This first chapter was donated to Texas Wildfire relief.
I would also like to thank PTB betas Writting2StayHalfSane and 4mejasper plus EBS betas SusanQ and LJ Summers for their work that makes my tale better. Big thanks to the talented Illicit Writer for the Then The Phone Rang banner.
This dark tale is dedicated to my nephews KA & CA.
Hope you like it, guys. Remember, I warned you. ~MA
Then the Phone Rang
Driving down the interstate, both couples were in a pleasant mood that increased when the first rays of light began to blend into the night sky. The sunrise that unfolded before them was awe inspiring, even though the occupants of the car had seen thousands of them. For Jasper and Alice, that number stretched into the tens of thousands, unlike the other couple—their brother and sister. While Scott and Diane had lived double the human years of their siblings, they had only been like them for one. As the night faded, they enjoyed watching the early morning light turn the clouds from grey to pink. All the vampires admired the beauty of the new day.
Good thing that sunlight-burning-vampires thing was a myth.
The joy and peace that radiated from his family drew a contented sigh from Jasper. He needed this trip, a break from decades of keeping up the student façade. Turning to look at his wife, he reached over and squeezed her hand in silent thanks for giving up the life of playing human that she adored.
Her answering smile lifted his mood even more. While Alice would miss her life of a well-to-do American teenager, she was more concerned with the toll the decades of self-sacrifice had taken on her man. He deserves the happiness his new brother has brought, and we're all going to enjoy it.
The road descended as they came down the hillside, giving them a sweeping view of the land that stretched out before them as the mountain they had traveled over gave way to the plain. The conversation in the Camaro died away as the light gained strength, causing the sky to bloom into all of its azure glory and the clouds to turn gleaming white.
Their time was now limited. They would need to find shelter. Sparkling for the humans was one show they were unwilling to give.
So the circumstances were fixed that found both couples relaxing in a hotel suite in Arizona. The path had been set that would lead to them being in a similar suite when the phone call finally came; a call that would change the course of their lives, and the lives of those they held dear—but that fateful day was still a while off.
The foursome had said a bittersweet goodbye to the rest of their family only a week ago in Forks. The parting was not permanent. Neither those that left, nor the ones they left behind, could handle that. The Cullens may be immortal, but their hearts—the figurative ones—were as fragile as those of a human. That was what happened when vampires played human; they eventually got good enough at it to bear some of the burdens of humanity.
Jasper had felt lost in the Cullen Coven for a long time. They all knew he only joined and stayed for Alice. For decades, he had done his best to play human family—to try to be a son to Carlisle and Esme. Considering that he spent the first half of his immortal life as the feared second-in-command to the equally feared Maria, becoming a Cullen had been challenging, to put it mildly.
He'd spent years being the weak link, the one who was watched, the reason they had to move when the scent of some random human had become too much. He was slowly suffocating as he walked the line between the man he was and who he wanted to be—for Alice.
Then one day, Scott and Diane Landrum became vampires, sired by Carlisle Cullen himself, due to a remarkable set of circumstances. After months of newborn-crazed thirst and emotions, they had settled themselves into the Cullen family quite nicely. Soon they were offered the treasured Cullen crest that made it all official. That time had been rough for Jasper; his skill and patience had been tested to their very limits. As shadows from Diane's human life began to seep into their immortal ones, the family had been thrown into battle. They had faced their enemies and lived to tell the tale.
But that's another story.*
"Wanna watch TV?" Scott asked to anyone who was listening.
Jasper shook his head. "We agreed—no TV, no radio. We're taking a break from everything. We've earned it."
"So we're gonna be completely ignorant of the world around us?"
"That's the plan," Jasper drawled. He knew Scott well enough to know he wouldn't let go of the TV issue, and he didn't feel like arguing. Time for a distraction. Looking at his wife, Jasper let his eyes roam her body. He projected his instant lust through the suite. Growls came from everyone as each vampire's eyes darkened in response.
On to his ploy, Diane giggled. "You're such a cheater, Jasper." She took her mate by the hand and moved to their bedroom. Television was suddenly the last thing on anyone's mind. "See you at twilight," she called as they disappeared.
Jasper's smart comeback left his mind as Alice pressed a heated kiss to his lips. In a heartbeat, he had her in his arms; they were behind closed doors the next.
Scott and Jasper were brothers in more ways than one. Their human lives were spent in service to their country. Their human and immortal lives had known battle. Their wives were close as well. Diane and Alice loved each other as sisters and each other's husbands as brothers. Fitting mates, these women had also had their share of battle as vampires. All four bore the scars of war on their bodies. Jasper wore the most of course, but he respected the skills of his present companions above all else. Only two others made the short list of those Jasper respected—and trusted—on the battlefield.
The addition of Peter and Charlotte would have completed Jasper's inner circle, but they were taking a vacation of their own. After everything they had done for the Cullens, Jasper wouldn't dream of disturbing them. He knew Peter would answer the phone if he called. As it was, Jasper felt he had used up all the favors that Peter had ever owed him and now was on the owing side of the scale himself.
As the sun began to set, both pairs of satisfied warriors were back in the living room, freshly washed, and dressed in new clothes. Alice may have given up playing human, but her urge to shop would never fade.
"Where to?" Alice asked as Jasper steered his midnight blue '69 Camaro onto the interstate.
"I'd like to see the Grand Canyon," her sister offered. "I don't remember seeing it as a human." Her face twisted in thought. "I think…maybe…we went there once with—" When Diane's voice broke, all eyes went to her as the silence became thick with worry. Diane didn't want to trouble the others and waved her hand at the concerned looks. "I'm fine, really."
Only a small lie, Diane told herself. In truth, she was trying to be fine, but the ache would always be there. She had accepted that fact months ago. The painful decision she and Scott had made was really the only way to keep them safe.
The truth didn't make the pain any easier to bear.
Using the privacy their gift provided, Scott squeezed her hand and mentally added, "We did the right thing, babe. They're better off."
"I know," she replied in kind.
Jasper felt their pain, and understood the source—too well. Jasper would never forget the day Carlisle told Scott and Diane they could never be with their children again. Keeping the secret of their kind meant the Landrum children had to believe their parents were dead. Diane's rage was so strong it took Jasper by surprise. The only thing that hurt worse that day was the grief and all encompassing pain that became their constant companion as they grieved the loss of their parenthood.
Diane looked out the window. "Just give me a minute."
Jasper was used to this happening occasionally and waited patiently for it to pass. He resisted the urge to send out some calming vibes. Feeling the pain of those he was close to was hard on the empath, but he also respected their space. The couple took a few minutes, but when their pain faded off Jasper's radar, he blew out a slow breath, a habit he'd picked up from his new sister.
Trying to lighten to mood, Alice chatted happily. "Wait until you explore the Canyon at night. We'll be able to jump to the bottom and explore every cave, if we want. There are plenty of places to hide during the sunny hours. We can spend days there!"
Times flies when you're having fun, as the saying goes. Four months flew by as the couples went north from Arizona. After hitting Montana, they went south until they came to Texas. From there they continued zigzagging along the states, slowly making their way across the nation. They were in yet another hotel room, in Michigan, enjoying the life of ease that their wealth afforded them. Happy and relaxed, they made plans for their travels. They would continue on their pattern that would take them back to their family within the year. There really was no hurry; they had time and money, and loving spouses to enjoy the journey.
All that changed when the phone in Jasper's pocket rang.
The unexpected sound sliced through the easy silence that had settled upon the suite as both couples dressed for a new night. The girls where in the bathroom fixing their hair when Alice's vision hit, so Jasper had no forewarning when he flipped his phone open. He had no need to check the caller ID. Only a selected few had his number.
The dread from Alice shot through him right after the greeting left his lips. His mind raced, trying to guess who could possibly trigger such feelings in his wife with a mere phone call.
"Please hold for Marcus Volturi," a female voice said quickly.
Jasper's body went a few degrees colder. His own dread and anger swirled in his chest. It took some digging to get Jasper's number, and he knew that he wouldn't like anything Marcus had to say.
Diane's voice came from the bathroom in a whisper. "Alice, what did you see?"
"Too late…nothing we can do," she murmured sadly. "Looks like our trip's over."
The despair of his mate hit him just a moment after her words did. In all the years they'd been together, she'd had this kind of reaction to a vision only a handful of times.
None of those times had ended well.
In Volterra, Marcus waited. He had been the lone survivor of his coven that fateful day. He knew that Jasper was the only reason he still lived. Making this call was the last thing he wanted to do. While he had the position of power that would make Jasper say yes to his request, he desperately wanted to call someone else, anyone else, but no one else would do. If his kind were to survive the coming months, Jasper had to make the required sacrifice.
"Jasper Cullen is on line one," his assistant told him. Deciding to get the unpleasantness over with, he picked up the phone. Only his centuries of experience as royalty made it possible to keep his voice even.
The coldness of Jasper's tone was not unexpected. "Marcus."
"I require your services. I'm sure you understand."
While Marcus could not see the anger that Scott watched twist his brother's face, the loathing was clear in Jasper's voice. "Required? You make it sound as if I have no choice."
"You do not."
Alice and Diane were still in the bathroom. Jasper guessed correctly that the results of this conversation were affecting his mate's visions. They would shift until both sides had reached certain decisions. Knowing Alice was not alone gave him the peace to focus. "I will not be ordered around by you. Things have changed, in case you've forgotten. You're not royalty anymore."
Marcus let a frustrated growl echo through his chamber. He didn't need to be reminded of the fact; he had not enjoyed his old life since he lost his mate Didyme. He had a new life now, what was left of it. He took the responsibilities of his new position seriously. That was his part of the deal.
"You never struck me as being one who liked to play games, Major."
Hearing his title set him, and Scott, on edge. "I don't. Talk plainly."
"Have you no idea what's been happening in your own country? In Kansas?"
Jasper grimaced at Scott's smug look. He'd hear about this later. "Nope, been on vacation. Low tech, no news."
"Are you close to a news source?"
Jasper scowled at the TV. "Yeah."
"Then I suggest you turn it on and educate yourself. I will call back in twenty minutes. Ciao." Then the line went dead.
After tossing his phone on the couch, he turned to find his wife. Without warning, Alice launched herself into his arms. His fear doubled when it registered that she was trembling.
"Turn it on," she whispered.
Getting a nod from his brother, Scott clicked the set on. When they finally found the news channel, it became clear only one story was being covered. A reporter in disheveled clothes and a slightly panicked look on his face shouted at the camera as scores of people ran in all directions behind him.
"Mass panic has hit the streets of Kansas City since a bizarre disease broke out two weeks ago. The Governor has promised help containing the situation and National Guard soldiers from bordering states are en route to help the over-worked Guard units here. It is rumored that Marshal Law with be instituted when they arrive."
The four vampires stood still and silent in their luxury suite.
"So far all infected people have been moved to the Truman Medical Center in hopes of containing the contagion. The virus, yet unnamed, has proven to spread by simply being near an infected individual. Because of this, no visitors are allowed. This alone has been causing outage among the families of the sick. Human interest groups are so far being dismissed by the government citing that health and safety concerns overrule all other considerations at this time.
"The official numbers are that 486 are dead and at least twice that number have been infected. Local officials admit that hundreds more could be infected and are staying home because they are too scared to go to the hospital for fear they will be kept from their families."
"We should call Carlisle," Alice whispered. The others simply nodded in agreement as Jasper flipped his phone open again.
The conversation was brief. The family had move had gone smoothly and the Cullens now resided just outside of Hanover, New Hampshire, with rooms waiting for the traveling couples. Their belongings remained in boxes that would be unpacked whenever they decided to join the rest of the family. Plans were set for the two youngest couples, who were already there, to begin attending Dartmouth in the fall. Carlisle knew of the outbreak but had no idea why Marcus wanted Jasper in Volterra. He hadn't heard from any of the other four leaders—new additions since the change in power—and was surprised that Marcus seemed to be acting on his own. Those days were supposed to be over. Since all the vampires easily heard his voice on the phone, Carlisle spoke to them all.
"Whatever it is, it can't be good. I don't think you have much choice but to go."
Jasper didn't like the truth in the statement. "Guess we'll find out when he calls back; should be any minute now."
The hint in his son's voice was not lost on Carlisle. "Please, keep in touch and be careful."
"Why are things so fuzzy?" Alice frowned as she checked the future again. "Jazz why are you so undecided? If we have to go—"
The phone rang again. Jasper looked at the small device in distain. "It all depends on how you define we, Alice." He opened the phone before she could reply. "Whitlock."
"Ah, so you wish to keep our arrangement a secret from your coven leader?"
"No, I wish to keep the name of Cullen out of whatever notion you have to deal with the mess you want cleaned up. I'll be using my human name for this."
Knowing his brother better than anyone but Alice, Scott caught the meaning of his comment to Alice instantly. Perhaps it was because he felt the same way. He was surprised that Alice and Diane hadn't caught on yet. The minute they did, he and his brother would have one hell of a fight on their hands. Catching his brother's eye, he stepped forward to be sure to reach Marcus' ear. "Count me in."
"You mean us, Scott," Diane whispered as she tried to brush off the obvious message in her husband's words. She looked at Alice as her eyes unfocused again.
When Alice finished seeing what her mate decided, she shot him a withering glare. "Jasper…"
The men chose to put off the battle they knew was coming by keeping their gaze on each other.
"We have a condition or two," Jasper drawled with false confidence. He wasn't quite sure how much leeway he had at that point, but he was sure going to do all he could to keep him and his family from being used.
Marcus was feeling uneasy as well. He'd have to answer to the other members of the Tribunal, and he needed to have his key players in place to keep himself from looking the fool when his actions finally came to light. "And what conditions might those be?"
"You get me, my brother Scott, and maybe Emmett—if he agrees—that's it. No other Cullens are goin' to in this. I want to know exactly what is expected of us, and how long we will be required to stay, and I want this information before we leave." Still holding his brother's gaze, Scott nodded silently, ignoring the looks from his wife and sister.
"Done," Marcus agreed,
Alice and Diane hissed—they were being ignored by their mates. While Marcus clearly heard their protests, he decided against mentioning it. He could not afford to anger the Major.
"I also want a least a week before we have to be there. We want to make sure our wives get to the family home."
"I can give you three days—no more. Things are happening quickly, Major. I'm sure you understand. I already have the address of the new Cullen residence in Hanover. I will send all the information that I have there. Feel free to share it with the rest of your coven, but it is not to go any farther than that, do I make myself clear?"
"Very," Jasper replied dryly.
"Is there anything else you will require, Major?"
Jasper jerked his chin at his brother who only shook his head. The anger of the two women in the room had been pressing on the empath for several minutes now, and he knew he needed to get the unavoidable confrontation over with. "No, we'll be in touch."
"Ciao," Marcus murmured before cutting the connection.
The phone was still in the air, on its way to the ottoman from Jasper's hand when Alice let loose. "Jasper! What are you thinking? You don't even know what you just agreed to!"
While it was true that Jasper had changed since his hiatus from playing human, Alice had also. Her voice now held the authority one expected of the mate to Major Whitlock, one that she'd never had before.
Jasper blamed Diane for that. But in truth, the proverbial fault laid at Jasper's feet since he was the one who had insisted on training his sister to be the warrior he knew she could be. He'd been right, of course. Diane was a force to be reckoned with off the battlefield just as much as on it. Jasper knew that even he, her mentor, wouldn't be spared when she was truly ticked—as she was at the moment.
"Scott, there is no way you're leaving us at home, like a couple of little girls, while you guys go off the Volterra and deal with whatever sick plan Marcus has up his sleeve." She whirled to face her brother. "And you…how dare you ask him and not even think of what we wanted?"
The husband tried first. "You heard the news, hon."
"Don't you 'hon' me!"
Jasper's eyebrows shot up. He just started to crack a smile until his wife flashed in from of him. "And just what is so funny? You think our opinion on this is humorous?"
With too much to do and little time to do it all, Jasper had enough. Using a voice that he reserved for only the situations that required it, he pointed to the couch. "Sit," he commanded loudly. "Both of you. Now."
Doing nothing to stop their irritation from reaching Jasper, they did as they were told. Diane actually focused all of her ire to her brother just to make sure her point was made.
"Stop it," Jasper spat. "I get it. You're both mad. You can play 'punish the empath' later, okay?" Looking between the two sisters, he sighed. "This is the way it has to be. I mean it. We have no idea what we're walking into and there's no way Scott and I are willing to take you along unless we had no choice."
Diane crossed her arms and glared at her brother. "Guess the 'protection card' was getting too dusty for you, hmmm? Felt the need to pull it out once again, did you?"
Both men growled in frustration.
"You're making this more difficult than it has to be," Scott said heatedly.
"Enough," Jasper ordered. "We need to go. Sun will be down soon. Pack up."
Alice and Diane knew the discussion was over for now. Sharing a long look, Diane pressed a finger on the edge of her belt buckle that bore the Cullen crest, making it shimmer in the light. Alice nodded with a smile. Tapping into the strategic mind that all females seem to share when it comes to fighting with their men, they both resolved to wait to press their point again until they were home—when their other sisters would be present.
The two days it took the quartet to drive home were very quiet.
Esme was thrilled to see her four "children" that had been away from the family home. She knew the reason they cut their vacation short, but she was determined to make their first moments home pleasant. After a tour, they ended up in the living room—everyone seemed lost in his or her own thoughts. Seeing the looks of distress on the faces of those she loved, Esme called Carlisle and asked him to come home immediately.
"Are you sure you're not overreacting, angel?" Carlisle asked in his best attempt to walk the line between concern and not sounding condescending. "My shift is over in four hours."
Esme actually pulled the phone away and gave it a grimace. "Something is very wrong, Carlisle. Jasper has that look."
He failed to suppress his chuckle. "And what look is that?"
"I believe Diane calls it his 'military mode', and it's not just him. All four of them are upset, but refuse to talk about it until everyone is here." She paused and did her best to stay calm. "They look like they're ready for a battle, Carlisle."
The leader of the Cullen family groaned. "Edward and I will be there as soon as possible."
Within the hour, the family was sitting in the dining room that was needed to keep up appearances. While Carlisle was more on the research side of things now, he still admitted the occasional patient and had to keep up professional relationships with doctors, nurses, and the hospital board.
One never knew when a surprise guest might decide to come for a visit.
After the greetings and a basic rundown of the travelers adventures was gotten out of the way, the patriarch got down to business. "So, Jasper, what did he want? Oh, I did not mention our first conversation to everyone, so start at the very beginning."
All it took was the dropping of one name to bring the seriousness of the situation to light. "Marcus called. Our presence has been requested in Volterra." Jasper relayed the story in detail. The eyes of his family never left him and no one spoke until he made his position clear. "Scott and I will leave after the sun goes down tomorrow."
If Jasper and Scott thought things were going to get better at home, they were sadly mistaken.
"Not without us," Diane growled.
When Alice nodded in support of her sister, Jasper leveled a fierce gaze at her. Sensing the tension, but not knowing the cause, Carlisle gave his signature cough to ask for silence. Too bad, Rosalie and Bella had gotten the vibe from their sisters that feminine help was required.
Rosalie drummed her nails on the table. "And just why can't they go?"
Diane smirked at her husband and added a silent dig that their gift allowed. "Thought I'd just roll over, did you?"
Unaware of the mental argument brewing, Bella added. "Sounds like my brothers are being a couple of chauvinist pigs!"
"Bella!" Edward chided.
"Just stop right there, Edward Anthony Cullen!" Bella seethed.
Emmett's eyebrow shot up, "Whoa,"
"Shut up, Em," she spat as she locked eyes on her mate. "Edward, there's no reason Alice and Diane can't go. They can take care of themselves quite well and will probably be extremely helpful on the diplomatic side of things."
Temporarily distracted from his wife, Scott asked, "Just what is that supposed to mean?"
Rose cocked her head. "She's saying that you and Jasper are not known for your calm dispositions. Plus, sometimes feminine charms are useful in smoothing unfriendly relations."
Alice dropped her head in her hands, "You're so not helping, Rose."
"Diane, I'm not going to argue about this, especially in front of the entire family. You're staying home."
"Like hell I am!"
Edward's eyes flickered between Scott and Diane. They had learned to keep the look of concentration, that used to be a giveaway, off their faces, but thanks to Edward's telepathy, that telltale hum buzzed in his head.
"After all we've been through, all the fighting. How can you act like you can't understand my position?"
"Because Alice and I can hold our own with you and Jasper. You've seen us do it!"
"Stop!" Edward shouted as he brought his fist down, careful not to damage Esme's prized table. "Scott, Diane, let's keep all conversation out in the open, shall we?"
The answering glare he received from the couple would have caused fear in anyone outside the family, but Edward knew them better than to take it personally.
Carlisle coughed again. "Let's just all calm down." An uneasy silence came upon the room as every female glared at her mate, save the lovely Esme. The men glared back in what promised to be the calm before a very large storm. "Let's just start off by going over what can be agreed on before we go into dangerous territory, how's that?"
Nods, mostly of the tight, angry variety, came from everyone.
"Naturally Esme and I will be staying here." He looked to his wife and was grateful to get a smiling agreement from her.
"Of course, my dear."
"Edward?" Carlisle asked in hopes they would be in agreement.
"We have to consider Renesmee above all else." His eyes went to his wife. Meeting her gaze, he breathed in relief, seeing that she agreed with him.
"We do," Bella answered. "We will be staying also, but I still say Alice and Diane should go if they want to."
Alice and Diane beamed at her simultaneously.
Carlisle held up his hands before anyone could speak. "We are not going into that again, yet. Emmett?"
The largest Cullen shifted in his seat. "Did Marcus ask for me?"
Jasper shook his head. "No, I brought your name into it."
Hoping to be a good example to his more stubborn brothers, and to score some points with his wife, he turned to her. "I wanna go, but I'll only commit to two weeks, just to see how I do. What about you, Rosie? Wanna come?"
Scott and Jasper groaned at the same time while the latter muttered, "Big jerk."
Glancing around the table, Rose clicked her nails for a few seconds before answering. "Actually, I'd like to stay. I can help with Nessie, and where you're going's not really my scene. However, if I'm needed there, then I'll go."
Diane and Alice hissed when their husband shot them looks.
"Traitor," Diane whispered.
Holding up a single red-polished fingernail, Rose defended herself. "Hey, just because I don't want to go doesn't mean I still don't think you should since you want to."
Alice smiled. "Another vote cast for the side of reason!"
Standing up, Carlisle tried to take control of the situation. "So, right now, Jasper, Scott, and Emmett are going. Whether Diane and Alice are going is yet to be determined, and the rest of us are staying." He smirked at the answering scowls he got. "As far as I'm concerned the rest is to be worked out between the couples. Let's move on."
He picked up the remote control and clicked on the television in the living room. The open floor plan gave them all a view from where they sat. They all sat in silence for three minutes as they learned the outbreak had spread to three neighboring states. Clicking the devise off, Carlisle spoke again.
"I also received a call from Volterra, but from Eleazar. I have been asked to take an extended leave from the hospital in order to spend my time solely in research for a cure. Edward, I volunteered you as my assistant."
"I would be honored," Edward answered honestly.
"They are sending equipment and all the information available over the rest of the week. Esme, I would like to use the small house at the corner of the property. Modifications will need to be made."
Esme smiled. "I will start as soon as we are finished here."
"Good, I think we are done."
Jasper shook his head. "What about security? If this thing keeps spreadin', we may have unwanted company here. They could be humans lookin' for safety or vampires lookin' to hide. Either way, strangers have no place here."
"I couldn't agree more," Carlisle said thoughtfully.
"That's why I'm only committing to two weeks," Emmett's serious tone was so unusual for him, a few mouths fell open. "After that, I'm free to come back if I'm needed here, right?"
"Good thinking," Scott praised.
Taking Esme by the hand, the coven leader announced that the meeting was over and suggested that Jasper and Scott work things out with their wives quickly. There wasn't time to lose as they had less than a day before they had to leave.
Citing one reason or another, the rest of the family wisely vacated the house, and less than five minutes later, the four were still sitting at the dining table in an otherwise empty house. They all sat completely still, listening as the sounds of the others walking, running, or driving away drifted into silence…
"There's no way we are staying here!" Diane said firmly.
Scott crossed his arms and stayed silent. After being a Cullen for over a year, Jasper and Alice knew what it meant just as well as Diane.
"Oh no you don't, Scott, you're not getting away with the 'stare and glare'. We are going to talk this out until you agree that we are going."
"Fine." Alice mocked her brother's stance. "You two go ahead, leave without us. It's not like we don't know where you're going. We'll just make our own way and follow you."
"Alice…" Jasper warned as he walked toward his wife slowly. "There will be no sneaking around."
The fight was on. Perhaps it would have been better if the couples had separated and taken some time to cool down. The fact was that deep inside, each of the four knew that the fighting needed to be got through and over with so they could all get to the best part…
"We are not children!"
"You'll be safer here!"
"Are you kidding me? We have more battle experience than half the men in this family!"
"Don't care. You're stayin'."
Jasper's phone rang. The four vampires growled. After giving the device and hard look upon seeing the caller ID, he answered it. "Whitlock."
"I see you are serious about the name issue."
"Get used to it."
"Have it your way. I'm calling to inform you that the package will be there in an hour."
"Well, the resources of the…old group were transferred to the new."
"Anything you need to tell me that isn't in the official material?"
"As a matter of fact there is."
Jasper looked at the ceiling as he stifled the curse before it rang out. "Let's hear it."
"We were in need of a recruiting tool, you see. It took some time to think of the best way to handle our needs without exposing the secret. It just went live—I believe that is the correct term—an hour ago. So far, the results are promising. The logistics are still being worked out, but you need not worry about that."
"Recruitment tool?" Jasper asked in disbelief. He could almost hear the laughter of his evil sire echo in his mind. "I don't like the sound of that."
"No, you probably will not like it at all, but it is done. It is not your job to get the newborns, Major; it is your job to train them." Marcus rattled off the website address and ended the call using his one-syllable repeat. "Ciao."
Without a word, Jasper walked over to the corner desk where the spare laptop was kept. He typed in the address and watched the site come up. As he read, a sickening feeling rose in his stomach. The gasps from the women and the muttered curse from his brother were vast understatements. Only a truly twisted mind could come up with what he read and he swore to himself that if he saw Maria at Volterra that he would end her.
Nothing would stop him this time.
If it wasn't Maria's handy-work, the on-line trap had been laid by someone like her—so depraved. That package better have a good explanation to sink this low.
"There's no way people will know what they're really getting into if they sign up," Alice whispered. "It's barbaric."
"The tribunal wants newborns and this is the way they've chosen to get them," Jasper replied roughly. "We have no say in what they do." He sighed deeply. "Some things never change."
His eyes went to his brother before looking at his mate and sister in turns as he spoke, using that rare voice he'd been forced to resort to when he got the first call. "I'm only goin' to say this once. You two are not comin' with us." Diane opened her mouth to speak and Jasper pointed a finger at her. She snapped it shut. His finger went back to the laptop. "You see this as well as I do, and you know what this means. We'll be walking into a living, crazed, newborn minefield. You have no idea what it's goin' to be like. Scott and I will need our full concentration just to keep a handle on the situation, and we do not need the added stress of worryin' about the two of you." He raised his eyebrows in challenge as he made it final. "End of discussion."
Diane hesitated for a moment to see how Alice would react—only she knew just how far to push her husband. When Alice gave a short nod of submission, Diane quickly followed suit. Diane had gained a lot of practice being calm for the empath's benefit—or to escape his notice—whatever the case may be. However, under her calm, she told herself a secret. We'll just see about that!
Jasper was smarter than she gave him credit for.
He felt the tiniest wisp of rebellion because he was expecting it, especially from his sister. He had taught her well. "Diane, don't even think about it." He did his best to sound stern, but he knew, just as his brother did, that their wives would only stay because they choose to. They were vampires, after all.
Diane gave him an innocent look and he faced the facts. If this little assignment stretched beyond their patience, there was no telling what Alice and Diane would do. Admitting to himself that there was nothing more to be done, he let it go.
Separating for a time, the couples went to their own rooms to come together for what would be the last time for…they didn't know how long.
When they came down the stairs three hours later, the rest of the family was assembled and a large, unopened box sat wrapped on the table. The box, like the label, was plain. Anonymity a must, the outside of the box gave not one hint as to what was inside. If one tracked the UPS number, it would have led to a non-descript office supply warehouse.
When it came to protecting the secret, no expense was spared.
Putting his hand on the package, Jasper felt the weight of what he was about to get into settle on him. "Carlisle, it's not too late to keep the family out of this. Scott and I can go without involving the rest any further."
"Can't believe you just said that, Bro." Emmett looked offended. "We've always handled whatever came at us as a family. This is no different."
The bobbing heads around the table told Jasper there was no use in trying to get them to see that there was no way to know just how wrong things could go. His eyes drifted over to the living room and settled on his sleeping niece. So young. His habit of easing her into sleep whenever touchy subjects were discussed didn't seem to bother her parents.
"She'll be well protected, Jasper." Edward murmured as his gaze went to his daughter. "I share your concern, but we really have no choice."
After a reluctant agreement, Jasper opened the box.
The top file had a post-it note on it with Carlisle's name, so it was passed to him.
"Ah, information on the virus," he murmured before he became engrossed in reading the information. Edward went to his side and they read together occasionally whispering to each other.
The next file contained aerial photos of the training camp in Kansas as well as photos taken from the hospital where the disease first broke out.
"Looks like we're headed for Kansas after meeting with the…what'd they end up callin' the new ruling group?"
"Tribunal," Carlisle answered.
"They know the definition of that word?" Jasper asked skeptically. The betrayal of the Volturi was still far too fresh for him to accept the new rulers without suspicion.
"I'm sure they do," the leader answered confidently. "I've known Eleazar for nearly a century."
Scott passed the photo he was looking at to his wife. "Let's just hope they abide by that definition. You know the old saying: Absolute power corrupts absolutely."
All the Cullens gave various signs of agreement. The battle had been far too close to going very wrong that day. Carlisle couldn't help but reach over and touch his mate's hand. He'd come so close to losing her.
"Well, I hate to be the one to shake your confidence in the Tribunal…" Jasper sneered the last word as if it actually left a bad taste in his mouth. "…but you haven't seen how they're planning on manning their army to fight this thing." He pointed. "Hey Em, mind bringin' a few laptops over here?"
Within seven minutes, three laptops were displaying the on-line trap that had been set. According to the counter, there had already been over one-hundred thousand hits.
Edward broke the tense silence. "Monstrous. They want you there to train their own newborn army? Newborns made from the people they've taken, using this? Why, most of those who sign up here will be children, many still in high school."
"Seems to be the plan, but we have no say in that." Jasper answered as he pulled the final item from the box; A DVD labeled "Test subjects."
He held it up for all to see. "Looks like we'd better head to the TV."
"Jasper, can you make sure she doesn't wake up?" Bella asked softly as she jerked a chin toward her daughter.
The recording started immediately, showing a young man, clearly frightened, as he lay strapped to a table. Moaning could be heard, but the sounds were not coming from the man who was really only barely out of his boyhood.
"As you can see subject one is completely normal." A faceless narrator informed the viewers in an uninterested tone. "The time is one o'clock exactly as we introduce the infected specimen." A clock appeared on the screen. "As you can see this specimen's illness is quiet advanced and his flesh is nearly half rotted through."
A second gurney rolled into the frame and the first human screamed upon seeing what he automatically—and quite accurately—guessed to be his fate.
"He looks like a…" Emmett trailed off in disbelief.
"Well," Scott added in an even tone. "If we can exist, then so can they, I guess."
"That is not existing." Carlisle rubbed his face. "If the data Eleazar sent is correct, then the normal young man will be just like the other one very soon."
"By simply by breathing the same air?" Esme asked softly, unable to tear her eyes off the screen.
"No," Edward whispered. "Before the hunger takes over."
A heavy silence filled the room as each Cullen watched the clock in the bottom right corner of the screen. As the minutes whirled by the infected man began to get increasingly agitated. His thrashing increased in intensity. Within 30 minutes, cracks could be seen in the metal restraints that held him to the table. As the danger in the room mounted, the healthy man's screams grew louder. This obviously fueled the actions of the infected one who's moans turned to short, animalistic shouts as the restraints began to give way.
The family watched in horror as the final strap broke and the second man attacked the first, viciously ripping out his throat. The abomination—as the Cullens would come to call them—swallowed the chunks of flesh he harvested whole, gagging himself in his gluttony. In what would have been a blur to the human eye, an unknown vampire flashed across the screen taking the head of the attacker in a spray of blood and gore, leaving as quickly as he appeared. Streaks of crimson, mixed with bits of flesh, filled the screen until the camera lens was quickly cleaned. The young man lay still, death clearly written on his features.
Every face at the Cullen table was twisted in disgust—save Jasper and Scott. In their lives, human and immortal, they had seen horrors before. Their mouths both set in a grim line. They knew things were going to get a lot worse before this was over.
Jasper shifted his eyes from his favorite brother to their wives and back. Scott nodded with a frown, getting the message loud and clear. They were in this for the long haul and it was only a matter of time until their women got fed up with waiting and came after them.
The clock showed the passing of less than five minutes before the dead man began to stir, making the same soft moans as the first man did when he entered the room.
Esme gasped as her hand flew through her face. "This is what has broken out in Kansas?"
The new undead on the screen moaned loudly and began to thrash against his restraints.
"Looks like," Jasper answered with a grim tone as he shared a look with Scott. What they had been asked to do had just come into crystal clear focus. "Training newborns to fight this? They might as well be sending me back to Mexico."
"Wait." Rose began her to strum her nails on the table. "Why do they need Jasper and Scott for this? They may be…"
"Just say it, Rosie…zombies." Emmett tried to sound calm, but his offer to go to Volterra just landed him smack in the middle of what he'd just seen, and he didn't like it.
The same vampire as before flashed in the frame, removed the head of his victim, and left the frame again. The screen went dark.
"Ugh." Rose shook her head. "The point is, they're even easier to defeat than a normal human, why do vampires need to get involved?"
The weight of his research assignment weighing on him before he'd even begun, Carlisle looked instantly tired. "This could decimate the human population—world-wide—in mere months."
"Red dots," Bella whispered as her eyes went to Jasper. "Just like you explained why Maria fought back then. It's all about defending feeding grounds."
Rubbing his wife's hand, Edward shook his head. "Not just like that, love. The Tribunal is simply trying to preserve their food source. There's no one to fight."
Sadly, Edward was very, very wrong.
The screen flickered to life. Clearly shot with a hand-held camcorder, the shaky picture showed a fierce vampire fight. Technology lacking, the vampires blurred in and out of focus as they fought. Half were wearing blue Tribunal cloaks and the others were dressed in…
"You have got to be kidding me!" Diane yelled as she shot out of her chair. "No! We are not doing this again!"
"Hon, calm down." Scott grasped his wife hand and pulled her to him.
Not willing to lose her temper, Diane let herself fall into his lap.
"Hon, I see what they're wearing, but Roger is dead. So, we know it's not him."
Ignoring the elephant in the room, Jasper went for the obvious. "Thought we were done with the cloaks. The Volturi is gone."
Carlisle shrugged. "I tried to talk them out of it, but they thought it sent a message of authority to keep them. The color change is supposed to show the change of power."
This entire time Alice had kept silent. Everyone noticed that she kept slipping in and out of her gift, yet no one commented because Jasper hadn't mentioned it.
The fight on the screen ended with many vampires being burned. The blue-cloaked figurers were the ones to walk away, but only two of the five survived to do so.
Her eyes focusing after yet another vision, Alice was more than simply upset. "Too much is undecided, but it's going to be very, very bad."
The next day's sunset came far too soon for the couples who were to be parted.
Jasper and Scott made their good-byes to the rest of the family before leaving the house, holding the hands of their wives. Few words were spoken as the each couple traded long looks and soft kisses. In the end, they all did their best to keep the pain of the parting off their faces, and they did a pretty good job. Jasper still felt it all, but didn't begrudge the other three a bit.
Just when Diane and Alice had stepped away from their husbands, Emmett walked out of the woods wearing a somber expression. Rose was sobbing softly from where he had left her. Wordlessly, he sat in the back seat. With a final wave, they were gone. The three sisters spent the rest of that day together, not willing to spend a single moment alone.
While the Cullen family deciphered the contents of the package, even as Scott, Jasper and Emmett drove away from their wives, news of the unnamed disease was spreading over the World Wide Web like wildfire. However, a certain percentage of the population was not surprised in the least.
In fact, they were expecting it.
Not only were they expecting it, they were glad—in some cases downright giddy—with the fact that they had finally been proven right. As news of the world's fate moved along the servers and routers of cyber-space, so did the source that offered the chance to do more than lock the doors and cower in fear. This website—less than a day old—offered the chance of a lifetime, the chance to fight the threat.
After all, what could be more tempting than the opportunity to save the world?
These are the circumstances that led Xander and Blake Clayton to the website that would change their lives forever.
Making sure their parents were sound asleep, they went to the new cyber trap. Not seeing it for what it truly was, they read on with rapt attention—until it got to the important part.
"Bro, wait. We need to read that stuff," Blake insisted. "Come on, don't be an idiot." He tried to still his brother's hand, only to be shoved back.
"I'm not reading the whole thing, you moron. We just have to read the last paragraph, that's where all the important stuff is anyways."
"Out of all that, you're only gonna read the last paragraph?"
"Yep." Xander replied confidently. "All that legalese is all the same. All we have to do is…" His words mirrored his actions. "Scroll, scroll, scroll, click."
The words: "YOUR APPLICATION HAS BEEN ACCEPTED. PLEASE ALLOW 12 HOURS FOR A REPLY." appeared in the center of the screen, drawing grins from the Clayton brothers.
"Hope we get in," Xander said hopefully.
Blake nodded with a smirk. "Mom is so gonna kills us."
His brother shrugged. "Only if she catches us on the way out." He snapped out a hand and grabbed Blake by the shirt. "Don't say a word to anyone. Seriously, dude. You blab, you die."
The younger brother scoffed. "Drama queen. I'm not gonna say anything." Letting out a yawn, he shoved his brother's hand away. "It's late and I gotta work tomorrow. I'm gonna go to bed."
"Not a word, Blake," Xander warned.
"Whatever," Blake shot back, just because he knew how much his brother hated it. Parting for his own room, Blake went to sleep in the same clothes he'd been wearing all day because it was too much trouble to change.
After muttering, "Jerk" to his closed door, Xander did the same.
Within a few minutes the Clayton brothers were drifting off to asleep in what would be their last night of safety in their parents' home—completely oblivious. They had no idea what the words change, forever, vampire, and zombie actually meant.
But they would find out—very soon.
©2012 Midnight Ariel
Any reviews will be rewarded with a teaser for the next chapter. ~MA