Another loaded cartridge fell into the bin. I loaded another case and another bullet into the press and smoothly pulled the leaver again. A primer was loaded into one case, a second case was flared open, powder was shot into a third, a bullet pressed into a fourth, and the fifth case crimped around its bullet. I slowly pushed the lever forward.
The shelf lowered, the plate auto-indexed, and another loaded cartridge fell into the bin. I loaded another bullet and another case into the press and repeated the process again.
I was in the compound’s armory, which was in the basement of the main building. I was sitting off in the corner at one of the reloading presses. I’d been here for hours, ever since I’d calmed down after awaking from the nightmare.
I’d taken up handloading shortly after Jon’s Broadsword had arrived at the local gunshop. Even with the customizations, it had still arrived far faster than anyone had expected. I’d gone with him to pick it up, and while Jon had filled out the paperwork for the rifle and waited for the background check to come through (stupid laws), I’d idly started browsing the counter, looking at pistols. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular – I just like to look at guns – but they’d grabbed my attention the moment I spotted them.
It’s not often that one sees a Smith & Wesson 3rd Generation automatic in a gun store anymore. Two 3rd Gens are incredibly rare. A matched set is almost unheard of nowadays. But this particular set? The odds of it appearing at all, let alone the very day I decided to walk into the gun store, are so low that I can’t even pronounce it.
It was a pair of 10mm Autos, one a full-size 1026, the other a short-barreled 1076. The 1026 wasn’t very popular, apparently because it featured a SIG-Sauer style decoking lever on the frame rather than S&W’s traditional slide-mounted safety. The 1076 was more successful, probably owing to its brief adoption by the FBI back in the early ’90s. Even so, both pistols were only produced for a few years, with only a handful of 1026s and a few thousand 1076s leaving the factory before S&W discontinued its line of 10mm’s.
I’d been lusting after a S&W 10mm for years, and according to the guy behind the counter, these two were practically new-in-box, each having a handful of rounds run through them.
When Jon left the gun store with his Broadsword, I had myself a new pair of pistols.
Even better, Dominique had informed the team a few days earlier that MHI’s ammo supplier was in the process of cooking up a full-charge 10mm load for us, so I’d be able to carry them while Hunting. But before I could do that, I had to get proficient with my new pistols. And to do that, I needed a lot of full-charge 10mm loads to practice with.
Unfortunately, 10mm ammo is pretty rare nowadays, and most of the stuff you can find is based on the wussy FBI-Lite load the Bureau adopted after its agents started whining about recoil. What little full-power stuff is out there is very limited in terms of bullet weight and type, and all of the loads are incredibly expensive. Hence my taking up handloading. It allowed me to create the exact type of load I wanted, and for a fraction of the price of store-bought ammo. Chris had helped me learn the ropes of handloading and had worked with me to develop a really sweet load for my pistols: 200 grain Hornady XTP hollowpoints with a muzzle velocity of just over 1200 feet per second. That’s more energy at the muzzle than a .357 Magnum.
This was the load that I was cranking out right then. Now, I know you’re not supposed to reload if you’re distracted or have something big on your mind, but for some reason, handloading helps me to get my mind off of whatever might be bothering me. Maybe it’s because I have to devote my complete and absolute concentration on the task, I don’t know. All I know is that it helps me focus my mind on something other than my worries.
Unfortunately, that night it wasn’t working too well. I kept flashing back to the dream, to Robert slicing my fingers off and shooting me in the throat point-blank with that crossbow.
I sighed, pushed the lever back again and snatched the freshly-loaded cartridge out of the air as the reloading press kicked it into the bin. I put it on an ultra-precise digital scale, then measured it a set of digital calipers. Both weight and length were identical to the parameters Chris and I had come up with for the load. Just like the other thirty samples I’d checked in the last hour or so.
I finished loading the last four casings in the press but didn’t load any new ones. I couldn’t focus at all. It was a miracle that I hadn’t found any overcharged or otherwise out-of-spec rounds in my spot checks, and with the way my concentration was failing, it was only a matter of time before I started loading them.
This new version of the dream had left me genuinely scared. Robert had never actually killed me in the dream before, and Dominique, Earl, Owen, and Julie were convinced that the dream was actually a vision of the future. Did that mean I was going to die? And worse, Odette was with him. She hadn’t looked like she’d been turned or enthralled. Had she willingly joined him?
It was just too much for me to deal with. I got up and headed over to the sink on the other side of the room to wash my hands. I needed to get back to bed, even though I knew I wouldn’t sleep.
As I started to stand, I caught a flash of movement in the corner of my eye and whirled towards it, my hand reaching for the baby SIG holstered behind my back.
“Oh,” I said stupidly as I saw who it was. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Odette replied. “What are you doing down here?”
“Couldn’t sleep, so I decided to do some handloading. What’re you doing down here?”
“I woke up starving hungry so I went to the kitchen to get something to eat, only I heard some noise down here and came down to investigate.” I raised my eyebrows.
“Alone and unarmed?” It wasn’t like her to be that careless.
“Well, I didn’t want to wake anyone up, and anyway I figured Hondo would start barking up a storm if anyone broke in.”
“Okay, that’s fair, but still, unarmed?”
“Umm… hello?” She raised her arms slightly, and only then did I notice the Smith & Wesson 457 in her right hand. I spotted the H&K UMP slung over her shoulder a second later.
“D’oh.” I facepalmed myself. “Okay, touché. Sorry. One thing though; you should’ve come in with the UMP as your primary. Pistols are for fighting your way to a long gun, remember?” I said, echoing the phrase that Owen had pounded into our heads back during Newbie training.
“Oh, yeah, that’s right. Sorry.”
“Hey, no harm, no foul.”
“Yes, but still… well, anyway, I’m sorry I interrupted you.”
“Don’t be, I just finished.” Odette gave a little sigh of relief.
“Do you mind if I come with you?” I asked.
“To the kitchen.”
“Oh, right. No, not at all.”
“Thanks, just give me a second to get this stuff cleaned up…” I quickly screwed the cap back on the powder keg and replaced the casings, bullets, and primers in the appropriate boxes before quickly washing my hands and then joining Odette out in the hallway.
“So…” She said as we started towards the stairs.
“So…” I replied. “…uh… do you always pack heat when you go midnight snacking?”
“Yes… well, sort of… I carry my pistol pretty much all the time now, but I didn’t get the subgun until after I’d heard you down in the basement.”
I nodded in reply, and we drifted into an uneasy silence. Uneasy for me, at least; I still couldn’t get this new version of the dream out of my head. I looked over at Odette. Would she really join Robert?
“What?” Odette’s voice shattered my thoughts.
“You were looking at me funny.”
“No I wasn’t.”
“Yes you were.”
“Yes, you were. What’s up?”
“What do you mean?”
“You look like you’ve got something on your mind. Actually, no. You look like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said quickly, “Forget it.”
“You could fool me,” Odette replied.
“Really, it’s nothing,” I insisted, “Don’t worry about it.”
“Steve, whatever it is, you can tell me.”
“I said it’s nothing!” That came out a little sharper than I meant it to. Odette turned away from me and increased her pace, a hurt look spreading over her face. “Odette, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
“No, you’re right, I shouldn’t have bothered you. It’s fine.” The tone of her voice made it clear that it wasn’t.
“Odette, I’m really sorry—”
“Like you said, forget it.” For the umpteenth time, I mentally kicked myself. Why the hell couldn’t I stop hurting her every time I opened my mouth?
Odette ignored me as she marched up the stairs to the ground floor. I trailed after her, not really knowing what else to do.
No sooner had we reached a kitchen than Odette made a beeline for the fridge, yanked the door open, and stuck her head inside. I trotted up behind her and peeked in over her shoulder.
“Ooh, hey! We’ve got Nutella! Ow!” I reached in to grab the chocolate-hazelnut spread, only to have Odette suddenly slap my hand away. “What was that for?”
“You can help yourself to anything else, but do not touch my Nutella.” The edge in her voice was uncomfortably similar to how Earl Harbinger sounded when I’d pissed him off after he’d caught me lying about Robert. I quickly withdrew from the fridge and scampered over to the cabinets.
A few quick minutes of scrounging turned up a spoon, a bowl, and a box of Honey Nut Cheerios. By the time I’d poured myself a bowl, Odette was already seated at the table, munching on a piece of bread that had been slathered with Nutella. I slid into the seat across from her.
As I lifted a spoonful of cereal to my mouth, I flashed back to the dream. Oddly, it wasn’t Robert killing me; it was Odette. She’d been there, she’s been standing next to him. She hadn’t been turned, and she hadn’t looked like she’d been enthralled. I couldn’t think of any reason why she’s be there, except one. I hoped and prayed that I was wrong.
“Huh?” I looked up to find my spoon halfway between the bowl and my mouth, and Odette giving me a very concerned look.
“You spaced out on me again. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding my head ‘yes,’ only to start shaking my head ‘no’ a second later. “No, not really. I had the dream again. Sort of, anyway.”
“It was… it was different this time.”
“Robert killed me.”
“Killed you? Didn’t he do that when you had the dream before?”
“Not really. In the other two times, he’d but a sword to my throat, then I’d wake up. This time, he cut my fingers off, beat the crap out of me, then shot me with a crossbow.”
“Oh, wow.” Then the impact of what I’d just said hit her. “Wait… you think… you think he’s going to kill you? For real, I mean.”
“Yep, that about sums it up.”
“You don’t know—” she said, but I cut her off.
“Think about it. Dr Bryson warns me about a threat, then we start getting attacked by Monsters. I see Robert in my dreams, then we find out he’s alive, or, undead… you know what I mean. Then Dr. Bryson told me to watch out for The Beast, and look what happened there. My dreams have been coming true, Odette. Why should this one be any different?”
“You can’t know that,” she insisted.
“Maybe not, but like I said, look at my track record: I’m three for three so far.”
“But…” I guess she couldn’t figure out how to reply to that, since we lapsed into an uncomfortable silence for a few moments.
“There’s something else, isn’t there?” She finally asked.
“Yeah…” I said slowly, not meaning to, but it slipped out anyway.
“You…” I sighed, taking in a deep breath before slowly telling her the part of the dream that frightened me the most. “You were there.”
“You were there, in the room with him. You hadn’t been turned, hadn’t been enthralled, hadn’t even been bitten as far as I could tell. You were just there, standing with him, almost like…” I couldn’t bear to finish the thought.
“Almost like what?” she pressed. I hesitated for a moment, then caved. I couldn’t refuse the desperate edge in her voice.
“It was almost like… like you’d joined him.”
Odette slumped back in her chair and started staring a hole in the wall. I went back to my Cheerios for a moment, then paused again. Something wasn’t right. Something about Odette. She hadn’t been surprised when I’d told her I thought she’d joined him; she’d barely reacted at all. That made no sense to me. Why wouldn’t she be surprised by that revelation? Unless… No. No, that couldn’t be possible. Could it?
“Odette, ah, you’re not… you aren’t thinking about maybe joining Robert?” I asked. Odette didn’t reply, didn’t so much as blink. “Are you?” Odette didn’t move for a second, then her eyes flicked downward for a split second. My blood chilled a few degrees. I couldn’t believe it. “Odette, you can’t!” I exclaimed.
“Why not?” she asked.
“You can’t join him! You’ll be a vampire, a slave to evil for all eternity!” I didn’t say that MHI would have to kill her if she did. I couldn’t stand to think that.
“I don’t want to be a vampire!” Odette shouted. A tear welled up in the corner of her eye.
“Then why join him? Odette, he’s gone!”
“You don’t know that.” The tear began to trickle down her cheek.
“You think you can bring him back? Odette, Robert’s gone. He’s not coming back. This isn’t Star Wars, you’re not Luke and he’s not Vader. He can’t be redeemed; you can’t bring him back!”
“How can you know that!” she screamed. Tears were flowing freely down her face now. “You don’t know that!”
“He’s right, Odette,” a deep bass voice said, “You can’t bring Robert back.”
I whirled around in my chair towards the source of the voice, then felt my heart skip a beat and my jaw drop. No freakin’ way! Odette sat up, startled, then leapt from her chair and grabbed her UMP off the table.
“HOSTILE!!!” she screamed as she snapped the weapon to her shoulder. The sound of the safety coming off was deafening.
“No!” I shouted, jumping to my feet and shoving the sugbun’s muzzle to the floor. “Hold your fire!”
“Get off!” Odette replied, “It’s a vampire! He must’ve misted in on us! Grab your guns! Hit the alarm!”
“He’s not a vampire!”
“Then what the hell is it?”
I took a deep breath, steadying myself as I shook my head. I couldn’t believe it.
“Odette,” I said, “Meet the Reverend Doctor Thomas Bryson.”