When the Devil Drives

browned shrimp on grill

Barret is hungry. Ravenous.

He realizes this in a bewildered rush, watching Pen breathe with his hand resting on the now-open case. When did he eat? Did he even eat?

The whole house vibrates. Dance, who looks green-seasick and is literally undulating back and forth (it takes a village to support that crazy tail) is reaching an unsteady hand towards the case.

“Finish it,” Pen whispers, in a dry, snakeskin voice.

Collard greens, Barret thinks, suddenly. Shrimp boil. Absolut vodka shots; why am I hungry now? What a stupid time to be hungry.

Dance, Emma’s hand on the small of his back, he’s picked up the bow. Rosins it, with shaking fingers. The room rattles and is silent.

Dance picks up his instrument, and the sound comes, and Barret immediately understands why he is hungry: he is alive, and life, right at this moment, is perilous.

It’s perilous.

Dance plays with ferocity. It’s Locatelli, but mirror-universe Locatelli, because Dance is playing every ornament with a funny emphasis, flattening the intonation, refusing to indulge anyone’s fancy, and the notes, Barret thinks, are like peaked roofs in a Dresden cityscape, each, large and small, worked at precisely the same angle, an almost fractal sequence of similar shapes.

He’s carrying out a piece of code, Barret realizes, and with each note almost identically weighted, he’s producing something close to pure aural texture.

Dance nods, and Barret shifts the notebook pages almost as fast as he can read it, holding the little thing braced on the table where Dance can rely on seeing it when he looks up. He’s half-reading, half-remembering what he wrote, and sometimes not looking at it at all. He’s a drillmeister; Dance keeps up the same steady pace he started with, although his arms are moving in tight, tired arcs and he’s breathing in long, dragging gasps as if he needs an asthma inhaler.

There’s a strange harmonic to this viola that Barret’s never heard before, and the overtone is getting stronger as Dance tires. Dance is a powerful athlete of a musician, and it’s not that long a piece, but it’s beating him up with its metronomic precision. His fingering is a little strange, a little tense. Dance is never going to make his way through the passage with the dreadful thirty-second notes if he’s fighting like that, but he’s not lagging on the approach one bit.

It’s like watching a jet lumbering toward a wreck, and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, anybody can do about it.

Barret watches sweat beading at Dance’s temples, rolling down his neck. His face doesn’t change at all as he dives into a scissoring set of opposed and falling notes. His face, Dance’s face, is a perfect blank.

It’s not the Baroque face: Barret knows that face, knows that stillness well. It’s not the face of a musician triumphantly herding home a wickedly beautiful piece of music that he has dreamed, inferred, midwifed into being. Barret knows that face too.

And it really isn’t the face of a guy being eaten alive by his own music, which is sort of what is happening with those mind-boggling 32nd-notes. Then he thinks: oh ho, maybe it’s already happened, boyee.

Very funny. But seriously, there should be something going on there. Come on, Dance: A big goofy grin. Something. But it’s hard to concentrate all of a sudden. Goddamn it, he’s hungry. He’s starving. Barbecue ribs, blackeyed peas, bacon, coffee…shit, turn the page, concentrate…

roof dome tile mosaic
perfectly repeated motifs

What the fuck is happening to Dance?

During the final several measures, the sort of matched-pair evil weathervanes spinning on top of the Dresden roofs, way up at the very top of the piece, something goes tight in the cords of Dance’s neck. There’s a snick of indrawn breath. There’s something new in Dance’s eyes– an inner membrane– and something horribly missing as well.

And Pen is moving. A blur. Barret had no idea he could move so fast.

There’s just a rush, and Pen is on the other side of the room, hunched and picking himself back up. Although Dance has stopped playing, the bow that Pen tried to wrench from his hand is just returning to position.

As Barret looks back, trying to understand what just happened, a thin line of blood begins to trickle from Pen’s nose down his upper lip. And there is a patch of white on one cheek that is just beginning to color as the blood rushes back into the area.

“Don’t,” Pen says, “don’t.”

He’s talking, Barret realizes, to Dance. Who doesn’t seem to hear him.

“Hypnogogic stasis,” Pen says, wheezing a little. “You’re in it, understand? Keep playing, you’ll go in deeper. That’s the preparatory state.”

“The what?” Drin’s voice. Quiet, but penetrating, cuts through the orchestral texture, Barret thinks.

Drin turns his head only briefly toward Pen. His eyes have gone flat and weird too, looking at Pen, his great big hands open in the creepily relaxed posture of someone fully prepared for destruction. It’s not like Drin at all. It makes Barret think he’s going to sock Pen back the other way across the room, or reach over and wring his neck.

“Built into the Deltas,” Pen says steadily, staring at Dance, “the way we controlled them, see.” Emma sucks in a breath, her face white and furious, but Pen interrupts her. “My dear, it’s cruel. It’s all kinds of unimaginably cruel. We could not let them be truly free agents.”

Dance, still holding the bow, viola still raised to his chin, makes a sound in his throat.

“You will,” Emma snarls, then, “stop referring to Dance in the bloody third person, like he’s not even here. He’s right here! Talk to him! Say your piece to him!”

Pen looks startled for a second, then grief-stricken. Too much, Barret thinks; Dance is too much for him to take. But Pen nods, and walks, slowly and deliberately, back to Dance.

“Right. Right. The lady,” he sighs, “is always right. Dance of Knives, you are a Delta,” Pen says. “By the time you invoke the final modifications, with your viola and with your own voice, you will have placed yourself in the preparatory state. Fundamental instructions can then be imparted by your handler, failsafes.”

“Like the guy in the Manchurian Candidate,” Barret hears himself say. “The one that got programmed to kill.”

There’s an awful silence.

“I,” a voice says. Dance’s voice, but more. And less. “I am a musician. I will not– I play. Music. Not– No. My lovers– I… want me back.”

“Yes,” Emma says softly. “Remember what I said?”

“No matter…how big.. a dragon, you… you… it hurts, Emma…”

“You don’t understand,” Pen says simply. “You can’t let him go any further. Not without tossing him into hypnogogic stasis. He’ll be… dearest, he’ll be nothing but programs, at that point. Nothing but–hah! semantics.”

“Bloody, evil bastard!” Emma is white with fury, her face wet as rain.

He nods to her, his eyes wide and full of understanding. “Yes, well, I am that. If you want to kill me, it’s only cosmic justice, after all. I’ve been trying to kill you since you got here.”

Barret feels his Moleskine falling from his hand. “Pen?” he whispers. “Jesus. Pen?”

Pen turns around and gives him a grin. It’s ghastly.

“Estelle, don’t you know. All her life, and never a moment’s peace, until she found me. What would you have me do? Hand her over to Turner? It’s your fault,” he says suddenly, shouting, and now he is talking to Drin. “Your fault. You brought this in. You got Turner’s attention. You waked the whole mass of them, and now they’re in the woods, they’re in the storm–and they’re in my house. Tree’s house. You are the source of all this ruin.”

Emma, her mouth a thin line, begins to cross the floor, but Drin stretches out a hand, touches her, draws her close. Drin is rocking a little on the balls of his feet. That face, Barret thinks, he looks like an old man. He doesn’t even look at Pen. “Dance,” Drin says softly. “Dance, you okay?”

“I. Was made, I’m– what? Not a person.” Dance’s head turns towards his lover.

“You’re you,” Emma says fiercely. “You made yourself. Remember? You named yourself.”

“It’s a wash, dear,” Pen says, rather sadly. “He’s stuck halfway, and it’s terrible, but if we go on–”

“If we go on,” Drin says quietly, “what? What did Turner ask you to do?”

Pen laughs, as horribly as he grins. “Ask? Oh no, there’s no asking. There’s a nice card at Christmas, and you have no choice. Not if you love anyone.”

His hands flex. That awful, glazed, inward gaze suddenly flickers. “No. It’s right you should know. I’ll tell you. Because you are Navarre. Because she is who she is. Because Barret-lad will never have breakfast with me again, if I am silent. Here. This is how it works. It’s all in a name. Isn’t it, darlings? Five notes. A special intonation. Code rings in the breakfast cereal, eh, Barret? Five notes to sing, spread across his name. Then I tell him to kill you.”

“And I do?” Dance asks hoarsely. “And I do?” Dance turns toward the man with slow decision. “If you hurt. Mine.” he hisses. “Won’t– won’t forget. What you did.”

Pen shakes his head. “Well, see, lad, you would forget. You do forget. It’s the one thing I know clear as air. You’d have done it, yes, and her, too, very possibly. Done it and then gone, erased. You would lose even your loss. Even that… Only I broke the spell,” and Pen’s eyes are wild, “and killed the princess.”

“I won’t let Estelle die,” Drin says then. His face is almost gentle. Pen wrenches around to stare at him. “Christ, Howell, don’t you talk to anybody? Remember you have backup? Pen,” he says, using his first name, Barret thinks for the first time, “we’re not going to let her die.”

“Can you stop him? Turner? Navarre, have you gone mad? You think you can stop him? Do you even know where he is? Because he knows where you are.”

“Well,” Drin says then, “I’m tired of running, anyway. We’ve run enough. I give you my word that Estelle will not come to harm.”

Barret, almost against his own will, starts to laugh. Well, he’s seen a few kings, in his time. They don’t do this lightly.

“You want Turner to leave you alone? So does Auren Han, and I assume that’s no small resource,” says Emma.

Pen makes a choked noise in his throat, shaking his head.

“You,” Emma says, slowly and clearly. “You have to help Dance. You programmed all these Deltas. You understand.”

“Ahh, but, Pen, you don’t know what name to use,” Drin says coolly. “His old file-code name won’t work. He’s been desensitized to it. He doesn’t answer to it. Broke it off inside him, as he puts it.”

“Then the failsafe code is jiggered,” Pen says. He looks at Dance. “If it doesn’t work, there won’t be a you.”

“Dance, darling, ” Emma says, and Barret feels a rush of fear, watching her hand lift towards the beast; “could you just hold off for a moment?”

Dance blinks at her, and the membrane slides across his eyes. He tilts his head oddly as if he’s scenting her. It’s not– Barret has seen zoomorphs, he knows them. He knows and trusts Dance. This is nothing he knows.

But Dance does lower the bow. It could be coincidental, for all Barret can tell.

Pen reaches across for Barret’s little midi keyboard, taps out the positions of notes on the keys. “There, and you’ll have to figure out which tuning system for the instrument–”

Emma puts out her hand, and then Drin is right there too, blocking view of Pen, putting up his hand in front of Dance’s face as if to let him scent on that instead.

Dance’s nostrils flare wide.

“Put the bow down,” Drin says quietly, and makes them all suddenly and horribly aware that in Dance’s hands, that thing is also a weapon.

Dance swings his right hand wide toward Emma. “Take.”

“Good,” Emma says, touching the bow. “That’s good.” She pries it, ever so carefully, from his stiff hand, and Barret tries to remember how to breath again.

Dance holds the viola out in his left hand toward Drin, who lifts it gently out of his grip.

“Now, ” Dance says, head turning, eyes focusing again on Pen.

“What are you going to–” Emma says.

Dance’s head lowers slightly, and his tail rolls into coils, and then he’s pushing Drin aside as if the big man is merely so much featherweight. He shifts forward with most of his weight on the surface of the tail, feet touching down, apparently for balance, now and then. Then he stops, only his toe-tips on the floor, looming over Pen. “You killed…many… with your codes. Many of me.”

“I gave you life, as well, I gave you your abilities–”

“Oh god, you did make the Delta Nagas. You made them. You utterly evil–” Emma gulps for air. “They didn’t work. Oh God they didn’t work, we only saved twenty of the white ones in human form from that last warehouse, oh merciful Christ, I remember–”

“You… made me?”

“I don’t know how much of you I created, with my research, I don’t!” Pen cries out.

“You won’t kill me… Mercyman.” Dance turns his head as if it were on a gyroscope. “I have a name. They know– my name. Drin knows it.”

Drin leans forward, looking at Emma. “I could try it, try the notes. But there’s no guarantee what it releases. It could be a kill switch of several different kinds, couldn’t it, Howell?”

“It could make him his own creature forever, and also a shark frenzy in my house,” Pen says, staring up.

“Uh, dudes?” says a thin little voice, and Barret recognizes it as his own. “I don’t think it’s so precise anymore, he’s reprogrammed himself, playing under his new name, all these years. I would guess.”

“I wouldn’t trust that,” Pen says.

“I will trust Barret,” Dance says in that odd flat voice.

There’s a silence. One of those breathless, airless pauses before all hell breaks loose.

And then Dance is singing the notes himself. Singing out his name, on five notes, in Korean. Barret has no idea why he’s so certain it means Dance of Knives, but he is.

Dance tilts his head back until his throat shows and his head is tipped onto his shoulder muscles. He turns with blind accuracy. He lifts out his hands toward both Emma and Drin.

“Here he is, waiting for it,” Pen says, gasping. “My God, both of you. He has rewritten himself. Unique.”

“What kills the kill-switch? You don’t want Turner giving Dance’s orders,” Emma snaps, grabbing Dance’s right hand. “We want to free him, make him own person!”

“Give him back to himself,” Drin says, and takes the left one.

“Tell. Me.” Dance sounds flat.

Emma doesn’t wait for Pen to struggle past his tics. She grips Dance’s wrist.

“You are autonomous,” Emma says, slow and clear. “You will chose the codes you want. No input is a command. Your next command code will filter all input channels.” Then she looks up at Drin, and blinks away tears, and she says, “Remember I love you.”

Dance’s body gives a little shiver.

“Good,” Pen gasps, nodding at Drin, who repeats it. “Now the notes again–”

Dance lifts his head upright again, blinks, sings the notes in a clear, smooth voice. Then he gives a little shudder and a series of five strong s-shaped curves and streaks of brilliant colors run down his back, down through the tail, the last one ending with a little burst of interference rainbow at the end. Open-mouthed and blinking, he sags down onto his knees, shaking his head. “Shit, that felt weird.”

Emma strokes his hand. “Do you remember what just happened?”

Dance nods. Then he looks up, and smiles, and frees his hands. “Pen,” he says. Dance starts to laugh, a great loud roaring laugh, and the end of the tail whips around with a little zzzzipping noise, and then he’s holding Pen Howell in a wrap of about four coils as effortlessly as a kitten. Dance brings him back closer to the window, tilting Pen gently to be seen better in the cracks and edges of the light that come through. “You look ill, Mercyman.”

“That’s right, I’m dying.” Pen, for some reason, is smiling.

Ahh, Barret realizes then. It worked. Nothing much has happened, on the surface. Pen is delighted they’re all still alive.

Dance the quiet little musician is back with them, smiling a fierce, angry smile. “You know Naga venom. Better than anyone.”

“Of course–”

“You know… we can learn. The venom glands can learn.”

Pen stares at him. “I didn’t know that. So few of your series lasted long enough to learn anything.”

Barret winces.

The very tip end of the tail comes up and wraps around Pen’s skull in a familiar way. “I can… smell it. Cirrhosis. Not just from drink. From the old lab toxins.”

“We all thought we’d never die,” Pen says, almost too breathless to be defiant. “Just get on with it!”

“Cats… play,” Dance murmurs.

Emma cries, “Dance– No!”

“Do you know… what Medusa venom is like?” Dance says, and his voice is deeper, suddenly full of timbre, and the eye membranes snick open as he leans over Pen. Open.

Pen wheezes, staring upward in horror. “Yes, by God.”

“Did you make Lacey, too?” Dance asks, like a cello sounding melancholy notes.

“No!” Pen says.

“How many… did you kill with your own little hand?”

“I don’t know! I lost so much in prison, in the Cell, I cannot testify to it! I am sorry, by God I am, for the failures that we had to put down. I am resigned to my guilt over that, and I am most sorry to see any living thing in such pain.

“Ahh,” says Dance. “Drin?”

“Yes, love,” Drin says.

“Were you one of these killers too?”

“Yes. I told you I was one of the handlers. I do remember… killing some of the failures. Mercy killings, yes. Then I came out of retirement to deal with insane black market creations, the failures who attacked people.”

Dance nods once. Then he cocks his head oddly on his neck, looking at Pen.

“Did you know… that a really old Medusa can also learn to modify venoms?” Dance says.

Pen says, “No, I– I never guessed Lacey– It’d be a mercy, I suppose.” He sighs and rubs his eyes. Pats the coils wrapped around his chest. “A favor, yes.”

“Yes… wouldn’t it,” Dance murmurs. “Which is why I’m not going to do that.”

And the tail slides loose, props Pen up against the wall. Dance shifts away. “I’ve got a good taste of you now, Pen Howell. I can try biting you later to cure some of your problems. I don’t know that it will fix much of the old scarring and damage, but I can do something.”

“You can’t fix everything, lad,” Pen says.

“He just offered to help you, after you tried to–” Emma says.

“Of course. Military advisors added a late change order. Make the Nagas know weaknesses in their prey. Needs safety backups. Of course it backfired. The regular cloud Nagas wouldn’t envenom to kill except at direct threat. Something to do with making them musicians, we thought. Only used venom to heal, to give mercy, to sedate. Can’t assume anything about Black Ops versions. Too many secrets.”

After–” Dance looks at them all,” –After I play the viola correctly. I still need to– finish unpinning stuck bits.” Dance shifts around in figure-eight loops on his tail back to Emma. He settles down onto his feet, leaning back into the tail like a prop. Then he sighs, kisses her wet cheek, and takes the bow from her. She hands him the viola too, and a chin-cloth from the case.

Dance leans back onto his tail a moment, wipes off his face with the cloth, and folds it onto the chin-rest. Then he lifts the viola to his shoulder, looks at Barret, and says, “I was so stupid tired I figured Auren and his buddy would give us this correct tuning. Even tone, I assume–Locatelli must have used that late in his life. Fifty per cent chance coin toss, yes? What was I thinking? I should have stopped.”

Barret looks at him and smiles. “I’m not sure you could stop. There’s several different tunings it could be, if it’s just another code. But Locatelli himself, he’d have been only eventone or meantone, right?”

“Meantone, yes. Should have started that way,” Dance says. Then they both look at Pen, who has folded up until he’s sitting on the floor at Drin’s feet, head bowed in apparent exhaustion.

“Christ,” Emma growls. Then she looks at Dance, and beckons with her hand, and when he steps into her and kisses her again, she’s tugging on his hair. “God, Dance, don’t ever give me a heart attack like that again.”

“It was not deliberate,” Dance says, and kisses her face near the corner of her eye, where water is leaking out. “Don’t cry.”

“Tune your bloody viola right,” she says, gulping, “while we can still hear ourselves think.” They can already hear the high wailing harmonics starting to whisper from the roof; the air is starting to move again.

Dance settles the chin rest in place with the cloth, pauses, looks at the cloth, frowns. “I’m wondering if this is part of it too,” he says, and sniffs the cloth. “How odd. It smells like… me, but just a little different. Bigger.”

Emma leans in, sniffs it, makes a surprised face. She says, frowning, “It smells nice to me.”

“You know, I believe that instrument first came from another naga, an earlier one who lasted some years– partly natural mutation,” Pen says suddenly. “It was retuned for you.”

“Right,” Dance says, with a sharp look at Pen. Then he jerks his head aside, and resettles the instrument, and starts plucking strings and adjusting pegs.

smoking barbecue grill food
Roasted Garlic Too

He pauses for a moment, frowning at Barret. “I could just murder a burger. Milkshake. Mmm.”

Barret looks at him and starts to laugh. “Pizza, nice big piece of apple pie, some nice hot coffee–”

Drin smiles. “Bacon and eggs, second the coffee vote–”

“Sushi,” Emma says firmly. “With fresh sardines and crawdads for you, Dance.”

Dance nods, and plucks again. “Mmm. Beignets with cinnamon.”

That’s when they hear the chimes downstairs ringing out.

===

collaborative effort from the newer edit, coming out of the googledoc version in “All Together Now”

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