Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan have written a supremely popular and scary series about vampires in today’s world called The Strain. The Night Eternal, the third and final book in the series, is set to release on October 25th, 2011, and our friends over at i09 have posted a lovely excerpt for our viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
Kelton Street, Woodside, Queens
A scream pealed in the distance, and Dr. Ephraim Goodweather startled awake. He thrashed on the sofa, flipping onto his back and sitting up, and- in one fluid, violent motion- gripped the worn leather sword handle jutting out of the pack on the floor at his side and slashed the air with a blade of singing silver. His battle cry, hoarse and garbled, a fugitive from his nightmares, stopped short. His blade quivered, unmet.
He was alone.
Kelly’s house. Her sofa. Familiar things.
His ex-wife’s living room. The scream was a far-off siren, converted into a human shriek by his sleeping mind.
He had been dreaming again. Of fire and shapes- indefinable but vaguely humanoid- made of blinding light. A flashpoint. He was in the dream and these shapes wrestled with him right before the light consumed it all. He always awoke agitated and exhausted, as if he had physically grappled with an opponent. The dream came out of nowhere. He could be having the most domestic kind of reverie- a picnic, a traffic jam, a day at the office- and then the light would grow and consume it all, and the silvery figures emerged. He blindly groped for his weapon bag- a modified baseball gear bag, looted many months before off the high rack of a ransacked Modell’s on Flatbush Avenue.
He was in Queens. Okay. Okay. Everything coming back to him now- accompanied by the first pangs of a jaw-clenching hangover. He had blacked out again. Another dangerous binge. He returned the sword to his weapons bag, then rolled back, holding his head in his hands like a cracked crystal sphere he had delicately picked up off the floor. His hair felt wiry and strange, his head throbbing.
Hell on earth. Right. Land of the damned.
Reality was an ornery bitch. He had awoken to a nightmare. He was still alive- and still human- which wasn’t much, but it was the best he could expect.
Just another day in hell.
The last thing he remembered from sleep, the fragment of the dream that clung to his consciousness like sticky afterbirth, was an image of Zack bathed in searing silver light. It was out of his shape that the flashpoint had occurred this time.
“Dad- ” Zack said, and his eyes locked with Eph’s- and then the light consumed it all.
The remembrance of it raised chills. Why couldn’t he find some respite from this hell in his dreams? Wasn’t that the way it was supposed to work? To balance out a horrible existence with dreams of flight and escape? What he wouldn’t have given for a reverie of pure sentimentality, a spoonful of sugar for his mind.
Eph and Kelly fresh out of college, ambling hand-in-hand through a flea market, looking for cheap furniture and knickknacks for their first apartment . . .
Zack as a toddler, stomping fat-footed around the house, a little boss in diapers . . .
Eph and Kelly and Zack at the dinner table, sitting with hands folded before full plates, waiting for Z to plow through his obsessively thorough saying of grace . . .
Instead, Eph’s dreams were like badly recorded snuff films. Familiar faces from his past- enemies, acquaintances, and friends alike- being stalked and taken while he watched, unable to reach them, to help them, or even to turn away.
He sat up, steadying himself and rising, one hand on the back of the sofa. He left the living area and walked to the window overlooking the backyard. LaGuardia Airport was not far away. The sight of an airplane, the distant sound of a jet engine, was cause for wonder now. No lights circled the sky. He remembered September 11, 2001, and how the emptiness of the sky had seemed so surreal back then, and what a strange relief it was when the planes returned a week later. Now there was no relief. No getting back to normal.
Eph wondered what time it was. Sometime o’clock in the morning, he figured, judging by his own failing circadian rhythm. It was summer- at least according to the old calendar- and so the sun should have been high and hot in the sky.
Instead, darkness prevailed. The natural order of night and day had been shattered, presumably forever. The sun was obliterated by a murky veil of ash floating in the sky. The new atmosphere was comprised of the detritus of nuclear explosions and volcanic eruptions distributed around the globe, a ball of blue-green candy wrapped inside a crust of poisonous chocolate. It had cured into a thick, insulating cowl, sealing in darkness and cold and sealing out the sun.
Perennial nightfall. The planet turned into a pale, rotting netherworld of rime and torment.
The perfect ecology for vampires.
According to the last live news reports, long since censored but traded like porn on Internet boards, these post-cataclysm conditions were much the same around the world. Eyewitness accounts of the darkening sky, of black rain, of ominous clouds knitting together and never breaking apart. Given the planet’s rotation and wind patterns, the poles- the frozen north and south- were theoretically the only locations on Earth still receiving regular seasonal sunlight . . . though nobody knew this for certain.
The residual radiation hazard from the nuclear explosions and the plant meltdowns had been intense at first, catastrophically so at the various ground zeros. Eph and the others had spent nearly two months belowground, in a train tunnel beneath the Hudson River, and so were spared the short-term fallout. Extreme meteorological conditions and atmospheric winds spread the damage over large areas, which may have aided in dispersing the radioactivity; the fallout was expelled by the hard rainstorms created by the violent changes to the ecosystem, further diffusing the radiation. Fallout decays exponentially, and in the short term, areas without direct impact exposure became safe for travel and decontamination within approximately six weeks.
The long-term effects were yet to come. Questions as to human fertility, genetic mutations, and increased carcinogenesis would not be answered for some time. But these very real concerns were overshadowed by the current situation: two years following the nuclear disasters and the vampiric takeover of the world, all fears were immediate.
The pealing siren went quiet. These warning systems, meant to repel human intruders and attract assistance, still went off from time to time- though much less frequently than in the early months, when the alarms wailed constantly, persistently, like the agonal screams of a dying race. Another vestige of civilization fading away.
In the absence of the alarm, Eph listened for intruders. Through windows, rising from dank cellars, descending from dusty attics- vampires entered through any opening, and nowhere was safe. Even the few hours of sunlight each day- a dim, dusky light, haven taken on a sickly amber hue- still offered many hazards. Daylight was human curfew time. The best time for Eph and the others to move- safe from direct confrontation by strigoi- was also one of the most dangerous, due to surveillance and the prying eyes of human sympathizers looking to improve their lot.
Eph leaned his forehead against the window. The coolness of the glass was a pleasant sensation against his warm skin and the throbbing inside his skull.
Knowing was the worst part. Awareness of insanity does not make one any less insane. Awareness of drowning does not make one any less of a drowning person- it only adds the burden of panic. Fear of the future, and the memory of a better, brighter past, were as much a source of Eph’s suffering as the vampire plague itself.
He needed food, he needed protein. Nothing in this house; he had cleaned it out of food- and alcohol- many months ago. Even found a secret stash of Butterfingers in Matt’s closet. He backed off from the window, turning to face the room and the kitchen area beyond. He tried to remember how he got here and why. He saw slash marks in the wall where, using a kitchen knife, he had released his ex-wife’s boyfriend, decapitating the recently turned creature. That was back in the early days of slaying, when killing vampires was nearly as frightening as the notion of being turned by one. Even when the vampire in question had been his ex-wife’s boyfriend, a man poised to assume Eph’s place as the most important male figure in Zack’s life.
But that gag reflex of human morality was long gone now. This was a changed world, and Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, once a prominent epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was a changed man. The virus of vampirism had colonized the human race. The plague had routed civilization in a coup d’état of astonishing virulence and violence. Insurgents- the willful, the powerful, and the strong- had all largely been destroyed or turned, leaving the meek, the defeated, and the fearful to do the Master’s bidding.
Eph returned to his weapon bag. From a narrow, zippered pocket meant for batting gloves or sweatbands, he pulled out his creased Moleskine notebook. These days he remembered nothing without writing it down in his tattered diary. Everything went in there, from the transcendental to the banal. Everything must be recorded. This was his compulsion. His diary was essentially a long letter to his son, Zack. Leaving a record of his search for his only boy. Noting his observations and theories involving the vampire menace. And, as a scientist, simply recording data and phenomena. At the same time, it was also a helpful exercise for retaining some semblance of sanity.
His handwriting had grown so cramped over the past two years, he could barely read his own entries. He recorded the date each day, because it was the only reliable method of tracking time without a proper calendar. Not that it mattered much- except for today. He scribbled down the date, and then his heart pushed a double beat. Of course. That was it. Why he was back here yet again. Today was Zack’s thirteenth birthday.
You may not live beyond this point,
warned the sign affixed to the upstairs door, written in Magic Marker, illustrated with gravestones and skeletons and crosses. It was drawn in a younger hand, done when Zack was seven or eight. Zack’s bedroom had been left essentially unchanged since the last time he’d occupied it, the same as the bedrooms of missing kids everywhere, a symbol of the stopping of time in the hearts of their parents.
Eph kept returning to the bedroom like a diver returning again and again to a sunken shipwreck. A secret museum; a world preserved exactly as it had once been. A window directly into the past. Eph sat on the bed, feeling the mattress’s familiar give, hearing its reassuring creak. He had been through everything in this room, everything his boy used to touch in the life he used to lead. He curated this room now; he knew every toy, every figurine, every coin and shoestring, every T-shirt and book. He rejected the notion that he was wallowing. People don’t attend church or synagogue or mosque to wallow; they attend regularly as a gesture of faith. Zack’s bedroom was a temple now. Here, and here alone, Eph felt a sense of peace and an affirmation of inner resolve.
Zack was still alive.
This was not speculation. This was not blind hope. Eph knew that Zack was still alive and that his boy had not yet been turned.
In past times- the way the world used to work- the parent of a missing child had resources to turn to. They had the comfort of the police investigative process, and the knowledge that hundreds, if not thousands, of people identified and sympathized with their plight and were actively assisting in the search.
This abduction had occurred in a world without police, without human law. And Eph knew the identity of the being that had abducted Zack. The creature that was once his mother- yes. She committed the abduction. But her action was compelled by a larger entity.
The king vampire, the Master.
But Eph did not know why Zack had been taken. To hurt Eph, of course. And to satisfy his undead mother’s drive to revisit her “Dear Ones,” the beings she had loved in life. The insidious epidemiology of the virus spread in a vampiric perversion of human love.
Turning them into fellow strigoi locked them to you forever, to an existence beyond the trials and tribulations of being human, devolving into only primal needs such as feeding, spreading, survival. That was why Kelly (the thing that was once Kelly) had become so psychically fixated on their boy, and how, despite Eph’s best efforts, she had been able to spirit him away.
And it was precisely this same syndrome, this same obsessive passion for turning those closest to them, that confirmed to Eph that Zack had not been turned. For if the Master or Kelly had drunk the boy, then Zack would surely have returned for Eph as a vampire. Eph’s dread of this very occurrence- of having to face his undead son- had haunted him for two years now, at times sending him into a downward spiral of despair.
But why? Why hadn’t the Master turned Zack? What was it holding him for? As a potential marker to be played against Eph and the resistance effort he was part of? Or for some other more sinister reason that Eph could not- dared not- fathom? Eph shuddered at the dilemma this would present to him.
Where his son was concerned, he was vulnerable. Eph’s weakness was equal to his strength: he could not let go of his boy. Where was Zack at that very moment? Was he being held somewhere? Being tormented as his father’s proxy? Thoughts like these clawed at Eph’s mind.
It was not knowing that unsettled him the most. The others- Fet, Nora, Gus- were able to commit fully to the resistance, all their energy and their focus, precisely because they had no hostages in this war.
Visiting this room usually helped Eph feel less alone in this accursed world. But today it had the opposite effect. He had never felt so acutely alone as he felt right here, at this very moment. Eph thought again about Matt, his ex-wife’s boyfriend- the one he had slain downstairs- and how he used to obsess over that man’s growing influence on Zack’s upbringing. Now he had to think- daily, hourly- about what sort of hell his boy must be living in, under the rule of this actual monster . . .
Overcome, feeling nauseous and sweaty, Eph dug out his diary and scratched down the same question that appeared throughout the notebook, like a koan:
Where is Zack?
As was his habit, he flipped back through the most recent entries. He spied a note about Nora and tried to make out his penmanship. “Morgue.” “Rendezvous.” “Move at sunlight.”
Eph squinted, trying to remember- as a sense of anxiety spread through him.
He was supposed to meet Nora and Mrs. Martinez at the old Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. In Manhattan. Today.
Eph grabbed his bag with a clank of the silver blades, throwing the straps over his back, sword handles behind his shoulders like leather-wrapped antennae. He looked around quickly on his way out, spying an old Transformers toy next to the CD player on Zack’s bureau. Sideswipe, if Eph remembered correctly from reading Zack’s books outlining the Autobots’ specs. A birthday present from Eph to Zack, just a few years before. One of Sideswipe’s legs dangled, snapped from overuse. Eph manipulated the arms, remembering the way Zack used to effortlessly “transform” the toy from car to robot and back again like a Rubik’s Cube grand master. “Happy birthday, Z,” whispered Eph before stuffing the busted toy into his weapons bag and heading for the door.
The former Kelly Goodweather arrived outside her former residence on Kelton Street just minutes after Eph’s departure. She had been tracking the human- her Dear One- since picking up his bloodbeat some fifteen hours before. But when the sky had brightened for the meridiem- the two to three hours of dull yet hazardous sunlight that filtered through the thick cloud cover each planetary rotation- she’d had to retire underground, losing time. Now she was close.
Two black-eyed feelers accompanied her- children blinded by the solar occlusion that coincided with the Master’s arrival in New York City, who were subsequently turned by the Master itself and now gifted with the enhanced perception of second sight- small and fast, skittering along the sidewalk and over abandoned cars like hungry spiders, seeing nothing and sensing everything.
Normally, Kelly’s innate attraction to her Dear One would have been sufficient for her to track and locate her ex-husband. But Eph’s signal was weakened and distorted by the effects of ethanol, stimulants, and sedatives on his nervous and circulatory systems. Intoxication confused the synapses in a human brain, slowing its transfer rate and serving to cloak its signal, like interference over a radio channel.
The Master had taken a peculiar interest in Ephraim Goodweather, specifically in monitoring his movement throughout the city. That was why the feelers- formerly a brother and sister, now nearly identical, having shed their hair, genitals, and other human gender markers- had been sent by the Master to assist Kelly in her pursuit. Here, they began racing back and forth along the short fence in front of the house, waiting for Kelly to catch up to them. She opened the gate and entered the property, walking once around the house, wary of traps. Once satisfied, she rammed the heel of her hand through a double windowpane, shattering glass as she reached up and unfastened the lock, raising the sash.
The feelers leaped inside, Kelly following, lifting one bare, dirty leg through, then bending and easily contorting her body to enter the three-foot-square opening. The feelers climbed all over the sofa, indicating it like trained police canines. Kelly stood very still for a long moment, opening her senses to the interior of the dwelling. She confirmed that they were alone and thus too late. But she sensed Eph’s recent presence. Maybe there was more to be learned.
The feelers scooted across the floor to a north-facing window, touching the glass as though absorbing a recent, lingering sensation- then at once scrambled up the stairs. Kelly followed them, allowing them to scent and indicate. When she came upon them they were leaping around a bedroom, their psychic senses agitated by the urgency of Eph’s recent occupation, like animals driven wild by some overwhelming but little-understood impulse.
Kelly stood in the center of the room, arms at her sides. The heat of her vampiric body, her blazing metabolism, instantly raised the temperature of the cool room a few degrees. Unlike Eph, Kelly suffered no form of human nostalgia. She felt no affinity for her former domicile, no pangs of regret or loss as she stood in her son’s room. She no longer felt any connection to this place, just as she no longer felt any connection to her pitiable human past. The butterfly does not look back upon its caterpillar self, either fondly or wistfully; it simply flies on.
A hum entered her being, a presence inside her head and a quickening throughout her body. The Master, looking through her. Seeing with her eyes. Observing their near miss.
A moment of great honor and privilege . . .
Then, just as suddenly, the humming presence was gone. Kelly felt no reproach from the Master for having fallen short of capturing Eph. She felt only useful. Of all the others that served it, throughout this world, Kelly had two things the Master greatly valued.
The first was a direct link to Ephraim Goodweather.
The second was Zachary.
Still, Kelly felt the ache of wanting- of needing- to turn her dear son. The urge had subsided but never vanished. She felt it all the time, an incomplete part of herself, an emptiness. It went against her vampire nature. But she bore this agony for one reason only: because the Master demanded it. Its immaculate will alone held Kelly’s longing at bay. And so the boy remained human. Remained undelivered, unfinished. There was indeed a purpose to the Master’s demand. In that, she trusted without any uncertainty. For the motive had not been revealed to her, because it was not for her to know yet.
For now it was quite enough to see the boy sitting at the Master’s side.
The feelers leaped around her as Kelly descended the staircase. She crossed to the raised window and exited through it as she had entered, almost without breaking stride. The rains had started again, fat, black drops pelting her hot scalp and shoulders, disappearing in wisps of steam. Standing out on the center yellow line of the street, she sensed Eph’s trail anew, his bloodbeat growing stronger as he became more sober.
With the feelers racing back and forth, she strode through the falling rain, leaving a faint trail of steam in her wake. She neared a rapid-transit station and felt her psychic link to him beginning to fade. This was due to the growing distance between them. He had boarded a subway train.
No disappointment clouded her thoughts. Kelly would continue to pursue Eph until they were reunited once and for all. She communicated her report back to the Master before following the feelers into the station.
Eph was returning to Manhattan.