There’s always another way to your destination. You need only look beneath the surface.
Wednesday night, 17 October 2007, PM
Emil: Emil knows he can find the blueprints, he just has to crack open the right bureaucrat’s file system. But time’s running short, and he needs to confirm with Carter what’s safe to divulge to the sewer rats.
So he dials Blanche’s number first. They have a story to get straight.
GM: The other ghoul picks up promptly.
“Blanche H. Prescott III, speaking.”
Emil: “Em-ee-ul, res-pon-ding.” Can’t forget those triplets!
“Are you alone at the moment?”
GM: “I am.”
Emil: "I need to discuss information with the master within the hour and we need to be on the same page regarding my sleeping arrangements in case he asks.
“For instance, I was on my computer all night. What is the address of your house? I won’t come over, I just need to know in case.”
GM: “The master’s time is valuable, boy. Half-bloods such as we cannot him to be available within the hour upon our whim!” Blanche declares indignantly.
Emil: “Why of course. I spurn the thought of fri-vo-lous squan-de-ring of his time,” he replies with equal indignance. “How-e-ver, I would not be so in-sis-tent if this know-ledge I would share was not im-mense-ly im-por-tant and valued.”
GM: “Hmph. Very well, I shall inform the master. What is this matter of such urgency as to require his attentions?”
Emil: “I have in-for-mation re-gar-ding a-no-ther like the master in this city. Things kept nor-mall-y hidden. Even bet-ween those like the master. I must speak mum on it here, this line could be tapped.”
GM: “Very well.” Blanche supplies his address and asks Emil for his. “I shall be at your hotel after I inform the master of this matter’s urgency. I shall pass your information to him if he is not immediately available.”
Emil: Liar. You just want to tell him it yourself.
“Blanche, sir. Unfortunately, this highly im-port-ant intelligence cannot be passed through in-ter-me-di-a-ry. It was ac-qui-ered using very new com-pu-ter software, and for se-cur-ity, it must be demon-stra-ted only through know-ledg-able use of the very same software.”
Emil saw how long Blanche took to do a simple text input into his computer. Him using something new like Google Maps or even the internet generally seems like a pipe dream.
“I will of course inform the master of your important role in getting this key information to him. He will no doubt be appreciative. We might even present it together if you feel comfortable with the technologies involved,” he says excitedly.
GM: “Hmm, ver-y,” click, “That would be suf-ic-ient for the master’s,” click, “suf-ic-ient for his needs. You may ex-pect,” click, “I shall ar-rive,” click, “I shall be there soon.”
The other phone line is the last thing to go ‘click.’
Emil has time to order room service for a long-postponed meal and start the subject of his next search before he gets a call from the front desk about his visitor.
Emil: Instead of starting his search or ordering dinner room service, for he’s sure to lose his lunch by going into the sewers on a full stomach, he orders something small but high in calories and watches reels of images of disfigured individuals, in hopes of desensitizing his eyes to judgement of the sewer rats below.
“I’ll be right there.”
He locks his valuables away in the safe and blocks the windows with furniture.
Emil triggers the camera trick he setup some hours back, replacing the footage of him walking down the stairwell with looped footage of the same hallway empty.
Eventually he’s out in the lobby, holding a duffel bag full of his tools for the lesson, his cryptic notes, a flashlight, and a smattering of plastic coverings. He wears the cheap clothes he bought from Target. The most expensive thing on him is a pair of boots, already scuffed before they left the register.
GM: Blanche surveys Emil dubiously, then tells him to get into the back seat of his old-fashioned ’60s-era car. The seat is covered with plastic wrap. The seatbelt is covered with plastic wrap too. The strap and the buckle.
Emil supposes it’s an improvement over being expected to play driver.
Blanche does that. He tells Emil to fill him in on this information along the way to the hospital.
Emil: Emil reminds Blanche of the security risks of letting go of information in unsecured areas, and of the fact that the information is meaningless without computer aid. He even shows him his notes, written in cryptically warped Hebrew script, to demonstrate its meaninglessness. He’s torn off the Holiday Inn logo on the pages.
He reiterates that he will give him his due credit whether he can help present the info or not.
GM: Emil finds his notes missing.
“Tsk-tsk! Security you say, boy!” chides Blanche.
“When did you last see these notes?”
Emil: “When I put them in this zipped duffel bag right before I came to the lobby.”
This reminds Emil of the barn, where the shovel and the hay just disappeared under his nose.
GM: Blanche sniffs. “Perhaps your hotel is known to other Kindred. You would be advised to take stronger security precautions in the future.”
Emil: You wouldn’t know security if it threw you in a cellar and bricked up the entrance, he thinks, feeling the onset of an eye tic.
But then, as if remembering a vivid dream, Emil pictures Blanche looking him in the eyes, asking him for the notes and then him placing them in the glove compartment, and then looking him in the eyes once more and telling him to forget.
And he hears the snotty sniggering of Blanche’s voice, but he sees Blanche, and he’s not moving his lips.
And in that moment, Emil’s mood turns on a dime, but he doesn’t show it in his expression. He is alert, and oh so excited.
So that’s why Lucky said not to look them in the eyes.
GM: Blanche drives them to the hospital, gathers some things from the glove compartment into a briefcase, gets out, and locks the door.
Emil: Emil steps out of the car, carrying his duffel bag, ready to go present to Carter. He takes care to walk slightly behind Blanche, ready to avert his eyes if things go south.
He follows him into the hospital.
GM: They make their way to the office they spoke in last night. Carter arrives shortly later, dressed in a white doctor’s coat.
“Blanche said you had something urgent to discuss.”
Emil: “Yessir, I’ve spent all of today gathering intelligence on some of the movers and shakers in the city to prep for my imminent visit with the sewer rats. I’ve uncovered some fairly substantial information on the secrets of what I believe to be either two or three Kindred.”
He smiles, savoring the taste of the secrets on his tongue.
“You told me the sewer rats would appreciate information and I want to make a good impression for you, but I wanted to run the info by you in case you’d prefer to keep any of it for later use. I made some ciphered notes for the specifics.”
He looks to Blanche expectantly.
GM: “Yes,” Blanche answers, “the boy took thor-ough,” click, “the boy took ex-ten-sive notes, on the spe-cif-ics.”
“Yes The sewer rats would appreciate information, but we aren’t giving away anything significant for free,” Carter says. “What did you find?”
Emil: Emil goes into his many findings, the evidence behind them, and the hypotheses he has around them.
There’s the three potential Kindred: George Mutscher, Hosea Walker, and Daisy Walker—the latter two, a purported father-daughter pair, being relative newcomers to the city, both of whom are using false identities constructed in 2005, which he remarks is around the time of Katrina. He notes the utter lack of outdoor daytime photos of any of the three as evidence towards their being Kindred.
Then there are the power structures they’ve respectively wrested. The megachurch and the oil company respectively. Emil makes it a point to note a potentially leverageable rivalry between the Walkers and Mutscher due to the newcomers poaching of his power base.
He goes over the power dynamic between the Walkers, the implications of Daisy’s sabotaging the church business deal should one of the pair be a slave instead of a Kindred.
He also proudly claims to have found the coordinates for the room where Daisy Walker sleeps with a margin of error of less than a meter.
Finally, he tells Carter that he followed his suspicions about their arriving in Houston during Katrina back home to NOLA and found something particularly interesting. Jedaiah and Julep Morrison, the father-daughter pair who ran a traveling revival church until the murder scandal forced it to close. And the real interesting point. Daisy Walker is, or was, Julep Morrison, and there’s photographic evidence to prove it.
“If we were to sell some of this information, I’m near certain that Mutscher might be an interested buyer. But of course, you know the lay of the land better than I do.”
GM: “Yes. It’s good you came to me with this first,” says Carter. “Right now we aren’t selling Hartmaan anything he could use against Rutledge. That would undermine our position.”
He raises his eyebrows.
“But I’m very impressed you found all of this out on your own. I hadn’t known where Marion slept, either. Or that bit about her sabotaging her sire’s deal.” He looks thoughtful. “How did you do it, beyond ‘computers?’”
Emil: Emil is beaming at the compliment. There’s something special about sharing secrets, it’s like uncorking a good bottle of champagne: it’s just satisfying enough to assuage the guilt of knowing you can’t ever take the act back.
“Well, fundamentally, all hacks are predicated on taking advantage of a few weaknesses inherent to humans: error-making, habit-following, and the misplacement of trust. Rutledge”—Emil picks up quick—“and Marion’s church is built on a foundation of thousands upon thousands of equally faulty humans. There simply isn’t enough time to make sure no one is making a dangerous mistake. The compromised computer of a sufficiently connected target was all it took to trigger a domino effect, compromising any further unsecure targets. I had my eyes and ears in every fault and crevice. Inevitably, one employee says something in an email they think no one else can hear. That’s how I learned about the sabotage.”
He continues, “And how I learned about Hartmaan, for that matter. They all deal with the same pool of politicians. Many of them seem to have forgotten the nasty effect loose lips have on otherwise sturdy ships.”
GM: “Well, like you say, with thousands enough kine, it’s impossible to keep everyone’s lips from flapping loose. So much the better for us.” Carter looks thoughtful again. “It’s a similar challenge faced by Texas Medical Center. My sire and I belong to an… organization with a controlling but more diffuse ownership stake over TMC’s assorted hospitals. I’m curious what security measures you’d recommend to stop someone else from doing to us what you’ve done to Rutledge’s church.”
Emil: Emil seems to ponder that for a few moments, before answering, “Well the first thing to note is that every organization is different, and so there is no one-size-fits-all security solution.”
“I’ve seen many of the issues of Rutledge’s church firsthand, so I could tell you that to tighten their communications security they should stratify their messaging channels based on a security clearance classification scheme with maximally decoupled layers. But that’s an informed solution for Rutledge’s church, and may or may not be the best solution for your organization.”
GM: “Certainly. Texas Medical Center has over 100,000 employees.”
Emil: He nods, continuing, “That sort of insight about an organization’s security risks comes from what we call penetration testing.”
“A security analyst is hired to test every possible avenue for breaking into the organization’s systems. Once that’s done, they offer the client informed recommendations on how to patch any cracks. Before that process is done, most you can do is apply general best practices.”
“I’m not sure where you stand in your organization, but if you have the authority, I’d be more than happy to put the work in to make your organization a highly undesirable target to attack.”
“Though,” he thinks, “until then, there is one piece of insight I could share that would greatly reduce your org’s vulnerability.”
GM: Carter waits expectantly for him to share it.
Emil: “If I were to target a hospital, the first thing I would do is take advantage of the ubiquitous use of fax machines to pass around medical records. Fax machines are some of the most insecure devices on the planet. By design, the data that passes through them cannot be encrypted nor can it be sanitized to dispose of any malware being sent alongside the fax. With one malicious fax, an attacker could be granted access to not only all the private patient data passed through the fax machine but also any other computer on the same network as the fax machine.”
“With email, you have to be at least a little clever to break in. Connecting a fax machine to your network is like leaving the key to your front door on a freshly unrolled welcome mat.”
GM: Carter frowns and looks towards the office’s two fax machines.
“Blanche, make a note to get rid of those.”
“Of course, sir,” the ghoul replies.
Emil: He smiles approvingly. “That’s a wise decision. As with many things, nothing guarantees complete protection except abstinence.”
“But you know better than I how entrenched the fax machine is in practically every hospital’s communication and records systems. Not something easily uprooted, I’m afraid. Now, there are ways I could suggest—or even implement—that would provide a much safer middle ground. You interested?”
GM: “Yes. Also, congratulations. After what you’ve found on Rutledge, you’ve also found a new job while you’re in Houston. Blanche, have the hospital hire Emil as an independent cybersecurity consultant.”
“Very well, sir.”
“You’ll be doing most of your actual work for TMC anyways,” Carter says. “My sire’s and my organization largely doesn’t exist online, but I suspect the world’s largest medical center should have enough to keep anyone busy.”
Emil: Emil is positively beaming at that. In some beautiful, broken way, he’s making his mom’s dream come true.
“Thank you so much, Carter. I won’t let you down.”
At least for himself, though he knows he can lift his brothers up as well, though finding a place for Justin among the successful might prove more of a challenge.
“Though, if it’s at all possible, I’d like to be hired under a different name and a different face. Consultants are typically not hired right out of college, and developing another persona for myself will help keep my activities here off the radar of those who knew me in NOLA.”
GM: “Prudent. We can hire you under a different name, though a face will take more effort.”
Emil: He nods some more, and then as if painting a picture in the air, he explains that, “the process can be simplified by using a fresh face from the morgue. John Doe in all the right senses. Ubiquitous name, no family or friends to speak of, dead-end white collar job, a clean rapsheet alongside a history dotted with minor traffic violations to create a discouragingly boring paper trail, very limited online presence, and you have your guy. As long as their death hasn’t been processed fully through the bureaucracies, it should be fine to take them. I don’t know how much influence in Rice you have, but giving him a CS degree if he lacks it would be icing on top.”
Emil seems oddly unperturbed by the morbid idea, and despite the pause he takes, supposedly to think about it, the words come out fluidly, a solution to a puzzle he’s solved many times. Though then it was only in his head.
GM: “Falsifying an undergraduate degree takes some effort, but I have enough pull to make it easier for someone whose specialty is that sort of thing to do so. Stealing someone’s face should be relatively easy. Countless bodies pass through here. Blanche can look into that too.”
“Very good, sir,” says the ghoul.
Emil: “That should work quite well then,” Emil says, clasping his hands together with an audible clap. “By the way, I’d like to commend to Blanche for the good work he’s put in getting me settled and for setting this meeting up. He’s even agreed to teach me etiquette lessons,” he notes enthusiastically.
“All right. I need to head out if I’m going to make the meeting with Codi on time, but I really appreciate you agreeing to meet on such short notice, Carter. Before I go, there’s still a good many more leads I’ve found in my research, are there any individuals you’d like specific info on that I can target once I get back to a computer?”
GM: Blanche’s eyes look immediately indignant at Emil’s words, but he seems to hold his tongue, perhaps as a result of the younger ghoul’s concurrent laudation.
“I don’t think you will be heading out soon, actually,” says Carter.
Emil: “Oh? Is there something wrong?” he asks.
GM: “Yes. While I’m pleased by what you’ve told me here, there’s no reason it couldn’t have waited until later tonight. I had to postpone other commitments to be here, and paid an opportunity cost to attend something Blanche could have handled, if you’d shared this information with him. Though he’s also erred by not simply getting you to do so.”
Carter considers the older ghoul with a frown. “That is strange.”
“The nature of the boy’s information sounded very… technical, master,” he replies. “Your mind seemed better-suited to understand it than mine. But you are correct that I have erred. I should have required him to fully explain it to me before informing you the information was time-sensitive.” Blanche gets down on his knees and literally grovels. “I have misspent your time, master. I accept your punishment.”
“I’m not that much younger than you,” Carter says, still frowning. “But you’re my sire’s ghoul, not mine. She’ll hear what happened and decide how she wants to punish you for this.”
Emil: Younger, hmm.
GM: “Very good, master,” Blanche replies, still not rising from the floor.
“As for you, Emil, you’ll show up late to your meeting with Codi. That should make for an instructive lesson on doing things in their proper time.”
Emil: Emil gulps his ego down and swallows. He doesn’t look Carter in the eye.
“I understand, Carter, sir. The message of the punishment is sound. Might I make a comment with respect to the method of the punishment?”
GM: “Go ahead.”
Emil: “One of the goals of attending the meeting with Codi is to establish inroads with Codi’s slave so that you could have an ear into the affairs of the sewer rats. The only reason I’m getting the chance to establish it is because I presented myself as a skilled servant, a good example for his servant to follow. If he sees me coming late, that perception disappears and so does the ear into the sewers.”
“I have an additional concern with regard to the effect of Codi beating me.” He gulps again. “My powers have a tendency to trigger of their own accord when I’m under dire stress. If he performs the punishment, I’m afraid my mind will involuntarily lash back at him, which could spell my death. I think I’ve demonstrated that I can bring significant value to you, my death would be at the very least unpragmatic.”
“I would suggest that an in-house punishment would be more suitable, putting it in Codi’s hands by arriving late leaves too many variables and has a high likelihood of throwing away valuable information about the sewer rats through the gratitude of his slave.”
GM: “To be honest, Emil, that’s a bit of a long shot. The Nosferatu are very good at information security. My primary reason for sending you to the warrens is the chance to establish relationships with some ghouls, and possibly Kindred, with whom you share common interests. In some ways it’s an opportunity more to your benefit than it is mine.”
“All of the Requiem is dangerous. For all you know, I or someone else could die as a result of the opportunity cost I paid this evening to make time early for you. It’s all-too rare that we get to suffer real consequences within a controlled setting.”
Emil: “I see.” He takes a long, deep breath. It’s inevitable. He’s going to be beaten within an inch of his life. That’s the cost of taking a Kindred’s time.
“There is one more concern I have, beyond the potential for endangering my life. Codi from what I experienced takes pleasure in controlling and taking ownership. After he beats me, he might just force me to drink from him to further demonstrate his superiority. Is there any risk in that?”
GM: “Yes, to him.”
Emil: “I suppose that would be considered stealing. Let’s hope he doesn’t do anything rash.”
“I should also note that he said he might drink from me. Would you prefer I inform him that my coming late is a punishment or stay mum on that?”
GM: “Codi doesn’t need to know anything about our internal business.”
Carter pulls back his coat sleeve, rolls up his shirt sleeve, and raises his wrist to his mouth. There’s a flash of fangs, then a welling of red.
“Here, you’re due your next dose.”
Emil: Everything seems of so dull compared to the blood. The world is split into parts, the bright red and the meaningless desaturated greys that surround it.
Emil’s tongue lashes over his canines, but they feel so woefully dull compared to his master’s fangs. He drinks down the life from the wound in Carter’s wrist and prays for God to give him the strength to withstand the consequences of his actions.
GM: Emil gags at the taste, this time. It’s cold. Room temperature. It’s human blood. It slides down his throat like ooze. But there’s a note of that same fire, too, from last night. That makes him feel on top of the world, like he’s scaling the Tower, like he’s more than what he is.
He wants more. He wants to keep drinking from that heady font forever. To reach the top.
Carter, however, withdraws the wrist after what feels like a tortuously brief sip.
Emil: It’s cruel, to bring someone so close to something so good, to let them taste greatness, and then to tear it away.
But he can’t hold it against Carter. Not anymore, at least.
He can’t hold the punishment against him either.
He deserves it.
But why does the blood taste so goddamn awful?
“Thank you, Carter,” he says, dabbing his lips.
“It tasted different this time. Human. How? Was it not processed yet? Or does it just stay like that, when it’s drunk cold?”
GM: “The latter. I need to have fed recently for it to be warm.”
Carter glances down at his watch, then rises from his seat.
“I have somewhere to be. Blanche will go over several etiquette pointers with you.”
Blanche, since risen from the floor, bows low as the vampire moves to leave.
Emil: “Good night then. I’m looking forward to the tests.”
Emil doesn’t bow like Blanche, but he does lower his head as Carter leaves.
GM: Blanche closes the door behind Carter as he leaves.
“Do not ever presume to excuse yourself from the master’s presence again!” the ghoul thunders. “Your time is his time, to be spent as he sees fit! When he no longer requires your presence, he will dismiss you!”
Emil: The powerful blood that flows through his veins pulls on Emil, it turns his mind and makes him want to agree. And he does, in fact, feel bad about perhaps insulting Carter.
But that doesn’t stop him from judging Blanche for misunderstanding his master. Carter cares little for his groveling. He is not his sire.
“You’re right, sir. That was not my place to do,” he says in neutral tones. “And I’m sorry for my part in our mistake. We will grow from the pu-nish-ment. That’s what the master and mistress want. So that the qua-li-ty of our service to them will be aug-men-ted.”
GM: Blanche merely sniffs. “Your appreciation is worthless to the master, boy. Do not presume to express such sentiments again. They are worthless even among the kine. You may thank the master for his beneficence, if you must do anything besides obey.”
He considers the time. “I suppose you now have some time to kill. Go mop the floors until midnight. Leave early and the master will know.”
Emil: Emil listens to the fuzz on the edge of his thoughts, and he hears the words Blanche isn’t saying. Sees how much he believes in these trivial niceties of his. How much he believes that Carter wants him to grovel, to fight for his approval.
It’s sad really.
Because he can’t see the future like Emil can. How Emil will ascend one day, and he will stay a slave, forever.
How his mistress will be happy to get him off her hands when Emil comes to purchase him.
How when he does, he’ll call him by a new name. A true name. No more Blanche. No more pretentious thrice-reused last names.
Wednesday night, 17 October 2007, PM
GM: Perhaps ascension yet lies in Emil’s future, but his present takes him to less lofty heights.
It takes him to a maintenance sink and yellow mop bucket.
Emil: The maintenance closet smells of pine freshener. The scent is baked into the drywall. It’s built upon alternating layers of dirt and further freshener, which is to say, it signals anything but freshness.
He walks through the pine scent-caked halls, toting his duffel bag over one shoulder and pushing the bucket an arm’s length away. It isn’t suited to him any more than the pair of boxing gloves foisted onto him by the father he had dreamt up in one of his old fugues.
And yet, he pauses to wipe the walls, the tiles, and the floors; to scrape the dirt under his nails and see it up close with his own two eyes. He has to get rid of it, somehow. That’s his job now, after all, to hide dirt.
But where does dirt go when people want to dispose of it?
Some ends up wrapped in plastic and compacted into a landfill. But that dirt, that men collect in their house and bury under ground, are artifacts of their past. Wrappers of food already eaten, lacking their contents. Furniture so broken that it has lost its purpose. They throw away death, the husk of life. Dust is mostly dead skin, after all.
To find the dirt that weighs down the man in the present instead of the past, you have to find the waste that still lives. Where flies slurp fat off sinew and suck marrow of the bone. If the landfill trash is the husk of life, human refuse is its rotting guts, teeming with billions of bacteria, thousands of macrocosmic cultures within the microcosm of the still living but discarded flesh. It is fresh, but only for so long. The gnashing teeth of vermin and the violent chemical tearing of bacterial decomposition all lead towards one terminal: death. Perhaps that’s why the info-obsessed sewer rats decide to live where they do. Where else could they find so corpulent a buffet ripe for the picking of people’s most vile and vital dirt? The fact of the matter is, if you want the fresh scoop straight from the horse’s mouth, you should try the other end.
GM: And perhaps more succinctly, all shit eventually flows downhill.
Emil: So Emil finds his way to the bathroom. After all, it’s the peak of the hill; where the good shit starts rolling.
The doors in this place all look the same. Beige, drained. The florescent lights blare with a mosquito whine.
It’s only down this hallway, though there’s so many, he’s sure of it. He memorized the map. The wheels of the yellow bucket squeak against the floor as they roll.
And then he’s at the door, and it seems someone forgot to close it. How rude. Perhaps it’s a warning, or a threat, as the bathroom is very nearly drowned in darkness, but for the low glow of the flickering lights under the mirrors.
Despite that, Emil can see it still, he can see everything he needs to. He has nothing to fear from the dark.
The bathroom is mostly bare, a series of stalls, arranged like the rest of the halls in the building. Doors pressed into a wall. On the opposite side there’s a mirror. It stretches out from wall to wall, reflecting the unadulterated whiteness of the room, made grey in the darkness.
His steps are light on its tile floor. It’s cold. He can feel that even through the rubber boots covering his feet. It’s also clean, cleaner than any bathroom he’s come to know. There is no smell here, no water on the floor. No dirt to find nor to flush down the drain. No rotting secrets to share.
No husk. No guts.
Nothing dead. Nothing dying.
No past. No present.
There’s only one dirt-laden thing left to fill this empty room:
The blood. The living. The future.
Emil: There’s an interesting psychological phenomenon associated with looking into a mirror under the shroud of darkness.
Under dim lighting, in a few seconds time staring at the looking glass, the human brain finds an image in the glass. There isn’t enough light for it to be truly detailed, so the mind fills in what it sees as missing.
But the human brain was never made to see its own face, mirrors have only been around for eight thousand years, after all. A true drop in the bucket in the face of billions of years of evolution.
So when the face fills in the details, the results come out quite right. In the simplest case, features are stretched and distorted. Though it can be a lot more bizarre. Some see faces which aren’t even theirs: those of fathers, mothers, brothers, friends. The faces which tend to appear most clearly are ones of people the observer doesn’t recognize at all. There’s much speculation as to why.
Emil’s heard Catholics lay the blame on demons, others say they’re the faces of dead relatives. He thinks they’ve got it all wrong. It is a truism that the dreams we experience during sleep are populated by the faces of those we know. So, it’s only appropriate that in these waking dreams we see the opposite: the faces of people we have yet to meet.
Emil stares down the formless void of the mirror with two wide eyes, and though he can see it so perfectly, there is no light to paint his twin onto the glass with. Nothing beyond the whites of his eyes and half a silhouette
The voice of the woman beneath Babel rings out in his head, cutting through like a ship’s prow through stormy waves.
The blood runs true, Emil. In your mother. In you. In your daughter. He s—k-
He waits for her here, where he can be patient, where she isn’t so far away. And in the veins encroaching on the whites of his twins’ eyes, he can see his own hunger reflected.
He’s closer to the mirror now, but its contents are just as veiled. Just as formless. Only now, its bigger. Of course, that would make sense, he is closer. But it’s more than that. It’s far too large. It stretches from floor to ceiling. And wasn’t there a sink here a moment ago?
There’s a soft crackling in the back of his head, but he doesn’t turn to check. Especially because he’s starting to see something. Texture in the glass, divots and distortions.
And then he blinks, and the rippling of the glass is far more prominent. The darkness looks to him like wrinkled velvet, and he can just imagine what it would be like to feel. He reaches out a hand to it, and what was only a soft crackling is now prominent. There are licks of white noise dancing around his ears.
Emil: And when he blinks again, he can see the ripples moving in the darkness, waves in a great dark sea. From the crests of the waves spurt curling rivulets of static foam. The sound of the static is deafening and the mirror is larger still, its frame barely able to keep it contained.
The pressure of the sea against the mirror presses it outwards, the glass stretching, a balloon that threatens to pop at any moment. That threatens to spill the whole sea into this one room.
And there’s a wave forming on the horizon, growing to be tall and lumbering, and it’s coming right at him.
He closes his eyes a moment.
Sooner than he can lift the lids back open, the wave arrives. And it wears a crown of static seafoam. But right as it hits the mirror, right as cracks of flickering snow sprawl out through the bezel, it freezes.
As if daring to be disturbed.
Threatening to crash right on his head.
It wouldn’t take much.
GM: The frozen static-wave blurps, worbles, and re-freezes at Emil’s touch, like an image struggling to load over a shitty connection. Shapes form and dissolve in the black and white pixels.
Emil feels the static scar in his hand quiver and pulse as he stated and stares. A black and white image solidifies within the wave, its badly rendered edges frazzled with static. A graveyard bereft of graves. Mausoleums lined up next to one another like houses. A city of the dead.
The image collapses inward upon the wave, dissolving apart into black and white static flakes. Digital snow.
It reshapes into a figure.
Her pixelated dark gray skin is around the same hue as Emil’s. Her hair is worn in dreadlocks, tightly coiled rings that hit her waist, interspersed with beads, feathers, ribbons, and other random objects. Her eyes are dark and brooding; there’s an expression on her face that can only be described as intense. Her ears are gauged, her nose pierced, and her eyes lined with winged kohl liner. Her lips are dark and large, bold earrings made of bone dangle from her ears.
She looks medium height, with a lean and wiry build. Her well-defined muscles speak to hard work instead of hours at the gym. Her legs are long and her ass firm.
She’s dressed like a voodoo priestess fresh off a movie set. Eclectic is one way to describe it. Tribal another. She’s adorned in feathers, beads, shells, and bone, which wind through her hair and in her clothing and on her fingers. It isn’t more than simply there, nor is it enough to detract from who and what she is. It doesn’t beg for attention; it simply is. Her clothes look dark and easy to move in—or blend in. Markings are visible along her bare arms. Tattoos, or actually maybe henna,. It shifts and twists as Emil stares at it. Like the static, but more than the static. Almost alive.
Emil: The mausoleums. He knows them. He’s seen them open in the night, and knows that scavengers in suits pick at what’s left in the scorching innards of the dwellings.
What was once his father was buried there, or maybe it wasn’t. But perhaps the lack of physical evidence was a sign. The body that wasn’t there wasn’t his to mourn. No, he mourned for the memory.
He knows what he wanted to know before the wave came. Everything’s a tit for tat. But what will the woman ask of him? What will she give him in return?
She wants the graveyard? Or she wants his father? Or maybe she wants more than that, she wants the city around the city. The city likely teeming with dead men walking. The city he promised his mother he’d never return to. The city he promised Carter he would.
And what is this woman, draped in the gaudy trappings of paganism? He might be offended by the idea if she didn’t seem so vivid, her tattoos shifting even as the waves are still. Those intense eyes instead spawn in him something other than prejudice, that’s reserved for the Catholics. This image sparks something much more important, much more dangerous: curiosity.
GM: The woman’s image dissolves into static. Static screams and blares in its endless snowfall of black and white. Emil thinks he can hear voices through the digital noise, and perhaps see shapes, but the quality is torturous.
“w—… y- d… ey…. w-i… …a—…?”
“be-c… aus… c—… t… r-ea-…”
“al-… w… ot…”
An enormous black and white fist smashes against the mirror. Bits of static haphazardly blossom like blood spurting from a crunched nose. The fist smashes into the mirror, again and again and again. Static garbles from everywhere like a crowd’s roars. Cracks seem to spread across the mirror, concentrated lances of black and white snowflakes. The noise grows worse, stabbing into Emil’s ears with ‘nails on chalkboard’ shrillness as the image shatters apart.
Only static remains.
But it holds potential. So much potential. The pan-religious primordial chaos-soup from which creation arose. Emil stares into the black and white sea and faces shift into being.
An old man, with a wide nose and dark skin tightly drawn over hollow bones. His wrinkled eyes full of equal parts bitterness and sorrow, of the irreversible ’can’t do shit about it’ kind that can only come from a life long lived. He scowls fiercely and makes a motion as if to spit before his face dissolves.
There’s younger woman with skin just as dark, but smooth and pristine. Her expression is dignified, almost regal, but off-kilter. Her half-lidded eyes are far away. They don’t burn bright so much as eerily glow with sights beyond seeing. They turn pure white before the static breaks apart her face.
It reforms into another old man, dark of skin and silver-haired. His features are broader, fuller, his jaw firmly set and his wrinkles badges of age rather than bitterness. Dark glasses conceal his eyes. His composed expression feels almost paternal, like a father sitting in judgment, before he crumbles into static too.
And, last of all.
Emil: And despite how vivid her image is in the static, how it burns into Emil’s mind, she too dissolves into static.
In an instant, the static snow collapses in on itself, compressing into a circle of shimmering light at the tip of Emil’s finger.
He removes his hand from the mirror. It is painfully stiff, and its skin feels stuck with a million pins and needles. The light of the future is gone from the screen, swallowed into nothingness.
Emil is left in darkness of the present, staring his non-reflection in its smiling eyes. He may very well be tortured tonight for being late, but that’s the life of a slave. But all that is irrelevant to what matters.
He’s just scheduled an appointment with the future, and this time, he won’t be late.
Wednesday night, 17 October 2007, PM
Emil: Emil was one of only a handful of black students attending his affluent neighborhood’s middle school. That alone made for an isolating experience. Being Jewish only compounded the feeling. Throwing in his odd speech patterns and malformed social skills left the young Emil with a giant target on his back for any kid who wanted to climb the dominance hierarchy to aim for.
He spent is fair share of afternoons waiting by the dumpsters behind the school for one ‘maladaptive’ kid or another to throw him in. It was better than the alternative, better than being dragged by his legs out back, better than the concrete sanding his skin as they kicked him into compliance. He would end up in the same dumpster, it would just make the landing hurt more.
He’s not going to stand around just waiting to be beaten up. He’s stronger now. Smarter now.
Looking at his reflection in the toilet bowl, he ponders his situation. Codi is an idiot, Carter said so. His slave owes him dearly. If he can get him to distract his master long enough, Emil can claim to have arrived on time even though he’ll arrive late. He doesn’t have a phone, but there’s another way. There’s always another way.
There’s a plan, it forms in his brain first, but soon it percolates down his form before finally laying in the nest of his gut. Normally, he might obsess over all the different possible outcomes should the plan hatch, ignore the gut feeling until its almost too late to act.
Now’s different. Now, the gut isn’t just giving him a feeling. Now, Emil’s gut is speaking.
And he recognizes the voice.
GM: It sounds like Carter’s.
The recalled words sink through Emil’s head like a stone.
Emil: The message builds up in his throat, scaling the inner walls with sharp claws, and then, heaving over the toilet, it spills out in a low whisper of long and short tones.
.. .. …-.-. .- ..—/ .. --.. .. / .-.. --. -. / . … / .——..- / .. .- . ..-.- / .—. .-.. . .- … . .-.-.- / .. / .. .- . .—-.—/ … . / ... .—-. .-.-.-”
(“Distract Codi Long As You Can. Please. I Can’t Be Late.”)
GM: The toilet’s water whorls like it’s flushing.
“Wh-what?” comes a young-sounding man’s voice in gurgled tones, followed by a series of taps against the ceramic.
-/ .. … /—…. .. … ..—.. / .—…. . .-. . / .- .-. . / .——..- ..—..
(“Who is this? Where are you?”)
Emil: .- / ..-. .-. .. .
. -.. /-…. . / … …. -. … …. .. . . .. / .. .——.—/————/ ..-. .- .-. /——-/—.- . . / ..—/ --. /—..—. / … .- …- . /—. / .—. .-.. . .- … . / .. .. …-.-. .- ..—/ ..- .-.. .-.. / .. / … . . -.. /-…. . / … .. -. -. . .-..
(“A friend. The shoeshiner. I’m too far to make it on time. Save me. Please. Distract until I send the signal.”)
… ..—/ …. -.—/ .- .-. . .-.-.- .-.-.- .-.-.- ..—.. / --.- .- .-.-.-.- / --.- .- .—-..—/ .. / .. .- . /-.-. .-.-.-.-
(“But how are…? Okay. Okay, I can try.”)
Emil: That’s all anyone can be expected to do. But Emil can do more than expect, he has near certainty. It’ll work.
Thursday night, 18 October 2007, AM
Before the time comes to leave, Emil lathers the cheap clothes he purchased with the awful perfumes of the janitorial water-bucket. The contents are a brown and black slurry of dirt mixed with the tasteful scents of moldering carpet and bathroom floor.
As he heads out, he spends a minute or two breathing in the rancid air over one of the dumpsters outside and takes a few keepsakes with especially pungent smells to keep on his person. If you smell awful things long enough, you get desensitized to them. Emil suspects that’s how the sewer rats survive around the vileness in the sewers, and when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
GM: Emil finds himself called to Blanche’s office via intercom once the hour hits midnight. The older ghoul looks him over with a strange air of simultaneous revulsion and approval.
“You may leave now for the warr-en.” Click. “You may leave now for the Nos-fer-at-u’s.” Click. “You may leave now, boy,” he declares.
“Rem-em-ber well what you have done to earn this. Through pun-ish-ment, you may bet-ter,” click, “through punishment, you may serve the master,” click, “through punishment, you may serve.”
Emil: Nosferatu. That’s nicer sounding than sewer rats, but not by much. But still, fitting.
“Through punishment I may serve,” the hacker repeats in the affirmative.
GM: Blanche makes a furtive shooing motion. He’s starting to look almost physically nauseous.
Emil: “See you tomorrow, good sir,” he says, before leaving. He doesn’t have much time to dally, otherwise he would stay to see Blanche blow chunks. Is he scared of his own vomit, Emil ponders. A test for another time.
For now, he has a meeting to catch.
Thursday night, 18 October 2007, AM
GM: Justin told Emil about the Houston underground after he visited the city. It’s a system of tunnels 20 feet below Houston’s downtown streets and more than 6 color-coded miles long. Having started out years ago as a tunnel between two downtown movie theaters (so the employees wouldn’t have to endure the city’s awful heat and humidity while walking between them), today it includes restaurants and service retail and connects 95 city blocks. The tunnels are climate-controlled and air-conditioned, providing blissful relief from the triple-digit heat and tropical storms up above. Alarms alert submarine doors to close during impending hurricanes and floods. Only Bank of Columbia Plaza and McKinney Garage on Main offers direct access from the street to the tunnel; otherwise, entry points are from street-level stairs, escalators, and elevators located inside office buildings that are connected to the tunnels, Texas Medical Center among them.
“Unless you’re there to escape the heat, or you’re looking for one of these restaurants to eat at, there isn’t really anything to do or see down here,” Justin had said.
“It’s mainly a place for workers in the buildings connected to it to grab food, without having to walk around in the heat. And for tour guides to make a buck showing people around.”
Emil: Emil sees more than Justin suggested now that he’s walking through them in person. It holds immense architectural and symbolic value. It represents an open admission that there is more to this city than meets the level of the eye. In Houston, there’s always another way to your destination. You need only look beneath the surface.
It’s something of a comfort to walk through the air conditioned tunnels on his way to the warrens. At the very least he won’t be sweating before he enters the sewers. Awful scents glom onto sweat like flies onto shit. He holds the duffel bag filled with his tools close to his body as he continues towards his destination.
As he walks, he wonders why the Nosferatu choose not to just set up shop in here. What do the sewers offer that this labyrinth fails to?
GM: Emil has some time to ponder that question, and the aptness of that label. The tunnels go on and on. Other people appear less and less frequently.
Emil: It reminds him of waking up right as a flight ends. The midnight halls awaiting the exiting passengers always seem to go on forever. Half-awake, it feels like a dream that hasn’t quite ended.
Tunnels have an effect on people. When people die, some see a tunnel full of light, the path towards release, and death. When people are struggling in life, we think of them as stuck in a dark tunnel, at the end of which we promise waits a light.
What does that make this tunnel? The florescent tubes light the edges as they buzz along, but leave much of the hall to remain in darkness. Leaving him conterminously striding through dark and light, eschewing both indeterminate promise and final resolution.
Perhaps Carter misspoke when he told Emil he was to live forever. As he walks through this waking dream, he’s not quite living nor quite dying. Emil is walking down the path that lies in between life and death. There is no light at the end of his tunnel nor dark to wade past in the present.
There is only more tunnel.
Now he walks it alone.
GM: Endless dream.
Indeed, as Emil walks and walks and walks, he has little to do but think and dream. Dreams are the halfway place between life and death. The bus terminal on your way from destination to another. Where thoughts and memories replay in endless loop like periodic intercom announcements (“make sure you have all your personal belongings before exiting the…”).
As he thinks back to his conversation with is brother, he recalls looking Houston’s tunnel system up on a whim. He discovered that the system was not centrally planned; it just grew, inspired by Rockefeller Center in New York. But it is not connected to a transit network. And, befitting Texans’ distrust of government, most of it is privately owned; each segment is controlled by the individual building owner who deigns to allow the public access during business hours—and then locks the doors on nights and weekends. Some parts, like those belonging to the buildings leased by Endron, are closed to outsiders altogether.
Few claim mastery of the labyrinth. Even tour guides can get lost.
Intricate maps display the eight connected tunnel and skywalk systems, but without landmarks or directional clues, the routes can be difficult to follow. Nothing says north, south, east or west. And there is no ordinance or other legal mandate, as far as Emil could discover, for tunnel owners to actually put their tunnels on any maps. He’s not sure whether they even need a permit to build more tunnels—or whether authorities could enforce the requirement for one.
“So how large could this place actually be?” Emil had asked his brother. “If someone wanted to build another mile of tunnels, or even ten miles, could they do that?”
“I guess,” Justin had answered with some thought. “I mean, nobody owns it, and the government stays out. It’s basically the Wild West down there.”
“And you said that place was boring.”
“Okay, the part I saw was boring.”
Emil isn’t sure at what point it happens. The endless tunnels seem to go on forever. His only sense of time is the increasing soreness in his feet, the thirst in his mouth, and the need to relieve his bladder. His surroundings seem to almost shift in tune with his growing discomfort. The tunnels get shorter. Narrower. More badly-maintained. There’s no more shine, even dull as it was, to the floors. There’s graffiti on the rough-hewn walls. Lights start flickering or stop working altogether in places. Shadows grow long and thick.
People start to reappear, too.
One is a man in a stained and unkempt business suit, with days’ worth of stubble, a tie with its lower half torn off, and one shoe missing. He shuffles blearily ahead without acknowledgement of his surroundings.
Another is an shapeless figure buried under a threadbare blanket. Frightened moans periodically sound from within.
In another corner, an elderly homeless-looking man lies slumped against the wall as he injects a needle into his arm. He doesn’t look up at Emil’s approach.
Further along, a man and woman clad in dirty clothes with dirtier faces are fucking each other. The man takes her doggy-style, clothes still on, their apparent belongings gathered in trash bags and shopping carts nearby. Their hungry moans echo loudly through the tunnel. They don’t pause or make any attempt to conceal their activities as Emil approaches. It feels almost like watching animals mate.
Elsewhere, an elderly man is squatted over the floor, a hand held beneath his ass. He grunts and sweats until the smell of ripe shit fills Emil’s nostrils and gooey brown runs over his palm. He stands up and smears it over the wall. He paints a crude globe with both American continents, and then an enormous maw ringed with pointed teeth, devouring the world whole.
He whirls abruptly to face Emil and starts flinging shit at him like a chimpanzee while screaming,
“God’s WATCHI-nngh you, b-ngh WATCHI-nngh WATCHI-nngh THEY’RE ALL WATCHI-nngh ALL! WATCHI-ngh nngh! nngh! AHEEE HHEEE HHAA ngh! HEE HOO ngh-OOOOO!!!!”
“I’MA—KILL—YOU!! H-augh-HA HA! WHO SEES THAT!?! WHO SEES THAT!?!?! I DO-nngh-T! FUCK! I K-nngh!-ILL YOUR MOM! THEY DO! nngh! GOD-nngh! I! KILL GOD! I! KILLED! GOOODDD!?!?! Hahaa-eeh-EEEEH-OOH-ooh-HOO-EEEHA-AHA-OOHAAAHOOO!!!!!”
Emil: Emil’s always wondered what went on in the minds of nutcases, with their apololyptic warnings and creatively gag-inducing methods of getting their points across.
Years of practice being a prime target in middle school dodgeball help him bob and weave to avoid the sporadic hail of fresh shit.
Keeping his head down as he picks up his pace, his ears prick towards the words the old man isn’t saying. He always wondered what went through their minds, now he can. What awfulness has he seen in the world? whose teeth gnash over the continents?
Or is he just a poser, spouting gibberish about a world he hasn’t ever understood. Regardless, his nose is already numbed to awful smells like that. He’s been smelling them all evening.
GM: Disjointed, fragmentary images slash across Emil’s mind like shards of broken glass as his eyes meet the seeming lunatic’s. He hears broken sobs and feels a cold chill seeping into his bones. He feels something hard slamming against his fists as he pounds and screams his throat raw. He feels a nameless, formless dread welling from the pit of his stomach up to the tops of his eyes, terror so thick he could choke on it, must expel it, must scream it out for all the world to hear-
The man writhes and flails like a fish being gutted as blood spews from his flopping body. There’s a gory crunch, and then he finally stops screaming.
His body twitches as Codi drops it to the ground. Blood rims the Nosferatu’s hideous face as he stares at Emil with dull eyes that are still so very, very hungry.
Emil: His head thrums with an awful pulse from peering into the lunatic’s mind. The sight of the man’s tortured form cuts through like a knife, he’s just witnessed a murder.
ברוך דיין האמת.
(Blessed be the true judge.)
He thinks the blessing like rote, to bring God into this is to make sense of the brutality. But these things don’t make sense, dead men shouldn’t walk, shouldn’t crush the life out of the living. But he sees how clearly they do.
And another thing. How the hell did Emil know to follow these complex directions? All Codi gave him was an address.
This doesn’t make any sense. Maybe they made me forget, put the thought in my head like they did to Dad. Stole my memories once again.
Swallowing down all of the images and loosening the tightness of his jaw, Emil looks towards Codi, but doesn’t dare meet his eyes. Doesn’t dare speak before he is spoken to.
He can only hope that Codi’s ghoul was able to distract him long enough. Only hope that Codi won’t treat him like a juice box.
GM: “On your knees,” growls the vampire.
Emil: Breathing. That’s what he needs to focus on. Just breathe. He’ll make it out of here alive.
Emil follows the order, the wet ground dampens the cheap fabric covering his kneecaps.
GM: Codi’s booted foot comes down like an anvil on his back, smacking his face hard against the ground.
“Were you late?”
“You’re never gonna get up if you were. I’ll stomp your fucking head in.”
He grinds Emil against the ground. He’s so heavy. It’s hard to breathe.
“Like a pumpkin.”
Emil: He’s stupid, Carter’s voice rings in his head. It tells him he can do this. Because Carter watches out for him.
“Sir… no… sir,” he wheezes underfoot. He bets that he’d like to be addressed that way, what with his camo military surplus clothing.
GM: “Why the fuck should I let a worm like you in the warren anyway?”
Emil: An idea hatches in Emil’s head as he realizes that Codi is stupid enough to forget why he asked Emil here. An idea that may let him onto the secrets of these subterranean info-lovers.
But he doesn’t have time to ponder all of the outcomes of lying about his purpose. All that’s irrelevant, because he can hear his gut talking. And it speaks truth.
He’s stupid, but it’s a risk.
But he knows he can do it, or perhaps it’s that he wants to know what they’re hiding so badly.
Here goes nothing.
“…I am Landry… and Cobbler’s… technology security specialist. You…. told me to come teach… your slave… how to properly… keep your information safe… from hackers, sir,” he continues to wheeze.
GM: “He isn’t my slave. You have a really shitty memory,” Codi says. He moves his boot up to grind Emil’s neck against the ground.
Emil: The weight of the monster is immense, which is downright shocking given how empty his oversized head is. The comfort of knowing how superior he is intellectually does little in the way of making this position any more bearable for Emil.
“You’re… right… sir… of… course… sir…” he chokes out.
GM: Codi presses down on Emil’s neck. It’s hard to breathe.
“You’re so fucking pathetic. You can’t even talk right.”
“I bet you hope you’re gonna be one of us, someday.”
Codi laughs. It’s a hard and cruel sound.
“All you renfields do. Guess what.”
“It’s never. Gonna. Fucking. Happen.”
He punctuates each word by grinding his boot down on Emil’s neck.
“You’re gonna be a slave forever until one of us gets bored and fucking kills you.”
“You pathetic sack of shit.”
Emil: He grinds his teeth against the pain.
With these people you gotta give them what they want, in this case, make him feel respected and feared. And he is scared, somewhat, but he does not respect this brute. Emil’s fine with pretending because come morning, Emil will be a cybersecurity head of TMC, and Codi’ll still be a pathetic, ugly lump of flesh.
“You’re… so… strong… sir,” Emil says, stroking the brute’s ego. “I… know I won’t be one of you… but… I do good work… I can teach… the renfeild… like you asked, sir.”
GM: Codi’s foot comes up.
“Like I ordered, idiot.”
The boot comes down, crushingly hard. Pain shoots through Emil’s neck as spots blossom across his vision.
“Idiot,” he repeats.
Emil: “Like—you—ordered—sir,” he gasps, his voice wracked with pain. He’s gonna make it out of this, he has to. But he’s gonna bring something worthy back.
GM: The boot comes off.
“On your feet, scum.”
Emil: “Sir, yes, sir,” he responds.
He follows the order promptly. There’s a cracking sound as his tensed joints pop and the crick in his neck loosens.
GM: Codi shoves Emil forward almost hard enough to make him fall flat on his face.
His future awaits.