Guest Starring Emma Caulfield as Jade
Mottled purple clouds swirled menacingly above as they unleashed a torrent of rain upon the jungle. Lightning slashed across the sky just before a crash of thunder echoed through the area. Not even the heavy canopy of the trees was thick enough to hinder the downfall.
Deep within the confines of the jungle, a group of vampires huddled together beneath whatever meager shelter was available. Perched on an outcropping of rock nearby, Leslie Hawkins peered across the expanse of growth between his clifftop observation point and Prosperos. The ship lay over a quarter mile away, but his eyes were able to pick out the fine details of its scarred hull.
Leslie was continually surprised by the changes in his body. His eyesight, hearing, and strength had multiplied dramatically. On the other hand, a man took the presence of his own heartbeat for granted until it was silenced forever. He wondered if the vampiric lust for blood was not actually a yearning to fill the empty void where there was once the pulsing throb of life.
Leslie glanced down at his hands and slowly shook his head. What a time to be waxing philosophic. His attempts to purge what was left of his human self were more difficult than he expected. Even taking on a new name had not altered the person he was at the very core. The name itself was a relic of his human life—a mispronunciation of his family name as spoken by his youngest sister.
He had no soul, no shred of humanity now that a demon had taken up residence inside of him. Yet his mind spun restlessly with human thoughts and emotions. Perhaps Dante had done something wrong—perhaps he had not changed completely.
"Harkon," a voice spoke behind him.
He didn't bother to turn around to see who it was. The sniveling tone of Douglas Rivers was sadly all too familiar to him.
"What is it?" Harkon asked.
"The others are…" Rivers paused. "We're hungry."
"Have you found a way back onto the ship?"
"No," Rivers replied. "But they'll have to emerge at some point. The ship does not have sufficient accommodations, and all of the passengers have likely been awakened from stasis."
"You predicted those doors would open three days ago," Harkon reminded him. "You do not inspire much confidence, Rivers."
"They can't stay on the ship indefinitely. The environment must be rather unbearable by now," Rivers explained.
Harkon returned his gaze to the fallen giant resting at the edge of the jungle. Behind it, the charred earth bore witness to the ship's path as it fell from the sky. The rains had finally doused the flames, but the destruction spanned a mile at least. Perhaps the blackened wound was visible from space. Staring at the ship, Harkon wondered how the young warrior was handling her confinement.
The screeching of children stopped Lark short as she rounded the corner to enter the central med lab. A red rubber ball careened out of the chamber, nearly striking her. Deftly catching the toy, she fought the urge to crush it in her grasp.
"Hey, that's mine!" a freckle-faced boy shouted up at her. He looked about ready to kick her in the shins if she didn't hand it over.
Frowning down at him, Lark twisted her body and flung the ball as hard as she could down the corridor. "Then go fetch," she said evenly.
The boy seemed too shocked to properly respond. When she passed him to enter the med lab, he rushed after his ball, clearly shaken by the exchange.
Tom glanced up from his work when she approached. "Making friends already?" he teased.
Lark scowled. "I'm going insane," she proclaimed. "This place is like an ant farm. I'm just waiting for some giant monstrous kid to pick us up and give us a good shake so he can watch us tunnel through the mess all over again."
Tom stared at her a long moment, his mouth open. "Oh," he responded.
Sighing, Lark sat down on a nearby stool. "So what are you doing, anyway?" she asked.
"These are the daily meds for Dr. Bartlett's remaining patients," he explained. "I'm organizing them for distribution."
"Sounds like fun," Lark said, reaching across the counter to take a small plastic cup. When she tried to grab a handful of pills from the cache spilling across the countertop in front of Tom, he took her by the wrist to push her arm away.
"I think I better handle this," he said. "Dr. Bartlett told me the exact dosage everyone needs."
Lark rolled her eyes. "Fine," she said. "I'll just go see if Val needs any help, then."
As she made her way to the upper levels of the ship, Lark was forced to weave through a burgeoning crowd of passengers, most of whom had spent their waking hours wandering through the ship in confusion. She tripped over the bundled form of a woman sleeping in the stairwell as she hurried up toward the control room. Peering out from beneath her blanket, the woman scowled up at her before she changed her position and went back to sleep.
Sighing, Lark mounted the stairs. A low level officer stood at the doorway of the control room. The door itself could no longer be closed or locked since she'd kicked it in. Lark grinned wryly to herself as she surveyed the damage.
As she moved to pass the guard, he stepped forward and placed a heavy hand on her arm. "Your business?" he asked.
Lark frowned at him. "I'm going to see Val," she said. "What the hell is your business?"
His stony expression didn't change, but she suspected he was starting to get annoyed with her. "The control room is accessible to ranking officers only," he sneered, glancing down at her casual clothes. "Labor belongs on C deck."
She'd removed that damned khaki uniform days ago; even broken into a few crates in the cargo hold to grab more clothing. "Is it tattooed on my forehead?" she asked in exasperation. When he didn't respond, she pulled her arm out of his grasp and said, "Look, I'm going in there whether you try to stop me or not. It'll take me two seconds either way."
"Marcus," a sharp voice said from the doorway. Glancing over the man's shoulder, Lark spotted Val standing nearby. "Stand aside and let her in."
Smirking at the guard, Lark breezed around him and followed Val into the control room. "Who put the stiff at the door?" she snapped.
"Security is posted at each high level entry in times of emergency," a man said. Sitting at Val's normal place in front of the console, he scowled at Lark's intrusion. "It's common protocol."
Lark didn't respond as she continued on her way to the front of the room and dropped into one of the chairs in front of the console. "How they hangin', Harrison?" she asked the computer generated image hovering before them.
"Oh, uh…" Harrison sputtered, confused by the colloquialism. "Very well, thank you," he finally decided.
"The only emergency is that we're stuck in this box like a bunch of sardines," Lark said. "How long before that distress beacon starts transmitting?"
Val sat in the chair next to her. "It's ready," she replied. "Harrison and I just finished calibrating the system."
"But you have no way of knowing how long before it's intercepted?" Lark questioned. When Val shook her head, she snorted. "So the reason we're all piling on top of one another in here is…? Maybe we need to think about sticking some people back in the deep freeze if this is going to take awhile."
"That is not a viable option at this time," Harrison intoned.
"The ship just doesn't have the energy to support that number of people, not after the crash," Val explained.
"Then we go outside," Lark said. "We have enough supplies to set up housing, and there's an entire planet of space out there for us to stretch our legs."
"The prefabs are contracted for use on Vic-12," the man interjected. "They will not be assembled here."
Lark turned toward him and frowned. "And who the hell are you?" she asked.
"Lark…" Val warned. "This is Lt. Richard Jarvis. He was to oversee the security measures at the settlement."
Lark shrugged. "So how does that put you in charge here?" she challenged him. The two were silent as they calculated potential weaknesses in one another.
"Everything on this ship—excluding personal property, of course—belongs to the United States government. You have no right to tamper with it in any way. Those prefabs are not leaving the cargo hold until we reach Vic-12."
"You're assuming that we do reach Vic-12," Lark replied coolly. "Even the computer thinks that may be a dim possibility at this point."
"I did state that," Harrison pointed out helpfully.
"What do you think, Val?" Lark asked, turning toward the redhead beside her.
Val looked shocked to be brought into the argument. "I—" she faltered under the Lieutenant's baleful glare. Glancing down at the console, she punched a few keys and brought up a diagnostics chart. "The ship is sinking into the earth," she pointed out. "And portions of the cargo hold as well as level C are beginning to flood due to the storms. The ship's energy levels are in decline. If we wait too much longer, the question of whether we should leave the ship may no longer be pertinent."
"Well, there you go," Lark said to Jarvis before whipping back to face Val and sputter, "We're sinking?"
Val nodded. "The ground here is relatively soft. It's made worse by all this rain. The weight of the ship is too much for it to support. We're not actually sinking too dramatically, but the movement is there. We're also keeling to the right, which means that eventually the cargo doors will no longer lead directly out to the ground."
"The safest course is to remain on the ship until rescue," Jarvis continued to argue.
"That's it," Lark said, jumping to her feet. Leaning over Jarvis, she was pleased to note the way he squirmed uncomfortably in his seat. He instinctively knew she wasn't someone to underestimate. "Now, we all understand that your only interest here is to cover your own ass. Val here actually realizes that there are over fifteen hundred other people on this ship. I ask you again, who the hell put you in charge?"
Sputtering indignantly, Jarvis lurched out of his seat in order to stand over her. "In times of emergency, protocol states that—"
Lark interrupted him, turning to Val, "He's making this crap up, isn't he?" Facing Jarvis once more, she continued, "Fact is, you folks have no idea who should be in charge. The top dogs in this project have gone over to the other side, and you are all scrambling to figure out what's going on. What you need is for someone to take initiative and make a few decisions around here. And so far there's just one woman with the guts to do that. She's the same woman who saved our butts landing this ship."
Crossing her arms over her chest, Lark stared at Jarvis and dared him to protest. Not surprisingly, he took a moment to search for the right words before he responded, "That's ridiculous. You do not have the authority to just decide on a leader. Val doesn't even work for the government—she's a contracted worker."
"Well, that makes me trust her even more," Lark replied smoothly. "But I'll tell you what. We'll be democratic about it—in the spirit of the old US of A. We'll ask all of the passengers who they think should be calling the shots—the woman who figured out what was going on after your people thoroughly screwed this mission, or…" she looked him up and down disapprovingly. "You."
Angry, Jarvis reached out and grabbed her by the elbow. "You—" he managed to snarl before his voice was cut off. Lark twisted out of his grasp, grabbed his arm, and spun him around. Shoving his arm high against his back, she threw him against the console.
"Now, I say…" Harrison spoke mildly. "Mind the equipment."
"Lark," Val entreated.
Lark didn't bother to respond. "Now you listen to me," she hissed, leaning over Jarvis. He groaned when she forced his arm even higher. She could hear his tendons straining with the effort. "Your people dropped the ball on this one. You could have prevented this entire situation if you'd just listened to me back at the skyport. Now your own people are part of the problem. And you're going to listen to me whether you like it or not. Val knows this ship better than any of your government drones. And she actually gives a damn about these people. So she's in charge. And if you cause any problems for her, I'm going to yank off this arm and beat you with it. Got that?"
"Lark, let him go," Val demanded.
Sighing, Lark did as she asked. Stepping away from Jarvis, she watched as he spun around angrily, his arm cradled by his opposite hand. "You'll be answering to the authorities when we're rescued," he promised darkly.
Lark shook her head. "I won't hold my breath. Now, just for the hell of it, let's take that vote."
"Hey, watch your tail!" Lark shouted.
The man operating the lift paused to glance behind himself. As the machine hauled out several large pieces of steel, it barely missed grazing the edge of the cargo doors. Giving Lark a little salute, he adjusted his trajectory and continued to drive the machinery down the ramp and onto the soft floor of the jungle.
"This is going to take awhile," Tom commented beside her.
Glancing up at him, Lark shrugged. "We knew it would take weeks to put the housing together on Vic-12, and that planet was prepared for our arrival," she said. "It'll be over a month before we're really settled in here. And that's just at a basic level. We've got the unloading of personal possessions, resource allocation, the establishment of a decent water source, as well as..."
"I know the drill," Tom said smoothly, "I attended those seminars, too."
"Ms. Lark?" a young man asked tentatively. "Where am I supposed to be?"
Turning to face him, Lark glanced down at the bit of fabric tied around his bicep. "You're red team," she said. She shifted position to point eastward. "You're digging out foundations over at the east end of the clearing."
When he turned to go, Tom shook his head. "You and Val came up with quite a system," he said.
"Yeah, well, we only have half the machinery we were supposed to, so we're going to rely a lot more on manual labor," Lark said. "Plus Vic-12 is outfitted with generators, while we're just left with the measly solar panels outfitted on the prefabs. We'll be lucky to have electricity. Hey!" Lark shouted, spotting another problem nearby. "Those go over at the south end of the clearing. You're headed in the wrong direction."
"Where is Val now?" Tom asked.
"Working out some details with Jarvis and his cronies," Lark responded darkly.
"I'd be interested to know exactly what you said to make him change his mind about leaving the ship," Tom said.
"It wasn't as much what I said as it was the fact that I was about to rip off his arm if he didn't back down," Lark explained. "Those government bastards really get under my skin."
"You know, technically, we are both government bastards," Tom teased her. "Since we are on the same payroll and everything."
Lark shook her head. "We have too much imagination to be like them," she disagreed. "Hold up. Is that Lyssa Baines over there?"
She stalked across the line of traffic out of the ship to confront the blonde woman lounging against a bundle of supplies as she flirted with a couple of security guards observing the scene. Tom followed in her wake, attempting to warn her against any drastic action, but Lark ignored him. She was getting sick of the princess and her attitude.
"Lyssa," Lark snapped, walking up behind her.
The young woman had a sneer on her face before she even turned to see who was speaking to her. "Yes?" she asked, her voice cold.
"What's this on your arm?" Lark asked.
Lyssa glanced down at the orange band tied around her upper arm. "What's your point, Lark?"
"This," Lark retorted, flicking the band with her finger, "means you're to be on the south end of the clearing, marking the housing lines. I gave you the easiest job I could, based on your abilities."
"Well, thank you so much for your empathy," Lyssa said. "Why aren't you wearing an armband? Let me guess--you're 'supervising.'"
"That's right," Lark nodded. "Now get your ass on the other side of the clearing. That is, if you can keep your libido in check long enough to stick a few poles in the ground."
Lyssa scowled at her. "You are labor," she snarled. "Before this trip, you didn't have two quarters to rub together. You should be taking orders from me."
"Well, that's just not the way life works sometimes, sweet cheeks," Lark said. Grabbing the woman's arm, she hauled her away from the men, who quickly protested the rough treatment.
Lyssa struggled in her grasp. "Get your hands off me," she exclaimed. Finally shoving Lark away from her, she reeled back and stalked away in the opposite direction.
"South is that way, princess," Lark called.
When Lyssa ignored her, Lark moved forward to go after her. Tom's hand fell on her shoulder as she did, and she paused to glare up at him.
"That..." she trailed off, searching for the words. "I am going to strangle her if she so much as looks at me the wrong way."
"Well, it probably wouldn't be that great of a loss, but maybe our time would be better spent dealing with the people who actually do want to work, hmm?" he murmured.
Lark shook her head at him. "Did you ever think about getting into politics?" she asked.
"I'm way too honest," he deadpanned.
Finally alone, Lyssa stalked along the edge of the treeline, still fuming over her current situation. Some part of her understood that she'd have been toiling in a similar manner on Vic-12. Perhaps she should have given more thought to this enterprise before signing on. She had to admit that she often naively imagined herself lounging under the sun and sipping a cool drink before the backdrop of an alien world.
There was little chance of that now. Here the sky was normally overcast, and rain spritzed on them at all hours of the day. This place wasn't an adventurous vacation, it was a nightmare. Stooping to pick up a half-charred twig, she hurled into the nearby foliage. Small animals scattered at the sound, unseen under the heavy greenery. Just ten feet into the cover of trees the light dissolved into complete blackness. A person could get impossibly lost just moments after entering that mess.
Lyssa turned on her heel when she heard a subtle sound behind her. It took a moment for her to see him, but a man stood within the shade offered by overhanging branches at the edge of the jungle. While the sun hadn't been out in full force since they'd crashed, somehow enough light streamed through the clouds to illuminate the clearing.
He looked strangely familiar. Of course she'd probably seen him on the ship. Lyssa frowned and tilted her head, trying to jog her memory.
"Lyssa Baines," the man said.
At the sound of his voice, Lyssa gasped in surprise. "Leslie," she responded. "Leslie Hawkins? I had no idea you'd signed on to this."
"Yeah, well, Arthur's handling most of father's old accounts. They didn't much need me mucking about. You do remember Arthur, don't you?"
Lyssa blushed at the pointed question. "Yes," she whispered. She was amazed that he'd had the gall to bring that up, even obliquely.
She took a few steps toward him, edging against the shadows. "Why are you hiding out here?" she asked.
"Oh, the same reason as you, I'd expect," Leslie responded. "You were never much for physical exertion, as I recall."
She frowned at his sly innuendo. He wasn't at all as she remembered him. He had a coldness now that hadn't been there before. In an instant, she thought about that crazy laborer and all of her rantings about monsters on the ship. Lyssa nearly groaned at the very suggestion that Lark knew what she was talking about, but something was not right.
"Step out into the light," Lyssa told him. She stepped back from the shadows and waited for him to follow.
Leslie smiled. "And be seen by the chain gang operators? I'm quite comfortable where I am."
Lyssa shook her head. "You didn't just come off the ship with us this afternoon," she realized. "You were expelled with those others."
"I don't think I like your implication," Leslie murmured. "I've come here with nothing but good will--to put the past behind us. Yet you persist in insulting me. I think it's time we finally made nice with one another, don't you?" He opened his arms wide in a beckoning gesture.
"Don't you dare," a voice behind her demanded.
Dropping his hands, Leslie rolled his eyes and groaned. "Just perfect," he said. "What are you, little girl, some kind of bloodhound?"
Lark stepped beside Lyssa and placed a hand on her arm. "Do you see it?" she asked her. "The pale features, the dullness in his eyes? You see how he's changed?"
Wordlessly, Lyssa nodded.
"Oh, please," Leslie spat. "This one spent most of our relationship strung out. She wouldn't have noticed a Lear jet landing next to our bed."
"Your relationship?" Lark asked. "You know him?"
"She pretended to lose her virginity to him," Leslie mocked. "You didn't think I knew about that, did you?"
"Shut up," Lyssa whispered.
"You insufferable bitch," Leslie shouted. "I should--" he trailed off when his face shifted with the force of his anger. Peering at them with yellow eyes, he bared his fangs at them and snarled ineffectually.
"You blinked, Harkon," Lark said. Beside her, Lyssa stared at him in horror. "Now you'll never get her alone."
"Harkon?" Lyssa asked. "That was Melissa's name for you."
"Bite your tongue," Harkon growled. "Better yet, come forward and I'll bite it for you."
Lark shook her head. "Melissa..."
"His baby sister," Lyssa explained. Harkon merely scowled at them both.
"You just get cuter and cuter every time we meet, pretty boy," Lark chuckled.
Furious, Harkon pointed at her. "You watch your step. Night will fall soon enough."
"And we'll be back on the ship when it does," Lark promised him. "Now, do I go in there after you? I'd really prefer to take care of this right now."
"Just try to keep up," Harkon whispered before turning and taking off into the jungle.
Lark couldn't help but laugh at the sight of his retreat. "Baby sister," she muttered, shaking her head. The fact that he was actually in charge of a gang of vampires just tickled her to no end. She quieted when she saw the expression on Lyssa's face. "I wouldn't worry about it," she assured her. "He's not getting back on the ship, and once the prefabs are up he won't be able to enter unless he's invited."
Lyssa shoved past her. "Just stick it up your..." her voice faded as she stalked away.
Lark shrugged. "Learn something new every day," she muttered. She walked back toward the ship to let Tom know that the princess hadn't gotten herself killed.
"Harkon!" a strong female voice called.
Harkon hurried across the rough surface of the jungle floor. The others followed behind, several of them stumbling as they attempted to keep up. He merely sneered at the sound of them falling and continued on his way.
"What is it?" he demanded.
The scouting expedition had returned at last. He'd sent out his three strongest allies the day before to find anything useful to the group. When he caught up with the trio, he immediately saw evidence of their success. They dragged an unconscious creature behind them—something hairy and probably too disgusting to eat.
"Jade," he murmured, smiling at the blonde vampire before him.
Jade sauntered toward him, her hips rolling seductively beneath her sodden clothing. As she drew near, Harkon grabbed her by the neck and pulled her close. The kiss was pure cruelty, with teeth and tongues combined. Leslie had never been with a woman like Jade, but Harkon was already bored of the adventure.
Pulling away, he gave her a playful swat on the rump before shoving her away from him. "In the week that I've known you, you have yet to fail me," he murmured.
Jade looked disappointed at being cast aside so quickly. To compensate for the dismissal, she rushed toward her comrades to commandeer their prize. Pushing Ramirez out of her way, she crouched on the ground to pull the animal up by the scruff of its neck.
"We found something," she announced.
Harkon stared down at it in disgust. "What is it?" he asked.
"It's not just an animal," Jade said. "We found a group of them. In a house."
"A house?" Harkon asked, suddenly intrigued.
Ramirez stepped forward. He glowered at Jade for stealing his thunder before commenting, "They'd built the structure in a tree. There are probably more of them."
"And where is the rest of this group?" Harkon wondered.
"The larger ones escaped. We think this one is a child. It should be much sweeter," Jade said. Standing, she leaned toward Harkon and ran her fingers down the front of his shirt. "Remember your first?" she whispered. "The little girl with cherub cheeks all flushed with confusion? She was sweet."
Harkon knelt down beside the unconscious creature. At full height it would stand as tall as Jade, Beneath its gingery hair, it seemed to be thick with well-defined muscles. If this was the smaller sort, the adult creatures had to be seven feet tall at least, and not the sort one wanted to meet on his own.
"Well, aren't you the overgrown poppet?" Harkon murmured.
When he reached out to touch its shoulder, the animal suddenly wakened. Rearing up, it struck Harkon in the face with a flailing arm before lumbering to its feet and attempting to escape. Ramirez quickly stepped in along with Jade. The two of them held the creature in place while Harkon recovered from his surprise.
"Douglas," Harkon drawled.
Behind him, Rivers stepped forward. "Yes?" he asked.
Turning to look over his shoulder, Harkon ordered, "Take a bite and tell us how the blood tastes."
Rivers hesitated. Staring at the confused animal, he seemed to debate whether or not he was willing to obey. Harkon took a step closer to the creature, grasped it by the hair, and twisted its head back to expose its neck. Frightened brown eyes stared up at him. If it weren't for the sparse hair disguising its features, those eyes might have made it look human.
Harkon glanced back at Rivers. "Eat," he commanded.
Finally creeping forward, Rivers gave Harkon one last pleading look before finally bending toward the creature sprawled between Jade and his master. The others watched quietly as Rivers fed. The bite was tentative at first, but quickly grew savage as Rivers allowed the bloodlust to take over. In a matter of moments, he'd taken all there was to drink.
The creature fell limply to the ground, and Rivers stood at full height, his eyes closed. Harkon watched him carefully. "How do you feel?" he inquired.
When Rivers opened his eyes and looked at him, Harkon was taken aback by the strange light shining in them. "It's powerful," he said. "Intoxicating. I feel like I can fly!"
His brow furrowing, Harkon responded, "Well, we can try that later. It's edible, then?"
As Rivers opened his mouth to reply, a strange expression crossed his features. He gagged suddenly and clutched his throat. As Harkon watched, the dead veins in his body became so engorged with blood that they pressed against the surface of his skin. A patchwork of throbbing blue lines crisscrossed his face and hands. In the next instant, they seemed to explode outward. Rivers simply burst like an overfilled balloon, turning to dust in a matter of moments.
The others remained completely silent. Harkon stared at the spot where Rivers had stood. "Right then," he announced. "No eating the locals."
Lark reclined on the warm surface of the metallic roof. The sun was finally shining, and the storms seemed to have moved on at last. Now that their roof was finally attached, she and the others were ready to move into their home. She sighed deeply. For the first time since they crashed into this planet, she almost felt normal again.
Beside her, Tom glanced down at her and smiled. "Nothing like a job well done, huh?" he asked.
Lark squinted and gazed up at him. "For once I'm actually working on something for myself," she said.
"What did Lyssa have to say when she heard the news?"
Laughing, Lark pushed herself up to a sitting position. "She blew a fuse," she admitted. "But she'll just have to deal with it. These prefabs were meant to house ten people. She's damned lucky the four of us get one to ourselves."
They stared out across the busy clearing. The charred earth around them was bustling with activity. People of all classes were pitching in to get as many dwellings up as possible. It would take more than a week to put the bulk of the settlement together, and many more weeks to actually get the place established. Building was one thing—next up was actually moving in and getting settled.
"Where are the Baines sisters, anyway?" Tom asked.
"Elizabeth and Val are still up working on that distress signal," Lark said. "I think Lyssa is hiding somewhere, trying to avoid actual manual labor."
"Give her some credit," Tom said. "She could be lying low after finding out one of the vampires is an ex-boyfriend."
Lark chuckled. "That guy is something else," she agreed. "Granted, I only met him after he became a soulless demon, but you have to wonder what she saw in him."
"I was actually thinking about it the other way around," he said, gesturing. "She seems a little high maintenance."
"Oh, I don't know," Lark said. "I can see you two hitting it off. I mean, we've already established that she goes for dopey types with bad timing."
"Ha," Tom mocked. He was silent a moment before asking, "What's your type?"
"Hmm," Lark murmured, shifting away from him.
"Hey, I didn't mean to—"
She interrupted him. "So this is the point where you tell me that you really feel a connection between us, and then awkwardly make a move on me, right?" she muttered.
Tom frowned. "Don't take it like that," he said.
"I don't want things to get weird between us," Lark told him. "I want to keep that comfortable flow we've got going. I don't have a lot of friends, you know?"
"Yeah," Tom blurted. "I didn't—I want to be friends."
Kindly, Lark covered his hand with hers and squeezed it gently. "My type…let's just say my type wears a skirt and has far less facial hair."
Tom looked stunned. "Oh," he said. Gazing forward a moment, he repeated, "Oh. So you're…"
"Yeah," Lark said. "So now…?"
"It's cool," he assured her. "I'm glad you told me."
"No weirdness?" Lark prodded.
Tom smiled. "No," he said. By his frank tone of voice, Lark knew he was being perfectly honest with her.
"Good," she said. "Because I seriously think you have a chance with Lyssa; you know, if you play your cards right."
"What about you?" Tom teased her. "You've got this whole tough girl mystique going for you."
"Blondes?" Lark asked, wrinkling her nose. "Don't do a thing for me. I'm not really into that whole external beauty thing."
"I can see that about you," Tom laughed. She bounced her shoulder against his jokingly.
"Hey!" a voice shouted from the ground below. They glanced over the edge of the curved roof to see Lyssa Baines standing near the house. "If you're done sitting around on your asses, how about finishing the place before nightfall? I'd really enjoy a roof over my head for one evening on this damned planet."
Lark's brows rose meaningfully as she turned to Tom and said, "She's all yours, stud."
The treehouse was much more elaborate than Harkon had imagined it. Rising elegantly from the jungle floor, a winding staircase circled the broad trunk of a tree. The tree itself was of an unknown species; definitely not found on earth. Its leaves were as big as a human head, and threaded with fluorescent blue veins. Far above the ground, a wide deck spanned the better portion of the tree's sweeping branches. It was impossible to see just how large the house was while peering up from below.
"The creatures have fled?" Harkon asked.
"This is happy news," Harkon murmured. Beckoning to Jade, he threw an arm companionably over her shoulder and lead her to the staircase.
At the top of the stairs, they were amazed by the sight of a large, two story dwelling cradled by the hulking boughs of the massive tree. Harkon was reminded instantly of the old movies his father had bootlegged and shown to his children—terrible twentieth century tripe shown only in two dimensions. But they'd been entertaining enough to a young boy. His favorites had been the series of films concerning an orphan boy raised by animals. This Tarzan had lived in a jungle environment much like this.
"It's beautiful," Jade whispered, moving forward to enter the open doorway.
Inside, a large main room sat nearly completely open to the outside elements. The walls rose only waist high. Large beams supported the ceiling on three sides of the room, forming rather uniform openings to the outside. A fourth wall in the back of the room appeared to separate the main living area from smaller rooms on the other side of the house.
"Rather cozy, this," he said. "Must have taken a great deal of effort to set this up."
"And it's ours now?" Jade asked, running her fingers over the finely sanded wood table at the center of the room. "We can live here?"
"It's ours," he agreed. "A fine place for such as us." He turned toward the open doorway, where Ramirez and the others hesitated on the outer deck. "It belongs to us," he reiterated, "Me and Jade. You can sleep outside."
He noticed a roll of netting tied neatly above each open window and the doorway. Walking forward, he reached up to untie the roll directly over the door. The gauzy material fell instantly to the floor and obscured the faces of the vampires standing outside. When they began to mumble in outraged surprise, Harkon turned his back on them and sauntered across the room toward Jade. Leaning forward, he curled his lips in a satisfied sneer before leaning forward for a kiss.
"This place is terrible," Lyssa complained. When her sister glanced up from her unpacking, she pointed to her head and added, "Just look at my hair."
Bit sighed. "I don't know what you expected," she said. "It would have been like this on Vic-12, you know."
Frowning, Lyssa dropped onto her bed. "I know," she grumbled. "I should have taken proper hair care precautions before getting on that ship."
"You aren't upset about your hair," Bit argued. Reaching into her bag, she grabbed a few more shirts and tossed them onto her bed. "You're mad that A: you had no idea Leslie was on this ship, and B: that he'd turned into the mega-evil baddie."
"I wouldn't call him the mega-evil," Lyssa mumbled. "More like evil wannabe. I can't believe I ever went out with that guy."
"You went out with that guy to get his brother's attention," Bit explained. "Then you dropped him cold when Arthur finally showed some interest."
"Leslie was…how do I say this?" Lyssa mused. "Boring. And a wimp. Arthur had more pizzazz, more flair…"
"Daddy's bank accounts," Bit prompted.
"You're far too jaded for a sixteen year old," Lyssa responded. Jumping up from her bed, she twisted around to gaze about the room. "I can't believe they think five people could share these quarters."
Bit glanced toward her sister. "It's not that bad," she said. "It's kind of like the summer cottage."
"Ugh," Lyssa groaned. "That place was disgusting. An eighteenth century English cottage, complete with rodents, leaky roof and no running water. Yeah, this place is like that."
"Except no leaks," Bit pointed out. "We've got six inches of steel above our heads."
Lyssa shook her head. "You were always the optimist," she said. "How is your neck?"
Reaching up toward the bandage on the side of her neck, Bit grimaced. "It's fine," she said. "Kind of itchy. I guess that means it's healing. I can't believe Lark's cuts are already gone."
"Yeah, well, Lark isn't human," Lyssa muttered. "She's some bizarre freak of nature sent to torture us."
"That's about right," a voice said from the doorway.
Whirling, Lyssa caught sight of Lark standing just outside their room, watching them with a smirk. "Ever hear of knocking?" she snapped.
Lark shrugged. "Door's open," she said. "It's not like that shriek of yours doesn't carry across the settlement, either."
Lyssa scowled at her. "Did you have a specific reason for interrupting us?" she asked.
"I'm heading out," Lark explained. "Just wanted to know if you needed anything before I go."
"No," Lyssa answered, waving a hand at her imperiously. "You may go."
Lark quirked a grin at Bit, who smiled back at her. "I thought we weren't supposed to go out after dark," Bit pointed out.
"You aren't," Lark answered.
"Of course the rules don't apply to you," Lyssa interjected snidely.
"Not this one," Lark agreed. "Besides, it's not like anything out there is much of a threat to me. I've got this urge to take a walkabout…see what's going on while everybody else is asleep. It's strange."
"That's a fascinating story, but we have a lot of work to do before we can get to bed," Lyssa said, moving forward. "So you can be on your way. Good night."
She yanked the heavy metal door out of the wall and slid it along its track until it slammed shut against the opposite side of the doorway.
"Lyssa, would it kill you to learn some manners?" Bit asked, incredulous.
"I am very well mannered," Lyssa retorted. "I said good night."
Out in the narrow hallway, Lark stared at the closed door. "I think she's warming up to me," she murmured before turning and walking back out into the common room.
Val glanced up from her portable computer and raised her brows. "What was that about?" she asked.
"Lyssa and Elizabeth are just settling in," Lark explained. She looked at the compact piece of equipment sitting on the table and asked, "Can you really link up to Harrison with that?"
Val shrugged. "It's really not that difficult," she said. "So far the only problem I can foresee is power loss across the settlement. The solar panels in the prefabs are able to store a good amount of energy, but this place doesn't seem to have the best weather. Today was the first sunny day since we started building last week."
"And leeching power from the ship would be a bad idea?" Lark questioned.
Nodding, Val replied, "Definitely. The damage caused by the crash is already affecting the ship's power stores. I don't know how much longer it's going to last."
"But the distress signal is wired in through the ship," Lark said.
"That's exactly the problem," Val conceded. "But Harrison and I are working on a solution. We should have plenty of time to fix things."
Frowning, Lark turned toward a large black bag resting in the chair at the head of the table. Inside were all her worldly possessions. While most of the other passengers had brought crates filled with their personal possessions, Lark's luggage was light enough to be slung over one shoulder. Besides a few changes of clothes and some weapons, there wasn't much else worth bringing along.
Reaching inside the bag, she pulled out a wooden stake. Of all the weapons she'd ever wielded, it was the most comfortable. She'd fashioned this one herself out of a nice piece of oak. Smoothly sanded and sharpened into a point, it was sturdy and well able to serve her needs.
Val looked at the stake in dismay. "You're really going out there?" she asked.
"I have to," Lark said.
"Why? You said the…the people can't come inside our homes unless they're invited. If no one goes out at night, we'll all be safe."
"The vampires can't come into a home unless they're invited," Lark agreed. "But that doesn't mean I trust fifteen hundred people to do as they're told. This is just something I have to do."
"Well, take the intercom along with you at least," Val sighed, rising from her chair.
It took several more minutes for Lark to extricate herself from Val's attentions and actually leave their new home. She laughed to herself as she recalled Val's reluctance to admit what they were up against. The woman had to understand that vampires did exist, and that the colonists were in a great deal of danger as long as the creatures were around. But some deep part of her was just too committed to what science told her was the truth to actually believe what was right in front of her eyes. Lark had little use for science. It certainly didn't account for her abilities.
Passing through the monotonous lines of prefabs, Lark felt like she was out on an industrial farm. They marched across the clearing like a multitude of grain silos. In the eyes of a vampire, the contents of these metal cylinders was food. Lark chuckled at the realization.
She heard several hushed voices ahead and hurried forward to investigate. The bright lights strung between the prefabs illuminated an open doorway and small group of people near a house straight ahead. Lark ducked against the wall of the nearest prefab and watched to see what they were up to. Just as she predicted, the colonists weren't about to follow the rules.
A man stood outside of the home. On the doorstep, a woman and young boy remained just inside the doorway, staring out at him. Listening intently, Lark thought she heard the man ask to be let inside. By his stance and carriage, Lark knew he wasn't human. He acted as though his body was foreign to him. His arms and head jerked oddly when he moved. His speech was stilted, as though his tongue had thickened in his mouth. These signs were small enough to go unnoticed by most humans, but to Lark they stood out starkly against the activity of normal human beings.
"Charlotte, invite me inside," the man pleaded. Lark rolled her eyes. Only a new vampire would think that would fool a human into letting him in.
"Martin, your face," the woman murmured. She pressed her son's head tight against her body, as though to shield him from the sight of his father.
"It's cold," Martin said. "I'm so cold."
"Martin," Lark called, stepping forward. "That isn't your family anymore."
When the vampire turned to face her, she was struck by his pained expression. She understood how easy it was to feel empathy for these creatures. They retained all of their human memories, and appeared very much like the people they once were. But the soul, the most important aspect that made them human in the first place, was gone. In its place was a demon. Even Charlotte and her son recognized that at some deep level, or they would have welcomed their loved one back into their home.
Then the man's face shifted into its vampire form. Yellow eyes shone through the shadow cast by his heavy brow. His mouth opened in a yawning snarl. Lark caught her breath when he suddenly lunged at her. She hadn't expected him to react so quickly.
Martin managed to knock her of her feet. Sprawling on the ground, Lark barely managed to keep her grasp on her stake. The vampire settled over her before she was able to rise, shoving her back into the dirt. Gasping, Lark was forced to struggle against him as he grabbed her by the hair and arched her head back to expose her throat.
She could have simply brought up her arm and staked him right then. But as he lowered his head she was able to see over his shoulder. Behind him, his family still stood in the doorway of their home, watching in shock. Lark didn't have the heart to kill him right in front of them.
Rather than using her stake, she thrust upward with her knee. Even when her prey was undead, a direct shot at the crotch had a rather impressive effect. Martin loosened his grip enough to give her the leverage to throw him off. Lark rolled out from under him and jumped to her feet. Taking off at a run, she sprinted away from the open prefab and headed for a darker area of the settlement.
Martin was swift on her heels, easily abandoning his family for the possibility of easy prey. Lark darted off the main path and between two houses. These prefabs weren't yet wired for electricity, so she had the privacy of complete darkness to shield her.
When he rounded the corner, Lark merely thrust her fist against his chest as he passed her. He was running haphazardly, without any thought or care for his actions. New vampires were much easier to kill. Her stake plunged through his breastbone and into his heart. Martin turned to dust an instant later, his body obliterated by the breeze that swept past.
Lark stood where she was for many moments after that, pondering. He must have been the most recent colonist to have gone missing. If Harkon and his vampires continued to attack them, eventually there wouldn't be any humans left at all. She knew that it was in their nature to destroy the life around them, so she couldn't exactly blame them. But it became that much more important that she find the rest of the creatures and kill them, as well. Otherwise the entire settlement would be lost, and there would be nothing left to rescue.
She finally moved on to make a few more sweeps before heading back to their quarters. Their impromptu colony was massive, and it would take several hours for her to thoroughly check its perimeter. Lark sighed. It looked as though she had many sleepless nights to look forward to.
"I'm hearing distressing information," Harkon said soberly.
His vampires stood lined up before him. Only Jade had the courage to return his gaze; the rest stared shamefully at the ground. Harkon wasn't quite insulted by Jade's defiance. He was rather certain she hadn't been the one sneaking into the colony.
"A certain human wound up rising from his grave last evening and being staked by our favorite little freedom fighter," Harkon continued. "I'm wondering just why there are more vampires running around when we are so short on supplies these days."
None of the vampires dared to raise their eyes to look at him. Standing in the back row, Jade shook her head slowly.
"We're not lemmings, people," Harkon said. "We can't overpopulate until we're forced to run ourselves off a cliff."
"That's a misconception," one of the vampires piped up. It was Michael, whose face was littered with about a pound of hardware. He had more holes in his head than a sieve.
Harkon turned on him in surprise. "What?" he growled.
Michael cleared his throat nervously, perhaps realizing his foolishness in interjecting a comment just then. But he pressed on to explain, "Lemmings don't commit mass suicide. That documentary was staged by Disney."
Harkon stared at him incredulously. He then directed his gaze at Jade, standing behind Michael, and jerked his head. Jade nodded and quickly stooped to retrieve a wayward branch from the ground. She plunged it deep into the idiot's back, then stepped away to watch the dust fly.
"All right," Harkon said, clapping his hands together. "Now where was I? Rationing, people. We've got to think about our future. And that means no new mouths to feed. Any human dies, he stays in the ground. Got it?"
The remaining vampires nodded obediently. Exchanging glances amongst themselves, they clearly were unsure of how to react to Michael's death.
"Oh, cheer up," Harkon extolled them. "There are only eight of us left now to provide for. Things are looking up."