack his referents. I just hope sorrow does not turn him Rogue." "This has been a difficult era: mistakes were made, and Elder Frank shares responsibility for some terrible blunders. With hindsight, there was no good choice to be found. Yet, he survived against all odds, though many did not..." "The Curse of Self-Doubt." I sighed, "The most terrible part of HotZone triage is that if you hesitate, the time wasted by your indecision will let other victims slip across the uncertain line from possible rescue to probable death. We do run later sweeps; just as some whom we thought would live just die, others left to die yet cling to life. One benefit of working to exhaustion is that faces and cases blur..." "You are wise beyond your years." "Or cynical !" I shrugged, "But, interesting times !!"



Project Lorraine Chapter # 9: Dinner-Ladies.


Pete led me to the canteen, where the Family Von Adams had almost sated their appetites. We got greetings and cheerful waves, but they finished their desserts and drained their juices, trooped off without comment.

"They're off to the BatCave." Pete grinned, "Jungle Gym with a safety net at the bottom. Wonderful fun !! Just the thing to settle lunch !" "Pass..." I muttered, "I'm no Aerialist." "Oh. Ahhh! The Pasta-shells and Chicken Bake smells nice today..." "Suits me." I nodded to the smartly tabarded server, "Small portion, please." "A Double." Pete ordered his, "With some of those Spare Ribs on the side..." "And Tomato juice, please." "Same again." Pete scooped a couple of bread rolls off the stack, headed for a table. Other diners glanced in our direction, but were unconcerned. "How does the staffing work ?" I wondered. "Rota basis, like most of the Nest's tasks. Premiums on skill, difficulty or unpleasantness, but there's a complex system of values and trade-offs..." "Sounds like a Mature Bourse." I offered, "This pasta is really nice. Um, plenty of garlic in it, too..." "Oh, yes !" Pete grinned, "Garlic, pepper, onion, other sharp spices-- they certainly add some Zing to the taste !" "So what happened to Vamps shunning garlic ?" "Nosegays." "D'uh ?" I paused mid-fork, "Those scented things Medieval people wore to hide the stink ?" "Yes, but they also masked their own odours. Sweat and dirt, okay, but diseases, too. A snack on a sick peasant could be your last..." "Interesting..." "Your Caduceus just lit..." Pete observed. "Perhaps a different slant on Medieval disease profiles and demographics... I'd need to research it at SOTM." I shrugged, "How do we play this after-lunch session ?"

Pete paused between crunching ribs like celery-sticks, "We'll need a bigger room than the Senior's." "Oh ?" "You lit off the Little Monsters, which primed the grapevine. The Elder and her Assistants will tell a dozen others each, and anyone who hasn't urgent business else-where will show up, if only from curiosity. Chris, even some of us Youngsters are unhappy about a wild HomoSap in the Nest, BloodKin or not..." "I'll remember to duck." I nodded, trapped and ate the last of my pasta shells, downed my juice, "Do I need to go back to my room to find a toilet ?" "Hygiene rules: They're handy. I just hope the signs are still attached..." With his last rib gone, he prepared to attack the pasta, "Left out the door, look on your right. Be long ?" "Not sure..." "Okay, if I'm gone, wait here and I'll come find you." "Thanks, Pete."

The facilities were where he'd said, and still had their signs. I'd done my best to anticipate the Nest's nocturnal world, but my digestion had not caught up with light meals and an erratic fluid intake. I went through the process of valving my catheter, then unzipped my body-glove's posterior and settled down. Took a while, took longer than I'd expected, couldn't be rushed...

Much relieved, I cleaned up and wandered back to the emptying canteen. Pete had left, as had most of the later wave of diners. The half-dozen staff had closed the counters, sat to their own meals. "Please, sit with us ?" They called. "Hi !" I sat, "I'm--" "Oh, we know !" "You're Chris ! I'm Sue. Lara, Mari, Annabelle, Mary, Joey the Chef." "You're our HomoSap RogueBane !" "And you put that nasty Elder Frank in his place!" "He didn't like my food..." Joey grumbled, "Over-cooked, under-cooked, too spicy-- Hey, this is Fast Food, not Cordon Bleu !" "Fine by me!" I stated, "In fact, your food is better than SOTM's !" "There !" "Told you so !"

"Your disguise is really good: Is it comfy ?" "Snug." I allowed, "FX workshop took body-scans and alginate casts. They call it a body-glove." "May I touch ?" "Sure. It's Goretex 'Second Skin' plus tweaks. I'd guess at a tattoo process." "Oooh... Mary ! Feel these muscles ! You'd think they're real !" "Eek!" I squeaked, "Those are !" They laughed, then patted, poked and groped my face, arms and legs. "Say AAAH !" "Aaah ?" "See how they're different at the back ?" "Wow, that's clever !" "What do your own look like ?" "Um, may I have a hand back ?" They giggled. I eased out my top prosthetics, licked my lips, grinned, "Cheese!" "Hey, nice teeth !" "Mum made you brush them twice a day ?" "And after lunch." I admitted, "Sisters made sure." They laughed, "Gosh, how your voice has changed--" "Hang on--" I replaced my fangs, settled them, "How's that ?" "That's better !" Lara chuckled, "Now you sound normal !"

"It is a wonderful disguise." Joey allowed, "You've gone to a lot of trouble... Um, if it isn't an indelicate subject ? You were gone a long time..." "Catheter at the front, double-ended micro-zip at the back. Not conducive to haste." "Wow !" Sue, my neighbour, was fiddling with my left hand, "Is it a glove ? No, your talons are firm..." "More 'Second Skin'." I nodded, "But those talon nubs are bonded to my nails-- Hey! Go easy !" Sue stopped prising, dropped my hand, "Sorry !" "Ouch !" I waggled my fingers, "Ouch ! My HomoSap nail-beds don't tie to the bone as well as yours." "Ooh, didn't know that !" "And our nails don't shed sheaths, they just grow. Need clipping..." "Ah !" "That explains-" "Like HomoSap face-hair grows ?" Joey wondered, "Must be horrible..." "Just part of the HomoSap condition." I shrugged, "Secondary male attribute, face-hair sprouts at puberty. Races and families have different sensitivities to hormones, some get tufts, others get bear-mats. Then head-hair changes. Brow-line recedes, you go grey, or bald or both. If you're very ill or over-stressed, it can all fall out. Just happened to me in Africa. Makes this costume tolerable but, for now, I'm as smooth as a piebald egg." They giggled. "Will it grow back ?" Joey wondered. "No idea. Perhaps when I replace my weight loss, perhaps in tufts, perhaps never. Can't say I'll miss shaving-- or stubble !!"

"What do your people think of us ?" Annabelle asked. "Complicated..." I thought about it, "SOTM are okay. But SOTM was started for sick sea-farers. Often they'd show up with no common language, no money, no notion of our customs. 'Brotherhood of the Sea' transcends all that. The tradition continues. There's a standing joke: If 'Little Green Men' landed on Patrick Moore's lawn, he'd invite them in for tea and call SOTM." They laughed. "Beyond SOTM, it varies widely. A lot of people accept you for what you are. More are stuck with the old legends-- Living Dead, The Bite, Eternal Youth, creaking coffin-lids and the rest. Too many are hung up on your blood need: Rogues' atrocities don't help...

"Three major religions see you as the very embodiment of Evil. Those who don't call you Devils and cross themselves, well, they call you Afriit and run a mile. Most Rednecks reckon you're immigrants and/or varmints too, reach for their shot-gun. They're arguably better than the Lunatic Fringe...

"Some crave the blood, others the lust. Some still think you're lying, that you CAN make them Vampires so they may have Eternal Youth. The Hellfire Faction worship you, want to be your slaves. One weird bunch wants bizarre sex. Goths and Hyper-Goths just think you're Cool. Area_51 Society reckon you are really Grey Aliens, and Vampirism is just a cover-story invented by 'Men In Black'. They can't agree on who is conspiring or why, but they know The Truth Is Out There. Gollum Group is convinced that LOTR is 'Hidden History', and spend their time teasing meaning from its numerology...

"Worst of all are the VampAid activists. They want nothing more than to save you from yourselves. Some hold vigils and make worthy noises. Some are prepared to die trying. The only time I've seen a Rogue at a loss was when a VampAider slipped through our cordon. She stood there, exhorting him, quoting her tracts, telling him he was simply misunderstood. Happens she was looking the wrong way. He listened to her for several minutes, glanced over to me. I shrugged. He shrugged. 'Take the Amnesty.' I pleaded, 'Please ?' She looked around. I was crouched, HK levelled on nothing, talking to nothing. He dropped his Glamour. She screamed. 'Stupid girl !' He snarled at her, then Rushed me. I'd time to place my shots. Medics got a line in and he survived..."

"Wow ! We watched you at Second Breakfast -- You can see through Glamour ?" "Seems so." I shrugged, "I don't understand it: SOTM tested my relatives, an Aunt and two cousins can do it, too. We don't know if it is our eyes or our brain, but only my eyes are green. It is not a common knack. We still haven't found a test for it other than--" I pointed around the table, "You, you and Joey." "Dear me !" Joey muttered, "I'd the best Glamour in my year !" "What do you see ?" Sue asked. "No secret. A weak shimmer high-lights Glamour." "So a Rogue's Glamour makes him easier to spot ?" "Usually. I'll meet his eyes --Why always Rogue Males ?-- and, if I've time, I'll offer Amnesty again. About half see sense..." "You don't know how you see through Glamour..." Mari puzzled, "Do you know how Glamour works ?" "Vaguely: Ever put down a knife, biro, note, keys, then forgot where ? So easy ! And, so maddening ! You can search everywhere twice, then some-one glances over and points at it, lying there in plain sight...

"Technically, Glamour induces a mild Fugue state in susceptible observers. Our Psychologist calls it, 'Purloined Letter Syndrome', after Poe. Others prefer, 'Blind Spot Effect'. Wags quote 'Hitch-Hikers', which tagged it 'Some-one Else's Problem'... Hi, Pete !"

"D'uh, how do you do that ?" "One benefit of being a Prey species: better peripheral vision !" "Can't argue with that !" He grinned, "Heard you talking, sounds like you're having fun already !" We nodded. "Well, I've run into a snag... " Pete turned to Joey, "We've pulled a good crowd. The bigger room's too small. May we hold the meeting here ?" "Hmm: Don't see why not..." Joey glanced to his Assistants, who nodded, "Saves us changing twice... And if you can give us a hand clearing tables, we'll get another wash-cycle on..." "Let me help." I offered, "Pete's on 'Crowd Control'." "But you're a Guest !" "Saves you the clean-up before an 'Official Tour', and the clean-down after." "Ah..." Joey grinned, "Okay, Chris, you're a Temporary Assistant Table-Clearer ! Sue, find him a spare tabard and hat, then set him to work !"



Project Lorraine Chapter # 10: Point of Order.


As I helped shuttle laden trays to the wash-up area, the canteen steadily filled. Pete led a nimble team stacking empty tables and un-stacking spare chairs, looked relieved when the numbers steadied. He left a table and three chairs at the front of the room. Monty and Frank took the outer pair. Logically, the third was for me.

Joey chuckled as I went in with a last load of dessert bowls, "You are fast on your feet for a HomoSap !" "Lab work." I shrugged, "Plus Nurse training. Paintball helps, too !" "Well, there's a job here if you need one." "If this goes wrong, I may need it !" I made the standard quip, "May I have a water-jug and three glasses ?" "Sure, I'll bring it." Sue offered "No thanks, I can take it..." "No, my pleasure !" "I hate entrances..." I grinned, "I may not have Glamour, but this tabard should do." "Wicked !" Sue put a hand to her mouth as the others giggled. "I'm always saying we're ignored !" Joey chuckled, "I'm going to enjoy this !"

I bustled out to the top table, set the jug and glasses down smoothly, stepped away. "Thank you !" Monty nodded absently, then sniffed, glanced around in confusion. "Young Pete said Chris would be here--" Frank began, looked across at Monty's expression, "What is... ??" I popped the tabard's shoulder tab, dropping the garment sideways into my elbow's crook. Doffing my hat, I turned and sat in one motion, "Sorry I'm late." Frank and Monty gaped at me in unison. Pete, on the front row, was stifling chuckles. The rest of the crowd just stared in sudden, silent astonishment.

I took a long breath, spoke up, "Hello and good evening to you. My name is Chris. I am a young Medical Technician at the School of Tropical Medicine. My specialty is HomoVamp metabolism. I also do field-work in HotZones, to prevent disease outbreaks becoming epidemics or worse. I was involved in that recent incident in Africa. I was very ill, but I survived..."

I paused. I wasn't good at estimating crowds, the light was dim, there were some standing along the walls and serving counters. I'd ask Pete, but a hundred was probably close. Add a creche, the Juniors, their minders, support staff-- I didn't realise there were so many Vampires in this area !!

"Your Nest calls me RogueBane. That was a big surprise and a great honour. As yet I know too little of your ways to do this well. I hope to learn more by helping you understand my people... " I gestured right and left, "I'll first thank Monty, Frank and the Nest for inviting me to speak...

"These are strange times. The problems are unprecedented. The decisions are difficult. The answers may be terrible. It has taken great imagination, courage and determination to bring me, a 'wild' HomoSap, into this Nest. I am sworn BloodKin with Montague, but I am also an un-Bent, hence essentially perfidious Sap with a proven knack for killing Rogues. Yet I am here as an honoured Guest...

"The agreement with Monty was that you would respect my digestion and ethics. Period. He told me almost nothing about Nest life, and I made a point of not asking. I researched the uncertain information available to SOTM, made what preparations I could. So far, I have been hilariously wrong. I don't mind ! For one thing, it shows our best information was indeed wrong. For another, it confirms this exchange was necessary...

"I am a HotZoner. We rush to places where, as our grim Toast puts it, 'Angels Fear To Tread'. We do our utmost. We work until we drop. We may succeed, we may fail, we may die in the attempt. Later, the authorities make fancy speeches, but we're usually too weary to listen. It's the ordinary people whose thanks we value. They have lost family, friends, colleagues to the illness we've just fought or the chaos around us. Some will have seen us triage their own kin as beyond hope. Yet they thank us. And they thank the Blue Helmets, the UN Contingents who strive to keep order, to convoy supplies, to hold the quarantine, to create an oasis of comparative calm for us to work, to bury the many dead and who, more than us, often die in the attempt.

"I thank you thus."

Heads nodded. After a few moments, I went on, "If I do not know how to answer a question, I will say so. If it is properly an Elder's question, I will answer as best I can. If I would break confidence to answer a question, I'll say so and take another. If my reply requires clarification or opens another question, I'll try to answer that. At the Junior session, questioners gave their names. There are many more here, it slows the session so, please, no names. As Monty and Frank represent such differing opinions, I'll ask them to take turns selecting questions. So, as another Guest of this Nest, may I ask Frank to begin ?"

"Strange times, indeed !" Frank growled, "If you do not mind, I will indulge my curiosity..." I shrugged, "Ask away !" "Are you married ?" "No." Monty chuckled, "How can I do other-wise ? Do you have children ?" "No." "Can you have children ?" "Yes." "Will you have children ?" "Don't know."

Frank pointed into the crowd. "Are you Gay ?" "No." Monty chuckled, pointed. "Do you have any tattoos ?" "Yes. Blood-group and basic cross-types under both arms, three small daisies. One's the target for any lumbar puncture, the others are over my pelvic ports." "What are pelvic ports ?" "We're all walking stem-cell factories. Ports mean we can harvest marrow without drilling bone. Saves time, saves trouble, saves lives. Still hurts to shove in that ruddy great syringe..." "Do you support stem-cell research ?" "Yes." "Why ?" "Couple of reasons. We transplant marrow, but don't really understand it. Like Aspirin, it looks simple, isn't... And anti-serum: once we used horses, now we make it in bottles of stem-cells. Well, usually ! In emergency, HotZoners will do. Also, basic research. Cultures study everything from ageing to cancer. Already given us ways to patch a few genetic diseases, more to come..."

"Could gene-therapy fix our Porphyria ??" "I don't know. Your distant ancestors were DayWalkers. Like the Cheetah, HomoVamp populations bottle-necked in pre-history. Somehow, your Porphyria mutation was locked in. Might have been a NightHunter sub-species, but they survived and the DayWalkers didn't." "When do you think that happened ?" "Based on limited data, genetic drift suggests 2500~~3000 BC. There's some hints in Greek Legend. Their Harpies could have been a creche of DayWalkers: Table manners fit !!" That got chuckles. "What do you think of the political situation in the Middle East ?" "As always, DIRE. Next ?"

"Are you a Virgin ?" "No. Does that spoil my flavour ? Or is it just Dragons ?" That got chuckles too, drew a more daring enquiry. "How old were you when you first... ?" "Mombassa, my second HotZone. Early cases and symptoms matched something worse, but it fizzled. Then we had a week's quarantine before the airport opened. A pretty Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) nurse fell out with her boy-friend, needed her itch scratching, grabbed me. Call it Beginner's Luck. I still get her postcards from picturesque places, always signed, 'Bon-Bon'." "Do you have a partner ?" "No." "Why no partner ?" "I'm a HotZoner. That is not a stable basis for a long-term relationship. Sure, some women throw themselves at men who go into harm's way, but they're not my type... " "Do you have a lover ?" "Yes." "What's her name ?" "Sorry, can't say." "How did you meet her ?"

"Now there's a tale ! D'uh, I'd better change a couple of details..." I gave it some thought, "Okay, it began when a local woman --call her Desiré-- got aggressive Leukaemia, needed a bone marrow transplant. Computer said I was best match. I went along to the clinic, had my pelvis tapped. Cells took. Soon she's walking around with a clone of my blood group and basic immune system...

"Couple of months later, Desiré tracked me down to say, 'Thank You'. No sweat, I explain, I'm a regular donor. We chat for a while. She's gym-fit, well educated, intelligent, good sense of humour, expensive clothes, speaks well, moves like a dancer. I gathered she was a business manager, but I couldn't figure where. Didn't matter. I'd probably never meet her again and, anyway, she was light-years out of my league...

"Friday, Desiré's back with a BIG bunch of roses. Very kind, but... Her eyes were wide, she was breathing fast, her skin was almost glowing, she kept moving into my space. Then she jumped me-- Mouth-to-mouth, hand down my pants. I managed to prise her loose without hurting her, said something polite about not rushing First Dates. She had a strange expression, shook herself, began apologising. No problem, I say, but unethical for donors to accept gifts, however nicely wrapped...

" 'That wasn't it !' She explained, almost shyly. She's a Lesbian, she can't DO it with blokes --they smell wrong-- but she'd just had the Hots for me ! I commented that lust is a common reaction to reprieve. Then she said it was only MY smell turned her on, and hastily sat on her wandering hands.

"Took us a while to figure why: We now had the same marrow. Immunologically, we're twins. She smells me, her 'Ding!' over-rides the 'Yuck!' of my being a bloke...

"Weird ? Well, one of my colleagues later wrote us up for 'International Immunology', got it published, too...

"By way of apology, Desiré offered to take me out clubbing that weekend. 'Nothing too loud, wild or expensive.' I say, 'And only soft drinks for me.' 'Okay, dress casual, taxi at 8.' She says. Right on time, a taxi honked. I dived in, saw the passenger, leaped out faster, 'Oops, sorry, thought this was my ride--' 'Chris !' She called after me. I took another look, 'What the-- ? You said CASUAL ! Was the invite Fancy Dress Optional ? D'uh, but you do suit CatWoman...'

"Taxi driver's suddenly busy with his money-clip. Desiré's staring at me through her mask, 'Don't you know Demona's Den ?' 'Is it a PC game ?' 'Oh, no !' She chuckled, 'It's only the Hottest, Darkest, Wildest Set in town !' 'Sorry, I don't get out much...' I shook my head, 'And that dress-code's too rich for my taste.' She laughed, a liquid contralto, 'Honey, I AM Demona ! Let's party !!'

"Her dedicated Denizens wore only scarlet or black latex and leather, eyed my beige Rohan Airweights with dismay. When Demona announced me as her Wicked Twin, they said, 'Yeah, right !' But, I was safe. Who'd dare mess with their Top Dom's ToyBoy?

"Evening went well. Though most of the floor-show was too outré for my taste, I was handy when some-one needed a Heimlich Maneuver --don't ask what came back !! Later, I noticed a Hyper-Goth girl had fainted in a booth corner. Still, talk about culture shock: I even had to learn a different language ! Correct reply to 'What's your's ?' is not 'Diet Fanta With Ice'. Likewise, for 'What do you do?', 'Medical Technician' is wrong three ways...

"I don't care for latex or leather --Present Company Excepted !-- so, after that first visit, Demona coaxed me into ninja-black cotton/Lycra. And we wear matching 'Scares' for each Halloween Bash..."

"What's she like ??" "A Gentleman Never Tells... Suffice it to say there's no Kinky Rumpy-Pumpy." That got lots of chuckles, some sniggers and even a few guffaws.

"How do you hunt Rogues ?" "Carefully. Very, very carefully..." "How did you get into Rogue hunting ?" "By accident. It was, yes, a year before Amnesty came in. I was doing 'Community Epidemiology'. Our SOTM team were going house-to-house, trying to find that poor district's Tri-Resistant Tuberculosis (TB3) Carrier. Problem was the transient migrant population were not co-operating...

"Fair enough: I'm a stranger with a strange Official Badge, I knock on your door, ask personal questions about your family and friends. Who lives here ? Who is well ? Who is sick ? Who has travelled where ? What is their business ? Well, would you answer such questions for a 'Market Researcher' ??

"Some residents would not believe how fast TB3 could spread, so refused to help. Many were too scared of their neighbours. Others had secrets: expired permits, undeclared income, sub-let rooms, guns, drugs or worse. They could turn nasty. And, there were street gangs. We'd had attempted muggings, threats, demands for protection money, dogs set on us, 'bombs' dropped from upper floors...

"Local hospital was getting a dozen full-blown TB3 cases a day. Our maps and math said there had to be more. Meanwhile, our Carrier, the invisible 'Case Zero', was still triggering new clusters. So, we had a 'Notifiable Disease Warrant' which allowed us to search. And, to make it stick, we were armed.

" 'Due Care' rule applied, we were limited to 'Reasonable Force'. No-one wanted mere civilians to carry 'Cannon', so we'd qualified for and been issued light-weight HK 46 hand-guns, with the tiny 4.6 x 30mm. Good news was the magazine held twenty of them, in steel not lead. They had remarkably low kick-back so you stayed on target, and they flew clean. Less publicised were their armour-piercing properties, and the disconcerting way you could group shots...

"Well, the six of us worked a dozen sad streets, listed the places that would need follow-up or forced entry, checked some empty garages, came to a derelict mill-building. The ground-floor windows were bricked up, the entrances were supposed to be secure, but we found a door ajar. In our experience, as we went in the door, folk escaped down ropes from upper floors.

"So, we spread out to watch, called for backup. None was available without better reason. We had to go in. Happened to be my turn on point. Three stayed wide to watch the perimeter, one waited to guard the door. I called in 'Disease Search ! Disease Search ! Don't be alarmed !', listened for the usual commotion as Squatters, Druggies, Gangers and Bums scattered. Nothing happened.

" 'That's weird.' I commented, 'So quiet... ' Phil, my Second shrugged, 'After you, Chris ?' So, in we slid, our little torch beams leading, both of us watching for accidental and deliberate traps, 'sharps' and rotten floors, hoping the dark did not hide crazed Druggies or psycho Gangers. Ground floor was clear. Phil guarded the foot of the weary concrete stairs as I crept up.

"I only needed one look in the shadows, 'What the-- Tango 3 0 from Tango 3 5. Four, no, five bodies on first floor near stairwell ! Full support required !' 'Tango Threes from Tango 3 0, Received call 3 5, Police and Medics despatched, ETA 5 !'

" 'Phil, come up and watch my back.' He peered at the five bodies in their loose row, shook his head, crouched to guard the stair-head. I eased over to the nearest, left my mike open, 'Tango 3 0, they look like losers of a knife fight, perhaps torture, too. Multiple lacerations and puncture wounds. Too little blood on the floor here, I reckon they've been dumped...

" 'Okay, clockwise from stairs. First, very weak pulse. Second, dead-at-scene. Third, dead-at-scene. Fourth, weak pulse. Fifth, fair pulse... Hey ! You ! By the pillar ! Yes, you ! Stand clear ! Now, stop, put your hands up ! Stop ! Stop now ! Stay away from the stairs-- Phil, watch your left ! Phil !'

" 'Chris, who are you calling ? There's no-one-- Aaagh!' " 'Man down ! Stop now ! Stop or I shoot---' I put six into his torso. My seventh, point-blank to his face, left powder burns, pureed his brain. His Rush still knocked me down and stunned me, which is how the back-up team found us.

"Phil had a dozen rib fractures, broken collar-bone and concussion, needed seventy stitches, all from one taloned swing. Our bullets were individually serialised so, given the open Comm's time-line and footprints in the muck, Forensics could replay the incident. Yes, I really had grouped six in that Rogue Vampire's torso. Yes, it was the seventh that stopped him, saved me, saved Phil.

"And, yes, when I came around and realised what we had, I was nearly sick on the crime-scene. Some-one shoved an empty evidence bag in my face as a sick-bag. I filled that, sat down and cried. I'd triaged many, many hundreds, condemning the losers with clinical detachment. I'd had to turn off both my parents' life-support. I'd never before had to take a live life, damn some-one from 'quick' to 'dead'...

"He was our Carrier, of course: Probably hit on the real 'Case Zero' at incubation stage, got a toxic bite. We never learned his name. DNA's on record, so a Nest may claim him eventually..."

"Which was your hardest Rogue Hunt ?" "Nu. The next is hardest." "How can you hunt Rogues ? They're people, too !!" "Would you have them run wild ? And I'm no Slayer. I do not work like that. Check my record: Although I have killed 14 Rogues to L.C.'s 20, another dozen took my offer of Amnesty, and I've captured five who refused. Three of those five survived their injuries."

"You've certainly had some adventures ! And weren't you kidnapped in--" "The Unquiet 'Stans ? Yes. Held for ransom. Blue Helmets tracked me down. I broke out in the confusion." "From a padlocked crate in a guarded cave ?" "They'd over-nailed and weakened it. Also, it was meant for some-one taller: I could brace myself." "That still left armed guards: One report said you killed them bare-handed..." "D'uh, I'm not Rambo. I used a chunk of rock on the first, smashed his skull. Took his AK. Shot the second. Threw his grenades at the rest. Blue Helmets cleaned up..."

"How did the UN troops find you ?" "Intelligence, plus leg-work." "What sort of intelligence ?" "With many more villages than aid teams, some-one loaded the dice for their folk. There was a tip. Given that, SigInt found a clue." "Oh ? Any idea what ?" " 'The Dog That Barked In The Night'." "Sherlock Holmes ? But the dog didn't bark-- Ah ! Thank you !"

"You keep quoting Poe and Conan Doyle: Doesn't it bother you they're all Dead White Male HomoSaps ?" "Their tales suit our times." I shrugged, "I'm sorry they're dead." She opened her mouth again-- "Would you prefer Mary Shelley or Georgette Heyer ?? And Rudyard Kipling's still worth a look. He understood the Human Condition better than most, had a wonderful way with words..."

"How long do you expect to live ?" "Today, tonight, tomorrow, the next HotZone, three score and ten, a hundred at most..." "Are you religious ?" "No." "Do you believe in Astrology ?" "No. Should I ?" Shaken heads... "Do you believe in a Soul or an AfterLife ?" "Not for me. Do you ?" Shaken heads... "Are you afraid of Death ?" "No. I've seen too much of it. And I've 'died' several times, been zapped back. But I am afraid of dying. Generally unpleasant, leaves a lot unfinished..." "One moment you're sensitive and caring, the next a hard-hearted bastard: Who are you ?" "Nu. Read Game Theory and weep..." "D'uh, you've done it again !" "Probably." I nodded, "Sorry."

"Did you choose a career in medicine ?" "Oh, yes. But I went the long way around... When I was young, I just wanted to be a Doctor like Mum & Dad, my brother, sisters, aunts and uncles. I loved medicine. I grew up with it. I worked hard --really, really hard-- but I was not good enough for Medical School. Not nearly, not even close. You could say I was the Family Runt..." They all shuddered politely. "Best I could manage was BioChemistry. I completed a year, did well. Then Mum & Dad had a car-crash. Dad soon died, Mum lingered. I took a year out to nurse her, but it dragged into two. After she died, I drifted into voluntary hospital work. I did a Nursing Assistant course, qualified for Mature Entry, completed a Nursing BSc, switched to Medical Technician. I became a HotZoner by accident. Another accident put me and a good gun between that Rogue and freedom."

"Do you enjoy Rogue Hunting ?" "Nu. I have a knack. They must be stopped-- D'uh, why only Rogue Males ? There's a chance they'll accept Amnesty and spare my tears." "You've done it again !" "Sorry. There's no time to cry in a HotZone. One benefit of working to exhaustion is that cases and faces blur. That's another reason for a quarantine after-- like a diver's decompression stop..."

"Could HomoSap wipe us out ?" "Yes. Given how close we've been to exterminating ourselves, you'd go easy. Cost us, mind, but since when have fanatics cared about human lives ? 'One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic'. Wasn't that Stalin ?" "How could they-- you-- HomoSap do it ?" "Ethics or deed ?" "The deed..." "Okay, based on the open literature, easily. High tech ? TeraHertz traps, motion detectors with UV lamps, poison sprays, poison gasses, binary agents, toxic bait, targetted disease, dirty bombs, land-mines. Low tech ? Grid searches and posses. Either way, official estimate of collateral damage is five of us for each of you." "And your guess ?" "At least ten per. Besides, we'd be mad to try." "Why ?" "Ethics. You're People, too. And you're part of our genetic diversity. Long term, it would be like losing the Neanderthals again. Hmm, do your Chronicles go back so far ? No ? Sad. You could make a mint from popular books and Edutainment..." "And you'd get a juicy commission ?" "Not likely ! That's 'Conflict of Interest' ! An obscure 'Thank You' would do..."

"If the UN voted to wipe us out, would you obey ?" "Nu. Criminal orders. Besides, they've already abolished poverty, hunger, thirst, war and global warming a dozen times-- Let's get REAL here !!" Several laughed, but the questioner persisted, "What would YOU do ?" "Nu. Rather ask what UK have done... Many countries declared you Vermin. Others criminalised Vampirism. Typical British fudge, we made Porphyria a 'Notifiable Disease', added it to the two dozen we had. The same control measures apply, the same support is there. Medical records are protected by hard encryption, medical confidentiality and centuries of legal precedent." I chuckled, "Off the record, we call it the 'German Measles Solution'. Honest ! After Measles was identified, German doctors spotted a serious variant. BMA said it was the same disease, Germans said it was different. Eventually, it was settled at a conference where the British chairman, late for lunch, suggested a neat compromise..." "You cannot be serious !!" "Go Google. The alternative was to tag you as Primates, class you as Dangerous Animals and work from there. Would you care to live in a zoo ?" That drew some mutterings... "A thought: As a HotZoner, I've had vaccinations meant for animals when there was a chance of species jumps. Okay, we use micro-dosing, but '3-Day Flu' is considered a mild reaction."

"With all that, do you have time for hobbies ??" "Yes. I read a lot, fiction and the 3Ls-- LifeLong Learning. I do play some paintball, some computer games..." "Would you play '29 Days' ?" "Yes. Pete mentioned you have it. Been a while, I'm a bit rusty, I'm not used to these nails, but I'd give it a go." "How would you play ?" "Hmm, can you still select a Sap/Vamp hybrid Avatar, or was that cut out ?" The Elders muttered in confusion. The Youngsters nodded. I went on, "I won't have your reflexes, agility, wound-healing or Glamour, but my stamina is better. Also, my eyes are wired different. Wider peripheral vision, different colour sensitivities, less distracted by movement. As my Avatar would be Albino, I can't DayWalk beyond twilight or deep shade." "You would dare Hunt US ?" "No chance ! I'm on YOUR team-- Zombies are the only game in town !" "You're enjoying this..." Someone complained from the shadows. "Why not ? Would you prefer a stuffy Lawyer, an earnest Anthropologist, or --Perish the thought !-- a Career Diplomat ??"

"Chris, BloodKin of Montague..." "Frank ?" "I have eluded both Knights Templar and the Spanish Inquisition. I tricked Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled 'Witchfinder General'. I fled the Revolutionary Guillotine. I escaped several mobs of Transylvanian peasants. I have slipped traps set by seemingly fey Slayers. I took the life-blood, papers and uniform from a most unpleasant Gestapo Colonel-- Yet, in all my years, you are the most dangerous HomoSap I have ever met..." "Surely you jest ?" "Do you recall a short Scientifiction story, entitled, 'The Cold Equations' ?" "Happens I do..." "Where-in an unfortunate young Space Pilot must sacrifice his stowaway --a beautiful young woman-- to save a plague-stricken planet ?" "It was a HotZone. He had no choice." "Precisely." "And your point ?" "Must you be obtuse ?" "I lack your referents." "Reduce the problem to its essentials: You save what you can. Those of us who cannot co-exist with HomoSap, you will destroy without flinching-- And then mourn as your own." "Um, yes. That is correct. Sorry." "That is the answer I expected of you-- And feared." I gulped. "Chris, BloodKin of Montague: I came here hoping this outrageous scheme would fail. I was tasked with obstructing it in any lawful way... Now I must urge that it succeeds. For, if you are not our RogueBane, hence with us, we are doomed."



Project Lorraine Chapter # 11: Hygiene Rules.


Pleased HomoVamps don't clap their hands, they rumble and hoot approval. These did, loud and long, loud and long. Monty slapped my shoulders hard enough to sting. Many pressed forwards, spoke to Pete, grasped my hands. I sagged in my chair and sighed with relief as the delighted crowd slowly dispersed.

"It will be hard." Frank admitted, "It will be very hard. My faction will claim you have Bent me. They will send a Delegation. If I know them, it will be led by Elder Broderik. He is-- Parochial, at best. But he is honourable. He will yield to logic..."

I've sat in on many fraught negotiations. I've watched and listened as our Blue Helmets, Translators and medical staff struggled to convince custom-bound locals of our pressing need to act in our strange way-- And soon, please ? No polyglot, I've yet learned the rudiments of a dozen languages, heard the same arguments in a hundred-plus accents. I've helped talk a way into frightened communities that sheltered sick and carriers. Now, I'd begun to get an 'ear' for the Nest's speech patterns. Something was wrong: Frank had used the correct words, but he'd said them wrong. There was a 'misplace' in his emphasis, a dire 'gotcha'. My non-existent neck-hairs crawled...

"What of the other Delegates ?" I asked carefully. Frank gulped, "You are sharp-- or fey !" "Oh ?" Monty looked between us, "You fear trouble ?" "Yes." Frank nodded, "Chris, Monty, they will send body-guards. These will be more than wary..." "Amateurs." I nodded, "Paranoid and twitchy, arrogant to a fault... I know their type." "I dare say you do !" Frank chuckled, "But they will treat you as dirt-- Or less." "I know their type." I repeated. Frank looked at me, hesitated, shrugged, "So convince me." "Zimbabwe, Ecuador, Uganda, Aden, the Horn of Africa, the Unquiet 'Stans, the Uplands of Columbia..." I shuddered, "I'm only a Medical Technician --A jumped-up Nurse !!-- but I've had to front for our female Doctors and Surgeons. And the converse-- what right had I to command a Mayor or Military Governor ? Just don't get me started on those Uplands' Drug Barons..."

"These will be worse..." Frank sighed. "I know." I allowed, "So, Deep South, Ante Bellum ? South Africa before Mandela's Miracle ? Dhimini Law ?" "For one so young..." Frank admitted, "You have a way with words." "Sorry." I shook my head, "Hot Zones concentrate the mind. When we've time, we ask ourselves what we could do better. Too often, doing better for some would kill many more. It's a grim trade-off..." "Why do you do it ?" Monty asked. "It is an illness." I shrugged, "But, sometimes, we do wonder if we should triage their societies, likewise. Though how can we judge ??" Monty sighed, "Philosophers have struggled with that riddle. I know no answer." "Nor I ..." Frank allowed, "Save only the Golden Rule."

"Speaking of which..." I groaned, "Monty, you'll want me to move out of the Guest Wing ?" Monty nodded unhappily, "Yes, it must air thoroughly lest they take any lingering odour of HomoSap as a deliberate slight." "D'uh, I was hoping to try that casket..." "Pete said !" Monty chuckled, "However, the lumbar support is indifferent at best: Give me an orthopaedic Dunlopillo mattress plus a duvet !!" "Uh ?" Frank blinked, "You would sleep in a coffin ?" "How could I pass up the chance ?" Frank laughed, "I have huddled in a Sarcophagus in the catacombs of Rome, held my breath as searchers passed within inches. Later, I re-arranged the bones as a pillow, slept like a child... It was a memorable experience !!"

"I'll pass on the bones..." I shook my head, "I've woken in a mass-grave-- Once was enough." "Um, if you do not mind... ?" Monty wondered. "Uganda." I shuddered, "I'd caught the mutating bug we were there to fight, ran a huge fever, collapsed into coma. Local helpers took me for dead, bagged me up and dropped me in with the rest. Fortunately, it was a wide trench. I wasn't three deep. Fever broke. I woke, ripped a bigger hole in the battered bag, crawled out. IV fluids, a dozen hours sleep and I was back at work."

"Now that is a tale to curl even MY fangs !" Monty allowed, "Chris, we have a few days to spare: Today, you may indulge your modest fantasy ! Then, alas, you must move to the Singles Wing. They are en-suite, though spartan by comparison..." "Be honest !" Frank interjected, "They are Cells !" "Uh, yes..." Monty admitted, "But they also have a bolt on the inside." "Curious state of affairs..." I frowned, "You'd best explain." "When an un-paired Female comes into Season and Calls, all Strutting Males must be locked away for their own safety. The inside bolt provides privacy..." I gulped, "Yes, that makes sense. Okay, I'll move in there after breakfast tomorrow."

"Elders ? Chris ?" Pete waited, "Your table and chairs ?" His nimble helpers had re-arranged the rest while we'd talked. "That was quick !" I stood. Pete nodded thanks, "Chris, you have a dozen invitations-- Everything from a LitterDay Sleep-Over to Elder Vine's Mead tasting..." "Wow ! Thanks, Pete ! D'uh, could you and Monty sort them into order ? I need to return these Kitchen clothes, make my apologies..." "Elders, do you have any plans for Chris in the hour before 'Afternoon Tea' ? No ? Okay, Chris, I'll rescue you then..."

Joey and the Dinner Ladies were waiting for me behind their serving counters. "Sorry..." I offered my crushed tabard and hat, "These will need a wash and iron..." "No problem, Chris !" Sue grinned, "Everything gets washed every day. Besides, they're drip-dry." "My kind of clothes..." I admitted, "And, thanks again for their loan !" "Ooh, you should have seen everyone's faces !" Annabelle giggled, "They could see how you did it, but that made it even better !" "They'll look twice next time !" Joey allowed, "They may even talk to us !!" "Um, about that job..." I mentioned, "There's been a complication." "I thought the meeting went rather well... ? " Mari puzzled. "Looks like I'll be here for a while-- Frank's got to send for a Delegation." "You want to help out ?" "To offset hijacking your diner for meetings." "Food rules." Joey shook his head, "Can't let you do more than clear tables, not without training."

"What would be involved ?" I shrugged, "I did kitchen hygiene on my Nursing Assistant course, again for that Nursing degree." "Well..." Joey thought about it, "Mari, you did a refresher not long ago ?" "Study the procedures, do the written test, show competence." Mari shrugged, "Not hard, but lots of detail." "Okay... Looks like I'm being thrown out of the Guest Wing, so it can air before the Delegation arrive. Monty's finding me a 'Singles' pad, but that's not the problem..." I tried to find the best words, "I'll need to stay out of the Delegates' way. Struck me that a catering uniform would make a fair disguise. Besides, I'd get to talk, and be useful, too." "Hold it !" Joey warned, "You can't cook in my kitchen !" "I wouldn't dare !" I admitted, "Wrong sort of Hot Zone !" That got a laugh, before Mary elbowed Sue, "We don't have any Male uniforms for 'Front of House' !" "No problem." I shrugged, "I'm a qualified Nurse. The course was gender-neutral. If you can find a new joke on the topic, I'll give you a French Kiss !"

The catering team exchanged glances. Sue put it in words, "You'd be a Dinner LADY ?" "Why not ? Looks like fun !" "Provided you do okay on the hygiene course..." Joey allowed, "And the practical, too. And remember, my vision's better than yours. Tools must be cleaner than clean..." "Swabs, too ?" "Perhaps..." Joey grinned, "But I won't set hours. You come, you go. You're welcome any time." "Thanks." I nodded, "Much appreciated... Where do I start ?" "Oh ! I've a spare questions set !" Mari remembered, "Jackie was going to do the course with me, then began to Call ! Now she's got lovely Triplets !" "Oooh, yes " Annabelle cooed, "Aren't they lovely !" "Bet she's glad it wasn't Quins again !" Sue chuckled. "But they're growing up so well !" Mary noted, "Chris, you must have seen them in the Kindergarten ?" "Quins ?" I guessed, "Er, yes... Asked some sharp questions: Bright kids !" "See ?" Mary grinned, "Take after their Nan !" "Okay, okay, enough brooding !" Joey announced, "Mari, could you dig out the training procedures, a pen and that sheet ? We could start Chris on them now..."

The first customers were queuing for Afternoon Tea when I handed in my test papers. Mari glanced at them, giggled. She passed them to Sue, who turned the pages carefully, her eyes getting wider with each. Finally, she shook her head, pushed them through the 'Orders' hatch, grinned, "Wait for it--" "How the-- ?" Exploded from the kitchen side. Joey put his head around the door, "Okay, okay, who forgot to tell Chris he had all day to complete it ?" "No problem !" I winced, "I can take a joke..." "Fine !" Joey groaned, "Okay, Sue, when you've a moment, could you check what's spare in your locker room ? And he'll need a pair of safety clogs, of course..." "Clogs ?" I looked down, "Clogs ! You wear clogs ! D'uh, everyone else goes bare-foot, but you're shod ! D'you know, I didn't notice !" Several customers were briefly delayed while the Dinner Ladies relished my chagrin...



Project Lorraine Chapter # 12: A Soupçon of Spice...


One advantage of being jockey-small and preferring loose clothes is that I've always found something to fit-- even now, as a passable HomoVamp. Sue sorted through their 'clean' stock, soon found me a knee-length, belted Catering tunic, a fresh tabard and hat. Clogs took longer, but there was one spare pair in my new size. I hung my Lederhosen, changed. Belted, hatted, buttoned and shod, I was transformed.

"Well, I never !" Joey allowed, "Okay, Chris, clear tables until the rush eases, then shadow Sue. We'll check your serving technique when our turn to eat." I don't know why they had no 'empties' trolley for departing patrons to load, but I could ask later. I cleared tables, gave them a quick clean with my official squirt bottle and wipes, ferried trays of empties to the wash-room's hatch. I managed to avoid both Monty and Frank's sight-line. I waited until Pete, eating alone, was mid-meal before pausing to casually ask, "Did the meeting go well ?" "Oh, yes !" Pete nodded between shovellings, "Um, have you seen Chris about ? He said he'd be here..." "Psst..." I whispered. He glanced up. I winked. "Uuurgh !" He gagged on the mouthful, "How-- No, tell me later..." He gulped at his tankard of juice, kept it down. After a moment, he raised his voice, "If Chris shows up, could you mention I'll be back in about an hour ? I've something to show him..." "Oh, yes, we'll look out for him !"

As I stepped away, I could see Pete was shaking his head, but grinning furiously. Others I now knew by sight looked up as I bustled by, but did not give me a second glance. Behind the serving counter, the real Dinner Ladies were stifling giggles. "Another load." I reported in. Sue chuckled, "Best fun I've had in years ! Folk keep asking why we're so jolly today !" Mari grinned, "I said Chef was in a good mood after Chris complimented him-- so it is all your fault !" "Too kind !" I smiled, scooted out for another sweep.

When the rush thinned, I went through to the wash-room, dumped my wipes, scrubbed myself from talon-nub to elbows with soap, then gel. Then I slid out to the counters, shadowed Sue. She streamed hints and tips until Joey emerged, "Your turn." "Okay." I held up my hands to be seen and sniffed, "Start clean." Sue and Joey exchanged glances, nodded. He grinned, "Temps usually fall for that one... Okay, Annabelle, Mary, grab trays !" "Ooh ! I'll have three fish-fingers, mixed pulses and a dob of mash ! Thank you !" "Mine's the Ribs-- Side's pasta and Runner beans ! Nice !" "Mari ?" "That last baked potato, with baked beans and a hot-dog, please !" "Sue ?" "I'll be daring-- Pasta, hot-dog and mixed pulses, please !" "Right !" Joey nodded, "That's a pass..." "But ?"

They looked at each other. Joey chuckled, "That was the correct answer, too ! Sue ?" "Didn't SMILE enough." "Nerves... Okay." "Your plate-cloth's corner touched food." "Ah... Didn't spot that: My bad." "Takes practice, and we watch each other for slips." Mari added. "Looser stance... " Joey advised, "You don't want to go over if bumped." "Nerves." I repeated, shuffled my feet apart, "One reason I never made Black at JuJitsu..." "And your belt is too tight." Mary commented, "Let it out an inch and BREATHE !" "Nerves again..." I admitted. "Still, you look kinda cute..." Joey chuckled, "We'll need to do you a badge." "Can't have it read 'CHRIS', though." Sue sighed, "Nor Chrissie, Christie, anything like that... Hmm, give it some thought. If you can't find something, Annabelle has a baby-name book we could mine... Now, what are you having ?" I gulped, "Just a few fish-fingers, please. I'm too tense to eat much. This is not my usual sort of HotZone-- I'm more used to Petri dishes !" "It will grow on you !" Joey punned, "Welcome aboard !"

I nibbled my fish fingers, washed them down with tomato juice. "So tell..." Sue elbowed me, "Why us ? Why hide in plain sight ?" "Nosegays." I shrugged, "Something Pete said about garlic on your food..." "Like other spices, too much makes you ill..." Joey allowed. "I still remember an airport curry that left us gasping--even with lashings of yoghurt !!" I shuddered, "But it was the only dish we could trust !" "Wrong sort of HotZone ?" Mari quipped. "Tell me about it..." I groaned, "But Pete made the point that HomoVamps shunned garlic because it could mask disease." "Makes sense." Joey agreed, "Basic rule: don't hide bad food with good spice." I nodded, "And us HomoSaps are your natural prey." "Um, yes..." Sue admitted, "Other blood tastes wrong, even ours... Sorry."

"Evolution in action." I shrugged, "Add something a Rogue told us last year. News called him The PierHead Vampire, but his haunt was an old bonded warehouse being turned into flats. I offered Amnesty. He wasn't impressed, fancied his chances. Bad call. We got a line in, he lived. Anyhow, he needed IV Pethidine for his smashed pelvis. Reactions differ. He went delirious, talked about us delicious HomoSaps just wandering about, almost begging to be taken. Our scent was driving him mad, he said. Couldn't ignore us any more, lost control..."

"What happened to him ?" Mari wondered. "Doing time for Manslaughter, Grievous Bodily Harm, Actual Bodily Harm, Unlawful Imprisonment and a couple more. But, when he woke post-op, found his pelvis was mended and we'd even cleaned up his chemistry, he took Amnesty. That got him 'Diminished Responsibility'. He'll be out on Licence in ten years." "Wow ! Is he in a normal prison ?" "No chance..." I shook my head, "Too much to go wrong ! SOTM recycled a Cheshire salt-mine as a 'secure unit'. Set-up's more like a Uni Campus. He settled better than most. He'll come out with an OU degree, IT qualifications, life-skills, job offers..." "Seems too good to be true..." Mary puzzled. "He'll be on Probation for fifty years." I shrugged, "That's a long time to stay out of trouble..." "Ah..." "Technically he's doing 'life', but what does that mean to a HomoVamp ? When the Amnesty system was proposed, it was argued every which way. In the end, Law Lords went with precedent, kept the standard tariff." "I didn't know..." Mari puzzled, "It is so, well, reasonable !" "Typical British fudge." I grinned, "Like the German Measles Solution !"

"Garlic ?" Sue reminded me. "Ah, yes, seems we HomoSaps smell good enough to eat..." "Ooh, yes !" Annabelle allowed, flexing her fingers, "I could nibble you all night !" "Don't mind her--" Mari interjected, "She's Broody..." "Ah... Thank you-- I think... So I thought, well, if our smell is so enticing, it must be our unavailability." "Like cakes in a shop window !" "A Strutter behind bars !" "Missing the last baked potato..." "Cookies under glass !" "DayWalking !" Joey nodded, "Gotcha..." "So, where better to hide--" "Behind a food counter !" Joey chortled, "Laden with my best !" Mari hooted with glee. Sue nodded, "And if anyone smells Sap, they'll think it is one of Joey's fancy sauces !" "Surely not !" Joey complained, "My Special Roast Pork Stuffing ! The one with the soupçon of, oh, this and that--" "The only one Frank liked, said it tasted like-- like--" "Long Pig ??" I offered, diplomatically. They giggled and hooted, then again when I cleared our table. I was headed for their wash-room, anyway...



Project Lorraine Chapter # 13: Food for thought...


By the time I'd washed, changed into my Lederhosen, made my way to the toilet and belatedly relieved myself, I had a name. I returned to the Diner via the Public entrance. Joey, Sue and Lara were hunched around a large printout spread across two tables. Joey waved me over, "Lara's been drafting next month's menus: This is our third and final pass-- we hope..."

I looked down the sprawling spreadsheet, guessed at some of the abbreviations and codes, "Tricky balancing two such different diets !" "Nutrition on a budget." Sue nodded, "And trying to find variety..." "There's so much we can't offer Elders." Joey added. "SOTM's struggled to feed HomoVamp patients. Drove Max, our Consultant Poisoner to drink..." "Not surprised." Joey grumbled, "We have a brain-storming session every month, we have a suggestions box. Same thing happens: I get a nice recipe, Mary finds it won't scale or Lara mutters about the cost." "Then Mari finds something on the WWWeb, and Chef says it is too complex." Lara muttered. "Or the fast/slow Carb ratio goes North while you're serving it..." Sue sighed, "So it stays a One-Sitting Special."

"Your Max did well for Elder Monty." Joey mentioned, "I could not believe my eyes !" "Wasn't all his own work--" "Duh, is there anything you don't do ?" "Not me !" I protested, "Nothing to do with me ! Lara, how smart's that spreadsheet ?" "Pretty dumb..." Lara shrugged, "Keeps score, is all..." "We do the planning by hand." Sue sighed, "It is a struggle." "We have good memories for food." Joey grumbled, "If I recycle an old menu as-is, some-one always notices..." "Ah ?" I nodded, "Like I said, Max got some help. SOTM's software team wrote a menu-engine for him--" "Really ?" "Wow ! What--" "Oh, come on !" Lara moaned, "We've used dice to choose meals..." "Better than that !" I protested, "Varies ingredients, too !" "I do not believe it." Lara stated. "Sounds unlikely." Joey allowed, "How does it work ?" "I don't know." I shook my head, "Report said something about optimising complex goal-seeking in multiple non-orthogonal dimensions. Then I lost the plot into alphabet soup..." All three shuddered politely.

"We don't do Abstracts well." Lara allowed, "Could be worth a try: How could we find more ?" "First thing is to ask Monty." I shrugged, "Sure, he ate well, but he was ravenous from the Detox..." I left the statement hanging. It was a measure of their growing trust that Joey barely hesitated. "Not my food." He stated, "Elder Monty was travelling between Nests, contacting the Neighbours and Cousins, trying to get some agreement. He was pushing himself hard..." "Perhaps too hard ? Or something else ?" I puzzled, "Just, well... Analysis of the Detox system's Carbon Stack threw up some oddities. Still, if some-one was trying to nobble him, they were doing it all wrong..." "But you're not sure ?" "Dirty tricks ? Nah, probably stress and a dose of Tourist Tummy."

"Elder Frank complained about our boring food." Joey grumbled, "Elder Monty would have had to Feast at every Nest..." "Too many 'Local Delicacies' ?" "Worse than that !" Joey shook his head, "Can't settle for a token tasting or small portion !! Gotta eat the lot--" "And Seconds ! Then call for more !!" Sue cut in, "Traditional Nests would take offence if you didn't !" "Only our Daughter Nests are Progressive." Joey explained, "You would not be comfortable in a Traditional Nest." "Nor would we..." Sue added, "Monty remembers the Old Ways." I hesitated, asked, "Give me a clue ?" "Hyenas on a kill ?" Sue offered. "Sharks in a feeding-frenzy." Joey suggested. "Cannibal Klingons !" Lara shuddered.

"Ughhh..." I gulped, rallied, "I take your point. D'uh, could be accidental. Settled people can develop a tolerance for local toxins-- alkaloids, minerals, bugs, fungii, even traces of aflotoxins. And tribal spice-lore can be, well, interesting..." "But when something goes wrong ?" "That's it. Folk move in or away, you get problems. I've seen weird withdrawal symptoms in camp clinics. Rebound can range from 'everything tastes wrong' to psychotic tantrums. And, while our 'Aid' food seems odd but is harmless, any-one who gets familiar-looking 'jungle meat', root-crops, seed-oil or spices in a strange market may be buying trouble. We've had enough disease clusters turn out to be accidental poisoning. Still, better that than a wave of Tourist Tummy masking the start of epidemic..." "How can you tell ?" "Skill, experience, blood tests, often just asking the right questions..." I shrugged, "I've watched our Doctors unravel some complex cases. That's one snag with refugees: nothing is simple any-more. No tidy diseases. Same person can have a fever, un-related dysentry, dehydration, exposure, parasitic worms, liver and kidney problems from rapid weight loss, pre-existing health problems plus assorted infected injuries from their travels. Women may have umpteen gynae issues, even if they've avoided rape. And how any children survive, never mind so many..."

"Ugh..." Sue drew a long breath, "I'm beginning to understand why SOTM got involved with us !" "Yeah..." Joey grinned, "No-one else dared !" "Thank you-- I think..." I nodded politely, "But the reason I came in--" "Good ! You've picked a name !" Lara grinned, "Sue told me all about it !" "Well, you see, I do have a middle name between my Chris and Jones..." "Oh, go on !" Sue elbowed me, "Tell !" "Rhys--" "Small river or stream ?" Sue nodded, "We've a Daughter Nest in North Wales." "Rhys ? Rhys ?" Joey rolled it on his tongue, nodded, "That would do nicely ! Cheerfully unisex, no issues there. And the phonetics are ambiguous: said quickly, you would expect to mis-hear 'Chris'. Um, you don't look happy, though..." "How I came by it..." "But your families choose your names... ?" Sue puzzled. "Family joke." I sighed, "My three sibs were big babies, I wasn't. Hospital told Mum she'd counted wrong and I was Prem, but no. I was full-term and small. My Welsh Great-Aunt, a NeoNatal Consultant, wasn't impressed, and said so. At that point, I'm told, I piddled on her..."

They hooted glee, returned to their battle with the menus. I poured myself a drink of juice, sat off to the side, sipped it slowly. Pete edged in through the Club-room's side-doors, but I spotted him, "Hi, Pete !" "Hi, Chris ! I see you're you again !" "Ah, yes, and we've decided my alter-ego is 'Rhys'--" "Welsh, a river or stream ?" Behind me, Sue and Lara hooted again. Pete glanced to them, then back as I spoke, "Er, yes. Also my middle name, also sounds enough like 'Chris'--" "To cover slips !" Pete chuckled, "Neat ! Okay, since you may be here for longer than planned, you'll need a change of clothes. Which also gives you a chance to look around our Craft work-shops without the formality of an official tour..." "Thanks, Pete !" I nodded, "When do we start ?" "Is now okay ?" "Suits me !" We stood, I nodded across to the Caterers, "See you later !" They were still hooting politely as the Diner's door closed behind us.

"Well, you've made friends there !" Pete chuckled as we took another un-marked turn, "Why did they crease up when I mentioned Rhys' meaning ?" "You'll have to ask them... " I smiled mysteriously. "Oh... ?" Pete puzzled, "Right. I'll do that... Hmm, I hear you Aced the Food Hygiene course ?" "That was the easy part..." I groaned, "I've helped out in refugee camps' field-kitchens, but I must be the only ex-student who's never tended bar or shovelled Burgers for beer money..." "You passed Joey's scrutiny ?" "Barely: I scraped through." I allowed, "Should improve with practice..."

We took right and left turns, left the regular ways, followed a zig-zag corridor downwards by short ramps, curious dog-legs, assorted un-barred doors and odd steps, "D'uh, this is a warren: was the main part a Dissolution site ?" "Henry VIII ?" Pete blinked, "Perhaps. I'd have to check." "Fair enough." I shrugged, "And perhaps I don't need to know." "Deal." He grinned, "One reason this first craft area's so far out is the smell. Tanneries stink." "Fair warning..." I nodded, "So far, so good..." "My nose is better than yours." Pete sighed, "I've known for three doors... Okay, here we go--" The next door looked as Medieval, but had a modern safety notice at eye level. He reached into a shadowed alcove, found two lightweight, visored helmets. I've used similar, fitted mine easily. Pete checked I was kitted, pushed open the sprung door. A dozen feet on, another door bore a reminder. He unlatched that door--

"Gaaah !!" I groaned, "That is dreadful !" Pete flinched too, nodded, "We process our own raw hides with a traditional recipe..." "Gaah..." I breathed through my mouth, "And I thought I had a strong stomach..." "You do." Pete stated, "You held your lunch down. There's two or three times I haven't..." I stayed behind the old chain rail guarding the sunken tanks, "You can't risk commercial 'chrome' salts on your leather, I suppose ?" "No way..." Pete nodded, "Metals can leach and cause skin ulcers. Our bark-tanned leather takes longer, but is safe. First stages are the same, though..." He pointed around, "Water washes, soak, first lime-bath, first scrape, second lime-bath, first lime-soak and rest, second scrape, second lime-soak and rest, bark tanning, neutralise, curry. Takes about a year, depending on weather and quality." "I see you have traditional machinery, too !" "Sure !" He chuckled, followed the drive-shaft to the wall, "Left here..." I trailed him into an alcove, found another ship's door. We undogged it, stepped over the high sill and into clean air. I could hear and smell running water. Pete clicked on dim lights, let my eyes search the shadows and strange shapes...

"A real water-wheel !" I gasped, "Overshot ? Yes ! Working ?" "Every few weeks..." Pete grinned, "Runs the squedgers, lifts water to the sluice tanks, everything ! Now, look along the channel, beyond the by-pass..." "Hey ! There's a small wheel, too !" "We've septic tanks, activated sludge and gravel beds, UV-lamps and bubblers, but the 'polished' out-flow still goes into a big holding tank. That mini-wheel meters our treated water into the stream. Faster it runs, more gets pumped. Two Dissolved Oxygen meters stand guard." "That's neat." I nodded, "I've seen Blue Helmets' engineers setting up sewage handling. Gets complicated. You can't risk a dirty loop to the water supply..." "Yeah... There's enough raw stuff in our tanks to kill every fish between here and the coast. If we must discharge semi-treated or even 'un-polished', one of our farmers puts his hand up for the 'silage leak' and we cover the fine..." "Uh-huh." I nodded, "You do not want Environmental scientists poking about. How did you do in this year's drought ?" "Too close..." Pete allowed, "We had to pump water from our deep bores, just to dilute the out-flow. We even put in our spare bubbler. All that, and the 'polished' tank still got brim-full a couple of times. Luckily, a big thunder-storm came through and gave us the chance to empty it." "Well done !" I nodded, "I take it the Traditional Nests don't bother much ?" "Septic tank, is all." Pete shrugged, "Anyone gets close, gets Bent..." I shuddered, "That's asking for trouble ! And it won't be me at their door..." "I know." Pete nodded, "Monty has a list of Nests at risk. Some have survived centuries, but they just won't listen to us. Monty's tried. Best he could manage was bringing Frank here. Now you've convinced Frank, there's a chance..."

"I did not realise there was so much at-- at risk." "This Nest, our Daughter Nests, we're Amnestied." Pete stated, "All of us. Exception is Frank. He's 'off the books', but canny enough to stay out of trouble. We're bigger than any Traditional Nest, but they outnumber us ten-to-one..." "What ?" I gulped, "Pete, keep it as vague as you can, but I'll need an answer-- Progressive numbers ? There were a hundred_plus in the meeting so allow two hundred here. Plus four or five Daughter Nests, each with a hundred or so ? Perhaps a thousand, with 1200 tops ?" "That's a reasonable estimate..." Pete allowed, cautiously, "But you could be off by fifty percent." "I'm not-- And even if I was, only a tenth of the Traditional Vampires are known to SOTM !" "Uh ?" Pete stared at me, "You're serious ?" "Deadly !" I shook my head, "Amnesty sign-ups, Rogues, Road-Kills, Ferals, all their DNA goes on our data-base. Beyond Amnestied family groups, there's a swarm of outliers. Remember what I said about storing that Rogue's DNA and hoping a Nest will claim him ? We still haven't found his immediate family, but we have matched several distant cousins-- All Road-Kills or Rogues. So, where are the rest of their families ?? Either a lot of small, loose Nests spill Rogues, or there's a lot of migration." "There is some migration..." Pete allowed, "We worry about in-breeding..." "Not in these numbers, Pete." I shivered, "You Progressives account for most of our database, yet you're out-numbered ten-to-one. What does that say ?" "Shit..." Pete whispered, succinctly, "No wonder Monty was worried..."

"Okay." I gathered my wits, "I don't want to double-guess you, Monty, Frank or my boss, Liz. We'll see Monty at Dinner in a couple of hours, we'll speak to him then. If he does not have them already, he must get those population numbers from SOTM and cross-match them. That may take time, so he needs to know when Frank's Delegates are due..." "He has not sent for them yet: That I know. And we can stall them some-what." "Good. That eases the timing. More chance to prepare. D'uh, I really cannot risk upsetting those Delegates..." "Well, we'll have to make sure you look your best !" Pete grinned, "You and Rhys, both !" "I don't like the sound of that..." I grumbled. "Fitted Lederhosen, casual robe, formal robe-- We'll start with those, work up to etiquette." "Okay..." I groaned, "I'll give you a hand with this door."



Project Lorraine Chapter # 14: Sum-Thing Amiss... 


I stood there staring at the water-wheel's empty flume, not seeing it. I went over and over those population numbers. One HomoVamp per 5000 HomoSaps ? Surely not ?? How ?? Mind you, I've seen the same reaction when local authorities are told of a prognosis worse than nightmare. Which is another reason I'm single-- I have apocalyptic dreams...

Yet, though it seemed unlikely, I could see no flaw in the logic. Perhaps this was the point of the exercise-- getting Eyeball-Mk_1 ground-truth ? And, of course, Pete did warn that I could be off by 50%, though not where...

I sighed, shook my wits into the present and followed Pete back through the sea-door. The Tannery stink as we set the 'dogs' did not seem as bad, but I was distracted. Which meant I could try an experiment, "Pete, hardly the best time, but could you don Glamour now ?" "Look away, count to three ?" "Three, two, one..." I turned back. He'd stepped aside. Our eyes met. I shrugged, "Nope, still works..." "Interesting..." Pete allowed. "Can't be 'Higher Functions', then..." I shrugged, "Old Hind-Brain stuff..." "That's what we thought !" Pete grinned, "And, yes, I did try while you were spaced out. You didn't lose awareness. Your body-language tracked me. Us Predators notice these things..." "Hmmm..." I shook my head, "Security people wanted to put me in an NMR scanner and have a tame Vamp pull Glamour, then vice-versa, but SOTM Ethics Committee said NO. We settled for a 'Walking EEG' in the SaltMine, got nothing significant..."

"SOTM stood off the 'Gov'mint Critters' ?" "Took a fight, mind..." I chuckled sourly as we entered the foyer, "While HomoVamps don't represent a 'Clear And Present Danger', we can hold the line. Shit-Hits-Fan is a different scenario..." "And twelve thousand HomoVamps in UK ?" "Fan's turning, shovel's in the pile..." "Ah..." Pete nodded, "Delicately put ! Now, wait a mo..." He turned a waterproof switch, a small compressor began to thud beyond the upper door. A doorframe-like cable duct coughed, shook, spat condensate onto the tiled floor ahead of us, then began to hiss loudly. "AIR SHOWER !" Pete shouted over the noise, "DANCE IN IT !" I grinned, stepped into the jet-zone and went through a dry-wash routine familiar from clean-room work. "OKAY ! MY TURN !" Pete copied me, stepped clear, turned the blower off at a second switch. Beyond the foyer, we hung our helmets before tackling the steep switch-back to the main levels.

"You still look shaken." Pete commented. "Do you wonder ?" I shook my head, "Knew there were a lot of HomoVamps --How d'you put it ??-- off the books, but..." "Chris, I did say your estimate could be off..." "Hell of a difference between my 12k and SOTM's 3300..." Pete stumbled, "Mind this step, gets me every time..." I took the offset half-step carefully, though it seemed harmless. I had to wonder if it was odd or, as in the Diner, I'd caught Pete off guard. Whatever, I'd not catch him twice on this. Nor would I try. "My fault." I stated, "Shouldn't talk shop on dim stairs..." I sensed rather than heard Pete's quiet, "Uh-huh..."

Nothing more was said until we stepped back into the regular ways. "Let's stand a minute..." Pete wheezed, "Well, what do you think of our Tannery ?" "Impressed. Very impressed." I allowed, "Air shower was a neat touch !" "Even with that, Tannery work carries a premium." Pete agreed, breathing carefully, "Needs to-- Stink follows you for weeks at a time. Can't feel clean, can't eat in the Diner, banned from Club and Café, can't spend time with your sibs, can't chat up the Missies..." "That's rough..." I agreed, "Worth it ?" "If you can stick it, yes. Accrues plenty of store-points, plus feels really good wearing leather you've tanned yourself..." Pete plucked his braces, "We're not big on Arts and Crafts, but we do what we can." "Another 'Progressive' thing ?" "Sure... Dates from that Wolf-Winter, of course. Traditional Vamps won't lift a finger if they've a Sap to Bend. This Nest had to pitch in. And, from the Chronicles, there were a lot of surprises. Typical entry went something like, 'This Moon, Elizabeth assisted Henry, the young Carpenter's Apprentice: She reports that the experience was more interesting than onerous, for there are many wondrous ways to serve two parts of timber into one !' " I chuckled, "I prefer 'Liquid Nails' !" "Do you have problems with kit furniture ?" "Oh, yes... " I sighed, "Putting up book-cases at home, the first set took hours. Of course, the same instructions did three different models, and a couple of screws were missing..."

"Us, too..." Pete shook his head sympathetically, "You live at your family home ?" "No... " I shook my head, "Sibs had moved out and settled before the accident. After Mum died, the house was too big for just me. And, I was very low, spent the rest of the year in a daze. Brother had a spare room, I lived there until I started that Nursing degree. Then three years in Halls of Residence, with bed-sits for my hospital placements. Fell into HotZone work. Time off-shore gives a tax-break on the hazard pay, but I was still in a tiny flat when my inheritance came through. I could have bought a big flat or a small house, but I didn't like what I saw..."

"Okay..." Pete decided, "Got my breath back. We go left..." "Just one of those things." I sighed, "My evening bus-ride was baulked by a delivery van, I noticed an empty 'corner shop' was up for sale. Empty shop, live/rent flat over, cellar, secure parking ? On my bus route ? I checked it out on-line, then on foot. Family thought I was mad, but it grew on them. Price was reasonable. The modernised flat was bigger than mine, the ground floor had two vast rooms plus staff wash-room, the stock cellar --cellars, really-- was cavernous and dry. Side roads were quiet terraces, neat family homes. Back overlooked their gardens. Survey was good. Family lawyers arranged the usage switch to 'domestic', I bought the freehold, too. At first, my neighbours thought I was opening a book-shop or Internet Café, then realised it was a batchelor pad. They relaxed a bit when they heard I worked for SOTM but, yeah, they were still nervous when I threw my house-warming party...." "Okay !" Pete laughed, "What went wrong ?" "Couple of local youths got run down outside. Most of my colleagues had some medical training: we grabbed First-Aid kits and stabilised those kids for the Paramedics. After that, the neighbours decided I was harmless..."

"And a right here..." Pete turned, chuckled, "This was before you began hunting Rogues ?" "Couple of years ! I don't like publicity, but after my PierHead Vampire made the news--" "Sure did !" Pete chortled, "And how ! " "Didn't quite go to plan !" I grinned, "SOTM's nice SpokesPerson was just telling the cameras I was their 'Trained Negotiator' when that woman screams, my P46 goes BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM and I call for two stretchers. Rogue comes out with oxygen mask and two drips running, she needs Valium for hysterics, and I faced an impromptu press conference..." "Saw that." Pete smiled, "You looked taller..." "Thanks !" I nodded, "My body-cam had caught everything-- her misplaced rant, the bemused Rogue, my appeal, her scream, his Rush. Incident Control replayed their tape, had me talk it through." "I remember watching it on the Late News at breakfast." Pete shook his head, "Kept thinking, 'This CANNOT be real !' Then I saw his shrug-- And his look as he went down ! Phew ! Monty had us tape the next showing, replay it frame by frame. Check the timing, check the distance, check the angles, check the dialogue, map it out, re-enact it over and over-- I tell you, he was shaken !" "So was I." I shuddered. "After ?" "All next day, too..."

"Shows you care !" Pete grinned, "Well, we must have been at it a week when some-one caught an oddity on the original audio. You said you could see one Rogue. Then you turn to where the woman's facing, ask if another's there. We'd thought you hunted with CCTV. That was when we realised you might pierce Glamour, too." "Astute." I nodded, "We kept it quiet." "And with reason..." Pete agreed. "It set Monty thinking..." "I'm not surprised !" I grinned, "SOTM made millions from that body-cam footage, and they're still getting fees-- It must appear in every Vamp documentary made since! Couple of studios had to re-shoot their Vampire movies' action sequences. One tried to sue us for 'bombing' their block-buster. Yeah, right-- after US critics had already panned it !! Even the lo-res stills made front page news around the world ! Press followed me for a while, got very, very bored. I opened a dozen school fairs, gave umpteen safety talks. Police liked that I handed out their rape-prevention leaflets, I said the same rules applied..." "They do." Pete agreed, "Make predation hard." "One odd thing... There's always a surge of Amnesty applicants after a Rogue goes down. Usually they're singletons, with some 'form'. This time was different. Most were family groups, and squeaky clean..." "Ah !" Pete nodded, "That was Monty's doing: He put the word around the Neighbours." "Your Daughter Nests ?" "No--" I spun, caught Pete's arm, and stopped him, "Not Daughter Nests ?" "Just Affiliated: Why ?"

"Just Affiliated ??" I stood there for a moment, sought the right words, "What's the difference ?" "Oh !" Pete exclaimed, "Well, it goes back to our First Teacher..." "Half-Austrian ? Lederhosen ?" "That's right. Before then, Nest Youngsters got almost no formal education. The least Villager's child had access to more. But what did most Vamps want with literacy ? We have a superb Oral memory, and they had Bent Saps for the rest. Chronicles were an aberration, an Elder's folly." "But if you won't Bend any more ?" "Then everything changes." Pete nodded, "As soon as the food situation improved, there'd be litters. Nest put the word out. Months passed. One Vamp replied. Her Sire had been a Master Vamp in Bavaria. She'd sat in on the castle children's schooling to practise Glamour, got interested, then taught herself from the castle's dusty library. When a war rolled through, literacy saved her: she could read a map, road-signs and posters." "So she started the school here ?" "Her best pupil from those first litters became her Assistant, her Apprentice, then her successor: You've met Elder Vine !"

"Wow !" I reminded myself not to accidentally insult Frank's Delegates with my book-learning, "So this was the first Vamp school in the area ?" "And still the biggest. Two Daughter Nests have Kindergartens. After that, they come here." "Hold on... You mean there's only THREE Vamp schools in UK ?" "Just our three. Sure, there's some home-schooling, but that's not the same. More trouble, too..." "I'll bet !" I muttered, "So if a Nest some-where wants a litter educated ?" "They're sent here." " 'Give me a child before seven...' " I quoted. "And our 'Progressive' ways become theirs." Pete grinned, "Well, not quite: they may be our close friends from child-hood, but they are 'Independent', and fiercely so. If they share our position on some issues, they have their own views on the rest..."

"May be Progressive, may be Traditional, may be any-where between, but Independent with it." I nodded, "That's a 'Floating Vote'." "Near enough !" Pete grinned, "They share our education. They have our friendship. They give and take Partners from us and the Cousins, so there's fresh genes in our pool. They're our buffer against the strict Traditionalists..." "There's a lot of them ?" "Depends what you mean." Pete chuckled, "But, yes, about five times ours."

"Shit ! There goes my math !" "I tried to tell you." Pete sighed, "I did try to tell you..." "Can't even blame the smell." I groaned, "I'm a HotZoner: I've known worse..." "What you did not know..." Pete paused, teasing me, "We've a goodly number of Guests this month." "They're not mostly residents ?" "No way ! Here for a look at you, for the RogueBane argument, to arrange trade and Partners, for the Equinox Feast." "State Fair..." I muttered, "So much for my math !" "I tried to warn you !" Pete was enjoying my chagrin. "Yes, yes, you did." I admitted, "And would I be told ? D'uh, comes of being a Professional Pessimist, I suppose..." "Pleasantly disappointed again ?" Pete chuckled, "How do your numbers look now ?"

"Okay..." I rallied, "Down-scale the Nest's residents. Allow for boarding students. Allow for Daughter Nest visitors. Allow for Affiliated Nest visitors. Add Frank and his ilk. Allow some more for me--" "We're making allowances !" "Touché..." I ran the numbers, "And we're back to SOTM's 3250 to 3500 tops, with most probable around 3300..." "Now that is scary !" Pete gulped, "Our best guess is 3350 give or take a couple of dozen..." "Ook." I managed, "I think I'll sleep tonight, after all !" "D'you mind if I tell Monty ?" "Er, please tell him." I managed, "If Liz sees the attendance for that meet and follows my logic-- Well, 12k is epidemic !! Nothing like scaring 'Gov'mint Critters' to promote unreason !"



Project Lorraine Chapter # 15: Prêt à Porter...


When we turned into a corridor smelling of fabrics and leather working, Pete was still chuckling over my fraught estimate-- and my belated correction. He eased open the door to the first workshop, peered in, shook his head, "No-one here: We'll try further down..." I glanced around the door from curiosity, called Pete back, "Does Glamour here mean 'Do Not Disturb' ?" Pete peered in again, looked about, sighed, tapped a talon-nub on the door frame, "Excuse me, Elders: Chris, RogueBane is here for a fitting !" The Elder and her twin young Assistants stood from their tables, turned. They wore matching loose, grey smocks and working aprons, looked very professional. The Elder called, "Come in ! Come in !"

Pete flinched, "Elder Weft ? Sorry, I did not see you there..." "Nor were you meant !" She grinned, looked to me, "Ah, you must be young Chris, RogueBane ?" "Ma'am." I nodded. "Would you remove your Lederhosen that I may study your excellent disguise ?" "Sure !" I un-buttoned belt and braces, stepped out of the Lederhosen, peeled my shirt and briefs. All four recoiled for an instant, remembered I was still clad. Elder Weft felt over my body-glove while she talked, "I have been told --thrice !!-- of your encounter with Elder Frank: Did you mean to trap him thus ?" "No... I would not dare." "Good ! He is not a bad person, but he carries many ghosts... Hmm ? This is an extraordinary material ! How is this texture and detailing formed ?" "A tattoo process, I suspect." "Ah... May I see the seam ?" "Sure !" I felt at my nape, caught the recessed tag, "Pete, a foot or so ?" He drew it down to my lower back. I turned. "A zipper, yet so fine ! May I touch your skin ?"

I suppressed a shudder, nodded. She drew a talon nub down my vertebrae with exquisite care, nodded, "Thank you ! I am sorry, I must convince myself that you are indeed a HomoSap in disguise. I remember creche-tales of Changelings, feared --irrationally !!-- that you were such..." "Scared me first time I wore it..." I chuckled. "Young Pete said you came further disguised as a fat Sap ? While wearing this, too ?" "Not my plan." I stated, easing my zip shut and parking the tag, "But it was an education..." "Indeed !" She smiled, "Well, while we have you thus, I should take your size..." "Umm..." I hesitated, "Pete has a suggestion. Could he have a private word ?" "Are we not alone ?" "With five in the room ?" Elder Weft laughed, stopped, looked about, "Five ? Truly ? You can Pierce such Glamour ?"

I met the nearer Assistant's eyes, pointed to her identical Twin. From the way both Pete and Elder Weft flinched, we were now five. She rounded on them, "Matilda ? Marietta ? What is the meaning of this ?" "Youthful curiosity ?" I offered, "And perhaps a chance to help ?" "Surely !" Elder Weft beamed, "You wish to study young Chris' disguise, too ! Come !" The Twins Rushed me. I took a fast step back, half-raised my hands, "Easy now..." "S-- Sorry, Chris-- !!" "D-- Did we alarm you ?" Pete put a hand to his face. I looked between Elder Weft and the Twins, "You were not at the meeting ?" "Tasks to complete..." Elder Weft shrugged. "Duty calls..." I nodded, "Well, the last thing a Rogue does is Rush at me--" "Eek-- !" "Oh, no-- !!" "Oooh !" Even Elder Weft gulped. Suppressing a big grin, Pete raised his hand, "Don't Startle The RogueBane !" "S-- Sorry !" "W-- Won't do it again !" "I-- I did not realise..."

"I'm unarmed. " I shrugged, "But I'm still twitchy..." "Ah..." Elder Weft smiled, "Slowly, perhaps ?" The Twins nodded by turns, closed in, "Ooh ! Feel these muscles !" "This back seam and zip are so fine !" "Here is a seam between shoulder and neck--" "And one at the wrist--" "And another at each ankle !" "Oh--" "He-- Chris-- Has no--" "Body-glove lacks a Vamp's genital slit or rectal opening." I squirmed as they groped my inside-leg to the smooth crotch, "And there's a protective box, almost a girdle. It also secures my catheter valve..." "Of course ! Your Sap bits dangle !" "You're like a Strutter, all the time !" "Like it or not..." I allowed, "Male Vamps and Cetaceans are usually more streamlined. I can assure you that is much safer than having a big, soft target for any fence or foot to tag-- Never mind getting stuck in your pants' fly !" They giggled helplessly, stood. Pete looked abashed, "Sorry, Chris, I didn't realise..." "May I borrow that weight ? Thanks..." I picked up the smooth wooden block, slammed it into my crotch, drew a dull thump. All four stared in horror. "There, see ?" I grinned, "Without the box, I would be curled in a heap, howling in pain, then black, blue and purple for a week..."

"I-- I think I prefer the way I am... " Pete allowed as the others sniggered, "Ah, well, Elder Weft, the reason we're here--" "Young Chris is staying a little longer as a Vamp, needs to borrow more clothes." She looked between our surprise, "How many Students, Stop-Overs, Refugees and Guests do we get ? Many travel light..." "Ah, of course..." Pete nodded, "But there is a complication--" "Elder Frank must send for his Faction's Elder Broderik. He is not happy." She smiled, "He asked me not to be offended by their quaint clothes-- Me take offence ? Ha ! I would un-stitch their garb while they slept to study the cut, but take offence ?" "Even my smell may offend them..." I shrugged, "So I'll move from the Guest Wing to a Single Cell. During the day, though--" "I saw the by-play at Afternoon Tea !" She twinkled, "I thought her stance odd and her tunic borrowed, perhaps a Student jape-- But that was you ?" I nodded. The Twins stared at me, "That was you ?" "Really ?" "We thought you were cute !" "But so naive--" "Or forward to chat up Pete--" "On your first day !"

Pete groaned. I rolled my eyes. Then the thought struck me, "I am NOT--" "You are NOT-- " Pete echoed, hesitated, "Going to play--" "Your--" "My--" We looked at each other. "We don't need a Bedroom Farce, too." I stated. "Agreed." Pete nodded. The Twins giggled. I rounded on them, "This is going to be hard enough. We'll have hostile Traditionalists tramping around, snarling at everything and looking for trouble. I'll be trying to stay out of their noses by playing 'Rhys', a Trainee Dinner-Lady. I'll also be me --Chris, RogueBane-- a Guest Sap disguised as a Vamp to show respect for this Nest, and to better understand your ways. Talk about 'Chris' all you like, but 'Rhys' is just another Student here to learn and help. A naive, gawky, woolly-back with no dress-sense or decorum, she even tried to chat up Pete on her first day..." The Twins giggled again, but nodded agreement.

"You would tell such jokes against yourself ?" Elder Weft wondered, "You would make yourself the butt of cruel humour ? You have such confidence ?" "Can you think of a better way to hide in plain sight ?" I shrugged, "Besides, I've known worse..." "Very well." She turned to her Twin Assistants, "You know how I disdain gossip and idle chatter, but you have my license to tattle mildly --Mildly, mind !!-- upon young 'Rhys'." They nodded seriously, glanced to each other, echoed, "C- Chris, RogueBane ?" I pointed to one. "W-- With your permission, may we suggest something for 'Rhys' ?" "You know Vamps." I shrugged. "Ooh, well--" "Matti, I thought of it first--" "Oh, go on, then, Mari--" "Your 'Rhys' would suit a 'Poor Cousin' from a small, Welsh Neighbour's Nest. Of a small litter, perhaps left a Singleton by accident or disease, she went to Kindergarten at our smaller Daughter Nest, then was home-schooled, is mostly self-taught. Matti ?" "She has only simple clothes, lacks the social graces. So, we will take her in hand !"

"Plausible." Elder Weft nodded. "Better than I could devise..." Pete agreed. I stepped back, made a compact dojo bow, "I am honoured." The Twins curtsied, giggling. "Very well !" Elder Weft nodded, "What do Chris and 'Rhys' require of us ?" "You'd better take those measurements before I lose my nerve..." I grumbled, "Pete ?" "Ah, well, I was thinking HomeWear and Nest Clothes for Rhys, plus Nest Clothes for Chris..." Elder Weft and the Twins took two sets of overlapping measurements, then all three scuttled off to store rooms. Matilda returned first, with an armful of old-fashioned clothes, "Student hand-me-downs brought by 'Rhys'." Marietta soon followed, "Nest tunics, vests, briefs and breast-bands. Darned, but clean." Elder Weft swept in, nodded at her Assistants' finds, added a stout pair of sandals, "We do not go barefoot in Winter, Rhys' small Nest would be shod all year. Try these ?" Their looks were deceptive. They were surprisingly wedge-heeled. "That is better ! Your posture has changed !" Elder Weft chuckled, turned to her poised Assistants, "Dress Rhys as she would know !" Pete looked embarrassed, "Should I leave ?" "Silly child !" Elder Weft chided, "You have been to many sibling sleep-overs, you may take a Partner soon: Stay and learn !" "D'uh..." "Stick around, Pete." I advised, "Less of a shock this way..."

It went better than I feared. Fortunately, 'Rhys' did not care for frippery, wore a plain knee-slip, a simple, modest blouse, and a demure, almost Victorian, calf-length denim skirt with matching waist-coat / bodice. They made me walk and turn, near-hobble my gait and time it to the skirt. They also had me curtsey until I was just gawky. Then, Nest clothes. Other than the breast-band, her briefs and belted, knee-length tunics resembled those Pete had put in my guest room. "How can you stay so calm ?" Pete wondered. "Focus." I shrugged, "While Liz would believe me, Dei-- er, Desiré may not. On the other hand, it might inspire her and, well, let's not go there !! Ah, sorry, would 'Rhys' consider over-knee a bit daring ?" The Twins looked to each other, to Elder Weft, to Pete, nodded and found some a hand-span longer. "Unflattering length. An Older's style." I nodded, "Much better, thank you."

After that, Marietta brought Nest clothes for Chris. "You got me one of these tunics !" I reminded Pete as I changed. "These fit better. " He sighed, shook his head, "Getting very complicated... What do I tell Monty ? Or Frank ?" "Mention I've passed Joey's Food Hygiene test. Given my trick with the tabard, they'll work it out." "Tabard ?" Elder Weft wondered. "Ah..." Pete grinned, "You'd hear about it soon enough... We must spend many, many hours practising Glamour. Chris puts on a catering hat and tabard, picks up a jug and walks through our crowded meeting-- unseen until he doffs them and sits at the top table !" "You wicked child !" Elder Weft hooted at me, "At which point, the meeting came to order ?" "Indeed !" Pete allowed. "And that inspired this charade ?"

"Nosegays." I stated, "Pete explained how garlic could mask disease..." Elder Weft stared at me for a moment, then hooted glee, "Even with a residual stink of Tannery, you still smell good enough to nibble ! You would stand behind the serving counters ?" "Better ! I'm a Trainee Dinner-Lady !" "You would, smiling, serve Elder Broderik's Delegation while they complain about our Progressive menu and a Guest Sap in the Nest ? This is delicious ! I must remember to look !" She rounded on the giggling Twins, "But no teasing, mind !" "Yes, Ma'am !" "Yes, Ma'am !"

"So, young Pete, you have found Chris a Single Cell: where does 'Rhys' sleep ?" "Didn't get that far..." Pete looked uncomfortable, "I was going to ask my Sibs..." "You manage Honoured Guests." Elder Weft stated, "I settle Students and Stop-Overs: There are some connecting rooms for those too old to bunk, too young to sleep apart..." "Ah..." I grinned, "And, as a low-status Newbie, 'Rhys' might be put near Chris without causing offence ?" "You are quick, young RogueBane !" She beamed, "Do you have Sibs ?" "Three, older and smarter..." I shrugged, "Plus a raft of over-achieving cousins, second-cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles. I'm the Runt." Elder Weft and the Twins spluttered. Pete chuckled, "But they honed your wits ?" "As steel on a wheel..." I winced, "Brother Mike once joked our kin were Damascene swords to my Fairbairn-Sykes..." Pete caught the reference, nodded, "Touché !" From the Twins' expressions, I expected they'd be doing some research... "And may I trouble you for Rhys' travel-case, too ?" I asked. Elder Weft nodded to the Twins. They returned with Rhys' basic toiletries and a weary carpet-bag. "Oh, excellent !" I grinned, "That will do nicely, thank you !"

Elder Weft nodded, "Ah, that old thing ! Of course ! Now, Matilda, you are neater: Show 'Rhys' and Chris how to pack while I fetch their keys..." "Watch now..." Matilda cautioned, "The skirt folds here and here, must hang from these loops. Lay the folded bodice flat, also the slips. Blouse must also be shaken lest it crease. Rhys' tunics fold here and here, then twice across, unlike Chris' tunics which turn lengthwise..." "Let me try... Ah ? No... Aha! Gotcha !" Elder Weft brought four keys, "17, 19 and two for the door between. Who will sleep where ?" "Ladies first ?" I shrugged. "Then I shall log young Rhys into 17 !" She nodded, "With you in 19." "Thank you." I nodded, "I'll try not to disturb her with my snores, she must be up so early to serve Breakfast ! Hmm, is there a clock in each room ?" "Oh, yes." Elder Weft nodded, "No kettle, wet-bar, telephone or television, although there are sockets." "Ah, may I have a reading lamp and several wide glasses for soaking my fangs ? They'll do tomorrow, when I change rooms..." "Surely ! Do you, Chris, require toiletries ?" "I've a tiny tooth-brush and paste tube. They'll do for a week. But I should un-glove and shower once a day. If you can find me a big tub of un-perfumed baby-cream, lots of hypo-allergenic body-wash and a carton of un-perfumed baby-talc, my skin will love you. ..." "Generic ?" Pete asked. "Basic, low-allergen, own-brands would be fine, even part-packs. Not that Rhys or I would use anything fancy !"

"You're enjoying this..." Pete grumbled. "Laugh or weep..." I allowed, "I'm just hoping Monty does not drop his dinner tray..." Pete glanced at the workshop's wall-clock, "Almost an hour before you're due there... Elder Weft, will Chris need bedding from the store ?" "The rooms are ready, but stale..." "No problem." I shrugged, "Okay, what if we unpack 'Rhys' and my new clothes ? Gives both rooms time to air before I move from my Guest Room tomorrow-- today ? After breakfast ?? Sorry, I'll get used to the switch in a couple of days..." "Is this similar to jet-lag ?" Pete wondered. "Much the same: Normally we can sleep on flights, though I remember one time in Saudi..." "Another HotZone ?" "More of a HotSpot, but bad enough. There'd been an industrial accident, dozen hi-tech workers got flash-burned. A resistant 'flesh-eating' Strep got into their hospital ward, they'd die by inches. Anyhow, the King Faisal's lab recognised the strain, knew Tbilisi Institute in Georgia had a counterPhage. So far, so good, but when Tbilisi hydrated their culture, it was non-viable: That does happen. Fortunately, they'd swapped seed-stock with CDC, SOTM and The Pasteur. French were maxed out with a tropical problem, CDC could brew more, faster, but we *just* caught a scheduled Concorde. Speedbird was holding on the taxi-way, ground-crew put me and both flasks aboard from a ladder-truck. I was still fastening my belt when we took off. Saved a whole day and a couple of limbs. Real close, several needed hyperbaric treatment too, but they all walked away..." "Wow !!" "I came back coach-class on a Jumbo, tied my body-clock in knots..."

"Excuse my asking, young Chris, but was this not great effort for so few ?" "Saudis picked up that tab, Elder Weft." I shrugged, "But there's a lot of it goes on. Rarely gets to the news, though... Hmm, should I change back into Lederhosen ?" "No, just fold yours over Rhys' bag to hide it..." "Done !" I turned, nodded to the Twins, spoke to Elder Weft, "Thank you for your help, Ma'am. It is much appreciated." "Thank us by wearing these well !" Elder Weft waved to my collection, "I look forward to seeing you at Dinner !" The Twins giggled and curtsied as we left. "Will they get into trouble ?" I wondered. "A bit..." Pete grinned, "But, as you said, we may use Glamour for a 'Do Not Disturb' sign. They'd have the sense to stay busy, so no complaint there. Ha ! We call her 'Invisible Stitches' ! As an Assistant, she learned strong Glamour to avoid her brutal Elder. Well known for her kindness, she will be amused that her Assistants have over-matched her in turn ! And, a left here."

"We've come three sides of a square from my Guest Room ?" "Near enough: Layout's interlocking quads. You'll get used to it." "If you say so... Could do with some signs, mind !" "They go back up tomorrow." "Ah !" "You are not what we expected..." "And, as I said at the meeting, neither are you." "Thank you, I think... Next left. Okay, One... Five... Nine... Fifteen, Seventeen." Pete looked both ways, "Okay ?" I looked both ways, nodded, unlocked 17 and closed the door quietly behind us. "A bit spartan after your Guest Room..." Pete grumbled. I opened the air-duct's louvres, patted the double bed, opened the curtains on the hanging space and triple bunks, peered into the compact en-suite, "Do me fine. Suit Rhys, too. And would that be the connecting door ?" Pete nodded, removed its two heavy bars, racked them. Unlocked, that door opened on another, barred from the far side. I hung some of Rhys' clothes, left the bag on the bed, "Okay, I've got my stuff. I'll go first..."

19 was the mirror of 17. I hung my new tunics. Pete unbarred and unlocked the connecting door, "There you go-- Now, remember who you are ?" "Yes, but remind me of the best route to the Diner ?" "Ah ! Back to Room 1. Left. Second right." "Uh-huh... " I closed my eyes, "Room 1. Turn left. Second right. From this side, I reach the Staff entrance first. Then the Diner and Club ?" "You have it. Now, what do you want to do between Dinner and Supper ? And after Supper ?" "After Supper is easy: Long day, Early night." "Fair enough ! But you are invited to the Club. Could you manage a visit after Dinner ?" "Dress-code loin-cloth again ?" "No, you won't need that for another week. As you are now will do." "Uh-huh..." I visualised the necessary changes, "Okay, I'll need to swing back through 17 then here before the Club, finish up at my Guest Room." "Second thoughts ?" "I'm up to a dozen, but the jump-light's come on..." "Ah..." Pete nodded, "I'll see you at Dinner in, what, twenty minutes ?" "Just don't stare or flirt." I hoped, "I don't need the fuss. I'm just grateful Vamps don't use cosmetics !" "Deal ! And I'll cue Monty !" "Thanks !"

I let Pete out, bolted the door, sat on the bed and shook my head. That seemed hilariously inadequate to the circumstances, but it would have to do. I shook my head again. The whole thing was absurd. Yet, what choice was there ? I had to play it out. Thirst things first. I shed my tunic and briefs, edged into the compact wash-room. Relieved, I went through to Rhys' room, locked both communicating doors, barred 17 and allowed myself a sigh.

I loathed Amateur Dramatics. I'd taken care at school to avoid any involvement in Stage-craft. My BioChem year was too hectic for frivolity, then I was too low. The Nursing course was a different matter. We were an odd bunch anyway and, as a jockey-small Mature Student who still looked mid-teens, I was oddest of all. This meant I was the natural butt of our Halls' Persistent Pranksters. Take one jape well ? Everyone laughs. Smile through three, five, a dozen ? You're a 'Good Sport', even if you must shun their wild parties and near-orgies in favour of a grinding regime of study and course-work...

Third Year was a little different. The 'out-placement' system meant that desk-work stopped after that Summer's Year_2 exams. We did practical training for a couple of months, then chose our long-placement 'Specialities'. I'd done well in my short-placements and exams. I'd graduated comfortably, was qualified for work as a Medical Technician. The experienced Nurses who were upgrading their 'papers' had already left. But, my learned kin-folk held that extra experience was priceless. Meanwhile, time and growth had some-what healed my soul. I'd sloughed all but the last traces of that cloying gloom. My habits did not change, though. I'd not been to the Halls' two previous Halloween Balls, had no intention now.

The Persistent Pranksters took a hand. They got the idea that Sue and I should attend as 'Naughty Nurses'. As Sue was six-four and stacked, while I was five-nought and slight, a less likely pairing seemed impossible. Like me, she'd avoided the parties, preferring to study. In my case it was because I'd lost those years, had to fight off depression and re-learn my study technique. Poor Sue was not academic, needed to work twice as hard to comprehend theory. Regarded as a 'Seriously Dumb Blonde', there was wonder that she'd managed to stay the course. She often placed last, but she always passed. Now we were doing 'practical nursing', the pressure was off. She was a natural Nurse, un-flagging, reliable, resilient, patient beyond belief, with a bed-side manner that lit up any room. She also shared my opinion of the Persistent Pranksters. Their unrelenting efforts to get her into bed had become tedious...

What would it take to coax us out of our hermits' shells ? A splendid meal ? Champagne ? Gift-tokens ? Tickets and hotel rooms for a WestEnd show ? All of the above ? Could it even be done ? Side-bets accumulated as the offers rose. Most of our Halls' students had suffered the Persistent Pranksters' attentions, took a keen interest ...

What they did not consider was that Sue might been coached through her theory. There were suspicions, but who'd bother with her ? Of the obvious candidates, the bright women avoided her, she didn't trust straight men and the Gays had their own concerns. Even when the last deadline came and *we accepted*, they did not realise their mistake. We were seen to assemble modest outfits, were expected to make a token appearance. Only, we turned up in jaw-dropping costumes. I'd had my black hair bleached and set like Sue's, I was sufficiently comfortable on heels that I must have been practising, and our rigs had been 'out of stock' for a month...

The Persistent Pranksters had been splendidly trumped, and knew it. They accepted with admirable grace, and we partied. We had a further surprise for them. At party's end, Sue's Dentist fiance arrived in his Porsche to take her home. She'd been his receptionist, had refused to consider his proposal until she'd qualified. I'd already promised my half of our winnings as an engagement gift...

I waved them off, staggered across Campus towards the Student Halls. I did not need a tall, masked man to jump out of the shadows, brandish a knife, and state, 'Just you and me, Little Nursie ! Now we can do this easy, or we can do this hard...'

His second mistake: I only seemed drunk. I was not used to disco-dancing, nor high-heels. I groaned-- Fish-nets be damned ! I stepped out of my borrowed shoes. I pulled my dress zip down beyond my navel. I wiggled my hips, gently called, 'I'm waiting, Tiger !'

He gawped at me, then stepped up, leering. I began with a deceptively slow parry, steered his knife-hand clear. Half-fist under ribs. One more for luck. Heel of hand to nose. Sword-hand to throat. Take your time, now. Take, twist arm. Knife gone. Trip. Half-fist to nape. Hammer-lock. Take a deep breath and YELL.

Just my luck, he was the local 'Serial'. The City's news-paper had offered a reward. They got their money's worth. It bought a priceless piccy, my 'Naughty Nurse' un-masking the still-floored Perp before a semi-circle of costumed weirdos. Only, his hand-cuffs were real, as was the bemused WPC between short Scream and tall Hobbit...

After that triple debacle, our Persistent Pranksters declared an Armistice and disbanded. I never did reach Black at Ju-Jitsu...



Project Lorraine Chapter # 16: Tag, You're It...


I sat on the edge of Rhys' bed for several minutes, though it seemed longer. As I'd said to Pete, the jump-light was on. I shook my head a third time, sighed. To be at the Diner with time to change and scrub, I could not delay any more.

I shrugged into Rhys' plain breast-band, pulled on the simple, but feminine briefs and eased the long tunic over my head. I adjusted the belt until it looked right, put on the sandals. I stepped to and fro, let my nerves settle. Surprisingly, the different posture and longer hem-line helped me adjust. I still felt horribly conspicuous, but as a Naive Newbie rather than a Disguised Sap: 'Tis curious how the mind works...

I'd anticipated all sorts of problems and issues, could never have imagined this. Still, it had to be done. I would be failing in my duty if I flinched. Of course, there was an up-side: No pandemic hung on my hesitation, I had some margin of error... Yeah, right.

Time to go. Make a final check, take the key to 17. I eased out, clicked off the dim light and locked the door. Back to #1, turn left. Short steps, short steps. Ignore a passing Elder due his flicker of Glamour. Count a first-right. Hold pace and stride down. Nod to a couple of curious Youngsters, ignore their stares. Second right. Hesitate while a chattering group of Youngsters cross from the left. Ignore their glances and puzzled looks. Follow them slowly, due my shorter stride and slower pace. Ease into the 'Staff Only' door, close it gently, lean on wall, take a deep breath...

"Hello, can I help you ?" I turned. Joey was peering from the clean-side's door. He looked me over, puzzled, "Hello, are you lost ?" "Just don't laugh..." I whispered. "Creche-Mother's Tits !" He gasped, gulped, "I-- Ah-- D'uh, don't move-- Stay right there--" He vanished into the clean-side for a minute or two, returned with Mari and Sue, "... so perhaps you could have a quick word with her, ask experience and such ? I wasn't expecting a student, I'm in the middle of things..." "Oh, okay..." Sue stepped into the changing room, smiled at me, "Hi, I'm Sue. Sorry, Chef Joey didn't know we were getting a Catering Student. So much going on, news must have got lost some-where--" "Sue ?" Mari elbowed her, "Sue !!" "What, Mari ?" "Look at her face !! Who does she remind you of ?" Sue peered at me, looked closer, blinked. She put a hand to her mouth, "Well, I'll be dipped in Chives ! Rhys, is that really you ?" "Elder Weft made a few changes... " I admitted. "So I see !" Sue gulped. "Gissa twirl ?" Mari pleaded. I pivoted neatly, made a clumsy curtsey. "You Little Monster !" Mari hissed, "And, you, too, Rhys ! Joey said--" "I know what Joey SAID-- " Sue spat, "I know EXACTLY what Joey SAID, and I walked right into it... Right. Okay. Calm. Calm. Yes. Rhys, you know the Food Hygiene rules: Change, wash and scrub, meet us inside ?" "Just don't laugh--" My quiet plea was cut off by the slammed door and her rising shriek, "Jo-EEEEY ??"

My locker's shelf held a new badge for Rhys. I took a few minutes to change, to tie my coat's belt looser than last time, to wash and scrub. I walked through to the now-calmed Dinner Ladies, held out my hands to be sniffed, "Start clean ?" Sue looked, sniffed, nodded, grinned, "Here's your clean plate-cloth. You're on the Mince and Mushroom Casserole for now. Don't mind the stares, Rhys, and remember to SMILE." I was too busy to notice stares. I suspected many Vamps must have skipped one or more meals through the day, but they all wanted Dinner. And, most of them wanted my Casserole ! Smile, small ladle, smile, big ladle, smile, small ladle, mind the plate-cloth corner, wider stance, smile, small ladle, remember to breathe, smile, big ladle, remember to breathe, ladle's clunking already ? "Getting low !" Sue lifted out that hefty pot, replaced it. Smile, small ladle, smile, big ladle, smile, small ladle-- "Ah, young Rhys ! You are our new Catering Student ? You look very smart !" "Thank you, Ma'am !" Elder Weft winked, pushed her tray onwards. "Big serving, please, Rhys !" Matilda --or was it Marietta ?-- grinned at me, was shunted onwards by her hungry Twin, "Same again, please, Rhys !"

I smiled, ladled, peripherally noting that a dozen heads had turned. Of course, even Rhys, a new Catering Student approved by Elder Weft, was almost a non-event beside the day's main buzz... Smile, small ladle, smile, big ladle, smile, ladle's clunking again ? "Getting low !" "That's the lot !" Sue stated, "When that's gone, lid it, take five in back." I nodded. Some-one got the last ladle. I eased the heavy lid to place and slid away. Behind the scenes, Joey was waiting with a long glass of water, "Yours." I nodded, sank the lot, burped gently, "Thanks... Is it always so busy at Dinner ?" "No, there's a good crowd tonight, and the Casserole's a favourite. You did well--" "And you remembered to smile !" Mary grinned as she toted my empty pot through to the wash-up area. Sue brought another pot, "That's the custard gone... Nice one, Rhys ! Still tense, but neat and clean. Please, Mr. Joey, Chef ? Can we keep her ? Pretty please, with candies on top ?"

"For a couple of weeks, perhaps..." Joey allowed, "Like, er, Chris, said, 'Strange Times'. Speaking of which, er, Rhys, some time in the next few days, I'll rotate you to the Café. You need to be seen there before Elder Broderik's goons start sniffing about..." "You've seen him before ?" "Couple of years ago. Nothing to do with THIS Nest, thank the Elders ! We were just neutral ground for two sub-factions to meet..." "Much trouble ?" "Nothing was good enough for them. At least Elder Frank is civilised-- they were just rude ! Worse, they nearly came to blows in the Nest--" "They took it outside." Anabelle brought an empty sauce-jug and some tools, "Seconds fought, one almost died." "Seconds ?" I puzzled, "Duellists, Boxers and Wrestlers have Seconds, but..." "Somewhere between 'Champion' and 'Minder'." Lara scooted through, her tray piled with empty dishes, "Elder does the thinking, Second handles thumping and clawing, there's a couple of mean Youngsters as look-outs and Go-Fors. Sorry, empties are piling up out there..." "Thanks, Lara !" I nodded, turned to Joey, "My cue ?" Joey pointed to 'Front of House', "You're on !"

With enough food in them, HomoVamps will glance up from their plates. I got several long looks as I bustled between tables, collecting empties. Although Lara and I divided our routes, I finally had to pass near Pete. He'd eaten with a couple of other Youngsters, but they'd left. He'd been joined by Monty and Frank. Pete saved me the choice, called, "Ah, Rhys ! Have you a moment ?" "Elders ?" I paused with my laden tray, "Was the meal satisfactory ?" "Oh, yes ! The Casserole was delicious, as ever ! But I'd like you to meet Elder Monty and Elder Frank !" "Elders !" I ghosted a curtsey to see Pete's reaction. He struggled, but kept his face straight, "Elders, young Rhys, here, has joined us as a Catering Student for several weeks." A dozen heads had turned, more were surely within earshot. "Ah, young Rhys !" Monty nodded, "I've heard well of you ! Keep up the good work !" Frank glanced at me, glanced again, hesitated, blinked, took a hasty slurp of fruit-juice, found his voice, "Ah ? Rhys ? Good Welsh name !" "Small Nest back of Oswestry ?" Monty nodded, "Old Sire was quite Traditional, I believe, but he had a traffic accident... Young Rhys is mostly self-taught." "Ah..." Frank gathered his wits, "Well, then, young Rhys, I'm sure we'll see you around !" "Please, continue !" Monty waved me on. "Elders !" I ghosted another curtsey to see Pete squirm, slid away. Behind me, Monty chuckled, "I believe Elder Weft has taken a shine to Rhys, young Pete ?" "Yes, Elder." Pete nodded, safely, "I believe so..."

They'd timed it well. The crowd had thinned enough for their conversation to carry, but held enough to hear and remember. So, I was from Oswestry ? My Great Aunt --of Rhys' Piddle-- and her family still lived there, so I knew the area. That 'traffic accident' was a sly touch: It meant the Old Sire had died hunting. For Traditionalists, that was surely an honourable exit. Their New Sire must have Progressive tendencies, else Rhys would not be here. Self-taught ? I did not attend this Nest's school, would be ignorant of its ways. Clever, clever, clever...

"You are quick on your feet !" Lara complimented me as I dropped off a last tray at the wash-up, "Play Station and Paintball ?" "And the Nursing degree..." I nodded, "Phew ! Hard work, though !" "You'll learn to pace yourself..." She nodded, "I heard Monty, too. Rhys from Oswestry, eh ? Can you cover it ?" "Just about-- I've kin there. I take it I don't have to discuss Nest details ?" "Nor how you got here. Not without permission from your Sire or Elders." Lara finished loading a wash-tray, slid it into the system, "Your current Sire will be feeling a bit exposed. You'd be expected to keep stum..." "Thanks !"

"Um, is Rhys Amnestied ?" Lara wondered. "Oh, yes, but the legal minimum: Just a swab." Joey turned from pre-rinsing pots, "Code or tag ?" "Tag in my pelvis!" I chuckled, "What's one more big syringe ? I was donating more marrow anyway, got two-for-one. Still stung, mind..." "Hold on-- How did you know you'd need--" "Rhys didn't, silly !" Lara cut in, "Just good sense ! Without one, Chris could get shot on sight !" "What ?" Joey hissed. "Sadly, yes. " I nodded, "Accidentally, of course. So sorry, thought it was the start of a Rush..." "You cannot be serious !" "Deadly." I stated, "There was a hidden scanner at Victoria Station: I felt the ping." "You FELT the ping ?" "Well, my other tag sensed the ping and buzzed to let me know..." "THAT is not a standard tag--" "Hey, there's no cell-phone in it !" I hastened, "Just a top-range Medi-Tag: Carries my groups and types, vaccinations, allergies and such. Effective range is a dozen metres. Think Bluetooth-- You could find me in a mass-grave or lime-pit, but I'm under the radar here..." "You really have to plan for things like that ?" "Occupational hazards..." I shrugged, "Whole bunch of contingencies." Lara could not find words, but bit her lip.

"Okay, all loaded..." Joey announced, "Wash your hands, grab plates. I'm serving ! And I've saved some Casserole-- Lara, Rhys, you've first refusal !" I took a small portion, leaving enough for two more. It tasted good, I could understand the enthusiasm. There was an odd hint of flavour, though. The main ingredient was beef mince, but it had something else-- Not lamb, poultry or pork... "Touch of venison ?" I asked after I'd cleared my plate and wiped it with a broken roll, "Hint of boar ? Can't place it..." "Hedgehog crisps !" Joey chuckled, "Seriously ! And I know there's no hedgehogs involved, but doesn't it make a difference ?" "Would not have believed it !" I admitted, "You've caught the 'Jungle Meat' taste, that's for sure..." "Oh ? What have you eaten ?" Sue wondered. "Monkey. Can't say I cared for it..." I shrugged, "We'd buy some in local markets, test it three ways: Track mutant strains, flag species jumpers, archive for hindsight. If we know where it came from, there's more chance of out-witting an outbreak..."

"Soup and a roll ?" Sue puzzled as I pushed my chair back, "And you've still room for dessert ?" "I've an invitation to the Club-- as Chris. Thought I'd take some dishes through..." "Okay." Joey nodded, "Who will you be for Supper ?" "I don't know. I doubt I'll escape from Monty's company, so Chris." "Ah !" Sue nodded, dug in a patch-pocket, "Time tables ! We print them off for Guests-- here's one for each of you, and a spare." "Oh, thanks, Sue !" I glanced at the time, then the schedule, "Okay, I'll also be Chris for First Breakfast. How many meals do you expect Rhys for ?" "All of them ?" Joey quipped. "Don't be cruel !" Sue elbowed him, "Chris is an Honoured Guest, so any help from Rhys is more than welcome !" "Okay, okay..." Joey admitted, "Tell you what: Tomorrow, I'll lend Rhys some books, a note-pad and a bunch of old menus. If she doesn't show up, she's studying..." "Neat ! And, thanks ! I don't want to get too predictable." I nodded, gathered our empties and left them stacked in the wash-up area. After washing my hands, I took a deep breath and stepped into the changing room. My walk back to 17 was less fraught because I got courteous nods instead of puzzled glances. I entered 17 as Rhys, stripped, went through to 19, used the wash-room, dressed and emerged as Chris.

Five minutes later, I stepped into the Club for the second time. Again, all the heads came around. This time, they hooted, called me in. Elder Monty pulled rank, led me to a low table flanked by wide couches, "Chris, RogueBane: Elder Frank, Elder Vine, Elder Weft you know. Elder Lime regulates the Tannery, Elder Hope is Creche-Mother. Elder Fern tutors the Senior students. Elder Book also tutors the Seniors, and keeps the Chronicle. Elders Justin, Ralph and Brodie send their regrets, as do Elders Pearl and Chain." "I'm honoured ! Thank you !" I hesitated, "Sorry, I really don't know what else to say..." "Don't worry !" Frank grinned, "You've said enough today !" "Indeed !" Elder Lime nodded, "From your first words, you confirmed Elder Monty's selection." "Very kind of you... " I admitted, "But I did fall into this by accident--" "Nonsense !" Elder Book interjected, "There is Accident, and there is Serendipity ! You cleave to the latter !" "Fortune favours the prepared." Elder Hope stated. Elder Vine nodded, "You inspired my Juniors-- They will speak of nothing else ! One thought: Did you jest when you spoke of tricking that Slayer ?" "I made light of her failings. She's a Slayer, it limits her options. But I did so beat her at 'Scissors, Paper, Rock' in the conference bar... Which leads me to an interesting question: What does a RogueBane do ?"

The Elders laughed. Monty answered, "As you do ! You act with us Elders' authority. Reason with Rogues-- and if sense does not prevail, you may kill." "No euphemisms. " I nodded, "I like that. Any retired RogueBanes I can talk to ? Discuss tactics ?" "Sadly, no. There has been no RogueBane in this Nest for many years." "Ah... Sap many ? Vamp many ?" "Your Civil War--" "Yerk !!" "One advantage of of our large and very settled Nest." Monty allowed, "Small Neighbour Nests suffer, but remove the threat to us..." "Safety in numbers." I nodded, "Okay. Okay, I see the benefits. And, with Amnesty, you have the Sap authorities on your side, too ?" "There is that..." Monty admitted, "But--" "Hold that thought..." I worked an implication through, "The school: It has built a lot of links with your Neighbours. You now feel responsible for their protection, too ?" "Yes." "And I'm doing the job already, though from the Sap side." I nodded, "Thank you. So the problem is persuading other Nests to accept your RogueBane ?" "Yes..." Frank sighed, "Even I was expecting some-one taller..." "You handled it well. " I grinned, "I've had Rogues ignore me, thinking I was a 'Stalking Horse' for the real Hunter."

They laughed and hooted. "If you will pardon the question..." Elder Lime put, "How do you attract their attention ?" "Ketamine dart." I shrugged, "If there's time, I've a Trank-gun. Between the tag and the drug-haze, a bunch see sense. If I'm Rushed, its my P46." Frank shook his head slowly, "You are a cool Sap, I'll grant you that !" "Ketamine ?" Elder Book puzzled, "Surely that is too slow ?" "Not SOTM's mix." I shook my head, "I've got to carry an air-way and styrettes of antidote in case of a bad reaction. Air-way's also useful if I've shot them." "You would give a downed Rogue CPR ?" "Five... " I counted, "No, six." "Did they live ?" "Three took Amnesty..." I hesitated, "Two bled out. One is completely mad."

"There are losses in every trade..." Elder Lime quoted Kipling, "But what of Rogues who accept Amnesty ?" "Usual rules: They gotta 'fess up and take their lumps." I shrugged, "Crown Prosecution Service run them through the 'Scene Of Crime' database to be sure. Worst case, Rogues can plead 'Diminished Responsibility', reduce Murder to Manslaughter. Same for old stuff: There's no 'Statute of Limitations' on Murder, but Manslaughter gets a Concurrent sentence or Conditional Discharge." "What of the conditions inside your so-called 'Salt Mine' ?" Elder Fern wondered. "I can answer that." Elder Frank stated, unexpectedly, "Look around." He got puzzled looks. "SOTM's so-called 'Salt Mine' is both a prison and a 'Secure Hospital', but it is pleasant. Prisoners have similar rules to HomoSaps-- they may write home. The conditions, menus and nutrition are public record. The regular Prison Visitors' system checks such claims. Us Traditionalists doubted. Then we suspected a trick. Then we thought it was a show-case wing, and the rest was dirty, noisy, damp and bright. But, no. When SOTM asked for details of a Nest's environment, only Progressives spoke. SOTM honoured their specifications."

Several Elders muttered and shook their heads unhappily. "Yet it is a prison !" Elder Frank confirmed, "Several Rogues have lost remission for 'Riotous Behavior' and other misconduct." "They were not shot ?" Elder Lime puzzled. "Seems not..." Frank allowed, "Though some detail is censored from letters.... Chris ?" "I only know what is on public record." I shrugged, "I'd guess at a couple of tricks. Reduced Oxygen and/or increased CO2 percentages makes Vamps keel over, go torpid. So, bleed Nitrogen into a corridor's air-con or squirt a CO2 extinguisher into a cell could do the trick. Tear-gas, pepper-spray or flash-bangs have clean-up issues. But there are crucial differences to a normal prison. It is underground. It relies on forced ventilation. If all else fails, the Governor could key the breakers and wait. Also, because of Vamp venom, warders have a special clause in their contracts. Hostages must be assumed 'Bent', their freedom is non-negotiable." That caused some more muttering. Elder Lime voiced a common fear, "Has any Rogue's kin attempted to coerce a warder's family ?" "As far as I know, only once. SAS dealt with them. We had to run DNA on those three Vamps' body parts to match them up." "That-- That seems a little excessive." "Seems SAS have a rule-of-thumb: no such concept as Overkill, only 'Re-Load' and 'Cease-Fire'. From the sample contamination, I'd guess they used a Claymore mine, mortars and lots of bullets. I think the message was received and understood..."

"Have you much to do with the SAS ?" "Once was enough..." I shuddered, "They de-briefed me after the Unquiet 'Stans Incident. If they're like that with their friends, I pity their enemies." "What happened ? Can you talk about it ?" "SOTM's Shrink says I should, mitigates PTSD: Well, when I got back from the 'Stans, I was sent an invitation to visit Credenhill, to discuss both my experience in the 'Stans and the nuances of Rogue Hunting. Can't say I was happy about it, but I was given to understand they'd been 'Plan B' if our Blue Helmets failed." "You owed them, if only by proxy." Frank nodded. "Didn't start well: as my file-copy read 5-/O instead 5-0, they took some convincing I was me." "Expecting Some-one Taller." Monty chuckled as Frank winced. "Then they thought I was Walting. But, I'm a HotZoner. That was unarguable. Eventually, they conceded I might be for real...

"After that uneasy start, I was led to a conference room and lengthily quizzed on Rogue Hunting. They did not want to believe. Those heavy-hitters did not consider the dinky 4.6 a man-stopper, never mind a Vamp-stopper. As I'd then six to my credit plus a couple of Amnestied, my system needed checking. They led me to an indoor range, had me plink some targets. My scores proved my P46 and I did have a Rogue-shaped sweet-spot, made them suck their teeth. So they took me to their urban pop-ups, let me pith those. My technique was a bit stiff, I had odd ideas of where to place shots, but I could reliably stop Vamps. And I'd not shoot once to kill if I could fire twice or more to disable. Then I mentioned that their Rush targets felt a bit slow. They cranked up the speed until I was happy. I still hit where and how I pleased. As it was their ammo, I burned through a lot proving it was no accident.

"Dinner in the Mess was a thoughtful affair. I had nothing but respect for them. Unfortunately, my methods broke all their rules-- and worked for me. I drank only lemonade, took an early night in the Guest room supplied. I knew their reputation for unorthodox hospitality, took a few precautions. A couple of minutes after 3 AM, the door burst open and a bunch of howling Jihadists swarmed in. They pounced on the bed, bundled its occupant in the bedding and ran out. Well, they got as far as my heat-pad's taut cable before realising something was wrong. My pajamas were stuffed with rolled blankets, the head was a hand-made Scream-mask. There was scant space under the bed, but I was there, curled in a dark blanket, clearing the safety from my well-cleaned P46 and its 20-round mag...

"No names, no pack-drill: They re-made the bed, re-wired my heat-pad's wrenched plug, re-hung the door with full-length screws in the hinges, vanished into the night...

"Next morning, they invited me to inspect my crate --How did they get it ?-- and their realistic mock-up of my 'Stans cave. They even had my blood-stained rock. I pointed out some discrepancies, they walked me through my escape. They made me identify, handle and fire the AK47 variant I'd liberated, discuss the grenades I'd lobbed. They traced Bill, my nice Canadian Master Sergeant, rang him at home and spoke to him at length. After lunch, we again discussed Rogue hunting before they put me on a train home. I must admit I spent most of the journey watching for ambushes and Black Helicopters..." "Paranoia ill becomes you !" Frank chuckled, "Did you hear any more of it ?" "Just one thing: Bill now gets a Christmas card from The Regiment...."

The Elders hooted. Monty glanced at the clock, "Ah, coming up to Supper ! Would you eat with us ?" "Only a snack, if you don't mind." I nodded, "I need an early night." We streamed through to the Diner, where the menu was soup and rolls. I nibbled a roll, drank tomato juice. Joey had gone, I did not recognise the two Dinner Ladies helping Lara. She noted my company, said nothing, but met my eyes and smiled kindly. After a protracted supper and small-talk, I made my excuses and headed for 19 to collect my Lederhosen.

Took me a while to find my original VIP Guest Room. Thirst things first. I stripped, did my business, got clean. I put my fangs and contacts in soak, brushed my teeth and pulled on the supplied night-shirt. That classic coffin beckoned. I checked for ventilation, hidden catches, bolts or spikes, found no traps. The 'satin' lining was a modified sleeping-bag, held by copious Velcro. There was a modest mattress underneath. I set the alarm-clock, dimmed the lights, clambered in. With my head on the pillow, I could still reach the half-lid. It swung down.

Quiet, dark. No traffic noise, no street-glow, no neighbours' teething kiddies, no boom-boxes blaring from cars at the take-away opposite, no jets on red-eye flights, no drunks, no Karaoke-clubbers, no sirens, no Police helicopters... I grinned. I could enjoy this ! 'Busy day tomorrow.' I told myself, tuned out. I had apocalyptic dreams, of course. But, in my line of work, that's normal.



Project Lorraine Chapter # 17: Oh, What A Tangled Web...


'What-- How-- Where-- ??' I woke with a start. I was immobilised in the warm and dark, was otherwise sensory deprived. I needed a few seconds to orient myself... Pieces popped into place. Project Lorraine ? The Vamp body-glove ? The Progressive Nest in the Medieval cellarage ? The Classic Vamp Casket ? That Velcroed liner...

I was slight enough to wriggle, I'd surely snarled the liner to a snug cocoon. Okay, which way had I turned ? The body-glove made that hard to tell, meant I needed several breathless minutes to unwind. Finally I squirmed free of the satin-like fabric's embrace, could push open the casket's half-lid.

I sat up, looked around, shook my head. Well, I'd always wondered, and now I knew. I could almost hear Liz' chuckle when she read my report, and Dei-- er, Desiré's liquid laugh if ever I could tell her the tale. Good news was I'd slept 9 hours straight. Excepting post-HotZone chill-outs, that was the first time in years-- And, yes, despite my usual apocalyptic dreams ! The set alarm would ring in twenty minutes. I might as well start my day...

Thirst things first, then the back-zip business. I still had time for a long, long shower. I stood under the spray-head, flooded the torso of my body-glove, inside and out. I waited as excess water oozed from the myriad pores. As I'd hinted to Elder Weft and Pete, I'd soon need to strip, soak and air. I had about another dozen hours before my skin complained. Downside of my remarkable collection of immunities was that anything I did catch might be resistant to generics...

I put on clean briefs from habit, slipped into yesterday's tunic and belted the waist. With contacts and dentures in plus a minute to settle, I was ready to go. Last look in the mirror, grab key, time to go.

I was not very hungry, but I did need breakfast. The Diner was already busy, with Juniors and Youngsters demolishing heaped servings, Olders eating systematically and the few Elders nibbling. "Evening, Sue !" I grinned, "You're on Earlies, too ?" "I love my work !" She chuckled, "Sleep well ?" "Nine hours straight..." I nodded, eyed the cooked meals, "Ooh, tempting, but no, I'm still jet-lagged. Rolls for me, I think !" I collected several wholemeal rolls and a tiny portion of seed-oil spread, sniffed the potent coffee but settled on lemon tea and a large glass of orange juice. I'd downed the juice and spread one roll before I had company, "Hi, Pete !"

"Got nearer this time..." He grinned, landed his laden tray beside mine, "Sleep well ?" "Nine hours straight, but woke wrapped like a mummy. Liner had come loose..." "Occupational hazard !" Pete chuckled, shovelled a mouthful of food, "So, duvet tonight ?" "Yes, and in my own skin. I've no choice. I hope Rhys does not mind my snores..." "Semi-Trad Nest ? Probably had a Pet Sap... Makes you wonder how many Sap children have had Vamp 'Invisible Friends' !" "Umm..." I finished eating that roll, began to spread the next, "Sam, SOTM's top Psychiatrist thought of that, too. Wrote a wonderful Paper exploring the implications of covert Vamps. Covered everything from odd 'Multiple Personalities', through 'Devil On Your Shoulder', 'Haunting', 'Poltergeists', 'Demonic Possession', even some of the more bizarre forms of Schizophrenia." "Monty got hold of that report for us." Pete nodded between large mouthfuls, "As your Professor wrote it before Amnesty, based only on the proven existence of HomoVamps, it was a remarkable document." "Accurate ?" "Uncanny. I don't think she missed a trick. Left Monty sucking his fangs..."

"Won awards." I nodded, "She had a lot to do with setting up the Amnesty system, still does assessments on Amnestied Rogues." "Ah ? You work with her ?" "Well, I did my degree 'long placement' doing Mental Health Nursing. As I'd been so down, I'd more than a little insight--" "Far side of the Looking Glass ?" "Been there, glad to be back... Anyhow, I ran into her on the ward. Of course she knew of my Medical family and its loss, was delighted I'd clawed clear of the double tragedy, got a life. After I fell into HotZone work, I saw her a lot. She does our debriefing and routine checks. Usual 'Catch-22', of course: If you can stay completely sane in a HotZone, you're mad. Sam says the only intelligent solution is the M*A*S*H ethic. Yeah, right-- but there's no time or energy for even that until the decompression stop !! Still, having Vamp issues fall into her lap was a dream come true..." "I'll bet !" Pete allowed, "What does she make of Rogues ?"

"Hard to say..." I finished nibbling my second roll, "I only see the Medical Summary-- Even if he was my catch, I have limited access !! I can say most Rogues have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Their recurring memory is that our eyes meet, they look down the barrel of my little gun, it seems to grow to cannon size and they suddenly get a *horrible* feeling of impending mortality." "I'll bet !!" Pete hooted, "Just realising you can Pierce their Glamour will be an 'Oh, Shit !' moment !!" I drained my juice, "So, they weigh their odds, blink or Rush." "Something else..." Pete chuckled, "Us Vamps do have a pecking order based on Glamour." "Not surprised." I nodded, tried my tea, "Do Glamour and Piercing skills track ?" "Usually..." Pete shrugged, "But you're a wild-card. If you can Pierce Frank's Glamour, you can see any Vamp I've heard of. He may not be the oldest Vamp, but he's certainly the wiliest we know." "Provided he gave it all he had ?" "Ah, that, too..." Pete allowed, "Though Monty would have caught him if careless. Or would he have said ?"

"Gets very complicated..." I muttered, decided my tea was cool enough to sip, "Something was said something about practising Glamour ?" "Juniors and Youngsters have a Glamour Ladder, like Saps play golf or squash." Pete grinned, "Doesn't hurt that you pulled that stunt with the tabard-- There's a room full of Vamps can swear to it !" "But it was just a trick--" "Still makes you Master Vamp on any ladder." "D'uh ?" "Seriously !" Pete grinned around a huge bite of pork chop, "Push comes to shove, you can see us, but we can't see you !" "But it was just a trick--" "It worked. Elegance of simplicity: You turned our instincts against us. Now we cannot rely on our superior reflexes, we must look around, study the scene with our fore-brain instead of our fast Predator hind-brain... " Pete drew a rueful sigh, "I'm beginning to understand how the Neanderthals must have felt when HomoSaps arrived. Those Ns were stronger, faster, tougher, better adapted, but the cunning Saps just rolled over them..." "Won't come to that if I can help it." "Thanks." Pete nodded, "I don't want to live out my time in a zoo, like the last Tasmanian Devil, or that lonely Giant Tortoise..."

I nodded, sipped at my tea. SOTM had a last-resort contingency plan to take in every Amnestied Vamp. The new Prison / Secure Facility was based on an old design. SOTM, the adjacent Teaching Hospital, our Uni neighbours, the City's Central Library, Gallery and Museum held common archives in another recycled salt-mine. Begun as a WW2 store for artwork and the museum's famed Egyptology collection, it evolved into a barely documented Cold War 'Strangelove' Ark, then an 'Omega Virus' bolt-hole. Official explanation for the 'controlled environment' was still artifact conservation. Off the books, the 'flooded' bunk-room levels had been maintained. Though shabby, they were habitable. I would not have known about the place without my HotZone clearances: Irony was that I'd be based *outside* during any pandemic...

I finished my tea, took a careful breath, "No sign of Monty or Frank ?" "Up late, talking-- Do you wonder ?" "So they'll hit Second Breakfast... Um, did anything come of those invites you were trying to sort ?" "Ah, yes, I've to take you around our other craft areas, and drop in on Elder Book. You're to sign the Chronicle, which is a great honour. The LitterDay SleepOver is tomorrow, so you do get another good sleep. Most of the others are 'After Tea' or 'After Dinner'. Bit complicated by Rhys, of course." "We'll manage, I'm sure." I grinned, "How secret is my AlterEgo ?" "Elder Weft's Tailor Twins have done as you asked: Young Rhys is an object of sympathy. We do get such, and the Nest embraces them. For one thing, it can put new blood in our gene-pool..."

"Speaking of the Twins, how do you see some-one of equal Glamour ?" Pete chuckled, "As in the Tannery, you are aware of them." "Ah..." I had wondered, "Glamour must make traffic-control tricky. I've only dodged one Invisible Elder. Or, rather, he dodged Rhys..." "As with Glamour, we must learn to Pierce it--" "Elder Vine's 'Walk, Don't Run' ??" "Too right-- You daren't use Glamour around low-flying Juniors unless you're trying to catch them !"

"Of course !" I'd had a thought, "Are you Monty's Assistant, or Apprentice ?" "Took you long enough to ask !" Pete hooted, "Senior Apprentice !" "So the Diner's nimble table team ?" "The rest of 'Monty's Krazy Kids'." He nodded, "You'll meet them soon enough." "Do they know about Rhys ?" "They figured it out for themselves-- and they're loving it ! We don't get much entertainment, so when something like this comes along..." "Provided they don't wheel out all their hoary chat-up lines ?" I hoped. "Of course they will !" Pete chuckled, "Look odd if they don't !" I groaned, "Okay, I'll brush them off gently... Hmm, what if Rhys' Nest has already agreed a Partner for her ? Do Vamps do that ?" "Yes, yes, they do..." Pete admitted, "And Rhys' time here could be considered as a 'Finishing School' to enhance her Bride Price."

"Dowries and such ?" "Traditional Master Vamps will buy, take, swap or be given Missies for their Harem. Us Progressives prefer to trade in 'Futures' like education or a back-swap. Neighbours could go either way. We value friendship more than Trads do..." "Where does that put Rhys ?" "Tricky..." Pete muttered, "We'll need Monty's take on this. My guess, her small Nest is building low-level ties with a similar, small Neighbour. Maybe square some debts, perhaps calm squabbles begun by the cantankerous Old Sire." "Not with here, else you'd know her already. Not with a big Neighbour, else the Traditionalists would have heard ?" I nodded, "She's a Nobody: She'll just slip through the cracks..." "That's it." Pete agreed, "Until the Old Sire met with an HGV--" "Driver's pushing his Tachograph hours, isn't going to stop for an injured dog--" "Uh-huh ! Rhys was destined for a Trad Harem, to become a low-ranking litter-machine." "Ugh..." "Now, looks like the New Sire wants to trade her with Progressive Neighbours, buy some goodwill with her genes and skills." "Okay. It's a done deal. Would she complain ?" Pete thought about it between mouthfuls, "Nah... Better than the Old Sire's plan. She's a good kid, the other Nest would respect that, try to match her with a nice lad. In the end, though, when she Calls, she stops caring-- and so does he."

I shuddered, "Dei-- er, Desiré's wild enough with her blood up, but I do have a choice." "You are pair-bonded ?" "Looser. More like mutual convenience..." "Ah..." Pete nodded, "Perhaps you understand our ways in this, too ?" "Only partly: D's a very complex person. Our lives only intersect in a small way..." "Scissors, Paper, Rock ?" "Uh-huh. After that conference--" "L.C. ??" "That one, yes: When D stopped laughing, she quoted Poe verbatim. One of the few times I've caught her using eidetic recall--" "So she asked you to play ?" " 'Asked' is a bit mild..." I grinned, remembering, "I won at first, she raised her game and so on." "Okay, who won ?" "She used her 'magic memory' to track my plays. Three of my family had the same knack, so I tricked her by switching tactics. Then I punned to distract her. She could multi-task, I focussed. Match abandoned in mutual giggles..." I smiled, "I think that was when we became *very* good friends !"

"Your Desiré --or whatever her real name-- sounds like a nice person..." "I really do not know." I cautioned, "Frank says I scare him. Well, her depths scare me." "Has she met L.C. ?" "I've no idea." I shrugged, "Ooh, there's a thought ! Would they just ignore each other ? Depends on how De-- Desiré plays it, I suppose..." "Tiger versus Elephant ?" Pete nodded, "Depends on the ground..." "Yeah, L.C. might sneer at D's frivolity, or end up in her bed. Or both." "Now that is scary !" Pete chuckled, "Ah, they're closing the serving counters-- Doesn't look like Monty or Frank will show... Shall we get your room moved ?" "Suits me, but I can probably manage alone..." "Chris, you're a VIP Guest: I gotta walk the walk !" "Fair enough !" I nodded, "To be honest, I'd welcome your company."

We strolled back to the VIP room, collected my kit. Pete claimed my clothes and the reading light, let me pack my bag with the contacts and dentures kits, and those still un-read magazines. We got a lot of nods and greetings on the way to my new rooms. "Hello, what's that ?" Pete spotted a lumpy carrier bag hung from each door's handle. I peered into 'mine', "Elder Weft's work, I think. Okay, I've got it. And the door..." The room's staleness had cleared. Pete hung my clothes neatly, "Sure smells better now, but it is a bit spartan..." "Shower, bed, toilet-paper ?" I shook my head, "That's plenty. I travel light." "Habit ?" "Half and half... Less to lose, and more baggage allowance left for extra medical supplies." I didn't mention that we routinely blew much of our HotZone bonus on excess baggage charges. There was never, ever enough of anything, even before the inevitable thieves --opportunistic and/or institutional-- plundered SOTM's cargo crates. Given that half of any local supplies could be time expired and/or fakes, our genuine drugs were seriously valuable. At least personal baggage could be watched...

"What's in the gift bag ?" "Getting to it, Pete... Ah, good ! Baby cream, talc and body-wash, a couple of chunky tumbler glasses, baby-bottle peroxide bleach ! That's great ! Couldn't be better ! Okay, what's next ? I've a while before Rhys helps with Second Breakfast." Pete glanced at the clock, reckoned distances, "Café ? Yes, that would be nice..." "Who as ?" "I-- I can't get used to this..." "How do you think I feel ?" I grumbled. "Okay, makes more sense to show Chris first, so the Diner staff can introduce Rhys in context..." "Age before Beauty ?" I quipped. "Rhys is no beauty." Pete stated, "Cute, perhaps, but plain." "That's good." I nodded. "Er, not always..." Pete muttered, "One of the Delegates may ask for Rhys as his personal servant." "Yerk ?" I struggled, "He must leave her alone if she's pretty--" "She'd be spoken for." "But a 'Plain Jane' is negotiable ?" "Close enough. Couple more twists and turns, but close enough." "D'uh..." I worked through the second-order implications, "And if he didn't want Rhys as a bed-warmer, just as a servant ? Should Rhys jump at the chance to put a genuine Trad on her CV ?" "Ook ! Oh, yes-- And if not, why not... D'uh, what can we do ?"

"Okay... " I stated, "Cut to the chase: No way could I carry it off !" "Thanks." Pete nodded gratefully, "For a moment, there..." "So, working backwards from that: If Rhys is asked --or Monty asked to release Rhys-- is she within her rights to check with her New Sire ??" "Uh-huh. Who'd have to square it with the other Nest. Both might be torn between not giving offence and not getting too close to a very Trad Elder. Could take a while to agree terms..." " 'Deferral is the deadliest form of Denial'." I quoted, "They could just lose it into committee, wait for the Delegates to leave..." "Okay." Pete nodded, "That's a start.." "Hmm, what if Rhys is gossipy ? He could not risk having her about in private." "But she isn't a gossip--" "She is if the Tailor Twins say so." "Ook !" Pete gulped, "Yes, that would touch a nerve ! And Monty would want to avoid anything that could be mistaken for spying... Good: That keeps Rhys out of their rooms."

"Ouch..." I'd rolled up another notion, "How formal would they want their meals ? Joey mentioned Elder Broderik was here several years ago, didn't like the arrangements." "Well, except for the Big Feasts..." Pete puzzled at my line of logic, "We're always self-service..." "And at home ?" "Small Nests would eat around a common table. Bigger Trad Nests have a Top Table and servants." "Would Elder Broderik expect to be treated as a Master Vamp ?" "Gotcha !" Pete grinned, "One thing to be here on neutral ground, where he can moan all he likes. Quite another to be here to talk to us. Yes, yes, he'd expect a Top Table and waitress service. Monty can't refuse that." "Would their bodyguards help at table ?" "Not likely !" Pete spluttered, "Taste the food, perhaps ? Help, no !" "Okay, so who would they choose ?" "After what he said last time ?" Pete gnawed at the issues, "He'd want an Outsider, some-one he could awe and impress--" "Rhys ?" "Rhys..." Pete grumbled, "I don't believe it ! You have just talked yourself into waiting table on the visiting Delegates !" "No." I corrected, "It is the worst case Rhys could handle." "Ah ?" Pete teased, "So this is how you hunt Rogues ?" "By accident." I nodded, "Then very, very carefully..." "I'm beginning to understand." Pete nodded, "You handle surprises very well, but you'd rather not..." "Close enough !" I grinned, "Still time for the Café ?" "Sure !"

If the basic Nest plan was interlocking quads with mostly solid cores, the Café was 'across' a square from the Diner. It announced itself by a wonderful aroma, then the cheerful clink of cups and mugs. "Hi, Pete-- Wow ! He's brought Chris-- Hi, Chris-- Hello, Chris-- Hi, Chris-- Evening, Chris--" "Usual, Pete ?" Lara's voice sliced across the greetings, "Hi, Chris, how do you take yours ?" "Hi, Lara ! Small Latté, no cream, please !" I called back, "So this is where you lurk ?" "Welcome to our Internet Café and Arcade ! " She hooted, waving into the shadows, "I read our first 'Dummies' book on PCs, so they made me the IT Guru ! Now, one large Mocha, one small Latté coming up !" The back of the Café held six assorted PCs plus several old games consoles. A big sign warned, 'Mon-Fri: NO games before Tea Time during Term !" A dozen Youngsters ran Google searches, took hasty notes and/or downloaded text to memory sticks. "Grab seats !" Lara pointed, finished previous orders and started on ours, "Sleep well, Chris ?" "Nine hours straight..." I shook my head in amazement, "I can hardly believe it !" "After your performance yesterday, I'm not surprised !" Lara hooted, "Have you seen Rhys about today ?" "Catering student ? Old-fashioned clothes ? No... Didn't see her in the corridors or at First Breakfast." "Perhaps after Second Breakfast, then..." Lara handed out our drinks, "I'm to show Rhys how to make proper coffee..." "Oh ?" I innocently sniffed mine, "Did she blend this ?" Lara opened her mouth, thought better of it and joined in the general hooting.



To Volume II



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