Old Friends

There’s a hole in one of the window boards. Wow, the wind must have sucked out that knot in the wood, the one that looked kinda like a bearded guy’s face. The stairwell is so dark, the hole stabs him like a spike of light, and it makes a howling squeal like the world’s biggest vacuum cleaner, pulling air from the house. He sticks his hand near the hole, feeling how it tries to grab his skin, suck his hand out the window. Could it do that? That’d be gross. He wants to see out, but he doesn’t dare get too close to that. Man, it might pull out his eyeballs, then what would he do? Maybe if it was only one he could get a fake eye and have Mister Two Horses teach him how to pull it out of girls’ ears, like Mister Two Horses pulled the marble out of his ear, just to see if they’d puke. It’s funny to make girls puke.

He wants to keep both of his eyeballs, prob’ly, so he just shifts around looking out the hole from a little farther away. It’s harder, but he can still do it. He can look out, see how different the yard looks. Man, junk everywhere. The wind tumbles around great big stuff. He sees ginormous trash cans caught for a moment in the trees, some of them crushed flat, and then they’re bouncing away like they don’t weigh nothing.

And the sky! It’s black, but not solid, it’s got so much going on at once he can’t figure it all out. Lucas squints up at the black patterns in the sky. Huge curls and eddies dance around up there, like the water in a stream, but he can’t see what’s making them splash and twist like that. Each other, maybe. Or maybe a giant’s hand is in the clouds, stirring them up. And they’re carrying things around, those big scary clouds.

That’s when he sees something up high, just above him, flying out from somewhere on the roof, tumbling and sparkling and thrashing around. A really big screaming gust makes the knothole shrill enough to hurt his ears, on a combination of notes he’s never heard before, and he’s still too close to it, feeling it pull at his whole face, when he sees the glittering confusion sprawl out on the wind. Coolio! He’s never even seen a movie this awesome, even if it is scary.

There’s a long tail curling across the sky in a flash of green and blue glitter, and legs in black pants, and a white shirt, clear as anything, and somebody’s face, too fast to see anything but the brown color of it, and then a long thin arm reaches out and grabs the ragged bundle of blue next to it, and there’s a flare of red somewhere, and a sail of white glitter flares around them like a sail unfurling–and then it’s gone.

The wind has taken it all away.

Except the memory of that blue, the same blue as the feather he brought to Mom in the kitchen. Estelle’s blue feathers. Was Estelle out there in the storm? Why? Did she come from upstairs? What was going on?

When he runs up the stairs, he finds the room full of confusion, the viola bow just laying on the floor. People are screaming even louder than the wind howling in one big shriek from the open window, louder than Godzilla roaring. It’s so scary that he wants Mom. It’d almost be better to be outside! He feels that wind flapping his pants from the doorway! Mister Drin and Miss Emma are braced there like they’re in a tunnel, they must be very strong, and everybody is holding onto them. The whole knot of people at the window might fall out the window too, or get sucked out, it’s that bad. They need a really big sheet of plywood, and Aunt Penelope to tie it down safe. Who knows where they have another piece of wood that big? Aunt Penelope will know!

He runs downstairs. “Mom!” But she’s already down the cellar steps, helping Aunt Penelope hand up her bucket of nails and hammer, and then some of the men charge down there to wrestle up a whole big sheet of plywood. The men haul that up the steps. Then Mister Two Horses is there too, telling Lucas to help his mom while he helps the other men run the wood up the stairs into the room that is still screaming in the wind.

Dark Stairs by Stefan Hellkvist
dark stairs, photo by Stefan Hellkvist

Mister Drin brings down Miss Emma, who can’t hear anything. Mom hugs her, and then she and Mom and Miss Penelope stand hugging each other, and Lucas, all staying at the bottom of the stairs, safe, until the stronger grownups up there have got the plywood on the window, and the horrible sucking noise is muffled, and Lucas’s ears make a funny popping sound, and he can hear better. Then Miss Penelope nods once, squares her shoulders, and goes up the stairs to finish tying it safely down.

Mister Two Horses comes back down with Miss Penelope when they’re done, too, and Mom hugs them both. Nobody really answers Lucas’s questions because they’re too upset, talking over his head. He doesn’t like that when grown-ups do that, but they look scared, so he’s kinda glad, too. He goes up and looks at the room, at the mess in there, then he knows he was right about what he saw. Miss Estelle and Mister Dance fell out that upstairs window. Oh, no!

Mister Barret tells him that while he’s walking Lucas away down the stairs again, talking loud over the scream of the wind. Lucas shows him the knothole by the stairway, tells him what he saw, and Mister Barret gets very tense. He nods, and he takes Lucas back to the kitchen to help Mom and Aunt Frog get people fed. That’s okay, even though he’s not hungry anymore. He likes Aunt Frog, she’s fun to hug.

It’s only a few minutes later, when he’s about to pick up a stack of dishes, that he remembers that he touched Mister Dance’s tail.

Once things are quiet again, if he doesn’t wash it off accidentally, the bees could smell this on his hands, and maybe the bees could find Miss Estelle and Mister Dance, wherever they’ve been flung by the wind. He just has to figure out a way to ask the bees.

Maybe it’s magic, or maybe just luck, that he sees Miss Emma come into the kitchen with the medical box. There isn’t much left in it, after doctoring everybody else who’s come to the house. But that’s why he thinks first of telling the two people who have the most reason to be upset, the ones who most want to find Mister Dance, and who could still do something about it. They aren’t listening to anybody very well, grimly rushing around trying to put together medical supplies to go out there and find them and help, if they’re still alive. He manages to get her attention first, like she’s used to hearing little kids tell her weird things, and then she gets her partner. Miss Emma says, “Come listen to this, Drin.”

The tall man kneels down, looking at Lucas, and his eyes are all red.

Hurrying, Lucas says, to Mister Drin, “Don’t cry. I bet that we can find Mister Dance and Miss Estelle. Do you know how to ask bees to do things?”

“Yes,” the big man says. “I do.”

Lucas holds up his hands. “The bees here know me. The bees can smell where I touched Mister Dance’s tail, right?”

“Right.”

“And Mom has a feather from Estelle, we could take that to them, right? Do you think we could ask the bees to find them?”

watercolor of 2 feathers
Dropped Feathers

Drin looks at him. “You are brilliant. We will try that. Lucas, don’t touch things, and don’t wash your hands until we’re done, all right?”

“Yes sir!” Lucas says. Wow, an excuse not to wash his hands! Awesomeness!

The bees, it turns out, are safe in the barn. Aunt Penelope tied their hive up into the rafters, to make sure their little straw cone-house didn’t go tumbling and skipping out somewhere into the swamp. It was like a bee hammock. Kinda. “How did you know the barn wouldn’t go flying?” he asks her, while she’s drinking coffee in the kitchen.

“Well, my little youngling, I did not know. But I figured if the barn blew away, the house would want to blow away too, and we would all be much too busy to worry about barnses or beeses!” and she laughs. “See, that is what happens on an adventure, you forget to worry about bitty thingses!”

Mom stares at Mister Drin really, really hard when he asks if Lucas can go out to the barn with him. But she says, “Okay, if you’re careful. If you’re both very careful.” Lucas sees Mom look at Miss Emma, and Lucas knows that Miss Emma is worried about what would happen if Mister Drin didn’t come back with Mister Dance and she was all alone. That would be sad.

“We will be,” Mister Drin says, closing the lid of the honey jar. He’s poured a lot of the honey out into a bowl. He looks down at Lucas. “Lucas? You should tell your mom too.”

“I’ll be careful Mom!” Lucas says, bouncing on his toes.

“Promise?”

“I promise!”

“Good.” She looks at Mister Drin.

“I promise too,” he says.

“All right then. Good luck.” And she kisses both of them on their foreheads. Mister Drin has to bend waaaay down to let her do it. Then he hugs Miss Emma, hard, and his mom gives Lucas a fierce look, and hugs him way too hard too.

Outside, Lucas says, “Sheesh, it’s only a bunch of bees!” Mom could be so dramatic.

Mister Drin looks at him. “You promised, right?”

“Yes sir,” Lucas mumbles.

“A small hive of bees can kill a man of my size in about two minutes,” Mister Drin says.

Lucas stares up at him, mouth open in surprise. Mister Drin is about the tallest guy he’s ever seen, even taller than Mister Mike, the basketball coach at his school.

“And I am shamed to say that I have been in places where this happened, and it saved my life, because those men were trying to kill me. Don’t ever speak disrespectfully about bees or wasps or any of the armed insects, Lucas, please. They deserve your respect and your full attention. Your mom is trusting you and me to have very good sense, because they are dangerous.” Funny, they never made Lucas feel scared. But if they could kill a guy in two minutes, it probably wouldn’t take them much longer to kill something big like an allosaurus. Wow.

Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis, art by Peter Schouten
Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis, art by Peter Schouten

Talking to bees seems to involve a lot of standing very quietly, letting the bees zoom around you and figure out you don’t mean any harm, for a long time. Oh, and watching them. Mister Drin tells him there’s all kinds of different ones in different places, and how weird some of them are. He says some of them got combined by people, and sometimes you can’t tell just by looking which ones are really dangerous. The African ones, he calls those. They stand for quite awhile, watching the bees move around, watching what they’re doing. He knows these guys — aaaah, sorry, bees, these girls, already. He knows to stand still while they taste him and tickle him with their feet and fly around in circles making him dizzy. This was kinda like being out in their meadow, but smaller and darker. And louder!

At last Mister Drin grunts. “Interesting. I think we have some very globe-traveling bees here. And they’re not likely to attack us the way some of the local Africanized ones might. Never mind, Lucas, I think we just got very lucky again.”

“We did?”

“Yes, we did, with you and your lucky bees.”

“What do we do now?”

“We get your hands and that feather up where they can smell it, and we give them that honey we brought, and that will tell them to go looking.”

“Wow, how do I get up there?”

There’s no ladder. It must have blown away. Somebody will find a ladder, maybe many years from now, in a silly place, Mister Drin tells him. Where? In the refrigerator? On top of somebody’s roof? Timbuktu? Then Mister Drin says, “I can lift you up on my shoulders to stick the feather in the straw, by their door. Okay? They’ll smell your hands when you do that.”

“They won’t be afraid of me?” Lucas asks.

“Were they afraid of you before?” Mister Drin asks.

“No. I mean, they’re careful, but they weren’t worried about me.”

“They’re probably pretty busy rebuilding things inside there right now, so I think we’re okay. Before I pick you up, I’ll put my hand up there first. If I yell, you run in the house, really fast, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Ready?”

“Yup.”

When Mister Drin’s hand is right by the little hole in the hive, the bees all start coming out. They’re walking all over his hand, it looks like he’s wearing a thick glove. “Ahh, I can bring bees to you, much safer. Hello, ladies, we are very glad to see you doing so well.”

“Is that how they say hello?” Jeez, Mister Drin knows a lot about bees. Wonder how, ’cause it doesn’t seem like he even knows about Malachi the Magic Bumblebee. Why hadn’t his mom read that book to him when he was little? Maybe Mister Drin didn’t have a mom, like Lucas didn’t have a dad.

“Some bees say hello like this.” Mister Drin’s voice sounds different again. He sounds choked like he’s going to cry, but then he says, “They know me too. From somewhere else, a long way away. These are strong fliers, Lucas, they’ll be able to find Dance and Estelle if anybody can. You want to take that lid off the plate of honey now? Just dip just the back of your hands in it, so it doesn’t mess with the smell on your fingers.”

“It’s important?” Lucas says.

“Very,” Mister Drin says.

“Okay.” He’s careful. The honey is messy.

“Now pick up the feather, if you can?”

“I’ve got it!”

Mister Drin turns, bends, holds out his two hands low and very still, right where Lucas can see the bees. Some of the bees fall off his hands, and they just drop into flight as they’re falling. Some of them flop down on the barn floor as if they’re tired. “Step careful, there, Mister Lucas, don’t hurt them if you can help it. Do you want to let them smell you now?”

He nods, holding out his hands, and Mister Drin touches his outstretched fingers. Bees crawl onto the back of Lucas’s hands, moving around eagerly. They have tiny little prickling feet, like a horsefly, but they’re not biting or stinging. Mister Drin had warned him he must not jump around and yell if he’s stung, which he said will be very hard. He says he already knows Lucas is brave, but being able to stop yourself from yelling and swatting, that’s tough. He said one or two may sting anyway, if he’s quiet, but they don’t want to sting if they can avoid it. He said if you go swatting at them, then they’ll all start stinging you. He said he would never ask Lucas to do something like this, except the bees knew him and he was calm around the bees already.

“Hey, they got scared, just like we did, weren’t they?”

“They’re still frightened. They’re so scared, they want to fix up their hive right away, that’s all they want to do, and we’ll need to feed them to help out,” Mister Drin says. He gently pours bees all into one hand, and then puts that hand up by the hive, and dumps them out onto the rafter next to their hive. He makes a face.

“Did it sting you?” Lucas asks.

Mister Drin nods. “Have they stung you?”

Lucas says, “No,” and he’s not shaking his head, because there’s bees crawling around on his shoulders and neck and he doesn’t want to surprise them.

“Well, I guess I wasn’t thinking clearly about this, talking about ladders and silly things, there you’ve got bees licking you all over, I wouldn’t dare pick you up, might hurt some of them, or you. You see, that’s a lesson too, Lucas. Great big grownups like me aren’t always right about things either. Right? Okay. Well, we know they’ve got the scent on your hands–they’ll follow you around, thinking you’re going to give them food now–and there were some of them on that feather of Estelle’s, so maybe we got the job done well enough anyway.”

“Are you sure it’s going to work?”

“No, I’m not sure at all,” Mister Drin says. “But sometimes you just have to try things, when you don’t know if they’re going to work.”

“Oh.”

“How do you feel about singing to the bees?” Drin says then.

sketch of bumblebee on flower, artist unknown
bumblebee

“Oh I know what to sing for bees!” Lucas exclaims, and waves his hand a little, forgetting himself, and then he freezes, and whimpers, “Oh ow. Ow ow ow. Sorry, bees, I forgot!”

“We’ll put something on it to keep the swelling from hurting,” Drin says, watching him, real sharp.

“I’m okay,” Lucas says, making a face. “It’s like playing statues. Only you hurt a lot if you make a mistake!”

Mister Drin smiles. “So do you want to sing it by yourself, or do you want to teach me your bee song?”

“Oh, it’s easy! Here, I’ll sing it first, and then you start too!” and he does. Then he says, “See, it’s about a magic bumblebee who helps out two little girls when they banish Old Witch to the top of a glass mountain until she learns to be good. The two girls–that’s Amy and Clarissa–see, they’re friends with Malachi, who’s a magical bumblebee, and he ends up on the glass mountain with Old Witch–“*

Mister Drin smiles at him. “That’s a pretty good bee song. So does that call the bees to you?”

Lucas frowns a little. He feels like twirling around while he’s singing, but he knows he’s not supposed to move. Statues, right. The arm where the bee stung him is really starting to hurt. He says, “It’s a spell out of a witch’s book. It calls them to you or maybe it tells them to come listen, and then they’ll do what you ask. I mean, if you ask real nicely?”

“Ahhh,” I see,” Mister Drin says. “Okay, you teach it to me again, so I know how to do it right.”

“Oh, they heard us, now we just have to ask them what we want them to do, if they can do it!” Lucas looks up at Mister Drin’s face. He takes a deep breath, and he says in his biggest voice, “I know they can find Mister Dance and Miss Estelle! These bees are magic! I know they can! See, you have to say it, right?”

“I know they can,” Mister Drin says, in a really low rumbly voice, and it makes Lucas’s ears feel really funny. Mister Drin gets louder, little by little. “I know they can find Mister Dance and Miss Estelle. I know they can. I know these bees are magic.” And he looks down at Lucas, solemnly, very serious, and Lucas stares up at the tall man.

Without even thinking about it, Lucas holds up the feather, and takes a deep breath, and he loosens the Mighty Arm of the Kraken, and sends it shooting up there carrying the feather in its little tippy-toe end, and the Arm puts it up there for them, right in the hive door, among the bees, without hurting anything, while Mister Drin is getting louder, making sounds that rumble in the wood of the barn until Lucas’s ears feel tingly and pushy. He has to squinch his eyes shut, as if the hurricane is blowing at him again, even though there is no wind. The bees all stop moving and Lucas can feel the tiny wings fanning against his skin.

But then he realizes the job isn’t done. The bees might knock that feather down, by accident, and forget about it. He blinks, opens his eyes, feeling the Arm poised, waiting to make sure the bees keep the feather where it’s supposed to be, and not shove it out of the way.

Mister Drin is looking up at the rafters, and when the feather is safely up there, he stops making the noise, and he nods.

Lucas gives a big sigh, and the Arm of the Kraken twirls around, it’s so happy it got to do a big job, it’s making swirls in the air and tumbling around some of the flying bees, until Lucas frowns. No bothering the bees! The Kraken comes apart, scatters with a little pop! “Oops,” Lucas says. “Sorry!”

Mister Drin smiles. Then he says in a perfectly normal voice, “That’s really good, Lucas, thank you. That was the last thing we needed to do. Look!”

All of the bees are moving again, but differently– they are dancing! Lucas peers at some near him. There are some bees walking in circles and loops, and other bees are standing watching. He sees one of the watching bees begin the same dance, and it flies a little way to another spot and dances for other watching bees. More and more of the bees are doing this, making the same circles and loops each time, over and over. “Are you magic too?” Lucas whispers to them. He looks up at Mister Drin. “Are you?”

“Ahh, well, that would be telling, and nobody told me for sure, you see,” Mister Drin says, smiling a little. “Sometimes they don’t tell you. But I know you and your bees are magic. All right, let’s let the bees eat their honey, and let’s walk outside slowly, so they can decide to fly away off of us. We’ll let them start thinking about all this. It’s going to be awhile. I think we’ll want to bring them some more honey when it’s getting dark again. And we’ll get something to put on the swellings from the stings, so they don’t hurt so much. In the kitchen, I think. Does your mom have meat tenderizer?”

“I don’t know, but we can ask her, she’ll know! She knows where everything is!” He looks at Mister Drin, suddenly feeling very sad. “If Mister Dance doesn’t come back, who’s gonna give me my first viola lesson?”

“He’ll come back,” Mister Drin says. And then it seems like he just doesn’t want to talk anymore, so Lucas reaches up to hold Mister Drin’s hand while they walk back to the house. Halfway there the man starts humming some stuff from that ballet about the nutcracker, very softly, maybe he’s thinking about all the dancing bees. Lucas hums with him, swinging his other arm in time with it. This part with the sugarplums is his favorite.

===

Another one from googledocs…

Therapeutic Effects

Grace doesn’t know how long she’s slept or what time it is. She yawns, stretches cramped limbs. Her right leg gives a massive twang and begins to spasm, sending her sliding off Hal’s lap onto the floor. She catches herself on the arm of the chair, whonging her other knee. Definitely not a good sort of pain. The chair helps her lever herself upright until she’s standing on her rubbery legs. Tomorrow is not going to be a pain-free day.

Her fumbling makes Hal grunt and shift in the chair. So the man does sleep, after all. His face cracks nearly in half in an enormous yawn — the light is dim, but, God, are those his tonsils? The quiet is so pervasive that she wonders if she’s finally gone deaf from the racket caused by the hurricane. Then she begins to notice sounds — someone’s snore, the kettle whistling in the kitchen, two kids arguing over a pillow in querulous voices, another tremendous yawn from Hal. The wind that was shrieking all day has dwindled to a low howling that spatters rain against the siding. Well, the siding that was left, anyway.

She reaches down and nudges his shoulder. “Hal, wake up. I think the storm’s beginning to die down. Maybe it’s a good time for you to go out and see if you can reason with that bull. There’s probably still be a rope tied between the house and the barn to make it easier to get out there. It still seems pretty nasty out there.”

“Yup,” he grunts. “I’m going.” He yawns again and heaves out of the chair, then looks down and warms her with those eyes, brushes his lips against hers. “Be right back.”

“Be careful, ok? I’m going to check on the kids, then see what we’ve got to feed people with. I’m starving, and I bet I’m not the only one.”

The kids seem fine. Most of them are asleep, exhausted from excitement and stress and fear. Grace sees Lucas trot off toward the back bathroom. Dav sits with another boy, their heads together over what look like trading cards. Marcie is fast asleep in Drake Gerritson’s lap. The older man snores once, loud enough to wake himself up, jerks upright, then lays his head back down and goes back to sleep. He looks as worn out as the toddlers. But Ruby is still awake, her amber eyes shining eerily in the half light. Still watching. “Yeh, all the boys finally got that broken corner walled off to Penelope’s satisfaction–” Ruby grins, all white teeth in the dim light, “–and she tell Pen, hey, you go down cellar, get some rest. He folds like a pair of deuces. That man is not well.”

“We’ll find Estelle,” Grace says.

Ruby grunts. “Yeh, we do that soon as we can.”

In the kitchen Haroldine and Penelope and Steve sit at Pen’s kitchen table, hunched over a pot of some foul-smelling tea like the Wierd Sisters over their cauldron. They mutter amongst themselves as Grace starts to sort through the boxes and bags and coolers of food that people brought with them when they came. Twenty minutes and a completely-planned menu later, they’re still at it, debating softly and cutting quick little glances over at her. Grace really wishes that she could hear what they were saying, even though it’s none of her business.

No matter. She pulls a big pot out of the cupboard, fires up the second propane camp stove, and starts browning ground beef and venison for a huge pot of chili. They’re drowning in canned beans, might as well use them. Her throat clicks when she swallows. Ironic, to be so thirsty, cooped up in this sweltering, humid, rain-drenched house. Lucky her, to get the very last glass of kool-aid out of the pitcher. She leaves it on the counter, though, and starts chopping up the onions before they start to make her eyes water.

Haroldine stands up with a grunt and grabs the big battery bucket off the counter. She snags Grace’s freshly-poured glass, drinking half of the blue kool-aid in one big swallow. “That just hits the spot,” she says, “Be right back. Batteries need changin’ in all those lanterns.”

She swings back through the door as Grace is browning the onions. Aunt Frog has a bucket in one hand, a jug of something in the other. “Here y’are. Y’oughta be drinkin’ outta this one instead of that kool-aid anyways. Gonna need the therapeutic properties if Hal keeps pouring all that sugar on ya.” The older woman grins slyly as Grace puts down the spatula and opens the plastic jug. It’s cranberry juice.

Oh, man, did everyone in the house know that she and Hal had gotten nasty in the linen closet?

Then Hal bursts through the back door, shaking himself like a wet dog. Steve and Penelope shriek in protest and find somewhere else to be. He saunters up to her and proves that he’s been doing some eavesdropping of his own.

“If I were you, baby, I’d drink the whole jug of that stuff,” Hal chuckles. “You’re gonna need it.”

Into the Woods

“Hey, Kim,” says Roi.

“Ye-ees?” says Roi’s partner, turning his head slowly, muzzle of the gun turning with his eyes, and the barrel aims downward, but not by much. He’s watching the shadows among the trees as he turns. It’s why they’re still alive.

The guys freaking out in the morgue, back a couple of lifetimes ago? They had reason to freak. Marcel Roi and his partner have learned about a whole new world since that day.

Jay Kim has been using ammo at a nice pace, and unfortunately there’s no sign he will be able to get reloads, or to stop doing it. He got lucky. Kim started off with a punch technique, hammering the same spots on the bug abdomens until they fall apart, their peculiar hydraulics spent. Won’t work to be conventional, to sweep the machine pistol nicely like a broom. You can’t just do the job in one pass, as if you’re cutting down trees or chopping your way through apartment hollow-core doors. You can’t kill them as easily as if the bugs were still human. They’ve seen enough partially-human transitions to learn the stages.

“You watch, if you want me to look at what you got,” says Kim.

Roi sighs. The guy doesn’t just look like a tight-ass. He is. And shit, he’s never gonna let Roi forget his untrusting tightass itchy trigger finger has kept them upright. Never. Not in a million zillion effing years. “Right,” he says.

Roi doesn’t want to look at endless gloomy babyshit-colored ranks of looming, cracked, broken, nearly-impassible trees. There is no trail, not the way their directions gave it. The storm has rebuilt their roads for them, torn up the few power lines out here and strewn them around. It says something about local governing organizations that the damn lines are still live wires, ground faults leaking everywhere. He’s got lucky, only getting a coupla nasty jolts, running through puddles.

bees orientation flight
flight of bees for orientation, swarming

He wants to see what fuck that is, the cloud around this one particular storm-broken tree. “Watch the bees,” he says.

“The shiny bits, what the hell is that? Looks like crumpled mylar wrapping or something. And blue. Something like a large blue bird, might be dead,” says Kim.

“Keep looking.”

“Fuck, it’s breathing,” says Kim, with that weird twitch in his voice that means he’s brought the gun to bear, and away again. “Fuck. What the hell– ” and then he’s saying things in Korean or something that don’t sound very nice.

“I think,” says Roi, “it’s two somethings. And I think they’re both still breathing. Got no fucking clue what kind of fucking bug they are–”

Which is when the mylar sail-shape twitches, apparently stuck there, where it’s poked into hollows and draped across broken branches. Something moves, and there’s a face up there. A real, human face. The brown face in the middle of the huddled crumple of shiny blinks its eyes open–and neither of the two agents could ever have kept an eye on the woods, no way. Kim vents a blast of Korean. Roi’s name flies out along with some sounds he knows are profane.

Kim gets an answer: Amused, possibly profane, from the tone of it.

“Oh, hello, Roi,” says the face, grimacing.

It hasn’t, so far, been their experience that bugs talk. Mostly they do the Frankenstein-monster thing, come slashing at you like zombie lobsters on steroids. But you never know.

“Dance?” Roi says, and hears his voice crack on it, and then he’s charging across the muddy ground, Kim right at his shoulder, halting about twenty feet from the tree, looking a long way up. The grey bark of that tall trunk is shredded and fresh pink wood shows in deep cracks and standing splinters. Giant splinters. The tree is broken in half, and the man they know for crissakes, and his blue bird-thing, are in the wrong half. The broken bit that’s leaning badly. The bees swoop and dart and circle in a big, fat doughnut at Dance’s level, streaming away in a thin ribbon to the southeast and back again. “What’s with the bees?”

The eyes blink at him. “Okay, some road trips are harder than others. Ouch. I tried to cover Estelle when we hit things, but I do not know if I succeeded.”

“Estelle?”

“Bird-woman,” Dance says, resting his face on the huddle of blue feathers, and he sighs. “I think she is okay. But she was very frightened, and she can’t fly. I had to bite her to sedate her, or she’d have fallen from up here.”

“Bite her?” says Roi.

“Yes, I have different venom called up for things like that,” Dance says, “I’m so damn dizzy, we need to get down.”

“Venom,” says Roi. “He has venom. He bites people.”

“I got that,” says Kim. “Different kinds of venom, don’t forget.”

“Right,” says Roi.

“I do other things too. But not up in a tree. Damn it. Ouch. I am tangled like that bad kite.”

“What’s your status?” says Roi, out of some dim instinct.

“Tired,” Dance says then. “Very tired. But I am not broken, I don’t think. A lot bruised, some cuts.”

“And what the hell are you?” Kim says.

“We are what you call zoomorphs, I think. Animal-people, created by military labs to start with. Not bugs, I beg your pardon. Bugs will attack us and you. I can hear these bugs screaming on all their radio channels about larvae in boxes, drowning in flooded labs, total panic. Silly. They know swamps flood, but they built there anyway. We must go back to his house, the bugs will want it for the high ground. I have to–I have to get back. I must.”

“Bugs? How many bugs?”

“No idea. Ten channels that I can hear. High almost-radio frequencies, I think.”

“He hears radio frequencies,” Roi says. “With lots of bugs.”

“Yeah, I got that,” Kim says, and he’s back to swinging his hairy-eyeball stare across the damn broken trees around them.

The face blinks, squints at them. “Umm, could you take Estelle, if I let her down to you very carefully? I don’t know how badly she got hurt when we fell out the window, and I don’t dare move, we might slip here any time.”

“Window?” says Roi, riveted. He’s a sucker for a good story, always has been.

Kim grunts impatiently, and turns half his eyeball-stare onto watching their backs, trying to split an eye for what’s draped, like a very peculiar parachute, over the top of the tree. There are shiny streamers dangling among the branches, very gently changing colors. Sometimes they twitch, and move, without the help of the wind. The two– whatever they are– people are stuck in some kind of branchy, wild witch’s broom growth about halfway up, maybe thirty, forty, feet up.

“Yes, we fell out of the window at the house, right when the wind hit us. Dorothy, we aren’t in Kansas any more, yes?”

“Which house?” Roi says.

“We took shelter at what they called Pen’s house. High ground. I get no idea how far that is from here.”

“Not quite one klick to the local hill, we think,” Roi says slowly. “Maybe. There kind of isn’t much road left, you know how it is.”

Something rustles, and then a loop of something, too shaped, and too solidly muscled to be called a rope, lowers cautiously about ten feet, dangling above them. It glitters, in the watery light.

“All right, I can hang on up here, if I’m careful. The tree is breaking more. I think I can catch your jacket if you toss it up. We need to pad my grip on Estelle. I don’t want to hurt her more, and I don’t want to tie her onto a branch, she will panic if she’s bound when she wakes, and I don’t know when that will be. She is very birdlike, please remember. Eating fast, waking fast. What we really need is to put a hood over her head to calm her, when she wakes up again.”

Roi sacrifices a jacket. Kim might need his, to fight in. Roi balls his up, tosses it up, and the tail snags it lazily out of the air.

Dance grimaces. “All right, I wrap her, so, and I brace her back with a branch here, and I lower her as much as I can stretch–”

Of course looping the tail around the blue-feathered ruffles shortens its reach considerably. Kim comes over close, holsters the gun, makes a face, and stretches up as far as he can, along with Roi, to catch the weight falling ungainly into them from fifteen feet above their heads.

It’s better than nothing, by a little bit. They catch her in desperate reaching hands, and end up almost on their knees with the force of cushioning her weight. “Ten o’clock,” Kim says, and then he’s moving, hauling ass with the load they share.

There’s ominous noises coming out of the tree itself, too, groanings and sharp cracking noises. The bees suddenly stop making their torus, spreading out in an amorphous cloud. Roi sees a few of them close up for the first time. Normal, as far as he can tell, just regular honeybees.

Roi and Kim scramble away wildly from the tree to a clear spot, hauling along the poor blue-feathered creature like a sack of rags, trying to support her head, heedless of how her arms dangle. They get her laid out where Dance’s tree is unlikely to fall over onto her, and Roi gets a wild look at her vitals–hell, she’s alive, no major bleeding, no broken bones, although there’s some nasty cuts, and six odd punctures on her arms, and her heartrate is okay. Girl-shaped in all kinds of nice ways, breathing okay, with that odd sad neglected look of somebody who hasn’t been taking care of themselves or eating much for quite awhile before the storm. The look that gets “manic-depressive, will run away into traffic,” slapped on it by EMT and ER staff.

Thinking this is quite odd, because her eyebrows are rows of blue downy feathers, and her chest is covered in ranks of down. Yep, here’s a more birdlike sign of distress–some of the breast feathers have been plucked painfully away over time, leaving bald patches and some scarring. If the longer feathers on her forearms didn’t give away the lab-built hybrid nature of the poor thing, it’s betrayed by the fact she has perfectly ordinary mammalian breasts, with nipples, under the disordered ranks of feathers. Somebody’s fantasy babe, no doubt of it, and it’s just sad. This is exactly like handling somebody’s pathetic little sister after a car wreck, not sexy in the least.

wing of jay or macaw feathers
fanned out

Kim helps him turn her gently to look for injuries, and then roll her onto her side, and then he goes back to standing guard. Roi tucks Estelle’s clothes back around her as best he can. The clothes are not in good shape, but the girl with the gorgeous feathers for hair is okay for now. Then he gets the jacket up over her head, shading her eyes, but not wrapped tight.

“Moving,” Kim says, and Roi looks up.

Streamers are pulling upward slowly, and they can see one of Dance’s hands laboriously grabbing and hauling in lengths of what looks like various sizes of those ribbons. The muscular rope-like tail has pulled upward and is busily moving around, tugging on things. “Ow, ow.”

The tree makes more of those noises.

“Are you snagged?” Roi asks.

“Yes, but this will fix itself, soon– there’s grunts. “–without care for myself–” And then the tail is whipping about, pushing things away. There’s a loud cracking-wood sound, and a huge chunk of tree is slowly falling, and the confused mylar bundle is riding it down. “–Fuck.”

“Need help?” Two reasons Roi isn’t racing towards the landing site– one is the bizarre creature sprawled there, getting its legs under it– human legs, with bare feet, bloody scrapes visible under the tattered remnants of black pants, — and the other is those damn bees, which are reforming just above Dance’s head. “What the fuck is with the bees?”

“Walk slow and they’ll let you in.” Dance can’t get to his feet, that stuff is still partially under the fallen mass of leaves and limbs. “I need– help.”

Slow, fine, he can do that. Roi blinks rapidly as bees dart past his face, and then he’s standing inside the ring of bees looking out.

Kim has set himself up a little ways away, where he can survey almost every quadrant from one spot. Roi turns his attention to the guy who used to be Dance the musician. Up close, the streamers and skin stuff is thicker than mylar, and has veins running through it. A big wad of it looks like some sort of cape, attached to Dance’s shoulders and back. Somewhere under it, maybe at his neck, is where the streamers seem to be attached. One of those streamers moves all by itself– flipflops, where it’s pinned between two branches, and Roi quells his desire to jump away.

“Is it–” he gestures, inadequately.

“Yes! It is! Thank you!” oh yeah, that’s the cocky little violinist with the sardonic delivery.

The ribbon is alive. It’s warm, it has muscle inside that glimmery skin, it reacts to his handling as he pries apart a cracked branch and slides it out of the trap. Zzzzip, it retracts itself, all the way to Dance’s shoulder. Roi untangles another one, and the wide sheet— wings?– stirs. Dance, freed on one side now, can move himself to the other side and handle his own damn thingamajigs.

“What are you, a squid?” Roi blurts.

Dance stands up and lurches a little. The wing surface, like a cape, flares out suddenly. Not bird’s wings and not bats. No animal Roi has ever heard of has double-cell wings that can go from crumpled tissue paper to smooth, kite-like suspension like that. Little trickles of rain run down it here and there, spatters of blood, and there’s some tears in the outer fabric of the … sail-thing, showing pale something that can only be flesh.

Underneath, on the upper slope of his shoulders, like a pocket zipper where the cables come from, there’s a long straight cut from one side to the other, and a few downward tears running into that opening which are more ragged. For how deep the cuts look, there’s hardly any blood oozing out. There’s little glints of light coming from the edges of the cut, like fish scales. It’s scaled around that opening. So is the skin of the sail itself.

The supports that stiffen it seem to be some sort of pockets of fluid, but those pockets are also jointed somehow, and right at the bottom, a lot of it is crumpled along his neck and half-covering that bleeding mark across his shoulders, folded up like a bird’s wing. It can get taller than it is right now, and it’s already standing up over his head like– well, something like Count Dracula’s movie cape.

“Not– squid, no.”

“Looks more like a parasail,” says Kim.

Torrey Pines gliderport
Torrey Pines, gliderport atop sea cliff

“It helped, gliding,” says Dance. “I spilled too much wind, or not enough. It just… popped out of my back just when we fell. I was… very… surprised.”

Kim squints up at the tree. “Yeah. Lucky that tree didn’t gut you like a catfish. Any landing’s good in a wind like that. Probably clocked at a hundred, hundred twenty em pee aitch.”

“Where were you?” Dance asks, puzzled. He and the end of the muscular ropy-thing both tug at a branch. “Ouch!” Another streamer retracts up toward his neck, like some sea creature shy of being touched, zzzzip.

“Oh, we got into a nice big square concrete pipe left on a hill, some old construction site. Just before a gust rolled the car. Got your feet under you?” Roi asks, watching him.

“Must get back to the house,” Dance says, like it’s some mantra that’s going to work. A gust of wind comes up, and he staggers under the force of it on the standing wing flared up and over his head. Then the sky starts pelting them with lukewarm rain. Dance skids a little in the mud, grabs a branch, and closes his eyes, breathing hard.

Roi remembers that this thing is a person, and although it’s hard to believe, Dance is probably hurting. Roi gets an arm under the stuff that Dance says isn’t squid, and around the guy’s chest. Everything wilts, and Roi’s shoulder is blanketed with something that is warm, and pulsing, and utterly alien.

“Thanks, man,” says Dance’s perfectly human voice, “We have to go to Pen’s house. Go now.”

Something touches Roi’s shin, and he looks down.

“And that’s not your pet python, right?” His breath catches just this side of laughter.

“My tail. Meet my tail.” Dance sways. “Let’s go, we have no time–”

“Hold it right there!” Kim’s voice rings out sharply. “Identify yourself.”

Roi’s head swivels away from the hot, vaguely leathery stuff fallen over on his arm. He blinks. They do have company. Not-bug. It’s becoming automatic.

“The name’s Caleb. Don’t ask me to stop man, there’s some unfuckingbelievably horrible things back there.”

Only here in the swamp, after the last wacko five minutes, would this look so fucking surreal.

There’s a civilian hiking up what’s left of the road. Backpack, hiking boots, looks like an L.L. Bean-addicted tourist. In a fucking hurricane?

His posture is careful though, alert, and he’s holding both hands up in a placatory gesture.

===

from googledocs collaboration

Ribbon Of Gold

It’s amazing what you can find in an old barn if you take a few minutes to poke around. Hand scythes, bag balm, a handful of ancient eggshell-white electric fence insulators, a litter of kittens, a mysterious apparatus that looks like something from Dr. Frankenstein’s lab but is probably only parts from a milking machine, all sorts of stuff. Grace hefts the two wooden yokes over her shoulder and loops all the harness bits she’s found around her neck. No clue whatsoever if any of it will prove to be useful.

Trust Penelope to know these things. She exclaims over the tangled mess of leather and picks it apart in minutes flat. The bigger yoke fits over Jack the Bull’s neck like it was made for him, and the smaller fits Hal just fine. Penelope matches up long pieces of leather and buckles them together so quickly that it’s dizzying. Grace just tries to stay out of the way, murmuring comforting things to the two were zoomorphs who stand side-by-side.

The big bull with the curving horns and the red-brown pelt stands under the yoke like he was made to do it, swishing his tail lazily and dozing. But the deep bay stallion isn’t nearly as sanguine; he rolls his eyes at the boiling clouds that are just starting to shred apart. Horses just seem more skittish than cattle, so Grace stands at Hal’s shoulder, stroking his dark pelt and blowing softly into his nostrils. After a bit he slings his head over her shoulder and rubs his head on her shirt. She moves her hand to scratch behind his ears and at the notch of his throat, leaning into his neck as he whickers softly. She knows that there are some places that they can never reach on their own. Better to do that than look too long at the demoralized-looking trees around them, or the odd things smashed into the branches.

Ruby Gerritson is shifting a backpack full of first-aid supplies around on her back when Drin and Emma come out of Pen’s house.

“We’re coming as well,” the Aussie announces. “We packed ropes and water we got from some of the folks who drove in. Do you have lights and batteries?” It makes sense that they would come to try and find Dance. They must be frantic. But it only shows in the flat, clipped way that Emma talks.

Drin isn’t moving as if he’s hurrying, although he must want to. He walks up at a relaxed pace and presents his flat open palm to the bull, and then to the horse. Hal sniffs, snorts out air, shakes his head, and then bumps his nose at Drin, pushing. Drin gives a crooked smile. Apparently they both want to get moving!

The fresh air tastes so different from the fetid, fear-laced humidity inside the house that it almost makes Grace giddy. Penelope seems to think so too, because she picks up the reins she’s rigged and snaps them against the hindquarters of their team as if they were mere animals. They turn to look back at her with nearly identical incredulity, and Penelope starts to giggle. Grace catches Emma’s eye and both women smile — the creaky, hissing noises of Penelope’s laughter is oddly infectious.

They move off at a brisk pace. The two weres don’t seem to have any problem finding the choicest footing, and those on two feet are content to follow their example. Penelope is a surprise. She’s can’t be nearly as old as Grace thought she was, the way she’s steaming along. Ruby hangs back every now and again to raise her face to the wind and stare into the ravaged forest, then she lopes back up to the group, grim-faced.

“Problems?” Drin asks finally.

“Oui,” she replies, “ever’ once in a while, I get dis wave of bug stink. Dere’s more of dem out here den I’ve ever smelled in my life. I’m not happy, cher.”

“Can you estimate how many?” Drin shoots back. “Approximate position, or even direction?”

“Dey’s comin’ uphill, inland, I tink.” She shrugs. “De water washes everyting away, I can’t tell, really.” She snorts, clearing her nostrils like a big dog. “I’ll let you know if I smell anyting comin’ in close.”

Drin nods gravely, extends his hand to assist the small red-haired woman over a fallen tree. She grunts her thanks; the pack has unbalanced her quite a bit. They’re all feeling the extra weight. Everyone is carrying something — there are no provisions for attachments on the makeshift harness. Besides, Grace is a bit afraid that one or both of the weres might bolt if something lurches out of the forest. They’re men, not animals, but that prey animal flight instinct has to be buried pretty deep in these forms. Best not to take chances. Besides, they’re likely to be doing heavy pulling, if they find somebody who needs ambulance-type help. They’re incredibly lucky having Penelope along to lash branches together for something like a travois, too. Penelope could build something strong enough to carry Dance’s weight, or that of other large weres, if needs must.

Ruby’s head snaps up, and she stares into the sky with a puzzled look on her face. Hal snorts and tosses his head, and both he and the bull turn in the same direction. Grace can’t see a thing, but they obviously have.

A soft sound of amazement comes from Drin’s mouth, and Emma breathes a word. “Bees.”

There is a ribbon of buzzing gold in the air, leading off into the forest.

bee swarm, from website benefits of honey bees
bee swarm, from website, 'Benefits of honey bees'

“Effing bloody hell, there they are,” Emma whispers, and then she and Drin are hugging one another, and trying to walk forward very fast at the same time, and the packs they’re wearing make it awkward. They laugh a little as they collide, and then Emma reaches out to Grace and then she and Grace are hugging, and they’re all crying. Emma keeps saying, “Fucking hell,” over and over, but nobody reminds her she’s doing it.

Ruby just grins wide, all her teeth showing, and she pats the bull on the flank. “Oui, Jack, dere’s your five bucks flyin’ away! You still de skeptic, you?”

The bull just snorts and flaps his ears, like a rude comment.

“Jack Prewitt, you promised me, dis work, you gonna give your grandfader-in-law Marquis a whole CD full of diff’rent versions of dat waltz he likes, aintcha?” Ruby says, grinning again.

The bull gives a hollow moan, as if they’ve poked him in a soft place, and they all laugh.

“So what kind of present should we get Lucas, who helped us with his ssssweet honeybee idea?” says Penelope, pointing upward.

“Something he’s been wanting a long time,” Emma says firmly.

Grace says, “A viola, of course.” She grins slantwise at Emma and Drin. “He gets obsessive about his music things, you know. I need to harness that and put it to good use.”

Emma rolls her eyes. “Like we wouldn’t know one single thing about that damn OCD music thing.”

“Why do you think I mention it? I need someone to commiserate with.”

“You are lucky!” Penelope says to Emma. She grins at Grace. “You could be the mother of a drummer.” There’s a twinkle in her eyes.

“She’s right,” Drin says, making a face.

“Of course she is,” Emma says briskly. “She’s one of the Wyerd Sisters. Well, what are you looking at? That’s what everybody calls them.”

Hal gives that same hollow noise that Jack gave earlier, and that makes Penelope laugh even harder than the rest of them.

“It’s wonderful, really, having so much music in your life,” Grace says, very softly.

“Some of it the same thing, done over and over nineteen million times!” Emma says, and wipes her eyes fiercely.

“Wal, dat explain why Dance and Marquis will get along, no?” Ruby says, grinning, and she pats the bull.

The bull moans again.

Penelope pokes him with a sharp bony finger. “Quitsss your fussing, you! I like the Blue Danube.” She begins to hum it under her breath.

Grace swears she sees Hal smirk.

Abruptly, Ruby drops into a half-crouch. She makes two odd coughing barks, then snarls “Shit.”

“Down,” Drin says in a loud clear voice that instantly has all of them down as low as they can get.

Grace covers her ears, startled. She’s never heard a voice like that from anybody before. It does strange things to her brain, and even stranger things to her insides. Her brain didn’t even seem to get the command to drop, but here she was, face down in the mud. Straight from the ears to the muscles, it seems.

Even Hal and Jack, in their harness, against all beast instincts, are down on their bellies, heads flat on the ground. Hal’s nostrils are flared wide as scoops, sucking in air frantically for scent. He shifts, poking at Grace with his nose, and she crawls over closer to him, behind the shelter of a tree trunk. Hal lips at her hair, and she pats him. He has grass on his breath.

Silence, for a long three minutes. Grace can hear herself counting softly. Nothing moves except the wind.

And then it all happens so fast she can barely see what it is.

There’s gunfire, lots of it, and bone-colored sharp things like crabs leaping by, and giant pale stalky legs are scissoring the air past her head, and Ruby is firing what sounds like a revolver, and there is greenish gloop smoking on the tree bark near her staring eyes, and Hal grabs her shirt collar in his teeth and hauls her back. Her fingers curl into his long, coarse mane.

knife made of layered steel
layered steel knife, damascene-style

“You got them all, Cesar? Aaron?” Ruby says then.

“Yeah,” says a soft voice about ten feet away.

Grace twitches. She can’t see anything in the shredded mess of wilted foliage where the voice came from.

“Thanks,” Drin says.

“Any time,” says Aaron’s voice, from the other side.

“You knew they were guarding us?” Emma says then.

“Yeah,” says Drin, amused. “They need Penelope’s guidance through Pen’s security.”

There’s the noise of a very loud smack from his direction, a minor yelp, and Emma’s voice muttering something fiercely.

Hal pulls his lips back from his teeth as if he’s wincing in sympathy. The collar of Grace’s shirt is suddenly quite a bit looser.

“We got babes in the woods, hey, what can we do?” Aaron’s voice says then.

“All right, folks, stop where you are, wait,” Cesar says, and vanishes into the woods again.

“Damn, they’re good,” Emma says, adjusting her pack straps.

“Yeah,” Drin says, shifting his load around. “How are you folks here holding up?”

“We’re good,” Grace says. “Right?” And both Hal and Jack nod.

Aaron reappears. “Let’s go. Suggest you get moving before they start messin’ up Pen’s arrangements. Looks like some of his cute li’l tricks got pretty smooshed around in that li’l wind we had.”

“Oh yes,” Penelope says. “But it is ssstill pointing out at them, so all is ssstill well. It is just where we have to change directionses that I think we must be careful. That is where the wind would push things, aim it toward us on the trail we want, instead of outward.”

Hal grunts, flails a bit as he tries to rise. It’s easier for Grace, and she grasps his bridle by the improvised cheekpieces and helps haul him up. Then it’s Jack’s turn to sort out all four feet and scramble up. Penelope is instantly there, rearranging bits of leather and helping to straighten it out and get the two of them untangled.

Jack takes an uneven wincing step and looks down and scrubs his nose at his leg.

“Stop, let me look,” Grace says sternly. “Give me your foot — I mean your hoof. Now, please. Okay, you’ve got a splinter in the cleft, looks like a bit of bark. Shrapnel. Can you hold still and let me pull it out quick?”

Jack sighs, and lowers his head and gives a lowing noise that clearly means he isn’t happy, but please get on with it.

She tugs, and wishes she had a nice hoof pick. But most of it comes away. “Good, looks like you’ll be okay, we’ll just need to treat it when we get home. I think you’ve got a couple hours at least on it. All right?” She knows how fussy hoofed beasts are about their feet.

Jack tests it, steps out on it, lows again in firm statement they should get moving, and looks at Penelope. Grace scratches Jack at the base of his horns to let him know that she thinks he’s being brave. He groans a little, pushing into her hand, like that itchy spot has been bugging him even worse than a sore foot.

“Right dearsss, it is time for me to start fiddling here and there and you not breathing on me while I am remembering how, you hear me, boys?” Penelope says, walking toward a wall of green.

“Can we stay pretty close, to keep our range ahead of you?” Aaron says.

“Yes, dearsss, but no yellingses and tromplings.” The first thing she does, absurdly, is to go up to a big broken hollow trunk of a tree, reach down in it, and pull up a little silver ball on a cord. She waves it around as if she wants it to look at all of them, speaks to it. “Hello, Ananda, we are going out, can you hear me? The beeses are guiding us, it worked, tell Lucasss his beeses worked!”

There’s a clinking noise from somewhere ahead, as of some heavy metal object shifting.

“What was that?” says Emma.

“That,” says Penelope happily, “is the lock box with the keyses we need. Jusssst up here. Mind the lasers there, Cesar, do not go tripping into those.”

There are dull little tubes attached very low on the heaviest trees, pointed at criss-cross angles across a narrow little hollow of a trail. Jack has to turn his horns and squeeze up against Hal to pull through there, and Grace on one side and Penelope on the other are very careful to make sure their legs and harness do not bang into either the tubes or the trees they’re attached to.

“Now there is the box,” Penelope says. “Can you ssssniff, Ruby, boys, see if bugses have gotten to it first?”

There’s a big solid metal box beside the trail, half buried under broken foliage, about the size of a road storm culvert and just as heavy. A bolt has drawn back on some heavy spring, and the lid is open. The mud stains and algae stains on the outside only prove it was closed throughout the storm.

“On the lid top,” Ruby says. “Dey bugs couldn’t get it open, though.”

Hal grunts in agreement, a horsey huff of breath. Then he reaches his nose down into it, pulls back holding in his teeth a big metal ring full of dangling objects that don’t look at all like keys. He holds it out to Penelope. There is something magical about seeing something so big, so much a horse, doing such amazing unhorselike things.

Penelope just takes the keys from his mouth calmly. “Thank you, dear.”

Penelope takes the metal things off the king ring, leaving others attached, and begins sliding the chrome tubes together in order. They have dabs of color painted on them. When she’s done, she has three different tubes, each composed of parts assembled in the same color order. “Grace, my dear, could you get down there by the hinges? You want to blow each of these into that grill just inside the box. I know it’s awkward.”

Grace kneels down, finds the grill, a flat patch of perforated metal welded into the wall, about the size of her palm. “How long and how loud? Any order?”

“Sssspoken like a musician’s mother!” Penelope says, laughing. “Just a nice blow, about five secondses each, in any order.”

Grace nods, braces one hand, and leans in, and gets the tip of each tube close by the grill. They’re like penny whistles, or flutes; each sounds like a single tube of a panpipe.

Something up ahead makes that same clonking noise as this box did. Penelope turns to Jack, and nods, and the bull gets a horn under the lid, and flips it closed. They can all hear the hollow thunk as some lock latches automatically.

“Perfect! Grace, keep those, we will need them again,” Penelope exclaims, hurrying ahead.

Grace frowns. If they have another skirmish like the last one, she wants no chance of losing the little tubes when she’s falling in the dirt. But the pockets in her shorts are too shallow to trust. Emma smiles at her, and holds out a little silver carabiner clip she’s taken off her backpack.

Grace thanks her and loops the little ring-ends on the tubes onto the clip, which she threads onto the reasonably sturdy strap of her tank top.

It’s hard to keep the shakes at bay as she gazes around at the torn, bullet-chewed trees and the spatters of green ichor ahead of them. Then she feels a warm wet slobbering touch on the back of her neck, making her squirm. Hal licks her hair and her hand and down her arm. Little bits of grass tickle her skin. She looks at him, wiping away horse-slobbers of fondness, and sees him grinning at her, horse fashion. He is, she can tell. Then he puts his nose down into the small of her back, and pushes.

He practically shoves her along, marching her so fast–and dragging Jack in harness along with him–that neither of them have any chance to spook at the green-stained heaps of what used to be people, thrown down here and there, bug parts broken in jagged pale shards by the bullets. Some of them have been picked up and dragged off the trail and dumped again, clearing the way for the team, but they don’t see any of that cleanup job being done ahead of them by Cesar or Aaron as they hike around bends and twists in the trail. Penelope is ahead of them, talking now and then, singing something to herself and smacking her hands on the trees, hitting thick knots and dark scars and spots painted on the trunks as she walks.

Then they see her pale dandelion fluff of hair stop, and she’s standing staring up at a giant circle of torn roots taller than she is. “Well, how rude!” Penelope exclaims, “I liked that tree, you know! I hate losing old friendses.”

There’s a massive hole torn in the canopy overhead too, where the tree has gone down. It hasn’t disrupted the next large metal box installation nearby, though. Well, that’s a piece of undeserved luck.

Cesar and Aaron have disappeared. Ruby is standing at the back, gun out, gazing back the way they just came.

Penelope looks around overhead, squinting at the lines she tied up through the heavier, more solid trees. She appears to be checking how they held up through the storm, in spite of the tree going down. “Well, not ssso bad, not so bad as it could be,” she says. “But we have my old tree friend here blocking our path to the road. We are going to take a shortcut, dearieses, I told Cesar and Aaron what to do to go on ahead and check the trail. But we do need you to open the next box. Blow into this box the same way, my dear, any order.”

She’s just done that–and Penelope has retrieved another key ring that dangles odd metal objects–when they hear the sound of the guns again. Hal grunts, and they all hurry into the narrower trail behind Penelope.

“Not to worry,” Aaron says then, popping up in front of Penelope at a bend. “Just clearing away some more bugs. They seem to be wandering around lost, some of them blown half to bits. Not as many as that last group.”

steep view up mossy rocks into trees
Just Another Change of Elevation

Penelope holds up the ring she’s just retrieved. “You know how to use a laser key to signal a minefield? Any three, any order, but once you start, use the same ones in the same order. Look for the little mirrors. You should get a high-frequency whine if it’s working. Don’t go into the minefield until you hear that.”

“Got it,” Aaron says, and takes the ring.

“Christ,” says Cesar’s voice up ahead. “Where do civvies get this stuff? We didn’t have gear that good when we were–“ and their voices fade as they move further forward.

Hal shoves Grace in the middle of her back a little gentler than before, and it almost makes her hiccup in surprise. She’s shocked out of taking high, shallow, rapid breaths. Hal is reminding her to breathe more deeply.

She turns, ruffles his forelock, strokes his ears, and finds herself suffering a thrum of lust that is strong enough to blur her vision. She wants to lean up against a tree right then and have him plunging into her, just as he is. He whickers, snorfles her shirt, and pushes her again.

But everybody knows something is going on, because Jack the bull lifts his head, nostrils flared, and snorts down his nose with a staring gesture of surprise. Then he shakes his head and looks straight ahead, and pulls Hal along a little faster. Grace’s face goes flaming hot, until she sees a heaped body thrown down by the trail, mostly in pieces. Then she gulps, and hugs herself, and keeps walking faster, stepping over broken saplings.

She’s just helped Jack sort his feet through a tangle of four-inch broken branches when Hal gives a warning snort of air down her neck. She looks up.

Somebody up ahead is singing in a light, high tenor that carries beautifully through the trees.

===

from googledocs collaboration…

Fucking Gun Carriage

Grace starts to smile. Lucas plays that music on the chimes all the time.

Bach’s Air on a G String.

“Ohmigodchristit’s Dance–” Emma shouts, and that carries too.

Drin grabs her tight, holds her back. “Wait for Cesar and Aaron to check it out,” he tells her, and kisses her.

The voice shifts into a different piece of music. Tchaikovsky’s Dance Of The Swans, no less, and a third one — something familiar that she can’t quite name. Boccherini, maybe? All of them soar wonderfully among the trees.

“Oh Christ,” Emma says, and then she’s saying muffled things into Drin’s shirt, and Grace thinks it’s all rude or cursewords or both, promising what she’s going to do to Dance when she gets her hands on him, and Drin is just smiling, hugging her.

Ruby is grinning, showing all her teeth, even when she goes back to staring back the way they came, watchful.

It’s all the more shocking when the gunfire starts, somewhere up ahead.

Then there’s two people running through the tangles of brush toward them, heads low.

“Caleb?” Grace exclaims. “Oh God, Estelle! Estelle!”

“Oh my dear!” Penelope exclaims, hugging them together.

“Dance–” Estelle pants. “He saved me, he sailed on the wind like a kite, so beautiful– He’s coming–”

Caleb gasps, patting Penelope, patting everybody he can reach, and they’re all right there. “Holy shitballs, is that you, Hal? Can you carry Estelle? She’s got some goddamn nasty cuts on her feet. Kim and Roi told us to get moving, head back to the house, they’ll catch up, they’re faster–” Hal snorts and nods his shaggy head, and Penelope is between the two of them, unfastening the coupler between the two werebeasts.

Grace cups her hands around Estelle’s knee, boosts her up onto Hal’s back. Estelle hisses from the exertion, and Grace buries her fingers in the hurt woman’s leg feathers and smooths them gently. Instead of showing her how to grip the harness bits with her clawed feet, Grace bends Estelle’s knee further and urges her to shift up toward Hal’s withers to brace her knees against his collar. Estelle’s poor feet are pretty ripped up, and Grace can feel the heat and swelling just in running a hand down her feathered leg.

“If he has to gallop, you can wedge your hands under the collar, too, and hang on for dear life,” Grace says with a wan smile. God, it’s good to see Estelle in one piece!

Back at the bend of the trail where Caleb and Estelle came from, a dark figure is moving. Shifting forward, and pausing oddly. Brown loops and rolls of tail coil into a broad pile, pause, and hoist the human part of the body about ten feet up. Something broad and fan-like snaps up around the figure’s head, and twitches, focusing. Then there’s a thunderous crack, a distant boom, and a billow of smoke rolling up from the woods.

It’s far enough away that they can only see smoke billowing up in the patch of sky left open where the big tree went down. There’s another huge report, and then the figure slumps down into the heap of his tail. He lays there, with fast random glints of color glittering all over his tail and up his back, across the flap of loose skin fallen along his shoulders and over his head. The air shimmers above him.

The bees stream into a little confused blob in the air, well away from him, and then they pool in the air above Estelle, and then they pool around Drin’s head as well.

bees orientation flight
flight of bees for orientation, swarming

Drin looks up, smiling, as they land on his hair, crawl around briefly, and depart. In a few minutes, they’ve checked on him, and on Estelle, who sits quietly, biting her lip nervously. And then they’re gone, the trail of bees vanished as mysteriously as it began.

“They figured out we don’t have any food, and I’ll bet that Lucas has just put out a bowl of honey for them back at the house,” he says. He glances over at Grace. “He’ll be careful. That one sting is usually plenty to teach a guy about consequences.”

Grace is about to reply, when Ruby jerks her head around, and Hal and Jack both jerk their heads up high, ears twitching.

There’s more gunfire somewhere on the trail beyond the shimmering person slumped in the trail.

“Dance! Dance!” Emma yells, straining at Drin’s grip on her.

“He’s a fuckin’ gun carriage,” Caleb pants. “Some sort of energy weapon, some hotshit coherent light beam thing. The goddamn beam doesn’t even come into focus up close, can’t even see anything happening. That damn hood of his aims it out a good three, four hundred feet. Gotta be that far away, or he’d fry off his own sorry ass. Christ, whose idea was that, anyway?”

“Military design,” Emma snaps, grabbing Drin’s arms and tugging at him, straining.

“Well, there ya go,” Ruby says, nodding at Caleb.

“Emma, look at him, look at that heat shimmer,” Drin says, hanging on to her. “Give him a minute. Let the rain cool him off.”

She sags onto her knees. “Dance,” she cries out.

Dance stirs. His arms move, he shifts onto his side, the tail moves, and then he’s standing on his feet, swaying a little, and the tail rolls into s-curves, tiredly, hauling its own weight forward as he stumbles toward them. Puddles hiss and bubble as the tail rolls through them.

The big flap of skin, or hood, or whatever it was, has deflated and fallen limp over his shoulders. It seems to be lined with little glassy tiles, like a mosaic, and it glitters all on its own. Ribbonlike streamers hang down from beneath it, as if he’s wearing a collar of ivory mylar ribbons around his neck. But they move, sluggishly. Some of them are trying to pull up into snail-coils and failing, hanging crooked. They look broken and somehow painful.

Emma reaches out toward him. Her hand rises toward the streamers, one of the broken ones, as if she’s going to coil it up for him, automatic as fixing a bent Christmas ribbon.

“Emma,” he says, scuffing his bare feet sloppily in the mud. “Drin. Don’t, I’m still too hot, it might burn you. Let me cool off and then hugs all around. What are you all… doing out here?” He trips over a branch, but the tail catches him, and he keeps going.

The tail hisses and steams when it touches mud, and leaves char marks on damp leaves and branches. Everybody is staring at the marks he’s leaving.

“Comin’ ta find you, cher,” Ruby says at last when they all just stare at him. “Ta find you and Estelle.”

“Well, I’m very glad you did,” Dance says, panting hard. He grabs a stumped tree, leaning, and his hands don’t do anything unusual to the tree. By then, it’s just the tail that seems to be a problem.

Estelle points. “He saved my life.”

Hal whickers, and it’s such an imperative demand that they all smile. Jack snorts too, but warily, jerking his head away, as if he doesn’t like the hot resinous smell coming off Dance’s skin.

Emma frowns, spreading her hands near him, testing how hot he might be, and she nods at Drin.

Dance lets go of the stump, staggers upright, holds up his hands. “Later, I tell stories. Let us go so our gun squad can save bullets, yes? I slow you down out here. I have to walk as fast as I can–”

In spite of the warning, Emma reaches out then with a wad of her jacket sleeve over her hand, and she grabs one of Dance’s arms, and Drin uses the same trick and grabs his other arm, and they start bracing him up, carrying some of his weight, almost dragging him over the thicker wads of branches in the way.

“Boy, you weren’t kidding about the heat load,” Emma says, making a face and shifting her grip on him.

“You are so getting spanked within an inch of your life, you know that, right?” Drin says, nodding toward Emma in warning.

Dance just grins. “Hey, I am alive to yell… I am alive to beg… I will say, oh please, please stop hitting me!”

“If you ever do that again–” Emma says. “You know, I am going to stop saying that. It’s getting boring to hear myself repeating it all the time. I’ll just whack on your sorry ass until I’m tired.”

“That won’t take very long right now, neh? Maybe I should ask you stop walking and hit me now?” Dance says.

Grace blinks, startled by the sly humor.

Emma sighs, rolls her eyes upward, and grins back at Grace. Then she leans into Dance and shouts in his ear, “You’re gonna be so sorry!”

“Ouch,” Dance says, wincing.

“Just keep it in mind, okay?” Emma says, yanking him along firmly.

blue mushrooms and moss
mushrooms on log

“Okay,” Dance says meekly. “Drin, I think I am still… a baby naga…” Dance pants. “I should not overheat. I don’t believe it is right. It should all be going into the focus, all of it. Not so much waste heat.”

Drin nods. “Maybe there’s some things that still need to grow up to full size, or they’re so new they aren’t quite working right?”

“I could blow myself up if I am made wrong!” Dance says.

“Well, yeeeah!” Emma snaps. “So stop doing that!”

Caleb turns his head, grins at the look on Ruby’s face, and on Grace’s face–even Hal’s equine face is looking a little dubious, something about the angle of the ears–and Caleb starts laughing. “What is this, some fucking damned assembly required, and they didn’t even give you the shitty little Allen wrench or something?”

“No… manual… included,” Dance says, panting.

There’s more gunfire behind them. Dance’s tail shifts in agitation, but Drin grasps his arm firmly and pulls him along. “You’ve done enough. Quit the fancy stuff today. If it has to come down to fighting bugs by hand, do that. You just ripped that canopy out of your shoulders today. I mean, damn, pulling off both of those, brand new? You’re pushing it too hard. That’s probably why it’s overheating, it just isn’t fully expanded yet.”

“Christ,” Caleb says, slogging. “Not fully expanded? Fucking Teenage Jesus jumping on a goddamned–“

“–purple pogo stick with a koala bear, thank you,” Emma says to Caleb. “No Allen wrenches, no. And I think that lost owner’s manual ain’t posted on the Internet either.”

Caleb laughs.

Drin says dryly, “It was always ‘making things up as you went along.'”

“Well, somebody sure as hell had a fucking whacko imagination, didn’t they?” Caleb says.

“No comment,” Drin says lightly, as Dance glances up at him. “Not implicating myself!”

Four armed men appear on the trail behind them, two teams overlapping one another as they shift guard-duty at the back end.

“Oh good, they caught up,” Ruby says then, and heads back the way they came, reversing the column to lead the way, along with Penelope.

Cesar and Aaron remain at the back, and the other two come forward to join Ruby.

“What the hell–” Drin says. “Marcel Roi? Jay Kim? What the hell are you guys doing–”

“Whassup,” Jay Kim says, with a little smile, and he exchanges a high-five with Drin as he passes. This is odd, because he does not look like the kind of guy who normally smiles a lot. His other hand is holding some kind of large gun, and not any type that Grace recognizes.

“Dead bugs, mostly,” Emma says coolly.

“Good, good, I like ’em that way,” Jay Kim says, nodding to her and grinning at Dance, not even breaking stride. “Nice job, Dance. So, you’re done playing fry cook today?”

Dance nods, panting, and leans into Drin’s support more heavily a moment.

“Good to know,” Jay Kim says, and grins.

Roi looks at his partner in obvious disbelief. “God, I hate it when you get happy.”

“I’m beginning to see why,” Emma says.

Kim’s smile just gets wider. He pats the stock of his gun and keeps walking.

“So did Cesar and Aaron get back to their car and their guns?” Drin asks.

“Yes, they knocked down some bugs for us, ran down the road to get those, came back and blew away some more bugs,” Roi says. “Real fast guys, your buddies. Even lent us some backup artillery.” He shifts the even bigger gun he’s holding. “Believe me, I’m grateful.”

Jay Kim murmurs something, watching the woods ahead of them, and he laughs.

Marcel Roi shakes his head, rolling his eyes. Then he says, “So you’re Ruby? Pleased ta meetcha, ma’am, I do like a lady who knows what to do with a shotgun. And it’s Penelope, yes? Guiding us? Very good, we’ll stay just back of your elbows, if that’s okay with you.”

“Perhaps we need to get a move on,” Grace says with an anxious look behind them. She’s sad to see the bees retreat; they had been a reassuring link to the people in the house, to Lucas.

They file down the narrow way past the fallen tree, and then they’re moving as fast as Dance can go. On the clear stretches, he rolls up onto sidewinder-style loops of tail, shifting along at better than a running pace, but it tires the muscles so much that it makes him struggle to lift it over tangles of brush. After awhile it has cooled enough that they can lift it for him, as long as they keep some layers of cloth over their hands. Hauling that weight, they still average a pace fast enough to make all of them pant.

It’s strange how much farther it seems going home than it did outbound; but Penelope is taking them along a different trail, one that loops and meets the outbound one sometimes. Penelope calls rests whenever she needs to stop at the boxes and return the keys; there are different key boxes on this route. Grace scrambles up and down, getting her knees muddy, blowing in the little tin whistles or the pan pipes or the ocarinas that came from the box just before.

“How many bugs are we talking? How many did you guys see?” Drin is asking Dance.

Dance frowns, waving one hand. He speaks in short little bursts, but he keeps talking for some time. “I believe… Jay Kim said he knocked down eleven bugs outright… and he shot six more I saw… I am uncertain if those are kills. Your two friends–Cesar and Aaron, yes?–they knocked down four more kills… I know that… they may have injured seven more. I think Marcel Roi shot five… and injured two more. They all seem to be good at snap shooting… which is why Estelle and I… are here in one piece. But there are more bugs out there… I can hear them chattering on certain frequencies. Those were just advance scouts… like loners from an ant colony.”

“Christ,” Drin mutters.

“And nineteen choirboys singing soprano for a deaf Pope,” Caleb growls.

Dance looks at him and says, “Are there pogo sticks and koalas? Or bicycles?”

Emma laughs. “Nineteen?”

“Hey, one was out sick and the other choir boy knew why they were really there,” Caleb says.

“Ouch,” Emma says, and flounders. Dance’s tail comes up and catches her– Grace hears them all gasp, worried–but Emma gives a little nod, and grabs onto it with her bare hand. “It’s cooled off, we’re okay, thanks.”

“Ahh,” Dance says, making a pained face. “That part got dinged–”

Emma lets go of the tail. “Sorry. Are the– the ribbons okay?”

“Some of them got dinged too. I made such good friends… with a tree when we landed… it wanted to… well, never mind. I had to… decline the invitation.”

Estelle laughs, looking at him. “You broke the tree apart!”

Dance grins as he pants. “Hey, we did. This lady Estelle… gotta warn you guys… she’s so tough… if it was just me, you know… the tree would have had its own way with me…”

Penelope is grubbing around in a hollow tree, swiping at her lank hair. The fine white fluff that usually floats around her head lies in tangled strands down her shoulders. She looks tinier when she’s wet, more fragile, but the dampness just seems to make her more irascible. She yanks out a long black cord, and another little silver ball pops out of the hole.

“Ananda, do you hear me?” Penelope says. No response. She shakes the little ball, swings it by the cord, makes an annoyed noise.

Caleb catches the little device in his hand before it comes to harm. “Be nice. It’s not a morningstar,” Caleb says, examining it, “it’s– some sort of communications device.”

woody conk of fungus
Bracket fungus conk

“Of courssse it issss,” Penelope grumbles. “Ananda!” A staticky crackle comes out of it. Caleb looks perplexed, but Penelope seems to understand. “No, Amit? Where issss Ananda?” Another crackle. “Well, I have to asss well, but I am not toddling off to the lavatory, am I? Well, kindly tell her that we are coming in, the long way.” The next bleat out of the thing makes her cackle, and she stuffs it back into the hollow tree, a bit more carefully than she pulled it out.

She takes inventory of the little group gathered around her, and waves a spindly arm imperiously. “Well, what are we waiting for, another storm? Move along!”

Roi gives a little bow, and invites her to lead the way, and chuckles when she snorts at him.

There’s a distant snapping sound that doesn’t sound like a gun at all. Then Dance is spinning around in mid-air–the tail actually half-launches him into the air, the hood is snapped erect high above his head. What ever it is, the hood bends back almost horizontal above them all, catches it, deforms, and volleys it back.

There’s a cracking report like air split in a sonic boom. It’s followed by a much louder report, and a lot of oily smoke boils up in that one patch of visible sky.

Dance falls back to the ground with a grunt, half in Drin’s arms, half on his knees, and he’s panting in loud, hard gulps. He opens his eyes, scrabbles to get up. “Aaron–”

“Nice save,” says Aaron’s voice from the trees. “New kind of mortar. Ranging shot.”

Drin snorts. “What did he blow?”

“Mantid thorax,” Cesar’s voice says.

“Start jogging,” Aaron replies.

Dance gasps, sagging. But he gets his feet under him, he pushes himself up into Drin’s grip, and into Emma’s. He leans forward, letting them hold him stable, and he just keeps pushing the weight of his pelvis with all that tail on it. He looks like some crazy little theropod dinosaur who needs crutches.

Drin says, “Your tail isn’t burning my hand off. If Hal and Caleb can help carry part of Dance’s tail, Emma and I can try shifting a little faster. It’s the mud.”

Caleb says, “Goddamned sticks in the mud. Gimme some of that fucking amazing snake, we’re gonna do this thing. Here, put the end of it up on Jack’s withers, let him carry that part, and Grace, you help me–”

Grace joins the line, and then they’re all moving, Drin and Emma staggering just ahead of the bull as Dance’s arms lean into them, and Grace is trotting as fast as she can alongside Jack and Caleb. Her hands are holding up a good forty pounds of struggling, straining tail that’s covered in what feels like very hard alligator belly leather.

Hal strides ahead of them all, using a pacing movement that’s smoother for Estelle as his rider, and even he’s skidding sometimes in the slick mud. Hal stops and pushes aside tangles for them with his nose whenever he can, or lifting trees in his teeth. Sometimes he and Roi work at it together, ahead of them, clearing the trail.

“Sonuvabitch and all the baby putti painted on the Sistine Chapel –” Caleb grunts, when Dance hears something behind them and twists his body around, poised. He doesn’t rise up this time, thank God, he just twists back in place and drives himself forward harder and faster.

Emma is stabilizing him in the gloppy mud of the trail more than carrying his weight, but Drin is actively carrying quite a lot of weight, and when he loses his footing and skids, they all stagger and curse and grunt. But Dance keeps pushing. His legs keep shoving at the muck, and he’s going at the same speed as Hal’s pacing stride.

At last a blur of iron pipes, fencing, and native trees looms up over them. Nonflammable things like barbed wire and thick cables and spiked fencing have been woven in and among the uprights. Somebody’s made it into a formidable tangle. The spiky bits point outward. They all have a pretty good guess who gave instructions for it, and who did lots of the smaller weaving herself.

“What the fuck–“ Caleb says then, awed.

“Ever heard of a thorn boma in Africa?” says Grace.

“Forty, a fort, yesss, our fortificationsss, for our Back Forty,” says Penelope, and she is gasping hard enough she stops to lean on a tree, and beckons for Cesar to use the same whistle-pipes as for the laser field. “Sssame pattern, now.”

“You’re a goddess, Penelope,” Drin says, blinking upward.

She pushes back her tangled hair, with a grin. “Nice to be appressssiated, yesss,” she says.

“Tell me where the bloody goddamn front door is, okay? All I want–” Caleb gasps.

They all hear the gunfire, close behind them. Ruby, Jay Kim, and Roi are all facing forward, though, just in case there’s already loose bugs roaming the grounds. Just because they didn’t get any warning of it from Ananda or Amit earlier means nothing.

“We wait,” Penelope says, in an icy calm, “until Ananda getssss it to work–our magician. It won’t speak to Amit since the Storm.”

PTSD, It’s Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

Slogging through marshland is nothing new. He’d done that a million-and-fucking-one times with his dad, to rescue a heifer lost in a water meadow when the creek rose, or finding whatever remote corner of whatever remote field a momma mare chose to give birth. Veterinary work demanded a lot of slogging, through mud, through slime, through shit.

That doesn’t bother Caleb one goddamn bit.

And he’s not a vet like his dad, he’s a doctor, so arguing with Estelle about whether or not she’s worth helping doesn’t bother him either. He’s had plenty of patients go off on him like this, even in the middle-class suburb where he used to practice. He just argues right back. Everybody’s worth helping. Sometimes, when they just let go and stop trying, you have to give up on one. But he’s not ready to give up on this one, not yet.

The bird people are so beautiful, so elegant. He wonders why they’re always women. Well, maybe they’re not, but he’s seen five, and all female. Estelle is a blue jay, another patient, Terri, is a red-winged blackbird. Terri has a sister and two daughters who he hasn’t really met yet. See? Females.

His reverie is broken by an odd sight. As if the random military guys and the exotic animal people and the stream of bees leading them home aren’t fucking odd enough. They are, but this is even weirder. Two strangers step out of the storm-ravaged bayou and onto the path. It’s a man and a woman, both in their late forties. He’s wearing a black tee shirt that’s faded grey and overalls with a large handkerchief hanging out of the pocket. She’s in a shirtwaist dress and one of those criss-cross calico aprons. Both of them are clean and neat. They smile apologetically. Or at least they attempt to, but the expression goes dreadfully wrong just before they start making stomach-turning meaty noises and growing chitinous parts that have no goddamn business being on a mammal.

That’s when the shooting starts. This is nothing new to Caleb, he’s been up close and personal with firearms before. Too close, really. He feels himself going back there right now, even though he’d much rather stay in the mother-fucking swamp with the animal people and the chitinous things that do strange things to his insides just by existing. Oh, hell, yeah, he’d rather stay there than go back where he’s going, but there’s no choice, none…

And then it’s summer in Indiana again, and he’s eight, playing on the edge of a cornfield with his cousins. They’re playing Cowboys and Indians like stupid sons-of-bitches. He can feel the tractor trail under him, mud that’s dried again in the sun. It’s hard as concrete and stings his bare feet, threatens to twist his ankle as he runs over the corrugated imprint of the tractor’s rear wheel. He’s too excited to stop, and leaps over the other track and a random pile of manure left over from the spreader. The Cowboys caught them raiding their ranch, and were hot in pursuit. He can hear Gary start to gasp — the guy’s a cream puff, no stamina.

The air is hot but not humid; it hasn’t rained for a week now, and it’s not going to anytime soon. The rows of corn are a little brown around the edges, but they’re still exuding that peculiar wet green grain smell that field corn has. Caleb and Gary duck around a utility pole. When they hear one of the Cowboys hit the pole with a thud, Caleb winces and keeps running. That’s gonna leave splinters. Bet it was Mike — he was pretty clumsy. Gary breaks stride, doubles in half, guffawing. Dangit, Indians didn’t laugh like donkeys. What a knob.

“Stop, give us back our cattle!” Mike’s voice is strained. Yeah, he was the one who hit the pole.

Caleb and Gary both turn, waving their borrowed hand axes. “Hey, watch it, douchebag,” Gary yells at Caleb, “you’re gonna hit me with that thing and cut my ear off or something.”

“Stop, you Indians, or I’ll shoot!” Kathy shouts. She makes a lame Cowboy; they shoulda made her an Indian. She has a killer war cry on her, enough to make you pee your Toughskins. Gary turns back and gives her a very un-Indian-like raspberry.

That’s when it happens — the loudest sound in the world. The rifle that the Cowboys have been using goes off — of course it wasn’t supposed to be loaded — and Gary spins to look at Caleb with startled blue eyes. Their eyes lock for the longest moment. And then Gary continues spinning, spinning down onto the ground, the hair on the back of his head matted with blood. Caleb’s ears are ringing, he can’t hear anything, but he can see Kathy’s mouth stretch in a scream, can see Mike staring around the pole in slack-jawed surprise, can see Gary crumpling, falling… And the awful stink of a fired gun.

Caleb comes to with the same unbearable stench in his nose. He’s curled up in a ball in the mud with his hands pressed over his ears. He can’t breathe, his mouth is opening and closing like some fucking fish, but nothing’s getting in, no matter how hard he pants. There’s obviously been some sort of a battle. People are bleeding, spattered with horrible slimy stuff, battered and muddy. And every last one of them is staring at him. Oh, Christ.

Doctor Caleb’s Lesson in Deportment

“Hey, Estelle, how the hell–” the tourist-looking guy asks. His sandy brown hair is short and neat and graying at the temples. “Next rest stop, can I take another look at her? Dr. Caleb Greene. I’m the local vet, sort of.” His mouth twists in a wry smile.

“A vet? As in doctoring cows and chickens and–” Somebody turned the weird knob up a little high. It goes up to eleven! giggles the hysterical voice in the back of Marcel Roi’s mind, and he tells it to shut the fuck up.

“Yeah, in my spare time, when I have any. I’m an MD. Mostly I come here for people who look like Estelle, or who just turn into fun things,” the guy says. He shoots a cautious look at Kim standing there, like he’s looking at a cornered carnivore, but at the next stop he moves to Estelle’s side anyway. He flips out a little penlight from a pocket, checks her out in a matter of moments, then approaches the oddness that is Dance. Dance waves him away with an impatient gesture, so he turns and confronts the two agents.

“We have to get out of here, seriously. There’s more of those goddamn insect things headed this way.” His head swivels, suddenly curious. “And what’s with the bees?”

“Friends of a friend,” Dance’s tall husband says. He points. “Look, they’re back, checking things.”

“Bug stink?” asks the wife, Emma.

“Yeah, and they don’t like it.”

Hal snorts, Jack the bull gives a huffing chest noise, and Dance nods as if they’ve spoken words. He says, “I’m good, let’s go. We go fast. Big jump in local chatter on the bug channels. I’m slow but as you see… I have a few tools I’m still getting used to… so if I have to stop, I can try to slow down the bugs for you.”

“Really,” Kim says.

“Well, I try,” Dance says. Everybody’s swapped around positions, taking different tasks to tire different muscles. People brace up under the load of his tail, Jack the bull gives lowing noise, and Dance straightens up. For a moment he staggers under the weight of his own torso, and he pants, clearly in pain. Then he starts walking, with Roi bracing him at one side for awhile. It’s awkward, and Dance is struggling to keep everything balanced. Sometimes his legs simply don’t do what he expects, and he lurches, pulling Roi with him.

“Christ,” Kim says. “What good is that thing, anyway?”

“I get all the girls.” Dance grins, mouth still open, panting out big breaths.

“All that work for sex appeal?” Kim is smiling. Not a good sign. Roi’s only seen him grin like this when it was getting gnarly. Jay Kim gets happy in reverse order to the gravity of the situation. Ought to use him like a maglev train, but it’d take a nuclear exchange to work, for Chrissakes.

“You okay? Not hurting anything worse?” Caleb asks the bird woman, up ahead of them. He tucks Roi’s large jacket around her, pulls the hood up over her head, as if he’s bundling up a child.

“Put me down, leave me here,” says the bird woman, in a thin, soft voice. “He’s right. People need help. Just leave me here if I’m slowing things down.”

“We’re not running off!” says Kim, angrily.

“Fuck that!” Caleb says simultaneously.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she says. Her leg feathers all look crumpled, crushed, pushed around the wrong way, some of the longer vanes are broken off, and she just ignores it, if any of it hurts. Caleb had put some bandages on the worst of her cuts, at one of their hauling switch-overs, but one of those is starting to leak again.

Then Kim lays down the rules. “We’re not leaving civilians behind to get bug-chomped.” He glares at Dance. “You, either.”

“Been fighting — them– longer than you,” Dance gasps.

“How do you know what we…” Roi protests.

“I hear your device. I know all your voices.”

Right. So, on-the-fly code parsing was just another one of those built-in mods they gave Dance, huh? So, hey, it’s arguable whether Dance should be considered a civilian, given that he’s listening to bug chatter on radio frequencies or something. And who knows what he can do if he gets pissed off. Apparently he doesn’t even know for sure.

“Can you talk on those frequencies too?”

“Don’t know,” Dance says. “Seems reasonable… to build in transmission too… But my ignorance… could give away location… to bug troops.”

“Yeah, just like this damn IRT could be doing,” Roi says, and wipes rain out of his face, squinting back behind them.

Dance says then, between long deep breaths, “Awesome warriors, bugs. Just… lack… reproductive… discipline.”

“What?” Roi says.

“Too ambitious. Make too many soldiers. Draws… attention. Use up… their resources… too… fast,” Dance is talking as if he desperately wants to pass along what he’s figured out. Just in case he might not make it back to the house with them. “Sloppy brute force now. Not skilled. If they develop… more effective tactics… less human wall, more targeted skills… they will be… ”

“Stop talking shit and march,” Roi snarls. “Right! Left! Don’t fall over! Right! Don’t pull me over either! Ri-iiight! Left, right!”

“Who knew you ever did drill?” says Kim, and he’s grinning again.

Another thing that Kim will never, ever let him forget. “Marching band in school, man, gotta do that cadence. ‘Granny’s hanging on the outhouse dooooor!'”

“Your timing is off,” says Dance.

“So is yours!”

“Yes, sadly– it is. How many verses… do you know?”

“Fuck, I dunno, I’ve forgot half of ’em,” Roi says.

“I remember,” Dance says. “But no.. breath.. to sing.”

“Ain’t it always the way?”

“I am a lot… heavier than… I used to be. Getting tired. I will… get used to it…”

“No if, there,” Roi says sharply in the guy’s pause. “Don’t you do an if on me! No goddamn iffing. No ifs on this hike.”

Dance smiles, and pants. “Okay. No ifs.”

“All right, you gotta climb through this mess now. Christ.” The trail of flying bees is very clear. Roi keeps an eye on the woods while Grace and Emma lift Estelle’s weight off the horse’s back and carry her over the heaps of wilting trees, while Drin and Caleb are clearing a passage for the horse and bull. Then Roi watches Dance pick his way through the tangle, shoving aside tree branches to clear more space. The tail is carrying most of his weight, looping and coiling and shifting around like a sidewinder crossing a pile of sticks. And when he comes down on mud again, the tail uncoils and takes an active role, prodding and prying and supporting–rolling, from loop to loop, at a diagonal, just like a damn sidewinder.

Roi scrambles across at the same time as the four-footed weres are threading their own maze. Dance’s tail tip comes up to brace him nicely, as he sprawls down about eight feet from the last branch. It feels like a really strong grip of somebody’s hand, but there’s about four feet of it grabbing him.

“Thanks, man,” Roi gasps.

“Likewise,” says Dance. Then he says, “One moment… I try this rolling thing. Ow. I think I dinged it… near the end, when we hit the tree. Ow. Okay, no rolling down onto it any further than –” and then he’s shifting along on the tail itself, sidling around more branches and sometimes over them, pushing off in little bounces with his feet, like he’s helping out the tail because it’s tired too. “Okay, I go… as fast as I can this way… Let you switch off with Drin.”

Roi says to the women, “Can you keep an eye behind us, while I spell you on carrying her over branches? Caleb, can you be ready to grab her if the bugs break cover?”

The doctor nods. Hell, he must be good at it, he’s here, in one piece. He’s breathing hard too, it’s obviously a really good time to give him a break, if they don’t get ambushed first.

Then it’s all just slogging. Slog through crooked piles of broken branches, slog through mud up to your knees, with broken drowned animals, where beached fish are scattered off at the side of the ponds. Slog uphill on the dry bits as the ridge humps upward out of the swampy levels where the rain has been drowning frogs. Sometimes little dense squalls blow up out of the thick ash-gray sky, and it rains on them. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not that warm, but the air is so thick with humidity than they’re all dripping with sweat, including the guy in the snakeskin.

Oh yeah–and then biting, stinging bloodsuckers come down in clouds. Mosquitoes, whatever. The bees aren’t bothering the party of people, they’re hovering now about equally between Dance and Estelle, zipping back and forth like they’re damn passenger pigeons carrying messages. The bees could be intimidating away the mosquitoes, that would be useful, but they’re not even slowing them down.

Roi can see knots of the damn things clustered around the bleeding cuts in Dance’s hood and on his legs, on Estelle’s cuts. Goddamn carriers of West Nile virus and yellow fever and God only knows what, out here where some of the people were made blue, or scaled.

The doctor tries to keep the bugs off Estelle’s injuries, waving his hands in quick, impatient bursts and swearing a steady, quiet stream of profanity that ought to be enough to cauterize the wounds of the injured and flash-fry the swarms of bloodsucking insects. Dude sure didn’t learn how to swear like that in med school.

Roi almost laughs, and then a snaky tree root catches his toes and sends him face-first for water that’s probably contaminated with enough stuff to keep a team of scientists busy for a year. Dance’s tail whips up with an amazing zzzipp-noise, and catches him just in time–and Dance isn’t even looking at him.

Dance turns his head. “You okay?”

“Thanks, dammit. How did you–”

“I heard yelling,” Dance pants, resting a moment.

“Christ,” Roi says.

Dance smiles. “I am learning… many interesting new… rude words… from the nice doctor. I did not know you could… do things like that… with a Rundle faucet. Is a prolapsed uterus… part of a cow?”

“That can happen to any mammal,” Caleb tells him gravely, taking a moment from his stream of profanity to deliver this information.

Roi starts laughing. It’s slogging worse than any boot camp he’s been through–where he did very nicely, thank you, in spite of the insults he gets from Kim about his “rather dojo-bound academic martial arts” and his apathy toward firing ranges and all that. Slogging. Next to a guy with a snake tail, pursued by people with claws like fucking lobsters, it’s got to be the most surreal hike Roi can remember. He switches off with Caleb twice.

“Hey, honey, it’s just me, Doctor Caleb,” says the doctor. “You’re all right, sweetie, don’t kick me, goddammit. Ouch, fuck, Estelle, hey, hey, calm down now. It’s all right. Talk to me.”

She has long odd bluish bare toes, and claws for nails.

“Christ,” Roi says, but not loud.

“Keep… walking,” Dance says. “Tell him.”

“You’re as bad as Kim,” Roi says.

“But we are being a good bad,” Dance says.

“Was that a joke?”

“Yes. Small joke. Still needs mother’s milk.”

A woman’s voice speaks quietly, saying something to Caleb, who replies, “Yeah, I see that. Okay. Dance, what was it that bit Estelle’s arm here?”

“Me. It changes, from what I smell on them. Give her what she needed to lose pain… and rest. She smelled tired… Days… of tired.”

“Oh, just lil ol’ me the guy says, son-of-a-goddamn… What kind of pain, do you know?”

“Not just depressed,” Dance says. “Something more. Minerals… not right. I smelled it at Lacey’s… Fozzie’s… on zoomorphs… doctor said they had weak bones.”

“Fuck, what I’d do for a good lab,” Caleb says.

“Talk to Lacey,” Dance says. “And my husband Drin… at the house. They work with a lab. I gave them venom… to protect from bug attack… stop bug germs. Lacey’s people… know bug bites will rot like monitor lizard bites.”

“Holy fuck,” says Doctor Caleb.

“You do not know… Fozzie or Lacey?”

“Just like some kinda legend, that’s all. Fuckin’ hell, man, people are so afraid to tell anybody anything. Like they can hide the furry long ears on the kids they bring to me. Like I don’t have a set of fuckin’ eyes in my head.”

Dance gives a little panting laugh. “I am not… exactly… easy to excuse… now.”

“No shit,” says Caleb.

Roi says then, “Yeah, what the hell happened to you?” He’s about to ask more, but he knows better. Stay out of your own way, on the questions you ask. Don’t assume. Don’t give the answers. Don’t resolve the tension for them.

Dance laughs in little panting breaths. “I came unpinned. I guess this… is what I was… but… packed up. Hey, I’m so lucky, me, a human! No idea, me. But I unpack. I come apart, the tail grows, it hurts. Up at the house… Pen’s house… I find out… military labs made me. I am… made.”

“Just like Estelle was made,” says the doctor hiking in the swamp, bitterly. “Or Ruby, or Hal, or– goddamn military labs. Fuckers. And now, whatever the hell they were playing at, they just walked away from the mess they left. Gene-eng germs, hell, spray it out in the swamp, nobody will ever know why there’s weird shit mutating out there. Nobody’s business, now. And those goddamn bugs? Those are kidnap victims. Those motherfuckers used to be regular people. Swear to God. They never got asked. The black market labs are running the show. All over the swamps, all over the Third World. Fuckers.”

“Save… your strength,” Dance says.

“Why fucking bother? I’m angry about it all the time!”

“You will… need it. Many, many people need help… at the house. Many.”

“Oh Christ,” says Doctor Caleb. “I wonder how many zoomorphs ended up in a regular hospital.”

“Christ,” Roi repeats it. He says it a lot, on this little hike.

Caleb says, “You remember last time we talked, Estelle, you told me a little bit about where Pen found you, when you were lost. You were going to ask about where you got found, why that lab was making bird-people.”

“I didn’t,” Estelle says. “I got afraid of talking to people I used to know. Strange things started coming out of those woods. Pen doesn’t like it. He gets afraid if we draw attention up here.”

“Can’t blame him for that,” Caleb mutters. “So did anybody ever tell you anything about your condition, about what the lab was trying to do when they made you–”

“No,” Estelle says, and shivers. “Later on, if Pen found out, he didn’t say. Nobody wanted to upset me. They thought I might break. I don’t know, can people break?”

“Yes,” says Caleb.

Estelle points at Dance. “Look at him. Look how weird he looks, and he’s not broken, he’s not giving up. They thought I was afraid of him, half snake. Like I would be afraid of anybody for that, like they’re just an animal! He tried to make sure I didn’t get hurt.”

Definitely gets the label, ‘manic-depressive, will run off into traffic,‘ Roi is thinking.

“Estelle, you don’t have to be broken. You still have a choice, whether to fucking give up or not. If you don’t want to be broken, fight! We’ll help, if we can, you don’t have to do it alone.” Caleb pauses. “What were you afraid of?”

“Bugs,” Estelle says loudly. She puts her hands up over her ears. “They talk where you can hear, sometimes– I can hear them now, just like Dance said. But I’ve been hearing them, every few days, for weeks. I heard them, they were guarding somebody who came to visit us– Pen met with some leader of theirs, in the Back Forty on our property somewhere, like he was negotiating– maybe he thought he could keep them away from us, but I could hear them–”

“Ahhhhh fuck,” Caleb says. “Ahh fuckin’ hell and damnation with little tiny screaming naked Popes on ropes. Ahh, dammit, Estelle, you were right to be scared. I’d be scared to death too.”

Kim says then, “Is there any point in trying to reach Pen’s house, if he has allowed the bugs entry to the property?”

“He couldn’t do it without Iscen knowing,” says Caleb, sharply. “Estelle, you tell ’em. No way she’d negotiate with anything like what we saw back there behind us.”

Dance says, very loud, “I am going to the house. Come, or not. I am. Going. With. My. Partners. To. The. House.”

Roi chuckles a little. “Yeah, we got that.”

“All those people,” Caleb says. “They’re gonna need help, if there’s bugs inside Pen’s security already.”

Dance says, panting hard, “It’s still raining. The bugs are still… flooded…heading to higher ground. No point… in staying outside the fence… no matter what is… happening… inside.”

The IRT clipped in Donahue’s pocket crackles. Identifying numbers come out of it. Roi flips it on where it is. He chuckles. “Boy, you guys are sure lost. Better get to high ground, it’s flood time.” More squawk of outraged numbers, which he ignores. He pants, climbing through another pile, ignoring demands.

“Report!” squawks the IRT.

“Nope, no way. We had our fun about three klicks back, slowest three klicks I’ve ever hiked. Love your new friends. Now we got other new friends behind us, squawking all over the UHF bands. They can hear you, too. Just a friendly warning, your buddy Pen maybe tried the good old Vichy approach to governing France. But we’re bee-bound anyway.” And he flips it off. “Oughta throw it inna swamp, make sure the bugs don’t track us by that.”

“They wouldn’t call if–” Kim says.

“Yeah, yeah,” Roi says. He turns to Dance. “Hearing anything new from the bugs?”

“The bugs found your first kills. Or maybe from Cesar and Aaron… hard to tell. They got upset… Modulated up range… similar to two keyboard… octaves.”

“You mean, they’re screaming,” Roi says. He takes a moment to look around behind him in a long, careful scan, memorizing how the shadows look. He’s on guard at the drag end of the parade.

“Yes, they are,” Estelle says sharply. “Blasting it out, amplified. They were never that strong, each on their own.”

“Some higher-level troop organization,” Kim says, swinging around.

Estelle says, “I don’t know.”

“Yes,” Dance pants. “Feeding signals too.”

Dr. Caleb makes a revolted noise.

“Good to know,” Kim says, and smiles. “We… let’s say I left ’em some funny dust on the first few bodies, kind of a field experiment. If it works, knock ’em down a peg, all together.”

“Christ,” Roi says. The next stage will be Jay Kim humming to himself. Back there, when it was getting ugly, Kim was singing his little verse of the day, doing the same line over and over.

He said it helped him with his timing on blowing apart bug carapaces. Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug–“ boom!

Kim said primly, after he’d used up an amazing amount of ammo–and very little of it wasted–that it was very satisfying, blowing things away. Some days Roi wonders if his partner is bugfuck insane. Other days he doesn’t have the luxury of wondering about it.

“Amen,” says Dance. “Your friend Kim…”

“Yes?”

“Very glad you two… found us. Very.”

Roi looks at him. “You’re welcome.”

“Aaahhh, maybe I goof off, I let… you guys… do it all,” says Dance.

“Yeah, right,” says Roi, remembering the way the man snarled like a leopard when he volleyed back that bug shot. Sure. Point him at an actual bug, see what happens.

“Until you run out of ammo, maybe,” Dance says, glancing up, grinning.

Christ, it looks just like Kim, that look. Then Roi says, puzzled, “Hey, Caleb, what was that bit about tiny naked screaming Popes?”

“In hell,” Dance adds. He smiles.

“Where they fucking belong,” Caleb grumbles. “So I got a little political.”

“Just wondering,” Roi says. “You’re a very violent man, aren’t you? You maliciously rescue lost puppies and kitties–”

“People,” Caleb growls.

“Huh,” Dance snorts, and both of his partners chuckle.

“Yeah,” Roi agrees. “I call bullshit. There’s no way you’d walk away from hurt animals.”

“If I was people, the way you are,” Estelle says in her soft voice, “I would not mind so much.”

“Fuck, Estelle,” Caleb says, “if I was people the way you and Dance are, I wouldn’t mind being people like that, not one goddamn bit. Dance saved your life, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” Estelle says.

“And I’ve seen you work your ass off, trying to help people, before you got so depressed. This is an illness, Estelle, we can work on it.”

“Dance can’t bite me every morning and fix me, like he did today,” Estelle says.

Dance pauses. “Hell I can’t,” he says, panting. “We’ll figure out… something.”

Caleb says, “We’ll figure out what’s in his venom! You’re not the only zoomorph who’s got this serious, serious illness, Estelle. Dance can help you, maybe we got something there can help other folks too, and I want to help out folks who weren’t as lucky as you, for Chrissakes!”

“You’re missing a few goddamns, shits, and naked popes in there,” Dance’s red-haired partner says.

“Naked popes don’t shit, they’re so tight-assed they just pass holy water,” Caleb snarls.

“You know,” Roi says, “I think our nice Doctor Caleb is really a werewolf, he just pretends to be human.”

“Oh no, werewolves are much more polite,” Estelle says, in that astonishing mild voice. She’s breathing a little hard too. “They have strict rules. Social packs. Like dogs or coyotes.”

“Hey, I can be polite,” Caleb grunts, “just as soon as I have the time and space to fix some of what’s fucking wrong with you all. Field medicine makes me ornery.” He’s looking at Estelle’s broken feathers, then at Dance’s crumpled streamers.

Dance turns his head, and one of those streamers fallen down on his chest twitches, struggles. He puts up one hand and stills it. “I can smell old trail upwind. Old traces of Pen and… the little girl, Callie… maybe an older woman, they passed through that muddy notch ahead there in the last few days. I think we’ve reached Pen’s perimeter.”

“Oh, we passed that about a half mile back,” Caleb growls.

“What?”

“Oh yeah. Up here, this is just where it gets real serious.”

“You know how to get in?” Kim asks.

“Oh, you mean if we lose Penelope up there? Only if they haven’t changed it. Last I heard, they change it all the damn time. Pen’s all the time out here tweaking the stuff, sensors or something, fixing it where some dog ran through and got tangled up. Probably all fucked up since the storm, lines torn up, power out, God knows if there’s shit aimed the wrong way, and still live on battery backups.”

“Then nobody but Penelope knows,” Kim says.

“Well, the folks at the house might have some ideas, if we could get whoever reset it last time to look at the mess,” Caleb says.

“Iscen, probably,” Estelle says. “Pen didn’t go out much the last few days. He stayed with me. He was so frightened.”

Caleb says, “Can you smell a road at all, from further away?”

Dance nods. “That way. With extra bug stink. And that gun smell, just after you fire it.”

“Cordite,” Kim says.

“Bugs can smell our tracks too,” Dance’s tall husband says.

“I hate to go off a good clear trail like this, where Dance can smell people have been using it,” says the dark-haired girl, bent over looking at Jack the bull’s injured hoof.

Estelle nods. “Some of the smaller trails are very… unstable.”

===from goodledocs collaboration
Now, if you thought the woods were getting normal again…