©Denise Randall / The baava Project 2004

© Copyright 2005 Darwin (FictionPress ID:38645). All rights reserved. Distribution of any kind is prohibited without the written consent of Darwin. /u/38645/

Chapter Three: Information

The conditioners were broken; it was all he could think of. One long-fingered hand swept beads of sweat from his dark brow as he peered up at the plasteeline enclosure. No natural venting, no windows to the outside – without the conditioners the population of the town might as well be living in a greenhouse.

The air was at least 96 degrees Fahrenheit, with about one hundred percent humidity. At least in the heat outside the dome, sweat evaporated. He could stand the dry heat and he could stand the frigid nights – hot and humid were foreign environments to him. Here he could only stew in his own perspiration; it was the most uncomfortable feeling. He would have to spend some credits in the next town for a room and a shower. It would be a moot point here, because he'd be right back where he started the minute he stepped out into the street.

It was a good thing he wasn't staying any longer than it took to post his request in several supernatural circles' blogs and be gone. He could check his V-mail at the next town down the road if he had to. He wasn't staying in this terrarium.

With lithe grace, the man swept his sweaty hand over the access plate, pausing long enough for it to activate the door. The door glided open and he fit his tall slender frame through it before it could complete its travel. The interior of the store had managed to retain its own air conditioning, and he entered, enjoying the blissfully cool, dry air he was used to in the better domes.

It was so unusual for a Mexican Territory dome to be in such shabby shape. The rot was spreading south and west it seemed.

"So much for the good old days," he muttered.

Some fop in much too feminine clothing met him halfway across the floor.

The attendant ran blunt, pale fingers through hair that almost matched and regarded him with inhuman eyes. These were lizard like; orange and yellow striated the iris in a reasonably life-like representation. Techs – they wanted the fastest and latest way to interface with the electronic world. The eyes were implants and failed utterly at reacting to light in a normal fashion.

"Can I show you something new?" the attendant simpered. It was a voice that struggled to decide what sex its owner wanted to be.

"A V-mail booth is all I need." The depth of Cabal's voice reinforced his previous assessment.

"Are you kidding me? That's like…archaic!" The shim grabbed its heart as if in physical pain, before relaxing again. "We have a special on integrated processors…I mean, I could be putting places like this out of business, but you'd never have to stop to drop a V-mail again."

He frowned, regarding the fop with an icy gaze. He'd considered something along those lines at one point of insanity in his life. Figuring it would mess with his natural ability to detect and read energy, he had talked himself out of it. A few years later, he had seen the results of those early microprocessor chips. The victims of the fad might as well have been lobotomized. He was grateful for his intuition on the subject.

"Just the booth. I'm not interested in getting an upgrade."


"The BOOTH!" He forced the words into the hardsell's brain as well as into his ears. For a moment – when the man's eyes glazed over – he thought he might have overdone it.

Expression leapt across the stunned muscles in salesman's face and he nodded, almost bowing and motioning toward the back. "Eighty five credits for five minutes."

"Fair enough."

It wasn't fair at all. It was gouging at its finest, but the man didn't care. His frustration was reaching an all-time high. Of course, chasing a single vampire, even through the dregs of the human population, was daunting – more so when his trail had run cold more than three hundred years ago.

He passed his databand across the register and sighed when it intoned acceptance of the credits from the steadily dwindling monthly allotment from his account. He hadn't figured the money left from work in Redemption was going to last forever, but he'd hoped the interest for such high investment would have been better than this. Interest rates must have declined again.

He might need to contract for another job to shore up the month's allowance. It had been a more expensive 30 days than normal. Hopefully he could find a contract which dovetailed with his current search for Renate. Perhaps he would find something soon. Maybe there was an offer in his V-mail account. The man drew another breath and stepped into the vapor that swelled and then formed a lit keyboard and screen before him.

"Nightshade 5429," he subvocalized, identifying himself and accessing his account all at the same time.

"Welcome, Nightshade," the booth intoned, sounding sultry.

He realized it was about time for him to change his online identity. He'd been using the Nightshade handle for too long. Fifty years after establishing it, he was well aware that it might make some long time contacts suspicious or wary of his continued abilities at the hunt.

V-mail booths were soundproofed and held security measures to ensure other forms of intercepting information were nullified. Good thing too, because he was putting himself at risk every time he accessed his accounts. If he was being tracked, and this wasn't a safe way to communicate, he'd be giving himself away.

"Formulate," he said.

A blank V-mail template appeared on the screen, and he began reciting his notice.

"Cabal again:

"Thanks for the tip about the Mexican Territories. I found good spoor and better hunting, but as has been my luck lately, the trail went cold. I am in dire need of a fresh lead. I've included the rendering of my quarry this time, so you might be able to help narrow my search. Sorry about the lack of color. Running short on cred, and you know how photogenic vampires aren't. I'll be on the move again as soon as I send. Headed for San Angeles, I think, unless you can come up with something better to alter my destination.

"Thanks again for the tips…they've come in handy."

He quickly posted the note to his main informant, formulated two more – generic – responses, and then departed the booth. Hopefully, he would get a bite.

Cabal didn't thank the shim at the counter, heading for the door. He paused, running a hand across the top of his frizzed and frayed plait of black hair, unsure he wanted to step into the sauna outside.

Can't stay here. He glanced at the cashier, who was – so it seemed – checking him out. God, give me strength enough not to tear those implants out of his head.

Cabal drew a breath and let it out again, slapping the access plate with more force than necessary. It beeped in protest and grudgingly allowed the door to slide to. A blast of muggy air hit him square in the face and he was forced once more to pause as he caught his breath.

Recovering from the shock of the weather change, Cabal moved toward the lock to the outside of the dome and headed for a climate that suited him better. It was a relief when the humidity was sucked from the air a step outside the lock.

Cabal walked for more than an hour, past a field of small dunes. To an observer, he stepped into the wasteland, nothing to garner his attention or his need to be here. Anyone close by would probably try to stop him; after all, many a traveler had been lost out here.

Cabal, however, knew exactly what he was doing.

Once more Cabal paused, peering to his right at what seemed to be one more shallow gully amidst many cutting through the sandy field. He placed his hands on something solid, invisible to a casual glance. He, however, saw perfectly what the refraction field hid – rather, he interpreted the field and saw the equipment it concealed.

His touch disabled the security, and without a sound the refraction faded, revealing the midnight purple skin of the vehicle underneath it.

The Mandalay was an indulgence that he had never regretted. He had taken it from its previous owner, a scumbag of a man who was funding a terrorist group which raided local domes around Redemption, his former home. He frowned as other memories came unbidden, and shook his head to free him of Lucinda's ghost.

Never having owned a vehicle before, Cabal hadn't been aware of the safety precautions particular to a flying car. He had found out quickly when he used the owner to satiate the vampiric hunger that haunted him once a month. Pulling the driver from the seat of the vehicle had shut down the engines and the Mandalay had crashed.

Cabal had secluded himself for weeks, healing from that mistake in judgment. Several years more were spent putting the hovercar back together, using talents he normally reserved for the hunt to troubleshoot. The bodywork had taken him the longest. He had remade the vents from scratch, making them variable instead of fixed, and had meticulously pulled each panel from the body to fix and repaint.

He was proud of his accomplishment, and had enjoyed the benefits of being able to travel across the desert without walking. He considered the vehicle as much a part of his image as anything in his wardrobe or the style of his long hair.

Cabal didn't like bringing the Mandalay into most domes, because it drew attention he didn't need. More often than not, he parked it free of the enclosed cities and assumed the role of the desert wanderer. Then, he didn't get second glances. Flying cars were for the rich, after all, and in the places he went, looking rich meant becoming a target. It wasn't that he couldn't handle himself, but he needn't place himself in such a situation.

The door of the vehicle opened at his touch and he settled his tall frame into the pilot's seat. He pondered the fop's words a moment as they skewed into a tangent he hadn't thought of before. Perhaps he should drop the credits it would require to install a V-mail processor in his Mandalay. He'd thought of this before, and it seemed on the surface a perfect way in which to reduce his visits to those places that held leads in his search. However, it meant he'd have to get an account, and that – again – was traceable. In his line of work, being tracked was detrimental.

The door whispered shut when the computer sensed he was clear of the frame, and vacuum caused his ears to pop. To relieve it, he started the vehicle, listening to the whine increase in decibel. The sound barely penetrated the cab, but the vibration told him as much or more than sound could, anyway. He adjusted the vents, increased power and watched as a swirl of sand obscured anything beyond the windshield.

Though his hands were sweaty and itched because of lack of air, he didn't remove the dark brown gloves that were two shades darker than his olive skin. The itch across the back of his hand reminded the rest of his body that it was covered in sweat as well and it all started to crawl at once.

He growled, as if it was going to stop the sensation. How grungy he got never bothered him until he actively thought about it. And now that it was on his mind it wasn't going to leave him alone. He couldn't wait until he arrived in the next town along his route.

Cabal didn't abide being dirty. His aversion to it was certainly associated with the nearly seven years straight as living as a waif, dirty, unkempt, and barely clothed due to the condition of the world after the bombs fell. Sure, he tolerated it when he hadn't the time or the credits to get access to a shower, but he preferred to shower every day, every other day at the latest.

The navigational computer picked up a blip that told him he was approaching another settlement. It looked to be of decent size and that heartened him. A stay for the night seemed to be in order, and if the rate was reasonable, maybe two or three. He realized how weary he'd become in his previous foray. It was time to recharge the batteries. After all, the trail couldn't be any colder right now. An overnight stay might get him a hint or two about where his father was headed from the feelers he put out today.

His brain made the decision for him, sticking it firmly in his consideration to stay for more than a single night.

Cabal angled the Mandalay toward the distant rounded silhouette against the jagged backdrop of mountains, a profile that certainly didn't make for good camouflage.

Not that the domes ever tried to hide their presence.

He circled the dome far enough from its sensors to keep it from looking like he was sizing the place up and then moved away, searching for a place to set his vehicle down. It had to be a place out of the way of traffic but close enough if he was forced to beat a hasty retreat from the city, he could. Sometimes, citizens of these places remembered him, and they weren't always pleasant. It depended upon the circumstance of the previous visits.

He got out, wanting badly to air the cab of the vehicle out. Days upon days of travel without being able to get clean tended to make piloting the craft an exercise in shallow breathing. It was the musty smell that rankled his sensitive nose. Why couldn't his heritage have prevented sweat? True vampires didn't, dhampirs shouldn't either. Why the hell did he have to inherit so much of his human birthright?

Despite the desire to freshen the cockpit he couldn't, not unless he was going to stay with it. Unfortunately, even with the camouflage, there were means by which humans could detect the vehicle, and leaving it open and unlocked would surely mean he would return to a truly empty section of desert rather than the appearance of one.

He locked the door, ensured it closed, and then set the anti-theft devices on the Mandalay, before stepping into a late afternoon wind. With his long-legged pace, he arrived at the entrance to the dome in less than fifteen minutes. The guard passed him through without a glance at his faked identification and Cabal continued inside.

An information kiosk stood off to one side of the entrance, and he stepped up to a bored-looking bald man staring at nothing. His expression focused as Cabal's shadow passed over him. He straightened, adopting an ill-worn look of professionalism.

"Can I help you, sir?" Even his greeting to the dhampir was forced.

"I'm looking for a motel."

"Price range?"

The information man was already calling up a holographic display that was readable from either side of the counter.

"No more than 250 credits a night. Three nights."

The man frowned, and at once Cabal knew that he got kickback from the hotels in proportion to the charge per night. He'd asked for a low-level room price, and the man would only get ten to fifteen credits for the purchase per night.

Cabal knew all about commission jobs, most of his build up of credits depended upon the results of his efforts. There was nothing more frustrating than busting ones balls only to fail and not even get paid for the endeavor.

"Well, there is the Highland in mid-town. That is right at the 250 mark."

"Tell you what…I'm willing to pay more for V-mail access. I'm expecting some correspondence."

The man's eyes lit up, but he tempered it quickly with well-practiced caution. If he got greedy, he knew he'd lose the sale. Cabal would definitely make him regret it if he did. The man might not recognize him, but it hadn't been too long ago that he had been here last. He knew every hotel, what they charged, and what they offered for the charge.

"I heard from a friend that the Minuet is pretty good." That was about 325 a night, and Cabal knew he could make it work.

A nod affirmed his suggestion. The man consulted his database. "You're in luck, sir, they have availability. Shall I book you?"

"Nightly rate?"

"Three fifty including service charge."

Cabal smiled in a knowing way. The Minuet didn't charge service charges. The guy was trying to make a little extra. "How about I book it direct?"

The man's face fell. His eyes flicked to the screen he knew Cabal could see and realized his mistake. "I'm sorry, sir, I seem to have misread my screen. Bad eyesight – y'know."

A black brow quirked over Cabal's left eye.

"That will be three twenty five – you said three nights?"

"Yes, thank you." He couldn't help the mirth in his voice.

"Your total will be 975 credits."

"All right." He passed his data band over the scanner and watched as the amount was pulled and accepted by the booth.

He allowed the man to give him directions even when he knew where it was. Accepting his receipt, Cabal moved up the street toward the downtown area. It didn't take him long – he never strolled. He always moved as if he had a purpose and never allowed those watching to think that he had a weakness.

Cabal checked in at the desk, received his passkey, and was directed to the 23rd floor. When the lift let him out, he had only four doors to pass before he found the one reserved for him.

He opened the door, sighing despite himself at seeing a comfortable dwelling for the first time in a week. It was spare, as most hotels at this price range were, consisting of a bed, a vid screen mounted to the wall with a cracked screen, and a small table on which one could do any kind of work.

Cabal headed for that first, stripping out of his jacket and draping it over the one seat at the circular table. He was quick to unclip his suspenders and catch his holster for his only true weapons – his stakes. They were a gift from his teacher, Corea, and had tasted vampire blood many times in past centuries. Clenching and then releasing them, Cabal stood them up on the seat cushion. As he unbuttoned his shirt, he called on the plasma screen, accessing the V-mail function and calling up his account. He didn't wait until the function finished, heading for the bathroom.

He continued to undress, unable to help pausing as he passed the mirror. His fingers fell away from the last few buttons on his blouse. As always, his reflection was washed out – see-through, and showed him paler than he actually was. Cabal frowned, wondering how many times others had noticed that as well. Too many were probably wrapped up in their own little worlds to notice. Not that it didn't cause worry for him. Being a dhampir was not an easy thing – vampires hated them outright, fearful of thinning already washed out bloodlines. Humans automatically thought him vampire, and would slay him if they ever saw the tell-tales.

He snarled at his reflection, exposing teeth that belonged to a predator, a wolf he always thought. They were fixed in his jaw, and proved hard to hide. That was unlike true vampires, who could retract their teeth until they showed as slightly sharper, and no longer than normal, canines.

Sighing, he allowed the expression to fade, meeting his own eyes. Staring out of his darkly complexioned face, the ice blue shade of his irises was certainly an attention getter. Anonymity only came for him out of careful use of hypnosis, darkly tinted sunglasses, and keeping to the shadows.

He forced himself away from the regard of his face, finished stripping from his grimy clothes, and stepped into the shower. He loosened his braid as the water swept over his skin, and furiously scrubbed its dirt coarsened texture with shampoo. He turned that same fervor on his skin, wrinkling his nose at the dark water that swirled and disappeared down the drain.

Out of habit, he didn't linger under the stream of water, though the hot liquid felt good against his skin. Stepping out and not bothering to dry immediately, Cabal wrapped a towel around his waist before heading back for the main space in the room.

His brows rose as he flopped down on the end of the bed.

He had a response to his request for information.

Coming up next:

At a flashy nightclub in Vargas, it's hard to tell who is the hunter and who is the prey.