Sweet Belladonna

January 23, 2009 by Editor 

CAPELLA: THE TINY planet languishing in the soft crimson glow of her dying star had been a late bloomer, coaxed into habitability by human colonists only a few centuries earlier. The tiny body was nestled among a dusty smattering of moons and asteroids that awkwardly wobbled along the outer edges of the Magellanic Spiral. Cappella boasted no major goods or tourist attractions, and was more often overlooked than not, by most respectable commercial enterprises throughout the known worlds. In fact, the closest citizens of Capella came to interstellar travel was a choice of staffing the planet’s single space docking station or submitting to a blood contract with the only race of beings to visit Capella on a regular basis.

Once feared by humans, the Vampires had also originated on the First World. It was often said that when humanity took to the stars, so did the stuff of their nightmares. They had no choice but to follow their prey. Still, all relationships evolve over time. The relationship between humans and vampires had changed many times and in many ways, over many millennia. While the instinctive fear that they instilled in the hearts of humans had never been completely eradicated, there were many cultures that willingly associated with the ancient breed of predators.

The blood contract had come about over two centuries earlier. There were historians who believed that the colony on Capella had been only one of a handful of fringe colonies established by the vampiric nobility, as convenient feeding grounds. Over time, the relationship between humans and vampires had relaxed and evolved to the point where only willing humans were used for sustenance, providing that they were compensated handsomely for their troubles.

As a child, Sofie Tenna had spent many a sleepless night outdoors, staring up at the stars. She had an inexplicable aversion to the ordinary. While life on Capella offered even its lowest ranking citizens quite a few steps above poverty, she wanted more than that. She wanted what the stars promised. She wanted to touch and taste all of the secrets that she was certain were watching and waiting there for her, to lose herself in the glittery blanket of darkness. She wanted that and so much more. She had no desire to be stuck on some backwater space station with her dreams always just out of reach. That left Sofie with only one obvious option. By her sixteenth year, she had already begun preparing herself to accept the blood contract.

* * *

Sofie sucked in a breath and cinched the fastenings of her gown. The complicated design was not something to which she was accustomed. Life on a small backwater planet hadn’t offered much in the way of sophistication. Nearly a year and hundreds of light years away from her former life, she fastened the leather cuff of what was certainly the most revealing garment that she had ever worn. It’s not that anyone ordered her to do this. Being practical by nature, she was merely dressing to impress. She checked herself in the small gilded mirror that had been the empress’ first gift to her. Her round, over-large eyes were dark and eager, lips blood red and slightly swollen. It was disconcerting, felt rather like staring into the eyes of a stranger and yet, she couldn’t stop herself from smiling just a little. She wasn’t a stunning beauty like the empress, perhaps not nearly as irresistible but she was confident that she was as difficult to dismiss as she could manage.

Andromeda Five was not a regent or politician of any kind. The “empress” nomenclature was something tongue-in-cheek that Sofie had secretly assigned to her and for the sake of self-preservation, kept to herself. Andromeda was a Vampire and though you couldn’t tell by looking at her, Sofie had discovered that she was one of the oldest of her kind. She wasn’t so far off the mark, anyway. The ancients were generally considered nobility by their own kind and in turn, by the human cultures that they associated with.

Sofie’s fists curled into tight little balls. She’d had the jitters ever since she’d been summoned again. Her heart thundered violently, as usual. The reason this time however, had nothing to do with apprehension. Before, she had been petrified of the strangely menacing creature to whom she had sold her blood. Now, it was anticipation that made her heart race.

Andromeda’s ship was the Celeste, a hulking luxury liner style relic. Sofie had not been give the grand tour, nor was she allowed to venture beyond the confines of the second tier, where the empress resided. She knew that the upper levels were manned by the Celeste’s human crew. With the empress quarters as effective a barrier as any to keep the ship’s human denizens safe, while the empress’ un-dead bodyguards remained in cold sleep on the last level. A sophisticated feeding system kept them in constant supply of synthetic blood. They were only awakened when needed by the empress. The Celeste was a treasure chest, an opulent faery kingdom that floated among the stars.

Sofie’s mouth went dry as she crossed the threshold to the ship’s hothouse. She paused upon entering, dazzled by the diverse profusion of exotic herbs and blooms that populated the enormous room. Each plant’s gnarly roots had been nested in clear hydroponic solution in transparent cylinders. They thrived, roots fattening and membranous greenery puffing up out of the tops of the cylinders straining to reach the lighted ceiling. They were beautiful, and monstrously alien.

“Over here, Sofie. Come!” Andromeda crooked a finger, beckoning from her far left.

She was barefoot and stood at least a head taller than Sofie, her countenance as dark as her ebony hair. The thick black braids gathered at the top of her head and spilled down her back. She wore a simple, white gown that made her seem to glow. There was a golden ribbon threaded into each braid. Sofie, with her own dark curls cropped above her ears couldn’t imagine tolerating much less grooming that much hair. Perhaps that had been the root of her attraction, the way everything about Andromeda was so different; the way every aspect of the ancient one’s being seemed to embody the dark mystery and magic of the stars.

Andromeda was staring with wonder at one of the larger plants. Upon closer inspection, Sofie noted that it was fat with plump, dark berries. They reminded her of a delightfully tart berry bush that grew in profusion in the warmer regions of Capella. She reached up to pluck one, wondering if the taste was even remotely the same.

“Don’t!”

The ferocity in the empress’ voice startled her. Cold whipped through the room. She shuddered, reaching out to hand the berry over. Her hands were shaking. She was mortified.

“I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t have done that.”

The empress took the berry.

“This fruit is lovely, isn’t it? It has a nice colour and it tastes very sweet but it will kill you.”

She slipped it into her own mouth and shuddered with distinct pleasure when she bit down. Sofie’s breath hitched. Andromeda reached up to rub one of the silky leaves between her trembling forefinger and thumb. “This rare treasure was once called Belladonna; beautiful but deadly to humans.”

“Seems you have quite a bit in common with this flower.”

Pleasantly startled by Sofie’s boldness, she laughed low and deep in her throat before gliding toward the exit. Sofie’s heart constricted painfully. She was mocking her, wasn’t she? She followed in silence but when they reached Andromeda’s quarters, she couldn’t seem to hold her tongue any longer. Beneath the ire lay hurt and she didn’t know how or care to hide it.

“What exactly was the point of showing me your garden?”

The empress sank down onto a platform piled with cushions contemplating her companion in silence. “It’s strange,” she murmured. “You’re the first companion who hasn’t remained terrified of me for the entire journey. You seem to have forgotten to be fearful. It’s unwise.”

Sofie swallowed hard, feeling a bit like she’d just been kicked in the teeth. She fought back a rash of tears and sank down sullenly beside Andromeda. She angled her head forward.

“I can feel your hunger,” she muttered. “Just get it over with.”

“I won’t feed on you when you’re upset with me, Sofie. Your anger would fuel my hunger. It would not go well for you.”

“What do you care?”

“We poison each other,” Andromeda explained patiently. “The blood contract breeds intimacy, that is all. This isn’t love. You need to rid yourself of that notion.”

Sofie felt like a child stamping her foot in a tantrum but she couldn’t help lashing out. The empress was lying and she didn’t even seem to be making any effort to hide it.

“Are humans really so pitiful that you could not allow yourself to care for me?”

“That accusation is beneath you, I think. I could never allow myself to love a human, Sofie because I feed on your kind. Blood contracts are temporary because eventually, I would bleed you dry. Love has nothing to do with that. It’s simply the nature of the beast.”

Her words were softly spoken, emphatic and carried the weight of vampiric compulsion.

“Am I cruel?” Andromeda asked softly, after a while.

Her breath tickled the nape of Sofie’s neck. She struggled to remember in detail, every injustice, and every unkind action or word yet un-forgiven. Everything was blurry. Sofie had once told her that her scent reminded Sophie of jasmine and cardamom and she had laughed but it was true. Darkness and the heat of the moment made her skin dewy. Immortality made her eyes shine.

“Yes,” Sofie whispered and then, a sigh. “No,” she amended grudgingly.

She shuddered as sharp teeth sank down into soft flesh, sending a sharp electric current spearing right down to her toes.

There was a cult on Capella, a group of people who believed that pain was tantamount to ecstasy. She’d always been a naysayer; in staunch opposition of those fools but when the momentary agony of being bitten cascaded through her bones, her heart cracked and tears sprang to her eyes. Heat raced through her body. Her skin tingled. Senses at war, she fumbled blindly for Andromeda’s magnetic warmth. Was she reaching for something that didn’t exist? Besieged by uncertainty, she waited for the vampire to re-do the gown’s fastenings at the back of her neck.

“I was thinking…”

“No.” the empress answered too curtly. Too quickly.

Sofie twisted to look at her in outrage. “But I haven’t even…”

“The answer is no, Sofie.” Andromeda reiterated firmly.

Of course, Sofie subsided immediately. She hated it when Andromeda used her name. She loved it when she used her name.

For the barest instant, Sofie thought that she saw something flicker in the ancient vampire’s magnetic stare. It fuelled the stubborn spark of hope in her heart. It might have been regret or the sad knowledge possessed by one who had seen too much of life and had loved and lost too much. It meant, Sofie was convinced, that she had touched something. She had touched the core of this enigmatic creature in some profound way and she would not allow her to deny it. She shook off the haze that made her want to do as Andromeda commanded.

“Make me like you, then.” She was insistent. “I know it’s possible.”

The empress was nonplussed. “That’s something I would never do.”

“Is it so terrible then, being what you are?”

“It’s better than being dead but not better than being alive.”

“You are alive!” Sofie protested drunkenly. “You’re the most vibrant person I’ve ever met.”

“Ah, but it’s not the same, you see. There’s always something missing.”

“I find that…hard to believe.”

Sofie swayed and moaned, suddenly dizzy from blood loss. She closed her eyes, just for a moment, she thought, but when she opened them, everything had changed.

* * *

She heard the faint sounds of thunder and someone was calling her name. She opened her eyes and yelped, squeezing them shut. It was bright, painfully bright. She tried to move. She couldn’t. Her heart was racing, she couldn’t make it stop. Her skin crawled with nerves. She tried again to move. It was no use. She tried opening her eyes again but the blinding brightness burned. She tried to think. She remembered dazedly walking the long corridor to her own suite and stumbling when the ship lurched suddenly. She remembered her shoulder slamming painfully into a metal wall. It had felt as if something massive had careened into the ship. She remembered someone kneeling over her. There had been flames spreading and weapon’s fire getting nearer and nearer. She had flashes of a moment of absolute quiet. She had been surrounded by bodies; she had been soaked in their blood.

Pain exploded in her throbbing head. She saw red. Her stomach lurched. Something wet dripped on her forehead. A slightly sweet, metallic aroma immediately flooded the air. She felt the weight of another body fall over her like a shadow. She ventured to open her eyes again. Andromeda loomed over her, shielding her from the worst of the light. Her face was expressionless, a stony mask of calm, yet there were tears streaming from her eyes. Those were not just tears trailing down the empress’ cheeks, staining her pale blue gown. The vampire laughed softly, brought a hand to brush at her eyes. She seemed vaguely taken aback when it came away smeared with her own blood.

Sofie frowned. “What’s wrong with you?”

She willed her uncooperative limbs to work. “What’s happening? Why can’t I move?”

“There’s a fluctuating gravity field restraining you. I can’t allow you to move about freely on this ship anymore.”

Sofie’s panic rose. “What are you talking about? Release me at once! There was nothing about this in our contract.”

Andromeda shook her head. “I’m afraid there’s been a breach of the blood contract. I am truly sorry.”

Sofie stared dumbly at the ancient one. Her pulse beat at her throat…her heart. Her breath caught as she realized that the throbbing sound she’d been hearing were heartbeats. Two distinct hearts, hers and Andromeda’s. The distant rumbling grew louder and louder, painfully amplified by her heightening awareness. She screamed. Tears bit at her eyes. She whimpered when the vampire wiped the wet away with her thumb.

“What have you done to me?”

“There was an incident.” She didn’t give any details. Sofie was too stunned to ask for them. “You sustained a fatal injury.”

“Yet here I am.”

“After the change, you killed several of my crew. Do you remember? I had to find a way to restrain you. You’ve been in forced hibernation for quite some time now.”

Sofie’s eyes widened. “You made me like you?” she breathed.

“Not quite.”

The empress slit one of her own wrists with a long, sharp nail. A fine crimson line bubbled up to the surface of her skin. She held her wrist over Sofie’s mouth, just out of reach. The scent tickled her nose. An intense sort of hunger blossomed inside her. Sharp and deadly fangs exploded in her mouth. Sofie strained to reach it. She heard herself growl low in her throat. She needed it, absolutely would kill for it. And she had. It was all coming back now, the screams, and the thrill of hunting. The horror. Her stomach curdled. Her voice broke.

“No. I didn’t. I couldn’t have!

Andromeda withdrew abruptly and left her alone.

Days passed. The empress, it seemed, had abandoned her. The synthetic blood provided by the tubes to which she was connected took care of Sofie’s hunger but did not cure her craving for real blood. In fact, it made her mouth taste like ash; which as far as she was concerned, only served to make a miserable situation even worse. Still, the forced isolation gave her a chance to think on all of the things that had happened and what might happen next. She refused to contemplate that persistent ache that sank deep and down into her heart. Something precious to her had slipped even farther away.

* * *

She didn’t bother to open her eyes when she heard the doors slide open.

“I didn’t ask for this,” she began.

“You did,” The ancient one countered. “But that’s beside the point.”

Sofie anxiously watched her disable the restraints. When she was free, she stood on shaky legs. She flexed her arms, surprised she had free range of motion after being immobile for so long. She eyed Andromeda speculatively.

“Don’t even think about attacking me, Sofie. My capacity for self control only goes so far.”

Despite the clear threat in her voice, the empress’ lips curved into a grudging smile. She wore black, this time. It made her seem like some sort of massive, ominous bird.

“I’m beginning to understand why you wept and bled,” Sofie ventured. “I know why you turned me. Strange, though. Nothing in my research indicated that your kind could feel guilt.”

“Guilt?”

“Even then, when you showed me your garden, did you already know? You must have felt it. All of your guards sleeping below were already dead. Some of your human crew turned on you, poisoned the synthetic blood supply lines. Even when I begged you to keep me here with you and you refused, you knew what you were going to do!” Her voice wavered. “You’re not angry because I killed. You’re angry because I couldn’t stop.”

“How astute. You really are my best work yet, Sofie.”

Andromeda raised her arm. Sofie was all the way across the room before moving out of the way was even a conscious thought. The empress matched her pace without effort. The weapon that Andromeda was pointing was some kind of energy pulse device that she’d never seen before.

“Can you tell what I’m going to do next?”

Sofie chuckled bitterly. “You have got to be joking.”

She closed her eyes and waited for the darkness to take her.

* * *

Sofie was ushered into consciousness by the sound of birds singing. It was a faint sound that she chased though her nightmares, desperately trying to catch the thread. When she opened her eyes, she didn’t know where she was. It seemed to take her brain forever to catch up. One thing was certain. She was not aboard the Celeste anymore.

It was dark where she was. The night was alive and seething with a chaotic mix of sounds and scents. She smelled rot and bloom and earth. She shivered. Overhead, the sinuous boughs of a great tree shielded her from the glow of two fat, full moons. Disoriented, she sat up. She nearly toppled over, swamped by a sudden wave of dizziness. Whatever Andromeda had shot her with had shut her body down for who knew how long - and was still doing its work. She hauled herself up again and leaned back against the trunk of the tree. There was a travel pack beside her. She dragged it closer and examined the contents. There was a pair of fully charged side arms, ammunition cores, a data tablet and several black boxes that she didn’t recognize. The significance of the empress going out of her way to provide advanced weapons, didn’t escape Sofie. She armed herself before selecting one of the strange boxes, out of curiosity. She opened the box and frowned in distaste. Synthetic blood capsules. A surge of anger whipped through her. She was tempted to toss them away but common sense prevailed.

She traded the box for the data tablet and accessed the communications module. “Where the hell am I? Andromeda, answer me!”

The ancient one’s voice streamed out of the tablet after a long moment. “You recovered faster than I expected. Nicely done, Sofie.”

“Don’t patronize me. What is this place?”

“Prask. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of it?” The empress’ laugh suggested that she was certain Sofie hadn’t and she was right.

Sofie scowled. “I know that is not the destination we agreed upon. Our contract stipulated that you would grant me safe passage to a Coalition planet.”

“The blood contract was nullified at the very moment you joined the ranks of the un-dead. Surely, you didn’t expect me to unleash a monster upon an unsuspecting world?”

“I am no more a monster than you.” Sofie was on her feet in an instant. “Do you really think you can keep me here?” She raged. “I will be on the next departing ship. If you believe nothing else, believe that!”

“Prask is unique,” Andromeda began conversationally. “It’s not on any star charts. The Coalition doesn’t even know it exists. No, you won’t be leaving here, not unless I come for you.”

Sofie stared down at the tablet in consternation. “You’re stranding me on a uninhabited planet?”

“There are other humans here, vampires as well. Think of it as a proving ground, of sorts. The newly turned have very limited impulse control. It will take a great deal of time and discipline to gain control your nature and then, only if you truly want to. You’ll have an opportunity to do so here.”

Filled with apprehension, Sofie finally began to take a good look around. It didn’t even occur to her to be surprised at how easily her eyes adjusted to the dark. She’d been left on some sort of grassy plateau. A thick forest wrapped around the mountain and seemed to go on forever. In a distant valley, a hulking mass of twisted metal protruded above the canopy. For some reason, it reminded her of the bone yards of the massive sky-fish of Capella. An enormous vessel had crashed here, scarring the shocked earth. The way the trees twisted around it suggested that the craft hand made landfall ages ago. Some of those mature trees had woven themselves into the metal framing, so they must have been saplings when it occurred. If there had been any survivors, they would have been stranded here. What remained of the vessel couldn’t possibly have been salvageable. Had Andromeda deliberately stranded them here too? Why?

“What did you mean by ‘proving ground’?”

“There is a tenuous balance maintaining the society here. The un-dead do not kill humans. Feed on them if you must but do not take lives. Step out of line and any number of hunters here will be ready to execute you immediately.

Sofie blinked. “I’m here to learn to…not kill?”

“If you wish.”

“And there are humans who hunt the un-dead?”

“Yes.”

As a child on Capella, Sofie had spent countless hours daydreaming about the possibility of finding adventure among the stars. As far as she could recall, her wildest fantasies had not extended very far beyond encountering the body-slaves of Avanu. This nightmare was certainly not the adventure that she had bargained for.

“When you say that this place is a secret, do you mean from your own kind as well?”

There was a pause.

“You really are too clever for your own good.”

“What exactly are you trying to accomplish here?”

There was genuine puzzlement in the empress’ voice.

“What makes you think I have any goal in mind? I’m merely planting seeds. I do not know what will grow.”

Sofie glared down at the tablet. The perverse bitch!

“Another garden, is it? What does that make me? I wonder.”

“Belladonna, naturally.” There was a laugh, the seductive and mocking tone that never failed to infuriate. “Sweet belladonna. A beautiful but deadly rarity, hovering on the brink of extinction.”

For lack of a better target, Sofie smashed her fist into the considerable trunk of the tree that had sheltered her. She stared in astonishment as it splintered and split. One side tumbled over. She cackled, picturing the empress’ face in the tree’s place. Her laughter cut short when a thunderous fluttering suddenly filled the swollen woodland. She whirled around, weapon brandished. A swarm of greedy, shrieking avians were taking to the skies. They winged away in the moonlight. Her eyes followed their progress. There were faint lights in the distance. There was civilization of some sort where they were headed. She relaxed visibly after a moment and only considered her options briefly before she slung her pack over her shoulder and began walking in the same general direction as the birds’ flight path. She brought her knuckles to her mouth, licked away the blood. Her hand was already healing.

At the top of the next incline, she stopped to look down on the lights in the distant city. As if on cue, her stomach clenched painfully.

“I’m starving,” she muttered.

A shadow of a smile crept across her face. There were people there, in that city. Hundreds of them. She could almost taste them already.

“Sofie, are you listening?”

“What?”

“I will come back for you in one year.”

Sofie stopped short. “One year?”

“Galactic Standard,” the ancient one clarified.

One year, by Galactic Standard measure was over five years by Capella’s calendar.

“What exactly am I supposed to do in this godforsaken place until then?” Sofie muttered, not really expecting an answer.

“Survive.”

Andromeda’s reply chilled her to the bone.

There was a short, static burst then the tablet went dead. The sudden silence was maddening. Although, she knew it would do her sanity more harm than good, Sofie scanned the skies for a sign of the ship’s presence. She almost missed it, the pinpoint of light in the star-blurred sky that suddenly brightened and winked away. The Celeste, no doubt, had just blasted away into hyperspace. For the first time since she had left her home world behind, Sofie Tenna felt utterly alone.

THE END

© TONYA MOORE


Author Profile:

I love to write. I love the flexibility and weight of words and the infinite possibilities and magic that can be wrought by just the right combination of them. I’m a story-lover first and foremost. When I write, I endeavor to convey a story in a manner that would most inspire or move me if I were the reader, alas with varying degrees of success.

A selection of my stories and poetry can be found at on my homepage at: http://www.tonyamoore.com

Comments

4 Responses to “Sweet Belladonna”

  1. Demrie Margo Alonzo on January 23rd, 2009 3:49 pm

    Please tell me this is just a first of many chapters. I just have to know what happens next!

  2. Alexandra on January 29th, 2009 4:33 pm

    I’m hoping, like you Demrie, that we can persuade Tonya to write more, soon!

  3. Byron on February 2nd, 2009 6:48 pm

    Tonya you are everywhere now. I need to start following you. This story is fascinating and I know there are so many ways you can take it from here. So do us and the rest of the world a favor TAKE IT SOMEWHERE I need to know more. You are real inspiration to struggling writers like myself.

  4. Tonya Moore on February 5th, 2009 7:59 am

    Thanks for the wonderful response, Demrie, Alex & Byron. :)

    I know for certain that I’ll continue this story at some time - but I have so many incomplete writing projects in the works, it’s hard to say when I’ll be able to delve into this one again.

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