This story may be easier to read in a narrower window, or with your mobile phone in vertical display mode. However, feel free to read it in whatever mode brings you the most comfort and enjoyment. I am not a professional writer, and this story is something I have been keeping hidden for a long time. It is in many parts, and will take time to assemble here. For a while, it may be that the oldest parts are saved for last-- it was not written chronologically, but simply in the order of what scenes I figured out how to describe first. When I began writing, I was using an extremely childish mixture of first and second person... you understand, of course, that it will take time to convert those segments into something respectable. For now, those segments are the ones I will keep hidden.


Thank you.

BV Kansas

Some five thousand miles away and a great many lives ago, Zachary cared about rules. But he wasn't always that way. As a child he was adventurous, as a teen he was rebellious, and as an adult, Zachary watched a man burn to death outside his bedroom window. The smoke was beautiful, climbing towards the white-hot Kansas sun. Zachary knew what he was supposed to have done (grab the doormat, beat out the flames, thanklessly drag the smoldering body inside, wait for further instruction), and what he could have done (get the saltshaker, the horseshoe, the bible, the shovel-- in place of a shotgun), and what he wanted to do (watch the flames like it's the 4th of July, and regret not trying to get his hands on that little black camera in Wichita).

He'd always done what he wanted, and that morning was no different, so Zachary felt no nervousness or shame when he propped open that window, leaned on the sill, and simply watched a vampire die on his property. It was the corpse's fault, after all. Vampires were supposed to be indoors during the day. That was their end of the silent, unknowable bargain, they only owned the night.

It was only early evening when his neighbor, Eileen, called. Not on a telephone, Zachary didn't have one, the house was too old, too far from town, and most importantly, not actually his. The neighbors understood, everyone did, that Zachary was the good-enough sort that would keep the house from rotting into ruin, if only to ensure that he had a place to sleep. No one could afford to rescue the structure if it collapsed. It was with that easy sense of understanding that Zachary opened the door, expecting to be asked for a portion of dinner.

His neighbor was nowhere to be seen, though her voice had nearly rattled the windows a minute before. Instead on his short porch was a pair of faceless men. They told him he'd broken one of the rules. It wasn't going to be that bad, they told him, because he didn't know any better at the time (but that was a lie, everyone knew better). They were going to take him somewhere, teach him the rules, make sure he remembered them for a long, long time. Zachary looked past the two, at the space between and beyond them, the edge of his property. The corpse was already gone. Zachary wondered, if before the end of the night, he would be gone too. The air smelled empty.

"Sorry, can I help you boys with anything?" he asked, looking at the spots where the vampires faces should be. It was like someone had painted their portraits in oil, then smudged them into oblivion. The vampire that Zachary saw burning that morning had looked fairly normal in the face, though it had been a considerable distance away.

The smudges regarded each other briefly. "As we said, you've broken the contract, and need to be taken to a reevaluation center," one of them repeated. The other smudge simply nodded. For a brief moment, like the flash before thunder, he noticed their suits. Good quality, and only a few years old, but badly maintained, and meant for someone larger. The next moment, their entire bodies were smears with only weak resemblence to people.

"No." Zachary tightened his hold on the doorknob in response to the all-too-blank stares. "I'm not allowing you in, so leave." With as much moxie as he could muster, he ducked backwards and slammed the door, pressing his back against it for lack of a functioning lock. His heart felt like a hammer. On the other end of the room, in the kitchenette, the stove smoked with burning dinner. The smoke drifted up and over, to escape through the open window. Briefly, Zachary closed his eyes in regret for leaving it open. It didn't matter though, he decided, since he'd made it clear that they weren't welcome inside. They could talk through the window until the sun came up, but then they'd have to leave.

"Zachary," one of them adressed, through the smoke. "You don't own this house." It sounded dissapointed, like his father had when Zachary borrowed something from the general store without asking permission first.

Whip-quick, because he'd at least prepared for this if nothing else, he shouted back at them. "Neither do you! The dead owner didn't invite you in either!" The encroaching vampires stilled beneath the window. They each considered a response, but Zachary shouted again, slowly approaching the kitchen with his newfound hope. "And if it's not my land, and it's not my house, then helping that burning son of a gun wasn't my responsibility!"

He felt relatively in the clear, even if his heart was still beating like a war drum. He got as far as meaning to grab for the piece of scrapwood holding the window open, intending to let it slam shut, when he felt a single bony hand seize his wrist. "Not quite," one of the faceless vampires said, before yanking hard enough to crash the side of his ribs against the windowsill.

Zachary immediately pulled backward, trying not to be dragged out of his own window. "What the Hell do you mean 'not quite'!" The pitch black night didn't answer.

In the tug-of-war with his own arm, Zachary didn't hear the other one enter through the front door. Instead, he flinched at the voice speaking from mere inches behind him. "He means that you've got it all backwards. You've got the worst of both deals. No authority over the house, because it's not yours, but no lack of responsibility, because you do reside here, and saw him burning, and easily could have helped." In a blinding-quick manouver, Zachary's other arm was locked and shoved out the window, quickly grabbed by the vampire outside. Finally, the vampire behind him simply picked up Zachary's legs, and shoved him fully out the window as if he weighed nothing at all.

BV Multi Combined

Part 1/Prologue: The Old Deal

The system had tried to help him, but he refused to listen to reason. He was set in his dangerous, old-world ways. No one knows where he learned them, but God help us all if any more show up in the 2265130 territory, or any other. It was the territory's honest hope that they could fix him, cure him, before his diseasesed ideas could spread. If they couldn't... they would have to consider excision. Not just to another territory, from which the contamination could spread even farther, but to remove him from the great 'body' of the Americas like cutting off a cancerous limb. They couldn't kill him. To kill him would reveal that the men and women of the small, square, heavily regulated Vampire territories that covered every mile of the United States were not, in fact, immortal. And that information would be enough fuel for a violent revolution.

That had been the reasoning, at least officially, behind some of the tortures put upon the fledgeling Zachary 2265130. For the good of the status quo. For fear of every big-game-hunter in the continental 48. For hope that vampires could hold on to their status as an unavoidable companion to humanity-- like war, death, disease, famine, and the federal income tax.

The small courtroom was well-filled with citizen spectators, waiting to see what would become of the troublemaker who'd been caught feeding from a glamoured college student in a bar bathroom. Zach had always been a little bit breezy about rules, but after years of chafing with local authorities, he had started to just ignore them. He had been given a psychological evaluation-- a Human-designed one-- and the resulting data had only made him look worse. Zach wasn't just a bad vampire, he was a bad person.

"I, Robert Brown, Chief Officer of Criminal Justice for Territory two-six-six-five-one-three-zero, find the defendant guilty of repeated and deliberate acts of Anarchy. He has made no effort to reform, instead pursuing his idealized vision of a barbaric, old-world lifestyle. His actions reflect poorly on each and every one of us, and should serve as a plain example of why we need to incorporate stricter control over inductees and fledgelings for the forseeable future." Officer Brown stood. "Zachary-two-six-six-five-one-three-zero, you are hereby sentanced to expulsion, not only from our fine community, but from the nation at large."

Zach blinked, suddenly paying attention. "How the hell do you have that kind of authority?" he blurted. He'd been expecting to be sent to prison, there was a mixed-species one in Texas, notorious for inmates escaping to Mexico. He'd even brushed up on his Spanish between bouts of attacking humans and visiting the local library to read up on karate.

"We don't want you anymore. No civilized community would," replied Brown, "and you'd do well to break that habit of questioning authority soon. Where you're going, I wouldn't be suprised if it got you crucified."

Part 2: Pinned

Notes, to be removed later: zach got there, immediately is in deep shit, maybe kinda tried to argue with a mafia-boss-like figure. This was the first chapter that i wrote, and originally it was a standalone oneshot with no names, hence the mysterious title of Herdsman. A few animals have weird biological responses that make them stop moving when you interact with them in a certain way, like how turning a shark upside down makes it pass out, or pinching the back of a cat's neck makes it easy to carry. I thought it would be neat if vampires have the quirk of going sort of dormant when stabbed. Zach doesn't know about that, because he's from a much less vampire-driven society-- where he's from, you arrest someone with handcuffs, not... this.

The fledgeling was already panicking, scrabbling against the solid desk as if to climb over it and escape. One broad hand was iron-heavy against the back of his jacket, pressing him down against the Herdsman's desk. How could the meeting have gone so wrong? Back home, this would have been an outrage, assaulting someone rather than just telling them to get lost.

In the struggle, he tried to keep his head off the surface, didn't feel like losing any teeth that day. The desk was covered with an old-style tablecloth. When the cloth shifted, it kept getting caught on little divots and chips, like someone had used the desk for target practice with a BB gun.

Drawers were being rifled through, flung open and slammed shut. Finally, the hand at the fledgeling's back was adjusted to dig the edge of something into the space between his shoulder blades. Something sharp, but too cold to be wood-- not that anyone would want to be caught un-dead with a wooden stake, so clearly it was something else. Maybe a knife? That wouldn't make sense, little cuts are barely any trouble as long as they're able to close. Otherwise they can get... moldy. He might be babbling this, trying to remain brave, but he heard on the way here that things were different, that things were wild, and he assumed (stupid, stupid!) that the wildness was only, well, in the wilderness! This wasn't the black forest, for blood's sake! This was--

He saw the Herdsman's clothing reflected dully in the reflection of a bauble on the wall, raising one sleeved elbow to brace it against the weapon, but the pinned man still couldn't see what it was. The point began to dig in, slowly, and he... froze, as if from fear. It was hard to hear the Herdsman over the wind rushing in his ears.

"It's just a railroad spike."

The fledgeling shuddered slightly. Involuntarily. He had the strange thought that his brain might leak out of his ear, judging by how hard it was to think. At least if it leaked out, maybe it could get away. He might've smiled a little at the insane plan, but his face was frozen. There was a cracking sound, metal on bone, and when his shoulder blade shattered he felt like one of those bugs you find in the winter, all bent up and frozen in place, dead.

"What are you? 70? 65? I heard they used to do it this way out in the West, it really is phenomenal in terms of cost effective measures to shut one up."

He was 39. The oversized nail shifted, went somehow deeper, tearing through lung. It was rusty. The point was roughly wedge-shaped. There was very little blood. He hadn't fed recently. In fact, he looked... malnourished, at least on the inside.

"Of course in those days, legend has it that they'd pin you right to the tracks, and place bets on which would kill you, the first train, or the second. But you can hardly expect mercy from human laws. Excuse me for a moment." The Herdsman walked to the other side of the desk, and retrieved a hammer. "We, that is to say those of the 'Old World', have our own procedures for correcting misbehaviour. There is a measure of autonomy, of originality, we do not try to fit things into some pre-made human structure. We keep to ourselves." He gesticulated with the hammer. "We have mercy here, son."

The deafening sound of metal-on-metal was enough to briefly rouse the fledgeling, though there was no outward sign of it. The head of the railroad spike was nearly level with his back, the rest having pierced through clothing, flesh, shattered bone, lung tissue, a rib or two, more flesh and clothing, the tablecloth and finally the hidden core of stacked sheet rock used to 'pin' (or detain) fledgelings who were without a traceable lineage. Part of the sheet rock would have to be replenished after this, but there was more in the supply closet. It wasn't urgent. 'Free' fledgelings weren't as common as they used to be. Certainly none that would barge right into the territory overseeing office and demand to speak with a 'lawyer' about why none of the human police officers would talk to him.

Part 3: Shop Talk

It was a slow evening. The only other visitor was Wallace Dullcoin, who arrived to argue about something completely unimportant. Far more important was that his eyes landed on the pinned fledgeling. His eyes flitted between the railroad spike, the body it was impaled in, and the Herdsman behind the desk.

"S' a dry one," noted Wallace.

The Herdsman nodded, not looking up from his paperwork. That there was a stock-still body on the door-facing portion of his L-shaped desk was true, but he didn't have to acknowledge that. Anyone who knew him would know what it meant.

From Wallace's viewpoint, there didn't seem to be any knicknacks broken, and every surface in the room was as dry as a bone. Hadn't there been a struggle? Wallace left his doorway vigil to approach the desk, and suppressed a shiver. There wasn't even much of a stain on the spike itself, the rust-mottled striking surface flush with it's victim's upper back. No other visible injuries, though most of the body was layered with cheap, human-esque clothing. The sight was unnerving. Like a vagrant who'd died of cold on his own, and had been nailed in place as an afterthought.

"Has anyone..." began Wallace, not quite sure why it would be his business to care.

"No," answered the Herdsman, stapling some sheets of paper loudly in the near-silence, still not looking up.

This particular pinned body, that of (according to a fax the Herdsman received) a banished outlaw from the notoriously balkanized American territories, was not a hot ticket item. It was scrawny, malnourished and dehydrated, ignorant of the most basic etiquette. A foreigner. Completely and utterly alone. It could be put in storage until it started to rot. Most clans did not want another mouth to feed.

Most clans would not bother with such a lost cause. Wallace Dullcoin was not in a clan. The body on the desk was also without a clan, hence the need to stab him in place before he could cause trouble, but that was quite different because that body was a fledgeling; and Wallace, dear Wallace, the bleeding heart who spoke Church Latin with a stilted accent and started each night at 6pm with two cups of coffee (the second with sugar), who was young and keen and contagiously curious... was human.

And what a fine human he was.

The Herdsman finally turned to meet Wallace's eyes. "I don't need to read your mind to know what you might be considering," he warned. "But, just so that it's crystal clear, why don't you say it out loud, Mr.Dullcoin."

Wallace looked somewhat scandalized, a little embarrassed, and more than a bit out of his depth. "I was just wondering if it would be..." he flitted his eyes across the knick knacks cluttering the walls, as if to find his missing vocabulary, while resolutely avoiding the eyes of the Herdsman. "...legal. To help him out."

The Herdsman, in response, raised his eyebrows. "Be specific. You could be insinuating anything from a blood donation to sexual intercourse."

Nearly at the end of his rope, Wallace squared his shoulders. "I am going to take this man home, keep him safe, and... and...." He floundered for a moment, but the Herdsman did not interrupt. "He needs someone. I'm someone. I live well within this territory, been living here for years, and I know enough to get by. I know enough of what goes on, even when it's not my business, not that I went looking for it, but I know enough, I really do. I could help him. At least until he's... better."

Finally, the Herdsman had heard enough. "Mr.Dullcoin, that is a very generous offer to make, and it shouldn't go unacknowledged that you'd go this far for a stranger."

There was a moment where a pin could have dropped. "But?" asked Wallace.

"But nothing. I accept the offer, on behalf of the fledgeling Zachary 2665130." Wallace went pale at the territory code in place of a clan name. No. Not this. He could name and describe every lineage from here to the blasted cliffs, but '2665130' wasn't one of them. "If all goes well, you may contact me at the end of the week to have him relisted under clan Dullcoin. It would be a temporary name, according to your plan, but his current name has certain... connotations, I'm sure you understand." Wallace nodded, fearing that he was going to faint. He just adopted a--

As if trying to be an anchor, the Herdsman grasped his hand, standing from the desk. He spoke slowly, in a hushed tone. "It isn't regulation, but I'm going to advise you not to remove the spike until you get home. I have an extra in the closet, keep this one somewhere safe. When you do remove it, he's going to scream, will probably try to attack, but for now you're going to be far, far stronger than him." The words were barely heard, but managed to sink in.

"Ok," said Wallace, numb from head to foot with shock. "How... how am I supposed to move him, then? He's sta-- I mean, he's-- it goes into the table..."

"Please stand back." The Herdsman walked to the other side of the desk, and in an eerie recreation of what he had done earlier that night, placed one hand on the striking surface of the spike. He then worked one hand under the body, feeling for where the spike's exit wound was, and started lifting the body upward with his forearm, taking the railroad spike with it. The front of the fledgeling's jacket had been torn open, and the end of the spike was littered with bits of string from Zachary's clothing, and various shriveled bits of Zachary's insides that made Wallace want to attack the Herdsman.

Finally, the Herdsman held out the bent body, which Wallace took a moment to grasp correctly. The carry was an awkward and overprotective bear-hug, with the fledgling's cheap shoes nevertheless dragging on the ground. Wallace was running on adrenaline, but knew without a doubt that this body was far too light. He knew he wanted to fix that. He knew that this meant he was absolutely and completely and hopelessly out of his mind. Perhaps because he had the stride of a madman, or perhaps because of the body he was carrying or the time of night or some other factor, nobody stopped Wallace Dullcoin as he carried a vampire six blocks home to his made-for-one-person flat.

Part 4: Handle With Care

The inert fledgeling, apparently named Zachary with a string of numbers attached, looked absolutely ridiculous sprawled on the couch. Wallace told himself so, repeatedly. There was no horrifically impaled corpse in his apartment. Just a malnourished, foreign, more-than-likely-to-be-delusional... fledgeling. His responsibility.

Wallace was not going to botch this. He was... well, he wasn't a professional in vampire physiology, but Wallace was fairly experienced with being around plenty of kinds of vampires, and had at least heard a bit about the behaviour of this one from the Herdsman. He just had to follow the Herdsman's advice, keep the curtains closed, and not mess any of this up.

All he had to do was remove the railroad spike.

Wallace just wanted to get it over with. He was sure Zachary would feel the same way once he was up and talking. After hyping himself up for what could have amounted to either 15 minutes or 2 and a half hours, Wallace quickly dug his nails under the striking head of the railroad spike, and dragged it up like a weed, along with dessicated clumps of flesh and lung. The broad stab wound collapsed a little, without anything to fill the space.

For the first minute after that, the fledgeling, Zach, didn't make a sound, and didn't move. In the next minute, there was only the creak and pop of joints, and a slow shuffle as he folded into a defensive ball on the couch. Wallace was still holding the spike, and Zach hadn't even turned to look at him.

When Zach completed his new pose by sliding partially upright, and turning to place his back against the arm rest, he noticed the other man in the room. Barely. What he noticed far more was the nightmare in the man's hands. Six and a half inches of wrought iron decorated liberally with his own rotting flesh, Zachary would remember that spike until his dying day.

Wallace saw the way Zach's eyes had snapped to it, and decided to slowly put the spike down on the floor behind him. Far enough from the couch that it couldn't be reached.

"Hello," said Wallace, feeling like an absolute prick for scaring the daylights out of his foster-fledgeling. "I'm Wallace Dullcoin, and you are?"

While Zachary certainly wasn't firing on all cylinders just yet, he'd already noticed that something was off about the man in front of him. 'Who wants to know?' he tried to rasp, discovering that his voice was entirely missing, replaced by a wet sound from his collapsed lung, and a ringing in his ears that threatened what was left of his sanity.

Wallace took the wet sound as being an attempt at an answer, as good a sign as any of Zachary being aware enough to understand him.

Part 5: Purchase

Zachary Dullcoin was in an empty bathtub, clothed. Two humans were speaking just outside the open doorway, apparently about him.

"Yeah, I get what it looks like, but I promise I'm not going to steal his kidney." Wallace paused, listening for movement from the bathroom, and heard none. "Not that his are likely even functional."

The other voice was unfamiliar, older. "I don't like to waste my supply."

"I know some of it would be wasted, but you should have seen what was done to his upper esophagus. He tried to fight a pin, and lost." Wallace was almost embarrased for the fledgeling.

"He what?" The other human stopped short of entering the bathroom, until he saw the mess in the tub. He finally understood why Wallace had described the sight as like a murder victim. "Jesus Christ." The fledgeling was nothing, absolutely nothing like his usual customers. His usual customers were underfed and overworked, not half-starved and worked over. What could be seen through Zach's torn shirt looked more like butcher scraps than anything else.

"Is there anything you can do?"

"There is, but it's not going to be fun for any of us. Roll up your sleeves."

Wallace raised an eyebrow. He'd already paid the man, surely he wasn't expected to--?

"No, I'll need you to hold some of his organs in place with this hand--" he explained, suddenly grabbing one of Wallace's. "And with the other, use this stopwatch. You can remove your hand from his chest cavity after around 3 minutes, but if it reaches 10 you'll need to pull me away from him, no matter what. Understood?"

There had been a shift in Wallace Dullcoin's priorities at some point, he realized. Looking at the mess of gore, his own hands, and the face of a back-alley bleeder, he accepted that they could possibly get worse. He swallowed once. "You're the expert, Geo."

AUTHOR'S NOTE:i don't want to put a full chapter break here, but i need some way to indicate that the perspective has shifted, so, here you go.

The temporary yet horribly invasive sensation of a warm hand blindly rooting through his organs was a fair price to pay for Zachary Dullcoin's ressurection. Two fingers managed to realign the split ends of Zach's larynx and pharynx, and when the stranger looming above him lowered their already-sliced forearm, for a moment almost everything was right.

What the hell is wrong with you? asked an extremely loud voice in Zachary's head.

Zachary twitched. The stopwatch read 00:20.

What's wrong? repeated the voice, even louder.

Not again, thought Zachary, somewhere between drowning and floating. I was starting to like it here. Someone was being nice to me. The stopwatch read 01:00. For some reason I always end up like this.

Like what?

With things in me. In my head. My veins.

What's your name?

Zachary suddenly opened his eyes, though he couldn't see much other than a rough ceiling and part of a hairy forearm. He was in a bathtub, crowded into a corner by two humans.

What's your name? Do you know it? The ceiling was coming into focus. Zachary tried to put the pieces together, but they didn't fit. Humans don't talk in your head like that. It was illegal, or something.

The stranger grabbed Zachary by the side of his head. Every muscle went rigid. The voice was cold, familiar, and spoke slowly to him. Identify yourself.

An unavoidable reflex, the mental response was sharply focused. {Zachary 2265130.}

The forearm retreated, and a stopwatch clicked.

Wallace Dullcoin looked like an old-fashioned surgeon. His shirtsleeves were rolled up to the elbow, and both hands were slick with blood. He'd barely removed his hand in time, and had been mesmerized by how Zach's skin closed itself over the wounds.

Part 6: Geo

Geo had... a unique perspective. His mother used to tell him: if you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life. So, he'd followed that advice down every dark and dingy allyway he came accross. He'd learned the differences between individual clients, and over time extrapolated to pick apart and predict their behaviour in a bizarrely safari-esque fashion.

He knew what they wanted, they knew what he had, but you hardly needed a brain to figure that dynamic out. No, his genius was in the fact that while he was easy to find, not once had he ever been kept. It was outrageous-- at first. He wasn't some live-in, yet he wasn't a corpse. He was, by some twist of social rule after social rule, professional prey.

Some liked a chase-- and would run him down until he went sour like a rotten tooth-- Lactic Acid, the unavoidable burn of being alive with the devil's own kin an inch from your heels. Others prefered the search, and he excelled at elusivity just as much. Sawdust and burnt bread, a 'fresh' set of clothes that had been hung out for a week, the simple act of ducking into a sandwich shop, and suddenly it was like he'd vanished into thin air.

"Back already?" asked Kelly, one of the Gutters. "With your reputation, I thought you'd be out longer." She looked up from her magazine, its cover a geometric nightmare of competing headlines. She'd been scouting to join a clan for months now, but always seemed to get cold feet.

Privately, Geo thought he'd cracked the code, found a way to sell fresh vein without turning into a dead-eyed doormat kept in a posh basement. Kelly just thought he was a attention whore. Moot points, when neither cared to get into a fight while there was gossip to be had.

Geo flopped down on the bean-bag nearest. "It was that new one, Zach with all the numbers."

Kelly's eyebrows shot up. "Is he really a mongrel?"

"Hard to say. Right now he looks more like roadkill than a vampire, and Dullcoin is going all mother-hen." Geo scractched his stubble, and ignored Kelly's unimpressed glare. "The boy's barely this side of sanity, Kell. It's not like I'm going to interrogate him any more than necessary."

Kelly hummed in agknowlagement. "Think he'll turn his keeper, then?"

He chuckled at the thought. "He's from the territories, doesn't know how. Besides, I already told you the boy's a wreck. Dully made the call, and I must've been the first person to enter or leave that flat in days. Smelled like a crypt in there."

Their shared humor petered out eventually. The Gutters weren't often a contimplative bunch, but Kelly fixed Geo with a stare like a hiker who reached the summit to find the mountain smoking from within. "Sounds lonely." She said the word like one might have said 'shallow grave'.

Geo sagged in the chair, cringing at the 'crunch' it made as he moved. "Zach's in good hands." After a few beats of deathly silence, Geo looked back at Kelly, to find her no less unsettled.

"Not him. I didn't mean for him."

Part 7: Rewind

Zachary Dullcoin was a quiet sleeper. Zachary 2265130 had once been a quiet corpse. One day, Wallace was going to hear what had happened to the fledgeling on his couch. It was a long story, though it practically begged to be told. Wallace wasn't going to pry for gossip, though. God knew he had enough to think about already.

Zachary Dullcoin was polite enough to get along, and didn't really stir up much trouble. He followed Wallace on trips to the grocery store, wandered the block outside their apartment, and slowly learned his way around the city. Eventually, he got a job selling newspapers. He bought a camera phone, secondhand. It was black. It only had one contact on the list. It took effort, on Zachary's part, to keep from setting the contact's name as 'dad'. Instead he dialed Keystone-57028. He wanted to talk. He wanted to tell his old neighbors what happened to the young man who lived in that rotten old Kansas house, tell them why he disappeared, tell them why he wouldn't come back for all the money in the world. Tell them about Wallace. The camera phone beeped, and failed to connect. The robot on the other end of the line told him that the number was "no longer is service."

Wallace Dullcoin was proud of his fledgeling, who was nothing like the man the threatening letters described.

The Dullcoins were just living it up, in their own opinion. They had a VCR now, and Wallace wishes Zachary could have seen the look on his face when he finally understood how to use it. It was like someone had given him the keys to a time machine, at least in terms of amazement.

The first movie they rented wasn't very good, it was about cricket and romance and the meaning of teamwork or something like that, but there were worse ways to waste those slim sunlight hours, on the occasion that neither of them was able to sleep. Outside their apartment-- soon to be officially listed as Lair Dullcoin on the local maps-- an Autumn breeze was whisling down the street.

The Dullcoin clan had settled into a kind of quiet harmony, two people who just happened to fit like the wheels of a bike that could coast as long as it wanted.

However, sometimes that bike would hit a pebble. Nothing serious.

As Wallace tipped the remains of the unpopped kernals into the trash bin, Zachary set the VCR to rewind the movie. It was the polite thing to do, after all. Over the whir of the machine, he spoke up. "I could show you part of what they did to me, you know."

Wallace froze. He looked back at the fledgeling. "What?" There were a few different possibilities to fill in which 'they', had 'done' what, and Zachary had never seemed eager to spill about any of it, at least not anything that occured before his adoption.

"You should see it," he added, cryptically. "It's something you would understand." He glanced at the clock.

"What are you going to show me, Zach? I've seen-- fuck, man, I've felt-- the inside of your ribcage. I've seen you in the damn bath, you've got more scars than a street keg. If you have one that I haven't seen--"

"5 minutes. Don't freak out."

It was so much easier than he expected, finding it. The feeling was similar to last time, like a piece of taffy stuck halfway through the doors of an elevator; as Zachary reached the mental ledge he'd been pushed off of all those years ago, he paid no attention to how it was no longer ten stories tall. He stepped off of it, falling a handful of feet to sink below the calm, black ocean. Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes. His lungs, of course, hadn't moved.

Zachary stared straight ahead, from his position of halfway sagging off the couch. He wanted to flinch at what he heard next, but, of course, couldn't.

"Oh God." It was like someone had cut the fledgeling's strings. A moment later, Wallace realized that at one point, someone actually had. "Zach, what the Hell is this?" He approached, placing a hand below Zachary's chin, partly to check for a pulse, and partly to lift the fledgeling's gaze and achieve eye contact. "What did you do?"

Zachary had barely a second to try and rationalize that it was the wrong hand, the wrong year, but he hadn't expected to be touched and-- his chest stuttered into movement.

"Broke the mould," he answered hoarsely. "Just like you wanted me to."

Wallace's eyes widened, in both understanding and fear. "What year is it?"

"Nineteen..." he started, before furrowing his brows as if lost in thought. "You don't like to tell me. You said it makes me upset to know how long."

"How long?"

Zachary didn't elaborate.

Finally, Wallace swallowed, took his hand away, and whispered. "Who am I?"

With a huff of almost-laughter, Zachary answered, slurring the words: "That's classified. I can't tell anyone. Not even me."

Outside of Lair Dullcoin, the last sliver of sunlight had faded from the sky.

Inside, Zachary's face morphed from frozen neutrality to a state of naked horror.

Wallace said the first thing that came to mind. "I wasn't the first, then." He immidiately regretted the insinuation.

Zachary sat up, briefly shaking his head. "Not by a long shot." He ran a hand down his face in self-annoyance. "I didn't mean to go that far. He used to..." Zachary raised an unsteady hand to trace a line under his jaw. He tsked, and made a face. "Like a sleeper agent. Like an actual, real-life sleeper agent."

It explained so much of what had happened, why he'd gone straight to the Herdsman for information, why he'd been expelled from the new world territories, why Geo scared him half to death with a minor use of telepathy. Zachary had been someone's pet project. A bastardized attempt at a blood bond.

"But what about your original clan, they didn't take offense to a member being stolen?"

Zachary looked at him, for the first time, as if Wallace was the dumbest man alive. He winced, realizing the severity of his scowl, and looked away.

"It's different in the territories. They run it like a slaughterhouse. You're not supposed-- I'm not supposed to remember." He traced a line from the inside of his wrist to the inside of his elbow. "They just let it drip into a pail. Something was off about it, they could tell that even before I started thrashing like a man possessed, but they didn't have the luxury of options." He met Wallace's eyes again. "I remember almost all of it, but I don't know how I was still breathing, let alone able to start... screaming, when he let me move."

"When who let you move?"

"He was in my head, holding the strings, wanted me to know what was happening, wanted me to be terrified." Zachary's voice was steady, as if he was talking about someone else's torture. "That way, when he cut me loose, it would seem merciful. Like cutting the restraints. But he knew I wouldn't escape. When you let a chicken run around without its head, all it does it scare people. It's abnormal. It's not like the sight of it will make anyone go vegan, no, it just makes them want to put the damned thing out of its misery."

"You couldn't... report him?"

Zachary barely heard Wallace, only answering after a full minute of staring at the walls. "I was busy getting written up for wasting five and a quarter cups of my own blood in an attempt to escape. Knocked over the pail I'd been bleeding into. It went..." he paused to swallow. "Everywhere. The floor was just a red nightmare. From what I heard later, they spent the next two days trying to boil it out of the washrags, because they hadn't planned on how to ration anything less than a gallon. The entire cooperative was starving to death, and, in their eyes, I had the audacity to play scorched-earth with my own blood. After that, they would have trusted the Devil himself before listening to me."

Wallace was appalled, and finally understood the circumstances. "The Great Depression. Of all the times to get turned. So you weren't--?"

"I wasn't a soldier, no. Barely went above ground before the 1970s."

"They kept you in a basement for 40 years?!"

"Fuck no," he laughed, "only 39." He looked somehow wistful. "I was dry for most of it, always the first to be cut off when times got lean, but by the end of the war I was used to it. You should have seen me, man, I looked like an escaped Slim Jim doing the laundry."

new chapters go here

[Part ???: Geo and Zach after Zach's long recovery.] {weak chapter vvv}

Geo stopped selling vein a long time ago.

Sometimes, Geo felt like the dot of a laser pointer being waved in front of a cat. When he focused, really focused, he became intangible. A blur that barely touched the ground, he'd slice down alleys and up stairwells like a man possessed. More than once, he'd lept between buildings. More often, he'd vault from one walled balcony to the next.

He was never sure what it looked like to outsiders. He hadn't left this... area, in quite a while. There weren't many like him, here. No, scratch that, there weren't many of his kind that could be seen on the street. Geo's breath was white today. The air around every other person he'd seen on the sidewalk was clear as glass.

He had a contract today. The so-called mongrel, Zachary Dullcoin, had recovered enough for a race. Zach's keeper was paying, obviously, but Geo didn't ask where that money was coming from. The Dullcoin clan's funding was none of his business.

Geo was offered a head start, and knew better than to say it was unnecessary, so at a minute before sundown, he took off running East.

Zach was a predator, an actual one. He must have been from somwehere rural or suburban, he preferred to stay on the streets and was an abysmal climber. He reminded Geo of a wolf or bear, something to be escaped through scaling a tree. Instead, Geo led Zachary up a maze of surfaces, always a small enough increase that the next surface could be seen from the last.

Two sets of feet had been sprinting along the tedge of a tin-roofed warehouse. The noise was deafening. One heartbeat later, Geo had lept to a lower one, eager to show off, ignoring the scream in his tendons. His footfalls sounded different, quieter, on the flat roof of a mechanic shop, and he was sure his client's would join in a moment.

They didn't. Geo pulled ahead, wondering if Zach had found an alternate route, or was going to try and cut him off ahead. It'd been a long time since he had so little to base his predictions on--

He stopped cold at the sound of a body hitting the pavement at ground level. There had been a clang before the thump, so it must have hit something on the way down.

Shaking off the instinct to lean over the ledge and check on him, Geo took off once more, and didn't turn back. A wounded animal was the most dangerous kind after all, and the whole point of his job was to teach self-sufficency.

In the alleyway, left behind, Zachary Dullcoin was finally alive.

[add new additions BEFORE the geo chapter]

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