“Well, I’m going to get out and take a look at our bridge abutment here, and see if I can make out anybody coming–” Drin steps out of the Jeep while Barret comments about some writer called Tim Powers. Drin walks around the back of the Jeep. He knows Dance will be coming around with him, automatic as a guard dog. Drin gives a little wave at the vehicle waiting behind them, and steps down off the road into the gravel.
The abutment has been reduced to two ruined thumbs of WPA concrete, clearly an old road bridge over water which is no longer there. It’s unclear why the water is gone, although he can see the old crumbling remains of banks, where the creek cut into a slope in the woods. It’s been dry long enough that the modern road crews tossed fill into the empty watercourse as if it was just another gully, and plowed onward.
Feeling silly, he sings out, “Well, if you’re listening, we’re here, ready as we’re ever going to be–”
The two great lumps of gray broken concrete rise up, unfold reaching arms from ribby wrinkled woman’s torsos, lift heads like groupers with open fanged mouths, screaming, and claws are swinging through the air at him.
There is an explosion of red fluids and gray stuff and chips of rock and the stuttering noise of guns as he falls. The guns are tearing apart something above his head, for a moment, and then they stop firing.
Instead, there are the howlings and screaming of the damned going on above him.
Drin is flat on the ground with somebody standing over him, screaming back, and lights are flaring blindingly, and there is the overpowering stench of burnt meat.
Something big and alive thumps down into the gravel next to Drin’s head, and an arm scrabbles briefly at the ground, and then Drin is staring into the eyes of the grouper. The mouth opens wide, and Drin rolls his head frantically aside, and he fells hot stinging fluid spray across his back. It sticks Drin’s shirt to his back and burns like some sort of fairly dilute acid.
He sees a flash of moving glitter, hears a meaty noise, and the fluid isn’t hitting him any more. He hears then the sound of something large making thumping noises as it falls away into the dry riverbed. It’s screaming, high and shrill, as it goes, and eventually the noises stops.
Drin blinks, twists, looks upward.
Dance is standing over him, mouth wide, with the tail swinging in wide arcs, the scales as brown as the rest of him, except where it is splashed with broad burnt-looking patches toward the tip–and the black is a mere coating of something that is flaking off in coarse chunks. Dance is breathing in big gulps of air, hands swinging around in opposite arcs to his tail, twisting his head around wildly.
Drin turns his eyes in the sockets, slowly, and looks at a wide ground plane scattered with debris. Some of it is shot up. some of it seems to have been burnt apart. There are disarticulated gray-skinned parts smoking on the ground. It’s only the thick, armored outer layer of skin that is gray. The inside is a mixture of what looks like red meat with the pearlescent tendons of any mammal on the planet, and greenish sections that seem organized quite differently, more hydraulic in nature, full of membranous sacs and iridescent, spilled fluids. And it stinks, oh God does it stink, of bug juice.
Dance shifts his bare feet, scuffling the dirt, and Drin can see that there are cuts on his shins where he bashed his legs in tumbling out of the Jeep. It is fascinating, reading upward the pattern of exactly what Dance was doing, just from the cuts and bruises on him. “Huh, uh, huh,” Dance grunts as he breathes, tail lashing in great ten-foot arcs.
That’s when Drin hears the other breathing. About eight feet away, somewhere off by his feet, something else is breathing in long, gurgling, rheumy exhalations that are growing shallower.
Drin lifts his hand, puts it out toward Dance’s leg, and manages to gasp, “Here, okay,” before he touches Dance.
Dance stands like a rock under the contact, still watching, breathing hard.
Drin pushes himself up on his elbow, scrabbles his legs around, looking for the other person breathing. When he gets his head up, he stares.
The other gray-skinned creature is just a head on a partial torso. It’s still alive because whatever severed it at the hip level was so hot that it cauterized the meat. And in that area, it is still ordinary red tissues. The oddly pupiled eyes shift in the sockets and blink with actual eyelids, the clawed fingers scrabble a little at its own mortal damage. Then the extraordinary round lampreylike mouth closes enough to fold the thick lips into shapes.
It slurs out words. “Oh Gaaawd, thaaank you.”
Then there are people screaming, and running feet, and hands ripping the shirt off Drin’s back, and bottles of water and baby oil wiped down him and scrubbing it off again to get rid of the acid, and it works.
He keeps saying, “Check Dance,” and then Dance himself is there, groaning, and hugging him, and so is Emma, and the tail is wrapped around all of them, the scales hot as a pan just out of the oven.
“Get back into the ice!” Drin says, “Go, go on, we don’t need you getting really sick, go–” but Dance won’t let go of him, so Drin just makes him go by getting up, with Emma’s help. They all stagger out of the mess, back onto the road, up to the Jeep.
“Get Dance sitting down, we need to cool him off right away,” Drin says, and he knows he sounds like bugs are less important than making sure Dance doesn’t explode like a bomb.