Due Process

Grace’s pleated paper fan rustles.   Beside her, Dance is humming, one hand describing circles on the beat.  A few couples are still on the floor even with canned music, reluctant to let the evening end. She’s pleased to see that Coral and Tee Pom are among them, and Coral’s smiling.

“Hey, hey, Michel my love!” sings out a cracked old woman’s voice among the faces. Grace knows the man who Maman Cardoza is greeting; but the smuggler’s face is unusually somber as he comes into the room. He’s a wizened sun-leathered little old swamper, and tonight he’s in muddy camos, not one of his fancy fais-do-do suits. “Hey, Maman,” he say, holding out his hand. He speaks to her in Spanish as comfortably as he spoke Cajun French to some of the older guys by the door when he came in.

Maman Cardoza frowns impressively and speaks aside to her son in a rattle of consonants. Bert Vargas nods to his mother, then his buddy Ricardo murmurs agreement, and they pick up lamps and a compressor from the heap of gear at one side of the stage, and they go outside with it.

Dance stops humming.  He goes still, head tilted as if he’s listening to something.

Tee Pom abruptly stops dancing with Coral. He gestures mildly for her to have a seat, and kisses her. Then he goes over to the knot of people, his face blank and relaxed, which is the deputy at his most dangerous.  Michel speaks to him with a gesture toward the door, and then both men are crossing the floor to Dance and Grace.

Michel bows to Grace, and then he shakes Dance’s hand lightly. “Will you look at all these pretty ladies! My my!  I hate ruining a good party, I surely do.”

“What’s the trouble?” Grace asks.

Michel shakes his head, pointing a thumb over his shoulder. “Mister Dance, I think maybeso you and Tee Pom ain’t goan’ like what we brung round in my truck. Me and my boys, you know, we heard a few things, then we found this guy on the bayou road by the dog kennels.”

Grace isn’t sure what signal gets passed, but Dance’s husband Drin is drifting into range without a word said.

“Creepy, like. I mean, we know it ain’t Dance, first time we saw him, but he do look like–”

Tee Pom looks at Michel and says a few words in Spanish, and he gets a nod from the old guy. “Where’s your boys, Michel? Don’t tell me you brought in this crazy man by yourself?”

Michel gives a wide grin. “Dobro and Sneakers, they sittin’ on him with a few guns. Got him all wrapped up in duct tape.”

Grace has seen Michel’s boys get busy on bug raids. She’s seen them coolly choosing for range, plucking one gun and then another out of the welded racks slung inside the truck bed walls. They wrestle gators for weekend shows in town, and work traplines on weekdays. Michel’s grand-daughter taught Tangerine how to shoot at competition-level.  So nobody gets too fussy about all the firepower racked in their trucks. Tee Pom has been known to mutter against Michel and his Wile E. Coyote smuggler’s tricks.  Michel’s bunch think it’s funny as hell when they get to bring in something and report to Tee Pom because they’re on the same damn side, for once.

“You wanna bet that your buddy Hyphen can get the drop on those boys, even with a serious duct-tape handicap?” Tee Pom says to Dance.

“Don’t know, if he’s still pinned in human form,” Dance says.

“Not in the shape he in, all drunk off his mind. You hear him, all his cussin’ and yellin’?”

Dance tilts his head again, as if he is listening to something, half-distracted.

“You ain’t gonna have Emma get out them cable ties again, are you?” Tee Pom says, exasperated.

“You could bring along your handcuffs, if you like,” Dance says, smiling a little.

“For all the good it’ll do me, huh?”

Michel puts out one hand gently, touching Dance’s arm. “You and Tee Pom, let me know when you done with that piece of merde, then I take you down and show you where we caught him trying to lay off that poor lil girl’s body. He was pro’ly going to weigh her down in the fastest current in the Rainette,” Michel says, with a wave of his hand, the expert smuggler disgusted by such amateurish efforts. “You ever heard something so dumb?”

What?” Tee Pom hisses.

“One of them hungry street gals from NOLA, from the look of her poor lil feet,” Michel says. He waves again. “Don’ worry, we took pictures before we lifted her out. She’s over at the doctor’s clinic, waiting for a look-see. All needle tracks up her arms, sad lil thing.”

Oh shit,” Tee Pom growls. Then, “And stop grinning like that, Dance, I don’t need that right now, I purely don’t.”

He’s right. It really isn’t a smile.  It reminds you about the fangs in there. Grace looks away. She knows and likes Dance too well to watch him like this. She doesn’t like seeing any of her friends gear up for bug battles.

“I think you’ll want Preacher to sit in with you on questioning this one,” Drin says. “If he’s the one we think–”

“Right.”  Tee Pom gives him a wild-eyed look, and keeps walking toward the door. He moves stiffly, which means he’s already so mad he can hardly see straight.

“Tee Pom,” Drin says gently, “This man is innocent until proven guilty.”

“Oh yeah, due process. … Let’s get started before some damn fool goes smarting off out there.”  The deputy charges out towards the truck lights.

It’s clear that even if the gentleman in restraints managed to get himself upright, he’d have trouble getting through the crowd of gawkers. Currently his feet are hanging awkwardly over the end of the truck bed—the truck’s net tailgate has got tossed aside—and he’s laying on his back making a lot of noise.

Dobro is holding their prisoner’s wallet in his big crooked left fist and some sort of machine pistol in his right fist.  Tee Pom accepts the wallet, goes through it in a leisurely, thorough way. Sneakers yanks over a backpack, gesturing, and Tee Pom looks that over too. He gets that scary still look on his face when he opens a baggie with pictures in it, and he doesn’t let anybody see what’s in the pictures before he puts the baggie back in the backpack. Tee Pom just says, “You ready to swear to the chain of custody on that thing? It never left left your control?”

Dobro stutters a word or two, shrugs, and fidgets with his pistol instead.

Sneakers frowns at his brother, then at Tee Pom. “Wanda kep’ a good eye on it for us. You could swear her in. She give it up just now, you saw her walk off, she want a soda.”

Tee Pom nods. “Wanda’s good. She speaks up fine. Plus, she ain’t got your sorta court records to show off.”

Sneakers just laughs. He is sitting comfortably on the truckbed sidewall, a shotgun in one hand and a large flare pistol in the other.  He’s found it effective against certain sorts of bugs.

The prisoner begins speaking in a hoarse, exhausted voice, switching into more than one language.  Grace thinks that only one person there may have a hope of understanding him. Repeating himself, over and over, slurred.

“Some of this language right now–I think it may be Russian?” she says.

“Yes, he’s speaking Mat. It’s a very profane slang. Oh, the surprise,” Emma says, appearing out of nowhere.  She strokes the tip of Dance’s tail.

Drin gives her a flat look. “Something about finding girls before they die.”

“Yeah,” she says grimly.

Dance nods. “In Korean too.” He steps up to the end of the truck, with his tail rolling in agitated tight little sidewinder loops the way it does when he’s on a raid, poised to snap up in any direction. He speaks in a language that sounds quite different from Hyphen. Even to strangers who don’t understand any of it, it’s perfectly clear that the prisoner was using street slang and Dance is an educated man using a cool, crisp, precise scholarly diction.  It’s as surprising out here as hearing a Brit using the Queen’s received English.

Hyphen practically levitates in place, jackknifing off the end of the truck and landing balanced on his feet in the dirt. He’s shouting, almost vomiting words, with his face going violently red and his shoulder muscles straining in the duct tape bonds. He staggers from one foot to the other, teetering about awkwardly with his shins taped together.

“He wants somebody to find where two women are being held prisoner by bug troops.  He is saying this might be in a shed or outbuilding near boats near that kennel on the bayou road.”

Power Box Drain

“Ask him are they alive or dead,” Tee Pom says.

“Alive, he says.” Dance can hear the change in his doppelganger’s voice. “They were alive when he left them.” The cracked and urgent voice goes on. “He says he hopes they are still alive.”

“Don’t want any more murder charges on his ass?”

“No charges yet,” Tee Pom warns Michel’s boys.  “All right, who’s with me? Good. I’ll be in my truck, you lead.” Dust boils up as trucks roll out. Hyphen can only duck his head and cough.

“They will go? Please tell me…”

“Yes, they are going. Do you know,” Dance says, “who I am?”

The wrapped figure twists painfully to face him. “Yob tvoyu mat.” Hyphen grunts. “Yes, I know who you are, you bastard. I see pictures.”

“Can you be calm?” Dance watches his twin take a deep breath. There’s something setting his teeth on edge, like a sound that makes his teeth hurt. Even as Hyphen slows down, the… sound, very high, nearly inaudible, gets shriller and more painful. Dance takes a few steps to the side. Then a few more, and as he comes around the struggling figure, the sound sharpens.  When the man turns, all the noises shift with him. It’s the other naga’s power box, Dance realises, and the whole world lurches with the sudden twist of fear.

Dance gives a little showman’s flourish with the tail, and extends his hands to the crowd. “Would you mind moving back, please? For your safety, you understand. We don’t want any accidents, do we?”

“What’s up?” Emma asks him while people are distracted, jostling. They’ve cleared maybe three more feet of space. It’s a joke. He can’t get enough room to turn around in a fight, let alone keep them safe, or use his canopy.  He’s going to need it.

“I’m going to drain his power down before he blows us all up,” Dance says, as patiently as he can.

“Blows– right. How much more space?”

“Miles! We must get people away.” Dance frowns. It’s hard to think of the words. “Ahh, you must not hear it. I am having teeth on edge from a high frequency sensation you might call… a creepy-sounding whine. It makes things… resonate. While… my system can insist on stabilizing this… field effect… he is generating… and not knowing it… ” he makes a face. It’s hard to remember the right words. “Better to reduce his power overload. Trying to kill him will destabilize it… badly. I must drain his… power box… which will give him better overload limits.”

Drin’s hand lands on his shoulders. “I’m sure you’re right. Look how the lights react whenever Hyphen moves.”

It’s true. Dance barely noticed that side-effect, blinded in the sea of power gradients swamping the open space, making him nauseated.

“Did you get Preacher?” Drin’s voice, steady as a rock.

Emma nods. “On his way. May take him an hour or so. Can you wait till then?”

“I think we don’t have an hour.”  Hyphen’s screaming tirade– the women, the wharf, as if no one had heard or believed him– are running on and on, a nightmare litany that makes Dance feel helpless and wobbly.

“The truck went to get them,” he tells Hyphen, loudly, in Korean. “Stop, you must calm down. You are going to hurt yourself.”

Hyphen barks laughter at that. “I’m already hurt. My world is… is hurt.” His face screws up, like a puzzled child. “World,” he says again.

There’s a pop, and shrieks, as one of the light bulbs on the outside of the building blows out.

“Get back,” Dance says to the crowd. Tremors are running through his legs. He keeps the tail rolled up tightly, to keep all the shaking from becoming visible to everybody. “Move back.”

Michel, and Emma and Drin, and Grace move through the crowd, guiding people away. Not that a mere hundred feet will be safe, but the illusion is soothing.

“Give me a sightline to the power cables,” he calls out, and people have begun to listen once more, they start moving right and left across the field untill there’s a broad corridor opened straight before him and his… his brother.

Drin trots back. “What do you need from us, Dance?”

Dance grips his hands together, pushes them against his clenched gut muscles, to stop them shaking. Deep breaths. The power whine is drilling his skull in half. “Maybe water, something for him to drink, later on we get into it. He’s in pain, can’t stop overload, can’t get away from the unstable fields–”

“Get a pitcher of ice water,” Drin says to somebody. “Anything else?”

Dance tries to think. “Move away– drive away the truck?” he says doubtfully, and hears Drin’s field-voice booming, giving the orders.

Hyphen totters, Dance shoots out one hand in warning, but with the sickeningly high field gradients squeezed between them, he doesn’t dare touch.  “No– no, don’t let him fall– down–he needs to be on the ground–”

Michel’s gator-wrestling boys are suddenly right there to catch Hyphen, to move in with blessedly electrically neutral human hands, to lay him down at Dance’s gestures.

“Don’t touch his back. Good, let him sit. Move the truck please–” at last the truck roars into life and moves away.

Dance pulls off his shirt, lurching a bit. “Forty foot canopy pop out. Please more room for that side, and that one. More, please. Thank you.” He leans forward, touching his hands to the damp ground. Things unroll. Readjusted blood pressure goes booming through his whole body as the flap of glittery skin around his neck billows outward in an explosion of rainbows and stiffening struts.

“Emma? Do you have anything to help me… anything you can remember?”

“If you give me a minute.” Emma’s face is pinched with worry. He’s seen her when this… strange memory trick starts playing, and he watches her tic and grimace and frown as if from a long way off.  His own heartbeat is so loud, the blood is rushing in his ears.  She says, “Right, this might be– a little difficult–”

Under Emma’s directions, he shifts how he’s leaning down, feels how adjustments in the struts are shunting blood. His parasail makes a double set of cells, hollow at the back, closed at the front, standing upright in its laser-cannon curl over his shoulders. He pushes it up gently until the top of it rises clear of his head.

“Can you stand up straight?” Emma asks. Her hands rub over the canopy skin, testing the tension of it so gently, so delicately.

The closed front surface snugs down behind his head, and the back of it keeps rising, tilting, curling inward at the tips, tipped upward until it has become a big hollow shell towering over his head. It threatens to overbalance him, and his tail tip comes up and twitches here and there at the struts, pushing in places, adjusting things. Then his tail settles down into a wide coil, and Dance bends his knees, settling his weight down into the support of his tail, bracing up against a wind that none of the others can feel.

“Get back please,” he says.

The man restrained by the duct tape is looking up at Dance, Dance’s own eyes staring back at himself.

Dance starts to hum gently, echoing in that shell.

Hyphen starts screaming.

Dance feels like screaming too. But that won’t do. One of them has to be sober, sane, fully awake, one of them has to control their combined fields, keep calm about this whole thing. One of them has to figure it out. Dance starts fumbling among the wavering, uncertain fields, looking for power sinks that won’t arc or leak or backfire.

Dance feels, more than sees, people talking and scrambling around him.  Emma says something, sharply.  Someone darts around the side of the building. Dance can feel the change when the the breakers bang off the building. The music inside goes silent. The only lights left are from the generator–until it gets shut down too, and then the lightbulbs on the little stands go out. It’s calmer, by a very little bit.

In the darkness, Dance tilts back his head, and finds a path threading through the lightning and iron-filing storm. The little lights go back on. The music inside the building goes back on, the lights inside shine out again. After a moment or two, lights in a half dozen of the nearest dark buildings down the street go back on, and Dance is leaning back, clenching his jaw, lips peeling back as that high continuous sound streams past his ears, aimed by the shell that is part of him.

Hyphen is screaming out as loud as he can, mouth gaping open. The screaming, the ragged, breathless cries keep coming from the man writhing in the duct tape.

“Ya see my watch?” Lafayette’s voice says. “Plumb crazy!”

After a few more moments, the lights in all the parked vehicles down the street turn themselves on.

“Shit,” Emma and Michel say in unity– very quietly, but Dance hears them.

Dance manages not to fire off vehicle ignitions when he’s pouring juice through the headlights; it’s hard, but he does. None of the engines turn over. No engines. No heaters. No fans. Nothing that moves. Just lights. More lights go on down along the houseboats. He’s pushing it into the nearest powerlines, pushing all that energy almost faster than the lines can absorb it.

“Careful, careful man, you don’t want to overload those transformers here, they ain’t built for really high level stuff,” ‘Toine says to Dance, as if Dance can hear him past everything else he’s doing.

It hurts to take the attention to do it, but Dance nods. Yes, he heard ‘Toine. He will try to be careful.

The man in the duct tape is rolling about like a worm, screaming and struggling, apparently trying to get closer to Dance. Maybe he doesn’t have any choice about it, either.

To calm him, Dance’s tail lifts, stirs, and he shuffles forward nearer to Hyphen– and steps into a place where everything is still. Hyphen is quiet, gasping with the aftermath.  The overwhelming grating frequencies are gone.  He can hear only a few simpler harmonies, all well within the pain threshold.

Dance is not moving, his body grows heavier, set in stone, he’s not going anywhere. He doesn’t dare move any more, with all those confusing magnetic fields going at once.

“You want him yanked back off you, Dance?”

Dance’s hand comes up, flattens, makes the ‘no’ gesture they’ve used on raids.

“Okaaay…”

The canopy tightens in closer around Dance’s head, and Dance draws in a deep breath, and the lights and the music in the building die out. But not the vehicle lights, not the house lights, and not the lights in the little stands nearby.
Reach farther, Dance says, just lips moving, unable to tell if he is speaking it into the air at all. He pulls on the fields from the other naga. You can help me do this. Save your life. Save your women. Help me reach further.

The power plant is in a complicated jury-rigged web of power lines, only three-quarters of them actually on the owners’ maps. It glows in the distance among the lines, some distance over the horizon.

Push it there, Dance whispers. They need it. They can use it, they can spread it for us. It’s been so hot today. They’re on power conservation, nearly brownout, warnings. Give it to them. All those air-conditioners and tvs and radios and fridges and stoves and–

Take it, Hyphen yells at him.

It’s like having a massive hand grip him all over his body, and squeeze. Too much for his skin. He’s overflowing.

There, put it there! Dance shrieks.

Streams mingle together and they both are vomiting power into the lines, the glow in the distance brightens unexpectedly, relays are issuing warnings and some failure points light up red bulbs. Speakers and klaxons are pulsing, dials running backwards.

You could power the whole grid for the Southeast with this sonuvabitch, says one of the nearby telephone lines, but Dance can’t tell who’s reporting or who is listening.

Gurney to The Clinic

“I hear you been giving it away with both hands, as the Good Book says you should do,” Preacher says, walking up the parking lot slowly, hands wide, “but of course some of them guys down at the co-generation plant are goin’ crazy trying to figure it out.”

“Had to put it somewhere,” Dance says, trying not to let his canopy tremble with exhaustion.  H wants to leave it to Preacher.  He wants to pitch forward on his face and sleep too.  But he needs to guard, translate, explain what he’s done.  He waves at the man on the ground. “He helped me do this. Couldn’t– couldn’t manage by myself. Too much of it.”

“Ours not to question the blessings of the Lord!” Preacher’s white teeth show in a grin. He looks down at the unconscious man still tied in the duct tape.  “I guess he really wanted a good hard rest for awhile.”

“He was in great pain.”

“Oh yeah. We’ll check on it, me and Doctor Alex. You know, we’re gonna need you on hand in case he wakes up. Just keeping an eye on him until we’ve got him assessed and properly sedated, right?”

Dance sighs. “Yes.  He’s got some crazy cocktail in him.”

“Doctor will have to guess how soon that comes out of his system.  We’ll get a sample, get somebody to run it down to the lab, get some analysis on it tomorrow.”

“I can taste him, maybe help. We have to sniff pills Doctor has, smell what’s in them, to compare.”

“Are you sure you want to-”

“Yes!” Dance says fiercely, “My brother!”

“And thou shalt be his keeper. We used one gurney for the poor lost soul– I think we need one for you as well, my friend.”

“I can walk…” Dance says, and then realizes that he cannot in fact move a muscle.

“Uh huh, brother, you ain’t been home in there for a bit, have you?  Give y’self a moment,” Preacher says, and grins.

“No rush,” Drin says.  “Let’s get him some of that water, huh?”

He hears Grace’s soft voice, asking, ordering, and receiving mumbled male answers.  ‘Toine assures her it should be safe to start the generator again.  Her pen is scratching out notes.  She sounds so assured and authoritative, such a change since the days of the Storm.

The lights go back on in the building, with a distant thunk of circuit breakers. The energy fields around him have ramped down so smoothly he hadn’t noticed, but he feels their lack as if a solid support has been removed. Drin is next to him, gripping his shoulders, saying something to Emma about the shape of Dance’s canopy.

Preacher kneels beside the guy in the duct tape on the ground. Dance is amused to see that he’s got those big scissors from Emma’s purse in his hand. “I want to cut that tape off him so the doctor can get a better look at him.” Turns Hyphen on his side, adjusts his head in textbook first aid style. The man’s eyes flutter a moment, and he sighs, and fades back to sleep again.

“Have you got restraints?” Emma says, purse swinging.

“The gurney does, Miss Emma.” Preacher works deftly opening the wrappings of silver tape and the fabric it adhered to, like a shell. The unconscious man will not lay back, cannot be uncurled; Preacher moves him more comfortably onto his side. The truck lights show a green and black and purple knot bulging out of the heavy upper slopes of Hyphen’s back, as big as a fist, with the skin split in small cracks and little runnels of crusted blood stained into his shirt.

“This is his problem,” Dance tries to explain. “His pin…”

“We will see what can be done for your brother,” Preacher tells him, and the gurney is trundling away down the cracked asphalt, surrounded by wary, solemn men.

“I need to go with them–” Dance says, and makes a face at the canopy still inflated around his head and shoulders. He’s never getting in the clinic door like that.

“Speed drain,” Emma says.

“Very speed please, I want to be there.”

“Of course, love, where else would you be?” Her hands are warm and settling. Dance brushes tired tears away like a petulant child.  “Let’s unfold it all the way first, fold it up right.  Here, folks, if you want to help, hold the tip out there–”

Once the canopy is pleated back down with the help of many hands, Emma walks along slowly with him.

He catches Tiny’s scent, and the big guy opens the door to the clinic for him, bowing. That means Dance has to crack his eyes open, since the zoomorph speaks visually. This is not a limitation that Doctor Alexander must deal with, however.

“I am not doing surgical intervention on a spinal infection with no tools and no general anesthesia, no skilled anesthetist and no idea even what kind of biology I’m working on!”

“You have Dance’s medical records,” Drin says patiently, one hand bracing Dance’s shoulder.

“Strangely, I also have no trust in assuming that Dance and this patient are that much identical as twins or clones or some kind of crappy lab-built anomalies. No thank you!” the good doctor says.

The other men are watching as if it’s a pingpong match, but Emma sighs. It’s a very matriarchal, cut-the-bullshit sort of sigh. “Obviously something triggered Hyphen’s system to kick his naga pin out. I took out the fragments of Dance’s– his skin hadn’t begun developing yet, it was just regular skin, no slide coat armoring. It’d be interesting to know when Hyphen’s pin started moving, get a clue what knocked it loose.”

Dance settles one haunch tiredly onto the edge of a counter, sagging in place. “He is in very great pain, and we all are in some danger while his back looks like that.  The power box, it will overload again.”

“Emma, are you thinking it’s like these notes you wrote on Dance’s pin?” Doctor Alexander says fiercely, flapping a sheaf of papers bound into a file.

“Probably very close,” Emma agrees. Her voice is as cool and relaxed and distant as Drin gets, when his older self surfaces. “So maybe I can talk you through visualizing it, or draw you some quick diagrams, whichever will be quicker for you to get going on surgery. Yes, I had some schematics pop up in my head when we removed Dance’s fragmented pin. But those plans were for some later, tamer version, not quite the same shape they put into these Black Ops Naga guys. The bits we took out of Dance’s back were so broken up it never mattered. I suspect the pin’s shape was circular maybe to anchor it, not just releasing inhibitory materials from the inside of the pin.  But it was merely wedged into the cartilage between vertebrae. I think it never encircled anything. Maybe it was originally tethered to something, I couldn’t tell. The pin certainly wasn’t latched around any nerves or bones at that point.”

Dance shivers. The memory of his partners cutting fragments out of his skin is a little blurred now, thankfully.

Doctor Alexander nods, pulls out paper, hands her a pen jerkily. “Draw it out for me, then I can decide better on this. Do you have any idea what kind of anesthesia might keep him quiet?”

“I believe Preacher using yoga-style calm is your best bet, maybe with a topical to numb the surface and the upper muscle tissue,” Emma says absently, frowning as her hand scribbles frantically. “None of us know if Dance could generate a sedative for him that wouldn’t knock out Dance himself right alongside Seung.”

“It was hurting me, of course,” Dance offers. “But this… is bruises all inside, and I can smell the infection. It is going to kill him if we don’t get it all out, I think.  So his pain now is not what you should worry about.”

Emma draws in a deep breath. “No. We need to worry about how dangerous he is.”

Dance shrugs again. If he held out his open hands, they could watch him shake.

Other Truck

Peach heard the noise first, and her ears twitched alert. She sat up baring her teeth in the dim strips of light from the boat dock outside. She hissed, scrambling backward into Keisha’s embrace. “Truck!”

“I hear it. Easy now, don’t lose it here, I need your help. You hear the engines, mama,” Keisha whispered into the flattened ears. “Are those the same?”

Peach shook her head. “Other truck.”

“It’s all right, it’s gonna be all right,” Keisha told her, scruffing her neck very gently, stroking the loose furred skin down her spine. It hurt. Her fists ached from pounding on the walls. “Easy now.”

“Over here, bring the lights,” said a man’s voice, soft and accented with Cajun French. “Tee Pom, you got another crowbar? Dunno why those damn church folks ain’t noticed this extra new crap loaded onto this door. They’re blind sinners, too.”

“Here,” somebody else grunted, with the same sort of accent. “Good sign. Guy doesn’t lock things up like this when there ain’t nothing in there.”

“Sneakers, you got that bottled water? If them gals are still here, they gonna need somethin’ to drink–”

Wood creaked, and something popped, and there were multiple cracking noises.

Keisha froze, arms locked on Peach, and Peach’s nails dug into Keisha’s arms, and then eased.

“Yeah, here. Shoulda brung some sandwiches,” said a third man, with a much heavier accent. “Mon Dieu, this shed will fall apart first.”

“That’s why they strung them fence line wires round like that, hold it together.”

The wires creaked and strained, and more wood snapped and screws made squeaking, tearing noises as they popped loose.

“Allez, ladies, if you’re in there, you got nothing to be afraid of now, we goan’ open this thing and get you out. My name’s Tee Pom, okay? You in there? You hearing me? You want a drink of water first?”

Peach twisted, squirming down into Keisha’s side, and those nails were raking holes in her.

“Hey,” Kiesha said. It sounded like a growl, and instantly it went quiet outside. All the creaking and cracking noises stopped. Peach nudged her nose into Keisha’s side. “Leave water,” Keisha tried to say, and just scratchy bits of it came out as words.

“Okay,” said Tee Pom’s voice. “We open that door just a bit and let it sit for you. In your own time.”

A crack of light slashed across the broken floorboards that Peach and Keisha tried so hard to kick apart. Keisha pushed Peach back into a corner, warning her with a touch to stay there, and then she crossed the boards in a crunch of broken wood, and snatched up the water, and retreated back to Peach. She popped open the untouched bottle, warned Peach with more touches to drink small sips, and waited until Peach got a good cup of water down her throat before taking some of it herself. She felt noisy, gulping it too fast.

The men outside must be hunters, she thought, they all seemed to know how to sit quiet and listen.

“Okay,” Keisha said then. “Okay. Who you?”

“Tee Pom Jeansonne, sheriff of this parish,” said the nearest man. “Guy said he was a friend of yourn told us to come find you.”

“Who?” Keisha rasped.

“Guy says his name’s Seung.”

Silence.

“Ain’t sure what he is,” Keisha said, very soft, whispering, so it won’t hurt so much to throw out that many words.

“Are you okay right now? Need anything?” Tee Pom said mildly. “You want us to bring some blankets up?”

“Good,” Keisha agreed.

“Anything you want?”

“Down the lights,” Keisha said.

“Okay,” Tee Pom said, and the strip of light on the floor narrowed and disappeared.

Keisha stood up as much as she was able to in the low shed, and shifted her legs slowly, trying to stretch aching muscles. “Peach,” she murmured, and felt Peach slide in under her arm, whimpering. “We goin’ out, okay? You gotta be brave.”

Peach whimpered softer.

“I got something with me, might scare y’all.” Keisha said. “She ain’t dangerous, but if anyone shoots at her or shit, I’m gonna be so damn dangerous y’all be sorry you was born, hear me?”

“M’am I assure you, we ain’t gonna bust a sweat. It’s been a busy night, for us an’ you-all, and we got someplace warm and dry and safe to get you to.” Tee Pom spoke softly, as if he were used to comforting little kids in scary places.

“You maybe ain’t gonna like what you see this time,” Keisha growled. “You guys all settled down, you ain’t gonna get crazy on me? I wanna hear your names. All of you.”

“Well, you heard me, Tee Pom,” he said. “Sound off, guys.”

And they did. Eight of them, by God.

“Okay,” Keisha said, and felt Peach shivering. “Open it up, we wanna see you first.”

“Okay, here’s Sneakers coming up here, he’s got some blankets,” Tee Pom said. “You ready? Okay.”

The door came open, cracking and squealing, and she was looking out at silhouettes against a light bounced off into the water, not pointed directly at the shed. Peach shivered. Keisha stroked her fur, and took a step. Peach came with her. Another step. Peach moved with her, but she was still shivering. “You okay mama?” Peach shoved her head into Keisha’s shoulder, turning her back on them all. Keisha put out one hand, and the nearest guy held out a blanket, and Keisha wrapped it around Peach. He held out another one, and Keisha draped it awkwardly over her own shoulders, hanging onto Peach with her other arm.

Keisha blinked again into the indirect light, and looked at what little she saw of their faces in the broken darkness. “She’s a bagheera.”

“Yes ma’m,” Tee Pom said. He was a heavy-built guy, bigger than a high school linebacker, but not big enough to be pro-sized. “Them kitty ears are pretty plain pointers.”

“You guys know about this? Dan said maybe…”

“What Dan is that?” Tee Pom said, still easy, friendly.

“He drove a truck. Guy named Fozzie owned it. I guess they know some folks made like Peach is.”

“Yeah,” Tee Pom said. Still soft, relaxed, calm as hell. That Chuck Yager jet pilot voice some of them used. “We got a passle of ’em living around here, in fact.”

“I took the truck. Had to.”

“How come?” Tee Pom asked.

“Dan got shot,” Keisha said, and felt a little shudder in her leg muscles.

“You know who shot him?”

“Seung does,” Keisha said. She nodded at the shed. “The guys did those locks, they took the truck. I bet Dan’s boss wants it back. You know Fozzie?”

“Yeah, I do. I bet he does want that truck. Fozzie don’t fool around, either. Does Fozzie know you?”

Keisha shook her head slowly. Peach’s snuffling routine wasn’t bringing her anything bad from these guys. “Man… Ain’t feeling so good…”

“Okay, we got a truck with room, we’ll drive gentle for you. I’d like to take you over to the clinic and have Doctor Alexander bandage your hands, take a look at both of you.”

Keisha looked down. Dark crusts on her knuckles, wet black streaks ran down her fingers.

“You’d have bashed your way out through the boards in awhile,” Tee Pom said, and his big open grin shone out in the truck lights.

Can’t Get There Fast Enough

One of the men shifted, noisily, and Peach jerked around, ears twitching, and bared her fangs.

“Hoh shit,” muttered one of the men further away, and Peach hissed at him, ears flattened, ready to launch off Keisha’s arm at any of them.

Her truncated tail kept flicking from side to side in her sweats, jerking at the fabric. Keisha scruffed the frantic muscles of her neck. “Breath, Peach. Deep breath. Good. Again.”

Tee Pom asks, “Your gal there okay?”

Keisha blinked hard. “Yeah,” she said, “You driving? You let her sniff you, she might calm down.”

“I’d be pleased to,” Tee Pom said gravely, moving around to where the night breeze blew downwind from him, and then he held out both his hands, palm up, as if he met nervous bagheeras every day of the week.

Peach craned her neck forward, eyes wide. She gave a distressed little whine, digging her claws into Keisha’s arm.

“Mama, easy there. He ain’t gonna rush you. Just take your time,” Keisha murmured into the ears. “Talk to me, baby. Tell me what he smells like.”

Tears welled up in Peach’s eyes. “Seung,” she said, more of a half-strangled mew than a clear name. “Blood. Smell of… sick. Two Seung.”

“Two of Seung, huh?” Keisha said.

“Seung hurt!” Peach said, struggling to get it out.

“Yeah, he was, but he’s gonna get better now,” Tee Pom agreed, looking carefully away from Peach’s wild eyes.

“Easy, mama, I hear you,” Keisha said, stroking her neck and the base of her ears.

“I’d like to get you to the clinic so you can see he’s okay now. We took him to Doctor Alexander to get help,” Tee Pom repeated.

“Thank God,” Keisha sighed into Peach’s neck fur. Then she asked softly, “Can you smell that too? Doctor smell?”

“Stinky wash cut.”

“You’re a big help talking, telling me things. I just love you to bits,” Keisha said, hugging her.

Peach looked up at Keisha nervously. “Not bad doctor?”

Keisha drew in a deep breath.

Tee Pom said quietly, “Man, there’s a gal who’s had a tough life.”

“Yeah, she has,” Keisha agreed, stroking Peach’s forearms and neck. “Good girl. Good.”

“Not bad?” Peach demanded, digging in her nails.

“I swear he’s a good doctor,” Tee Pom said solemnly, putting his hand over his chest.

“Good doctor?” she whispered, kneading her nails at Keisha anxiously.

Tee Pom murmured, “Easy now, easy, sweet gal. Seung will be fine. Alexander’s the best doctor he could ever get, I swear. Your friend Seung is gonna want to see you.”

“How bad is he hurt?” Keisha wanted to know.

“You know that thing in his back? Doctor Alexander has to take it out, tout de suite.” Tee Pom said grimly.

“Oh,” Keisha grunted, as if she got hit in the gut.

“Oh yeah. Your guy say he’s not going under without you. Tomorrow, probably. Don’t worry, the doctor takes his medicine seriously. We gotta get you ladies movin’, okay?”

Peach nudged her. Keisha loosened her frozen grip on the girl’s shoulders. Keisha blinked down at her, gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Okay, now? You okay with going to see Seung?”

Peach smelled the wind coming past Tee Pom. “Okay,” Peach growled. “Okay.”

“He smell okay to you?” Keisha asked again, feeling how her legs were shaking, and how Peach was wobbly too.

“Okay,” Peach said, and buried her face in Keisha’s shoulder, and shivered.

“Girl’s getting shocky?” Tee Pom asked.

“Yeah,” Keisha said, feeling a bit shocky herself. Peach, getting fierce like that!

“Truck’s over this way, ma’am.” He gestured, and the other guys moved back, leaving plenty of room.

Keisha took a couple of steps toward the truck. “ID,” she said, a croak with her throat so hoarse.

“Of course,” Tee Pom said, and pulled out his wallet. He turned one of the lights, held his badge into the light. “Some folks don’t believe it when I say the lawman’s gotta be adaptable, workin’ this parish.”

Keisha guided Peach into sitting down first on the truck seat, and then leaned over her, leaning on Peach. When Peach stopped shaking and shivering so much, she urged Peach to get up again, and Keisha slid onto the seat so she’d be holding Peach.

Tee Pom held out another bottle of water. “Want me to open it?”

Keisha nodded, accepted it, urged Peach to drink some more. Then she got them both tucked up into the cab, blankets pulled in, and Tee Pom shut the door. Keisha felt Peach start crying. She just stroked the soft fur, up and down, feeling hair sticking all over her crusted wet hands. Peach was stress-shedding just like a housecat. “It’s okay, mama, it’s gonna be okay. You just cry all you want, it’s okay.”

“Seung hurt bad?” Peach whimpered into her shoulder.

“I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out, mama. I am gonna find out.”

Into their open window, Tee Pom said, “We think he oughta be okay, but the Doctor still gotta figure things out on him.  We all were hoping you could help on that.”

Keisha said flatly, “Maybe you should tell your buddy Fozzie he has a problem with his guy Mike.  Wolfy boy with pointy Doberman ears. Mike turned Fozzie’s truck over to those… things.  The guys who locked us in the shed.”

“Yeah?  We will do that,” Tee Pom said.  Then he nodded and walked away around the truck, talking to the other guys. “Yeah, you heard right. Mike going bad, that’s the worst kinda news. You got Fozzie’s number? You peel off ahead and get you some cell coverage, you call him right away. Whatever those bugs wanted with that truck, or with these two women, or with that other naga boy, we wanna know it.”

Mutters.  Somebody growled, “Oh God, Fozz is gonna blow sky high.”

Tee Pom said, “Sure is.  I want Fozz workin’ his end first. Best chance is Fozz hunting Mike down, oh, you bet–and he’s gonna ask that boy what the hell that was about. You might remind him that we might have some different questions to ask Mike too, I don’t want nobody disappearing into some bayou. Now, what I want is Mike nice and clean and pretty in a cell, ready to load up for conspiracy to commit kidnapping and battery, but we’ll be lucky if that ever happens.  Still, that’s what I want, if anybody was askin’.  Plus, we need pictures of those two ladies right away down the clinic, get some shots of Keisha’s poor hands. Yeah, you know it. Hope she didn’t break any knuckles.”

Tee Pom opened the driver’s side door, watching the flinches of Peach’s ears as he climbed in, as he buckled up and got the ignition going.  He acted like he knew just how fast a nervous bagheera can lash out.

Keisha whispered, “I didn’t know till we tried to run away, but those guys, we saw they got these weird white crab arms… and things. Seung… called ’em bug troops.”

Tee Pom put the truck in gear.  “Thank you for the warning, Ma’am, that’s a mighty big help.”

Kiesha nodded. She tucked her nose into Peach’s fur, drawing in the dusty-flower smell. Dark trees flashed by, and they just couldn’t go fast enough. All she wanted was to get hold of her boy again.

Seung’s Women

A flash of light speared his brain; Seung shut his eyes once more and kept them that way. Everything hurt. He couldn’t remember ever feeling like this, hot and chilled at the same time, every joint either throbbing with a dark ache or painfully on fire. Someone told him to stop screaming for fuck’s sake and take this, which he did, washing down the single pill with a tumbler of blessedly wet water, and he went back to sleep again.

The next time he woke he cataloged the sounds of water hitting a fiberglass hull, frogs and crickets, people talking nearby in a lilting dialect, a buzz of activity. There was only a dim light burning, and through his carefully slitted eyes he could see the beginnings of dawn light outside the window.

“…coming in, got about five more minutes on the road, Tee Pom says,” a woman’s clear voice remarked. “Dance, can you.. thank you, lovie.” The scent of the other one– the snake– came to his nostrils, and with it a flood of saliva. He swallowed past a raw throat.

“Older Brother,” Dance’s upper class Korean, “Our outriders are coming back with your friends, will you wake for them?”

“Women?” Seung mumbled.

Dance repeated it in English.

“Yes, your women,” Emma said. “Tee Pom says they are a little bit hurt, he’s bringing them straight here.”

“My women hurt!” Seung tried to sit up at that, struggling with his restraints. “Let me–”

“Older Brother, be calm,” Dance said. “The doctor will attend them, here in your presence. You must rest and grow strong once more.”

The snake man honored him? Seung drew in a great, gasping breath and lay still, listening to the rushing of his own blood in his body, and listening for the diesel engine.

“Get her head back,” the doctor’s voice came from outside.  “You ignorant sonofabitches, back!  No, no, let her go– let go, give her a minute, you sorry bastard.”

“What is happening?” Seung asked the snake man.

“Your woman is a scrapper,” Dance said at the window, and charged out, his tail whipping once against the doorjamb as he went. It raked a vivid scar down into raw wood.

The doctor’s strident voice was going on. “Never try to restrain someone in convulsions like that.  What the hell are you thinking, she’ll tear her own muscles apart!  Dance, thank God you’re here…” The voices sank to mumbles, but Seung heard Peach now, her growl rising and falling rhythmically, and he felt choked with frustration.

He heard movement in the next room now, the creak of cot springs. A sad little meow from Peach ripped a bellow through Seung’s throat, leaving him coughing. And the next thing he knew was a warm furry weight landing upon him, Peach’s dry-grass fragrance and her glass-blue eyes inches from his. “Seung!” she said. “Seung, Keisha, Seung!”

“What about Keisha, dushka moy?” he croaked out.

Dance came to the door. “She’s well, Older Brother, only dehydrated. She will be with you in only a few more moments. She was convulsing and is now not awake, but you will have her quickly, I promise.” He said into the doorway, “Bring the whole cot in, we’ll get her fluids hooked up in here.”

“Who died and made you the doctor?” the doctor groused, but Dance only laughed, and and Seung heard the gurney casters protesting as Alexander and Emma wheeled it into the room, maneuvering it into place next to him.

Keisha lay limp, dark against the white sheet. There was a thin crescent of white showing under her eyelids, which hadn’t completely closed, and Seung wanted badly to stroke them shut. Her skin was ashen. Doctor Alexander, muttering, shuffled into the cramped space with a glittering bag of saline to hook up to her arm; Peach all but leapt at him, growling.

“Hey! I’m not hurting her, kitty, swear it.” Doctor Alexander said. It was, Seung realized, the first sentence the man had said without swear words. He spoke differently, talking to Peach. “C’mon, little girl. Lemme do my work.”

“Only I hold Peach,” Seung said, and rattled his restraints. Doctor Alexander looked over, measuringly, nodded at Emma, who reached over and unbuckled the leather bands on Seung’s bedframe.

“My dushka, you come here now,” Seung ordered. “Come.” And Peach actually did so, nuzzling into his armpit, licking his face frantically. Wads of shed fur came off her. Seung wrapped grateful arms around her, crooning. “Little love, little love…” Together, they watched the doctor clean wounds and wrap white bandages around Keisha’s hands. “What did that?” Seung demanded.

“Keisha hit house.” Peach whispered. “Hit door, hit wood house, many hits. Kick lots.”

Seung was surprised into a bark of laughter. He reached painfully across, rested his hand on the dark, soft skin of Keisha’s shoulder.

“Tee Pom says she was that close to breaking right through the wall,” Emma said. “She’s a fighter, your woman.”

“Is good, my woman,” Seung said. The saline bag shifted as it emptied, trickling its lifegiving fluids into Keisha’s’s bloodstream. Contentedly, he watched the steady rise and fall of her breathing, and held Peach close.

Helping Keisha’s Crew

It ought to be Dance’s twin curled up in the clinic bed. But this man isn’t identical. Dance says he calls Seung Older Brother in Korean, and it fits. Seung looks older, more weather-beaten, heavier through the shoulders and torso, his hands are scarred up from fights, and his eyes are deadly quiet. He makes Dance look like he’s all bubbles and froth and witty jokes and queer as hell. That’s freaky. Dance hasn’t changed a bit.

Seung just doesn’t talk, not in any language. In the hours since he was brought in here, Dance practically had to pull teeth to get him to admit he needed more painkillers for his back.

So it’d been a shock to see Seung’s face open up like that, to see him hugging the poor skinny gray tabby bagheera girl so close. There– there’s Dance’s twin. Emma feels the all-too-familiar twist of blind anger at the bug labs, the rotten war machine that sacrificed this beautiful creature to the filthy alleys of Earth.

“Smelling the girl stomach is empty,” Seung says, working at it slowly. “Not eat, sick, fall over, yes?”

“Yeah, that wouldn’t help one bit,” Doctor Alexander says briskly. He smiles at Peach. “When did you ladies eat last?”

Peach’s ears go flat against her skull.

“Easy now,” Doctor Alexander says, and takes a step closer to Peach, who growls.

“She wants to rip your guts out,” Emma warns, from across the room.

“Well, of course. You know how bagheeras get twitchy when their people are hurt, just part of the business,” Doctor Alexander says, as if he’s been doing it for years. He looks at Peach, waiting for an answer.

Peach bares her teeth, and nobody takes the slightest notice of it. Seung just clicks his tongue, and Peach looks at him, clearly anxious. Seung strokes the ears back upright, as if he knows exactly how to get her to calm down again.

“How many days since you ate?” Doctor Alexander repeats. He’s far more patient with her than any other adult so far.

Peach just shakes her head. She’s struggling for words, the mute look on her face is just like one of the tiny kids at the library.

“One day?” Seung murmurs into her fur. “Two?  Many? How many?”

Peach shakes her head. Holds up three fingers, puts up a fourth, frowns, puts it down again.

“Okay, you want a bag of glucose?” Emma asks Doctor Alexander.

“Yes,” he grunted. “Peach will need some protein, too.   They run off calories so fast.”

Emma nods, hands him another of the floppy plastic bags of fluid, and walks away. “I’ll bring over some of Dance’s food from the house later.”

“Emma,” Seung says.

She turns, enquiringly.

“Good.”

“You’re welcome,” Emma says, surprised and pleased.

She finds herself smiling again at home in the kitchen as she puts together a baggie of sandwiches and another of plain, cooked bluegill fillet.

She glances into the bedroom, finds Drin is still conked out in bed, exhausted. He sat up most of the night going over every inch of Dance’s parasail skin, obsessively working out every last bubble of extra pooled blood that might leave bruises and damage, muttering to himself sometimes and adjusting the lamp. Dance was asleep under his hands before he got halfway done. When Drin did finally curl up next to Dance, he kept one arm around him possessively. As the Intarwebs might put it, pwned, and who pwns who there? Emma asked herself, wryly. Neither of them had stirred when she pulled a sheet over them both.

Now she adjusts the floor fan to make Drin more comfortable in the warm room, and he gives a little sigh and goes back to sleep.

Then she rummages for paper plates and plastic utensils, and she thinks about where to find mules or flipflops that might fit Peach’s feet comfortably enough. She’s got frequent lectures on it from Doctor Alexander while they’re waiting for things to cook or things to cool or things to arrive, like the other volunteers at the clinic. Alexander insists that cheap flipflops have kept more people worldwide from getting nasty parasites endemic in the mud than anything else they know. He hands them out from a huge box to the children. She’s ordered some more adult-sized ones.

Back at the clinic, she finds none of the ones in the box are Peach’s size. She makes a note on her shopping list, and goes in the back room to ask what else the clinic might need from town. Clothes for the new Trio, certainly.

“Oh, you’re awake!” Emma says, putting things down on a counter and turning, speaking to them. She smiles at the dark woman on the gurney next to Seung. The woman is not quite sitting, propped up on pillows, with the IV taped on her wrist. Peach is leaning into her on the other side from Seung.

“You hold a minute,” the woman growls at Seung. Her face looks so strange and harsh that Emma takes a couple of steps toward her. From the new angle, Emma sees now that woman’s other hand is busy. She’s got a pair of scissors in her fist, and she’s digging the points into Seung’s throat. He’s got his hands down, not stopping her. Just looking at the woman.

Emma stops short. “Alex,” she whispers.

“Ahh,” Alexander says, from the door, and he stands still. “Dance went to get some–”

Peach gives a soft little cry of distress.

“Quiet,” the dark woman says, and Peach is silent. “I want my boy to tell me.”

Seung looks at the woman. Then he says, “I was slow. Bugs fast.”

“Yeah, I know. But you knew those guys.”

Seung looks aside, lowers his eyes, turns his chin up. It’s remarkably doglike.

“Don’t you be belly-uppin’ on me,” the woman growls at him, eyes narrowed.

Seung swallows hard enough to make the scissors move. “Mike surprise me. Not good, I was slow.”

The woman glares. “No shit. So you saw those guys on the road, and–”

“For Peach,” Seung says. “They put you off locked up safe, I get you out later. I hope.”

“Keisha?” It’s the tiniest whimper.

“Hush Peach.”

“First thing is keep you alive, Keisha. Most important. I fight, you be killed, I know this, know.”

“They ain’t after me, they came after you.” Keisha says.

“They don’t kill me. They kill you.” Seung’s eyes go pale.

Emma knows that look, those pale eyes, and she draws in a shallow breath.

“Don’t you say nuthin’,” Keisha growls, one quick glance up at Emma and down again to Seung, just that fast.

Emma knows it was plenty of time for Seung to reach up and disarm her. Keisha probably knows it too. But she’s staring into Seung’s face, leaning close, jaw muscles bulged out.

Seung puts up his hand and rests it on Keisha’s hip, and she growls, and he takes it off again. He lifts it toward her arm instead, and she jerks in place, growling. “Talk to me,” Keisha says.

Seung takes several deep breaths. “Okay,” he says, gulping. He lifts his hand again, frustrated, and puts it down on the pillow next to him instead. “Okay.”

“Tell me how you know those guys.”

“Boss buy them.  Bugs. We get on ship, come here, boss say get cargo, tell me go get Peach and get laptop on the other ship. Not telling why.”

“Sonuvabitch,” Keisha says, and draws in several hard breaths, nostrils snorting wide. Then she turns the scissors away from his throat, and down onto his forearm instead, pressing in a dent. “Doesn’t that even hurt?”

He waves it off with his other hand, which is still bandaged from the claw-marks Dance reports came from an initial tangle with Peach. “Not big hurt. Back is big hurt.”

Keisha looks at him, and nods, and throws the scissors down on the floor, and covers her eyes with her knuckles.

“Boss lady,” Seung says.

Keisha sits up, and gives a yelp of pain. “Damn, my back too. Okay, you tell me where your damn boss found those damn bug things, I swear I’ll kick me some bug ass–”

“Would you like some help?” Emma says, amused. God, she is a fighter!

Keisha glares up at her. “Yeah?” Her tone says, plain as words, What the fuck would you know about bugs? and Emma is surprised at the sting.

Doctor Alexander grunts, carrying in folders, and shoves them into a filing cabinet. “You want to learn how to stop bugs, ask Emma. She goes with her guys on bug raids, they’re the local snipers we call for help. She’s given me a dozen of her kills as bug cadavers to dissect. Stinking worst dissection jobs I ever dealt with, too.”

Keisha narrows her eyes. “What do you shoot those fuckers with?”

“Stuff that leaves a big fucking hole,” Alexander growls, glaring at Emma.

Emma shrugs. “I’m backup with one of our smaller shotguns, for closeup stuff like head shots. Don’t bother with gut shots, it won’t stop ’em. We’re overloading with lots of duck or goose shot pellets. When we’re down to scratch and I’m borrowing a machine pistol from Michel’s crew, those guys use crazy crap like flare guns and stuff, I never know what the hell they’ve got in there. I think a .32 round is about as small as you want to use. Armor-piercing shells make me feel better, but not if you’re trying to hold bugs off somebody’s house. Go right through six walls and somebody’s kid.”

Keisha grunts. “So you musta grew up shooting?  Fox hunts, that kinda crap?”

Emma gives a grim smile. “Not exactly. Dingos and kangaroos and saltwater crocs and rabbits. Lots of rabbits, even the ones getting mangled by myxo disease. Oh, and cane toads. God, I hate cane toads.”

Seung growls. “Toads blow,” he says, when Keisha looks at him.

Emma smiles. “Yeah. So do saltwater crocs.”

Keisha narrows her eyes again. “So you’re Dance’s bitch?”

Emma lifts her hand with a little flourish, bowing. “And Drin’s. No, they never put the toilet seat down. But I forgive that one, because Dance is such a damn fine cook.”

“I cook too,” Seung says, looking at Keisha, and stroking Peach’s ears.

Keisha looks at him. “That’s good, my man, because you’re my bitch.”

“Okay,” Seung says. He knows perfectly well what the slang means. “Pussy-whip me.”

Keisha growls at him.

He just smiles. It is a very wicked, merry smile, and eerily familiar. “Dance tells.”

Keisha glares up at Emma, and Emma just holds up both hands open and flat, chuckling. “You’d have to ask Dance about that one.”

“I do, I ask him,” Seung says. “Younger Brother say to me, oh yes, Keisha say jump, I am asking how high. Want so bad, beg and beg. Screwed six ways from Sunday, no need on wearing stupid dog leash.”

“He said that?” Emma says.

Seung says, “Oh yes.”

“Oh Christ, that probably sounded worse in Korean than it does in English,” Emma says, chewing on her lower lip.

“Yes,” Seung says. “Lots and lots rude. Like man schoolteacher in girl panties, not even sorry.”

Keisha’s eyebrows are a sight to behold.

“No lie, true,” Seung says. He holds up his hand, palm flat. “Worse than wearing dog leash.”

Emma opens her mouth, sees Keisha’s skeptical eye, and shuts her mouth again.

“Okay, my man, that’s enough TMI for today. Peach, give that boy a smack, I gotta wait till my hands aren’t sore.”

Peach reaches over, frowning in concentration, and delivers a open-handed swat that leaves scratch marks on Seung’s shoulder. He flinches, making a face, as if movement in the wound in his back is what hurt him. Peach gives him a worried look, patting him lightly on the forearm, until his face calms down again.

“Okay,” Keisha says firmly.

Peach looks between them, and says, “Okay now?”

Keisha reaches up her hand, the one with the tape and the IV drip in it, and rests it on Peach’s shoulder. “Yeah, mama, we are all right.”

Peach leans in closer, uttering a sigh of relief. So does Seung. Keisha reaches up and grabs a wad of his hair and grips it hard, in spite of how much it must hurt her. She leans her face into his, and kisses his forehead, more like a bite than a caress. He gives another big sigh.

Alexander snorts and starts pulling out folders, muttering. Then he blinks at the three people in the beds. “You folks need anything?”

“Water,” Seung says firmly.

“I got it,” Emma says. She fills glasses, drops straws in them, hands them around. Peach croons at Keisha, nudging the glass in her hand, and Keisha glares, but sips at it.

“If you guys are hungry, I can get some sandwiches from the fridge here–” Emma offers.

Keisha glances away. “S’okay.”

Emma has the suspicion that Keisha doesn’t want to admit she can barely sit up enough to eat. Alexander had said something about muscle cramps, that she needed to get more potassium in her, from sweating so long out in the heat with no food or water.

Emma knows better than to get pushy finding out where Seung’s former boss picked up those bug troops, but it’s hard to control herself. Emma looks at Seung. “If the place where your former boss picked up bug troops isn’t close here, we maybe could pass it along to some friends in that other area to knock ’em down.”

Seung points at his head. “I tell Preacher where, loud.”

“Ah, then he’s dealt with reporting it,” Emma nods. She looks at Keisha then. “Oh yes– Tee Pom tells me Michel’s boys got in touch with Fozzie, they let him know about Mike. I guess Fozzie about blew a gasket.”

“That’s the problem with havin’ too many friends, one of ’em always likes to roll over on the whole party,” Keisha says.

“Fozzie rescues a lot of people,” Emma says quietly.

Keisha grunts. “Hey, everybody needs a hobby.”

Emma aims a pointed look at Seung and Peach, and Keisha glowers back.

“We are not being your hobby,” Seung tells Keisha, to no reaction.  “Is not,” he repeats, crossly, glaring at Keisha, who only glares right back.

“Why not?” Keisha growls.

“You get only me and Peach. We lots work.”

Emma can’t help it. She tilts her head upward, smiling. “You have been talking to Dance.”

“What’s so funny?” Keisha demands. “You think that sounds too much like your snakeman?”

Emma nods. “When those two get to cracking jokes, it’s gonna get tough.”

“You think Seung would be better off stayin’ with you guys, after he heals up.” Keisha is wooden-faced.

Emma shakes her head. “What? No. That’s up to all of you. But you’re all welcome to stay. The whole bayou here is zoomorph families, it’s safe for us to walk around in daylight here.”

“Much as anywhere is safe, huh? Except when guys like Mike start handin’ you over to the Man.”

Emma shrugs. “Nobody expected that.”

Keisha shrugs too, like a sharp little imitation. “Always some damn fool spoils the party.”

“I don’t know how they paid Mike off, if they did. Far as I can poke around, nobody in Mike’s family got new money. Now, I talked to Michel about old-time ways to bribe.  His family are all old-school smuggling, old-style discipline.  Oh lordy, they were pissed off, Tee Pom had quite a job talking them down from just shooting Mike on sight. Now, on tracking down newer ideas, things like internet chats and payments, that kind of thing, that’s where we could use your ideas.”

“I think maybe Fozzie got too many friends.  It’s too easy for some crooked parish guys to use other things.  Get somebody’s dumb kid brother outta jail, no money down.”

Emma blinks. “Thanks. I’ll look into friends and relatives getting off on some criminal or civil charges during the last few weeks.” She makes herself a note to follow up on certain arrest records. “So if you don’t like big groups like Fozzie’s bunch, why would you want to go visit your aunt Lacey?”

“What about my aunt Lacey?” Keisha’s voice sounds flat, spooky.

“Well, she is the one running Fozzie’s horse farm.  Hell, she runs Fozzie, and he’d be the first to say so, she’s his wife from way back, nobody knows how old they are.  The horse ranch is, oh, about sixty miles from here. He’s always out on the road.  Lacey is the one who sorts out zoomorph rescues, keeps the farm and the lab functioning, keeps the trucks running, the whole thing.”

“Aw, shit.” Keisha, for once, is honestly astonished, her dark eyes round. “That’s– shit, man, my auntie? I remember her puttin’ on her gloves for church, man.”

“There’s only one Lacey in the swampland,” Emma says, grinning at the idea of Lacey wearing gloves to church, enjoying some well-deserved peace and quiet while she visited a wandering niece. “We owe her big time.  That horse farm lab of hers helps out patients here all the time, they helped sort out Dance’s changes, so–”

“Just– no.” Keisha holds up her hand, half laughing. “No, that’s just too weird, I get me these zoobabies and the person I was going to see anyway is all over it– Nuh-uh.”

“Oh, I know.  It’s been like that for me as well, all these Odd Coincidences. Well, anyway, I’m running off to the store now and pick up some sandals for Peach. Are there any clothes I could pick up for you guys? Jeans or tees or–”

“No, we’re good,” Keisha goes flat again. “Don’t worry about Peach, we’ll see to her.”

“It’s clinic policy,” Emma says. She feels her backbone stiffening up. Seung looks over to his boss as if he’d like to contradict her. Time to get out, before she snaps back something regrettable.

Fozzie even warned her, once, that some folks weren’t happy about needing help, and they hated admitting it when they got it. Some other folks were sure the world owed them everything, so they took it all for granted, and treated their rescuers like dirty servants. And some people were just too angry to keep a lid on it.

Fozzie just smiled, telling her. It didn’t bother him.  He’s seen too much weird to get ruffled over it.

Doctor Alexander gives Emma a glance, eyebrow raised.

She nods stiffly, and says, “So after I get back from that, I’ll head off to my laptop. Give me a call if you need anything, Doctor.”

Keisha gives one of those grunts that says worlds.

Emma heads for the door, tight-lipped.

File drawers clatter. Alexander’s voice comments, “Busy lady. Works on all kinds of stuff on her computer, tracking things, keeping up on legal cases, running business stuff for folks. No time for visiting like this, most days.”

“Good for her ass,” Keisha’s voice replies.

Then the latch clicks, and their voices are muffled. Emma lifts her head and folds her arms and walks away, disappointed. She was looking forward to talking to another woman about Dance, about Dance’s genetic twin, hoping for some common ground with the fierce black woman. But she’s been living in the South long enough to know that plenty of folks will not respond kindly to innocent West-Coast-style overtures from her.  She’s never cautious enough.

It always makes her so furious.

Alexander’s Prelim Findings

“Okay, I got some good news and some bad news. Question is, do you want me to tell you by yourself, or share it with Peach and Keisha?”

Seung blinked at Doctor Alexander. The painkiller was starting to take the sharp edges off. He thought he’d have a twenty-minute window of sense before it really kicked in and put him back to sleep. For several days now, he was on a teeter-totter between too much and too little medication. The doctor said his liver was knocking it down faster than normal. A lot faster.

“You mean, tell them or not?” Seung said through the fog.

“Yes,” Doctor Alexander said shortly. “It’s your rights.”

Seung didn’t let anybody else into his personal business since he was about twelve. But when he opened his mouth to say one thing, he heard himself say something else completely. “Want Keisha to hear.”

“And Peach?”

“Peach is okay too. Small words, simple.”

Doctor Alexander waited until Peach and Keisha came out of the restroom. Peach steadied Keisha, who was having headaches bad enough to make her dizzy. Doctor Alexander had talked to them about maybe treating her for a sinus infection. Keisha settled onto the gurney, making a grim face. She complained, once, that her hipbones hurt from the thin bedding. She was a woman, dammit, she had a big old pelvis to haul around. Seung worried about her hipbones, when he had a brain. He liked her hipbones as they were. Peach, too, winced sometimes when she turned onto her side, squeezing in on the gurneys next to them.

“Look like you got a hairball, doctor,” Keisha managed a little smile. She concentrated when Alexander was working with any of them, no matter how crummy she was feeling.

“Well, we thought you two ought to hear this too,” the doctor said. “I’ve got some of the blood work results back from our specialty zoomorph lab. Seung’s doing fine getting over the infection from that metal pin stuck in his back. Now, as I told you last night, we can’t get an Xray to work on him, same as Dance. I checked his reflexes and manipulated his spine this morning when we redid the bandaging–” he nods when Seung makes a sour face. “I really don’t think he’ll have any lasting neurological damage from it. I don’t get any impression of bone fragments to worry about. He might have soft tissue scar tissue and develop reactions like arthritis in later life, but I think it ought to be healthy for a long time. Now, on some of the other things, we don’t have answers yet. They’re still waiting on the DNA sequencing.”

“Who’s they?” Keisha asked.

“The horse farm lab prepared the samples and sent them off to some of their military buddies. I understand the military lab has been studying the zoomorphs for oh, twenty years now. We always send the difficult stuff to them, plus they have better security. Don’t worry about them doing crazy stuff like detaining either of our boys here. I’ve talked to them many times before. They want Dance down here living quiet with other zoomorphs, learning what he can do. Now it’s the same for Seung. They don’t want either of these guys getting provoked or chased around. Now, whether they’ll step in and send some damn troops and help us keep the bug labs cleared away out here, that’s a different problem.”

Keisha frowned. Alexander held up a stern finger and kept talking. “Turns out all of Dance’s different parts are all him. One guy, not Frankenstein. The lab who made him did the stitching at a genetic level.” He looked at Peach. “Dance’s different parts get along fine. We don’t know how they did that. It could really help other people who have problems, if we learned that.”

Peach nodded.

Doctor Alexander nodded back. “Nobody knows how they did that, or how that works. Just for that one thing, Seung and Dance are…valuable resources. We don’t know for sure about Seung yet, but we’ll find out. Anyway, the lab guys are working on identifying Seung’s tissues, and figuring out if Dance and Seung are different. The early gel electrophoresis shows they’re very close, but not identical. I mentioned the military folks wanting things kept quiet, that’s the first big reason.”

Keisha was just staring at the doctor. Seung couldn’t tell if she understood it all. “Not twins?”

“Not identical. Fraternal, maybe.” Doctor Alexander waved one hand impatiently. “One reason we know how Dance grew out is that Emma took pictures and measured him through it. He grew out at a faster rate than any snake we know about. Seung’s tail is growing out at a rate faster than Dance’s did at the same stage. Since Dance had problems with bone growing pain and hurting new raw skin as it was shedding, we’ll have pain meds in case Seung needs them. I’ve got in an order of topical cortisone cream to ease the pain levels if Seung reacts in the same way. We can go to shots if it gets worse. I’m not assuming that you two are the same, but just in case. Do you want me to show you file pictures on what Dance’s scales look like under a microscope and what they can do?”

Seung glanced at Keisha, helplessly. He barely understood half of the words, and putting them together was more than he can manage.

“I thought they were just scales, like a gator, or a cayman,” Keisha said, frowning.

“No. Oh no. Now, Seung hasn’t been feeling good enough to go into details, and Dance is always careful not to scare anybody around this place, but there’s stuff that maybe can get out of hand. Dance’s scales can manage light. They change color and become virtually invisible to infrared sensors. That thing can disappear.” Doctor Alexander shook his head. “From what I’ve been able to see of the larger scales at the base of Seung’s tail, his are the same or close to it. Dance’s scales can throw coherent light–laser light. That collar thing around his neck has scales too. It can generate focused laser light. He shoots bugs with it. That unfolds, it’s huge, got struts, he can actually glide on it as a parasail. The thing can stand up into a band shell for directing the noise when he shouts. That’s completely lab-built, I don’t know of any animal like that.”

Keisha frowned, looking at Seung. “That’s what you saw?”

Seung gave a tight little nod. He’d thought the other man was turning into a helicopter or something. He remembered the tail turning colors, too. Blinding him. He tried to tell Keisha that first night, warn her, but he didn’t have enough words. She said she expected weird stuff when she saw Dance the first time, but it nearly gave her a heart attack to wake up and see him sitting there in a chair near the gurneys, reading some kind of sheet music and humming while his tailtip was conducting it–and arguing with him, in gestures. Enough to give anybody a heart attack.

Doctor Alexander nodded. “Dance grew out other snake parts too. He can adjust the chemistry in his venom sacs. He makes different kinds of drugs against infections and deficiencies, injects a sort of anti-venom. Seung, you gave me that tooth that fell out this morning? Some of Dance’s teeth fell out to make room for his fangs. Looks like it’s the same premolar as his were.”

“Fangs?” Seung said.

Alexander nodded, watching Keisha, not Seung. “Two of them about an inch and three quarters long, midway back along the upper palate.”

“Like mine?” Peach said, baring her front teeth and pointing. Seung blinked. He didn’t remember her fangs being that large, and he’s been kissing her past them.

“Yeah, sweetie, except these teeth fold up, and yours don’t.” Alexander made hinge gestures.

Peach leaned down, peering at Seung, and she put her hand on his lip, happily asking him to open his mouth.

Seung opened his mouth.

Peach stuck her fingers in his mouth, poking around gently, feeling upward with the pads of her fingers. “Oooh, there it is–pull,” she commanded him.

“Careful, don’t get your nose too close in there–” Doctor Alexander said.

“Yes!” Peach said triumphantly, and held out her hand. One fingertip had a little nick on it, and blood welled out of it. “Seung got fangs! Cool!” And she grabbed Keisha’s hand. “See–feel–”

Keisha looked into Seung’s eyes. Then she put the bruised, meaty base of her thumb into his mouth, pushing. “Bite,” she said. “If Dance can heal people, so can you. Fix this sinus infection for me, that’d help a lot.”

Seung made a guttural noise in his throat, protesting.

“I’ve been hearing stories about Dance,” Keisha said, and nodded. “Give it a good hard push, the rest oughta take care of itself.”

Seung closed his eyes, shoved his head forward, pushed his mouth onto her hand, and nothing happened.

Then she popped her other hand on his jaw, a good hard noisy slap.

He felt something click, snap, and thump in his head. He jerked under the force of it, three times. It hurt. Keisha gave a yell too. Then he was tasting blood in his mouth, impossible to tell whose it was. He jerked upward frantically, dragging something up out of the meat of her hand, and then she was free of his grip, gasping.

Seung found himself lying flopped over to one side, hanging onto the gurney, panting. “Sick!”

Peach leaped for a trashcan, and held it for him as he gagged. She patted him. “Keisha get better now,” Peach told him.

He felt their hands supporting him when he finally fell back into the bedding. “Uh uh uh,” he heard himself panting.

“Better?” Keisha said, looking at him. Her hand was bleeding. There were holes in it. Seung pawed frantically, lifted her wrist, turned her hand to see it.

“Oh, don’t you worry, I’m all good now you fixed me up,” she told him.

Seung made a desperate little whine in his throat, unable to find any words at all. He reached out toward the doctor, gestured wildly, unable to reach far enough.

Keisha grabbed his head in both hands. “Look at me,” she said.

He panted, looking.

“You did exactly what I told you,” Keisha said. Her eyes were very big and dark and fierce, a little frightened, a little tired.

He gave another murmur in his throat, unable to stop himself.

She jerked his head slightly, determined. “Look at me,” Keisha said.

He blinked, and watched her.

“You see I’m okay,” Keisha said.

He nodded a little bit.

“That’s good. That’s what I wanted you to do. I’m gonna ask you to bite me again tomorrow. I want you to trust me it’s gonna be okay. Better than okay.”

Seung blinked, squinted, took in deep breaths. “Okay,” he said, hoarsely.

She smiled. “Maybe in a different spot next time.” And she leaned in and licked the side of his face, licking away the smear of blood she left like a thumbprint on him.

“Why?” Seung gasped.

“We gotta clear out those baby venom sacs nice and clean, so they don’t swell up and get infected. And if you know it’s me, it’s gonna be good sweet stuff coming out of you, nobody needs to worry.” Devious woman!

She grinned over at Alexander then. “Think we got it worked out now, oughta be easier next time.”

Doctor Alexander looked a little pale. But he nodded, and he said to Seung, “You got a good taste of her there. You might need to bite her tomorrow too, just to be sure you gave her immune system enough boost.”

“Bandage?” Seung said, worried, frustrated, and touched Keisha’s wrist again.

“Oh yes, if Keisha would like to wash her hands first, we will proceed to bandage her up even more,” Doctor Alexander said.

“Don’t cry,” Peach said, while they were busy, and she hugged him. Seung hugged her very hard, until she squeaked.

Keisha turned from the sink. “We ain’t done yet, Seung, you know that. But we’ll pick it up tomorrow, same time.”

“Same bat channel!” Peach said, and giggled, and yelped when Seung swatted her on the butt. But even her laughter couldn’t keep him awake after that.

Pins from Nagas

Next afternoon, Seung couldn’t make himself do it. All he wanted to do is roll in her scent and lick her skin, especially when she pulled down her sweatpants and presented that soft skin along the curve of her butt for him to sniff. “Mmmm,” he said, leaning in her, and sighing happily.

“Bite it, don’t kiss it,” Keisha grumbled.

He just leaned into her harder, murmuring silly things in his throat.

“It’ll hurt a helluva lot less there,” Keisha said, annoyed.

“Yes, I know,” he said, resigned.

“Well?”

“You feel better today?” Seung asked.

“Oh hell yeah,” Keisha said, and chuckled.

“Not need biting?” Seung pleaded.

“You’re not getting out of it that way,” Keisha said.

“What’s the problem?” Dr. Alexander said, carrying in files and stashing them neatly in the cabinets, not even glancing at either of them.

Keisha said, “He ain’t biting.”

“Why not?” The doctor asked, flipping through files.

“Want fuck, not bite,” Seung said, feeling rebellious.

“Really,” Dr. Alexander said, peering among his papers. “You don’t think maybe Keisha could use more help with that sinus infection?”

Seung rubbed his face along the soft dark skin of her hip. Put one arm around her, stroked her thigh. It’d be a crime, tearing up such smooth warm skin with the kind of ragged, amateur bite he gave her hand.

The doctor pulled out other files, and went out in the front room again. Over his shoulder, he said, “Well, if he’s getting that stubborn, you can probably smack him silly and he won’t do it.”

Keisha glanced up. “What do you mean?”

“Dance can smell when it’s time to stop, but it’s usually after he’s given someone a whole series of bites first. Maybe Seung gave you one heavy dose and that was enough.”

“Big help you are,” she told the doctor, and patted Seung’s cheek again. “All right, lie back. We oughta ask him questions while you’re awake for a change, too.”

“Oh,” Seung said. They talked about it earlier. He knew what kind of questions she wanted to ask.

“I ain’t gonna let you off this one,” Keisha warned him.

“Not want,” Seung muttered.

Keisha’s jaw muscles clenched. She looked at Seung, looked at his legs, at the restless lump moving under the sheet.

Seung reached out to her. “Okay.”

She gave him that look again. “I’m gonna ask him. We got to. I’m gonna ask Dance, too.”

Seung drew in a deep, painful breath. “Okay.”

“Doc, you got a minute for some questions?” Keisha said, yanking up her pants.

“I can spare a moment,” Dr. Alexander said, bringing in more stacks of paper.

“You just needed to get more files in here,” Keisha said.

“Perhaps,” he agreed, finally glancing up from his paperwork.

Then she said, quietly, “That ridge all around Seung’s crotch, Dance have anything like that?”

“That grew out to be a full pouch that seals shut. On a lizard or a snake it’s just a flat area, and the opening is called a cloaca. The genitals and anus are all inside that, protected from the environment.”

“The lab put a snake pouch over their stuff?” Keisha said.

He nodded. “I have no idea whether it was an accident of tying in the reptile tissues to the base of the spine, or whether they meant for it to protect the genitals. It’s not heavy armor, though. It’s tied to a lot of nerves, it’s much more like a woman’s vulva, except of course it encloses the anus too. Makes it harder to keep everything clean and dry when the tail skin is shedding, that takes special attention. On Dance, it needs care much like the parasail. Of course the blood supply and skin on that collar needs to be clean and dry too. It needs attention all the time. Dance tells me that’s a lot more work than the cloaca.” He gives her a stern look. But then, which of his looks aren’t stern?

Seung fell back into the pillows, staring up at the ceiling. “I get a pussy.”

“Your penis won’t go away,” the doctor said. “Dance doesn’t say much, but Emma says that his genitalia got bigger.”

This guy ain’t exactly Mister Tiny now.”

“Well, they were designed in a lab,” Dr. Alexander said, dryly.

“Shit, that’s stupid.”

Seung blinked tiredly. His back hurt. “Need bigger pussy.”

“Something to look forward to, huh?” Keisha said, with a crooked grin.

“Later,” Seung said, making a face.

“You see any of this on Dance?” Keisha asked, waving at Seung.

“Dance was willing to let me take pictures for you, or have you look at him yourself, if you didn’t want pictures. He’s glad to help.”

“Why?”

“There are no other nagas that have unpinned that we know about. These two only have each other to learn from. He doesn’t want to explode, either. He needs your help as much as you need his. He’s always helping out around the clinic; his bite has saved people’s lives with its antibiotic properties.”

“Explode?” Seung was wide awake.

“Dance says that both of you have a power pack hooked on the spine and the ribs just below the kidneys. Since we can’t check inside either of you with Xrays to back him up, we’ll note it as a theory. That energy he was using comes from somewhere. The boxes can’t be very big. Drin thinks it has some kind of biological interface with a nuclear power source. Dance said he can feel his and Seung’s packs are different, Seung’s was bigger and overloaded and generating a kind of unstable whine. Dance did something to drain away enough of the power in Seung’s pack to make it less likely to blow up. The power sources and interfaces are one reason the military really does not want undue attention.

“Power–” Seung said, confused. “Radio?”

“Well, you did say to use little words,” Doctor Alexander said.

“So many,” Seung complained.

“Are you done?” Keisha sat there, arms folded, glaring into space.

“Did you not want the answers when you asked the question?”

Peach came around and leaned into Seung, rested her head on his chest, and kissed his chin. He put up his hand and stroked her back. Her hospital gown didn’t get in the way. Warm fur felt good on his aching fingers. Her tail curled a bit around his wrist, as much as the short length of it could. Peach’s tail had a knotted scar at the end, as if it was cut off. He asked the doctor about it, last night, and the doctor explained the Xrays showed the tail was a “real” one, with regular tail bones like a cat or a monkey. She didn’t have that shrunken human tailbone curling under her pelvis like other, human, women. The doctor showed that to all of them too.

But he couldn’t get x-rays on Seung last night, hard as Seung tried to cooperate. He said he couldn’t get them on Dance either. Seung had scales like Dance’s, scales that could do weird things if he wasn’t careful, like reflect the x-rays all round the room.

Peach kneaded her claws on his forearm, hard, and it helped him wake up. Seung took a painful deep breath, trying to pay attention. “More?”

Dr. Alexander nodded. “There’s more.”

“Why do they leave these guys down here, and let a backwater doctor like you poke them around?” Keisha said, very fierce.

“Excuse me?” he said. “Because Dance said he wouldn’t tolerate anyone else. He said he wasn’t going anywhere he didn’t want to and Seung wasn’t going anywhere Seung didn’t want to, either. Having the swamp turn into a large radioactive hole might not persuade anyone that the two of them are dangerous, but having an important part of Virginia turn into a crater, that’s different.”

“Okay, so the military guys… there must be some story about the lab that made these guys,” Keisha said. She was shivering a little.

“Of course. Dance knows a little about it, but he doesn’t remember how he knows it. So do his partners. I’ve spoken to a local man named Pen who told me that he worked at a place that made many zoomorphs, and he confirmed some of the odder details. But his term of service apparently ended when someone tossed him in jail and brainwashed him, which implies he doesn’t remember much.”

“Brainwashed him?” Keisha said.

“Correct, that is what I said,” he said coolly. “Our Trio here, they have a history they don’t remember clearly. They have nightmares similar to Seung’s.”

Seung stared up at the ceiling. At the cracks. Things that leaked. Like his brain, really.

“Bad dreams,” Keisha said. She looked at Seung, and then around the clinic. Not a great place to try to sleep. Besides, pain like that was enough to give anybody bad dreams. Keisha was starting to not believe it when he said it. It’s not just this place, she told him without a word spoken, just glaring into his skull. But we’ll talk about it later.

“You’re telling us a lot about their problems,” Keisha said slowly.

“They offered to help. You might have some of the other puzzle pieces.” Dr. Alexander shrugged. “It is up to all of you to put them together.”

Seung was still staring at the ceiling. At the water stains above him.

“You got a helluva bedside manner, Doctor,” Keisha said.

“So I’ve been told. So that’s what I’ve got for you so far. I should know more in a few days.” The doctor pushed himself away from the counter, started washing his hands again, even though he didn’t touch any of them.

“Wait, wait–” Keisha said, frowning. “You said no other nagas unpinned. That mean there’s other nagas somewhere?”

“See, I knew you’d want the facts. Are you guessing there’s money involved?”

“Brainwashing,” Keisha repeated grimly, folding her arms again. “Stinks of money.”

He nodded. “I’ve told you about the military lab that is working with the horse farm lab. They tell me our two nagas were made in a secret military project, no records, nothing to see. Our two are genuine Black Ops Nagas. The military lab supervisor told me they hope these two were the only ones ever made.” He gave a grim little smile. “Not the end of it, of course. Some black market operation stole scraps, and they cloned things. They grew out a watered-down version. Cloud nagas have light skin and hair and sometimes light eyes. The makers used a ceramic as the pins in their backs instead of the metallo-ceramic the original lab used on Seung and Dance. It’s much better.Tthe ceramic substance isn’t able to start migrating the way it did on these two. The cloud nagas stay stuck in purely human form, they just have this potential tissue buried in them. They only grow out if the pin is broken out of them like Seung’s, or if somebody does surgery to take their pins out. Now, who might try unpinning them, and when, that’s something the military have been watching for.”

Keisha grunted. “Do those white nagas get sick from back pain like Seung?”

“I don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if they did have pain. I’ll see if I can find out about that.”

“How would a chunk of metal pressing on a nerve keep your fangs and your tailbone from growing out?” Keisha objected.

“The lab is working on the metal from Seung’s back, so they can find out if someone manufactured it with a substance to inhibit growth or neural transmission. They want to know if it matches the pins from autopsies on cloud nagas.”

“So they tried unpinning white ones?”

“Yes, killed them on the table. They claimed all three were sick anyway with immune system disorders that developed as they aged. We know some of them have died of simple old age.”

“How old?”

“Apparently in their eighties or nineties or something, with records like old photographs to match.”

“That makes no sense. Dance and Seung aren’t even thirty–”

“We don’t know that.”

Keisha’s back was very straight, standing between Seung and the doctor, as if she would guard him from the unkind truth.

The doctor stared back at her. “It’s impossible to guess the age for these two. The scientists from the first lab were able to prevent tissue rejection, they inserted the metal to stop the tail growing out until later, they somehow connected the power plant to those scales, and then there is that parasail structure–” Dr. Alexander faded off for a moment then snapped back to reality. “The military lab technicians don’t know how any of it was done, or much about who did it. When I ask for lab work, they jump to it. I ask for records, I get it back overnight. Our scientists don’t even know how the bugs are being made. They’re watching how they grow the bugs in tanks right now, they know what goes into those tanks and what comes out, and they still can’t figure it out. This is a different window into maybe how that gets done. We’re trying to find our way around somebody else’s work, and frankly, it’s horrible because these so-called researchers clearly didn’t study or anticipate the consequences.”

Seung took in a deep breath, and Keisha put out her bandaged hand and rested it flat on his chest. “Easy,” she said, looking at him, and he got the breath in, and another, and he nodded. “Good,” she said, and brushed his face with that mittened hand. She looked at the doctor. “Okay. Go on.”

Doctor Alexander jabbed a pointing finger toward the window. “Our technicians have no idea how they did it, or how long ago they did it. Emma and Drin say they believe Dance and Seung were decommissioned like weapons, boxed and thrown into frozen storage for years, nobody knows how long. That’s when Dance got those freezer-burn scars on his face. Seung too, perhaps. Dance remembers the freezebox looked just like the bug-boxes do. Emma remembers seeing Dance frozen in the box.”

Seung dragged in a breath deep enough to make his back hurt but it didn’t help.

The doctor pointed a finger at the fridge sitting next to the sink. “We don’t know how they did the freezing, or the unfreezing either. Someone took all the nagas out again, unfroze them, somehow got them back up on their feet, and sent them on their merry way with what appear to be false memories. What they know often doesn’t match up on dates or styles or records or anything. There’s always a blank spot, too. Hey, just a traffic accident, nothing special, minor little head trauma caused that hiccup in their memory, happens all the time. Until you start digging it all up, the way Emma does.”

Seung couldn’t get enough air. He felt himself thrashing a little, trying to sit up, and Keisha rested that hand on his chest again. “Doctor Alexander, you want to raise up the end of the gurney for him, get him more comfortable?”

“Sure,” the doctor said, and started working the old-fashioned crank.

Seung heard himself panting.

Keisha looked at him, her hand moving up and down when his chest sucked in air. “We can stop, talk about it later,” she said in that tone that meant, it’d be better if we keep him talking now.

“Not bug,” Seung said, looking up at her.

“Oh no, you’re no bug. I know that. My man, you’re a lot tougher and more dangerous than those damn bugs, and you gonna get even more tough,” Keisha told him, with those fierce dark eyes on him.

Doctor Alexander stood up, looked at him. “Okay?”

“Outlive the bastards,” Seung said, angry suddenly.

Keisha put up her hand, and with one bruised fingertip she traced the high curve of Seung’s near cheekbone. Then she touched the far one. “You did.”

Seung sighed noisily. “Okay. I’m okay. Go on.” He glared. “Tell more.”

Keisha nodded, and turned her gaze back to Doctor Alexander. “Okay. What else can you tell me about these cloud guys?”

“Emma says that during the time Dance and Seung were frozen, that’s when the second labs cloned the scraps and grew out those cloud nagas. She calls them black market labs, so does Drin. They say the procedures must have been organized illegal activity.”

Keisha stared at him. “Why? Why do it?”

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?”

Keisha grunted. “Money again. But who’s the market for it?”

“Bother you,” Peach said, looking up at Keisha.

“Yeah, mama, you’re right,” Keisha said, and stroked Peach’s hand.

Seung stared at the ceiling. Then he rubbed at his eyes, leaned his face into Peach’s shoulder, and felt himself falling toward a pit of sleep.

“Seung,” Keisha snapped, and he blinked at her.

“Boss lady,” Seung said.

“You got questions on any of this shit?”

“Later,” he said.

“Seung, you’re mine,” Keisha told him, leaning in close, glaring into his eyes. Then she gripped his ear, hard, and jerked him alert enough to listen again. “Don’t you be running off or anything. I don’t care what’s growing in you or what’s hanging off your ass, you’re my business. Mine. We’re gonna take good care of you. You got that?”

His eyes drifted shut, and he smiled. “Yeah, boss lady.” And sleep fell on him, hard.

The Emperor’s Thumb

It was fucking noisy the next day. Keisha stared at the window. She’d never been a morning person. She was more the midnight party sort of gal. But it was dawn. Somebody showed up at dawn with a weedtrimmer and a mower and waded into the junk growing around the head of the dock next door to the clinic. Then there was a chainsaw. Then more guys in trucks, with ladders. Then they were doing something on the strip of land next to the clinic, guys tromping back and forth along the dock, whacking down loose boards and replacing others and swearing like dockhands and whistling, happy as some kinda silly Disney dwarves banging away.

Then, for hours, there was the racket of an old diesel chugging away, towing in a heavy load on the river. Tugboat, nudging in a houseboat in a manner leisurely even for them. Then it racketed away, and returned again with a second one, which got moored on the other side of the same dock. Hours passed as it maneuvered. The guys, meantime, were swarming over the first houseboat. A couple of plumbers hauled in their bags, and then boxes of flooring got carried in. Coupla women in both those groups, looked like wives.

They stopped frequently for breaks by coming over to the clinic, wiping off sweat and cracking jokes with Doctor Alexander and drinking up all the pop and bottled water in the fridge. They took the liberty of popping in and saying hi, grinning at Peach and shaking Keisha’s hand and saying nice things to Seung about his younger brother Dance. Seung didn’t try to argue. He just looked tired. When she asked if he wanted Dance to come by and translate for him, he shook his head.

It was the big older guy, Drin, who restocked the drinks. He came in with a couple more guys carrying about ten cases of new bottles. They stacked what they had in the fridge, and stashed the rest in the bottom cabinets nearby, while Drin flopped down in a clinic chair as if he had been visiting there for years. Asked the cute volunteer lady out there in the next room what they needed for next week, writing down notes like he owned the damn place. Hell, maybe he did. He was the one who bought all the stuff going into those houseboats next door. He was not hurting for investment money or places to park it, that was plain enough.

But he’d done time soldiering in some nasty places, judging by the way he kept his wallet, how he kept his hands free and how he didn’t wear any watch or rings. It was obvious in how he moved, how his eyes constantly checked things out. He was always watching the windows and doors and who had their hands in their pockets. He had eyes like a mercenary. Or some weird kind of cop, come to think. Dance’s husband being some kind of undercover spook, now that’d be a laugh. Military, at least.

It suddenly made some kind of sense that his partner Emma was not just that nice chatty librarian lady with lovely blue eyes. More like gun bluing, in Keisha’s opinion. A very pretty finish on a thick chunk of steel. How many people were ice-cold enough to measure their lover while he’s turning into an alien and screaming in horrible pain? Measuring him and writing notes. Doctor Alexander seemed to be grateful for it. He was a scientist, too, he didn’t see it as a sign of serious mental malfunction.

What was wrong with these people? Keisha asked herself grimly.

Drin seemed like the most human, but she was beginning to wonder. The eyes didn’t fit with the easy way he talked to everybody. But it did fit with the way all that expert authority was laid down so lightly that most people didn’t feel the effects on them at all. They just swerved off into new directions like it was their idea all along to go out and fetch back more cases of drinks, instead of annoying the pretty black lady receptionist with the feathers on her arms.

When Drin looked off into the room she was in, dimmed down so Seung could sleep, his gaze was cool and thoughtful and remote. The warmth, the affection, the jokes, all set aside. The guy underneath was not sentimental. He decided what needed doing, and he got it done. His own partners took up whatever human being was left in there. The remaining parts whirred around in calculations, and they were full of extra bits most people didn’t have. Scary bits, some of them.

The little timing wheel that considered whether some of his tasks required him to take Seung over permanently instead of borrowing sometimes, for instance.

No,
the decision came down, from that look.

Power requirements? Stature in the community? Conflicts with a different naga handler besides himself?

No.

He was just not interested in the flashy kind of power that mastering two nagas would give somebody in this community, or any other. Not his thing. Can’t be bothered. Too showy.

Oh, he could grab onto Seung, just take him over, fuck him through the mattress and make him like it, just like Dance. She’s seen the little flicker of interest, the stir, of course Drin likes looking at Seung. All those boxing muscles? That strange quick mind? Hell yeah, he likes all that. Seung would have very little to say about it. This guy had so much grip he could warp Seung into anything he wanted, and Seung would still end up better off, more comfortable. Oh yeah, Drin could find ways to accommodate the little things, like sex. They’d figure it out. Make Seung really happy.

But he was not going to do it.

Maybe Keisha should give up Seung for his own good. Just hand him over to Drin, tell him who his new master was, and take off. Responsibility over. It was not like Seung could follow her. Well, not right away. Seung would be so much better off with them than with her, and they all knew it.

Keisha ought to open her coward mouth and beg him to take on Seung, give him over to the guy, and please take Peach too, while he was at it.

But she didn’t move, and neither did he.

It made her suddenly furious.

Seung deserved better than she could offer him. So did Peach, dammit.

But no, Drin wouldn’t take him. Wouldn’t take Peach from her, either. Oh, he was probably sure that it’d be safer for everybody all round if he did command both of these Black Ops Nagas. It’d be a public service. Maybe he should, too. God knew the military would think so. But he was not going to do it.

Drin was not going to make Seung change his mind.

Cats choose their masters.

Seung chose her. It was called free will. Her naga, nobody else’s. That was it. Game over.

He could.

But he won’t.

The Emperor’s thumb goes downward.

Keisha looked at the guy with the tiger-yellow eyes, and she decided that she was taking her own crew somewhere else as soon as she could. But she was going to learn as much as she could before she left. She might need it.