Next afternoon, Seung couldn’t make himself do it. All he wanted to do is roll in her scent and lick her skin, especially when she pulled down her sweatpants and presented that soft skin along the curve of her butt for him to sniff. “Mmmm,” he said, leaning in her, and sighing happily.
“Bite it, don’t kiss it,” Keisha grumbled.
He just leaned into her harder, murmuring silly things in his throat.
“It’ll hurt a helluva lot less there,” Keisha said, annoyed.
“Yes, I know,” he said, resigned.
“You feel better today?” Seung asked.
“Oh hell yeah,” Keisha said, and chuckled.
“Not need biting?” Seung pleaded.
“You’re not getting out of it that way,” Keisha said.
“What’s the problem?” Dr. Alexander said, carrying in files and stashing them neatly in the cabinets, not even glancing at either of them.
Keisha said, “He ain’t biting.”
“Why not?” The doctor asked, flipping through files.
“Want fuck, not bite,” Seung said, feeling rebellious.
“Really,” Dr. Alexander said, peering among his papers. “You don’t think maybe Keisha could use more help with that sinus infection?”
Seung rubbed his face along the soft dark skin of her hip. Put one arm around her, stroked her thigh. It’d be a crime, tearing up such smooth warm skin with the kind of ragged, amateur bite he gave her hand.
The doctor pulled out other files, and went out in the front room again. Over his shoulder, he said, “Well, if he’s getting that stubborn, you can probably smack him silly and he won’t do it.”
Keisha glanced up. “What do you mean?”
“Dance can smell when it’s time to stop, but it’s usually after he’s given someone a whole series of bites first. Maybe Seung gave you one heavy dose and that was enough.”
“Big help you are,” she told the doctor, and patted Seung’s cheek again. “All right, lie back. We oughta ask him questions while you’re awake for a change, too.”
“Oh,” Seung said. They talked about it earlier. He knew what kind of questions she wanted to ask.
“I ain’t gonna let you off this one,” Keisha warned him.
“Not want,” Seung muttered.
Keisha’s jaw muscles clenched. She looked at Seung, looked at his legs, at the restless lump moving under the sheet.
Seung reached out to her. “Okay.”
She gave him that look again. “I’m gonna ask him. We got to. I’m gonna ask Dance, too.”
Seung drew in a deep, painful breath. “Okay.”
“Doc, you got a minute for some questions?” Keisha said, yanking up her pants.
“I can spare a moment,” Dr. Alexander said, bringing in more stacks of paper.
“You just needed to get more files in here,” Keisha said.
“Perhaps,” he agreed, finally glancing up from his paperwork.
Then she said, quietly, “That ridge all around Seung’s crotch, Dance have anything like that?”
“That grew out to be a full pouch that seals shut. On a lizard or a snake it’s just a flat area, and the opening is called a cloaca. The genitals and anus are all inside that, protected from the environment.”
“The lab put a snake pouch over their stuff?” Keisha said.
He nodded. “I have no idea whether it was an accident of tying in the reptile tissues to the base of the spine, or whether they meant for it to protect the genitals. It’s not heavy armor, though. It’s tied to a lot of nerves, it’s much more like a woman’s vulva, except of course it encloses the anus too. Makes it harder to keep everything clean and dry when the tail skin is shedding, that takes special attention. On Dance, it needs care much like the parasail. Of course the blood supply and skin on that collar needs to be clean and dry too. It needs attention all the time. Dance tells me that’s a lot more work than the cloaca.” He gives her a stern look. But then, which of his looks aren’t stern?
Seung fell back into the pillows, staring up at the ceiling. “I get a pussy.”
“Your penis won’t go away,” the doctor said. “Dance doesn’t say much, but Emma says that his genitalia got bigger.”
“This guy ain’t exactly Mister Tiny now.”
“Well, they were designed in a lab,” Dr. Alexander said, dryly.
“Shit, that’s stupid.”
Seung blinked tiredly. His back hurt. “Need bigger pussy.”
“Something to look forward to, huh?” Keisha said, with a crooked grin.
“Later,” Seung said, making a face.
“You see any of this on Dance?” Keisha asked, waving at Seung.
“Dance was willing to let me take pictures for you, or have you look at him yourself, if you didn’t want pictures. He’s glad to help.”
“There are no other nagas that have unpinned that we know about. These two only have each other to learn from. He doesn’t want to explode, either. He needs your help as much as you need his. He’s always helping out around the clinic; his bite has saved people’s lives with its antibiotic properties.”
“Explode?” Seung was wide awake.
“Dance says that both of you have a power pack hooked on the spine and the ribs just below the kidneys. Since we can’t check inside either of you with Xrays to back him up, we’ll note it as a theory. That energy he was using comes from somewhere. The boxes can’t be very big. Drin thinks it has some kind of biological interface with a nuclear power source. Dance said he can feel his and Seung’s packs are different, Seung’s was bigger and overloaded and generating a kind of unstable whine. Dance did something to drain away enough of the power in Seung’s pack to make it less likely to blow up. The power sources and interfaces are one reason the military really does not want undue attention.”
“Power–” Seung said, confused. “Radio?”
“Well, you did say to use little words,” Doctor Alexander said.
“So many,” Seung complained.
“Are you done?” Keisha sat there, arms folded, glaring into space.
“Did you not want the answers when you asked the question?”
Peach came around and leaned into Seung, rested her head on his chest, and kissed his chin. He put up his hand and stroked her back. Her hospital gown didn’t get in the way. Warm fur felt good on his aching fingers. Her tail curled a bit around his wrist, as much as the short length of it could. Peach’s tail had a knotted scar at the end, as if it was cut off. He asked the doctor about it, last night, and the doctor explained the Xrays showed the tail was a “real” one, with regular tail bones like a cat or a monkey. She didn’t have that shrunken human tailbone curling under her pelvis like other, human, women. The doctor showed that to all of them too.
But he couldn’t get x-rays on Seung last night, hard as Seung tried to cooperate. He said he couldn’t get them on Dance either. Seung had scales like Dance’s, scales that could do weird things if he wasn’t careful, like reflect the x-rays all round the room.
Peach kneaded her claws on his forearm, hard, and it helped him wake up. Seung took a painful deep breath, trying to pay attention. “More?”
Dr. Alexander nodded. “There’s more.”
“Why do they leave these guys down here, and let a backwater doctor like you poke them around?” Keisha said, very fierce.
“Excuse me?” he said. “Because Dance said he wouldn’t tolerate anyone else. He said he wasn’t going anywhere he didn’t want to and Seung wasn’t going anywhere Seung didn’t want to, either. Having the swamp turn into a large radioactive hole might not persuade anyone that the two of them are dangerous, but having an important part of Virginia turn into a crater, that’s different.”
“Okay, so the military guys… there must be some story about the lab that made these guys,” Keisha said. She was shivering a little.
“Of course. Dance knows a little about it, but he doesn’t remember how he knows it. So do his partners. I’ve spoken to a local man named Pen who told me that he worked at a place that made many zoomorphs, and he confirmed some of the odder details. But his term of service apparently ended when someone tossed him in jail and brainwashed him, which implies he doesn’t remember much.”
“Brainwashed him?” Keisha said.
“Correct, that is what I said,” he said coolly. “Our Trio here, they have a history they don’t remember clearly. They have nightmares similar to Seung’s.”
Seung stared up at the ceiling. At the cracks. Things that leaked. Like his brain, really.
“Bad dreams,” Keisha said. She looked at Seung, and then around the clinic. Not a great place to try to sleep. Besides, pain like that was enough to give anybody bad dreams. Keisha was starting to not believe it when he said it. It’s not just this place, she told him without a word spoken, just glaring into his skull. But we’ll talk about it later.
“You’re telling us a lot about their problems,” Keisha said slowly.
“They offered to help. You might have some of the other puzzle pieces.” Dr. Alexander shrugged. “It is up to all of you to put them together.”
Seung was still staring at the ceiling. At the water stains above him.
“You got a helluva bedside manner, Doctor,” Keisha said.
“So I’ve been told. So that’s what I’ve got for you so far. I should know more in a few days.” The doctor pushed himself away from the counter, started washing his hands again, even though he didn’t touch any of them.
“Wait, wait–” Keisha said, frowning. “You said no other nagas unpinned. That mean there’s other nagas somewhere?”
“See, I knew you’d want the facts. Are you guessing there’s money involved?”
“Brainwashing,” Keisha repeated grimly, folding her arms again. “Stinks of money.”
He nodded. “I’ve told you about the military lab that is working with the horse farm lab. They tell me our two nagas were made in a secret military project, no records, nothing to see. Our two are genuine Black Ops Nagas. The military lab supervisor told me they hope these two were the only ones ever made.” He gave a grim little smile. “Not the end of it, of course. Some black market operation stole scraps, and they cloned things. They grew out a watered-down version. Cloud nagas have light skin and hair and sometimes light eyes. The makers used a ceramic as the pins in their backs instead of the metallo-ceramic the original lab used on Seung and Dance. It’s much better.Tthe ceramic substance isn’t able to start migrating the way it did on these two. The cloud nagas stay stuck in purely human form, they just have this potential tissue buried in them. They only grow out if the pin is broken out of them like Seung’s, or if somebody does surgery to take their pins out. Now, who might try unpinning them, and when, that’s something the military have been watching for.”
Keisha grunted. “Do those white nagas get sick from back pain like Seung?”
“I don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if they did have pain. I’ll see if I can find out about that.”
“How would a chunk of metal pressing on a nerve keep your fangs and your tailbone from growing out?” Keisha objected.
“The lab is working on the metal from Seung’s back, so they can find out if someone manufactured it with a substance to inhibit growth or neural transmission. They want to know if it matches the pins from autopsies on cloud nagas.”
“So they tried unpinning white ones?”
“Yes, killed them on the table. They claimed all three were sick anyway with immune system disorders that developed as they aged. We know some of them have died of simple old age.”
“Apparently in their eighties or nineties or something, with records like old photographs to match.”
“That makes no sense. Dance and Seung aren’t even thirty–”
“We don’t know that.”
Keisha’s back was very straight, standing between Seung and the doctor, as if she would guard him from the unkind truth.
The doctor stared back at her. “It’s impossible to guess the age for these two. The scientists from the first lab were able to prevent tissue rejection, they inserted the metal to stop the tail growing out until later, they somehow connected the power plant to those scales, and then there is that parasail structure–” Dr. Alexander faded off for a moment then snapped back to reality. “The military lab technicians don’t know how any of it was done, or much about who did it. When I ask for lab work, they jump to it. I ask for records, I get it back overnight. Our scientists don’t even know how the bugs are being made. They’re watching how they grow the bugs in tanks right now, they know what goes into those tanks and what comes out, and they still can’t figure it out. This is a different window into maybe how that gets done. We’re trying to find our way around somebody else’s work, and frankly, it’s horrible because these so-called researchers clearly didn’t study or anticipate the consequences.”
Seung took in a deep breath, and Keisha put out her bandaged hand and rested it flat on his chest. “Easy,” she said, looking at him, and he got the breath in, and another, and he nodded. “Good,” she said, and brushed his face with that mittened hand. She looked at the doctor. “Okay. Go on.”
Doctor Alexander jabbed a pointing finger toward the window. “Our technicians have no idea how they did it, or how long ago they did it. Emma and Drin say they believe Dance and Seung were decommissioned like weapons, boxed and thrown into frozen storage for years, nobody knows how long. That’s when Dance got those freezer-burn scars on his face. Seung too, perhaps. Dance remembers the freezebox looked just like the bug-boxes do. Emma remembers seeing Dance frozen in the box.”
Seung dragged in a breath deep enough to make his back hurt but it didn’t help.
The doctor pointed a finger at the fridge sitting next to the sink. “We don’t know how they did the freezing, or the unfreezing either. Someone took all the nagas out again, unfroze them, somehow got them back up on their feet, and sent them on their merry way with what appear to be false memories. What they know often doesn’t match up on dates or styles or records or anything. There’s always a blank spot, too. Hey, just a traffic accident, nothing special, minor little head trauma caused that hiccup in their memory, happens all the time. Until you start digging it all up, the way Emma does.”
Seung couldn’t get enough air. He felt himself thrashing a little, trying to sit up, and Keisha rested that hand on his chest again. “Doctor Alexander, you want to raise up the end of the gurney for him, get him more comfortable?”
“Sure,” the doctor said, and started working the old-fashioned crank.
Seung heard himself panting.
Keisha looked at him, her hand moving up and down when his chest sucked in air. “We can stop, talk about it later,” she said in that tone that meant, it’d be better if we keep him talking now.
“Not bug,” Seung said, looking up at her.
“Oh no, you’re no bug. I know that. My man, you’re a lot tougher and more dangerous than those damn bugs, and you gonna get even more tough,” Keisha told him, with those fierce dark eyes on him.
Doctor Alexander stood up, looked at him. “Okay?”
“Outlive the bastards,” Seung said, angry suddenly.
Keisha put up her hand, and with one bruised fingertip she traced the high curve of Seung’s near cheekbone. Then she touched the far one. “You did.”
Seung sighed noisily. “Okay. I’m okay. Go on.” He glared. “Tell more.”
Keisha nodded, and turned her gaze back to Doctor Alexander. “Okay. What else can you tell me about these cloud guys?”
“Emma says that during the time Dance and Seung were frozen, that’s when the second labs cloned the scraps and grew out those cloud nagas. She calls them black market labs, so does Drin. They say the procedures must have been organized illegal activity.”
Keisha stared at him. “Why? Why do it?”
“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?”
Keisha grunted. “Money again. But who’s the market for it?”
“Bother you,” Peach said, looking up at Keisha.
“Yeah, mama, you’re right,” Keisha said, and stroked Peach’s hand.
Seung stared at the ceiling. Then he rubbed at his eyes, leaned his face into Peach’s shoulder, and felt himself falling toward a pit of sleep.
“Seung,” Keisha snapped, and he blinked at her.
“Boss lady,” Seung said.
“You got questions on any of this shit?”
“Later,” he said.
“Seung, you’re mine,” Keisha told him, leaning in close, glaring into his eyes. Then she gripped his ear, hard, and jerked him alert enough to listen again. “Don’t you be running off or anything. I don’t care what’s growing in you or what’s hanging off your ass, you’re my business. Mine. We’re gonna take good care of you. You got that?”
His eyes drifted shut, and he smiled. “Yeah, boss lady.” And sleep fell on him, hard.