Gateways: New Blood by Brendan Connelly read by Alex B. Reynolds

TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Brendon Connelly. This story is written by Brendon Connelly. [Brendon Connelly is a scriptwriter from Norwich in the UK. He was a film journalist and blogger for over 20 years, met Kermit the Frog three times – and only fainted one of those times, and graduated from the University of Oxford with a first in Creative Writing. It also happens to be his 47th birthday on the date of recording! This is “New Blood.”

I should start by explaining how the Flavivirus first came into my community. Sure, this is an anecdote and not, you know, hard science, but I guess most people would say the exact same thing about me. Let’s just say, be sceptical about my stories at your peril. 

You can get the Flavivirus through the air, if somebody sneezes on you, or even just breathes on you. You can get it from touching a surface where the virus will live for at least 24 hours. Don’t ever forget to sanitise your hands when you get off the bus. And, of course, you can get it through blood. So take one guess as to exactly how one of my kind first caught it. 

There was this kid called Jasper. He’d only joined us a few years back. He was just a whippersnapper, really. Jasper drank a guy down in the packing district and – whoom! Jasper was sick before the human’s neck had left his lips. 

None of us are doctors, biologists or any kind of expert in disease – we don’t have the resources let alone the knowledge – but just watching what goes down when one of us gets hit with the Flavivirus, it’s immediately obvious that we handle it a whole lot worse than you guys do. Poor little Jasper didn’t even make it through the day. He hit the dirt just before dawn and was nothing but a pile of ashes by sundown. You, however, don’t even show symptoms for days. It must be our metabolism. Remember – we live fast, stay young forever, leave no kind of corpse at all, but our metabolic clocks are in permanent overdrive. 

The irony is, in many ways, my kind should have been in a very good place with this virus. We don’t breathe, it takes a hell of a lot to make us sneeze, and we wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus or train. But of course, we’re completely screwed because, unlike you, we can catch the virus from our food. 

Jasper was dust for only a few hours when the Flavivirus first showed up in your newspapers. I never read your papers, not personally. I don’t need to. I’m not sure if you know why…? 

I lose track of what you know about us and what you don’t. The garlic thing, for example, that’s not quite right. We definitely don’t like garlic. It’s fucking disgusting. But it doesn’t hurt us. And crucifixes? We’re pretty sure that’s just empty propaganda, and not on our behalf. 

But I don’t need to read your papers because, well, they’re boring. That’s mostly it, but also, as long as one of us reads them, we may as well all have. You guys sometimes talk about being on the same wavelength or being in tune with one another, or you say, “Great minds think alike,” though, really, you’ve got no idea. Things leak back and forth between our minds. It never takes long for us to come to a consensus which is really rather convenient. 

Except, of course, when it leads to absolute hysteria. 

We were lucky to be asleep when the virus took hold of Jasper. Had we been awake, we would have all felt his cells catch fire but, by the grace of who can say, he was asleep, and so we just shared his dreams. All I remember are flashes, but it seemed to be the usual stuff of our nightmares. Something ancient, something we never talk about. We dreamt flashes of glowing eyes, narrowing to pin-sharp dots of cruel white in the dark. There was the beating of broken wings. Then a sense of confusion that sank under waves of oily, black hopelessness. After that, just the teeth, sharp and silent, and their tiny punctures, deep into the soul and rotten, changing everything forever in a single bite. 

After this, we all woke up. Except Jasper, poor thing. We will remember him. 

That night we fed hastily, rampant, greedy and fearful. We stalked every shadow across town, hunting and desperate. If we didn’t eat now, we feared, the virus would take hold of you all, and we’d starve. You’d be polluted. You’d be wasted, and then we would die. 

Some of us were scared to feed at all, but most of us were afraid to wait any longer. Majority rules when your ideas and desires tend to run together in one dirty pool, especially when fear gets the upper hand. Thirty four humans vanished that night. We drank them all. We took their bodies down under the ground with us and buried them there. It was our hungriest, most desperate night in a thousand years. It was reckless and dangerous, and I knew that if we did it again, there would be a real chance you’d come looking for us, not even knowing what you were looking for. 

And because I knew it, slowly, everybody knew it. 

We slept well the morning after the feast, all of our hearts feeling fat and sated, but it was obvious that we would have to find another solution fast. As we dreamt, I let my ideas run like blood into water, hoping we would all wake up and look for an answer together. 

We knew that any one of you could be carrying the virus, and there was no way of telling which. Your newspapers and the TV told us that the virus was spreading faster than expected, and unpredictably. We learned that your weakest would easily succumb but also that your strongest would survive. Given time, your healthy immune systems would normally be enough to defeat the virus, and slowly but surely, you’d return to your prime, rich and and alive as if you had never been sick. 

So if we could wait it out, sooner or later, you’d all be safe to drink again. We didn’t know exactly how long we’d have to wait, but thankfully, this was all just a matter of time. I may have only been on this earth for 55 years, but many of us have walked through your night times for millennia. Time is something we are not about to run out of. 

Of course, our knowing this is not the same as feeling it. Patience, you may say, is not one of our virtues. 

Still, we agreed to abstain from feeding. We tried to sleep longer, and to distract ourselves with whatever small business we could make. We read books and watched television and we went on walks underneath the city. We got together like in the old days, to just sit and talk. These meetings were so unlike the slow seeping of ideas from one mind to another, rather more vibrant, much more exciting. Our banter was fast and snappy, and we laughed, and we flirted, and sometimes even fought. I wondered why we hadn’t done more of this, and vowed to keep it up once the virus had gone and everything returned to the old ways. 

And woven through all of us, we were trying hard to wait. But while we tried to look away from our true nature, the hunger kept growing, and creeping closer and, slowly but inevitably, we all started to share the thoughts that we wouldn’t speak out loud. Together, we knew that we could only wait for so long. 

Your papers told us all about your own fears and the plans you were making. Drugs were being developed, if slowly. Plans were being cancelled and large group meetings outlawed. Special quarantine centres were being set up across the land. You were working to slow the virus and protect yourselves, and for once, we found ourselves deeply invested in your safety and success. 

But the virus had given itself a head start. By living silently in your bodies before showing any symptoms, Flavivirus managed to spread itself farther and faster than any of us had expected. And soon, your quarantine centres took on a second, unexpected purpose. 

Because while your people were isolated in those centres, they were safe from the virus. In our local quarantine centre, one of your people became sick and died, and the other 18 people… they didn’t become sick at all. Instead, they simply found themselves walled-off, protected from the spread of virus. The world outside was diseased, but the quarantine centre, against expectation and design, became the safe place. Your plans had turned inside out. 

I woke up the next night with an idea. It came from something I half-remembered from when I had once been alive, and half-learned from another of my kind. I knew that what we needed was clean blood, so if there was a supply of this blood being perfectly protected in the quarantine centres, then we should help ourselves to it. We needed to carry out a heist. 

We met so that I could explain my plan, as well as I could. I explained that, at least the way a heist was usually done, we’d get weapons and storm the quarantine centre. Two small bonuses to our particular situation, I explained, were that a) your video camera security systems were all but blind to us, and that b) the quarantine centre’s security guards were armed with guns, not wooden stakes. We’d undoubtedly leave a hell of a mess, much more than we’d ever allowed ourselves to make in one of your cities, but that would be a small risk to raise if it meant the survival of our kind. 

We agreed that my plan was a good one. There was only one revision – though I forget who suggested it, if it was anybody in particular – that rather than kill the humans living in the quarantine centre, we should keep them alive and drag them back to our sleeping places below the city. This wasn’t the time to raid the dairy for milk. We were going to need to keep our own cows. 

Several of my kind kept guns, some older, some newer but all lovingly maintained. We found them out, loaded them and checked that they worked. Some of us prefer knives, or swords, and so we armed ourselves with those too. Another of us took a crowbar. Anything, we thought, that could help get us inside, and to deal with the security guards as quickly as possible. 

The quarantine centre had been improvised out of a medical centre on the South Side of the city, on a quiet block where every other building was empty all night long. We met there, then cleared our minds and got in sync – and, moving in perfect union, set about ripping into the building as quickly as we could. 

A crowbar through the window. A security guard came running. He was wearing a respirator mask but his eyes were alight with fear. We shot him in the chest. He dropped to his knees, and while the blood was still pumping, some of us stopped to feed. Another security guard hurtled into the room, and sprinted towards the alarm. We shot him too, in the back. Then we made our way further inside. 

We soon found the corridor between the isolation rooms. Another security guard was waiting there for us. I was first through the door, and so I was the target as he unloaded his pistol. Every shot hit me in the body and they hurt – they always do – and they slowed me down, but they weren’t going to make any real difference. His gun started to click, empty and useless and he threw it our way, and he showed us how little he knew about what he was dealing with. 

But while his gun couldn’t make the tiniest bit of difference, we hadn’t reckoned on what he did next. He squeezed a small switch in his hand and a heavy, thick metal door slammed shut, just inches in front of me. It cut us all off from the corridor – and at the same time, opened all of the doors to the isolation rooms. A siren started sounding and the lights went out. Everything was now bathed only in the blood red glow of emergency lights. 

I pulled myself up to the window in the heavy door and watched as the security guard opened another, matching door at the other end of the corridor. Dazed and confused quarantine patients stumbled from their rooms, and the security guard beckoned them his way, explaining that he was leading them to a secure room. 

We kept thrashing angrily at the door that blocked our way. I watched through its window, the crowbar flailing past me, as the security guard led his people to his inner sanctum. He was stealing our survival from right under our nose. 

The security guard managed to get the last of the patients through the door and swing it shut just before we smashed our way into the corridor. I screamed at him, and wailed. Where had he taken all of our blood? We were going to kill him unless he opened the door. 

He was shaking and sweating but he didn’t take his eyes off me. He told me that we’d just have to kill him. He demanded to know what we wanted. He told me, again and again, that he’d die before he’d give us the passcode to the secure room. Without it, he said, we’d never get through three feet of steel. I couldn’t believe this flimsy little man, believing he was some kind of hero. He was willing to put his life on the line for this passcode, to die for this tiny secret… and maybe to kill us all too? 

We started to panic, but I tried to hold us together. We knew that we could certainly overpower this guy but, thinking together, couldn’t we also out-think him? I dug in and tried to centre my mind. I held on tight and, in a moment of peace, we all came to a standstill. 

There are several ways of executing a heist. One of the easiest and certainly the most common is the smash and grab. That, however, had just gone very wrong for us. So what next? 

Well, I thought, what about giving ourselves a little advantage. What if we had an inside man? 

The idea rippled through us like a wave of relief. 

I can remember now just how it went down for the security guard. There were flashes of glowing eyes as they narrowed to pin-sharp dots of red in the dark. There was the beating of broken wings. And then came the sense of confusion, and the drowning in oily, black hopelessness. After that, just the sharp and silent teeth and their tiny punctures, cutting deep into his soul, changing everything forever in a bite. 

It didn’t take long. It never does. And then, finally, we had what we wanted. The four digit passcode trickled slowly out of our newest mind. I typed them into the door, and we all got ready to eat. 

ANSEL: Thank you, Alex. Alex B. Reynolds began their acting career as Sherlock Holmes in the second grade, and has since been seen around Chicago in such roles as Gandalf the Grey, Luigi Mario, and Skeletor. They are so grateful to return to the Gateways Reading Series, and can otherwise be heard on the “Meet/Cute” sitcom podcast, the Filmthusiast “Final Cut” podcast, and on whatever customer support line is paying their bills this month.