Monday, August 1, 2011

Birthday Palooza Guest Post: Jason Henderson

Jason Henderson
Jason Henderson has written for games and comic books, including an upcoming series for Marvel. He is also the author of Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Grapevine, TX. You can visit him online at www.alexvanhelsing.com.


Polidori’s Perimeter

Author’s Note: I read this story as an entry in a “Polidori’s Pumpkin Party” not long ago– a live Halloween Party where we gather and everyone has to present an original work. It’s made up of a scene about how John Polidori hid clues in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the world to find. The rest of the story is a scene that brings it full circle, when Alex Van Helsing discovers Polidori’s legacy—the organization called the Polidorium. That scene is very close to the one that appears in Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising, which is out in paperback for the first time this summer. So this whole story is what I read exactly at the Polidori Party, and it has never been published.

The party at the Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816—the Haunted Summer--consisted of five writers: Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who were already quite famous; two young women writers, Mary Godwin (soon to be Shelley) and her half-sister Claire—whom Mary disliked so much that she doesn’t even mention Claire was there; and Byron’s doctor friend, Polidori, who wrote short stories. And they’re bored out of their heads, because although it’s summer, there’s been a massive volcanic eruption in Asia that has clouded the sky and made the weather everywhere cold and rainy. So Lord Byron issued each of them a challenge: write the scariest, most terrifying story you can.
In her introduction to the 1831 edition, Mary says the famous guys each wrote some minor pieces, and that Dr. Polidori had, and this is fun, ‘some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole -- to see what I forget -- something very shocking and wrong of course.’”
 And then they—gave up.
They were all very young.
Lord Byron, on the run from creditors, was 28, Shelley was 24, fleeing his marriage with his new 18-year-old mistress Mary, Polidori was 21, and Claire was 18. The record will suggest that after the summer which birthed The VampireChilde Harold Canto IV, and Frankenstein, Polidori would be dead in five years, Shelley a year later, and Byron two years after that. Within eight years, all but Mary and her sister Claire were dead. In between were tragedies no parent should ever endure, and they endured them again and again.
But in 1831, something about the record changed. Picture it—a stormy night in London. Mary now Shelley was 34, a now a widow, and she was busy re-writing her masterpiece Frankenstein for a new edition. She promised the revisions would be minor, a few typo fixes here and there. But it wasn’t true—the 1831 Frankenstein was a clean-up job. It got rid of messy libertine sexual politics of the earlier version, and best of all was her introduction, which told the story of the Haunted Summer, and eliminated Claire, and most of all, changed what the attendants were writing about.
This is true.
And on one stormy night in the Spring, there was a knock at Mary’s door. She opened it and saw a dead man.
“Oh Dear Lord,” said Mary, “how can it be?” For before her stood a dead man: Dr. John Polidori, who was supposed to have died just a few years after the party.
The man Mary saw before her was changed—clearly not dead, and not at all the bungling, mincing young doctor she remembered. Still only 36, he wore a heavy cloak and stood in the shadows. And when he stepped near the door, she saw sreaks of white in his hair.
“Are you going to invite me in?” asked the man.
“You’re dead.”
“Not dead,” said he, “but it doesn’t suit me to stand visibly in the streets.”
She let him in. She didn’t want to; she had always despised Polidori, seen him as an unimpressive interloper who wanted Byron’s attention and Shelley’s respect, and where they shone, he merely reflected their gifts. But now, all these years later—to have even one of them, even the least of them alive!
He sat by the fire, a gaunt man, and got straight to his business.
“I have a request for you,” he said.
“Would you care for some brandy?”
“No time,” said he. “I have a boat waiting for me. You are, are you not, revising Frankenstein?”
Mary blushed. “Yes,” she said, and nodded towards the manuscript at her writing table.
“You must place a story in the book, somewhere. A new story.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Is there any place in the book where you describe us, Shelley, Byron?”
“Yes. I’ve written to the editor about it. It’s a story of the Haunted Summer, in the Introduction.”
“Do you remember the story I told?”
Mary searched her mind. Polidori had published that Vampyre book before he died—before he seemed to have died. “It was a vampire story, isn’t that right?”
“Yes. Replace it.”
“What?” Mary stared.
“In the introduction to Frankenstein, don’t mention that I was writing a vampire story. Say I was writing something else.”
“Like what, just make something up?”
“No, no.” The wiry Italian waved a hand. “I’ll tell you what to say.”
“But this is absurd; why would I do that?”
“We will leave the world a clue,” said Polidori. “In case all my other clues are lost.”
“A clue about what?” she said.
“That someday,” said the Doctor, leaning in, “Byron is going to come back.”

*          *          *

Lake GenevaSwitzerland, Today

In his first week of school at Glenarvon Academy for Boys, Alex Van Helsing, moved into the room of two friends, Paul and Sid. Their room was small, but they made a pallet for him.
The past week had been full of mystery—besides getting into a fight with the local bullies and nearly getting kicked out, he had observed his literature teacher, Mister Sangster, sneaking out in the middle of the night to talk to a strange, shadowy figure at the gate. Sangster was an odd one—obsessed with his classes and his Romantic and Victorian literature, but quick, and solid as steel.
So: Alex on the floor, Paul and Sid on the bunks—lights out and they went to sleep, and Alex slept like a baby.
Until 1:30.
Alex must have been subconsciously listening for the sound of the garage door, because he was lost in a strange dream of the woman in white who fell to dust, and then came the gravelly roll of the garage door, far below. Alex blinked awake.
He grabbed his glasses and rose, pulling on his clothes and, this time, shoes. Downstairs and outside in seconds.
Huddling close to the school walls, Alex saw the Literature teacher, Sangster, pushing a motorcycle across the yard towards the gate, moving faster than seemed possible as he walked the large machine on its sparkling wheels.
As he hustled around the building, Alex could hear the motorcycle starting. He rushed to the bike rack with Sid’s extra bike, unchaining it and hopping on. He headed for the road, listening for the sound of Sangster’s much faster machine. He wouldn’t be able to keep up with the instructor, obviously, but the roads were long, and he might get lucky.
Sangster seemed to be headed for Secheron. Even with the muffling trees lining the winding road, Alex could see and hear the motorcycle ahead for a longer time than he expected. Then, after a few minutes, the noise was too far away.
But it was lovely on the road at night—the sound of frogs and owls and the gentle creak of the bicycle. He would head back into the tiny town and ride around, see if he could spot the motorcycle parked outside somewhere. It was a mission of curiosity, but he was so transfixed by the beauty of the ride that he realized he didn’t care whether he learned anything or not. Why does Sangster sneak out at night? Well, why do I?
Then his head filled with static and warning--quiet at first but building more rapidly than it ever had. In less than a minute the pitch inside his mind became almost deafening.
Ice-cold air shot down the road from behind and enveloped him, a cold front dropping in so suddenly that Alex nearly fell over as his muscles tensed. His breath became visible as he kept pedaling. Then he became aware of a rumbling that he felt in his bones, vibrating up from the road and through his feet.
He heard what he thought was Sangster, a motorcycle engine’s roar, but then realized it was coming from behind, from the other direction.
The sound grew louder and Alex stopped, putting down his legs and standing on the bike at the side of the road, just around a curve.
He heard three, four, maybe even six motorcycles. There were no headlights visible anywhere. But they were coming fast.
Black shapes tore around the bend. Two motorcycles roared towards Alex, ridden by men in dark red clothes and face-covers. Realizing he was still partly in the road, Alex dragged the bike off the shoulder, dropping it as he scrambled to crouch behind some bushes. The rumble was now insanely loud, and two motorcycles shot past, giving way to four, and then eight.
And more. Blasts of icy air seemed to roll with the engines’ roar. Then came trucks, armored personnel carriers, and modified Humvees, followed by more motorcycles, then SUVs, and more bikes. Some of the vehicles had open sides, and there were dark-clad figures riding standing in them.
Alex stared, slack-jawed. This would be one of those things that don’t happen.
*          *          *
Some three hundred meters away, on a tower built for observing fires, the man called Sangster brought a pair of infrared glasses up to his eyes. “I’ve got the caravan. They’re on the road to Secheron,” he said into the mike on his earpiece. Through the binoculars, the shapes on the vehicles on the road shone a brilliant, icy blue. He could make out the cold shapes of trees, a few woodland creatures—and there, an orange-and-red form, hunkered down next to the road.
“Guys, this is Sangster; do we have a second agent by the road?”
After a moment a voice came online, “Negative, we have no other operatives on this task.”
Sangster snarled in disgust. “There’s a human watching.”
The voice crackled on the radio. “Watching? Have they spotted him yet?”
“Doesn’t look like it.” Sangster chewed his lip. “Should I engage?”
“Negative, stay on task.”
“Copy,” Sangster replied, but he was already off task. He moved in closer, trying to get a better look. He put on a pair of modified sunglasses, adjusted them for darkness and magnification, and looked for a clear view of the bystander.
The caravan was still moving, but Sangster adjusted his glasses back at the shape on the side of the road. The person was not a journalist: he didn’t hunker down the way an experienced man would. He or she crouched. Sangster allowed that given the lesser height of the figure, it could be a female.
Flicker of light—a reflector. The figure had a bicycle.
“It’s a kid,” Sangster said, aghast.
“Stay on task.”
 *          *          *
The static in Alex’s head pounded now, and he clutched his head and stared, astonished, at the size of the caravan. His brain swirled with thoughts of what in the world this could be—UN peacekeepers? A night invasion of Switzerland? What on earth lay on the road around Lake Geneva that would bring such an army? And why no lights?
And as he stayed down behind the bush, daring to stick his head out, why the freaking cold?
Alex bumped into the bike with his shin as he shifted his weight, barely noticing the flicker of light that shot off the front reflector as the wheel adjusted.
On the caravan, peering out the door of a personnel carrier, a figure, bald and tall in an oxblood-red leather jacket, turned his head as the flicker of the bike’s reflectors shone next to the road. The bald man frowned and touched a button on an electronic device strapped to his wrist.
Alex watched as the caravan slowed a bit, and out of instinct he began to back up, crab-like in his crouch. There was a Humvee opposite him in the road, and suddenly the black tarp that stretched across it shot back.
Two red-clad figures leapt from the vehicle. Alex took just a moment to watch them landing on their feet—just a moment to see they bore no weapons, but that as they opened their mouths to hiss, he saw enormous fangs.
Run. Get out. Run. Alex sprang out of his crouch and into a run, leaping over Sid’s bike and hurtling deeper into the woods. He didn’t look to see if they were coming, but somewhere in the cold air he swore he could hear them laughing.
His luck was about to run out. He had twice faced just one such creature and barely survived. This was way beyond hurling clay tiles, sticks and weather vanes.
He ran, not looking back until a moment when he paused by a tree. Maybe they didn’t see me. Maybe the two in the streetjust stopped to look around. Or relieve themselves. Or hiss at the moon.
Through the trees he saw the shapes moving, leaping, and not just two.
They were coming for him.
Alex started to run again but suddenly they were there, within fifty yards and closing in. One of them leapt and landed in front of him, slamming to the ground, leaves flying.
The vampire—male, long and slender in his red commando outfit—bent towards Alex and hissed.
At that instant there was a rapid staccato sound that tore through the air. The creature was still hissing as it burst into flame and turned to dust with a sharp, crackling sound.
There was another motorcycle roaring towards Alex, coming in fast from the side. Dirt and moss kicked up as the bike ground to a halt between him and the rest of the vampires.
Sangster-- Mr. Sangster, his literature teacher—was still wearing his jeans and sweater, but had added a pair of silver-and-black, many-buttoned goggles, a Bluetooth device at his ear, and an assault rifle to the mix.
Sangster held out his hand. “Get on, Alex,” he said. He turned and shot at two more of the vampires. The gun made a violent, heavy sound, buddabuddabudda. “Get on!”
Alex’s head spun with a thousand questions but none of them would be answered if he died right here. He grabbed Sangster’s hand, swinging himself up onto the back of the bike. Sangster put Alex’s arms around his waist, and they were off like a shot.
“Who are they?”
“They work for Byron. There are more of them coming,” Sangster shouted, tapping at a rear-view mirror, and Alex saw with astonishment that it was not an actual mirror but a screen displaying infrared images. In the infrared, he could see the creatures leaping like jaguars behind the bike, each one a brilliant image of icy blue light.
“Put these on.” Sangster fished a second pair of goggles out of a satchel near his thigh. Alex clenched his knees together on the bike and took them. He struggled for a moment to pull the rubber strap over the back of his head, bringing the goggles to rest over his own glasses.
Suddenly, the whole world was in the negative, the trees brilliant white against a gray background. Alex tried to follow the path of the bike, barely able to keep his eyes open as Sangster tore through and over bushes, somehow managing to dodge trees. The double glasses violently wobbled on his ears. “I’m sorry!” he was shouting before he even realized it. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have gone out!”
“Don’t worry about that now,” Sangster yelled over the roar. “Hit the button next to your left eyebrow.”
Alex took a moment, his arm jolting. Breathe. He found the button and pressed.
“This way you can hear me,” Sangster said, and Alex heard the voice, gyrating through the bones of his own head, muffled but audible,.
“Where are we going?” Alex asked.
He heard Sangster’s voice over the engine’s roar. “Someplace safe.”
Sangster seemed to be aiming for the spaces between the trees as though he were skiing. Alex dared to look again in the infrared. The vampires were still in pursuit.
“They’re coming after us because they want that caravan kept secret,” said Sangster, almost casually considering the danger at hand. “We’re close to HQ. Maybe we can lose them.”
Sangster reached up, tapped a button on his glasses, and now in Alex’s goggle vision—surely also through Sangster’s—a GPS map appeared. The image displayed over the view in front of him, so that the map bounced amidst the trees.
“Farm House,” Sangster said, swerving hard to avoid a branch. The vampires’ shapes were leaping closer.
“Please repeat your request,” came a sing-song sound response.
FARM. HOUSE.”
The GPS view before Alex’s eyes shifted. First it showed one location, which it indicated with the symbol of a little roofed house, and then the camera rose up into the sky, and down to the motorcycle’s moving location in the woods.  Then the GPS drew a line between the two: their path.
“That’s two miles away.” Sangster adjusted his course, heading north. “But we’re gonna have a problem.”
“What?” Alex asked, incredulous. Vampires chasing us isn’t a problem enough?
Sangster was already speaking rapidly into his mike to someone else. ”This is Agent Sangster requesting permission to enter Farm House accompanied by non-cleared human.”
A voice came on the line. “Could you repeat…?”
“I have a kid with me, I need in,” Sangster said, swerving again, barely able to speak with the bounce of the motorcycle.
“Denied.”
“I cannot—“
“If you enter the perimeter of Farm House with non-cleared witness, you will be shot.”
Alex saw Sangster glance up at the trees. For a split second Alex glimpsed metallic gray cameras, recessed against the firs. The cameras swiveled as they passed. “We’re coming up on the perimeter,” Sangster said.
Alex looked ahead and saw a tree line coming up fast, a large clearing in the woods, with a small, dilapidated farm house a hundred yards beyond, a distant white image bouncing behind the trees.
They were running out of woods. Alex felt the bike brake hard on its front wheel. He was weightless for a second as the rear of the bike lifted off the forest floor, swinging violently around as Sangster ground the bike to a halt. The motorcycle dropped back down and they were facing the pursuers now. Alex noticed that Sangster was shifting his weight to guard him. Sangster started firing the rifle he carried.
Buddabuddabudda. Alex counted seven, maybe eight vampires ripping through the trees.
 “Requesting permission to enter with—“
“Negative, that witness was to be left, leave him and report; we cannot have—“
“Dammit, he’s a Van Helsing,” Sangster hissed. Alex turned, startled, and looked at him.
Silence on the other end of the line. Sangster tagged one of the vampires in the head, sending it spinning as it burned and dusted. They were landing close, baring their fangs. And now Alex realized he had miscounted—as these eight drew closer, he saw three or four more ice-blue cold shapes in the woods.
Suddenly one of the vamps was hit in the head by a round Sangster didn’t fire, a single shot from somewhere at the house.
The radio crackled. “Granted.”
Sangster shouted, “We’re in,” and the bike leapt, spinning once more and hurtling again through the trees and into the clearing with the vampires close behind. They ripped through the trees and Alex felt the bike pick up speed on the smoothness of the grass. They were hurtling straight for the tin wall of a small shack next to the house.
Alex winced as a hot electric pulse shot through his headset.
“We’re blowing out electronic communications,” shouted Sangster. “Just in case those guys are miked. We can’t let them report a thing.”
Another shot rang out from somewhere Alex couldn’t see and Sangster said, “This perimeter has to be a dead zone.”
They were ten yards from the wall of the shack.
Five yards and the side of the shack whipped up with a metallic roar, nearly catching the bike’s front wheel. Sangster gunned the engine and Alex held on tight as they drove under the rising wall and began zooming down a long concrete drive.
The bike roared down the grade and commandos ran up, ten or twenty men and women. He looked back for a second, and saw the muzzle of a blond woman’s weapon flashing. She left the tunnel, already firing, laying waste to the vampires in the clearing. For a moment she was silhouetted against the floodlights of the Farm House clearing as Alex and Sangster moved farther and farther below, then Alex turned his head back to the front.
Down, down into the bowels of the earth they sped, past wooden beams and newer, iron girders, down a full half mile at a thirty degree angle until the motorcycle slowed. They reached a vast, concrete expanse lit by high tracks of lighting. It was an enormous bunker under the woods.
Alex felt his eyes grow wide as he took in countless vehicles, Humvees and trucks and even helicopters.
A man in a suit--older, with a slight paunch--was waiting for them when the bike rolled to a stop. As Alex slid off the bike and removed the goggles, the man folded his arms.
“Alexander Van Helsing. Son of Charles and Amanda. Whatever are we going to do with you?” 

~~~
Missed out on a post or a giveaway? No worries! They're all listed on the first birthday palooza post! 

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