Though Smoke Shall Hide the Sun

Though Smoke Shall Hide the Sun

illustration by dave palumbo

“So,” said the man lounging on a folding chair in the center of the room. “What would make a lady like yourself want to join the army?”

“I’m not a lady,” I said.

Shadows cast by moonlight and dull fluorescents filled the empty warehouse, slithering over the cracked concrete floor. I'd driven for three hours straight after finishing my last job to make it to the nearest neutral meeting place. It was a half-occupied steel town that hadn't been absorbed into an Other territory and had no government ties, either. Another thirty minutes in either direction put us squarely over the boundaries of one territory or another, and they didn't appreciate having a hunter on their turf unless they'd hired me themselves.

 

The echoing space all around us made our meeting seem isolated, though I had no doubt there were cameras in convenient places and support soldiers ready to burst inside. Neutral ground or not, they'd arrived first, and it wouldn’t do to have a monster eat their cohort if things became unruly in our first face-to-face.

“Fine, what would make a vampire like yourself want to join the army—better?” He quirked a small, irritated smile. “I try to be polite and not call everybody out by species.”

“First, I was under the impression that this wasn’t technically the army. Second, you must have listened to my phone interviews,” I said. “You know why I’m willing to compete for a military contract.”

“Why don't you remind me?” he suggested. His expression seemed arrogant, but he kept his eyes safely on my chin.

I stalked closer. He leaned back in his chair so that when I stopped in front of him, our boots nearly touching, he still had some distance. Up close, I could see that his short-cropped brown hair held the faintest hint of curl. The thin line of his pressed-together lips detracted from his face but I was sure that when he relaxed he would be handsome. He was younger than I'd anticipated; not a wrinkle anywhere on his cheeks or around his eyes. If not for the status separating us and the fact that I wanted this job, he would have made a good snack.

Thinking of a meal made me notice my sluggish pulse, limping along at a slow, uneven rhythm. I needed to feed myself soon. Were I sated, I might not have noticed the rich smell of his flesh under the hint of cigarette smoke and aftershave.

“You contacted me first, and now you’re playing games?” I asked.

“I didn't set this meeting up, the big guys did. I don't know much about you.“ He lifted his hand between us to offer it to me, posture stiff. The slouch had disappeared. “My name’s Cal. You must be Hilde.”

I clasped his hand. When he loosened his grip as if to let go I held on and pressed my fingertips to his wrist, feeling his quickening pulse. He lifted his eyes to me, finally, and they held the heat of anger. I smiled wide enough to flash fang. He was a soldier and likely also a competent hunter, but I was treating him like food. The insult telegraphed where he stood with me, for now—a rude little upstart.

“It’s not just you who wants to vet your potential team-mate personally,” I said.

“You don’t trust I can keep up our end of the bargain?”

I locked my hand around his arm. He yanked against my grip. Tension ran up to his chest, bunching the muscles hidden under his fatigues, but his strength alone wasn’t enough to free him.

“The original offer implied that you were Other. I haven’t ever had a human partner. They can’t keep up,” I said.

“Oh, yeah?” he said, a dark excitement flashing across his face. “Well, none of them can keep up with me, either.”

I had no chance to ask what he meant. Flames flared to life around our entwined hands. I shrieked in surprise and instinctive, uncontrollable terror, jerking away so hard I stumbled back several steps. My skin was unmarked but I'd felt the heat. He kept the ring of fire braceleting his own wrist, his palm open and stare haughty. As he stood, the dancing heat grew, spread, until it stormed in a nimbus of blues and oranges around his body, though it never touched him.

“Think you can get through this, vampire?” he asked. The inferno flickered and spun, arcing off of his body in coils of flame that disappeared in the air. “I can melt bullets. One body is really not a challenge in comparison.”

I inhaled a measured breath to calm myself. Breathing wasn't a necessity unless I wanted to speak, but it was comforting. “Can you use it at a distance?”

Behind me, a fluorescent bulb shattered with a crash. I looked over my shoulder. Another cloud of nearly white flame wreathed one of the light fixtures hanging from the bare metal bones of the ceiling for a brief second, though it disappeared as quickly as it had leapt to life. He cut his power and the show ceased abruptly, leaving him standing pale and un-singed with a faint sheen of sweat on his brow. The chair behind him, on the other hand, was scorched.

”Quite the show,“ I said.

“So, you still think I can’t keep up with you?” he asked.

”Your point is proven,“ I said as I sketched a half-sarcastic bow in his direction. His lips twitched as if repressing a smile and his stance relaxed ever so slightly. Minuscule reactions, but he hadn't quite hidden them. He was pleased that he'd impressed me. “If we're going to continue, I'd like to hear in your words what this contract has to offer me. The recruiter was specific that they wanted an Other. Why? It's—unorthodox.”

Truthfully the curiosity was devouring me. The government and Others alike only hired hunters of the supernatural on a contract-to-contract basis, when there was unrest or dangerous elements that required our expertise. Long-term employment was unheard of. Ideally, we lived on neutral ground; we paid tithe to no Other leaders and didn't interact with the territories except on a professional basis, even if they tried to wrangle us under their power on occasion. All I'd had to do to become a hunter was escape my old territory and declare myself ready for business—it was as simple, and yet as difficult, as breaking all my political and personal ties.

“It was somebody else's idea. Higher up than I have clearance for. I got the news through my, uh, commanding officer that they had a job for me.“ Those words fit in his mouth like marbles. He paused, a shadow of a grimace flickering over his face. I didn't comment. ”Basically, the way I see it, we’re building a team that can go into the Other territories that need… restructuring.“

”Don't you think that's their business?“ I asked.

”No, I mean the ones that are getting so out of control they're starting to draw the mundanes' attention, and the territory leaders are part of the problem, not fixing it. Hunters can only handle the kills, so someone else needs to tackle the politics that come after. Why not us? You must be pretty well-adjusted if you got this interview, and I'd like to think I am.”

“What you mean is that you’ve encountered too many upheavals an execution can’t fix,” I said. Perhaps that should have been a sign that they needed to keep their noses out of supernatural business, but they’d never learn. “And you can't ask a glorified assassin to stay on hand and rule afterwards. Even if they agreed, most of them wouldn't know how to do it.“

That had never been a problem before the humans started policing us better than we did ourselves, but they had a vested interest in creating the occasional coup. An Other would never hire a hunter to take out the leader of a rival territory—they would do it themselves to claim the land. It came down to the fact that, while both sides cared most about secrecy, the mundanes seemed to be a bit more concerned with crime. After all, victims of supernatural violence so often tended to be human, and a few human deaths here or there weren't a huge concern to an Other community—but they were to the official authorities.

“Bingo, but I’m a human on their radar. If it was just me by myself and I killed one of the territory heads in combat, the Others there still wouldn't pledge their loyalty. It would just fall apart. Or, you know, someone would assassinate me in my sleep and claim the position for themselves,” he said. He spread his hands wide in a frustrated gesture. “But if I've got you, it's not disputable. We might lose a few groups who decide they'd rather forge their own little territory rather than declare loyalty, but it would hold together for long enough to stabilize the situation.”

“You're right,” I said. He shifted, patting his pocket, and drew out a pack of cigarettes. I waited while he put one to his mouth and, glancing at me, lit it theatrically with a tiny flame at the tip of his finger. “Why are you interested in this? You're not part of a territory. It doesn't affect you.”

“I could say the same to you. But—” he paused, blowing out a lungful of smoke. Contrasted with this easy conversation, his earlier rudeness was out of place. It must have been all nerves. That was a relief. “Really, I’m waiting for the revolution when we all get to come out of the fucking closet and the territories go away. Until then, this is the best I've got. Some of these leaders treat their citizens like slaves, and there's fuck-all they can do about it but leave, if another territory will even have them. No rights. I don't like that. We're people, too.”

The fact that he didn’t count himself as a human, and that he saw himself at war with the Others who abused their power more than anything else, raised my opinion of him.

“I agree,” I said. “Real freedom would be nice, if a revelation went well with the mundanes. Though I have my doubts about that.”

I felt wistful, and I let the emotion show in my voice. I had been born an American and died one. To be a citizen again and to legally serve my country was a fine dream, if they didn’t decide to burn us all when we revealed ourselves.

“But it's not just about the humans freaking out. The Others won't take an upheaval easily either,” he said, a touch defensive.

“The powerful benefit from being outside the law, certainly,” I said.

“How old are you?” he asked suddenly, tucking his hands in his pockets.

“One hundred and thirteen,” I said. “Give or take a year.”

“Jesus,” he sputtered. “I thought the only vamp hunters taking contracts from the government were babies. The old ones usually hate us too much. You really can play Queen wherever we go kick in doors.”

“I am the oldest to ever turn to your people for work,” I said, lowering my voice. “And the most powerful. I will be an asset.”

“Yeah, I kind of thought that,” he said. “But can you do teamwork?”

“We'll see,” I said.

“Damn, but I can’t turn you down,” he said. He thumped me on the back, grinning at the look I gave him, and walked past me toward the old bay doors. “Test run, first job together, me and you. Tomorrow night. My handler set it up. You in?”

“Of course,” I said. He didn't seem to notice that he'd switched from using the phrase commanding officer to handler, but I had.

At the door, he paused to call back to me, “Hey, what’s your special vampire trick?”

I smiled at him, and he left when it became clear I wasn’t going to answer.

33 comments
human being
1. human being
Interesting story, fun main character and twisty, intrigue filled plot. I hope we get some more from the author.
Nina Lourie
2. supertailz
I really enjoyed this story, but I'd like to specifically mention how much I love the part in the club where she discusses the ethics of not tricking people. I think it's SO overlooked in a lot of paranormal romance and I think it's so important to my enjoyment of a story. So THANK YOU Brit and Tordot for this really positive portrayal of sexyfuntiems!
Dru O'Higgins
3. bellman
Interesting story, and I usually don't read urban fantasy. Wouldn't mind seeing a longer work with the same main character.
Ian Tregillis
4. ITregillis
That's lovely. I particularly like the depiction of "sleep" from a vampire's point of view, the visceral fear of death held even by the undead. Great stuff and an intriguing world!
Steven Halter
5. stevenhalter
Yes, that was good. There is a lot of interesting background that is hinted at here.
[da ve]
8. slickhop
This was good. The scenes described by @2 & @4 were definitely standouts. I'm sort of burned out on vamps and were-things, but the POV character made this worth it. (Also, nice to see the dood is exhibiting some of the traits usually held by lady protags.)
human being
9. blueworld
Interesting story. I especially liked how she's the old one and he's the young one in the partnership, which I don't think is a very common dynamic.
Joelle Prokupek
10. readaholic
I don't typically like vampire stories because I think, in many cases, vampires have lost the sense of 'monster'. That said, I really loved this short story. I want to read more! I felt Hilde's emotions were very well expressed, vampire instincts and temptations warring with a deep down 'good person'. She finds compromise in her actions, but she can't stop being a vampire. I especially like how she describes dawn and what it does to her. Instead of only sleeping or being injured by daylight, it kills her again and again. Very awesome. I also liked how she was a very in-control type of girl and that the man got rescued.
human being
12. Ty Barbary
Wow.

I admit, I'm one of many who are burnt-out on the recent rash of vampire stories, but this one kicks ass in rather original ways. I love the characters, the world is very intriguing, and the writing is stellar. Good job! I really enjoyed this one - definitely one of the best stories I've read from Tor.
human being
13. Alleya
Wow - this is a fantastic story! Like Ty I'm sick of typical vampire stories so this is great.
Will there be follow-ups with the same characters?
human being
14. bobsum
I'm 72 and have been reading SF and Fantasy since I was 12.
Thousands of books and stories. This one is a real winner.
Brit Mandelo
15. BritMandelo
@Alleya

This is a world I have a lot of fun with and might do more work in, so I'm not ruling it out--maybe!

@all

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
human being
16. Darkblood Skullpulper
A little disappointed upon finishing the story to find that this was not an excerpt from a longer-form piece. The author has a really nice sense of style and pacing, and I'd love to see more of his work.
Mari Ness
17. MariCats
Well done :) My only criticism matches Darkblood's - this feels like the first chapter or a prologue for a longer work; I feel that a lot more can be done with both of these characters.
Brit Mandelo
18. BritMandelo
@Darkblood Skullpulper

Thanks! + a side note: I'm (generally speaking) a "she."
Ambar Diaz
19. ambar
Seconding (19thing?) the above. This was delicious and I would welcome more.
Leigh Perry
20. bdswagger
I have a question. Why the stories with print option, but not download option? I myself prefer to just save a pdf file, rather than print out another ss that I have nowhere to put after its printed.
Brit Mandelo
21. BritMandelo
@bdswagger

This post (http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/02/the-last-dangerous-qfeed-your-readerq) explains it. The stories are available here for free in print and audio, but the ebooks are for sale from all major retailers for 99 cents. It's a way for folks who enjoyed the story to have an opportunity to buy it.
human being
22. dokhebi
I agree with bdswagger: Why no ebook format? I prefer epub because PDF doesn't look good on my reader.
human being
23. dokhebi
@BritMandelo: Why the change? You used to give them away? If this is a new policy I will close my account.
Irene Gallo
24. Irene
@20bdswagger and @22dokhebi,

We appreciate your comments about site policy but, out of respect for the author, we ask that you post them in the relevant thread.
Harry Burger
25. Lightbringer
I don't know - the "I pwn brainz on all vamps, even 500 year old grandmasters" strong enough to compell suicide seems like a rather broken power. If she can do that, why not take over vampireland as puppetmaster? Without understanding that, it kinda ruins my suspension of disbelief.

That being said, very well written and interesting hints of worldbuilding going on.
Lady Knight
26. LadyKnight.ca
awesome awesome story!! loved it! i have often avoided reading short stories over the years coz didnt feel enough of a world could be conveyed, nor could depth of story and characters, but you did it beautifully!!! :) and like everyone mentioned above... i too am heartily sick of vamp stories, and even *more* sick of human chick-male vamp combos, so this was nice and refreshing! and it made me realize why vamp (and supernatural) stories are getting infinitely boring is coz they're always set in our world. and i realized a big reason i read scifi/fantasy is for the interesting worlds and settings created! and the world you have here is incredibly intriguing!!! i would die to read more about these two and the world they inhabit!!! and funny part is i had a dream of a very similar world/character/situation that i thought would make a great story! guess so! :)

also like the others i loved the description of what dawn is like for vamps! also liked the idea of a supernatural being turned into a vamp! dont think i've read that before! :) and its not something that crossed my mind (i think coz i was too into the story :) but Lightbringer's comment above was a good point... why wouldnt she take over if she has that kind of power? but i'm assuming there must be limits to her power?

in any case thanks for the awesome read!!! :))))
Billy Abbey
27. felix
Brit , I think it was awesome and would like some more , please. The part in the box was very phobic for me, much like in the Wheel of Time series when Rand is locked in a box.....freaks me out!
Christopher Orr
28. Daedalus
I usually prefer my fantasy to be of the swords-and-magic variety, and stay away from urban fantasy. That said, this was a great story. I liked the worldbuilding (the Others territories; the vamps, lycanthropes, and altered humans dynamic; etc).

I would definetly read more in this world. Great work.
human being
29. Emy
This did a really lovely job at turning traditional vampire tropes on their head! Hilde is neither a femme fatale nor a quirky over-sexed punk like we usually see-- she's a very complex, well-conceived protagonist. Like others have said, I appreciate the description of sleep as death in particular, as well as Hilde's unhidden fear of her still finite nature. All in all, I give you serious kudos for keeping an entire world completely understated while still making me want more!
human being
30. Ghost
Nice story, I liked Hilde a lot. There's obviously some complex motivations she's got. Bought the ebook from B&N to encourage more.
Liza .
31. aedifica
I finally found time to read this (kept it open in another tab since the day it was posted) and I'm so glad I did! Brit, I want to read more--what happens next?
Grant Seamer
32. Lighttriumphs
Very engrossing story. I agree with the comments above that it would be great to see more stories featuring these characters.
Martin English
33. Martin_English
Just repeating what everyone else has said; we need to know what happens next !!! Writing more about these two will also give you an opportunity to explain Hilde's "I pwn brainz on all vamps" ability :)

I love that the dynamics of the relationship are opposite to most Vampire stories, and how the world they live in is built up from small snippets of information.

Thanks for a fine piece of work :)
Brit Mandelo
34. BritMandelo
@all

There are high possibilities of more stories in this universe in the future, for all those who've asked. *g*
Heather West
35. dragonmeddler1445
I definitely enjoyed this story, I've always loved Vampires. I like how strong she is, and that she isn't love-sick or lustful, just struggling to deal with her situation and make it better for all. Great story!

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