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Better Living Through Nanites

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It was an unadorned funeral. A hole, a body and a pile of dirt to shovel back in on top of it. None of the three soldiers set to the task said anything as they tossed wet soil in on top of Captain Baker. Paranoia was infectious and informing was profitable. When they were done they packed the dirt down, thumping their shovels on the earth.

'I'd have never pegged Captain Baker as a traitor,' one of them said, voice carefully toneless. 'Goes to show, I guess.'

'You never can tell.'

'Damn shame.'

There was a pause as they tried to work out if they were conspiring or not, then they gathered up their tools and left. The fat, yellow moon shone down complacently on the graveyard. The dirt bounced, clods cracking and rolling off, and then split under white, clawed fingers.

Jeremy Baker dug his way out of the grace and scrambled to his feet. Mud clotted in his hair an blood had dried stiff and dark on his uniform. He brushed himself down, slapping muck out of his uniform.

'Well, that went well,' he said dryly. Mid-sentence he paused, pulled a face and coughed. When that didn't work he tugged his coat open and reached in, pushing his fingers into bloody wet holes and poking around till they bumped something too hard to be flesh and cold to be bone. He pulled it out, a shiny, blood-wet bullet and flicked it away. This time when he cleared his throat his lungs didn't rattle. 'Ingratitude really is the essence of vileness.'

Still. Maybe it was all for the best. It was time to be done with this little rest cure of his. He'd never liked Philadelphia, and now he had the perfect excuse to leave.

Well, he sucked blood off his fingers – sticky, cool and...lacking, once he stocked up for the trip. He smiled and ran his tongue over his ragged, overlapping teeth.

 


 

It had taken a few years, but eventually people realised they'd had it good when James Bishop ran Boston. Not perfect – he was brutal and mercurial and dangerous – but better than what they had afterwards. What was having to keep your human job for 'appearances', compared to having your get turn up all bloated and white and Bat Boy looking.

It was too late, of course, he was dead. On the other hand he'd been dead for centuries, and there ways to make his lack of being alive more...corporeal.

The coven met in the old warehouse, dragging the sobbing witch with them by the hair. Her mouth was sewn shut and when they'd been cauterising the stumps of her hands they'd put her eyes out. Witches were only dangerous if they had time to plan before capture.

'Will this work?' a ginger vampire asked. His face was twitchy nervous in the dim light.

'I don't know,' their leader said. 'I've been it done before – only worked once – but what have we got to lose? One maimed witch? We're going to have to kill her anyhow, can't have her going back to her coven and pulling the full Lavinia on us.'

'I suppose,' Ginger said, giving the witch an apologetic look. Her ears were still working. 'So what next?'

The leader smirked and pulled her hair back, knotting the heavy curls up. 'Get brushing. I want a big pile of Bishop right there in the centre of the room. The vampires got to work brushing the floor, dragging out the huge blocks of defunct machinery to whisk out the corners. Fine grey ash, soft as talc, hung in the air. Luckily, they didn't have to breath.

The spray paint rattled and spat as the leader marked out the sigil on the floor, consulting her iphone to make sure the picture was accurate. Where they'd left her the witch sobbed quietly and tried to crawl away.

She got nearly to the door before the leader grabbed her foot and dragged her back, leaving a trail of blood and flesh on the floor.

'You are creating greatness,' the leader told her, dragging her onto her knees. 'One day, you'll be a saint in vampire history books.'

Today, though, she was just dead as the switchblade opened her throat from ear to ear. Blood gouted out, splashing over the ground and clotting the ash together, and the leader pronounced the words of the spell with careful precision.

If the witch hadn't been bleeding out on the floor, pain fading to numbness, she could have told her not to finish the spell, she could have told her that the price for this was never as simple as just a death. Could have, but probably wouldn't.

'Rise, James Bishop,' the leader said, stabbing her hand with the bloody knife. 'Rise and be reborn, rise and take back your works.'

Her blood was old and slow, bubbling dark and reluctant from the wound, but it fell eventually. It sat in a discrete globule on the muddy dust and nothing happened.

'It didn't work!'

'Shut up!' the leader yelled. She dug the knife deeper into her hand, twisting it between the bones and carving hunks of flesh until her fingers flopped bonelessly. 'Rise. Rise, you untainted bastard.'

Nothing.

She dropped to her knees, bones clacking and dug her hands into the ash to scatter it. Pain ripped up her arms, scraping out through her veins and down into her bones. She opened her mouth to scream, but she couldn't. The corners of her mouth split and the moorings of her tongue tore she tried so hard to scream, but the pain just dragged the sound down ate it.

Muscles popped and thickened, her joints crackle-popped free and clicked back into heavier settings. Her pelvis snapped and mangled, her genetic code stripping itself back to factory settings and rewriting itself. Flesh stripped itself from its moorings, magic reaching up inside her and turning her inside out. Blood soaked her legs and finally, finally she could scream.

The others ran.

She – not quite, not quite him yet either – caught most of them, sucking down blood and flesh and even crunchy chunks of marrow juicy bone. James Bishop had not been a small thing, remaking him was no easy task.

 


 

Jeremy – he supposed he could go back to James, but he gotten used to being Baker – drank the man dry, then ripped his neck out to hide the marks. No one thought about vampires any more, the milita were the monsters under the bed. Still no reason to be careless. He pressed his tongue against his fangs, the jab of pain making them retract, and turned to look towards Independence Hall.

The Republic's flag flapped in the night wind, mocking him. 15 years he'd fought under that banner, because he liked building things and vampires...Well, they had proved a terrible disappointment, to be frank. It would take him 15 minutes to tear it all down, to gouge his way to the heart of the Republic and stop it beating. Show Sebastian Monroe exactly what getting killed by Jeremy Baker looked like.

It might even count as a mercy. He'd never been one of the Dutch, swaddling themselves up like mummies against the cooties of progress. As Lieutenant Bishop he'd had to attend seminars and 'Sensitivity Training' until he was sick to the fangs with it. He knew the words – and even before they'd called it anything, he'd seen it.

Men who were brave on the field of battle, feted and unflinching, but who broke on their return to lives they'd rhapsodised about over campfires. Women who killed the very things they loved the most and couldn't explain why. People good and bad, who let whatever had gone rotten in their brain eat everything they were and had.

There was something like that in Monroe and he'd been walking the razor wire over it for years. Until Miles pushed him over. Now he was alone, with nothing but the fear of what was inside and out. Pointless to deem someone culpable unless they had the the capacity to do something different – that was what Aidan had never understood.

A kindness to kill him, but neither of his incarnations had been kind. Or particularly good at letting go.

Jeremy sighed and turned away from the hall. Let Monroe live and conquer. Perhaps he'd find some sort of peace in that. Jeremy didn't have the heart to kill him, let time do that.

He turned his collar up and headed for the gates, slipping through the shadows and alleys where no-one could see him and start rumours. Maybe he'd go back to Boston. Monroe was training his sights further afield, and Boston was his. He could see what they had made of it in his absence.

 


 

The only vampires he found in Boston were crawling, devolved hybrids, ravening mules incapable of understanding the culture they'd suckled the life from them. Cannibals that would eat their own without qualm or regard. Abandoned or orphans. He tried to teach them control, aspirations, but they were incapable of thinking beyond their next mouthful of blood.

He came back to the squalid lair one night and found them feasting on a militia patrol. Pasty creatures with bulging eyes making wet, sucking noises as they tore at the bloody uniforms of the already dead.

It shouldn't have mattered. Humans were just food or raw materials – hadn't he learned that with Jane? It did though. Mortal or not, the militia were more made in his image than these things.

He purged Boston of them, burning their bodies in the old wolf pit. It seemed fitting. Even the fire didn't seem to want their fungal flesh, spluttering reluctantly and burping out gouts of yellow-grey, stinking smoke. It turned Jeremy's stomach as little did any more and he retreated, sealing the tunnels up behind him.

The old worry gnawed him as he slammed the heavy iron door and twisted the handle till it cracked. Aidan had been perfect when he rose – a monster to be proud of – but what if his next get would be like them? He had never drank tainted, animal blood, but he wasn't quite him anymore was he?

Years ago he'd thought about it. He had always liked warriors, and Bass and Miles were quintessentially that. The thought of doing that to one of his children, watching his perfect, beautiful child devolve in some thing he had to put down.

Or leave to suffer, like he'd left Monroe.

He growled, a low, vicious sound, as his thoughts fell into that old rut. It was the vampiric equivalent of senility – not being able to let go of old patterns. He couldn't let go of the militia, of Monroe, and he still called himself Jeremy, even to himself, in his head.

Being in Boston didn't help. The familiar streets made the changes harder to bear. He expected to see people he knew, places he was welcome – Aidan – and he was always disappointed. Maybe he should give Canada a go? He hadn't much liked it last time he'd been there, but the situation hadn't been ideal. The people had been welcoming enough – given the proper push – and tasty.

It was halfway across the Plains Nation – the Republic border with Canada would be a pain to cross, even for him – when he heard someone talking about magic. It was enough to make him prick his ears up. Witches – he'd never liked them much. When he killed someone, he wanted them to stay dead.

Although he could appreciate the irony, considering his own situation.

It didn't take him long to track the source of the rumours. A bitter woman in a hard town with a dead husband and a dying son. Superstition and hysteria, Jeremy was ready to just dismiss her until:

'The blonde witch -' the woman said the 'W' like it was a 'B', 'she said she'd help, she said she'd save my boy. Instead, she took my husband. Hit him on the head and just left him to die alone. I thought – she said she'd help.'

'Guess she lied,' Jeremy said.

The woman wiped tears out of her eyes and glared at him. 'She fixed her leg – Bill saw it, he said the bone just crawled together like magic, only it was something to do with computers. The fat man programmed it-'

Jeremy stopped his half-hearted plans to end her suffering by eating her and leant forwards. 'Fat man? Beard, glasses, whined a lot?'

She shrugged, confusion pinching her lips. 'I guess.'

'And the blonde, she was pretty, 40ish, eyes like an ice pick.'

Contempt went hard on the woman's face. 'That's her. Why?'

'Oh, don't you worry about that,' Jeremy said, giving her a gentle push. Her eyes went a bit vague. 'Just tell me where they went?'

Once he found their trail it wasn't hard to follow. He knew Rachel's scent already – cold enouth to stick your tongue too – and the fat man smelt of desperation and blisters. It helped they were heading west in a ruler-straight line. They had a two week head start on him. It took him a day to catch up. Playing human had slowed him down a lot.

He stopped outside their camp, the air ripe with the smell of cooking rat, and straightened his jacket. It was still his militia green pea-coat. Vampire senility was definitely setting in. Rachel leant forwards and pulled a tail and half a leg off the rat, visibly gagging as she tried to choke it down.

'Rachel Matheson,' Jeremy said pleasantly, stepping out of the shadows. 'Fancy seeing you here. It's a small world, isn't -'

She spat out the rat and snatched the gun from under her jacket and shot him – three times in the chest. He looked down at the blood bubbling out and sighed. 'I guess that's the niceties out of the way.'

'What...what are doing here, Baker?' Rachel said, gun sagging like a sad cock.

'Ah, Rachel, that's a long story,' Jeremy said. He sat down next to the fat man, fire warm on his skin, and leant forwards. He cupped his hands around his knees and smiled cheerily at her. 'So what's this I hear about you being a murdering witch? Same old, same old then.'

She did that still, thoughtful thing that had always driven Monroe mad, but good luck to her if she thought she could-still the dead. The fat man fidgeted next to him – 'discreetly' sliding his hand down to his boot. Metal flashed towards Jeremy's throat. He leant back out of the way, grabbed the fat man's arm and snapped the wrist with a meat-dulled crack, all without breaking eye contact with Rachel. He dragged the screaming genius in close and kissed his cheek.

'If you don't hush, I'll break the other one.'

'What are you doing? Where's Monroe.'

Jeremy twisted his mouth. 'We parted ways.'

'So you're not working for the milita anymore?' Rachel said, careful hope in her voice. 'You can help us. You've seen what he is, Jeremy. Monroe killed my son, Danny never hurt anyone.'

'It's a war, Rachel. People die – and didn't your son shoot down a helicopter with a bazooka? I'm pretty sure that hurt.'

'Monroe's a monster,' Rachel said. 'You were never that. I remember you, you could be kind.'

Jeremy moved, jumping over the fire and grabbing Rachel by the throat. He smacked her back into the tree.

'Let's not be rude,' he said, rubbing his thumb along her jaw. 'What fixed your leg?'

She pressed her pale lips together into a taut line. He smiled and rested his forehead against hers, feeling the pulse of blood in her temple. 'I'm only curious, Rachel. I'll risk killing you to get my answer.'

Her mouth writhed into something like a smile. 'Guess I was wrong about you.'

'Very. My death toll might be nothing like yours, but I'm not nice.'

'Fine,' she said, eyes checking out for a second. She ignored his jibe about the death tally; he thought she hadn't really heard it. Humans were weird sometimes. A hand on his chest pushed him back and he obliged, letting her pull up the leg of her jeans and flash a grubby, but intact knee. 'I'd popped my knee out of joint; I popped it back in. That's all, they were just scared and hopeful.'

Jeremy considered that. It was possible. Humans were the most suggestible people. Still, with that in mind, why not check. He caught her chin between his fingers and caught her gaze with his.

'Been a while since I've done this,' he said, reaching into her mind. 'Hope your brains don't run out your ears.'

She told him everything, smiling and dreamy while the fat man begged her to stop through snot and tears. Not that he understood more than the gist of her explanation.

'So,' he said. 'Tiny magic machines.'

Even compelled she sneered at him. 'If that's what you understand.'

'And the fat man -'

'My name is Aaron.'

Jeremy looked over his shoulder at me. 'Do you really think I care?'

Aaron – hm, it had worked – shook his head mutely and Jeremy turned back to Rachel.

'So, Aaron can reprogram these magic machines and they can fix anything?'

'Most things.'

'...what about brain chemistry?'

She stared at him. 'Surprised you know a word with so many syllables, but yes. They could theoretically function as anti-psychotics, but they can't be taken in and out. If I remove it now -'

'Rachel, shut up!' Aaron begged.

'-my knee will revert to how it was. It isn't actually healed, the nanites are just mimicking the process.'

Jeremy killed her. She was too clever and too driven to leave alive, and with only one leg she'd have probably died soon and badly anyhow. He twisted her lower leg, disarticulating it with a crackle and pop like a chicken leg, and ripped it loose. Blood splattered everywhere, bright and red and already cooling. Once they were dead the blood was...nothing. It didn't even fill you, no matter how much you glutted yourself on it. He poked around in the stump – the torn bone already mending itself – and pulled out a flickering blue and red pill. It reminded him of his old squad car, and he was surprised at the prick of sentimentality there.

Behind him, Aaron finished barfing up his rat. 'What are you going to do to me?' he asked.

Good question. Jeremy tossed the capsule in his hand as he thought about it. He could do anything. Clean his blood, start a new family – he wasn't too old to raise one more child. Or...

He sighed. He'd been Baker too long and too determinedly. That was what he planned to blame it on, anyhow, and there was no one left to point out that Bishop had been a fool for sentiment all his unlife.

'We're going to make my friend better,' he said, turning around. Aaron was lying shuddering on the ground, vomit crusted in his beard and skin the colour of sour milk. Jeremy frowned at him. 'Clear yourself up. I'm not going to back to Philadelphia with you stinking like that.'

In the end, they didn't have to go all the way back to Philadelphia. Three days on the interminable, human-speed journey back (Jeremy could have carried Aaron, he supposed, but it looked so undignified) a squad of helicopters roared by over head

He tilted his head back, shading his eyes against the glare, and picked out Monroe sitting staring down at the passing countryside. On a whim, Jeremy waved cheerfully up at him. There was no way that Monroe could pick him out at this distance, but it amused Jeremy to think of him trying to work out who'd be glad to see the militia.

'Well,' he said to Aaron. 'Looks like we're going the wrong way.'

Aaron wasn't good. His wrist was neatly set and bandaged, but he was sweating his way into an infection and he was very obviously scared of Jeremy. Give him his due though, he did try and stand up for himself.

'What if it doesn't work?' he asked, trotting along at Jeremy's heels as they struck out towards one of the few cities left inhabited in the nomadic Plains. 'What if it kills him? Rachel said it could, she didn't know if it would work on her and she was genetically related to Danny. With Monroe-'

Jeremy glanced back at him and grinned, all shiny black eyes and ragged, jostling fangs. 'Well then, Aaron, you'd get to be my new best friend.'

The smell of fear-released urine that haunted them for the next 10 miles was worth it just to shut the man up.

 


 

Bishop had never really spent a lot of time in the mid-west. Too sunny, too sparse, too religious – back then. Not that religious iconography was nearly as effective as people hoped, but religion encouraged people to care about whether their neighbour was coveting their ox or living in puddles of bloody sin. It also made it a lot easier to stir up a mob.

It had probably been nicer before it burnt down a few years ago. Jeremy remembered reading the reports and laughing with Miles – so more than a few years, he supposed – that they couldn't have done better if they'd tried. Reports claimed it had burned for a week, a forest fire constrained by walls and bubbling rivers of scalding tar.

He walked over the broken and rippled road, the sharp edges tearing at his boots, and through the dark, fire-cracked buildings. A skinny girl offered to sell her bony wares for a clip of gold, but was happy enough to take it in return for the gossip about the 'flying machines'. They were in Highland.

Jeremy found an empty building for Aaron to work in.

'Don't try and run,' he said. 'I know your smell.'

'That's not creepy at all.'

'A noseless leper could follow your stench, Aaron,' he said. 'Reprogram Rachel's little machines for me – don't dawdle.'

He went out to hunt – ignoring the twist of anxiety in his stomach. It would work or it wouldn't. If it didn't, it might take him a year or a decade but he'd get over it eventually. A contrary voice in his head pointed out he still missed Aidan, decades after their bond first broke. That was different, though. Aidan was his son, however wayward.

Monroe was just a human. No more special, in the passing of decades, than Jane.

 

As a show of force, the helicopters and reports from Georgia had been all the Plains Nation needed. The council had bent their neck to Monroe on arrival, trading independence for the promise of eventual power.

It was a victory, the end of 15 years of conflict, and Monroe was celebrating along in a private suite at the embassy. Jeremy let himself in, giving the guards a sharp push so they wouldn't notice anything for an hour or so. Monroe was sprawled behind the desk, dipping his fingers in his whiskey absently. The click of the door closing brought his head up, drink glazed blue eyes struggling to focus. Jeremy smiled at him and held his arms out.

'Miss me?'

He was expecting anger or confusion, not that bright, ridiculous grin of Monroe's. 'Like a bad smell,' Monroe said. He waved a hand at the bottle of whiskey. 'Help yourself, Captain. They surrendered, the Plains belong to the Republic.'

Uncertain about how to react, Jeremy hesitated and then helped himself to a glass. It was better than the usual stuff, mellow and aged. Monroe kept talking, a slightly slurred account of General Bathory kissing his ring.

'You pull in the loyalty, Randall takes the credit,' Jeremy said, propping his hip on the edge of the desk. 'Be careful of him – he couldn't get anyone to follow him to the pub, but he wants the power.'

Monroe rubbed his hand over his mouth, smile fading to something weary. 'I know. Everyone wants the power. Except you – because I killed you.'

'I was wondering if you'd forgotten.'

'Killed my only friend,' Monroe said, head lolling back. 'The only one who gave a damn. I'm not going to forget that.'

'You really shouldn't talk to hallucinations you know,' Jeremy said, sliding the whiskey out of Monroe's reach.

Monroe reached out and trailed his hand along Jeremy's arm. 'Who else have I got?'

'Whose fault is that?'

A terrible, wild grief welled up in Monroe's face, as consuming as his smile. 'Mine. You were right. It's all my fault.'

He lurched up, grabbing the bottle, and flung it against the wall. It smashed in an explosion of booze and glass. Monroe gave a bitter, giddy laugh and turned to Jeremy.

'You were the only one who told me the truth,' he said, grabbing the front of Jeremy's jacket. 'And I killed you...' He trailed off, a frown tightening his face. 'You stink. Why would a hallucination stink?'

'Maybe it's had to walk a long way,' Jeremy said idly. He pulled the capsule from his pocket, plastic cool and slick against his palm. 'Through a lot of horse crap. Monroe-'

Monroe made a rough sound and flung his arms around Jeremy, breathing raggedly and hot against his throat. 'I thought I killed you.'

It took a second, but Jeremy hugged him back, patting Monroe's back soothingly. 'You're kind of taking the fun out of the next bit, General.'

Monroe stepped back, wiping his nose on his sleeve. 'What do you mean? And how can you....why aren't you dead, Jeremy? I did kill you.'

'Actually, someone beat you to that,' Jeremy said.

He grabbed Monroe by the throat and pinned him down to the desk, ignoring the flare of fear and paranoia in Monroe's eyes. Then Monroe went limp and closed his eyes.

'Just do it then,' he said bitterly. 'I can't kill you again.'

'You didn't exactly do a good job the first time,' Jeremy said, patting his cheek. 'This really is for your own good.'

He pushed Monroe's head back and pushed the capsule up his nose, the structure of his sinuses crackling and blood spurting over Jeremy's fingers. Blood vessels burst in Monroe's eye as he spasmed, his fingers clawing at Jeremy's wrist, and then he went limp.

'This really would have been a lot more fun if you'd been a dick,' Jeremy said when he was done, wiping his hand on his trousers and stroking Monroe's sweaty hair back from his face. He picked the limp body up and carried him over to the sofa, tucking a cushion under his head. 'Sleep well, Bass. Goodbye.'