2068 Common Era
The cramped lobby was complete bedlam. As Lark pushed her way through the crowd in an attempt to reach gate six, she felt a growing sense of claustrophobia. A large man moved backward suddenly as he argued with a woman at the ticket counter about the number of crates he was allowed to check. Jerking away to avoid being squashed, Lark accidentally stomped on the foot of the girl behind her.
"Sorry," she said, lightly touching the girl's arm to emphasize the apology.
The girl smiled through her wince of pain, nodding as if to say, "It's okay."
"Bit, did you remember to label every box? I just heard some of the crew members saying that anything not properly labeled would become public property once we land."
A blonde woman hurried toward them, speaking so quickly she almost forgot to breathe. The girl beside Lark sighed heavily.
"I said not to call me that anymore," she snapped. "And yes, they're all labeled. I'm not a complete idiot, you know."
"Just making sure," the blonde woman responded. She reached out to straighten the girl's jacket. "That really looks good on you…" she started before glancing toward Lark and drifting off, her mouth hanging open. "Hello. Did you meet a little friend?"
Lark raised her brows. Little friend? She opened her mouth to respond when the blonde took a look at the badge on her jacket and stepped back abruptly, as if she'd been burned.
"Oh, you're labor class," she said, her brow furrowed. "Bit, let's go over here. I think there are some chairs left in the waiting area at gate twelve."
Snorting, Lark shook her head as they both walked away. She didn't have the energy to get angry. In a few hours they'd be led up to the ship—according to class, of course—and then put under for the journey to Vic-12. At first she was completely keyed up by the idea of actually being on another planet. But now that excitement had strangely deflated as she came closer to the event.
It wasn't as if she had anything better going on here. She wouldn't be missed on Earth, and if things went well on the new colony, she wouldn't miss the home planet, either. The idea of being put in stasis for several months as the ship took its automated course to Vic-12…it wasn't exactly comforting. But she'd be the last to admit to anyone that she was a little frightened of the process.
"Gate six," a male voice interjected at her left.
"What?" she asked.
The dark haired man gestured toward the ticket clutched in her hand. "You're looking for gate six, right? That's where I'm heading."
Lark glanced toward the retreating backs of the two young women she'd been speaking to and frowned. They were two rich bitches who'd signed up for the journey to get their kicks, most likely. What the hell would they contribute to the project? The first broken nail and they'd be running for the next supply ship.
Following her gaze, the man shook his head. "Ignore them," he said. "They're tourists. Won't last three months. C'mon."
Numbly, she turned to follow him toward their gate. He wore the dark green uniform of the maintenance crew. The cloth was brand new, the uniform never before worn. Her own khaki jumper was chafing the back of her neck. She reached up to scratch herself, but her frayed nails only made the itch worse.
"What's your name?" the man asked, calling over his shoulder as he dodged some passerby.
"Deborah Lark," she answered. "But call me Lark."
"Lark," he nodded. "That's kind of cool. My name's Thomas MacArthur. Tom," he added.
"You related to the family who financed this project?" Lark asked.
Tom grinned. "Uh, yeah. Distant relation, obviously," he said, picking at the collar of his uniform. "Did you go through baggage check yet?" he asked, changing the subject.
Lark shook her head. "Everything I have is government issued," she explained.
"Really?" he asked, surprised. "No family pictures, priceless heirlooms…?"
She smiled at his smirking face. "No," she said.
"Well, I'm sure the princesses took care of your allotted storage space," Tom said, jerking his head.
They were passing gate twelve. The two young women were not visible, but Lark imagined them arguing over the cut of Bit's designer jacket. "You know them?" she asked.
He laughed. "You don't read the Society page, do you?" he teased. When she shook her head, he continued, "Those are the Baines girls. Lyssa and Elizabeth Baines, whose family has more money than God?"
Lark shook her head again. "Never heard of them," she said.
"Wow. Actually, that really impresses me," he answered, grinning slyly. "It was huge news when those two signed on, of course. I think they single-handedly brought in about half the finances for transport. After they made it socially acceptable, every silver spoon brat wanted in on the action."
"That should make things interesting," Lark said. "Do we actually have anyone willing to work heading out with us?"
"You," he said, pointing to her uniform. "You're labor. Build the housing, do the grunt work. It's all you, friend."
"Sounds like fun," she muttered. She started to ask him more about his family when she was suddenly distracted by a man slouching against the wall to their right.
It took several moments for the crowd to disperse enough for her to actually see him clearly. Lark stood frozen in the middle of the surging flood and stared at the man in amazement. He noticed her attention almost immediately. Raising his head to meet her gaze, he smiled at her and winked. Lark frowned and moved forward to approach him.
"Hey, uh…Lark," Tom said behind her. "We've got to get in line. Medical examination…Lark?"
"Do you see him?" she breathed when Tom reached her side.
"Uh, yeah?" he said, his voice raising in question. "Who are we looking at?"
"Leaning against the wall," Lark answered. "Do you know what he is?"
"He's maintenance," Tom pointed out.
"He shouldn't be here," Lark said. She turned toward Tom abruptly, forcing him to jump back. "I need to see the head of security. Where would I find him?"
"If we don't get through our med exam, we're not going," Tom reminded her.
Lark shook her head. "This is important," she argued. "That man is dangerous. Where can I find the head of security around here?"
Lyssa sighed when she noticed her sister giving her an evil look. "What did I do now?" she asked.
Bit crossed her arms in front of her and scowled. "That was really rude, you know," she said.
"What?" Lyssa asked. "That coffee was disgusting. You can't scorch the beans and expect people not to notice."
Shaking her head, Bit rolled her eyes and seethed, "That's not what I'm talking about. You treated that girl like she was dirt."
Lyssa frowned. "You can't just talk to anybody," she said. "You had no idea who that person was. She could have been a complete nut. You're far too trusting of people."
"You're far too snobby," Bit retorted. "We're going to have to live with these people, you realize. And you're already making enemies."
"I'm not making enemies, I'm being cautious," Lyssa said calmly. "Believe me, there is a difference, and you will appreciate it in time."
"Whatever," Bit said, tossing her long brown hair.
They both turned in their seats when they heard the sounds of shouting behind them. A woman was struggling in the grasp of two large security guards. The two men were having a hard time holding on to her. She threw them off just as two more men jumped into the fray. Lyssa recognized her then—it was the girl Bit had been talking to earlier.
"Let go of me!" the laborer screamed. "You don't understand!"
Lyssa glanced at her sister with raised brows. "You were saying?" she murmured.
"He's a monster! He can't be allowed on the ship!"
Bit stared at the struggling girl in fascination. "Who is she talking about?"
Lyssa snorted. "Her dealer? She's obviously on some pretty serious stuff."
As they watched, a woman in a white lab coat hurried toward the guards, wielding a syringe. As the men held the young woman down, the doctor expertly injected a sedative into her arm. Several long moments passed before the girl calmed enough to be carried away. The group headed toward the medical facility near gate six. Bit turned to her sister in confusion.
"They're still taking her on board?" she asked. "After that?"
Lyssa shrugged. "They already spent the money to transport her," she said. "She's labor class. She has to work off the full cost. Besides, some people freak out in stressful situations like this. She'll learn to handle herself when she's out there in the wilds, or she won't make it."
She grabbed her younger sister's arm as their names were announced. "Med exam," Lyssa stated. "They said we can go together. C'mon."
"What was that about?" Val asked, staring at the monitors lining the left wall. An unconscious woman was being carried off by a group of security guards in view of camera six.
Douglas Rivers gave the monitors a cursory glance before commenting, "Freak out. Happens sometimes. She'll be put into stasis before she wakes, so she won't cause any problems. Are you finished over there?"
"Yes," Val murmured. "Bring him up."
Leaning forward, Rivers tapped a few keys on the console. Before them, a holographic image suddenly appeared in front of the viewing portal. A middle-aged man wearing glasses and tweed stared down at them bemusedly.
"Valerie Jackson, meet Harrison," Rivers said.
The image twisted slightly to face her. An expression of surprised delight crossed its features. "Ms. Jackson," the man beamed. "How good of you to see me off."
"I'm coming along, Harrison," Val said, smiling. It was hard to look at the image and not see her mentor. But while Alex Harrison had lent himself to the personification of his computerized system, the computer was still just a machine, not a person.
"Oh, wonderful," Harrison responded. He reached up, removed his glasses, and cleaned them with a white handkerchief. Val chuckled. Alex had made sure to program many of his own idiosyncrasies into the system. "Have you made the proper adjustments? I believe there were a few calibration errors in the atmospheric processors." The computer glanced at Rivers and pointedly raised its brows.
Nodding, Val said, "I've done a complete diagnostics, and we're all set."
"Ah," Harrison responded. "It is good to have you aboard."
"I think we're ready to start loading the passengers," Val said to Rivers, who quickly bent over the intercom to notify the attendants.
Turning back toward Harrison, Val felt a swell of pride. Her teacher's advances made this trip possible. And now she was here, an integral part of human history. In two months' time, they would arrive on Vic-12. A small group of colonists had gone ahead and made a few preparations, and of course the entire planet had been thoroughly explored over ten years ago. Finally, they were ready to make the first advance toward interplanetary settlement. Her own name might not be remembered in future generations, but her children and grandchildren would know of her feat.
Val glanced down at the console. Well, figuring she had kids, they would know. So maybe her mother was right—this path had inevitably led to her own spinsterhood. She was only twenty-four. There was plenty of time for marriage, kids, and all the ordinary stuff that seemed to mean so much more to her parents than her multiple degrees, her work with Dr. Harrison, and now her trip to the stars.
"Jackson," Rivers was saying. "Doc says you need to get down there, too. It's sleepy-time," he sang.
Taking a deep breath, Val nodded and stood from her seat. Sleepy-time. Only two months, she told herself. Sleep for two months, and wake up on a new planet. How exciting was that? She left the control room and headed down toward the med center.
He couldn't remember if he had been dreaming. At first there was darkness, and then suddenly a searing pain forced him awake. Leslie was disoriented for several moments after that, unaware of where he was or what was happening. Then he realized he was still on the ship, within his stasis pod, actually. The quiet sound of machinery purring around him was interrupted by moist grunts of contentment.
A heavy weight had settled over his body. But this was not the source of Leslie's pain. Something was biting him—actually feeding on him. An animal broken free of its cage? Leslie tried to struggle against the creature, but it only held on tighter, actually bucking against him as it fastened its mouth against his neck.
When Leslie opened his eyes, the intruder leaned back and stared down at him. To his shock, it wasn't an animal at all, but a terribly disfigured man. Yellow eyes gleamed in the faint light streaming down from the overhead lamps. When the man smiled, his open lips revealed elongated teeth stained a dusky red.
"That's my blood," Leslie murmured, his voice a husky whisper. How long had he been out?
"Shh," the man crooned, reaching down to stroke his cheek. "It's nearly over now."
After a moment of fumbling he leaned forward once more, this time pressing his arm against Leslie's mouth. When the heavy taste of copper spilled past his lips, Leslie jerked away in surprise. The man pushed his head against the open wound more insistently then, forcing him to drink.
The warmth flooded through his body like music—singing through his veins, joining his blood with perfect harmony. Leslie knew that much time had passed when he was able to open his eyes once more and take in his surroundings with heightened senses. At that first moment of consciousness after his rebirth he was made painfully aware of his former limitations. Leslie rose from his slumber renewed, and fully ready to take on whatever life had to give him.
When he stood, he saw his sire a short distance away, surrounded by three other acolytes. Jealousy flared within him. "Who are they?" he demanded.
The vampire smiled magnanimously. "Your brothers and sister," he responded.
Leslie frowned. He didn't think there'd be others. But his anger was forgotten a moment later when a powerful yearning nearly doubled him over in agony.
"You're hungry," the vampire explained. "That will pass."
"It will?" Leslie asked, amazed that this pain would actually go away on its own.
With a gesture, the vampire beckoned the female behind him. The blonde vampire moved forward a few steps and shoved something onto the floor at Leslie's feet. A small child, no more than four or five, stared up at him curiously. As he returned the gaze, Leslie felt his muscles of his face shift under his skin. The child's pulse quickened at the sight of him, and she seemed trapped beneath the weight of his stare. Leslie smiled.
Val tumbled to the floor, her head striking the smooth metal with a ringing thud. No, that's not my ears ringing, she thought a moment later. It's the distress signal above my pod.
She managed to roll over onto her back. Her limbs were lethargic, barely able to move. It only took a few weeks in stasis to confuse the body. That was why an extended "wake up" period was necessary in order to ease the sleeper into consciousness. She'd obviously been forced to skip that part. Some malfunction must have jolted her awake.
After a few more moments, she'd gained the strength necessary to push herself to her feet. When she stood, the room spun around crazily. Val put her face in her hands and braced herself. For some reason this didn't help. Peeking out from between her fingers, she saw the double lines of pods housing the ship's crew. The floor took another dive out from under her just then. She went flying toward the nearest pod and barely missed smacking her head a second time.
"What the hell is going on?" she croaked, then pressed a hand against her mouth in surprise. Clearing her throat, Val said, "Harrison, what seems to be the disturbance up there?"
There was no response. Frowning, Val stood up and crossed the room to check the ship's status on the nearest console. The com was open, so Harrison should have heard her loud and clear.
"Harrison, report," Val snapped.
"What's going on?" a weak voice called behind her.
Val barely gave the man a glance. She was too absorbed by the information flying across the screen. "We are way off course," she muttered. "What the hell happened?"
He approached the console and stood beside her silently. She glanced at him fleetingly, taking in the dark hair and eyes, as well as the green uniform. They'd been introduced at some point, she knew.
"What was your name?" she asked. "MacArthur?"
He nodded. "Tom."
"Well, Tom, if these readings are correct, we've been heading off in the wrong direction for the past three months," Val explained with a heavy sigh.
"Three months?" he asked. "Weren't we only supposed to be under for two?"
"The machinery has to be off somehow," Val said. "Harrison wouldn't have allowed us to drift for so long…wait a minute," she said.
"Now what?" Tom peered at the screen intently but obviously had no idea how to translate the data flying across it.
"According to this we haven't merely been drifting in the wrong direction," Val said, shocked. "We've been traveling at full speed. That can't be right. I need to get to the control room."
"So do we wake the rest of them up?" Tom asked, gesturing vaguely.
Val shook her head. "We don't want to take that risk. It wasn't healthy for us to come out of stasis so quickly; I'm not going to put the others through it as well."
"I think I better come with you, then," Tom responded. "We don't know what's going on."
"Harrison melted a few processors is what's going on," Val said. "He has several fail safes in the event of mechanical error, but for some reason they haven't seemed to kick in. If we hadn't been forced awake when we did, this whole place could have turned into a big floating coffin."
Val shook her head. "I'm being pessimistic," she said. "I do that sometimes. I'm sure these readings are just incorrect. We can't be this far off course."
They moved toward the corridor. "And if we are this far off course," Tom asked. "Worst case and all?"
Val frowned. "Well, we're not. So there's no point in speculating."
"Right," Tom sighed. "Look, you'll have to use your pass to get up to the control room. I don't have clearance for that floor."
"What are you, level five?" Val asked, looking him up and down. "Ouch."
"Hey," Tom retorted. "You can always walk through this dead ship on your own."
"Touchy," Val responded. "It's just…well, they usually give low clearance to former felons, and I'm not so sure I should be responsible for taking you with me—"
"We can turn right around and have you access my personnel files," Tom said evenly. "I am not a criminal."
"Okay, okay, just wanted to be sure," Val said.
They reached the elevator at the end of the corridor. Tom waited as she punched in the proper access code and stepped inside. When he didn't move to join her in the car, she frowned.
"Aren't you coming?" she asked.
"I want you to know that I have never been accused of any crime," he said.
Val rolled her eyes. "You're still going off on that?" she asked. "Hurry up, I want to see what's going on."
Before Tom could take a step, a scream echoed through the corridor behind them. He twisted around to see where it was coming from, but the long hallway was empty. "I don't think that was the crew's quarters," he said.
Val stepped back into the corridor. "We better check it out."
"It's probably someone coming out of stasis and not handling it well," he said. "I'll go. Seriously," he added when she looked at him skeptically. "The ship…running full speed in the wrong direction? You need to get up there and handle things."
"Okay, but we're not really that far off course," Val argued. Tom merely pushed her back onto the elevator.
The doors closed and sent her own worried reflection back at her. Hopefully Tom was right—it was only someone else cut out of stasis at the wrong time. She glanced up toward the ceiling of the narrow car and tapped her foot impatiently. It couldn't move fast enough toward the top level of the ship to suit her, not while she was in this state.
Tom shook his head after the closing doors left him effectively alone. "Why did I do that?" he asked himself.
Turning to face the corridor once more, he went in search of the origin of that scream. He passed several doors before finding an open area. Each travel class was grouped together in its own separate wing off the main corridor. The open door led to the first class area, and the passengers who'd paid their full travel expenses themselves. Tom sighed to himself.
"Figures," he muttered.
As he turned to enter the area, a dark figure hurtled out into the hallway, nearly knocking him over. Tom didn't even have the time to recover his senses before a second person ran out as well. This time he wasn't lucky enough to keep his balance. The individual barreled directly into him, sending both of them sprawling across the floor. Tom grunted in pain as he landed flat on his chest. The other person fell directly on top of him. He groaned again when an elbow jabbed into the small of his back.
"You stupid…" the person muttered. The weight flew off almost immediately as the person jumped up.
Rolling over, Tom stared blearily at the person standing above him. He recognized her immediately—she was the young woman who'd freaked out before getting on the ship. Lark had removed her khaki uniform and now wore a black t-shirt and jeans. Tom wondered where she'd scavenged the new clothing so quickly.
"Which way did it go?" she demanded, her eyes scanning the corridor.
Tom managed push himself up onto his feet. "What?" he asked.
Lark grabbed him by the collar and shook him slightly. His first thought was that she was pretty strong for a girl. "Which way did the vampire go?"
Tom frowned. "You mean that guy that ran out of here just before you?"
Sighing in exasperation, Lark snapped, "Yeah. Which way did he go, you brainless twit!"
"Uh," Tom mumbled, "I—"
"Just forget it," Lark said. Shoving him out of the way, she ran down the corridor.
"What—" Tom started. Then he noticed the area she'd just fled. Inside were double rows of closed pods, all occupied by sleeping passengers. But in the center of the chamber he saw two women huddled on the floor. "Just great."
The two girls didn't glance up as he approached. The smaller of the two held her face in her hands and sobbed gracelessly while the other appeared to be examining her neck. Tom recognized the blonde. It was Lyssa Baines.
"Are you…" he began. "Is she injured?"
Lyssa started at the sound of his voice. She relaxed as soon as she glanced down at his uniform and realized he was a crew member. "We were attacked," she explained. "Some…animals, or something. My sister was bitten."
Tom knelt beside them for a closer look. There were two puncture wounds on the girl's neck, but they hardly looked like teeth marks. And the figure running out of the chamber before Lark appeared definitely wasn't an animal. What had Lark called it?
"They don't exist," he snapped, more to himself than the girls.
"What?" Lyssa asked, glancing at him fearfully.
Bit lowered her hands from her face. The tears streaming down her cheeks were almost more than he could bear. "Look," he said. "It's not that bad. There's a first aid kit near the door. Let's just clean the wound and bandage her up."
"But what was that thing?" Lyssa demanded. "What if it comes back? If some brainless hillbilly let his rabid dog out of its cage, what can you do to make sure she doesn't get sick?"
"It's not an animal!" Bit shouted. "You saw it, Lyssa. It was a person."
Tom stood. "First aid by the door," he repeated. "Lock yourselves in here after I—I'm just going to see if Lark needs any help."
"You're leaving?" Lyssa exclaimed. "You're leaving us here alone?"
"You'll be safer in here," Tom promised. "Just lock the door."
"But he already broke in here once," she cried as he turned to leave. "What if he comes back?"
Tom didn't bother to respond. Lyssa was still shouting hysterically when he closed the door behind him and hurried to follow Lark's path down the corridor. For some reason the girl had known something was wrong with one of the passengers, had even pitched a fit trying to keep him from boarding. And now some guy was breaking into pods, biting people? Lark was right there, too, ready for him. He didn't understand what was going on, but he wasn't about to leave the girl on her own if there was some psychopath on board.
He'd nearly reached the central med lab when he heard the sounds of a struggle. Hurrying inside, Tom saw Lark take a blow to the head. She dropped to the ground, and he thought she'd been knocked unconscious, but then she twirled around to punch a second man in the stomach. Tom frowned, wondering just what kind of situation he'd walked into.
Lark turned to face him, her eyes widening slightly. He opened his mouth to ask if she needed help but she cut him off with a shout.
"Hey! Behind you!"
It was at that moment that he felt the prickly sensation at the back of his neck and realized that someone was standing behind him. He jerked around to see a deformed man leering at him, his teeth bared in an animal snarl. Tom pressed his arm against the man to shove him away, but was grabbed by the shoulders an instant later. The powerful grip held him immobilized. Smiling, the man physically lifted him from his feet and tossed him aside. Tom had the unsettling sensation of flight before he struck the wall. The world fell away from him before he even landed.
Lark paused in mid-stride when she saw another person entering the lab from the corridor. The vampire took advantage of her hesitation and landed a sharp jab on the side of her head. Luckily he wasn't quite as strong as the second one. Lark managed to keep her balance as she was forced several steps backwards. She instinctively ducked as she heard the quiet approach of the second vampire and just barely missed another punch to the head. Twisting on the smooth tiled floor, Lark shoved her fist into his gut. Her attacker reeled back in pain, and she had the opportunity to put some distance between herself and them.
Glancing toward the door, Lark saw one of the crew members standing just inside the doorway. Behind him, a blond vampire crept closer. He noticed her attention and grinned as he pointed at the man in front of him. For more effect, he even bared his fangs in mock aggression. Lark narrowed her eyes. Great, she thought, another hammy vampire.
A soft grunt signaled the approach of one of the first two attackers. Lark didn't bother turning around—merely raised her arm and smashed her elbow into his face. He stumbled back with a groan, giving her another instant of peace.
"Hey!" she called toward the clueless guy standing in the doorway. "Behind you!"
The man turned his head to look over his shoulder just as the blond vampire leaned in to feed. He threw his arm against his attacker to ward him off, twisting his body around as he did to set them both off balance. But instead of falling, the vampire merely shoved the man away from him. The crewman hurtled toward wall and bounced off the metallic surface with a sickening thud.
Lark stiffened when she sensed that the vampires behind her were preparing to renew their attack. But the blond vampire shook his head and gestured for them to fall back.
"You took out Riley," he said in admiration. "He was my best fighter."
One of the vampires behind her snorted in irritation. Lark merely raised one brow sardonically. "He was young," she countered. "You're all young. Where's your leader?"
The vampire frowned. "What makes you think I have a leader?" he asked. He attempted to look menacing but didn't quite pull it off, even in full vamp face. Lark guessed he'd only been turned about a week before.
"I saw him," she responded evenly. "In the skyport. He's the one who made all of you."
"Leslie…" one of the minions spoke up behind her.
The blonde vampire scowled. "Do not call me that," he snarled, slashing his hand through the air. "It's Harkon." He glanced at Lark. "Harkon," he repeated.
"Leslie suits you better," she told him.
"All right," he announced, addressing his companions. "I'm done. Go ahead. I'd hoped you'd be more fun."
Lark shook her head. "Sorry to disappoint," she muttered to herself before turning to face the first two vampires.
The taller man wasn't an obvious choice for immortality. His leathery skin revealed his age and his affinity for sunlight. Lark wondered how long it would take him to realize what he was giving up. He had the added strength and speed of a vampire, but wasn't old enough to have learned how to use it. His movements were clumsy and too aggressive for him to control.
His first approach was to sweep his long arm in a broad arc. Lark easily shifted out of his way. As his forward momentum moved him past her, she twisted her upper body and slammed her fists against his back. When she turned to follow his progress and continue the assault, the second vampire grabbed her by the nape of her neck and threw her into the glass cabinets lining the nearby wall.
Stunned, she crumpled to the floor in a heap. Sharp bits of broken glass dug into her arms and legs where they pressed against the floor. Lark opened her eyes and spotted a large piece of glass resting near her right hand. Ignoring the pain, she clutched it in her fist and shoved her body up off the floor as the vampire leaned over her. She whipped around to face the creature as she rose. The shard of glass caught him at the neck, cutting deeply.
The injury would have been fatal to a mortal, but it merely stopped the vampire in his tracks for the moment. Clutching his neck, he fell to the floor in agony. Lark curled her lip in disgust. Without a stake, she'd have to take more severe precautions.
"Heads it is," she muttered, dropping to her knees beside him.
Grasping the shard of glass in both hands, she pressed it lengthwise against his neck where it was exposed above his hands and shoved downward with a decisive stroke. The glass was thick, but it was also sharp. It was just strong enough to do the job. As the vamp dissolved into dust, the glass struck the floor and sliced deeply into the palms of her hands. Lark bit her lip to keep from crying out in pain. She knew the second vampire wasn't far away.
When she turned to seek out her quarry, she caught a blur of movement in her peripheral vision. She immediately knew that it moved too quickly to be human. Lifting the glass with one hand, Lark threw it at the creature before it had a chance to reach her side. She didn't bother to see if the weapon met its mark, for the vampire instantly exploded into a cloud of dust. On a ship comprised almost completely of metal, she'd have to remember how useful broken glass could be.
Rising to her feet, she faced Harkon, her lips twisted in a wry smile. He stared at her in amazement. "You're not human," he said. He looked as though he might take a step forward, than thought better of it. Lark shook her head when he glanced down at the unconscious man.
"I wouldn't try it," she advised him. Her mouth dropped open in shock when he suddenly turned to run.
Lark immediately surged forward to give chase. She'd nearly passed the crew member when she sighed and halted her pursuit. Dropping to one knee, she reached out to touch his face, leaving a smear of blood behind.
"I know you," she realized. She frowned when he continued to lie motionless on the floor. "Wake up," she snapped, slapping him across the face.
"Five more minutes," he muttered as he sat upright. Blinking, he gazed around himself in confusion. "What happened?"
Lark frowned. "The ship has been overtaken by vampires," she explained.
He smiled and laughed. "Good one…" he started, then paused when her expression didn't change. "Those things aren't human."
She shook her head. "I've killed three, but I spotted at least two others outside of 'B' class," she said. "And then Blondie over here decided to crash. He's not the one I saw at the skyport, though. That one was old. All the rest were human when they boarded the ship."
Tom reached up to wipe his face and calmly stared at the red substance staining his fingertips. "So they've been snacking on us for the past three months," he said. "I just want to comment that officially, I still don't believe in vampires."
"Point taken," Lark agreed. "Three months? We should've reached Vic-12 by now."
"That's the thing," Tom said. "Valerie Jackson seems to think the ship's been taken off course somehow."
"Valerie Jackson?" Lark asked.
"She's the consultant from Unitech," he explained. "She worked in Dr. Harrison's group."
When she continued to stare at him blankly, he sighed and said, "The guy who developed the propulsion system on this ship, programmed the operating computer...were you living in a cardboard box somewhere?"
Lark frowned at him and stood up. "Just about," she murmured dismissively.
As she glanced about the room she spotted a glass case set a few feet from the doors. A metal axe gleamed innocuously from within its enclosure. Snorting, Lark moved closer and smashed the glass with her elbow. She lifted the heavy axe and swung it around a few times before returning her gaze to Tom.
"This would have helped," she said.
He was busy staring at her hands. "You're bleeding," he realized.
She moved back a few steps when he rose to his feet. "It's fine," she said. "I've got to start tracking those other vamps."
"It looks serious," he said. "They need to be bandaged."
Rolling her eyes, she flexed her free hand and managed not to cringe at the fresh streak of pain racing up her forearm. "I'll heal."
Tom stood solid. "We're in a med lab," he reminded her. "Humor me."
"You know, you're a real pain in the ass," she complained.
Stomping toward him, she reached for the sleeve of his uniform. The axe remained lowered at her side as she used her left hand to grasp the material and give it a firm yank. It ripped away cleanly, baring his right arm. The move shocked him into silence. He watched in amazement as she dropped the weapon on a nearby counter and began tearing the fabric into long strips. Wrapping one around each hand, she leaned forward to use her teeth to assist in tying the knots.
Raising her brows, Lark gave him a defiant glance before retrieving her axe and moving toward the corridor. Tom remained as he was for several moments. Then he rushed after her, jogging to catch up. They walked side by side in silence for some time.
"You are a very strange individual," Tom finally commented. Lark had to grin. "So how do you know about these things, anyway?"
She shrugged. "I just know," she said. "One day, I saw this guy standing under a street light on 58th. New York," she added. "Most people probably would've thought he was a pusher. But I knew what he was. He was the first vampire I ever saw. Or noticed…I'm not sure which," she admitted. "It was like something just switched on in me, and I was fired up—ready to go."
"And so you just automatically had this urge to start beating people up?"
Lark shook her head. "Not people," she said. "Demons. Monsters. Things that go bump in the night."
"Fairy tales," Tom muttered.
"Whoever said fairy tales weren't true?" she countered. "Look, I don't think they stayed on this level. There are three separate passenger levels, right?"
He nodded. "This is the lowest. There are two more above us."
"Then they went up. Let's hit the stairs."
They were just passing another berth of passengers when the ship took a sickening plunge downward. It righted itself in a matter of seconds, but the strange movement made the two of them glance at each other in confusion. Moments later, the hallway tilted crazily as the ship suddenly banked left. Lark was thrown against Tom, who was slammed into a wall once again. She dropped the axe and allowed it to go spinning down the corridor rather than accidentally injure her companion.
"What's going on now?" she asked in concern.
"Jackson must have taken over the controls," Tom responded. "She was heading up there before I found you."
"And she decided to take a joy ride?" Lark wondered. She pushed away from him and limped partway across the corridor. The floor was still dramatically slanted, but still traversable.
"She said we were heading in the wrong direction," he explained. "Maybe she turned us around."
"Something's not right," Lark disagreed.
To her surprise, Tom burst out laughing. "You think?" he mocked.
"Hey," Lark chastised. "Less taunt, more thought, okay? You've got to have a better idea of what's going on than I do."
"Why?" Tom demanded. "I'm a glorified janitor, for crying out loud. There may as well be a garbage can on this badge--" he stopped and glanced down at his right arm. "Well, you ripped that sleeve off, but you get the picture."
A low, groaning sound echoed up from the bowels of the ship and was followed by a deep shudder. "We need to find a stable place to squat this out," Lark decided.
"You really have a way with words," Tom said.
Wordlessly, she grabbed his arm and spun him toward the nearest doorway. She felt a strange new weight to her legs as she attempted to walk into 'C' cell. It was almost as if the ship had gained a great deal of speed, but taken a downward spiral.
"I think we're losing altitude," she commented.
Tom shook his head. "We're in space," he said. "The only way we could be losing altitude is if we're in a planet's atmosphere, and—"
She looked at him in alarm when he cut himself short. "Three months in the wrong direction," he whispered to himself, his eyes widening.
Lark shoved him toward an empty stasis pod. "Strap yourself in there," she ordered.
Tom glanced around himself. "It's the only empty one," he said. "You take it."
"Don't get all masculine on me now," she muttered. She pushed him more insistently. "Get in."
When he continued to resist, she sighed and promised, "I'll find another pod."
The sensation of falling became more overbearing after Tom was safely tucked away and she stood alone in the room. All around her other passengers slept peacefully, completely oblivious to the impending danger. It hadn't been difficult for her to figure out what Tom had guessed. They were in for a crash landing. And his comment about traveling in the wrong direction didn't escape her attention, either. If three months really had passed, they weren't heading down toward Vic-12.
Lark searched for a nice spot to brace herself, then nearly laughed at the absurdity of it. They were done. There wasn't much use for her to even try to protect her vital organs from puncture or collapse…
"I'm such an optimist," she told herself.
The faint shuddering she'd felt earlier grew even stronger, and soon it was difficult for her to stand upright. The ship canted forward sharply, and Lark was thrown across the expanse of the room. At that point there was no chance for her to find a safe place. She was forced to hang on to whatever was available as the ship tossed her around. At one point she clung to the protective plating of a stasis pod and stared helplessly at the slumbering woman inside. In that moment she desperately wished she could be so unaware of what was happening around her. Then she was wrenched away after being struck by a large chunk of debris ripped away from the wall. She thought she felt the moment of impact, but her head slammed against the sharp edge of a broken pod, and she finally lost that obnoxious self-awareness.
When Lark regained her senses, she found herself partially buried under rubble. Sitting up, she groaned when the room started spinning around her. Her skull felt like it had been split in two. She pressed a hand against her forehead and winced in pain. Her scalp was cut and bleeding freely, but everything else seemed to be intact. She'd find out soon enough if she had a concussion.
Lark dislodged herself from the debris covering the lower half of her body and flexed her limbs before rising. Nothing broken, and a bump on the head—she was damned lucky. She'd been hurt worse than this after taking on that gang demons near the Beltway. No matter what scrape she found herself in, for some reason she was never much worse for wear. It was strange—she never remembered being so resilient as a child. She'd left her second foster home with a broken collarbone and two cracked ribs and spent the better part of the fourth grade in the hospital. But in the past few years she'd barely suffered more than a scratch.
Finding Tom in the mess was a bit of a challenge. The chamber had been full of other passengers. Most of the pods were intact and still neatly lined against the walls of the chamber, but Lark ran across more than one body in her search. She briefly wondered what the casualty rate had been. It looked as though the majority of the passengers not only escaped the disaster unscathed, but still remained safely in stasis.
Lark crawled over broken portions of machinery, avoiding the remains of former passengers whenever she could. When she reached Tom's pod, she realized that a heavy piece of debris had fallen across it and shattered its protective glass plating. She strained to pull it out, then tossed it far away from the surrounding pods. Leaning close, she peered in at him to see if he was still alive.
Tom lay stunned amid the debris. At first she thought he'd been struck unconscious yet again, but then he opened his eyes and gazed up at her.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yeah," he murmured. "I think I'm just banged up a bit. What the hell happened?"
Lark grasped his forearm and hauled him up to his feet. "We hit something," she said. "This place is trashed. We should check on some of the passengers; get the rest of the crew involved. If there are a lot of injuries, it will be a vampire smorgasbord."
Tom nodded. "Bleeding, immobilized prey," he said. "Like spreading chum in shark infested water."
Her brow wrinkled as she gave him a disgusted look. "Thanks for the visual," she muttered.
"Wait," he said as she turned away to walk toward the corridor.
"Are you injured?" she asked.
"Listen," Tom entreated. "The engines have stopped."
Lark glanced up toward the ceiling. "Power's still on," she said. "You said that chick is up in the control room?"
He smiled. "Her name is Valerie Jackson," he said. "She must have taken control of the ship at some point."
"Well, remind me to compliment her on her driving skills," Lark muttered. "We should probably get up there to see what the situation is. We can't help any of these people on our own."
Tom shook his head. "I can't get up to the top level," he said. "And neither can you. We don't have clearance."
"I don't think that really applies anymore," she argued. "It won't be a problem. Come on."
Val typed furiously on the keypad before her. "Come on, you old bastard," she whispered to herself. "Where are you hiding?"
Pausing, she glanced up to take another look out of the viewing portal. Outside of the ship, a vast jungle spread as far as the eyes could see. Thick black smoke wafted past as the wind shifted. Their landing had obviously started quite a blaze behind them. At least the ship was protected from fire damage. It had already taken enough of a beating.
The large sun was just setting to the right of the portal. So that was West…if the sun set in the West on this planet. She couldn't see any sign of life, but the flora here was so thick it seemed nearly impenetrable. There could be all sorts of strange things hiding in there.
Val leaned forward to take a better look outside before the light waned completely. Just then, a loud crashing sound nearly sent her tumbling out of her chair. She jerked around to see the heavy door of the control room fly inward and bounce against the wall. A woman strode inside just behind it, quickly catching it before it could rebound against her.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Val demanded. "And…how did you do it?"
The dark haired woman merely glanced at her expressionlessly. Her attention was distracted by the sight of the jungle outside. She walked closer to the viewing portal behind the console and quietly observed their surroundings.
Val spotted a familiar figure strolling in shortly after and relaxed somewhat. "Tom," she said. "You're uninjured?"
"I'm fine," he assured her. When she glanced toward the strange woman, he quickly introduced her. "Deborah Lark," he gestured. "Valerie Jackson."
The woman turned to examine Val, her dark eyes sweeping over her in a faintly disturbing manner. She seemed to decide that Val posed no threat, for her stance relaxed considerably.
"Valerie?" she asked.
Nodding, the woman responded. "Lark."
"Pleased to meet you. Now would you like to explain why you're destroying the ship?" Val asked.
Lark broke into a grin. Glancing at Tom, she said, "She's funny."
Val frowned. "She's not joking," she snapped. She turned to Tom and asked, "Why did you bring her up here?"
"We came to see if you were all right," Tom said.
"Well, I'm fine," Val responded before returning her attention to the console before her.
"Where are we?" Tom asked, moving to stand beside Lark near the viewing portal.
"It's not Vic-12," Lark said.
Val sighed. "No, it's not. The ship hit some debris as I was trying to bring Harrison back. He's been taken offline somehow. We lost engine power, and I had to take over manually and try to land. I haven't piloted a ship this big before." She rubbed her forehead self-consciously.
"Well, we're in one piece," Lark said. "You must have done something right."
"I'm pretty rusty," Val responded. "We need to get Harrison back. He'll be able to help us figure out what went wrong."
"Well, while you work on that, maybe we should start getting some of the crew together?" Tom asked. "See about the passengers?"
"Right," Val said. She shook her head. "You're right. I didn't even think of that."
"Hey," Lark told her. "It's cool. Don't worry so much. Just wake up this Harrison guy, and get some crew members up, too."
"Harrison is the computer system," Tom informed her.
"Well, whatever. How long before we can get some help checking on the passengers?"
"Two hours at least," Val answered.
"This is kind of an emergency," Lark said. "Can't you speed up the process?"
"That is if I speed up the process. You can't just pull people out of stasis without the potential for causing real harm. Didn't you feel strange when you came out of it?"
Lark shrugged. "I seem to be okay."
Val had to laugh. The woman's forehead was covered in blood, and her hands seemed to be bandaged with bits of Tom's uniform. She definitely didn't look like she was 'okay.'
"It will take two hours," she reiterated. "I'll start working on the process now."
"Fine," Lark stated. "We'll need people with medical experience. Military backgrounds would be good. Do you have access to personnel files?"
"Yes, but…why military?"
Lark ignored her and turned to Tom to say, "We'll use the two hours to figure out where the vamps went. Take care of them before the other passengers are revived."
"Vamps?" Val sputtered. "You mean vampires? Tom, this woman was struck on the head. I think it would be best if--"
Lark spun around angrily. "I think it would be best if you stay on task," she snapped. "This is my thing."
Tom put his hands up in a conciliatory gesture. No matter how calming he tried to be, he just looked ridiculous with one sleeve ripped off his shirt. "Okay, okay," he said. "Val, I know it sounds bizarre, but think of it this way. There is a gang of…criminals on board. They've been hurting people. Lark needs find these criminals and diffuse the situation. Now, can you work on Harrison and find us twenty or so able crew members to start checking on the passengers?"
Biting her tongue, Val nodded.
"Good," Lark said. "Then let's go."
Tom looked surprised. "You want me to come?" he asked.
"Can't go without my right hand man," she breezed, turning to walk out of the room.
Val sent a frown after their retreating backs. Suddenly, something occurred to her. "Does that woman even work here?" she muttered to herself. Bending over the console, she entered the codes to access the personnel list.
Lark stumbled through "A" deck with Tom, pausing when they reached the end of the wide corridor. They'd searched all three of the passenger decks and hadn't seen one sign of a vampire. There were injuries and casualties all around, but the gang still hadn't come to feed.
"Where are they?" Lark muttered.
"They must have grouped together after the crash," Tom said. "Gone somewhere to hide until things get sorted out."
"Maybe they were all dusted on impact?" Lark asked hopefully, then shook her head when Tom raised his brows. "So what's left besides the upper decks?"
"Just the cargo hold," Tom responded.
"The cargo hold," Lark repeated.
"That's where they are," Tom said, snapping his fingers. "They know there's going to be a lot of activity on the ship right now, and they're waiting to see what our next move will be."
"Well, let's get down there," Lark replied. When she turned to head toward the elevator, Tom grabbed her by the elbow.
"Wait," he said. "I know a better way." She tilted her head and gazed down at his hand where it gripped her flesh. Sheepish, Tom released her. "There's an access shaft above the main cargo bay," he said. "They probably don't know it's there. We can check out the scene from above without them even seeing us."
"Way to go, Maintenance Man," Lark said. "Lead the way."
Minutes later they were crawling through a cramped tunnel just above the lowest deck of the ship. Lark followed Tom, which was almost a bad choice, since his bulky frame blocked most of the way and made the air in front of her stifling. She felt the first panicky twinges of hysteria at being cooped up in such a confined space and did her best to control her breathing. She'd faced down vampires and demons, but still freaked out in small, dark places.
"Okay," Tom said. "Here's the grate."
"Quiet," Lark hissed when she heard a metallic squeal. "They'll hear you."
He carefully eased his way onto the narrow catwalk hugging the ceiling of the cargo bay. Lark immediately followed, grateful for the breath of fresh air. Far below them, a vast collection of boxes, crates, and supply containers filled the area.
The vamps were pretty easy to spot. They'd camped out in the open area near the huge doors used for loading. The group was nearly fifty yards away from their position on the catwalk, but Lark could still discern enough to count them out.
"There are twelve," she whispered. "I can handle that."
When she moved to head toward the opposite end of the room and the spiral set of metal stairs leading to the floor below, Tom grabbed her. "Are you crazy?" he demanded in a husky whisper. "Besides, there are four exits out of this area. The second they see you, they're going to spread out. At least now they're all in one spot."
"So what do we do, just leave them here?" Lark asked incredulously. "I've got them, let's handle this now."
"Let's form a plan first, all right?" he pleaded. "You jump down there all Dirty Harry-like and you're dead."
Lark frowned. "Dirty Harry?" she asked.
"Movie from the twentieth century," he said. "I'm kind of a film buff."
"Yeah, well, buff your films somewhere else," Lark commented. "I can take these guys."
"At least come back to see Val with me," Tom requested. "She may have an idea that we haven't considered."
Finally, Lark relented. "They better still be here when we get back," she warned him.
"I have a feeling they will be," Tom said. "They look pretty sated." An expression of disgust crossed his features.
Lark sighed and followed him back into the torturous access shaft. As she lifted the grating back into place, she stared down at the vampires longingly. She'd been close to getting that old one, too. Gritting her teeth, she crawled forward to catch up to Tom's retreating rear.
There were two more people inside the control room when they returned. Tom recognized Lyssa and Elizabeth Baines, and wondered how they'd managed to wander up here. His musings were disrupted by the sight of the expression on Val's face. She looked as though she'd been crying, and might start again at any moment. Elizabeth stood beside her seat, her hand resting on her shoulder consolingly.
"What happened?" Tom asked. In front of the viewing portal, the image of an older man looked back at him. "You've got Harrison back up."
"We've got some preliminary numbers back," Val explained. "Two hundred twenty-seven injuries, seventy-six deaths, and eleven people unaccounted for."
"Twelve vampires," Lark murmured from Tom's side.
"Would you stop?" Val demanded. "Quit this fantasy land crap already! Our propulsion is shot. This ship is no longer space worthy. And there is no way to contact Earth directly. We're so far off course there is no chance of them finding us with a basic search and rescue mission. We are never getting off this planet."
By the time she finished her tirade, she'd risen to her feet and started shouting. Tom hurried forward to calm her down. He wasn't sure how Lark would respond to direct conflict, and frankly didn't want to find out.
"Hey," he said. "It might not be that bad. Does Harrison know where we are?"
"We are currently on the fourth planet in this solar system," Harrison replied.
"That's great," Lark said. "What solar system?"
Harrison paused. "That is unclear at this time," he said. "However, we are not in the Gammec system, where Vic-12 is located."
"Already figured that one out, Superbit," Lark drawled. She glanced toward Val. "Does he know anything that will actually help us here?"
"I beg your pardon," Harrison sputtered. "My productivity was compromised, I'll have you know."
"Yeah," Tom interjected. "Who took him offline, anyway?"
"Douglas Rivers," Val murmured. She glanced at Harrison. "He's one of the missing people."
Lark sent a pointed look in Tom's direction. Val sighed heavily. "Just say it."
"Don't have to," Lark nearly sang. "It's pretty obvious. But seriously, what about this planet? Is it habit…is it ha…is it livable?"
"The atmosphere is comprised of 75% Nitrogen and 23% Oxygen, with the remaining 2% composed of various inert gases, most of which are discernable to my sensors, and none of which seem to be of any determinable toxicity to humans," Harrison said.
Lark turned to Val in exasperation. "And in English…?"
"The atmosphere is breathable," Val responded. "There is a slightly higher concentration of oxygen, which might lead to some light-headedness or nausea…" she trailed off when Lark's expression reflected her growing irritation. "It's livable," she confirmed.
"Well, then," Lark said. "We have a planet full of resources if we need them. If we need them," she stressed. "Even if we can't contact Earth from here, there has to be some way to send out an SOS, right?"
Val's brow furrowed. "There is a distress beacon," she said hesitantly. "It's not powerful enough to travel that distance, but I may be able to amplify it if I alter a few…"
She lapsed into computer-tech gibberish, losing them completely. Harrison seemed to understand exactly what she was saying, however, for he lit up suddenly and nodded. "That could work," he agreed.
Val stopped suddenly and shook her head. "What am I thinking?" she asked. "It could still take years for the signal to be intercepted. And even if it were, we have no idea where we are or how to give directions to our location."
"So we're stuck here?" Elizabeth cried. "We're really never leaving?"
Staring at her sister's stricken expression, Lyssa angrily stood from her seat. "This is really irresponsible," she chastised them. "How could this have happened in the first place? I thought you were top of the line." This last bit she directed to Harrison, who seemed to gulp in the face of her rage.
"Hey, Fifth Avenue, this wasn't an accident," Lark stated. Val seemed surprised that she jumped so quickly to her defense. "This place is crawling with vampires. They obviously messed up Harrison's systems for some insane reason."
Lyssa looked at her as one might examine a bug just before squashing it beneath her heel. "This woman is labor class," she said coolly. "What is she even doing here?"
"And you're just a passenger," Lark retorted. "You don't even work here. What the hell right do you have to say anything?"
"That's enough," Tom shouted. "All right, everybody. This is a stressful situation, and arguing isn't going to solve anything. We have injured people to think about. Are they being looked after?"
Val nodded. "The med centers are up and running," she said. "We've got forty crew revived right now, and I'm working to have more out of stasis within the hour."
"In the meantime, no one says a word about this to any of the other passengers," Tom declared. "We've still got almost nineteen hundred people on this ship. There is no way any of you are going to cause a panic."
"With her spouting off about vampires, there'll be a panic," Lyssa predicted darkly. Lark just glowered at her.
"You saw the thing that bit me," Elizabeth told her sister. "It wasn't an animal, but it wasn't human, either. You know about those things?"
Lark nodded at the query. "We know where they are," she said. "They can be taken care of permanently."
"They're in the cargo bay," Tom specified. "All twelve of them. I saw them myself."
"If we have a way to contain them…can the doors going into there be locked?" Lark asked.
Val shook her head. "No," she answered. "Well, yes, they can, but they can also be unlocked from the inside. It's a failsafe, in case anyone ever gets locked in there…" she explained. At Lark's thunderous expression, she added, "Well, we never expected vampires to be in there."
"We can still block the doors somehow," Lark said. "Trap us in there together, and I'll handle the situation myself."
"Wait!" Val cried, surprising them. "I can't believe I forgot. There is an emergency response in the event of a breach in the hull. There is a greater risk of an air leak in that area because the doors open directly out into space. If we trip the sensors, the emergency doors will close. They're airtight. There's no way anyone will get through them once they're shut."
"Can you get them closed?" Lark asked.
Val nodded. "No problem. That I can handle," she added, looking pleased with herself.
"Then give me enough time to get down there before you do," Lark said. "I want to be inside with them when the doors close."
"I can do better than that," Val said, moving to the opposite side of the room. She pressed a few buttons in a wall display and a hidden door popped open. Inside was a small supply unit. Fumbling through the items held inside, Val quickly retrieved two small items. She handed them to Lark, who examined them carefully.
Tom knew the equipment as soon as he saw it. The wristband featured a small communications device capable of contacting any of the several hundred intercom frequencies on the ship. The second piece fitted neatly in the ear and allowed the user to hear whoever was on the other end. Both were standard issue.
"Use this to let me know when you're ready," Val said. Leaning toward Lark, she pushed a few buttons on the surface of the wristband. "Channel thirty-two. It's reserved for ranking security officers, and none of them are among the missing. So the…um, vampires probably won't be able to use it."
"Okay," Lark said, placing the band on her left wrist. "This will work."
She glanced up at Tom. "I'll do this one on my own," she told him.
"Probably a good idea," he agreed. "Be careful."
"Always," she responded before turning and exiting the room.
Tom looked around the control room and knew that his own face mirrored the fear he saw on each of their features. Only Harrison retained a familiar expression of paternalistic boredom.
"She'll be fine," Tom promised them hollowly. "You didn't see the way she fights."
Lark crept behind a large grouping of wooden crates and waited to see if her presence had been detected. The vampires continued about their own business, at turns chatting amongst themselves or lounging about lazily in the broad cargo bay. Darkness had fallen—she would have assumed they would be more active at this time of day. Their time and space had probably made their sensitivity to light and dark rather nonsensical.
She peeked around the edge of a crate to take a quick head count. All twelve were accounted for. The master vampire was surrounded by his loyal minions, who fawned over him disgustingly. Lark guessed he was at least a couple of centuries old, although she had no idea how she came up with that number or how she instinctively knew if a vampire was young or old.
Retreating back to her hiding place, she brought her hand close to her mouth and spoke quietly into the com on her wristband. "Okay, Val," she whispered. "Close the emergency airlocks. Give me a couple of minutes before you open the cargo bay doors."
"Got it," Val's voice crackled through her earpiece.
Reaching toward the crate beside her, Lark carefully broke off a piece of the wooden framework holding the box together. The resulting stake was wider than she was used to, but at least she finally had a useful weapon in her hand. She listened to be sure she'd gone unnoticed. Thankfully, the doors had already started to close when she'd broken into the crate. The mechanical grind echoed through the cargo bay and muted any sounds she could possibly make.
Lark strolled out from her hiding place to see the vampires scrambling about the room. They all ran toward the same door. It was obviously the entrance they were accustomed to using. The emergency door slammed shut before any of them were able to reach it. Two of the vampires uselessly pounded against the metal. Some of the others had the foresight to look for another exit. She noted that three headed toward the opposite side of the bay. They'd be behind her when she made her move. Holding the stake behind her back, she stepped out into the light.
"I hope this party isn't by invitation only," Lark commented. The vampires near the door whirled in surprise at the sound of her voice. "Because I heard you folks can really throw down."
The master vampire gave her a dangerous grin. "You've made a big mistake, little girl," he crooned. She saw Harkon, standing behind his sire, roll his eyes in embarrassment.
Lark cocked her head. "It's funny how you types always say that right before I totally thrash you."
She whipped the stake out as the first of the minions started racing toward her. They paused at the sight of the weapon, obviously wondering how their prey knew to use it against them. But their urge to protect their sire overruled whatever hesitation they had, and they quickly began chase once more.
Lark braced herself when the first reached her side. She easily ducked to avoid his first punch. Following with her own attack, she struck him in the face with her free hand while blocking his second attempt with her right. She brought up her leg and took out his knee with a sturdy kick. As he lurched sideways in shock and pain, she thrust the stake deep into his chest.
The ash hadn't even settled before the second vampire grabbed her from behind. Curling an arm around her neck, he pulled her backwards and off her feet. Lark automatically followed the force of his momentum to pull her legs up and twist her body above his in a backwards somersault. She landed on her feet behind him. Pausing to lean forward and send a sharp kick into the stomach of another vampire creeping upon her, Lark had just enough time to take out the vampire in front of her before he was able to realize what had happened and turn around to face her.
She twisted to face the third vampire just as the cargo bay doors began lumbering open. Lark frowned. She'd hoped to take out a few more of them before they had an opportunity to escape. Just as she moved to strike the vampire in front of her, he twisted away from her and hurried toward his comrades. The vampires stared at her warily. In the span of a few moments she had managed to kill two of them. It was clear they had underestimated her abilities.
"Thank you for choosing Prosperos airways," Lark intoned. "We hope you've enjoyed your flight. All vampires please disembark via the rear exit of the ship."
She heard Tom chortle through her earpiece. "That was a good one," he said.
The master vampire glared at her in impotent rage. "You can always stay and fight," she goaded him.
He looked as though he wanted to do just that, but Harkon reached forward and pulled him back. "It's time to retire from the stage," he urgently told his sire. Glancing at Lark with cool blue eyes, Harkon added, "For now."
Lark merely shrugged at him. "Raincheck, then," she said. "Val, start closing the cargo bay doors." She returned her attention to the vampires. "You can get out before they close, or you can play with me awhile longer. I'm not even tired yet."
"Move it," Harkon commanded a slow-moving vampire in front of him. He shoved the hapless minion down the ramp.
Most of the remaining vampires had already exited the ship and moved into the surrounding jungle. Lark stepped around the depression made by the lowered ramp and stood to the side of the closing doors. When she glanced outside into the darkness, she saw Harkon turn to look at her furiously. He had to jump from the rising ramp onto the ground. She waggled her fingers at him and smiled sweetly as the doors jolted shut.
"Our vamp problem is neutralized for the moment," she spoke into the com. "The ten remaining are now locked out of the ship."
"There are still ten left?" Tom asked worriedly.
"I should've gotten more of them, I know," Lark sighed. "I didn't think they'd wuss out so quickly. But it's one less thing to worry about for now." She paused and gazed around the cargo bay. "So can you let me back in now?"
Harkon paced angrily through the group of vampires, taking time to shove one or more out of his way if they wandered too close to his path. "This is ridiculous," he raged. "Kicked off the ship like naughty children. Who does she think she is?"
"She's not entirely human," Dante said. Harkon turned on his sire in surprise.
"That girl not human?" Harkon sneered. "You're off your rocker, old man. She positively stinks of humanity."
"She is not merely a human, then," Dante amended. "She may be a Slayer."
Harkon frowned. "What's a Slayer?" he asked.
Dante chuckled. "So young, my boy," he crooned. "What a world our planet has become that you have never before heard of that blight on our kind."
"This isn't our world anymore, Dante," Harkon seethed. "This isn't even the world we were promised. If you haven't yet noticed, we're in the middle of nowhere, here. You and that half-wit friend of yours have managed to dump us in the intergalactic equivalent of Des Moines."
Rivers scowled at him but followed the expression with a cringe of shame when the others all glared in his direction.
"It is but a minor setback," Dante argued. "The others will find a way to leave, and we'll be back on the ship when they do."
"A minor—" Harkon cut himself off and threw his head back in exasperation.
Flexing his hand, he produced the wooden branch he'd been shielding against his forearm. He twisted his torso and hurled the object toward Dante. The old vampire wasn't expecting to be attacked by his own spawn. He didn't react until it was too late. The branch stabbed through his chest with enough force to protrude out the other side of his body before his flesh shattered completely. The dust was caught on the breeze and quickly carried away.
The others were stunned into silence. They stared at Harkon, frozen in fear. The blond vampire's lips curled with a sly grin as he asked, "Now, what's to eat on this planet?"