Into the Woods

bee swarm hanging in tree

“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

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