“There’s a little fluffy business,” Pen says then, “with maths. Isn’t there? Set of codes? Codes and rotations–Ah! Locatelli. You reverse-engineered the song, didn’t you, from the findings. Show me. No, first the numbers, then the tune. The–this is daft. Who did this?”
“Auren Han,” Barret says, “and his friend.”
Pen lifts his eyes from the instrument case to stare.
“Auren Han didn’t lock this case,” he says flatly. “Couldn’t. Hasn’t the wherewithal. This friend of his–Army background?” Dance senses the intensity behind the light and almost careless tone.
“I…don’t think so,” Barret says, his voice subdued.
“No,” Drin says softly and clearly from behind Dance. He nods once at Barret; there’s been a conversation, clearly, at some point when Dance was off chasing the music of the spheres or something. He has suspicions of a vague wisp of a Mozartian giggle, and the rest of his dream, or whatever music he was hearing instead of their voices, is gone. He hates those dreams. Always the fairy gold promises of something wonderful, and then, when he wakes up… nothing.
Barret, a real composer, says, “Auren mentioned that his friend said he studied under Goethe. We’ve no idea if it’s literal fact or not. He can be…very metaphoric about things. Elliptical. His… laboratory… is certainly…” he waits for a wind gust.
“We didn’t usually mess ’em with all the locks,” Pen says, musingly. Dance feels it again, incremental release of tension, as Pen scrubs at his beard and runs nervous fingers over the case. Just for a second, he’s forgotten, he thinks, but what Pen has forgotten, what haunts him: Dance is not sure.
Dance’s memory throws up a sharp whisper that fits nowhere, something heard at that point when his body stopped shivering, body core temperature failing, thrashing uselessly against dull nonreflective walls in the freezing box. Sarcobox dreams. Whispers, by no one he knows.
Worried men, whispering in haste over the sarcobox lid that will be opened after all, in the end, by somebody. By conspirators to murder.
It can’t be redone. They can’t close the case and redo the same thing again over and over. I’m not sure if it can be locked at all, if it’s just flattened back to a cardboard case, or if it has to be rekeyed every time it’s opened.
I don’t know, I told you I didn’t!
Doesn’t make sense, if the programmers expected the naga to use the instrument regularly to retune the mods. They bound the brute to the tusk in it the very first thing.
We must give the cloud larvae another binding object to fill that void.
Another voice, not as worried. Then your picador command has to hit when the viola case first opens. If the kernel-panic doesn’t do it, then our man could just tell the target to push the button himself. Add a secondary picador to take the target out later on, at some simple trigger. You can work it out. This might be just abstract enough to tempt our man. No big fuss. “Push the button” is my favorite thing, sounds so harmless. Yes, I had forgotten that we’d discussed that. Now, I don’t know why you’d be nervous. You were the one who said it was perfectly safe, as long as this old box holds that beast just inside hybernative temperature, but not so deep it can’t take the pic.
The first voice, bitterly angry. It doesn’t try to kill you every time the liver function is allowed to clear toxins.
A laugh. Not yet.
Pen gives a whistling sigh. “Got your list of numbers?”
Barret cranes his legs around, gets up, carries the Moleskin notebook over to him. Pen looks at it. Flips pages. Looks at the staves full of Locatelli, scribbled and blotted and hasty, with scratched-out bits and a few revisions in pencil. “Pretty tune,” he murmurs. For a moment Pen stares upward, blinking, and then his lips move, and then he scrubs at his face, and sighs. “It’s been so long.”
Dance rests both his forearms on the floor, turning onto his belly and dropping his head into his hand, stretches his spine, feeling the root of aching tail muscles reaching into the muscles of his floating ribs. Probably it’s just the atmospheric pressure changes, but things ache in weird places. He feels Drin’s hand, broad warm palm, smooth along the base of his tail, up into his lower back. He sighs. God, the touch feels good.
“Right, here are the numbers. Your–K Numbers? So and very so. And heeeeere’s the Locatelli correspondences, dee, dee, dee…” He frowns, and drums his fingers on the side of the case, and suddenly Dance hears a gentle resonance, a not-quite-echo.
It’s coming from inside the viola case.
Dance hums along with it. Can’t help it.
Then there’s pain.
Freezing hot pokers shooting up from the core of Dance’s pelvis through the top of his skull. It is so intense that he grovels on the floor, clutching his skull. “Gaaah,” he gasps, flattening himself, while the floor spins around.
Drin’s hand grabs hold of him, and that helps. Dance feels one of his heels kick out, his leg muscles seize, and then he’s loose again, gasping with his cheek on the floor as if he’s got a hangover.
“Christ,” Emma says, and she’s right there next to him, both hands on his back. Too close. Dangerously close, if he has more muscle spasms.
He scrabbles at the floor with one hand. “Get back, oh–oh please–” there’s the next soft ringing from the case, and Dance hears himself give the sound back, and then little pained whine of astonishment.
“Your mad scientist boyo rearranged a few things at the molecular level, in this case,” Pen says lightly, and hums, while Dance writhes on the floor. “Hang on, I’ll have it open in two ticks.”
Dance’s back arches up until he’s on his knees, with his mouth wide open, and there’s Emma with her staring wide eyes looking right into his face. She’s gripping his head.
She is right in front of him, hanging onto his neck, and then dragged down onto his shoulders, and he’s arched past her, pushing upright onto his feet with the triangular prop of his tail, and then he’s standing, with her arms looped round him like a necklace.
That’s when he feels Drin’s hands on the small of his back, bracing him there, holding him steady. If he is screaming or not, it doesn’t matter. They know he is.
Pen’s long fingers are splayed wide on the battered black leather. The viola thrums, a long, mournful note, unholy pure.
“That’s it,” he says.
Dance feels himself loosen, and he’s going to go down–but Emma has her feet under her, and Drin pushes at his back, and between them, they keep him braced up on that tail. The end of it writhes and it coils and it wraps around Drin’s legs as if it’s going to squeeze down on him, frantic, but instead the tip curls up onto Drin’s neck, and it hides behind his ear, and it hugs him, terrified. Drin turns his head, and he kisses the twisted coil gripping at his chest. Dance groans.
“Jesus,” Barret whispers.
“Right,” Pen says. “Here she is. Have a look.”