Chapter 1 – NO LESS HUMAN

Edna LittleHawk hurried after the three young hunters as they raced down the canyon’s slope toward the dying campfire and a midnight meal. Light on their feet and full of confidence, the teens hurdled over brush and used low rocks as if they were trampolines, oblivious to the risks of falling with rifles and packs on their backs or of rousing the campers in the dome tent below. With the jagged mountain peaks looming above like a giant’s teeth, her students were rushing blindly into the mouth of danger.

“Stop!” she called, but they did not want to hear.

Edna grit her teeth at their lack of discipline and her own lack of foresight. The weekend lesson had been in tracking, not hunting, and backpackers were rare this deep in the Sawtooth Wilderness; but there was no excuse for not anticipating such an encounter, or for not having recognized the teens’ hunger. If she’d permitted them to shoot a couple of elk earlier, they might have gorged themselves on enough second-rate blood to take the edge off their craving.

“Wait!” she yelled as she zigzagged down to the canyon’s floor. But it was already too late. The gleeful teens had set down their packs, shredded the tent and tumbled out two dazed young men now struggling to get out of mummy bags.

“What the – help! Jesus!” yelled a bearded camper, rising to his knees. Garrison Dorlik the Third, his mohawk, facial tattoos and gleaming fangs a nightmare vision even to Edna, booted the camper in the head and laughed as the man grunted and toppled over. Cynthia Sniddle pounced on the other camper and pounded her fists against the man’s unprotected face, while Conrad Gleezard, ever the high school quarterback, took a three step drop and unslung his rifle to cover the field of play.

“Enough!” Edna shouted. “There’s no need to be cruel.” Teenagers can be savages, she thought.

Dorlik thrust his jaw out as she advanced on him. “Baneful says ‘beat ‘em into submission,’” he declared. “‘And then they’re yours.’”

“Dr. Baneful isn’t here,” said Edna. She hit her chest with both fists. “I am. And you’re going to do it my way or get an F for this class.”

Dorlik scowled but took a step back.

The young victim lying under Cynthia grabbed her forearms and twisted his head toward Edna. “Help me,” he croaked.

“Shut up,” said Cynthia, bringing her elbows down hard on his collarbones. He screamed and let go of her, reaching for his shoulder. “I said shut up!” She butted her head into his chin.

Edna leaped forward. “And I said that’s enough.” She locked her arm around Cynthia’s neck and pulled the large girl up and away.

Dorlik walked over to Cynthia’s human punching bag and said “Stay!” Then he laughed.

Glaring at Edna, Cynthia rubbed her neck. “My prey wasn’t cooperating at all,” she said haughtily. She tugged her jacket down, licked her fingers and reached up to smooth her purple hair.

Forget the campers, I want to kill these two, thought Edna. “We’re going to deal with the issue of cruelty after we get back to school on Monday,” she announced in a steely tone. “It’s an issue I want the whole class to discuss. But no more of that behavior here or I’ll ram a burning brand through your heart, understand?” Her students looked at each other as if their tight-ass auntie had been transformed into an axe-murderer. “Put the rifle up,” she told Conrad. “We won’t need it.”

“Blondie will feel naked without his gun,” said Dorlik. A head taller than Conrad, he looked down his long nose and grinned.

“I’ll take you on barehanded any time,” said the ex-quarterback quietly.

“This isn’t the time for that,” Edna snapped. “See if the man you kicked is alive, Mr. Dorlik. And when your weapon is secure, Mr. Gleezard, see if these fellows have a rope in their packs and hogtie them. Then we have an ethical problem we have to discuss.” She tightened her coiled braids and jammed the wooden hair stick back in.

“WTF,” muttered Cynthia. “Can’t we drink first and talk later?”

“Patience,” said Edna. “You’ll get your blood.” She went to put a log on the smoldering fire.

“Blood?” squeaked Cynthia’s prey.

Dorlik checked the pulse below his victim’s mutton chop beard. The man’s mouth was open, his breathing was raspy. “My guy’s alive,” Dorlik announced. “Just out cold.”

“Good,” said Edna, wiping her hands on her leggings as the fire sputtered into life. “His blood won’t clot and he’ll pass unaware.” Unaware is a good state of mind if you’re about to die, she thought.

After the campers were tied up and the conscious one was gagged, Edna asked her three students to come sit with her at the fire. They came reluctantly, casting longing looks at their dinner.

“Thank you,” said Edna. “I know you’re hungry, and I’ve put the cruelty issues on hold, but there’s an ethical question that needs to be discussed before you eat — how do three vampires fairly divide up the blood of two humans?”

A muffled cry came from the gagged camper.

Dorlik snorted. “That’s easy. I got here first and got my guy. Cynthia punched out hers. Wussie-needs-a-weapon gets nothing.”

Cynthia flashed Dorlik a smile.

Conrad looked at Edna. “You’re not feeding with us?”

“No, but thank you for asking. Mr. Dorlik says ‘first in, first served.’ Would that be fair?” she asked Cynthia.

“I don’t see why not.”

“Mr. Gleezard found their tracks and led us here. Shouldn’t the finder be rewarded?”

Cynthia glanced at Dorlik.

“Don’t look at him,” Edna said sharply. “Give your own opinion. Never make yourself a puppet to anyone.”

Lowering her gaze, Cynthia fingered a silver stud in her nose. “I guess the finder deserves some reward.”

“Bullshit!” Dorlik barked. “If anyone tries to muscle in on my meal, I’ll beat the crap out of him.”

“What a clever way to handle getting your needs met.” Edna’s voice was low, her tone mocking. “The strongest get to eat, the weakest get to starve. And any discussion of ethics or morality is hogwash. Is there another way? What about letting the neediest feed first?”

“You talk to us about ethics,” said Conrad. “Since when is it ethical to kill people?”

“Good question, but you’re confusing ethics with morality,” Edna said, extending her hands as if she balanced a concept in each. “I grant you it’s immoral to kill people except in self defense. Yet it’s ethical for policemen and soldiers to kill in the line of duty, isn’t it? But not in a Quaker or truly Buddhist society. Ethics are part of the code of conduct a society sanctions. In vampire society, killing is ethical because it’s necessary for our survival.” She fought the impulse to look at Dorlik. “Only thugs and the mentally deranged do it for fun.” She paused to let that sink in. “Now what about my question?”

“Letting the neediest eat first?” Conrad shrugged. “How would we decide which of us is the neediest?”

“It’s not so hard,” Edna replied. “Normal red blood cells last 100 to 120 days. Unless you’re meticulous, as much as 30 percent of your prey’s cells don’t get sucked through your fangs. They spill during collection, die in your digestive juices or cling inside the dying heart and blood vessels. So most of us have a 2 to 3 month supply from our last kill. You can feel your energy start to go in half that time, so you need a good suck every month or two. Each of you knows the date of your last kill and where you are in your cycle.”

“What if we lie about our need?” Conrad looked at Dorlik. “There are vampires who will do anything for blood.”

“Or pay anything,” said Cynthia.

Edna’s lips turned downward as she nodded. “I never said dealing with unethical vampires is easy. There are lab tests for blood, but no one can make a vampire take one. Using force to extract vampire blood is against our libertarian principles, so it’s highly unethical.”

“Yet we do that very thing to those guys.” Conrad glanced at their two captives.

“For survival,” she said.

“I hate it.” His tone was bitter.

“Listen to the ‘emo,’” Dorlik scoffed.

“You were turned only a few months ago, Mr. Gleezard.” Edna offered him a sympathetic smile. “Most newvees go through a period of adjustment in the first year or two. You’ll get used to killing. Frankly, I hope you’ll never like it.”

The gagged camper was thrashing about on the ground, making unintelligible sounds.

Edna looked in his direction. “It’s cruel to drag this out. Would it be fairer for you three to have a lottery? You pick a number to see who drinks first?”

Dorlik rocked forward as if prepared to spring. “No way! I got my guy first. How’s it fair for me to have one out of three odds?”

“Two out of three,” said Cynthia “It’s simple math, Gary.”

“So what’s the solution to our problem, Miss LittleHawk?” asked Conrad.

“What? Oh, I’ll tell you.” Edna rose, brushed off the broad seat of her pants, then straightened up to her full five feet, one and a half inches. “Your homework for our next class is to give me a two paragraph essay on an ethical solution – and I mean ethical, Mr. Dorlik – for the problem I posed: three vampires, two victims, blood distributed fairly. I expect your answers to be different than the temporary solution I’ll give you now.” She looked at Conrad. “That fancy watch have a stopwatch function as well as a GPS?”

Conrad glanced at the black watch he’d been awarded by his high school’s Booster club. “Yes, it does most everything.”

“Then take it off and time Mr. Dorlik as he feeds for fifteen seconds. Count them aloud. He does it for Miss Sniddle when she sucks blood, then she counts the seconds off for you. You rotate like that until they have no more to give.” Hearing the conscious victim’s muffled scream, Edna glanced over at him. I apologize, my brother, she thought. We’ve treated you and your companion very badly. “Listen closely,” she told her students. “For every second over fifteen that you suck, you lose a grade and gain a day of detention. No excuses, no make-ups. Is that clear?”

They nodded.

“What do we do with the bodies?” asked Conrad.

She pointed to the mess at the tent site. “They must have brought spades or trenching tools. We’ll bury the bodies a couple of hundred yards from here, as deep as we can. That won’t be easy, but they’ll have gifted you with nourishment. We’ll carry their gear back to the school.” She raised a hand toward the mountain peaks. “I’ll ask the Great Spirit to forgive us and to receive them well. Any of you who want to say a few words from your religion or tradition should do so. After all, these people may be our prey and our enemies, but they’re no less human than we are.”