Solitaire Till Dawn
Copyright August 2000
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
They almost get me at the intersection. I've been nineteen hours without sleep, and when the light turns red my foot finds the brake of its own volition, and a pack of them closes on the car during that full second my brain spends processing what just went wrong. I floor the accelerator and the Accord surges forward, I go straight over three of them and several more fly away from glancing impact. It's over so quickly I've only begun to register the threat, never mind the escape, and a thin hand smashes the window on the passenger's side and begins to quest within in blind search for prey.
The street ahead is clear for the moment, I grab the thing's wrist and saw the arm back and forth across the crenellated glass in the window frame. He's not impressed, the hand clutches my sleeve and he begins levering himself in through the window from the roof and it's a woman, face bloody and snarling and bestial. I close my other hand on one of her fingers (brace the steering wheel with one knee, for the love of God don't slow down) and wrench outward. It's like bending iron sheathed in rubber, but hysterical strength can reinforce the basic bone density only so much, and I'm a bit hysterical myself just now, the finger breaks and she howls and yanks herself six inches further inside.
Five to eight seconds since my foot first touched the brake, that's how long it takes me to shift from reaction to reasoned choice. The Glock is in the open console at my right and the woman has a death grip on my right arm, I have to reach down across my body with my left hand, against the encumbrance of the shoulder belt, while holding a straight course with my knee and watching a creature from hell hauling herself toward me along my sleeve. Next to impossible, if I had a choice.
I put two 9 mm slugs into her face at a distance of inches, hammering her so hard she actually loses her hold on my sleeve, and I snatch my arm away and jam the brakes. The majority of her body is still outside the car and inertia rips her out of the window frame, I have both hands back on the wheel now and steer the Accord into a screaming end-swap, wresting back control exactly in time to drive over the woman as she's pulling herself to her knees. Some of the others have tried to capitalize on my brief detour, but I'm away again long before they can cross the distance.
I've been lucky, this is my fourth such escape in the past three hours, and the first time one of the things has actually gotten a hand on me. Nerves still shredded from the flood of adrenaline, I nonetheless force my mind into hard, clear paths of thought. It's too much to hope that something prevented Corinne from coming to this town for our planned rendezvous — she is punctilious about such things, she would have found a way to notify me — and next to impossible that she and the children could still be alive in the charnel house around me. Cold logic tells me they are almost surely out in the streets hunting blood, like the dreadful scarecrow I just ran down. And yet I can't leave without knowing.
To so bind myself is ridiculous, the risk exponentially out of proportion to the most remote possibility of doing them any good. My survival thus far derives from a near-miraculous concatenation of circumstances: I had to refill the tank of the Accord twenty miles before reaching the meeting point, so I arrived fully fueled; I didn't remove the Glock from the center console before leaving Memphis (I have a permit in Tennessee, but not Missouri, I'm breaking who-knows-how-many laws right now and would welcome arrest); I came in through what may well have been the only possible window of safety, sooner and I'd have been caught with the other townsfolk, later and the moving barricade at the outskirts would have picked me off.
And the girl. Her insane, hopeless, magnificent assault. What had she thought she could accomplish against the dozens converging on me while I sat uncomprehending in the truck stop parking lot, dull with fatigue after a day on the highway, unable to recognize the grim silent purpose behind their approach? She came from nowhere, leaping into their midst like a tigress, striking about her with the focused fury of total commitment and utmost desperation. These creatures are strong, strong as madmen, but she absolutely drove them back for the few crucial seconds I needed to regain my wits and plow through the closing circle.
By the time I found enough clear space to swing around and return for her, she was gone, dragged down by the relentless horde. She gave me a chance at life at the cost of her own, and I probably will never know her name.
Again automatically, I resume the loose route I've followed ever since the flight from the parking lot. Past the mini-mart, down one of the principal streets until I'm almost to the ramshackle motel. Left in the direction of what passes for the town square. Loop around the access road leading to the water tower, spray-painted with the inevitable adolescent hieroglyphics. Left again at what may be a small school or a large post office. Vary, switch over, try not to become too predictable, use familiar territory as a base point from which to range for any sight of Corinne, the children, the family minivan. Twenty-five miles an hour is sufficient speed to keep the things on the street from coming after me … until they run out of easier victims, perhaps, or until someone with more intelligence directs them to build a trap for me.
Those I've so far encountered aren't capable of such advanced thought, but someone arranged the gauntlet of trucks endlessly circling the town, barring the few roads leading out; and someone must have taken steps to close off communication to the outside world (even my cell phone is useless, I don't know if it's because of the mountains or if something more is at work). Sooner or later that governing mind will turn its attention to tidying up the remaining details. At first, I believed I could hold out just by maintaining constant motion until the sun came up. Now I doubt it will be so simple.
In fact, I have no guarantee sunrise will improve the situation. These creatures — go ahead, call them vampires, shying away from the truth won't change it — aren't held firmly to the restrictions of legend. A person killed by them joins their ranks within minutes, rather than waiting the traditional three nights. They cast shadows, they have reflections, they show no obvious aversion to the cross. (That last is an extrapolation, but a reasonable one: how could they have dragged the two screaming men from the church, if they were repelled by the symbol of Christ?) If I hadn't seen them feeding, seen them shake off multiple bullets to the center of the chest, I might be able to pass this off as drug frenzy. No, these aren't movie vampires, I can't afford to assume the sun will destroy them or even drive them into hiding.
Still, I've little other hope to cling to.
My assets are meager. Two-thirds of a tank of gasoline, enough to keep the car moving until morning. The Glock, with two fifteen-round magazines (pre-ban), one unused, one with three to six cartridges remaining. Metal-and-glass shielding on top and three of four sides, the glass useful mainly to prevent the predators from securing a hold (and with the front passenger window out, I'll have to be triply watchful over that side). End of list.
Liabilities are rather more substantial. I'm outnumbered beyond reason; the sign at the city limits said POPULATION 342, and by now most or all of them are my enemies. No weapons of wood, or fire, or silver, or means to make them, or evidence they would be efficacious. An economy-sized automobile, instead of an SUV with a larger engine and more rugged suspension.
Most damaging, I'm worse than alone. By myself, I could pick my moment and abandon the car at a point nearest to one of the surrounding low mountains, trust in luck and guile and darkness to lose them in the woods, or in broken tree limbs to provide the material for spears or torches. By myself, I might have tried to thread through the roaming barricade at the edge of town. But no; the prospect, however dim, that Corinne and the children might yet be alive in some obscure sanctuary, makes it impossible for me to leave, and likewise unacceptable that I risk my life in any fashion that doesn't aid them. To attempt escape with the purpose of returning with help isn't viable, it would take far too long to convince outside authorities of the truth of events here; and if they did believe, the most expedient course of action for them would be to cleanse the town with napalm. However little I may be able to do, I can offer my family a better chance than that.
If I can stay alive myself. If I can find them.
Three more times in the next twenty minutes I try my cell phone, no longer with any thought of reaching anyone on the outside, but repeatedly punching the number of Corinne's phone. Each attempt is met by the CALL FAILED readout on the tiny display. I have a voltage converter plugged into my cigarette lighter, so battery power isn't a concern. Dialing without letting myself slow down or swing into a cul-de-sac, that's a different matter …
My eyes don't register the patterned motion until I'm past the street, and it's another three or four seconds before my brain assigns a meaning to it. Pulse quickening, I place the Glock ready at hand, and ease the Accord into a wide turn that offers no opportunity for approach, moving back to the location of the sighting.
The central town square is an island of manicured grass and graceful trees, punctuated by antique lampposts, curved benches, and the mandatory Confederate statue. Two or three dozen vampires are moving about on the grass, with more drifting in from the outskirts to join the throng. At first glance they seem to be partaking in some arcane choreography; a second look, as I circle the square at a prudent speed and distance, tells me their actions are in response to something taking place within the main body of the group. A moment later I cruise past a gap not yet filled by lurching bodies, and the inner mystery is revealed to me.
It's the girl, the one from the truck stop, moving among them with an effortless fluidity that is almost leisurely. She thrusts something into the chest of one of the lunging figures, steps away to backhand a second one and swings a looping kick into the face of a third, and has shifted three quick steps to the left to address yet another adversary by the time the first has completed his fall to the ground. The casual ease of her strikes is almost enough to mask their rapidity and force, but the square is to my right and through the shattered window I can hear the whipcrack impact of each blow: quite similar to the sound effects inserted into martial arts movies, though true weaponless combat seldom approaches such a level.
This is not at all like the lightning assault at the truck stop, and by my second circuit of the square I have identified the difference. She's pacing herself, fighting with a practiced economy of motion and energy, like a laborer who has settled into the rhythm that will allow him to continue working indefinitely. There is nobody here to rescue, so she is simply killing the creatures one by one, with no evidence of hurry or fatigue. I first saw her almost four hours ago now, and she may well have been fighting non-stop throughout the interim. Phenomenal. Breathtaking. Impossible.
I give my horn the quick tap used by drivers to attract attention without startling or angering their neighbors, and after a few seconds I follow up by blinking my headlights a couple of times. The girl detaches herself from the murderous impotent mass in the square, taking down two more of them on the way, and moves to a point I will pass on my next orbit. I've turned on the interior light so she can see me, and as I approach her position I begin to call, "I'll slow down the next time around —"
By then she is inside, sliding through the broken window as smoothly and precisely as the stroke of a piston, and is holding something quite sharp against the underside of my chin. "Keep driving," she tells me, firm and focused. "If they overtake us, you die first."
"I'm human," I protest through a throat suddenly dry and tight.
The pressure under my chin doesn't vary by a fraction. "All the more reason, then."
Technically she's asking nothing of me that I haven't already been doing for hours; all the same, at the moment I'm finding concentration somewhat more difficult. "I have no intention of letting them catch up with us, believe me. I just wanted to help you, you saved my life before, and …" I'm not about to turn into the point she holds steady inches below my brain, but I cut my eyes toward her. "I still can't credit what I've seen. These things are two or three times as strong as normal humans, but you take them as easily as if they were children. By all that's holy, how do you do that?"
"It is my destiny," she replies, in the tone of one speaking of a matter so obvious that it requires no thought. "I was chosen by fate to fight such creatures as these." For the first time she looks away from her watch at the window, turning her gaze directly on me, and announces, "I am Kendra."