The two men are watching them as they get out of the Jeep, the way a man who has nothing left to lose watches something that he suspects might kill him – half anticipating the worst, half eager. Drin has seen that look in the eyes of soldiers before. After all, the very worst means, if nothing else, an end to the uncertainty.
Considering what they’ve just been through, they look damned good. They’re standing up. The car with the rows of holes in the door isn’t doing so well. The stinking mess around them says it all.
Drin waits a moment, sees they’re staying by on the car, making no threatening gestures with the weapons they’re holding loosely. They stand as if they’re just waiting for him, and he steps forward. Oh yeah. Some sort of irregular forces military, too.
Instantly Dance is right there, just in front of Drin’s left side. Dance looks all loose and relaxed, but he’s not fooling the soldiers one bit.
Drin says then, “Looks like your hands got hit with some bug venom, there.”
The paler man’s eyes stay steady on him and on Dance. He doesn’t look down at his own hands.
Dance says, remotely, “He probably needs help from Lacey, then.”
Drin tilts his head. “Or from you.”
Dance glances up. It takes a clear effort of will to jerk his attention back to standing watch on the woods.
The pale man holding the gun says quietly, “You know Lacey? Heard about her.”
Drin looks at him. “Yeah. And I’m guessing you have’t met? I’m guessing that thing there tried to get you by surprise. I’d like to get out of here before more of them surprise all of us. They find a lot of things by chemical trail, like ants do. And there’s usually lots more of them, like ants.”
“Needing a fire hydrant to wash that stink off,” Dance says, not looking at them. He’s watching the woods. The air is finally moving, which makes confusing shadows shift around. Dance’s eyes jerk, his focus shifts constantly, flicking from one motion to the next. He clearly doesn’t like the twitchy, unpredictable flickers of the upper leaves of the trees, or the way the clouds are rolling and curling.
They look the way Drin’s stomach feels, knotting tightly under his breastbone.
It’s Emma who surprises them all by leaning out her window and saying, quiet and clear, “We should all roll in the mud. In the ditch there. Knock down the smell of the bug juice, and the local fungi attack bug tissues. I bet it messes up their body fluids. Might work pretty fast, or it might take a couple hours, but we can keep moving for awhile until Dance’s nose tells us it’s all cleared away.” She looks at the two men with the weapons. “Dance’s nose is pretty reliable on this stuff, we’ve found.”
Drin smiles. “Thank you, an excellent idea. We can hose down that mess from the ditch, give it a few days and nobody will know it was there.” Then he says, quietly, “Ease down, it’s all right, Dance.”
Dance says, “They found the body, didn’t they?”
The two men look at him.
“The guy who owned the truck,” Dance says impatiently, waving at the rusty red pickup truck abandoned beside the road.
“Not the bug– the redneck guy who left all that stinking tobacco in the truck. I smell his cigarettes on both of you.”
“Oh, that probably splattered on us from the meat. That bug ate off him,” says the darker man. “Bug musta stayed pretty dry out here, if it lasted long enough to get hungry.”
Dance opens his mouth slightly, and nobody moves. He looks like he might sneeze, or he might throw up, or he might whip around and bite somebody, and none of them are quite sure what, least of all Dance himself.
Drin reaches forward and lays his hand on Dance’s shoulder. Dance turns his head a degree, and Drin just looks down into his face, waiting, willing to wait all day. Then Dance swallows, shakes his head, spits on the ground like a disgusted trucker, and grimaces. “I’m all right,” he says to Drin.
“You’re good?” Drin says, sliding his hand gently up and down Dance’s neck.
“I’m good,” Dance says.
Then Drin says, to the two men watching them, “I’m sorry to hear that. That’s a shame.”
Dance says then, halfway angry about it, “If I can smell it, the bugs probably can too.”
The dark guy with the goatee gives a grin that isn’t funny.
“Oh, we understand,” the white guy says.
Dance shifts his head side to side, looking at the clouds, clearly impatient. Then he says, “We are waiting here for more directions to reach shelter from the hurricane.” From Dance, it’s an invitation. They’ve killed a bug, good enough. They both clearly recognize Dance’s accent, too. They spent leave time in Seoul, probably.
The blond man says, “I see. So, you’re Dance?”
“His name is Dance of Knives. I’m Drin, for short.”
“Emma,” says herself, briefly.
“Barret,” their wild-haired guest says gravely to the strangers. “Musician, composer, that kind of stuff. Glad to see you got through that okay. Dance is a musician, too. Emma’s a librarian. Drin’s a network admin.”
“No way,” says the paler man. “Musicians?”
Dance smiles. “Shall I get the viola out of the case and demonstrate?”
Barret looks at him soberly. “Do you think you need to?”
Drin looks at the two men, and at Dance, and shakes his head. It’s as close to a command as he ever gets. “No. Later for that. At the house, I think. And you, sir?”
“Cesar,” the dark man with the goatee says curtly. He’s looking more at his companion than at them.
“Aaron,” the blond one replies, without any prompting.
Drin nods to them, and crosses back to the Jeep. “Barret, could you help me get out the tire jack here? I threw a hose in back here, and I think maybe we can stack it like an accordion and improv that way on a water pump. I don’t think their car is gonna be hurt that much by a few tadpoles, do you?”
Barret climbs out of the passenger seat and goes around to help in the back.
“I assume you’ve all got questions,” Drin says then, holding up a heavy crate of supplies while Barret yanks a flat canvas hose out of the lidded box beneath it. “But you can oblige me by dunking yourselves in the ditch fast as you can, all over, and then get your things out of your car if they’ll take water damage, and then if you wouldn’t mind keeping an eye out on those woods, while Barret and I get busy on the hose. Barret, get that entire hose down into the ditch-water and filled up. That’ll seal up the air holes–damn thing’s canvas, you see– and keep both ends in the water when you drag out the middle for me. Now, we’re figuring out how to do a squeezebox routine here. What I need is a one-way flapper valve. Plastic tarp–Em, you’re a genius.”
“Drin,” Dance says then, lifting his head. “I think you’ve got about fifteen minutes.”
“Bug stink on the wind?”
“No. The wind smells weird. The ears are ding crazy ickle-ockle noisy altitude things.”
“How big a storm are we talking about?” the pale soldier says then.
Emma says crisply, “This is a tropical depression stalled over warm Gulf waters, building strength. The forecasters hope it’ll shift and make landfall in about ten hours, but they’re not sure where yet, just within about a hundred miles. It’s been strengthening rapidly over the last four hours toward hurricane status.”
“Would Lacey help us find shelter?” the pale man says.
The dark one smiles. “We can pull our own weight to help her out.”
Drin chuckles. “I’m sure Lacey would love to put you two to work. Unfortunately, Lacey is about sixty miles from here, but we’ve got friends we’re gonna visit closer, if we can get there without dragging along bugs onto their doorstep. That wouldn’t be nice. And help like yours, we can definitely be going on with. Okay, I’m laying the weight of the jack on this accordion, right? Pushing. Are we getting any movement? Okay, try again. Again–good. Now keep the end low when you drag it over to their car, and I’ll keep pumping like mad, and with luck–”
The paler man says, grimly amused, “Don’t worry. The car stank anyway.”
“Nice guns,” Dance says then.
“Thank you,” the paler man says.
“Okay, let’s drain and coil her up,” Drin says then. “I’m hoping to get a call with directions in a few minutes. In the meantime, why don’t we all shift our cars about two miles down, eastward there, further into the woods. The bugs have a definite bias toward city life, I find.”
“You get any cell tower reception out here?” the pale man says.
“Mine is satellite-based, but amounts to the same thing. It’s still pretty crappy out here in the back of beyond,” Drin says calmly, clapping the box lid down. Then he glances at his phone, gives the two men a number by which to reach him, and warns them that it’s only good for an hour or so.
The darker man just nods. Neither of them stop to write it down.
“Excuse me,” Drin says then, opening his phone, and frowning at it. He takes a little time replying, fingers not moving all that fast on the keys. He’s being careful. “That was our friends, where we were expecting to take shelter during the storm. They said they’re sending somebody out as a guide, but they weren’t precisely sure where we are in relation to their landmarks. I am to text back with a better fix on our position. They thought we might be near an old bridge abutment next to the road, but not sure how close.”
“I’ll check it out,” Cesar answers, and turns to go.
Aaron watches him disappear into the woods, MP5 in his hands, head up and scanning the trees around him. He twists his neck, looks at them. “How do you know about the bugs?” His gaze is unblinking.
“Somebody sent them in after us in a different location from this. Tried to kill us,” says Emma, in her widest Aussie drawl.
“You got lucky?”
“Oh yeah. We got Dance,” Emma says gravely.
“Is this viola a weapon or something?” Aaron asks, squinting at Dance. Dance’s choices in martial arts leave very few plain signs.
Barret smiles. “We’ll let you know when we figure it out.”
“Oh,” says Aaron, glumly. “That good, huh?”
Drin revises his estimates on how special the ops were that these guys got to play in. But he also keeps an eye on Dance. Dance is being weird, turning his nose to the wind and shifting his head oddly. He starts walking around in long loose circles, the same as he did the night they abandoned Emma’s car and a bottle of perfume. It looks even stranger now than it did that night.
Aaron’s eyes slide over to Dance, seem to consider him, and then he nods, once. He doesn’t question the implications of that. Seems content to wait in silence then, until Cesar returns from the woods a few minutes later.
Drin leans on the Jeep, squinting at the trees and the sky, while he closes his big old phone and puts it in his shirt pocket. He holds out one arm as Dance comes near him. Dance turns into Drin’s arm, slides up into his reach, hugs him back, tight. Then he lets go, and Dance is off again, pacing around the Jeep and watching things move in the woods.
Drin says, “I don’t know how much time we have before more of the damnable bug things show up. I’ve got a few theories, but no good reasons why they’ve thrown so many of the bug boys at us. Did you find the bridge abutment?”
“Yeah, it’s about an eighth of a mile east of this position,” Cesar answers.
“Drivable, or we hoofing it?” Aaron asks, without looking at the other man. His eyes have gone back to the woods.
“We’ll be able to use the vehicles at least that far. I didn’t scout much beyond that.”
Drin says, “Dunno if you’d need to get some care for the venom in those cuts, or if you’d rather handle it without our help. I’m impressed that you’re still standing up, I’d normally give you about four minutes from exposure before you had seizures, so I’d like to hurry on getting you decent treatment. Any particularly urgent stuff to ask, before we get rolling?”
“Are you armed?” the darker man asks. “Can you defend yourselves, if we are attacked again?”
“Well, for a given value of armed, sort of. I’ll have to explain later.”
“Can you smell anything over that mess?” Aaron suddenly asks Dance.
“Yeah, and I am not liking it. Have they been dumping waste product from bug facilities upstream from here?”
Cesar turns his head slowly, that not-funny grin frozen on his face. “Might be.” He’s watching Dance.
“What are you smelling?” Aaron is watching Dance, too, and he’s not grinning at all.
“Bug chemistry, from lab wastes,” Dance says.
“Metabolites?” Drin asks.
“Yes, that,” Dance says, moving restlessly. “And not just from bug juice and slime on you two.” He makes an impatient gesture. “Let’s go. You can explain later.” He climbs into the Jeep, motioning Barret and Dance to get in, and then they’re rolling.
Aaron turns and gets back into their hole-riddled car, on the passenger side. Cesar stares at Dance for a moment longer, then gets in as the driver. Aaron seems to be bending down as Cesar starts up the engine, getting something from under the seat or between his feet, and when he comes back up he’s got a submachine gun in his hands, an FN P90. Cesar glances at him, his lips moving as he asks something, and Aaron hesitates, then nods.
Drin is a little unhappy that he instantly knows what the weapon is. Just as he knows what kind of troops they must have been. But ask his former self for anything useful, and it fades back like a nervous ghost, goddammit.
“How am I supposed to detoxify that man’s intake of bug poison?” Dance demands, climbing into the Jeep.
“By tasting it on him,” Drin says calmly, leaning back and closing his eyes. “He’s obviously got something interesting going on, he’s partially neutralized it himself, but I bet it’s not entirely.”
“All right, MacGiver, how do I know it won’t poison me?”
“I think you’re pretty hard to poison with that stuff, done slowly,” Drin says. “I believe that it’d take a faceful of it, or injected on major wounds, to knock you down. Mind, it’s a belief, not a solid assurance.”
“Damn scientists,” Emma says from the front, grimly amused.
“Or whatever,” Dance says, annoyed again. Shifting around in the Jeep, Dance is growling a bit. “Cesar asked Aaron if I was a mutant, too. Maybe he didn’t think I’d hear them.”
“Christ,” Emma growls too.
“What did Aaron say?” Drin asks.
“Yes,” Dance says, and he’s not happy about it.
“An item?” Barret asks idly. He’s already settled in the front passenger seat as Emma gets the key in the ignition.
“Living together, not sex,” Dance says from the back. “Long term. Not as long-term as you and Auren, but close.”
Barret is very still for a heartbeat. The Jeep rumbles to life under them, and starts rolling, before he shifts in his seat. Barret turns his head gently, slowly, and looks at Dance.
“You smell of him, same as we smell together,” Dance says, eyes half-shut. “Can’t hide that from the bugs either.”
Barret proves, then, that he has the steely reflexes to sit in on a decent jazz session. “So did Auren enjoy your concert?”
“Said he did. Puts you at risk, too.”
Barret looks at Drin then. “Then it’s just a question of what’s worth living for.”
Dance gives a crooked smile. The invisible tail tip comes up, makes a loop, thumps Drin on the ankle silently, where Barret can’t see it moving, and flops back.
Drin sighs. “Damn artists, always asking the hard ones.”
That’s when Emma turns her head, says,”The new guys are following us okay,” and they roll the small distance down the road.
“There,” Barret says, pointing toward her side.
“Got it.” Emma puts the Jeep in neutral, engine running for a moment. Then she says, “You know, if somebody grew all these series of different kinds of people like– like Lacey, then what if they were growing out other illegal things in a series, different varieties like her?”
Barret says calmly, “She’s clearly a Medusa. Been running her horse farm a long time, from all I’ve heard. You’re saying people designed all that?”
Emma snorts. “If you call it proper design, releasing stray junk where it can cause mutations in the local environment–”
Barret leans in closer to her. “So you’re asking if there’s other things like Cyclops or Sirens or Giants or things from different mythologies–hell, Phoenixes, Dragons, God only knows–”
Drin is silent a moment. “I think there probably were. Don’t give me a look! I hate not remembering things. To explain, Barret, there are ways to damaging a person’s memory selectively, in advanced technical labs, and people still have such damnably weak organizational discipline that they will come up with all kinds of excuses to use it, and it rarely comes out very well in the end.”
“The Fisher King,” Barret says, not blinking.
Emma rests her head in her hand, elbow propped on the steering wheel. “Yeah,” she says. “And damn lucky to have him here to help us out.”
“Oh yeah, I agree,” Barret says, and means it.