Excerpt from never dream

Dr. Del Rio's place wasn't hard to find. Just as she'd been told, it was out in the middle of nowhere, with nothing surrounding it but a vast green expanse. The house itself was reasonably well-maintained, but far from immaculate.

Terry pulled the tiny car into the driveway, yanked up the parking brake, cut the ignition. The engine gave a reluctant sputter before dying, and she was abruptly surrounded by a silence so complete it was almost tangible. The creak of the car door, the groan of the seat as she stood, the slamming of the door behind her, each violated the silence in a way that was almost sacrilegious. Dust kicked up from her sneakers as she walked up to the fragile-looking porch, and she rapped lightly on the door for fear of knocking it from its frame.

A tiny, ancient Spaniard, wrinkled with time and sun and dry air, appeared behind the screen. He looked disoriented, as though he'd just woken. Or, as though he hadn't seen another person in quite some time.

"Dr. Del Rio?" Terry asked.

"," he answered in a voice that was gravelly from lack of use.

"The husband of the Healing Woman told me where I could glue you," she said, her nervousness mangling her Spanish. "May I speak without you?"

"Only if you speak in English," he replied in her language. "You're raping my mother-tongue like a three-dollar whore."

Terry laughed, despite her slighted language skills. 'Three-dollar whore.' It wasn't just an English saying, it was American. "You speak English very well," she commented.

Dr. Del Rio turned and walked away from the door, yelling out behind him as he wandered back inside. "I ought to - I lived in your country for fifteen years. Fifteen years? No, it was closer to twenty." He returned to the door and came out onto the porch, holding a pipe and a pouch of tobacco. "We'll talk out here."

"They didn't mention that you'd lived in America," she said to him.

"They probably didn't know," he replied, ambling to a wooden chair and sitting. "What was it you wanted to talk to me about?"

Terry thought about what she was going to say, realizing how crazy it was. I want to talk to you about vampires, she heard in her mind. Yeah.

"I want to talk to you about the supernatural," she said.

"I see," Dr. Del Rio said. "And the Healing Woman sent you. You want to talk about vampires."

Busted, she thought to herself. She took a minute to compose what she was going to say, before giving up and asking, "Are vampires real?"


Terry stopped to digest this. But that an old man believed in vampires didn't really prove anything. "Tell me about them," she said.

"What about them?" the old man asked in response.

"I don't know. What are they, really?"

"Do you want the long answer, or the short one?"

"I didn't drive all the way out here for the short answer," Terry said. She walked in front of him, lowering her book-bag to the porch before taking a chair beside the doctor.

Dr. Del Rio took a deep breath. "All right. Let's begin by discussing the Fury."

"The Fury?" Terry repeated.

"Yes. It is a virus. The English translation is the Fury. In Spanish, it's rabia."

"Rabia," Terry considered carefully. "Are you talking about rabies?"

"That's it," the old man said. "Do you know what it is that makes this virus so insidious?"

"The fact that it's transmitted by bite?" Terry offered.

"No, no. A great number of viruses can be transmitted during an exchange of saliva and blood. No, what makes the Fury so ingenious is that it actually alters the behavior of the doomed host-animal, to make it more likely another animal will be infected. You see? It's as though the virus knows where to go in the body to produce a desired effect; in this case, hostility. For a few days - days critical to the propagation of the virus - the parasite is in charge of the host."

"All right," Terry said, nodding her head as she tried to grasp his point. "Are you saying that's what vampires are? Humans with rabies?"

"No, no," Dr. Del Rio laughed. "You caught the ball, but you ran the wrong direction. I believe there is a sister virus, far more insidious than the Fury, and vampires are the remains of men killed by that virus."

" 'The remains?' " Terry asked. "Wouldn't that make them dead?"

"They are dead," he replied.

"I don't understand," she said.

"What's your background in medicine?"

"I know what an aspirin is," Terry replied dryly.

"Do you know how a virus works?" the doctor asked.

"Yeah. It gets into your body and makes you sick."

Dr. Del Rio sighed impatiently. "Your body is made up of millions of cells, and each of these cells performs a certain function. Most cells work together to form an organ, and most organs work together to form a system."

"Wait a minute," Terry interrupted. "I did pass tenth grade Biology."

"Do you want to learn about vampires or not?" Terry said nothing, and he continued. "Every cell is basically a tiny living creature. Your body is basically a colony of little, tiny animals, all working together to sustain a larger organism. Each cell performs a certain function, and each cell is told what function to perform by its DNA. Left alone, a cell grows, takes food, passes waste, reproduces, and eventually dies.

"And then we have viruses. Strictly speaking, a virus is not a living entity. A virus is a piece of microscopic dust - a strip of either DNA or RNA covered with a layer of proteins. A virus is like a letter; a letter signed by the President. A virus gets into a cell, and the cell reads the letter, and the letter says 'Dear Cell: You are to commence writing letters until you die. Best Wishes, President Eisenhower.' That's how they reproduce themselves.

"So the cell stops doing what it was doing and starts writing letters, usually destroying itself in the process. Every virus likes a certain kind of cell, depending on the layer of proteins that surrounds it. The virus that causes Parkinson's Disease likes nerve cells, while the virus that causes warts likes skin cells. The kind of cell a virus likes, and how the virus affects the other functions of a cell, govern how it affects the organism as a whole. A virus can cause a cold, or it can give you polio. Are you with me so far?"

Surprisingly enough, she was. If Mr. Burchell had been this good, she might not have forgotten this stuff in the first place.

"The second-cleverest virus I know of is the Fury. We're talking about a letter that says: 'Dear Cell: If you're a cell in the salivary glands, write more letters. If you're a nerve cell, write more letters. If you're a brain cell, tell this animal to bite something, will you?' It's clever even by human standards, and by viral standards it's absolutely brilliant. It's the best-written letter your cells have ever read. We're talking about a piece of RNA that's not only going to tell your cells what to do to further its existence, but tell you as well. It would be comparable to your giving orders to God."

"All right," Terry said. "So rabies is a clever virus. What does that have to do with vampires?"

"Imagine a virus even smarter than rabies. Imagine a virus that kills the host, and then alters and animates the remains to further its existance."

"That's something I don't get," Terry said, leaning forward in her chair to better face him. "How can they be dead? They're still up and walking around, right?"

The doctor smiled around the pipe clenched in his teeth. "Part of the definition of life is the ability to reproduce. Vampires can't do this - not like we can. A vampire can't make a baby. They can, however, spread the virus. They consider this reproduction, but it's not. It's merely the corruption - the murder - of an already-existing organism."

"But they can remember their lives before, right?"

"Not always. And when they can, it's only because the virus has obtained access to the memories in the deceased host's brain - the better to survive. But it also changes the thought processes. The hunger instincts combine with the sex-drive, to create a passion for blood you and I cannot even imagine. I'm sure to them, it doesn't feel as though they've died. I'm sure it only feels as though they've been changed. I'm equally sure their souls have passed on."

Terry leaned back in her chair. "So, this virus kills the body and animates it. But why doesn't the body decay away?"

"When the virus gets into you, it changes everything ... every aspect about the way your body works. It begins - naturally - with the blood. The heart stops beating, and the red blood cells form loose bonds with each other. The circulatory system becomes a secondary nervous system, and the energy that was once circulated around the body by the movement of blood is instead conducted as chemo-electrical pulses, as in the nervous system. The new, altered cells in the body use these pulses to feed itself - but it also uses them as instructions on how to rebuild itself."

"You're losing me, Doc," Terry admitted.

"Vampires have an incredible healing ability. Given time, a vampire can even regrow a lost limb. But the new muscular-skeletal system needs instructions to do that. The blueprints to your entire body live in every single one of your cells, but by now the virus has already changed those blueprints thoughout the entire body. That is, except for one organ. An organ that no longer beats."

"The heart."

"The heart. It doesn't have the same function as when the organism was alive, but it is equally important. The virus grabs a single cell of the heart and uses the blueprints it finds there to first 'rebuild' the heart by those blueprints, and then rebuild the body."

Terry absently stroked the bookbag in her lap. "But all of those blueprints should be the same, right?"

"No," the doctor said, searching for a match to relight his now-extinguished pipe. "Your cells are constantly aging and being replaced by other cells. As the body ages, the blueprints become more and more flawed. It's part of our design. If every creature on this planet didn't eventually grow old and die, we would not evolve. The ends of the DNA chain fray like the tip of a shoelace. The master-plan is corrupted."

He struck the match against the leg of his chair, and relit the pipe with puffs of thick, fragrant smoke."The muscles grow weak ... " Puff, puff. " ... the skin wrinkles ..." Puff, puff. " ... the bones become brittle." He shook out the match in an unsteady hand and dropped it into a can beside his chair. "Since each and every cell in your heart carries a blueprint in a varying stage of perfection, the apparent age of a vampire can vary wildly. A man who was killed by the virus in his twenties can age to sixty within a few days and stay there, and a man who was killed in his fifties can suddenly be eighteen again. The end of the shoelace is taped up, and the blueprint is cast in stone."

"But cells that don't age ... that's not possible, is it?" Terry asked.

"There are trees two thousand years old, using a chain of DNA not so different from your own to continue to reproduce cells. There are single-celled animals reproducing asexually right now, using a strand of DNA that hasn't broken down for millions of years. Aging is merely part of our design. Change that design - correct that flaw - and aging stops."

Terry absorbed this for a moment, while the doctor puffed. Each tiny cloud was accompanied by a wheeze that sounded painful, but it didn't slow him in the least.

"What about a stake through the heart?" she finally asked. "Does that work?"

"A stake through the heart won't kill a vampire, all by itself," he replied. "But it will immobilize it. Damage to the heart will stop a vampire from doing anything until that damage is healed. Generally, it only takes a few seconds - but if there's something lodged in the tissue and the heart can't heal, the vampire can't move or think until it is removed."

"And sunlight?"

Dr. Del Rio shuddered, as though reliving something in his memory. Whatever it was, he didn't share it - but instead continued with his clinical explanation. "Every cell of a vampire stores an incredible amount of energy, and those cells are highly reactive. Exposure to sunlight releases this energy all at once."

"You've seen this happen?" Terry asked.

The doctor focused an unsettling gaze on her. "I've seen it happen. When it's over, nothing remains - and it's over soon, believe me."

"I don't think anyone with decent knowledge of modern medicine would accept these ideas of yours," Terry said candidly. "A vampire-virus ... it's just too wild to be real."

"Read a description of the Fury," the doctor said. "By my way of thinking, that virus is also too 'wild' to be real. But you're right, I myself have difficulty believing in such nonsense. The vampire-virus theory is just my attempt at a rational explanation."

"Wouldn't a more rational explanation be that vampires don't exist?" she asked.

The old man again levelled his gaze at Terry. "Considering what I've seen," he said, "that explanation is no longer an option."

Dr. Del Rio removed a pinch of tobacco from his pouch, and began packing his pipe. Terry leaned her head back, against the house, staring out at the horizon. A faint glow was all that remained of the day.

It was time for the vampires to rise.