Teo is chopping firewood. Well, at least that’s what’s telling himself. The heat and humidity are building up to a thunderstorm, but it’s not really registering. He had impatiently stripped off his sweaty tee and flung it into a pile of wood splinters behind him without even thinking about the heat. Each chop is marked by a short, sharp bark of rage. The axe had to be pried out of the chopping block after every stroke, and that’s just making him angrier. His exclamations are also getting louder each time, although that hasn’t seemed to register either. The axe head buries itself in the block again, and sticks. Teo pulls it out with a roar of disgust and reaches for another ragged chunk of oak.
It won’t come.
IT… WON’T… COME.
He turns his head more when it won’t pull free of the tumbled sloppy pile. He reaches down for the green vine grown around through it, snagging around the chunk he wants.
The vine twirls upward along the axe handle, grows six inches in diameter and pulls away the wood, yanking him off balance. He plants his feet, opens his mouth in a giant roar, and yanks his end of the wood closer to him. The vine gives him six inches and then pulls away the wood so fast he staggers along three paces, stumbling.
Another vine drops down from the tree overhead, flicks up around the axe head, and strips the handle right out of his hand. He can’t see, the sweat is dripping in his eyes, he grabs after the vines, catches at the wood with both hands. The vine shoves the wood into his gut crossways like it’s sweeping him down with a broom, and releases its grip while he falls on his ass.
The sound of an older brother sighing in exasperation is so familiar he’s shocked still by it, still clutching the chunk of branchy useless slash that he fought so hard to get. Had he really been about to chop that useless hunk of wood? He twists around to glare at Drin, feeling like he’s twelve years old again.
“MIERDA!” he spits, glaring hard, and trying not to look at the ruined chopping block.
“Yup,” Drin says. He holds out one open hand. A vine drops down from above, releases an open thermos bottle into Drin’s grip, taps Drin’s wrist and points the tip like a warning finger at Teo. How can a snaky green tail tip look like a disapproving teacher’s finger, anyway? Wait! A tail tip? Naga.
Two of them.
Tag-teaming Nagas. Teo feels the hair on his head try to rise, even though it’s floppy with sweat. Conditioning is hard to break, even though he’s pretty sure now they’re not the threat he’s been told they are.
Or at least, not the stupid, irrational crazy threat they were reported to be.
On the other hand, everything he’s heard about the bug troops running loose around here suggests you’d have to be pretty stark screaming insane to wade into battle with those things – maybe that’s where they put some of it.
“How’s the tailbone?” Drin says, and stands there holding the thermos.
“It was my ass, not my tailbone.” Teo mutters grudgingly. “It’s fine.”
“Uh huh,” Drin says. He looks up, flicks a two-fingered salute as if he can see somebody moving away through the tree overhead, and then he waves at the log pile. No green vines in it now, and Teo didn’t notice a change there. He should have noticed something that big! Doesn’t hear it either, although his own breathing is damned loud.
“You won’t hear ‘em,” Drin says. “Want some water?”
Teo takes the water and gulps some. “Stop mind-reading me. I’m the one that’s supposed to do that shit.” He sighs heavily.
“You try mind-reading the Tail Twins right now, you wouldn’t like what you got from ‘em. Bad idea to scare ‘em,” Drin says.
“I’m scaring them? But yeah, I’m not sure that I’m very fond of them, either.” Teo is trying to hold onto his anger, but he’s deflating fast. He always has. He looks frankly at his brother. “What happened to ‘They’re vicious killers who eat babies for breakfast’? Don’t tell me I’ve been LIED to.” There’s acid dripping from his tone.
“Oh, they are. Murder a dozen eggs every morning, those two, and they’re downright hell on barbecued chickens.”
Teo rolls his eyes hard enough that Drin can hear them pop in their sockets. “Ha.”
Drin just lifts one eyebrow. Oh man, that fucking older brother eyebrow!
“No, I mean it. Ostensibly I was sent here to destroy every trace of this deadly female naga that never should have been created in the first place, and has the capability to wreak havoc on this planet. I SAW that woman. She’s fucking confused about even having a tail, and she sure doesn’t look murderous. They’re ALL dangerous, but not mindless like I was told. They think. They live lives and… love people.” He makes a pained face. “MIERDA!”
“Oh yeah, right, mindless brutes, or so I was told,” Drin says, and there’s something glittering hard in his voice. “But our two were made as Black Ops Nagas, smart enough to figure things out for themselves, and they turned out healers more than assassins. You see them in bug battles, yeah, they’re efficient killers, but that’s not where they want to live all the time. And God She only knows what Grace was made from. And gee, come to find out, Hal’s figured out there’s other kinds of nagas out there running around too, did you know that? At least fifty, sixty years of different kinds of zoomorphs and at least two other kinds of nagas getting dumped off here like it’s the outdoor cage for all those black market labs.”
“Goddammit. Those labs need to be shut down!” Teo shakes his head again. “La hostia.”
Drin closes his eyes a moment, sighs, and waves at the thermos, urging him to drink more. “Gotta adjust to drinking enough in this climate. Too many fucking kinds of labs, hell, where to start? You really need a briefing from Emma on that.”
Teo nods absently and takes a drink. When he hands it back to Drin, he uses his freed hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. Time for another type of briefing, he guesses. “Here’s what I know. Grace’s blueprint was an exercise, not something anyone planned to create. She was a fucking MIND exercise, a cerebral wank. Then someone swiped the plan, and The Company was afraid that someone would use it.” He shakes his head. “They sure don’t consider her a person, just a fucking THING. Some sort of incubator for churning out more killing machines for their use. Something too dangerous to exist.”
“Can’t be as simple as that, in the final impact. Or she’d look like a massive bug queen, laying there popping hatchlings, pregnant all the time.”
“I dunno. I kinda expected that when I was looking, but she’s…” he shakes his head, something strange in his voice. “She’s nothing like that.”
“She’s a goddamn fierce warrior when it comes to protecting her own, just like the Twins. Somebody put a big dose of guard dog in all of them. They’ve needed to be that for this community. You have to make allowance for that, Teo, none of them gonna let you chop off a leg by stupid accident.”
Teo glares upward, then down at his hands. A few blood blisters have already burst. The finger joints ache, the pads look like boiled sausages. Hell, his wrists are twingeing now that the rage has drained away. He was chopping much too hard, the axe was the wrong size and weight, it was all shit.
“I assume the cousins were still going on and on about loyalty to the Motherland when you left,” Drin says, gazing away at the woods.
“Of course they were. Along with my Higher Ups bleating on and on about your Glorious Deeds, Sterling Record, and Great Sacrifice in the end. But I knew you weren’t dead.”
Now there’s an expression on Drin’s face, and the full focus of those yellow eyes staring down somewhere far back into Teo’s skull bones is more like the exaggerated glaring eyeballs of some avenging Buddhist shrine statue. Except the veins pulse.
“How did you know that I wasn’t dead?” Drin asks. It’s his softest voice, the dangerous one. Teo just blinks at him. “You know, every damn thing that I ever did that was worth a good goddamn thing, got classified so deep that nobody would ever hear about it, ever,” Drin says, even more quietly. There’s a big vein beating in his temple, and tendons standing out on his jaw. “Whatever the fuck anybody told you about it, that was a goddamn lie.”
“Oh. I wasn’t told anything. Call it superior intuition. I had a hunch.” His face reddens. “Or you could call it wish fulfillment if you want, but I’d rather not talk about my neuroses right now.” He can’t continue, looking into those eyes, so his fingers pick distractedly at a frayed seam in his blue jeans.
“Was coming here your plan? Or somebody else’s?”
“They suggested I take the mission so that I could live up to your…yeah. Like I might have the right kind of upbringing and bloodline and heroic family to do this thing. I volunteered because it would keep the rest of the team relatively safe. I had a feeling that they were going to make all of us…migrate. No allowance for anybody else’s family connections or… They said they’d bring the volunteer back, but I had already figured that they couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. I had already sacrificed my personal life to my…” He snorts. “Career. So it wasn’t as bad for me than for someone with a Real Life.”
“Oh, so those orders came from the very highest levels, huh?” Now it’s louder. But Drin’s voice edges out into a peculiar depth, hoarse, a little odd vibrato.
“Yeah.” It’s practically a whisper. Then he tries to avert the storm. “Now that I’m aware that every fucking thing was manipulation, what do we do now?”
”The initial task is to fight bugs, worldwide,” Drin says in an even heavier vibrato. He sounds quite odd. Then he cuts off and frowns a little, glancing upward.
“Well, that’s kind of a tall order, you….” Then Teo’s looking up, too.
There are small dark flying things coming through the woods. Some of them zip around Drin, fly a few loops around Teo, and keep going. The sun hits some of them at an angle and suddenly they glitter and flash, and he sees yellow and black bands.
Drin sees him recognize what they are. Drin smiles a tight, strained little smile. “It’s a good idea to stay friendly with the local bees, too.”
“Bees? Why? What do bees have to do with anything?” Teo turns his head to follow another flight circling him. His memories of his brother warn him to pay careful attention.
“Bees attack bugs and bug labs, and not just European honeybees. I can call some of the various kinds.” Drin points at Teo. “What you just saw was that the bees know you too, just like me. You just haven’t been trained to direct them like I was.”
“Direct them?” Teo thinks twice about getting up.
“Yeah, call them to attack targets if we’re…” Drin stares off in the direction where the bees went. “…you can kind of it hear it if you’re paying attention.”
Teo twists his head around. “What? I’m just hearing that buzz you always hear in the hummocks or highlands above the swamp. Cicadas, possibly?”
“No,” Drin says. “If it’s really loud, that’s bugs on the march.”
Teo rocks back, pulls one foot under him to get up, and Drin makes a calming wave of his hand for him to sit.
“So you think you could teach me to connect to bees?” Teo is cheered by the prospect of learning something new, but then he grimaces. “The Higher Ups will be expecting another update on Friday. Have I come any closer to finding this female naga, and how close am I to completing my mission?” He staggers up on his feet, pats down his jeans, removes a device from his pocket and waves it at Drin.
The thing looks very, very familiar. The difference is that Teo has put it into a RFID-resistant case of metal and leather.
Drin gives a little grunt. “You’ve been reporting out of fear that the Company would murder the cousins, yeah?”
Teo sighs deeply, and confesses, “Maybe a little, but I’m convinced that those assholes will just bounce back like they always do.” Then he shrugs, and that movement hurts, too. “But I swallowed the propaganda, too. Brainwashing isn’t just for idiots, I guess. Or maybe I’m as idiotic as our cousins, just in a different way.” He looks at the thing in his hand. “I’m not feeling very patriotic and heroic anymore, just foolish. I have to destroy this thing, or at least lose it permanently.”
Drin is gazing off where the bees flew. “First we need to figure out where your toy reports to, and who’s on the other end of it. Who knows, we might find out the folks at the other end of that thing are friendly, and we can help out.”
“Pretty sure that they’re not friendly,” Teo warns. “It’s the Big Guns on the other end. They told me I’m reporting directly to the Mission General and the Commandant, who’s reporting to the Premier.”
Drin snorts. “Yeah, that’s not the sort of brass I signed on with, sure not like that when I got military discharge, let alone when I got… migrated here.”
“You don’t think it’s the Premier on the other end of this thing, anyway, not if we’re so completely cut off from home.”
Drin snorts. “Could be worse than any of the old brass. Let me burst another nasty manure bubble.”
“What?” Teo says, looking resigned.
“It could run straight to the guys selling bug lab troop militia services.”
“What?” Teo glances up, surprised.
“The Company made the bugs in the first place, in case you haven’t figured that out. Company labs cobbled together the first bugs themselves as heavy patrols for putting down civil disorder. Shock troops, to scare civilians at riots. Couldn’t keep control over them well enough, but they made great enemies of the state. Couldn’t do without ‘em.”
Teo is very, very still for a moment. “Yes. That makes sense.”
“Operating through human command was built in to start with. They were designed to be terror weapons.”
“The bugs were our own idea–”
“To start with. The bugs got their own ideas pretty damn quick.”
“Our own labs–” It’s just another shock. The visceral dislike Teo felt for those first illegal pictures of bugs he found, the uncontrollable nausea on seeing the first one mummified in a sarcobox, and then the smell in the labs– who would ever think of using those things for maintaining civil order? But yes, they would work beautifully as terror weapons. It makes sense, if they were intended as guerrilla warfare against unarmed people. That’s all they’re really good for, except in vast numbers like ants. “So they weren’t an invasion–“
Drin snorts. “Yeah, all those fairy stories. They made their own monster.”
“And you’d love to ambush the guys who front for bugs,” Teo says.
Drin’s face smooths out perfectly blank. “Capture and interrogate,” he corrects, still watching things in the distance. “Carefully, to get immediately useful information, not some kind of…” he grimaces. “…silly revenge.”
Teo looks thoughtful for a moment. He holds up the comm. “Perhaps a tech could alter this to reach someone else.”
Drin switches the distant gaze to Teo instead, and it doesn’t look any more friendly. “That decision is up to you, if you want to ask for our help.”
Teo just stares at him. He has to ask?
“Yeah, I’m not confiscating the toy,” Drin says. He swings around and starts walking off toward a deer trail through the scrub. A dark swirl bees comes up to meet him, swirls a dotted line over his head, and zips away ahead of him.
Drin’s in an odd mood, one that Teo can’t decipher, so he’s not about to jump on him in order to defend his honor, to protest his intentions. Instead he says, louder, “Did the bees find anything?”
“Come find out,” Drin says.
Teo shoves the comm back in his pocket, catches up, walks a few paces behind Drin’s left side. It’s so automatic that it startles him when Drin turns his head, just a nod to acknowledge he’s there.
Teo says, “I always knew I would never be able to go back, no matter what they promised. What do I have to gain by holding out on you?” He looks down at his wrecked hands. “Besides, why would I trust them instead of you?” He’s pretty sure Drin hears the distant echoes of hero worship.
Drin stops, cocks his head listening a moment, and looks at Teo. “Oh,well, life, liberty, and the pursuit of bug labs. Can’t have you packing along that thing on the kind of a fight where we don’t trust your master’s toys, right? Besides, who knows – we might find out the folks at the other end of that thing are friendly, and we can help them out too.”
“You are a fucking optimist!” Teo accuses. “And don’t call them my masters. I’m done with that bullshit.”
“Oh, well, I don’t mind a nice brisk fight either.” The corner of Drin’s mouth curls up just a little bit. “I’d be mad keen to get into it, man, what do you think?”
“Let’s do it.”
The bees come zipping back, past both of them, loop around on long flights into the woods in about six directions, and return, swirling upward over Drin’s head. He points ahead and gives a low tone in his chest, and the gathered mass scatters ahead of him in a broad cloud.
“What does that mean?” Teo says.
“Recon,” Drin says. “I think they found an abandoned bug lab.”
“Mierda — this close to the houses –”
“Yeah, Hal found out that some of the labs can set up on a water source and get running in three days, and some of them have been camouflaged pretty well,” Drin says. “Not well enough to fool you or me or the bees.”
“Or the nagas,” Teo says.
Drin smiles. It’s not a nice smile.
“Well, what are we going to do about it?”
“Try to figure out why they left it. Usually, it’s some kind of swamp contamination that gets into the circulation pumps, like they were moving too fast and sloppy hooking things up in the first place. Like those sites that you sampled for DA on the way down here.”
“They just abandon them? Isn’t that stupidly expensive?”
“Yeah. Which is why Hal has been trying to trace the moneymen. And why we want your toy examined carefully, properly.”
“Yeah, sure. I don’t even want to look at the goddamn thing anymore.” Teo pulls it out of his pocket and tosses it to Drin. “Just don’t screw me when you do it. You not exactly trusting me makes me not exactly want to trust you, y’know.”
“Lots more trust here in the swamp than we two ever got to have in the family manse, bro,” Drin says, looking at the case of the comm more than he’s watching Teo. “Let’s just say you fit in with the cousins a helluva better than I could manage.”
“Fuck you, Drin. That is NOT a compliment! I hated those money-hungry morons as much as you did. I just hid it better. All those psychology classes were good for something.”
“Beats splitting your knuckles open every goddamn time you have to deal with the fools.” Drin gives a crooked grin. “Hey, at keast I learned to get a haircut now and then.”
“Who knows? Maybe I’ll grow it out again, have all the girls drooling over me.” He makes a preening gesture, but his hair is shaved really short, so the gesture looks silly.
Drin holds out the comm. “You better keep it, it might have some kind of personnel sensor, and I don’t want to set it off with implants like Emma’s got. Damn thing might have an antipersonnel bomb on board.”
Teo snatches it from his hand, then smacks him in the back of the head with his other hand. And Drin just lets him do it. “And quit denying that you know me and I know you. Fucking close enough. That shit’s harsh when I came all this way to find you.”
Drin cocks up that eyebrow. “Have you seen the skeletons yet?”
“What skele…” Teo narrows his eyes and glares at Drin. “You’re yanking my chain, right?”
“Oh, not the pure bug hatchlings you saw back home. Or the dead humans you might have seen up north. Down here, the mutating bugs – where they zombied bug parts onto live humans, not just eating carcasses.”
Teo keeps thinking he’ll get used to this place, and yet somehow it keeps opening up huge yawning crevasses of horror that he has to figure out how to navigate. He has a vague memory of his older brother telling him, somewhere back in the shadowy cool of the house where they both grew up, that it’s just like that out in the real world, where people just die, and you have to be clever and quick on your feet and never give up, and still it might not be good enough.
“No,” Teo says. “No, I have not. Nobody briefed me about bugs being able to… being able to do anything remotely that… adaptable.”
“Oh, humans got no control over these bug troops at all, none. They operate off their own authority, the labs just run themselves, and the Bug Queens present various good offers through their human tools and various militias find bug troops just irresistible to use in places where nobody will ever believe the wild reports. Nagas being dangerous to humans? Pfehh, get enough bugs and those labs would eat up nagas, snip up all those lovely genetic tools, and use ‘em to build bug troops that are even more impossible to kill. So you get certain factions who think we oughta kill all the zoomorphs before the bugs can grab them.”
“Huh. The zoomorphs sound like the only hope we have left. The reports I read didn’t hint at the adaptability the bugs seem to have here, but they straight-out claimed that they were damn near invincible. Impossible to destroy in any normal situation.”
“Ideal enemy of the state,” Drin says.
“And somehow they’ve got worse here,” Teo responds.
“Sounds fucking miserable.”
“Along with the constant headache from that goddamn buzz,” Teo says.
Drin nods again.
“Okay, where do I sign up? Yeah, yeah, skeletons, I’m gonna freak over that, got it, move on. We need to get this mess sorted.”
Drin just gazes at him for a long moment. “I missed you.”
Teo grins. “Not as much as I missed you.”