I doubt that I could tell you how long it took for our team to leave the Earth's surface and get back up to the hovering space station known as The Ark that day...but I can tell you what it felt like. It was one of the longest trips that I had ever experienced since I first became a part of this madness. Being a soldier for the G.O.D. for the past seven years has been a heavy burden on me. One that defies all explanation.
I understand my duty to what’s left of the rest of humanity and I am well aware of what it is that I was trained to do. Things that...I may not always agree with, but am bound by honor and destiny to do regardless. Or...at least that's what I was taught. From a very young age we were made to dehumanize and hate vampires in all of their shapes and forms. Men, women, children...it didn't matter. As long as we feared them and loathed them every hour of every day...then we could give ourselves over to those who would perpetuate that fear and loathing to create some false sense of security and peace. But...I can't say that I've ever allowed myself to fall so deeply into that trap. And I keep it a secret, because speaking the words out loud would make me an immediate outcast among my kind.
And outcasts...get banished.
Banished, bullied, ridiculed, and beaten down with acts of violence...if not murdered outright. I didn't want to end up as just another lost soul like so many others that came before me. Stiff corpses of those who dared to disagree with the loudest voices and ended up as ashes in some random incinerator for challenging belief itself.
It wasn't faith that kept me here. It was fear. TERROR, in fact. And when you live with that long enough...you just stop questioning why any of this is necessary. Why can’t we just leave them alone? But having an invisible enemy at ALL times seems to be the only thing that creates any sense of duty any more. You just do it. It becomes as easy as brushing your teeth, cooking a meal, or washing your dirty dishes. You just don't notice the horror behind it anymore. And there's a part of me that always wonders how much of my humanity, my empathy, that I've lost by involving myself in the mind-numbing banality of hurting creatures who have no real reason to harbor animosity against us unless we give them one. A part of me that worries that I've not only sold my soul...but I gave it away for free. For the sake of a monotonous world where nothing matters unless I have something to cry or whine or be angry about...ALL the time! A world...that isn't worth saving. One that I probably wouldn't fight for if it weren't for certain instigators telling me how much it SUCKS and how it’s going to come to an end any day now if we don’t stay vigilant. Ready. On the edge of a panic attack...whether there’s an immediate threat or not.
What would life look like...if I just stopped listening to those voices and followed my own thoughts for a while? Just for a little while? If I could just remember how simple it all was when I was child. Free to be myself. Free to laugh and play and truly appreciate everything that life had to offer without fighting some stupid, overly manufactured, fire of random hatred and self loathing in the pit of my stomach every day...and every night....of my entire existence?
There are many nights when I try to push these thoughts out of my mind, but the brainwashing doesn't make it easy. So much dogma and morally conflicting nonsense to force my way past it in order to return to what I was thought was an agreed upon sense of 'normal'...
But my empathy remains.
My sense of humanity...remains.
And that’s not what the powers that be want. They despise anyone with thoughts like these. They really do.
And as much as losing Mara pains me...eating away at my very core like a corrosive acid, dissolving my heart from with in...I look at this young blond boy...this unbaptized boy...who's been living on the Earth's surface and not lofted up into the clouds of safety and wealth like the rest of us...and yet was still willing to hold his fist up and truly fight for something that he truly believed in? I look upon his sleeping face, and I feel a few brief moments of true peace. Maybe even a touch of redemption for the horrible things that I’ve done in the past.
Because, at the end of the day, this kid has no power at all. Not like we do at the Ark. But he displayed more strength and more honor than the rest of us ever dared to. I have to admit that I felt inspired by that. Why can't we stand up for everything that we see wrong with the world right now? What the fuck are we so afraid of?
The EVAC ship docked into the bay of the Ark about an hour and a half after we left the surface, and just as we were stepping out of the ship, many of us still suffering from Mara's loss during our mission, I wasn't surprised at all that Audra left word that called me in for a full briefing of what happened down there and what went wrong the moment we entered Heaven's Gate. I gave Alicia the task of making sure that we could get this young boy, 'Chase', to medical and check for any life threatening scars, bruises, or injuries...and possibly figure out whether or not he had to be put under quarantine.
Farron and Natalia could see the look of pain and loss on my face, and both patted me on the shoulder to comfort me. Farron said, “It wasn’t your fault, Roland. Mara knew what she signed up for, and she went into that nest of Nosferatu vampires with her head held high.” I wish that I could say that his words had brought me any sense of comfort, but they didn’t. “She gave it all she had, and she fought the good fight. We all did.”
“I know she did.” I sulked. “But she didn’t deserve to go out like that.”
Natalia said, “We can only do so much. The vampire menace is more than anyone should be expected to handle.” Then she added, “The next time we land on the surface, we’ll make them pay for what they’ve done. Every fucking last one of them.”
I didn’t have much left to say, but it was only a few seconds before one of our G.O.D. guards approached me, and said, “Audra will see you now.”
“Thank you.” I responded. “I’ll be there in a moment.” The other members of my team seemed to still be mourning the loss of one of our best soldiers, and a close friend, in the field...but felt even worse knowing that I was the team leader...and had made a rather rash decision at the last minute that got one of my people killed in the process. I’m sure that I was going to have to be held accountable for this, one way or another. So I might as well march in there and take my punishment the best way that I knew how.
Still...that blond boy...
What can I say? He intrigued me. Any other Daylight warm blood would have been racing towards us and begging the team to get him out of that place as quickly as humanly possible. But he didn’t. He wanted to stay.
He would rather be with those monsters that walk in darkness than with us. There was something that truly threw me off about that. I mean...why? Why stay in the dirt and the gravel and the ruins of Old Chicago...surrounded by bloodthirsty monsters who would just as easily devour him as any animal would chow down on their prey...when they could live in a virtual paradise up here above the clouds?
"Justin is TRUTH! Justin is LIGHT! Long live the Vampire DAWN!!!" He screamed as I was trying to catch him and take him home. What ‘Justin’? Why do I keep hearing that name in the world below? Who or what is he? And why do people like Chase believe him to the point where they’re literally willing to die for whatever ‘message’ he had to send them?
So many questions. But I suppose they’ll have to wait for now.
Right now...he has injuries to patch up. And me?
I have disobedient orders to answer for.
I made my way into Audra’s office, a giant cathedral with holy stained glass windows and holy relics surrounding her. A variety of thin, lit, candles were surrounding her governing chair, and the desk at which she sat was decked out in silver and gold, the scent of expensive incense burning in the background, and large red velvet curtains draping the not-so-modest scenery behind her. She was wearing a long black robe and a hood, fingernails painted a bright shade of sky blue, and a tablecloth of pure white silk spread out in front of her.
I did what I was trained to do, kneeling down on the steps in front of her and bowing my head as I gracefully accepted her invitation to remain in her presence for any length of time. “Madame Audra...Roland, reporting for duty at your request.”
She hesitated briefly, and then said, “You may stand, Roland.” After I was up on my feet again, she asked, “You were the designated team leader of 797, is that correct?”
With a flash of Mara being dragged underground crossing my mind, filling me with shame and sorrow, I answered, “Yes, Queen Mother Audra. 797 Was my platoon on the surface in this recent run...”
But, before I could even finish, she coldly said, “Are you aware of what your original mission statement was?”
After a brief pause, I kept my eyes down and replied, “Yes. We were to rescue any warm bloods that we found and bring them back here to the Ark where we could...”
“Any BAPTIZED warm bloods, Roland. ‘Baptized’ being the key word here.” She snapped.
“I understand that. But this...this boy was a surface born warm blood that seemed to be in real danger. I made a split second decision. I felt that he deserved saving.”
“Without nanobot tracking from the God’s Eye Initiative, we have no idea who this boy is or whether he is worth saving or not. It is not your place, especially as team leader, to make choices of this magnitude without authorization. He hasn’t been blessed by our chosen officers. He could be anybody. A severe threat to us all. And we wouldn’t even know it until it was too late. He has no place among the rest of us until he’s been thoroughly assessed by our professional guardians of the Ark.”
“Like I said...he was surface born, Madame Audra. With all due respect, he was in danger of being fed upon by the vampire hordes that exist there and the Nosferatu creatures looking to cannibalize anyone and everyone they can.” I said. “Our mission was to rescue those in need, was it not? Wasn’t that the whole point of going down there in the first place?”
“Our tracking doesn’t show any signs of this random boy being baptized at all. And that means, needful or not, he is not our concern.” Audra said. “Do you remember your history on the Daylight Wars of 2092? Do you not remember your training? Any and all who are not immediately recognized by the G.O.D. are not to be brought here past the boundaries of Heaven’s Gate. You KNOW this, Roland. Why would pick this particular mission to make such a foolish mistake?”
“Just because the boy isn’t baptized under your chosen rule, does that mean that we should treat him as though his life doesn’t matter?” I asked, and Audra gave me one of the meanest looks that I had ever seen from her since I’ve been a leader of the vampire eradication effort.
“We only have a responsibility to save those who can be saved. That’s all there is to it.” She said, and then pressed a button on her desk to replay a section of the camera footage that she copied from my first introduction with Chase in the field.
”Justin is truth. Justin is light. Long live the Vampire Dawn.”
Audra looked over at me, trying to analyze my reaction to Chase’s speech. “Do you not find this kind of radical expression disturbing? Coming from this boy that you have now brought into our midst without vetting him and his beliefs beforehand?”
I lowered my head. “I wasn’t trying to open the Ark to any form of infiltration or disturbance. I was just...” Getting my words together, my humanity began to reveal itself. “...I was just trying to save the boy from harm. He was in trouble. Are we trying to actually rescue the rest of humanity, or are we just looking to control and condemn all of the free minds that we have left to go? Are we providing a safe haven...or building a brainwashed army for our own selfish agenda?”
“CAREFUL, Roland.” Audra said, angrily, cutting me off. “From this point on...you are no longer allowed the rank of team leader in any future missions on the surface until I deem you worthy of carrying out the objectives that have been formulated for the greater good of humanity. The objectives that we have dictated down to your team for you to execute and accomplish before returning to base are there for a reason. They are not mere suggestions...they are your orders.” Audra brought up her screen, and with a few codes and the click of a button, she said, “Until a later date, I am stripping you of your status until a thorough investigation has been launched into your reasons for sacrificing the mission in order to allow an unbaptized citizen to take up residence here beyond Heaven’s Gate.” With an arrogant sneer, she added, “I’m disappointed in you, Roland. I expected better from you.”
“And the boy?” I asked.
“We will evaluate him and his beliefs at our earliest convienience. This...’Justin’ that he speaks of? We need to figure out who he is, or was, and how far he has influenced this young warm blood and others like him to the point of risking his own life to remain on the surface, despite the never ending horror of the vampire threat that faces us.” She said. “You risked everything to bring this boy here, Roland. You were meant to be the best of us. Don’t throw it all away on some pathetic sense of empathy for an unbaptized child who proudly cries out the name of our enemies.” She stood up, and walked from behind her elevated desk to put her hand on my shoulder. “Do not be deceived. The theory of the Vampire Dawn has brought us all to a state of war that we were never prepared to face from the very beginning. We tried diplomacy for many years. Don’t think we didn’t.” But then she raised my chin to look into my eyes. “We are simply two species that cannot coexist. Parasite and host. We need to fight. ALWAYS fight. And we need people like you who are willing to join us and do so without question. At any cost.” She said. “If you lose...they win. And soon, there won’t be any of us left to argue the point. Do you understand?”
Softly...sadly...I replied, “I’ll do my best, Madame Audra. I promise.”
I was going to turn around and leave Audra’s chambers, but she called out to me and said, “The ‘Attrition’ suit...you were unable to retrieve it?”
I was a bit offended by the idea that she would even think of this as an appropriate time to ask me about such a thing, but I answered, “No. Mara was dragged underground into the Kindred tunnels before we were able to get a lock on her position and bring her back.”
“Unacceptable.” She said, taking her hand off of my shoulder and climbing back up to her elevate position. Breaking her only moment of pseudo understanding for what we’ve just been through. “Allowing the ‘Attrition’ cybersuit to lay in the hands of the enemy for any length of time is a great threat to us all. If the V’s figure out how to engineer the technology that we’re using against them, they will create countermeasures to weaken us from within. We cannot let that happen. Losing that suit is a major handicap for the rest of us.”
The SUIT? Really? “Mara fought for what she believed in. She died for it.”
“And yet the suit is now in the hands of the very creatures she despised.” Audra replied. I found it hard to hide my look of utter disgust when she said that, but I did what I could to keep my calm. It was then that she said, “We are at war, Roland. Collateral damage is an unfortunate, but necessary, part of our ultimate strategy. I don’t want to dismiss Mara’s loss as though she didn’t mean anything to me, or to any of us. But we have to remain vigilant. You understand?” She told me. “We are merely food for those creatures that want to claim to be gods. It has been almost one hundred years of us remaining in daylight, doing all that we can to survive. The Vampire Dawn has made victims of us all.” I felt tears welling up in my eyes as she softly petted my hair. “But...if they’re unbaptized, and not properly initiated in the ways of our chosen Christ...then it is our sworn duty to leave them to their own devices or to change their beliefs in order to live among the rest of us. There is no other way.” It sounded so WRONG to me when she said it...but she made it such an appealing answer to all that was bugging me about going forward with my violent actions against the vampire population for so long. I mean, I should HATE them right? Everything about their whole existence is abnormal. A threat to me and to everyone that I love. They FEED on us, for Christ’s sake! In an older time, they would only benefit from drinking my blood and leaving me dead in a dirty alley for Slaghunters to dismember my body parts with lasers and shove me in the back of a black vehicle. I should be on Audra’s side!
As a vulnerable human, how can I not see the vampire menace as a threat? Ever since the Dawn, the full exposure of these ravenous creatures of the night…I haven’t been able to sleep a wink. To anyone who aren’t wealthy enough to afford to keep a safeguard mark imprinted upon them in this new world, they are free game. These monsters are terrifyingly predatory, and if I don’t step in and use my abilities to fight them back, to rescue those of us who can’t find another way out of this madness...then I’m an accomplice in the human genocide that I see happening every single day once the sun goes down? Right?
So...why do I feel so wrong about all of this?
As I left Audra’s chambers, I saw the rest of my rescue team all waiting in the hallway to give their own accounts of what happened down there before Mara lost her life to the Kindred tunnels beneath the surface. I know that they were with me, and would be proud to stand by me. Even with an immediate EVAC in place...they came back to fight alongside me. Because they knew that I’d have no hesitation, whatsoever, doing the same for them. Still...it wasn’t some fabricated ‘report’ or any amount of backlash that I was worried about from those who served under my command.
It was me. All of it. It was me.
I made eye contact with them all, but didn’t say anything. I just walked further down the hall, hoping to get myself a drink to calm my nerves as soon as possible.
Alicia was a bit teary eyed, but she held on to my arm and sniffled, “None of this was your fault, Roland. We did all we could.”
I couldn’t even turn my head to look at her. I just kept a stoic look on my face and tried to suppress the emotion as low as it could go. “Do you ever stop and think...just for a second...that we’re not the ‘good guys’ in this war?”
The others in the hallway all raised their heads to look at me when I said it, but I refused to look back.
Alicia replied, “How do you mean?”
“I mean...all of this dogma...this training...this constant bashing of our every waking thought and our every quiet subliminal moment…?” I said softly. Barely a whisper. Afraid to be heard. “...That maybe it’s designed to keep us from doing the right thing?”
Sniffling ever more, Alicia saw the intense hurt within me, and she said, “That’s what we’re here for, Roland. We’re here to do the right thing.”
“No.” I told her. “We’re here to do what we’re told. That’s not the same thing.” I said, stepping away from the others to keep walking away. “It won’t ever be the same thing...”