A Lesson in Improv

colorful lichens on branch

It started off quietly.

Bored, Dance had lain back there resenting the heat. They’d parked on the last one of three concrete house pads at the end of a rough-graded gravel street. The developer abandoned the project some time ago, judging by the fourteen-foot volunteer trees shading half of this pad. A forlorn plumbing stack juts up near what would have been the kitchen.

The pads had the advantage of being open spaces in the midst of drought-stricken silk trees and mulberry and Japanese privet and scraggly yellow pine in the areas that were disturbed by the dozers. It did not soothe the gardener’s soul in Dance to recognize what he was looking at. He gave it all a jaundiced glare, and stayed in the jeep.

The rocky slopes rising beyond the disturbed areas were mixed pine and hardwoods, both too thick for fire safety and too thinned by dry weather to look nice. They weren’t the kind of lush Sherwood green that induce visions of Bambi and Thumper, or at least of spoiled squirrels who aren’t paying attention in time. He didn’t much like the idea of poking around in there to look at the tracks on the deer and pig trails through there, going down to the water. Dance could see the spider webs that built up over the summer. They like dry heat. They’re usually a warning sign for other pests, too. He grew certain the woods were full of deer ticks, and possibly dog fleas, depending on how many coyotes and feral dogs are out there.

“Well, guys,” Emma said quietly, before it got weird, “this is the end of the directions. The last email in Barret’s stack says, ‘wait for nightfall.'”

Drin had looked over again at Dance, for the umpteenth time. That look: “Can you smell anything you don’t like?”

Dance had already reported that he didn’t smell anything but dry woods, with some bayou maybe a quarter mile away. That’s close. He could hike down there, if needs be, to look for crawdads and frogs and fish. That’d give Barret something to think about. He talked about visting Pen’s place before, on some trip recording rural blues artists.

“Hate it when they do that,” Barret had commented about the directions, when he was still awake, just starting to slouch in the front passenger seat. He didn’t sound worried, though. “Makes you wonder what they don’t want you to see, but it’d be impolite to ask about it.”

Dance remembered his tail tip flicking in annoyance, and how he’d tried to stop it before it hits something noticeably. He’d been trying to stick with the ordinary appearance, and he knew he was failing sometimes. He knew Barret has been politely glancing aside from the subtleties, just as he can politely ignore Barret’s eager references to playing recent computer game alpha versions that only a few investor-geeks might have access to test out. Somebody like Bud Innes, or Auren Han, if he bothered with games.

It didn’t make Dance any more patient with things, either, knowing from Barret’s critiques that he should skip paying for one much-ballyhooed attempt and wait for the next thing by a competing game company instead. It was surprising to find how much he really, really wanted to sit down and zone out and just blow things up and make that next level that’s been driving him crazy, dammit.

Barret even told him where the cheat keys were hidden, although Dance would rather not use them. He remembered thinking crossly that he will be weak, some night, and he will yield to the damnable temptation, and then he’ll be cross with himself. He was cross with himself knowing that he’s going to do it, when he hasn’t even had a chance to resist.

Or possibly he was just cranky.

He’s feeling hungry again too. He’s been eating everything in sight, including a surprising number of bags of jerked beef, and that wasn’t even counting two big incautious Norway rats he caught outside the dumpster behind the gas station while the rest of his party was all busy in the restrooms. The rats tasted heavily of the garlicky pizza crusts they’d been living on.

That beat the muddy, sulferous smell of the crawdads and the frogs in the roadside ditches, but not by much.

He hasn’t told anybdy how much wild food he’s been snaring. Drin saw him fishing around in the ditches a couple of times at the rest stops, and Drin clearly had some idea of his needs anyway. Drin knew he’s been eating weird stuff. Drin was still kissing him anyway, right on the mouth, and sometimes he did it where other folks can see it. Drin knew exactly what sort of germy risks he’s been taking, touching Dance.

Emma, not so much. Dance knew he wasn’t being entirely honest with her. He was sure, at the time, that she didn’t want him to. Emma might comment on his chowing down on expensive, salt-laden jerky, saying things like, “The crawdads in the ditch would be better for you, and better exercise,” but she didn’t really mean it.

She sure as hell wouldn’t appreciate seeing him pith frogs, as a mercy, before he ripped them apart, cleaned them, fried them, and ate them.  Fried them on his tail, just like frying nice clean bluegills or crappie or gar from Lacey’s pond.

He’d rather cook them anyway as a sop to his own creeped-out fears about wacko germs and parasites from the local water. Back in the early days at the horse farm, having his muscles seriously overheating inside that tail, with some of the accidental damage he did to the interior of the Jeep, forced him to learn some interesting expedients to get some relief.

watercolor blue shine on rounded surface
watercolor, blue wave/tail

Emma had been refilling the ice chest at every stop. Dance had been emptying the water from it at every stop, because he melted it all down, every time. He’s been spreading out with his arm, or his knee, or his shin, on top of the ice in open chest, halfway laying in it, in full view of all of them, making no excuse for the way he was still sweating buckets. He had to vent the heat, wetting down the bandanna around his neck and soaking the gimme cap that Drin lent him. He tried hard not to make a lot of noise with the tail soaking down there in the ice as well, he tried to turn his body to make it less obvious that something as thick as his thigh was displacing all those ice chips, but he knew he probably wasn’t fooling Barret.

Barret hadn’t asked.  Didn’t even ask if he’s sick. His mild dark eyes hadn’t even speculated about it. Well, when he’s awake, that is. He went back to sleep while they’d been parked, with his head against the door again.

But during their time at the horse farm, Dance had learned that he can cook his prey to a precise degree. If he really felt hungry enough, and he really wanted his meat cooked, he coiled the tail around his prey at the hot moment of capture, and flash-fried it. The glassy coating on his tail did this trick without even affecting the human muscle meat inside his tail, which was nice. He remembered wishing the flash heat drained some of the heat load from the inside, but no. It didn’t relieve anything. It just left his tail-skin itchy and hot enough to leave melt-prints in the jeep’s plastic fittings. He was not certain why he should still be able to feel things at the outside of the coating. It still feels the same as his ordinary human skin, even when he just used it to fry a feral goldfish into a stiff little piece of char. It doesn’t hurt at all.  It’s cleaning the seared bits off his tail, and feeling how the burnt bits stick to him, that’s so damn depressing.

He remembered thinking that Emma really wouldn’t appreciate knowing how much the taste of garlicky trash rats made him want to kiss her instead.

He remembered looking up into the rear view mirror, gazing at Emma with the fierce desire to pull her pants down and take her right there in the driver’s seat. She just smiled back at him.

Things started to get odd when Drin pulled out his heavy old cell phone, frowned at some text message that was in some kind of Cyrillic alphabet. Drin grunted, frowned, and replied by texting something that was too terse to be read as English words by anybody else. He wasn’t bothering to hide it from Dance’s interested stare, and he certainly knew Dance would remember the keytones. He knew Dance remembered stuff like that. Then Drin had looked at Dance, he leaned over, and he kissed Dance on the cheek, smiling a little.

“We’re in range,” he said. Then he stuck his head out the side window, craning his neck. “You see a trail running downhill anywhere over there off that second pad, Emma?”

She’d turned on the engine again, pivoted the Jeep slightly, and pointed.

“You think we can get the bus through there?”

“I’s a four-wheel job, and if we’ve got fallen logs we’ll have to back up or chop our way through. You guys check the luggage is tied down.”

Emma was good at it. Barret didn’t even wake up as the springs started rocking.

“Where’d you learn to drive rough country?” Dance had asked her.

Emma had smiled. “Doing volunteer archaeological digs when I was a college student. This is nothing. We may get a few mud problems, but hey, we don’t have to winch ourselves up rotten sandstone. Drin, you got any idea why somebody wants us to go native here?”

“It’s a shortcut,” Drin replied. “I guess there’s strangers in the area, which doesn’t get that many visitors. The locals think these aren’t the kind of buddies we ought to meet anywhere on the main drag where other folks might get involved.”

Emma had said, alarmed, “But we don’t have any weapons–”

Drin had just looked at Dance, and smiled quite an odd smile.

Dance had looked back at him, seething with resentment, frustration, and a sudden thick rage against his own ignorance. But he spoke quietly. “I think I can be of some assistance. I just don’t have a very good idea of what we’d be up against.”

“Nor does anybody else,” Drin had told him grimly, “if the things we’re up against keep changing.”

Dance hadn’t been surprised to hear Barret muttering in his sleep, twisting around. He’d seemed confused when Drin woke him up, just before they got back onto a paved road.

The reek is sudden, choking, and beyond any mistaking. He doesn’t even have to say it.

“What the hell is that?” Emma says, gripping the wheel tight as she jerks them to a final stop. She looks like she wants to vomit right where she sits.

“That’s the stink I’ve been checking for when we visit rest stops,” Dance says. His voice sounds odd to him, heavy, low in his belly. He’s shifted his voice somewhere low into his diaphragm, like an opera singer about to project some pretty big sound into a big empty space. Then he feels his lips curl up off his front teeth, and his mouth come open slightly, so he’s panting slightly.

“Looks like they could use help,” Drin says quietly. “Yell if you see any movement in the woods, Emma.”

“Yeah,” she says, her eyes darting around the mirrors.

Dance steps out of the Jeep at the same moment as Drin on the opposite side, and they both walk slowly about fifty yards closer.

Drin says quietly, “Nice job,” to the two men holding the weapons, who are standing in the middle of a reeking mess.

green moss on dark wet tree roots
mossy roots

Dance finds his eyes skipping away from the people with the weapons, which isn’t like him. They’ve killed something grotesque that stinks, and all his instincts assume they’ll shoot more things that stink if they show up, and he’s good with that. His instincts assume they’ll know how to use the weapons to avoid shooting civilians, or them, if more bugs show up.

That may be a big, foolish assumption to make. But he’s busy watching the woods, just as Emma is doing. He’s not just using his eyes. It’s going to take concentration to catch a tickle of a warning change in the background odors when the foreground noise is so incredibly nasty.

===

Challenge: mixed up up, but the latest from bjd_30minfic, prompt 6, lazy or tired

Series Navigation<< KeysJust Love the Smell of Bug Ichor in the Morning >>

44 thoughts on “A Lesson in Improv”

  1. BTW, I think we want to include that fun bit of dialogue where Jian comes back from something and sees Dance licking/kissing/biting Wren to develop an antivenm.
    I’m not set on where it happens–this whole chunkc suggests it ought to be when they stop two miles away, asap.
    But I couldn’t figure out what would induce Jian to walk away and leave Wren alone long enough for her to ask Dance to do his thing. *She’d* have to ask, too, Dance sure as hell won’t try to touch her otherwise.

  2. I don’t think Jian would have any problem walking away, actually – I mean, he might have a problem with it, but he’d do it anyway. He’s very, very dedicated to their job and duties, and also has some issues with being seen as being too concerned about his partner when they’re anywhere in a professional capacity (mostly due to the fact that they’ve been working for WUNPO for twenty-ish years, at this point, and WUNPO has a no-married-couples-as-partners policy that Wren and Jian only loosely manage to skirt around by lieu of the fact that they’ve never actually bothered to get married). So if he was presented with another task – even something as simple as “check the surrounding area” or “go with Emma/Drin/Emberly while he/she/they ________,” he’d probably walk off without any hesitation. This is also helped along by the fact that one of his greatest downfalls is his arrogance – he’s rather certain that he and Wren are very good at what they do, and even though he’s aware that they’re both capable of being badly hurt (and it has happened before), he still has trouble believing it on some level.

    But yes, some Dance/Wren licking-and-biting will have to happen, and with dialogue (though not necessarily exactly the dialogue we came up with before – I suspect some adjustment will be in order).

    Jian would most definitely search the truck. Wren probably would, too, except she’s starting to feel a bit woozy and probably goes to sit in the car instead. Check the guns over – also needed after a dust-up like that, and makes her feel a bit less useless while still allowing her to sit down. Don’t worry about that – I’ll include it in the lead-in to the conversation that Wren and Jian are going to have in the car as they follow the Jeep. Will have that up by morning, hopefully.

    I’m getting strange reads on people’s physical ages, here. Probably due in large part to conflicts of wiped memories (loss of experience there). What are we looking at, for physical ages? I know Wren is probably around 41, Jian 42. (These are the kinds of details I like to have in my mind when I write, especially when collaborating with other people and their characters, so that I don’t get them wrong. Things like eye color, skin tone, hair color, relative height [speaking of which , Jian is 5’5″ and Wren is 5’7″], age, gender, etc.)

    I know that not everyone is fond of profiles, and I myself go back and forth on whether or not I like them, but perhaps we can set up something like a dossier for each character or group of characters, offering writers who will be working with them some basic physical/biological information and name spellings and such? In fact, if we do that correctly, it could be an interesting contribution to the narrative itself: present them as, perhaps (this is just one possibility) the set of files that are the result of Wren and Jian’s investigation for WUNPO, the results of which have been deemed not simply classified, but actually a non-event, and hidden (read: lost) in the lowest levels of archives at WUNPO HQ, with no digital versions, covered in dust in a sealed box for decades. In fact, these “data sheets” could be very cool images uploaded to the website, rather than being a text presentation. Like photographs the of the files themselves, rediscovered after years and years…

    These kinds of extra-narrative, intertextual materials always fascinate me. I would love it if we could create something along those lines for this. And it would also give us an excellent opportunity to play around with the idea of the classic governmental “we didn’t quite understand it/couldn’t control it/etc so it doesn’t exist” syndrome.

    I have visuals of what I’m thinking. Will upload them and post links ASAP. For those impatient, the “reference” pages in the Watchmen comic are a great example. We could create things like newspaper clippings, news reports, etc, and present them all as if they were collected, intentionally lost, and later re-discovered by a particularly thorough (and possibly bored) archivist, deep in the bowels of a filing cabinet.

  3. I love this archival phot/record idea. It’s the sort of thing that Emma digs up, or somebody like her. It adds a lot to the texture, and it could be used to point in new narrative directions (particularly if somebody goes back to re-consult, and finds the *information has changed* on hard copies that don’t have digital capacities.
    The damage and stamps and subsequent overlays can provide more information too. You can imagine somebody like retired WUNPO people who look at it to start screaming, “What the hell is *that*? That stamp is the symbol for X, they were convicted of war crimes back in ’18 and got suspicious early release from jail!–”
    Fun stuff.
    Also, I’m thinking some of the shots that the second violinist’s wife took, very early on in surveillance (and early in my posts!), may be part of this dossier. Now, who paid for that effort, and how it got snuck in there???
    I don’t mind providing info such as ages, although some of it I’m not sure about.
    In relative doll terms, Emma would be roughly 5’10”, Drin is probably 6’3″ or 4″, and Dance is about Jian’s size or smaller, maybe 5’4″ or 5″. Drin is actually older (he’s not admitting exactly) but he comes across to people as vaguely mid-thirties to forties, one of those early middle-aged impressions that can be undermined by movement that is very quick and precise. His facial texture up close is tight and unlined, it’s the salt in the beard that makes him look older.
    I was thinking Emma probably comes across as the most reliably-aged, she’s about 25-28 or so.
    Dance comes across oddly, depending on what he’s doing, sometimes very teenager, but more typically mid-twenties, so he’s one of those people who acts older than they look.

    To me, this is sort of like pictures of Eric Tseng. Who, in an advanced world, *would* probably look childish or neotenous to our eyes, for his actual age, it’s not just that as a doll we’re doing a sort of visual translation from a stylized sculpt. (I just don’t know of is setting the history that far off from present time.) I suspect Eric really would look like a youngster by current standards, and so would everybody else. I suspect it makes Emberley look quite macho and rugged, in their terms!

  4. Drin hasn’t been telling me much about the acronyms for his name. He’s quite amused at the idea that the ‘R’ stands for “Ridcully”, as in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld figure of the Archchancellor, a wizard.

    I think the ‘N’ stands for Navarro, as in Spanish province of, other side of the Pyrenees from France, kings of, and etc–which involves a whole medieval back-history that a friend of mine worked out to explain the guy in Ladyhawke. (She hypothesized that he’s related to Eleanor of Aquitaine, all that good stuff.) I’m not sure how close it would be to the caves of Tres Freieres and so on where you find the image of the therianthrope shaman. Definitely smuggler central.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navarre

    Things like this kind of pop out at me. I’m not saying Drin had *anything* to do with Burt’s, here.
    But it’s interesting…

    http://www.burtsbees.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?productId=-110&catalogId=10051&storeId=10001&langId=-1

  5. I’m working on putting together a “dossier” format and a WUNPO watermark/letterhead that these things would be printed on.

    I’m thinking we’ll create the actual pages, print them, abuse them a bit (coffee rings, staples, hand-written notes & signatures, paperclips, etc), and then run actual scans of them and post those images. Because…um, well, I’m kind of an intertextuality freak and LOVE building things like this, the physical items that have meaning only within the context of the narrative to which they contribute.

  6. Wow, how the hell did I miss this.

    I am gobsmacked. This is incredible stuff. Coherent, dense with information, yet easy to work out.

    And beautiful. Did I mention beautiful?

    Got some stuff on Pen up at the new site.

  7. Eric is in his mid-thirties. Emberley is a year younger than Eric. If you figure “thirty is the new twenty,” I guess they both look pretty youthful. Eric especially; Eric still looks like a college kid. If you’ve ever seen the notorious image of William T. Vollmann holding a gun to his head, you’ll get a pretty good visual, although Eric’s part Chinese, which changes a few details. On Eric’s bad days, the affect is close to the same.

    He’s one of those guys that is less likely to survive the apocalypse based on physical characteristics alone; head proportionately large, eyes bad, hands rather delicate. Edward is the opposite, perfect vision and really good teeth, small head, quite tall – not as tall as Drin, but a good even 6′. Edward Trinley Fell is 29.

    I have not pinned this stuff down historically, only in reference to the Strangeways material; this is in the future compared to the photostories Kiya and I are currently working on. Whatever works temporally for everyone else is fine with me. I’m allowing for certain alterations. Simon in particular.

    In Strangeways Prime, Simon was born in 1794 or thereabouts, hit adolescence right around Goethe’s bigtime. I’m keeping his age and origins purposely vague in the POM context, for now, wait and see what would be appropriate.

  8. I sleep, but generally around the same time of day you’re at the Institute. 8-D

    The hotel we’re at does have a computer in the lobby. The lobby is not accessible at night. Have not yet located any wifi in the town (I need to get a keychain sniffer, it’s a lot easier than hauling the open laptop around and looking at the radar layout on it). Internet access may be dicey. More anon.

  9. OH good, Iw as worried that the sequence of action could be very confusing.
    I mean, I’m not even sure treating a canvas hose like that would *work*–very dependent on the hose involved, no??
    And I’m a little concerned about Dance being grumpy.
    However, going back to find early posts for the POM site, I find that interesting one where, before anybody was taking surveillance pix of them, *Dance got himself overheated*.
    Hmmm. Not sure if it was before tail.

  10. SOooo, Simon knows from baroque music, heheheh!
    I love the images of him that op to mind.
    I still need to write the big black guy with the tophat. I’m thinking he’s associated in some way with Pen’s circus. I was thinking he might be the next guide/guardpost on the way to Pen’s actual house. Does this sound reasonable? Any suggestions on who his companions might be?
    Emberely mentioned staying with Helen. Is that something we should allow for, or would she be staying with Pen as well, to ride out the storm?

  11. Do you need new pix to work with?
    I was planning on taking some new ones this weekend (that “Shadow” prompt, my goodness!) and I was thinking of outside shots with Shrubbery, if it’s not too bloody amazing hot.
    I could try to shoot something specific if you’ve got an idea in mind.

    Also, feel free to grab any of rude ones that I put on Flickr or Condoll, say if you want it to look like awkward surveillance bits. Not specifically *asking* you to, just available if needed.

  12. Overheated!Dance is very suggestive, viewed in retrospect.

    I’d be interested to hear from Dance why he is so grumpy. (Personally, I would feel very grumpy about eating trashcan rats. That’s a very aggressive chiropractic alteration to the soul.) O_o

  13. For the longest time, the only contemporary (20-21st century) popular music Simon would listen to was Led Zeppelin.

    Oh, lord, forgot about Helen. Helen’s a civilian. I think we should retcon a petite problemette for Emberley; perhaps Helen is in a very gnarly divorce and just took off for Florida in a camper. It might explain how Drin and Co. came to collect him.

    We can just wedge a segment in there somewhere (I am minded of McPhee’s descriptions of layered rock all out of chrono order, except almost exactly the opposite, actually.)

  14. Well, I tried. (Yes, I’m often very trying.)
    I got the lolcat thing: GRumpy Dance is GrUMPy.
    Okaaaay.
    Dance used to give the impression of loving the heat, the hotter the better for his muscles. But not now.
    RE: eating what you can catch behind gas stations, I guess it’s more on the order of rolfing your soul, it’s sure not a gentle persuasive massage.
    It’s as much a moral disgruntlement as physical, too.
    Dance doesn’t *approve* of eating frogs, they can feel pain, and be frightened, so he thinks it’s an unkind thing to do on his part and it ought to be unnecessary.
    He knows Drin would take the risk of buying lots more food, if Dance asked for it, but Dance doesn’t want to ask. It’s worrying Drin and Emma for several reasons.
    It’s unsafe to buy as much food as he really wants, or if they stopped often enough to buy it in more scattered batches. It’s also unsafe to be seen catching things, too.
    But he’s doing it anyway. He sees something moving, he knows what it is, he’s hungry enough that his tail grabs it like a constrictor, and it’s all over.
    Hmm. I think Emma’s made some worried remarks about growth spurts.

  15. It’s a small little thing wot picks up on wireless network signals (EM, like radio), and where each particular signal is stronger, like, over there on the bench, or over here by the counter in the cafe, and being small, it’s much easier to find the best spot rather then holding your laptop open and trying to dink with the keyboard as you walk around. I expect them to get more common. You can have conflicting wireless, too, where you can access some open netowrks (either free or accidentally left wide open, which invites being borrowed by hackers) or you can have signals you know are there but you need the password to get into them.

  16. I’m thinking that for some of these, we’ll have things like really poor photos (or no photo at all), and for others we’ll have personnel-file type photos. Whatever you think is most appropriate for a given character (what you think is most likely to have been caught on film). We’ll also likely have multiple photos for some of them, things like grainy black-and-white security camera type captures, the just-as-the-head-is-turning-away type of thing, as well as better photos, things like polaroid-snapshots-on-the-bank-of-the-river. And of course there will be the documents that aren’t straight information on individuals, such at Laith’s medical reports on the bugs and the debriefs of the WUNPO agents who were involved, and the newspaper clippings and such.

    I’ve completed the WUNPO seal for the watermark on the documents, and got it embedded into a .doc file. It’s working out well. I’ve been looking at references, such as the archives of http://www.thesmokinggun.com/ (awesome to check out, even if it tends to lean toward the “sensational” rather than the things I’m really looking for).

  17. Or hey, Emberley tries to get in touch, and hears what she’s left as a really horrible voicemail, and hey, he’s abandoned onto their mercies, like it or not.
    I hope he’s got his contact return information doesn’t depend on getting back into Helen’s place at a certain time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *