Fucking Gun Carriage

blue light on bayou with trees

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.”

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