The Emperor’s Thumb

It was fucking noisy the next day. Keisha stared at the window. She’d never been a morning person. She was more the midnight party sort of gal. But it was dawn. Somebody showed up at dawn with a weedtrimmer and a mower and waded into the junk growing around the head of the dock next door to the clinic. Then there was a chainsaw. Then more guys in trucks, with ladders. Then they were doing something on the strip of land next to the clinic, guys tromping back and forth along the dock, whacking down loose boards and replacing others and swearing like dockhands and whistling, happy as some kinda silly Disney dwarves banging away.

Then, for hours, there was the racket of an old diesel chugging away, towing in a heavy load on the river. Tugboat, nudging in a houseboat in a manner leisurely even for them. Then it racketed away, and returned again with a second one, which got moored on the other side of the same dock. Hours passed as it maneuvered. The guys, meantime, were swarming over the first houseboat. A couple of plumbers hauled in their bags, and then boxes of flooring got carried in. Coupla women in both those groups, looked like wives.

They stopped frequently for breaks by coming over to the clinic, wiping off sweat and cracking jokes with Doctor Alexander and drinking up all the pop and bottled water in the fridge. They took the liberty of popping in and saying hi, grinning at Peach and shaking Keisha’s hand and saying nice things to Seung about his younger brother Dance. Seung didn’t try to argue. He just looked tired. When she asked if he wanted Dance to come by and translate for him, he shook his head.

It was the big older guy, Drin, who restocked the drinks. He came in with a couple more guys carrying about ten cases of new bottles. They stacked what they had in the fridge, and stashed the rest in the bottom cabinets nearby, while Drin flopped down in a clinic chair as if he had been visiting there for years. Asked the cute volunteer lady out there in the next room what they needed for next week, writing down notes like he owned the damn place. Hell, maybe he did. He was the one who bought all the stuff going into those houseboats next door. He was not hurting for investment money or places to park it, that was plain enough.

But he’d done time soldiering in some nasty places, judging by the way he kept his wallet, how he kept his hands free and how he didn’t wear any watch or rings. It was obvious in how he moved, how his eyes constantly checked things out. He was always watching the windows and doors and who had their hands in their pockets. He had eyes like a mercenary. Or some weird kind of cop, come to think. Dance’s husband being some kind of undercover spook, now that’d be a laugh. Military, at least.

It suddenly made some kind of sense that his partner Emma was not just that nice chatty librarian lady with lovely blue eyes. More like gun bluing, in Keisha’s opinion. A very pretty finish on a thick chunk of steel. How many people were ice-cold enough to measure their lover while he’s turning into an alien and screaming in horrible pain? Measuring him and writing notes. Doctor Alexander seemed to be grateful for it. He was a scientist, too, he didn’t see it as a sign of serious mental malfunction.

What was wrong with these people? Keisha asked herself grimly.

Drin seemed like the most human, but she was beginning to wonder. The eyes didn’t fit with the easy way he talked to everybody. But it did fit with the way all that expert authority was laid down so lightly that most people didn’t feel the effects on them at all. They just swerved off into new directions like it was their idea all along to go out and fetch back more cases of drinks, instead of annoying the pretty black lady receptionist with the feathers on her arms.

When Drin looked off into the room she was in, dimmed down so Seung could sleep, his gaze was cool and thoughtful and remote. The warmth, the affection, the jokes, all set aside. The guy underneath was not sentimental. He decided what needed doing, and he got it done. His own partners took up whatever human being was left in there. The remaining parts whirred around in calculations, and they were full of extra bits most people didn’t have. Scary bits, some of them.

The little timing wheel that considered whether some of his tasks required him to take Seung over permanently instead of borrowing sometimes, for instance.

No,
the decision came down, from that look.

Power requirements? Stature in the community? Conflicts with a different naga handler besides himself?

No.

He was just not interested in the flashy kind of power that mastering two nagas would give somebody in this community, or any other. Not his thing. Can’t be bothered. Too showy.

Oh, he could grab onto Seung, just take him over, fuck him through the mattress and make him like it, just like Dance. She’s seen the little flicker of interest, the stir, of course Drin likes looking at Seung. All those boxing muscles? That strange quick mind? Hell yeah, he likes all that. Seung would have very little to say about it. This guy had so much grip he could warp Seung into anything he wanted, and Seung would still end up better off, more comfortable. Oh yeah, Drin could find ways to accommodate the little things, like sex. They’d figure it out. Make Seung really happy.

But he was not going to do it.

Maybe Keisha should give up Seung for his own good. Just hand him over to Drin, tell him who his new master was, and take off. Responsibility over. It was not like Seung could follow her. Well, not right away. Seung would be so much better off with them than with her, and they all knew it.

Keisha ought to open her coward mouth and beg him to take on Seung, give him over to the guy, and please take Peach too, while he was at it.

But she didn’t move, and neither did he.

It made her suddenly furious.

Seung deserved better than she could offer him. So did Peach, dammit.

But no, Drin wouldn’t take him. Wouldn’t take Peach from her, either. Oh, he was probably sure that it’d be safer for everybody all round if he did command both of these Black Ops Nagas. It’d be a public service. Maybe he should, too. God knew the military would think so. But he was not going to do it.

Drin was not going to make Seung change his mind.

Cats choose their masters.

Seung chose her. It was called free will. Her naga, nobody else’s. That was it. Game over.

He could.

But he won’t.

The Emperor’s thumb goes downward.

Keisha looked at the guy with the tiger-yellow eyes, and she decided that she was taking her own crew somewhere else as soon as she could. But she was going to learn as much as she could before she left. She might need it.

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