Mars is a drop of blood on the dark canvas of the night sky. In the ur-days of man, the skies themselves ran red with the nectar of life until the great father of night sucked it dry for his children to flourish. He left them one reminder, the true evening star, to guide hunger and aspirations through the centuries.
The children of Cain would, for millennia, believe that the planet itself was a raging sea of blood, The promised land for all departed vampires and eventual rapture for all the forever unliving to ascend in reclamation of the birthright granted by our ancient forefather. This belief is still held strongly among the ancients despite the relentless assault of truth and science, only to show the vampires, while poor astronomers, are passionate in their astrology of slaughter. For Mars rules not the first, the third, and the tenth houses, but all houses. It is the sign of our victory, our strength, our salvation from a world of sun and silver and waters that cannot be easily crossed.
No one anticipated that the first vampire on Mars would traverse the void of space on a human build craft. Nor was it believed that he would work willingly with the chattel, be boy faced, angelic. Literally an immortal among the stars. No, these things were not held by the elder eschatology to herald the deliverance of the fanged tribes.
I was never anticipated or heralded. Yet I am here, a Major Tom speaking bleakly with ground control, thinking of the things I loved, lived, consigned to a one way trip into the annals of human glory.
I was born for the second time in the fires of Carthage. The Exarchate had failed. John was dead at the hands of Tiberius Apsimarus and instead of sailing back to liberate my home from the Umayyads and their nomad allies who besieged it, he hung his career and the legacy of Eastern Rome on the throne in Constantinople, enjoying seven years of tactical success while the empire tore itself apart. Despite a spirited defense, history's euphemism for doomed and suicidal warriors, the walls were breached, the residents killed, raped, and enslaved by their new masters. The buildings were razed, the wells poisoned, the earth salted.
I was laying in a pool of blood, an innocent among the Gothic carnage of Wittiza's reinforcements, a boy barely of age who could take a kaskara to the stomach as well as any proud son of German martial history. My mind was in fragments. I saw the red star gleaming in the heavens. Then a face. Then a whisper of old ways. My change was less painful than most, less vivid and ostentatious. I merely passed from one night of death into another of eternal life.
Most people find the idea of a vampire in space to be... incongruous. Before I left, it was the number one question: why? Maybe number two, if you count "what? why?" as two separate questions. People found this confusing.
Before the mission began, I had to address this to the public. The public reason has nothing to do with the private one, but every why deserves an answer. It is very important to be clear and succinct with the public, otherwise all they understand is monsters in space. We presented the reasoning as a matter of pragmatic simplicity. People think of space as having the sun, but space is only partly stars, mostly void. It is eternal night. For a vampire, that's great. And once the ship is pointed away from the sun, it's even better. Mars is also further from the sun's radiation and light, which means I will burn a little slowly. But the night is longer, slightly, and at the right pole I can basically live in darkness, only having to go underground for mere hours when it's winter.
The real answer, as far as Roscosmos is concerned though, is radiation. Vampires will burn up in the sun, but we are otherwise fundamentally dead. That means no cancer, no radiation poisoning, no asphyxiation. I need air for pressure, mostly. The balances of oxygen are way down, nitrogen way up, and that helps with reducing any threat of fire, from which I am unfortunately not immune.
Also, the blood. I only need blood. Bags and bags of it, sure, but less than food and water that a human would need. There's also no waste. Coupled with the body of a fourteen year old, I really am the perfect package for light weight interplanetary travel.
Of course, there are things I am not immune to. Loneliness. Deprivation. Depression. Space insanity. So I keep my mind busy. I journal.
"You have lost the ways of the old ones," Artaxerxes chided, "You have taken the weak god of the Romans. You are a child, so this is not your failing, but you must accept the Teaching. This god of Arabs is no different, no better, regardless of their armies or success. The scholars of this age split hairs over how they might honor their idols. All their gods are false."
Artaxerxes did not tend a fire at night. I was not familiar with the cold, or the dark, in such an intimate way. It seemed to me that I might very well fade into the shroud of that moonless night, wink out like so many forgotten stars.
"Not even Gurzil can redeem your people. They are lost. They are forgotten. They will never know the way. But you..." I could hear his finger extend in a mix of accusation and excitement, "You will have the chance to redeem yourself in blood and hunger before the great father, Nergal."
His gaze turned towards the red star of my dream, and his words became wistful and zealous.
"In the time before, we ruled this earth, under the guidance of great Nergal. There was the all-night and blood flowed plentifully from the cow-eyed and pig-fattened humans," he spit with practiced vehemence, "But the first child erred and showed compassion to man. He rejected the gift of his father and wished for light. So it was that Lucifer profaned against Cain and Nergal. In punishment, the sun was born, before whose scorching gaze we are naught but cinders. And the moon cried, giving silver to the mortals by which to bind us. Then came the fire, which purged us of the weak and turned our food things into dangerous game."
I did not understand. In some ways, I still do not. Am I being redeemed? Or is this another false promise of the long night. Artaxerxes did not offer any answers. Rather, like a true didactic, he hid practical lessons in grand talk and let vaguery and magical thinking presume to represent truth.
"You will have a lifetime to prove your worth, and then another, for an eternity beyond counting, until your welcome to the chalice of his blood. The gift you have been given is beyond the ken of man. You have the chance to be a god. He only asks for your obedience and your thirst."
Space is dark and cold. You might think that's obvious, and you're right. The question is why would anyone find that appealing, let alone and long lived and immortal vampire. The real why behind propaganda and sciencism and excuses.
The truth is that I don't know. I have been listening to a lot of Bowie and Elton John, from the beginning of this idea through hurtling at thousands of miles an hour through space towards an uninhabited desert planet. There is no one answer. There are several small ones, each with it's own merit, but they do not sum up to a tidy package of obvious motivation.
But it is a persistent question. "Why?" Demyan asked, a cheap Chinese cigarette half lit and dangling from his wolfish lips. I could have laughed. At him and the question. Who cares? But humans are funny creatures. Faced with a vampire, the sweat and weep, cringe and beg. Typical prey behavior. Yet they embrace the slow killers of wine and tobacco with reckless abandon, heedless of a fate as inevitable as taxes. A vampire might keep you forever. A cigarette company only cares about your buying behavior from ages twenty to forty.
You can taste this in a person's blood. Many prefer the wine analogy here--blood is like a vintage, platelets are as sensitive as pinot grapes. You can taste every experience, and all that garbage. I prefer the Coke analogy. Once, Coke was made with cocaine and kola nut, then raw sugar was replaced by corn extract, and now the cane sugar is making a comeback. Human blood is the same way. You can taste the trends in narcotics and environmental damage. The eighteenth century was a ruin of the European "vintage."
Now everything tastes like plastic. People underestimate this. Plastic can recombinant the way your DNA wraps, yet its ubiquity is only matched by the gaping unknown of prolonged and frequent exposure. Yet vampires are bad and plastic is good. Suffice to say, the quality of human blood has declined precipitously in the last centuries.
I didn't want to answer. The cold plate of kalduny before me, the idea of a vampire ordering food, were phenomena more interesting than an answer. More precise, definitive, objective. But every why deserves an answer, which is what I gave Demyan in that all night truck stop.
I am over fourteen hundred years old. That is, I have been fourteen for fourteen centuries. A hundred years of fourteen, fourteen times over. It is not a matter of living too long--I could have killed myself. Nor is it a matter of being bored, precisely. It is a matter of life having surprises without novelty. Of something old in new clothing, same charms with new accents, but no new dawn over the horizon. Fourteen hundred years is long on familiarity and short on groundbreaking. I've seen a man on the moon, of course. Yet I am not that man. Or a man. I am a boy. An eternal boy. Which makes it hard for me to keep up with the times.
It isn't exactly the answer, but it is good enough. Demyan nodded, took a long drag, and studied me with blue eyes that were marvelously expressive without losing their Slavic chill. He offered me a swig from a flask in his coat pocket. I declined. He uncapped it, downed it in a gulp, and said--
"Fair enough. Now show me."
Besides Artaxerxes, there was mother and brother. Mother was older by several centuries, claiming a pedigree of prestigious old ones that was enough to earn her royal esteem among our kind. Age is the primary means by which one claims seniority, though a younger vampire, like Artaxerxes, may assume the mantle of hegemon by virtue of ambition.
Then there was brother. Not so old or esteemed. A sullen creature, quiet, with a beautiful face long twisted by scorn, disdain, and bitter defeat to the point of a permanent sour pout. He was somewhere in his early twenties, and had been for the last forty or fifty years. There is not much to say about brother, except that he was the first of many brothers and sisters who would drift through our little family with ephemeral dreams of eternity and disappointment lasting forever.
A vampire's life is not infinite. It lasts approximately three thousand years. Most do not survive the first century, let alone the first thousand. Those who do face the promise of servitude to an older, more established vampire, either the sire or the sire's hegemon. Many languish and waste under this bondage, yearning for the day when they might establish their own coven, or at least find some measure of freedom not dictated by another whose authority is accumulated through meritless arithmetic. If, by fortune or sheer tenacity, one should outlast his elder, he knows that the last few centuries of his freedom will be marred by decrepitude, diminished appetite, difficulty feeding, and creeping ennui.
So it went with brother, who would see his first and last sunrise before his hundredth year. In our little family, we would lament these repudiations of The Gift for a dozen days and then birth a new member. Our family spent very little time without four. As the newest fourth, it was the duty of my hegemon to induct me into our history and our ways, so that the coven would last longer than the mere lives of its cadres.
My nights were filled with Nergal and drowned with the blood promise of Martian redemption.
Then one night, in the midst of some grandiloquent sermon on nature and dominion of the vampiric kind, I asked the one question that initiates have asked since time immemorial.
"Why do we exist?"
For the human race, this has been the subject of significant philosophical and scientific debate. My fourteen hundred years have, unfortunately, afforded me no special insight. Only a little perspective. Coincidence. Nothing more, nothing less. This life of ours is strangely ordered, neither logical nor unpredictable. It is a series of successive accidents that gave us a mind to give it structure, and this is the only way for something other than animal intelligence to survive. Otherwise, we'd be plunged into Lovecraftian terror and madness as cosmic meaninglessness stared into our souls.
But Artaxerxes was never one to embrace an ambiguity and offer practical solace. His why was zealous, proud, confident. Indifferent, even diffident, in regards to the question it does not answer.
"We are superior creatures," he proclaimed, "Given talents beyond the mortals, authority beyond death, a sovereign eternity of darkness. We are to claim this birthright and crush these animals before our will. We exist to rule."
There's a myth about vampires that we are a race of Lotharios and Jezebels, frozen beauty that is both seductive and consuming. Parts of this are correct, but most of it is wrong. I attribute these misconceptions to fanciful fiction and the oversexed progeny of recent centuries. Here are the facts.
We are not completely immortal, neither invulnerable nor infinitely lived. Nor are immune from the effects of age. We shrivel, we shrink, our fangs dull, we pale and lose our hair. Artaxerxes was completely bald before seven hundred. I didn't start to thin until my eleventy hundredth year. Mother claimed she never needed a wig, but I this was vanity.
The point, the truth, is that vampires are mostly a plain people. Special in some ways, sure, but more akin to the scientific curiosity of bipedal mosquitoes of frightening intelligence than the dark angels of our sexual fantasies.
It's true that some exceptional beauties have been preserved, but they are ultimately tragic in nature. Most fail to mature and, convinced of their eternal good looks and assured of immunity to consequence, they usually indulge in long benders of rapacious sexual behavior and bloody murder. In the old days, when monsters were feared and accepted, this could be chalked up to some incubus or other demon until the hegemony could behead the creature and ensure the final death of an aberration. In recent times, we've had to rely on stooges and the mentally touched to be our stand-ins for serial murder, occasionally obfuscating the truth with carefully staged accidents.
However, the lies that preserve us are also the ones that damn us. If you want to sell yourself, you sell the sex and violence. Whatever nuance is lost before the cult of 'brand' is an acceptable casualty. And so here we are.
Demyan took me to a seedy brothel, its women and rooms draped in the fading glory of a Soviet era that wasn't that great. I've lived through a lot of history, and most is not that great. As I have revealed myself, I've had occasion to answer which was the best. Usually, I answer now. Really, it was between the fall of Rome and the rise of the merchant princes of Renaissance and Enlightenment. Much of the medieval world was brutal--plagues, crusades, the Golden Horde. But I think humanity was at its best then. They hadn't forgotten as much as was claimed, but they had abandoned the cruelest institutions of slavery and debt. Now those structures and permanently entrenched in the way we live, vampire and human alike. No place more obvious than a Belarussian brothel in the saddest city in the modern world.
Demyan wanted to see a vampire's seductive powers. He said it was because he was curious to see if the stories of our sexual prowess were true. I suspect it was so he could gauge whether or not our powers of hypnotism were as strong as was fabled. Despite the opportunity I offered, there was always the risk that I was some Svengali looking to manipulate Roscosmos to my own ends. There is some truth in that, but really it is a mutually beneficial relationship. Still, like the circus bears of old, I had to dance for my bread.
My bread that evening was Svetlana, or at least a Svetlana in the sense that every Russian's an Ivan till he becomes your Ignat or Fyordor or Demyan. She had platinum blonde hair that betrayed her at the roots, narrow brown eyes, and lips set at a permanent pout by cynicism and defeat. Demyan posed as my uncle, doing a favor on my fifteenth birthday and making a man of me. He paid a few rubles for her. She regarded me somewhere between disdain and indifference. When Demyan demanded to watch to make sure I went through with the act, to make sure I didn't have any fag proclivities, the only question it raised was how many more rubles he had to pay.
Svetlana smelled like vinegar and saffron. She tried to mask this with a combination of deodorants, detergents, and cheap perfume, a noisome fog of bleach, soap, and rectified spirit, but her smell and essence were as distinct as fingerprints. Humans fear their natural smell. I long for the days when they used olive oil and musk to enhance their natural aromas. Now, like everything else, there is an artificial character to what they do, something sterile, known by scientific names, imagined in a laboratory instead of a garden. People always think about what they've gained over the centuries. Never what they lost.
She looked at Demyan as she disrobed. It was clear who the prize was--portly, a fighter's crooked nose, salt and pepper scruff hanging from sagging jowls--distinguished by plentiful cigarettes and a fat money clip. She was skinny. Her breasts were fake, but the stretch marks real. She had been scarred on her thigh by a burn, cut just under a rib on the left side. She'd powdered over the worst of her acne pocks. But who can escape their wounds? I, too, watched Demyan the entire time. Caught the reflection of a lit cigarette in his steel eyes, noted the way head lolled and bobbed as he feigned apathy and struggled to cross his legs. Her screams were faked, ridiculously exaggerated, until they were real. Her blood hot, eyes wild with life until the glazed over with the final boredom. I was messy, but we were discreet. Demyan unrolled some more rubles and we left as if we didn't have names or shadows.
We panted like steam engines in the cold Misnk air, crossing the Nemiga with the criminal haste. Once these shores bore heads like sheaves, broken steel like reeds, lives laid out on the threshing floor, winnowed souls leaking from the bones of Russia's sons were sewn for another dark harvest in the haunted myths of steppes and prairies. Now, the river was piped and curbed, less prominent than the street that bore its name, robbed of all magnificence, its rusalkas and currents submitted to the socialist realism of a Soviet amnesia. In this post-modern larceny we, a koschei and bogatyr, equally inadequate, anachronistic, lost, stood as our forefathers had, between Perun and Veles, but unlike them found neither side obvious or appealing.
Demyan subsided to a jog, then a trot, before allowing a brisk walk to mask his anxiety. He took out another cigarette, handed it to me, and with a tone of off-handed bureaucracy informed me that we had a deal. Contingent, of course, on:
"A test of loyalty."
Vampires tell themselves that they are royalty. That they are superior to humans. Masters of the night. In truth, we live like fugitives. We skulk by the night, haunting battlefields and hospitals, living off the vitae of the dead and dying. Whatever attempts made at proving the one true vampiric chauvinism--that we are not only masters of the night but kings among men, have failed ingloriously. We are a divided people and we do not share power well. Worse, what advantage we have in the night pales before our weakness to the sun.
But in the beginning, there was something... romantic about it. At the age of fourteen, I had been killed, murdered, by an Arab raider, for reasons which I would not understand until I saw Mongols, Mamluks, and Christians bloodying the sand for the same scrap of land that had fueled conflict since before I was born--we are animals. And animal death has no reason or order. Merely a brutal finality, a period in an entry of some ledger of things that were.
Artaxerxes had been the dark angel that had rescued me from an obscure death. For the price of an obscure unlife, he would have had my loyalty until the final darkness, but it was only the beginning of the seduction.
Vampires are obsessed with death, prominent and provident among them is their own demise. For while death has given them power, it has come at a cost. Many repay that cost among those who slighted them in life. And for me, a boy, a casualty in the game of kings over the trophy of North Africa, nothing burned more brightly in the darkness than a chance to deliver my wrath upon those who most deserved it.
Artaxerxes dangled revenge like a piece of string before a cat dance. He regaled me of the depredations of the Umayyad. Of the defeats of the Berbers, the death of Kahina, the calamity of succession in Eastern Rome. He described troop movements with fantastical precision, counted off the dead like stars in the sky, gave the contorted faces of the battle lost an exaggerated twist. He spoke Hasan ibn an-Nu'man al-Ghasani like a spell, a curse. Each syllable magical and exotic and haunted. He told me of the agents who had infiltrated his inner coterie. He promised me his daughters, his sons, his wife, and then, at the penultimate moment of defeat, I would be given the privilege of turning him so that he may be staked in the desert for a final sunrise. To steal the sun from man in order to end him with it. It was the ultimate genius in retribution. Something we would savor when the Arabs were finally broken by our righteous fury.
"But first," was his obstacle, his refrain. there was always a but first. A delay. An inconvenience. A test to prove my readiness. But first, I must find some fresh dead, to show that I have the nose of a tracker. But first, I must find a caravan in the night, to prove my keen eyes. But first, I must wait the night without feeding from a fresh kill, in order to prove my resolve. But first, I must hunt a lion so that I can wear the skin of a true hunter. But first, but first, but first.
But first, before I could earn my revenge, I was given a girl. She was someone they were sure I'd recognize, for Artaxerxes had planned for me long before the day of my turning. Ageless vampires feed on youth and beauty, it inflates their ego so long as they can bend the progeny to their will. Hasan ibn an-Nu'man al-Ghasani had merely accelerated their plans.
So it was no accident for them to produce a neighbor girl I knew. Her parents were fish sellers. They had left Carthage after the relief fleet had liberated it, but there is no safe distance from death and carnage. She had been a childhood playmate. A budding paramour in the chaste way children envisage love. A companion in games and diversion that I could be satisfied with for the rest of my life.
"Drink," Artaxerxes commanded. She recognized me. Her eyes were wide with fear and confusion. We worked by night and without fire and so she could not have seen much, but as I stepped forward she saw me.
"Leonius," she whispered in the night, pleading, "Izem."
"Drink," my sire, my hegemon, my captain commanded. He did not say it, yet I heard the but first implied by his words. Before I could drink from the cup of revenge, I must first destroy what was most dear to me--notions of home, dreams of happiness, an escape back to reality. For we are killers, one and all, not kings of the night, nor dukes of Nergal, nor the angels of a blood planet in the sky. And killers can have no home, for they will destroy it, nor can they have peace, for it will starve them. And I, most of all, sought destruction.
I watched from the other side of a specially polarized one way mirror. The decision was neither difficult nor emotional. Indeed, the hardest part was finding glass that could diffuse the sun enough for me to see. Even then, they insisted that I wear a full body suit and mask to cover the skin, leaving barely pinhole goggles for me to watch. It was dark and difficult to see, but I had hunted lions, tracked carrion and caravans through moonless desert nights. I could see well enough.
They brought in sister first. She had been an applicant for Idol, when we found her in the streets of Dubrovnik, fresh from an Italian vacation. She glittered in rhinestones and strapless temptation. Father had to have her. She was a pitiful vampire, wept often, and found feeding to be distasteful. As they brought her in she thrashed violently, scratched a guard deep enough to bleed and kicked another in the groin. Had she shown this willfulness as a new progeny, things would have been easier for her. As they lashed her to the pole, she let out a baleful howl, the requiem of a pop diva who never was, nor could ever be.
They had filed her teeth. The monsters.
Next came mother, who was so old and ill that she had to be carried. She was hairless, gray skinned, so feeble that she could no longer move on her own. Other covens would have left her in the sun out of mercy a century ago, but father could not bring himself to do so. He drank first and then spilled his blood into her mouth, hoping the power of his vitae might somehow restore her. She waited for this daily, wheezing a pathetic death rattle, toothless mouth agape like some chick waiting for the digested remains of worms. For her, this was no punishment or betrayal.
Artaxerxes came in last. His hands were bound before him like a martyrs. I had grown up with stories of them, of the cruel games the emperors would entertain to prove their God was no might before a sword, a dog, bears and lions. The sacred gore of steadfast belief before heretical violence. I was promised deliverance then. It had been promised to me for fourteen hundred years. He looked at the window with soulful eyes, week long stubble barely concealing the sad smile on his lips. I experienced my first regret then. It was impossible for me to spit in his face.
The three were lashed to a pole with silver chains and the roof of the chamber was opened. We did not have to wait long for the sun to rise.
I often wonder if the cost of seeing space was worth it. There is something majestic and wonderful about it. But that is also true of the sea, of desert canyons, of a steady winter snow that blots out all sound and thought on a cold winter night. But there was something dismally exaggerated too. From space, everything is small. Though you can see the earth in its full grandeur, it gets smaller every hour. Though Mars grows closer, it will never be as large as it once was in my dreams. We see space every cloudless night, thousands of days in a lifetime. I will never see the Northern Lights again. It makes me sad.
I think of the day that we killed Hasan ibn an-Nu'man al-Ghasani. He had been sent from Egypt to see the caliph, the efforts of his jihad unwound by the petty ambitious of a devious man. We stole into his room nightly, just after he went to bed, and like nightmares drained his essence slowly. In the end, just before I finished him, his eyes opened and he asked me if Abdul Aziz had sent me. Our revenge so carefully plotted failed to produce the recognition or revelation. Yet it had bent me along an arc of inevitability, sure as any rocket's trajectory.
So here I am, in space. Vampires in space, blah blah blah, I vant to suck your blood. Ah ah ah ah....
The night is dark and cold. Loneliness draws me close to the screens of the meters and measurements that I do not understand. They beg to be pressed, tapped, pushed with the gentlest seduction.
There are long stretches of existence that can only be filled with memory and reminiscence, which is a worse kind of emptiness.
The red planet grows larger every day. I know it is not make of blood. But the path here traverses countless oceans of it. Our achievements are forged in the hopes of the dead. I hope the red sands will accept me.