Briefing on Bugs

Ivan pulls out a different flash drive, inserts that into the laptop, and his XO turns out the lights again. Ivan glances up.  “For those of you who are not familiar with bugs, this is one of the most highly classified parts of our work.”

That first picture of the fallen bug always shocks them.  Maybe it’s the distorted face, or the stained housedress.  Its white crab claws are tangled in heavy stainless-steel fishing mesh.  The swampers know how to make snares for anything.

The timed series shows the body melting away, decomposing.  Nothing about it is natural; there is none of the orderly progression of scavengers.  Barely hours after death, its torso is already buried in fungal mats.  The human skeleton falls apart unnaturally fast, the pelvis gone to crumbs in days.  Only the hollow shells of the crab claws are left behind.

“That was a 36-year-old housewife from Terrebonne Parish who vanished ten weeks before these remains were found.  Her husband and kids were never found.  Reportedly she chased down a law enforcement truck, running barefooted at sixty miles an hour on a sandy levee.  She yanked the driver out the open side window, three hundred fifty pound military veteran, tossed him sixty feet away into the pines, gone.  Then she reached in for the passenger, but he got lucky.  The vehicle crashed, the passenger dove into the bayou, he barely escaped.  Word to the wise–if it’s deep enough water, salt or fresh, the bugs generally won’t follow you in. We don’t know why.”

blue drawings of skulls at 6 angles
drawings by tobiee at deviantart

“Six months after that, the kidnapped driver was ID’ed among the dead at a raid site.  He’d been implanted as a bug.  He was shot down with other bug troops who were attacking a group at a parish church.”

A series of crooked cell phone pictures shows people in slashed, muddy church clothes holding children, carrying people wrapped in bandages, or crouched in the cover of brick walls reloading an assortment of shotguns, machine pistols, and hunting rifles of wide vintage.  He says, “Perhaps they didn’t expect a church group to be that heavily armed, but they’d been having raids from several bug labs in the area that year.  Maybe these bugs came from further out.  It’s a little unclear what their intent was.”

“As always,” says the smartest person in the bunch, annoyed.  Joyeux still looks about fourteen, wearing her ruffled pink shirt and fluffy black skirt and striped stockings.

Ivan aims the laser pointer at a screen list of names of kidnap victims by parish in the area around New Orleans for six years prior.  Ivan clicks to the next screenshot, a list of recovered remains.  It shows asterisks for those found tangled with with bug parts.  Sometimes it’s impossible to tell which one of several bodies had the implants.

Ivan looks at the polymath in the ruffled shirt, nods at her.

She says, “Strange things happen to human bodies when bugs implant them.  Like social insects, they have specialized types.  The basic worker drone in these pictures, you can see the reach on those claws.  On raids, there’s a scouting type who leads lots of the worker drones.  Scouts can move too fast for our snipers to keep a gun scope trained on them.  And there’s even faster types known.”

Ivan pulls up diagrams of those, then the roster of known types.

The polymath goes on, “Here’s centralized command types we’ve confirmed at the raid level.  They control regular bug troops with highly modulated UHF signals. These other types have standard military purposes.”

He clicks through diagrams and some rare few photos, allowing her to explain each shot.

She says, “Shock troop cavalry, sappers, engineers, distance artillery, area-effect bombardiers, some little bitty insectoid drone-type air surveillance, support troops like quartermasters who drive ordinary trucks.  Those guys provide 50-gallon drums of sugary fluid when the bug troops don’t have enough to scavenge, out in desert areas where they last longer.  They don’t bother feeding them in the swamps, such as Dismal.  They don’t last long enough.  The locals tell us that by the second day the bugs are starving, they’ll eat raid victims, scavenge anything organic, rip logs open for the termites.  Byt the third or fourth day they’re falling apart in a wet climate.”

Ivan puts up some sat shots, nods at his XO.

The XO says, “They’re pumping out numbers to generate so many raids.  These bug troops make moderately effective terror weapons, but how are they processing so many kidnapping vics?  Among the briefing notes there, we gave estimates on their logistics.  We have theories on where the raids are coming from, the reasons, who’s testing new prototypes, who’s buying their services.”

The XO waits for the rustle of paper to die down, and nods at Ivan for the next pictures.  He says, “These shots are sat scans taken in IF with artificial contrast, next to daytime shots of the sort you might see anywhere online.  This is where they’re making bugs out of bodies taken prisoner.”

The infrared shots show huge regular compounds which don’t show up at all on the ordinary commercial sat shots.  “They’ve put up camouflage netting to hide it in the regular visual spectrum, but honestly, they’re not even trying hard on the rest of the spectrum.”

His new Coroner says sharply, “They must be pretty sure no authority will care.”

Ivan smiles.  “Then we’re doing our job right, for now.”

She grunts, nods, and goes back to speed-reading the briefing notes.

One of the medical corpsmen asks, “You said earlier Subject Mary is of interest because he’s so damn fast.  You think he can fight bugs?”

Ivan says, “I think he’s not trained or equipped for it, no, but the raw speed and force are certainly there.  We do not have directives to train or equip him under the current circumstances.  That may change if conditions shift.  As I said, our current mandate is observational only.  Any questions?”

“Is Subject Joseph likely to lose Subject Mary to those bug labs?” says another medical corpsman, worried.  “I mean, take all his traits and make him into a bug–”

Ivan nods for the biologist to take that question.

The biologist snorts.  “Oh, it’s worse than you think.  Subject Mary’s telomeres don’t shorten with each cell division, the way they ought to–in the way that stops us from cloning most animals.  That means anybody could clone that guy’s stem cells.  We could do it, if we substituted the nuclei in donor eggs, implanted those in surrogate mothers, like they did with Dolly the sheep.  Humans are harder, but it’s been done.  We think bug labs do harder things all the time.  All our sighting reports prove they hold human bodies for weeks while the bug implants settle in.  Now, if they did clone Subject Mary into human eggs, the clone babies would still have to grow up, they gotta raise those babies like regular kids.  After the kids are a decent size, then they could implant entire bug armies into copies of that body.  There’s something to look forward to.”

“Hate it when you do that high-tech happy talk that you do,” says the polymath in the striped socks.  “When our pet optimist says Mary’s telomeres don’t shorten, anybody know what else that means?”

“Cancers?” says the third medical corpsman, after a silence.

“Plus cell cultures that can divide and live forever,” says the Coroner.

Joyeux snorts.  “With no idea what it means for our subject’s personal longevity.  Yeah, there’s been some discussion whether maybe Subject Mary should die in a fire before the bugs can kidnap his bad, bad little ass.”

“Too late,” says Ivan’s XO. Everybody looks at him.  Ivan nods, and he goes on, “I said earlier we had some big news– results just came in.  We’ve already found a large group of grown men with the same mRNA sampling results.  All kinds of apparent age range in there, birth documents give them a spread of ninety years, lots of odd health problems–so, no idea who did it, or when.  They’re all pale guys, not like our guy Mary, but that’s trivial.  Regular gel electrophoresis for regular DNA set off all our alarms, so we ran regular sequencing on some distinctive areas.  Their genetics are extremely close to Mary’s. Closer than full siblings. Clones.” 

The biologist rests his head in his hands. “Yeah, yeah, c’mon folks, stop yelling. It’s news to me too. Nobody knew when we were gonna get the sequencing results back.”

“What do you mean by large group?” asks their new Coroner.

“Well over two hundred identified subjects, about one fifth of them deceased,” says the XO. Over the gabble of questions, he holds up one hand.  “But the bug troops have passed up some of those live guys. Bug soldiers had the chance to grab clones during four different raids out there in Virginia, near Dismal Swamp, ran right past them, and the clones started shooting, bug troops got shot all to bits.  The clone guys over there are heroes in the local stories, that’s how we noticed them in the first place.  These clone guys actually seem to repel bugs. Of course we’d like to know why.”

“They probably smell wrong,” says the polymath. “Like Subject Mary smells all odd to people.”

“Does he really?”  the corpsman asks.

Other people nod at the question.  The biologist asks, “You ever smelled a snake den?”

“More like some kinda freakin’ raptor dinosaur,” the surveillance squad sergeant says with relish, as if she’s proud of it.

military parachutist with dog in chest harness
combat dog and handler

The corpsman frowns.  “So do you think the family could bribe or threaten Joseph into– I mean, what guarantee do we have that Joseph’s icky relatives wouldn’t just kidnap Mary and sell him off?”

The biologist grins.  “None, my cynical friend.  No guarantees at all.”

“So do we just sit by and observe if somebody does try to take him?”

The sergeant snorts.  “That trio?  They’d probably deal with it before we could help out.  Subject Joseph has said he served in Afghanistan just after the Soviets pulled out, we haven’t confirmed that.  He told his partners that he fought bugs out there, nearly got killed by them.  We have recordings of that trio talking about their nightmares.  All three of them talk about being chased by bugs.”

Joyeux chuckles.  “So yeah, we believe there’s a zero risk of Subject Joseph voluntarily cooperating with bug labs.”

“He finds out, he won’t tolerate bug labs operating on Navarre properties in the way that past family members have.”  The XO’s tone can be very dry.  “Once he finds out, the money is not gonna impress that guy.”

“You mean there’s going to be a helluva row when he turns things upside down and shakes the whole damn family tree?” says the Napoleonic scholar, with relish.

“If the law firm shares that data with him.  They have been avoiding it,” says Ivan’s XO.

“Ahhh, because the money does impress them?”

“Yeah,” says Ivan’s XO.

“So do we know if the trio really have fought bugs?” the new Coroner demands.  She waves at one of the thicker wads of report.  “Subject Joseph’s burn scars don’t prove what made them.”

“We haven’t been able to trace where any of the trio might have been when they got traumatized like that.”  The polymath scowls at the sergeant, who scowls back.

“So, if there’s no proof, why would we believe the story?” the Coroner demands.

“A skeptic,” the biologist says. “I like it.”

“You would,” says the polymath in the fluffy skirt, and snorts.  Then Joyeux says, “Subject Mary drew some… quite accurate bug anatomy pictures, trying to explain things to his partners.  Where would he have learned it?”

Before the Coroner can speak, the XO holds up a hand.  “Yes, we’ve got scans of his drawings.  That comes next in the fun and games today.”

Ivan pulls up a different computer file.

The XO says, “Subject Mary did some pretty accurate sketches, we think Subject Joseph drew in the scale markings on it. Here Mary diagrammed how the back of the claw is bumpy, serrated, like an arthropod.  There’s good detail on the hinge.  This next drawing shows a bug that’s bigger than any bug we’ve seen so far.  He described this as a nest guard, not just one of the regular drones.  In the ordinary drone bugs, this joint can give a back-handed slap that punches holes in truck door panels and cuts people in half, not just smashing  flesh wounds.”

Ivan clicks through a series of slides.  He says, “More sketches we found recently.   Here’s the extra sensors along the base of a long antennae found on scout bugs who also scent-trail.  We know those details are accurate.  Here, Subject Mary drew out how two bugs can lock together to form what he calls a mantis bug.  He said it shoots a laser-based distance weapon.  Which is what Subject Joseph said burned him in combat.  Which, reportedly, is cutting the hell out of Red Army units out in the western Taklamakan desert.”  Sat photos show burned-out Chinese tanks.  A few shots are marked with indicators of the range of the weapons.

“The mantis power requirements, that’s the damnable thing we can’t figure–” mutters one of the physicists.

Ivan nods.  “Other important concepts in Mary’s drawings haven’t been confirmed. Too much for our time today, so you were given a list of items which look like serious trouble if they are true.  If you see any signs of confirmation within your areas of expertise, run to get that data to us.”

Papers rustle.

“Hornet bug?” says one of the medical corpsmen, horrified.

The polymath says coolly, “Yeah, that’s an area-effect weapon, the bug explodes in a cloud of gas.  Chemical warfare, like the sarin gas attack in Japan.  No confirmation yet but some odd incidents point to that.  It may all be fairy tales, or the whole bug may be self-consuming.  Nothing much left after 48 hours.”

Ivan says, “We got a tourist’s cell phone footage of a striped black and yellow bug exploding onto a building in NOLA, but 24 hours later, our agent found very little evidence at the site.  Just some evaporating oily stains.”

The sergeant rolls her eyes.  “Talk about plausible deniability.”

“Eeeeww.  Thank you, I didn’t want to break for lunch anyway.”  The polymath in the fluffy skirt makes a face.

Ivan says, “Good, let’s move on to our camera project.  Now, shifting to evidence which we do have.”

The XO works on a different laptop.  “Always fun, attempting surveillance in swampy areas of the Southern states.  Our photographers adapted dive casings for high-speed cameras.  Sometimes they get startling stuff out in the woods.  Damn bugs seem to hear camera drives a good thousand yards away, which means regular living must be painful to them.”

The blurry video shows ordinary bug drones running in cut-over woods.  They are freshly hatched.  The claw arms have just begun to emerge from their bellies, swinging at nothing, agitated.  “Notice how our high-speed cameras are still not fast enough on those claw-snap gestures.  They use a trigger formed like that of mantis shrimp, which we are also studying.”

Joyeux says, “So, hey, Ben, when are your optics crew gonna cough up what they found out about bug-type vs. shrimp polarized eyesight?”

The biologist just growls, slouching in his seat.  “Not for awhile.  Need better samples.”

“Oh, hey, did those ugly Hawaiian sewage buckets of yours crack another tank this week?”  The polymath fluffs her skirt.

The biologist glares. “They’re called stomatopods.”

Peacock Mantis Shrimp
Neither a Mantis nor a Shrimp

The XO holds up a hand.  “You guys can argue after the meeting.”

“–first we’d have to be able to preserve soft tissues for evidence, we can’t just assume the bugs use hyperspectral and circumpolarized light vision just because the calcareous remains are similar to stomatopods–” the biologist mutters.

“Mmm, has anybody figured how to test Subject Mary for that kind of thing?  He sees awfully well in low light too.  Or how about those other guys, those clones?  You can imagine this arms race going on, huh?” She smiles sweetly.

“Not yet, no, we haven’t tested Mary for anything like that. Observational mandate only, remember?”

“Let’s get back to bugs.  Aging bugs,” the XO says firmly.

Ivan nods, and the XO clicks on another video of bugs.

These bugs are staggering through the same woods.   They look drunk, imbalanced,  their joints coming apart under them like the legs of horror movie zombies.  “They last about four days in wet swamp, longer in dry conditions like that Chinese desert. Or in Afghanistan.  Red Army estimates say each Taklamakan bug lasts about a month to six weeks.”

The polymath says, “Tell them about the bees!”

Ivan nods agreement.

The XO says, “The swampers say various species of bees don’t like bugs. Any colonial bees, not just European honey bees, will swarm at that smell and attack bugs.  That includes you if you got bug juice on you while fighting.  Agitated bees are the best warning you’ll get of bugs raiding in the area, too.  But the bee colonies are getting scarce down there near the bug labs.  Some large property owners, like those guys with the Navarre properties, have hired aerial spray companies to kill bees for over a decade now.  These are official campaigns to eradicate Africanized bees, somehow they get parish funding in spite of other budget constraints.”  The XO clicks through pictures of company logos on choppers and on biplanes fitted with spray bars.

bees flying around singled house
Bee Swarm, photo by Charles Roper

“Thing is, spraying ins’t justified.  Normal commercial hives in these areas are not aggressive until bug troops get near their hives or foraging areas.  Bees can smell that stink for miles.”

There’s a picture of bee swarms coating bodies so thickly the details cannot be seen.

“You really want to wash it off quick with soap, use some kind of degreaser, if you ever get bug ichor on you.”  Ivan’s XO uses a laser pointer to indicate one body left alone by the bees.  “Human, there.  Killed by a bug just before the bees swarmed.”

“So we checked bee genetics.  Are those dangerous Africanized strains?  No. The spray campaigns are unjustified.  But it turns out the African species of bees really hate bugs, and bug labs.  That might explain why bug labs haven’t set up in places like Congo or Nigeria or any of the rift lakes.  If the aggressive bee strains weren’t so dangerous to people and livestock, we’d want to import them here.”

“Question– why don’t the bees attack those buildings directly?  The places you’re calling bug labs?” one of the database specialists asks.

The biologist is rubbing his eyes again, but he says, “Excellent question.  No, we don’t know why.  It might have something to do with scent, again, something that’s hard for humans to notice and test for.  We can’t get in close enough to those places to take swabs off things.  We speculate that maybe the labs have something painted on exterior walls or walkways which kills or repels bees if they get close.  We know the Kurds on the Pakistani border, especially in bug raid areas, will paint stuff on trees and walls of houses to attract bees.  They want bees around, they’ll tell you they want their fruit trees and their poppies pollinated–lots of poppy fields up there– but it’s also because the bees give them warning, maybe even stop the bugs.”

Ivan clicks on pictures of caves.  “The other folks who really swear by bees are the Afghans, up in the mountains.  These are folks living near smuggling caves where opiates get stashed before heading north over the passes.  As with China, in dry lowlands, the bug drone types last days and days longer than they do in our swamps.  They also have some other weird comm types with some really odd signal-jamming capability.”

He pulls up pictures of a burned French personnel carrier.  “Villagers there have seen platoons of American carriers fold up like paper, choppers fall out of the sky, missiles twirl back and hit their own batteries.  Freak air currents, like hell. Nobody believed it when the Afghans or the Pakis or the Kurds talked about it. But we know that nothing in NATO-compatible gear that marched up to those caves has ever been recovered.”

There’s a rare few vids of combat sequences.  The XO says, “Some clever Syrian pimp figured out how to use online auctions to sell footage of troops skewered by crab-arms, some of them Pakis, some ours. One vid pinned it down to which actual caves it was.  Our surveillance engineers put gobbling noises through their audio editing lab.  Most of the troops never had time to respond.”

One vid provides shouts, Bandit, two-thirty.  There’s only three shouts for info on possible targets they’d been told about in briefings.  Bogie dope, bogie dope.

If Ivan never hears that phrase again, it’ll be too damn soon.

The XO goes on, “Nobody even knows what targets they got briefed on. A series of car bombs took out a bird colonel and four of his staff in Kandahar, and then suspiciously sudden ill health struck here at home, too. Two senior one-stars died of heart attacks in Virginia, and another is relearning how to use a spoon. It may be a civil war we’re fighting.”

Ivan looks around at the faces of the people in the room, while the still shots of the bug remains click through.  The fierce old Seminole woman in the claw-torn apron always gets to them.  So do the shots of the cars with the scraped, punctured doors, the burnt-out church where bug-fueled flamethrowers went through.

collecting samples of wetlands soils
collecting samples of wetlands soils

Of course Ivan has his statistics unit chopping data on all that money sloshing in and out of those bug lab compounds. Somebody will tell him to back off if he’s doing it right–give him a hint where the rot has reached. Or maybe put him in the bed next to the one-star who’s learning to feed himself.

It’s just a question how much his team can get first.

“It took our first forensic pathologist six weeks to assemble decent information on the bug remains we had. It doesn’t make for pretty reports.”  Ivan takes a breath.  “And just so nobody gets the news in garbled fashion, yes, our previous Coroner was a casualty of a large, sustained bug raid five months ago.  He got us our first good samples during that raid, but it got him killed.”

The Coroner grunts. “I’ve read his summaries. Sloppy work if you want it to stand up in courts-martial.”

Courts-martial.  That hangs silently in the room for awhile.

The Coroner glances up, cool as ice.  “The lack of detailed workups is understandable under crisis conditions, but nobody was moving fast enough to capture remains that fall apart that fast. Records like that would never hold up under inquiry.”

“You think you can do better?” asks the polymath.

“Given resources to get there timely, of course. My predecessor was much more interested in studying how to fix the specimens properly, stop their deterioration.  He was right. Absolutely, that process had to come first. Giving field staff simple procedures to preserve things is vital for establishing normal ranges on ordinary drone bugs.  Even more so for studying less common types.”

“Okay, so–”

The XO pauses, looks down at a cell phone text, shows it to Ivan, who nods.  The XO says, “Some good news, folks. The photo team got pictures to confirm reports of mantis bugs in Mississippi.  And the folks down there nailed one in an ambush using carbon fiber crossbows.”

“Lucky,” says the sergeant, in her dry voice.

“No kidding,” says the XO. “They say they pickled the bug for us in cheap vodka two nights ago, and last night they added the stuff we’ve asked them to use on bug remains, but it might be pretty late for that.  Yeah, they say it’s in pieces already.”

The biologist groans, the physicists make faces.  Ivan’s team and his superiors groan whenever he updates them on new bugs, what kind of human bodies they’re using as implant victims, and what maybe the specialist kinds can do.  Most of the personnel in this meeting room are too new at it to groan, but they will.

Ivan’s XO reads a followup email on his laptop.  Frowning, he says, “Witness testimony said a weird head-jerk thing happened when the bugs changed tactics in the field.  They scattered and split up after they lost the mantis bug, but they kept fighting.”

The biologist snaps, “Bugs generally don’t fall back, they don’t scatter, they don’t run away.  It’s been anecdotal that bugs are capable of breaking up into small units under local command, but nobody had proof before.”

Ivan says, “They don’t do it often, which suggests problems.  We want to know what those problems are.”  He nods to his XO.

“Along with figuring out Subject Mary’s capabilities and provenance, learning those same things about this–” the XO’s forefinger points up at the picture of a denim-clad farmer sprawled over fractured white crab claws on the side of a muddy road, “–is our current operational mandate.”

“I still want to know how in hell anybody in authority combined those two things.  Subject Mary’s drawings of bugs came late in the course of surveillance, right?  So how did anybody tie in features of interest on Subject Mary with ways and means for stopping bugs?” the Coroner narrows her eyes at all of them.

The polymath smiles at her.  “Oh, you mean, checking on that chain of bureaucratic command there, along with my idea of checking out all those HQ personnel who really don’t like bees?”

The biologist scowls.  “We don’t have proof there’s covert urban bugs.”

“Just lots of rumors,” the polymath shoots back.  “Besides, hey, a reasonable question.  Why did HQ hire us first, and then combine these two surveillance cases?  Is it just administrative history, just accidentally who worked with who some decades ago, is it just some chain of command thing, or– is there other relevant information that we’re missing?”

“Civilians ask the damnedest things,” says the XO, straight-faced.

The squad sergeant snorts.  “We’d like to know that too.  Subject Joseph really doesn’t talk about bug combat much. We were doing surveillance for awhile before we picked that up. He said Subject Mary rappelled down a line from a chopper, saved his ass in combat, and drove off bugs to do it.  He even said he didn’t know how Mary drove off bugs. We got that a long time after we started working on this.  So… how did anybody know there was any connection?”

The polymath makes a prissy face, and mimics, “That’s not in our operational mandate.  Such unjustified paranoia–“

“No, but it might impact our survival in the field,” drawls the sergeant.

Ivan shakes his head.  “Folks, hate to say it, but you know asking won’t get us anywhere.  ‘Humor us, please tell us, paranoia is a built-in feature of our training,’ won’t get us any new answers.”

The polymath says, “Oh, so you tried already.”

“Right,” Ivan agrees, not blinking.  “Give me some new evidence, I might get somewhere with it.  Coming in with data, saying, ‘These are the facts, I know what you’re up to, here’s how we can help out on this bug problem,’ is a very different argument.”

The polymath sits up straight.  “Or how about saying, ‘Now, right, we know, and this is how we’re putting a stop to it right now.'”

Ivan still doesn’t blink.  You don’t dare blink in arguments with Joyeux.  “That takes a lot more work, just for sorting out what’s happening and what choices we have going forward.  That’s not the easy road.”

The polymath flops back noisily in her chair.  “Wouldn’t want that, would we?  Might get bored.” 

Ivan coughs gently into his hand, and meets the gaze of the new Coroner.  “Oh, I don’t think there’s a lot of risk of that with the new forensic data that’s been coming in.  If you’d like to present what you’ve got so far on the Moldovan cases?”



Our Story So Far, or WTF is going on here

Original post as created by by GJ and kiyakotari

My name is Simon Berendt, and I’m here to explain.

For those of you who are a little bit familiar with ‘s storytelling, the “snake crossover” (see the tag) takes place chronologically some time after the main action of the Strangeways photostories. We are also just a little style-shifted to the cybergothic side, which is only natural when it comes to crossover adventure stories. (Just as when Kiya’s guys appear in the Strangeways arc, they tone-shift out of Kiya’s decidedly more advanced tech environment and reshuffled political future.)
Nagasvoice is the principal storyteller here; Dance, Drin and Emma are her people. What GJ is writing is tangential to this extraordinary sequence, but hopefully keeps the beat and adds a little amusing interplay here and there.
People You are Meeting
I won’t dare introduce Dance, Emma, or Drin, but if you are reading this, I will assume you have met these three already.

Auren Han once worked for Zelin Industries. His rescue of Ira Zelin, their subsequent life on the run, and the collapse of their temporary haven make up the Strangeways story arc. Auren is desperately in love with Greenlaw Tewkes Barret, whose sudden reappearance in his life was the catalyst for much of the ensuing chaos and destruction he experiences.
In the Snake Crossover, Auren controls a small consulting firm that takes advantage of his previous contacts in the criminal underworld and his extensive experience with shadow operations.

Greenlaw Tewkes Barret is a well-regarded young composer who was trained by Easley Blackwood. When they were in college together, Barret and Auren were lovers. As he became more and more complicit in Zelin’s criminal designs, Auren severed the relationship. At the time of the Snake Crossover, they have reunited, but there’s a lot getting in the way of Auren’s happy ending, including Barret’s refusal to be kept hidden for his own safety.
Barret knows Drin and Dance peripherally through some common aquaintances in the music world, and has taken matters into his own hands, hand-carrying a mysterious viola case to a certainly dangerous rendezvous.

Maxwell Bennie is an ex-cop from Hong Kong with considerable forensic background. He prefers to go by Bennie. How he and Auren first got to know each other is murky, but what is known is that he once worked under Auren Han in Zelin’s Ways and Means Division. He now works as Auren’s operative in Auren’s consulting company, Atsidi. Auren has sent him to investigate worrisome trnds I identified, and to lay a trail to attact Turner, a chemtrail assassin who has targeted Drin for unknown reasons.
Bennie is meticulous, dedicated, intelligent, and quite mad.

I, myself, do not work for Auren Han. I own Strangeways House and created and secured the Strangeways network. I let Auren and his people live here; occasionally I make myself useful to Atsidi.

Other Names to Know
Pen, himself a war relic with strange modifications and a patchy memory, is a mutual friend. (There is no dollie for Pen, or his children, or his zoomorph girl.)
Turner, a very serious threat indeed, has not yet made his appearance.
We are in the Deep South, but the location is secret. Fozzie’s down-home Rancho Deluxe for rescued Kiplings (lab-created zoomorphs with many special functions in the last couple of wars) has already repelled attacks from an increasingly creepy collection of altered trackers and assassins.

Please stay tuned for further dispatches from Barret, who has just been peeled off a really horrible tour bus here.

Off in the Back Lot

Rene’s knees are giving him fits.

Tiny’s ears flatten. Unusual from him, when he’s got his binoculars up. Funniest thing, the stag-headed zoomorph in a gimme cap, peering through binoculars and scowling like any other frustrated hunter in the parish. Harder than it sounds, staking out a hotel parking lot. Reservation for three, yep. Gotta love small towns.

Tiny gives up the binoculars. Rene gets them focused. Squint harder, but no mistaking it.

The tired guy with ten feet of snakey tail flopped sidewise out of the back car door has lifted a violin from the case on his lap.

The Back Forty

Had he the power, Pen would bury the house. Profile it as low as possible, like the other tasks, all the good he and Iscen were able to do with the blood money.

Pen has considered it from an engineering standpoint; has considered simply cutting the ground out from under its feet, doing the opposite of what everyone else in the swamp has been doing. But it’s no good, not even Pen’s brand of cleverness is going to bury the old house. It’s grand, slightly absurd, canted on its stone foundation, not going anywhere.

“We can fall back,” Iscen said, once. “Abandon.”

Pen, who was staking creepers up and over the front facade, concealing the tessellated stone of the terrace, stopped to stare at the little Cupid fountain, almost completely overgrown.

“I will never abandon,” he said.

He can’t bury the house. He’s done his best to disconcert the eye, though: sleight-of-hand, on a very large scale. Black mangroves, vast ropy vines, and far above, scaled onto the roof, scattered across the property, light-bafflers, little bespoke Waldorf-Dopplers, powered by tiny intrinsic solar cells. It’s not that the roof is not there, from the air. It’s just devilish hard to look at. The eye is disinclined to rest on the slope, moves elsewhere, drawn by the slip of light on the branches and the activities of birds.

The Back Forty, though: that’s his best work, and he knows it. Not to be found, the Back Forty, and all its folk. Turf houses: from the road you might see a pair of hillocks back behind the trees. From the air you don’t see anything at all.  The earth hides much of its heat signature, he’s paid to check on that. Most of the good stuff is underground, and the overground work smacks of Art Nouveau: wondrous leaf-shaped solar collectors, water filtration capillaries interlaced, silicon Old Man’s Beard hanging from the old trees, artful.

blue owl knob on yellow door
Mark the Doors

Include the animal pens and shelters and the Back Forty is home to nine hundred human and animal souls, all routed by Iscen’s railroad, rehabilitated ones emerging from the precincts at Fozzie’s, all protected by Singing Security.

Yes, he is a little proud. And more than a little afraid.

Never had it been thought through, he thinks, not by himself. Families grow: his family grew even as it was shattered. People became his people, in the way a brambleberry takes over the lawn. And then he met Estelle, and somehow the net grew larger, the heart, he supposes, grew larger. His heart.

Poor, panicked thing, an early casualty of Singing Security, caught in the net of his heart.

A Bubble Moment

soap bubble lodged on purple heather
A Soap Bubble Captured

Drin knew there’d be some moment of surprise, some utterly strange thing that would make him look at his new lover in total disbelief.

Instead, he is looking across the kitchen table at Emma that way, the first time the strange feeling hits him.

“Batter experiments?” Drin says.

The room is no longer pretending to be a dining room.  It’s just part of the kitchen.  Behind her, Dance is bouncing around chopping and washing vegetables and swinging his hips around in a totally distracting manner, completely unconscious of what the wiggle does to them.  To both of them.  Emma sits facing Drin, because she can’t watch Dance without losing it and grabbing him and tickling him like mad when he does that.  She freely admits this.  Of course Dance could elude the whole thing if he wasn’t in the mood, but the wiggle seems to be a positive invitation for Emma to grab him and wrassle around with him.

“Batter experiments?” Drin repeats, settling tiredly into a chair and blinking at Emma.

“Tempura batter recipe experiments,” she repeats firmly.  “The first batch is gone.  He’s working on the second one.”

“Oh,” he says, blinking up at Dance.  Drin has to work to keep from staring.

Most people would look absurd wiggling like that.  Dance is wearing a raggedy pair of sweat shorts and nothing else.  He’s cooking, and as with his gardening, he doesn’t like to mess up his good clothes. He doesn’t seem to be afraid of spattering oil, which is a bit scary.  He’s also, well, dancing.  Dance usually has music on when he’s cooking, often party music of some kind.  This time it’s some kind of norteno station with accordions and cheerful happy voices singing about very sad things happening, while the announcers are all shouting in machine-gun slangy Spanish, in the style of used car salesmen.

Dance sings along to the songs in a terrible accent.  Not even a true Korean accent, either.  It’s Korean-American.  Drin can finally hear the differences, after listening to language tapes at work, mostly for very non-work-related purposes.  It sounds very odd.  Drin hasn’t tried to teach Dance idiomatic Spanish, whether one of the local dialects or the more formal one he himself spoke with his great-grandparents from Navarre, with manners carefully in place.  He may have to teach Dance the most common local slang, just in self-defense.  Some of the song lyrics don’t belong in polite company.  But the American in that Korean accent, that raises questions Drin hasn’t tackled yet.

“Oh yeah, he gets these obsessive foodie crazes going.  It’s all about the seasonal foods,” Emma says, and pops a crispy tempura-battered bit in her mouth.  “Mmm, now that yellow pepper is perfect with more wasabi on it, Dance, keep ’em coming!  So, he had about two weeks, first thing, where it was cabbage dishes.  Hey, saved my budget that month!  Then we had a run on pickled dishes.  Every summer it turns into the festival of tomatoes and then of squash.  Another time, it was oatmeal every which way.  Oatmeal apple cobbler, oatmeal cookies, oatmeal everything.  One week, it was mackerel, because the fresh fish was really cheap for awhile.  Boy, you want to get Dance’s attention, wave sushi at him.  Another time we got this yellow cheese donation thingie–you couldn’t even call it cheddar, it was just a block of weird-colored stuff–and it turned my lips orange for a month.”

He blinks at her doubtfully.  “Well, it’s a striking idea, but what do you do about the fingernail polish?  Black stripes for Halloween?” he says, and makes her laugh.

She waves a normal-colored nail at him.  “Then Dance got into confections.  Powdered sugar and marzipan.  My lips were purple for days.  I think my butt got wider by six inches.  He fixed that by going off into salads and pestering me until I ran it off with him every morning.  Ran my little legs off, I swear.”

“How do you obsess on a single ingredient with salads?” Drin asks.

“He worked very hard to do a variety on that, so it wasn’t all a streak on celery or radishes or something.  The search for the perfect arugula and bacon dressing, my God, that was expensive!”

Drin glances up.  “And I’d guess there was a hot pepper streak?”

“Oh hell yeah!  There were four of those spazzes, twice each summer, when the weather warmed up and again when it cooled off in the garden here,” Emma agrees, laughing.

Dance is waving an arm, snapping his fingers, and counting in time to the music.  “Yahh!” he yips, and flips a perfectly-cooked lump of tempura out of the hot oil.  And another.  Of course he picks up hot dishes as if his fingers are immune to the heat; he has string-player’s callouses.  Drin found it odd to learn what Dance always did after washing up the dishes.  When the callouses had soaked in hot water for awhile, that was when he picked up a sharp paring knife to shave back strips of dead skin.  Then he sanded it down with a pumice stone.  Such stones last him about two weeks apiece.  He can puncture condensed milk cans with those fingernails, too.  “Speed and leverage, not just the violin claws,” he assured Drin, grinning.

Drin looks at Emma.  “You indulge him,” he says solemnly.

She sighs.  “I know, I know I do, it’s bad for the budget.  You should have seen the weeks of the avocado.”

Dance makes a face over something he’s eating.

Emma snaps her fingers and holds out her hand for the bowl, not even looking at him.  “Give it here, I heard that sigh.”

“No, no, the zuchini is soggy.  Very bad, I sliced it too thin and left it too long.”

“Nonsense, give it here, we’ll try out the whole batch, no cheating,” Emma says.

“You’d eat dog food if I fried it,” Dance says crossly.

“Because you cooked it,” Emma says.

“Oh stop,” Dance says.  “My head get all big to explode.”

“Your ego is already way up there, your head can’t get any bigger,” Emma says, and takes the bowl he holds out.  More wiggle as he marches back to the stove in time to the music.

Drin glances up from staring at that amazing butt, with a sigh, and looks right up into Emma’s eyes.

She gives a long, slow grin.

Of course he wants to pull down those pants and have his way with the cook, who has quite a few nice manly attributes making themselves known.  That’s a sight rapidly making Drin feel a whole lot less tired.

She looks down the length of Drin’s body and up again, and then she chuckles at him, pleased.  She’s enjoying watching Drin squirm in his chair.

Drin blinks.  This is not your typical grumpy roommate, he tells himself.  Be careful.

She picks up a piece of battered fried zuchini, pops it in her mouth, and chews on it with an orgasmic expression.  “Mmm hmmm,” she says, and waves her hand in front of her mouth.  “Oh, starch, I am in fried hog heaven, ohhh that’s good.  Be careful, it’s hot,” she warns Drin, and hands the bowl over to him.

She watches gravely as he picks up a hot bit, juggles it in his fingers, and gets it in his mouth with nearly as much production as she did.  Possibly it ends up looking like he’s playing back at her with the whole mouth thing.

Well, possibly he is.

Entirely without meaning to, he assures himself.

out at the beach

Yeah, right, his hind-brain tells him, while he hands the bowl back to her, and watches her pop another one in her mouth.  God, those are lips worth watching.

He likes watching her eat.  Apparently it’s mutual.

Dance likes watching them do it, too.  When he glances up, he sees Dance is watching them both with a little quirky smile.  The longing in Dance’s face is quite plain.  If they were alone, give him one gesture of encouragement, and he’d turn off the burner on the stove and he’d be dragging Drin off to bed.  If he made it that far.  There’s been days when they have to hurry to retrieve shorts off the floor in here before Emma unlocks the front door on them.

She knows it, too.  She just grins and teases the hell out of them for it.  She picks up lost socks and says, “Forget something?”

Drin picks up another hot light lump and pops it into his mouth, and chews on it longer than strictly required.  He looks at Emma, and then at Dance, taking a nice long thoughtful look in each case, while he chews.  Memorizing the expressions on their faces.

Dance waits, poised, watching.  “Yes?  Blaaaah?  Or okay?”

“It’s good,” Drin agrees, and watches the smile get bigger.  Dance nods and whistles along with the song, his knife whirring through another batch of what he calls ‘overage squash from the garden.’

Emma smacks Drin’s arm and sits back, laughing.  “You tease!”

Drin is visited with that bewildering sense of happiness.  It’s just there in the room as another presence, beaming at him like some big cartoon bubble. He knows what to do about it, too.  He smiles back at Emma, and opens the little drawer in the table.  He pulls out the party-favor bottle he put in there after he picked up Dance from a wedding.

He opens the soap solution, lifts the wire loop up to his mouth, and he starts blowing Emma the biggest soap bubbles he can manage, while Dance sings, laughing.

bubble in midair blue landscape
Floating Bubble

Flight of the Bumblebee

model, photographer, source unknown
model, photographer, source unknown

Ivan hits the remote, clicking through a series of still shots.  Some are crude booking room shots which show their subject’s size.  Several are publicity stills used on the Metro’s website, revealing the man’s dark angular appearance.  Street shots, front door hugs, public conversations with his two partners.  The three of them are always cracking jokes.

“Anybody here need us to define the word polyamorous?  Or bisexual?  Okay.  Subject Mary is both.  So is his husband, our Subject Joseph, legal name Don Innocenzio Ridcully Navarre– really interesting family background– and so is their third, an Australian immigrant, our Subject Anne.  Her legal name is Emma Watson–yes, really, that’s her given name, and there’s some resemblance too–she joined them recently in a commitment ceremony. Welcome to the Left Coast, and do remember that old ladies out here learn martial arts from guys who win prizes in Seoul and Tokyo and–” he casts a grin at the polymath in the striped socks, “–military schools in Moscow.”

The polymath gives him a pointed look. “You also get plenty of nice Orthodox immigrant boys who figure out they’d have lots better chances of rising through the ranks over here than they ever did back in the old country.  But they’re always so shocked to learn one of their big jobs is to stop all the other nutjobs–fundamentalists–I mean heretics–imposing some other brand of hocus pocus on everybody.” And she blows a kiss at Ivan.

“Oh stop, you’ll embarrass me,” says Ivan.

Some interior shots show Subject Mary working out with his partners, tapping a knee to correct their stance, demonstrating a shoulder drop into a roll. There’s some shots of him flying through improbable positions against bland dojo walls. In each of those, there’s something curiously amateurish about the images–not just lens flare or white balance, but unexpected artifacts, dropped pixels, miscoded bits.

thin dark man in red outfit
there’s those optical artifacts again

“You’d expect, as a musician, we’d never get any shots of him boxing or punching with his hands.”

There’s a rather grainy video of him doing speed-drill kicks on a hanging bag, which he finishes off with a flurry of what look like casual taps of his knuckles and slaps of his palm. The bag vibrates in place, trapped between opposing blows. It seems unlikely that somebody so small could shift side to side to do that.

Ivan says, “Subject Mary’s hearing is acute, but his partners are more likely to pick up on conventional surveillance in a busy public venue, they’re clearly more savvy on body language cues.”

Ivan goes over the known history and the observational constraints the unit must operate within. It’s not like watching some skeezy drug operation; Subject Mary and his partners are absurdly regular and law-abiding in their habits.  Almost dangerously so.

God help him, Navarre put his share of the family money into a trust account when he became uncertain he was entitled to it, and began investigating where it originated.  He raised dust from all kinds of old war projects, going poking around titles on too many of the properties under those bug labs in the South.

That raised all kinds of questions from the auditors in Ivan’s unit.  Ivan has been warned to leash his auditors before, but refused to; and now he’s pretty much known for that.  Presiding over these revelations won’t help a bit.  Bad commander, no promotion. Ivan hasn’t found anything that will make his number-munchers let go once they’ve got hold of something big.  Or stop them digging things up.  So Ivan is familiar with the auditor-as-rat-killer.

Apparently Don Navarre is some oddball throwback to that same breed. In that family of his, it’s like dropping a pipe bomb in a cesspit.  Here the man just popped up after years abroad as a spook warrior with no official record, and he simply waltzed off with a big chunk of the family wealth that he’s just proven wasn’t honestly theirs in the first place, and in the meantime he’s such a whiz kid that he’s embarrassed the trustees with more skilled investments.  But he’s made little impact on the family’s basically predatory nature.

Bug labs don’t get built in a vaccuum.

Some of the folks in this meeting room have opinions about the type of people who know exactly what’s tunneling away out there on their rental property.  Not just passive landlords; the type of people who are actively soliciting more investments from the same bug-tainted sources.

Ivan waves one hand.  “Take it away, Joyeux.”

The polymath starts talking.  “Turns out, Subject Mary’s partners are just as interesting as he is. Subject Joseph’s job as an ordinary auditor amounts to a cover persona. He should be called, in market terms, one of the quants. Unlike typical quants, he’s not building investment products for sale, he’s not trying to drag the market around to his will.  He’s reportedly told coworkers that creating an artificial effect doesn’t interest him mathematically.  He says he’s just doing basic research.  From somebody who reputedly worked with combat dogs ten years ago, we’re not talking a couple of lucky percentage points, we’re not talking Madoff-style fraud.  We’re talking that he’s making hoops that fit the market so it will jump in exactly as planned.  We caught a few ventures into proof of concept, but very hard to prove it wasn’t accidental.”

male model Benoit in scarf and coat writing at table
writing notes

“We might have much better guesses if he was a regular corporate consultant, officer, LLC member, but he’s avoided public commitments, even those that might have been profitable.  Just not interested. His investment methods have shifted in new directions since he’s been talking about research methodologies with Subject Annne.  Lately he’s been talking with Subject Mary about musical notation.”

The sergeant in command of the surveillance platoon mutters, “Be afraid.”

“The concept of mapping market trends to musical scores, trying to anticipate rhythmic movements, is not a terribly new idea among the quants. Like the rest of them, he found it’s not as simple as mapping last years’s light crude oils onto the horn parts in Tchaikovsky concertos– we picked up a few of his notes through a window, sorry.  He’s started comparing his data to 12-tone scores as a way to predict what will happen with streams of commodities data. He recently completed a study of share price movements in HMOs and insurance companies, where he had some success at that approach. How much, we don’t know, as he’s cut off our access to his data there. He created some new online trading companies for himself and bought some others, and then basically forcefed them into using better security.”

There’s a murmur. The screen diagram shows commodity prices keyed to the same colors in a piece of music that looks unfamiliar for being in a different notation, with the differences marked in x’s, and error bars given above them both.

Ivan’s laser pointer circles one large variance.  “We think he dropped about two million on this difference.  Not adverse to risk, as they say.”

Joyeux nods.  “We’re looking at a math geek where making money is a crude proof of concept, not the goal. He’d much rather get good data to refine his analysis. We think he has a net worth about eighty or ninety million dollars now, that’s not counting that disputed family money.  Hey, honestly–seriously, folks– not much in Wall Street trading or arbitrage terms, but plenty to the rest of us.  He told the vice president at his day job that he found it soothing to tally up files and check cross-references.”

“It’s a wonder somebody hasn’t shot him already,” says the sergeant.

“Oh, yeah, like his maternal uncles might like him gone, huh?  Aren’t they charmers?” the polymath thumps one of the briefing papers.

Ivan says, “It’s unclear if he trusts Subject Mary’s reflexes can save him from the family reprobates, including those who sort out squabbles violently–”

The sergeant mutters, “–with all their usual toys–oh, the sniper rifles, damaged brake lines, IEDs–”

Ivan nods. “Or perhaps he knows our people are sitting out there watching the show, and he’s perfectly happy to let us net whatever bubbles up to the surface. Or maybe it doesn’t matter to him, he’d just keep digging anyway.  Like some folks we know already, huh?”  He sends a stern look around the room.  It won’t help, but he has to try.  Besides, Ivan is afraid to learn the answer to that question on Don Navarre:  Would he keep digging anyway, at risk to himself?  To his new little family?  Is he capable of bending to exterior pressure to save his partners?

Somebody must have a sense of humor.

Ivan clicks up the next slide.  “These are inheritance tracings requested by Subject Joseph, courtesy of the computers of the family law firm.  And here’s the maps.”

There’s comments from the room.  The South is heavily represented among the officers, and many of them know about this kind of kin-tracing from personal experience. Ivan drags up the same map overlaid by known bug lab sites. There is an impressive match to isolated rural backwaters in various Southern states. He points out shifting properties along floodplains of the Mississippi.

colored map of changing MS river courses
changing courses of the Mississippi River

“All that money came from selling farmland to bug labs?” one of the captains says.  His new Coroner, in fact.

“No sales.  Ground leases.  Rent.”  That’s from an older translator, one who has an extra degree in Napoleonic history.  The project’s extensive Spanish material provided more grist for his insatiable maw.  “See, that Florida property could’ve grown into a big port, but the owners stopped it back in the Twenties, nobody knew why.  They wanted it all kept quiet.  Came down through the one family all the way from a Spanish land grant in 1790.”

“Those Texas properties do, too,” says the polymath in the fluffy skirt.  She makes a face.  “But they used tricks to hide it.  I understand that branch of the family never liked to draw attention to themselves.”  The striped socks and fluffy skirt make her look about fourteen, until you see her eyes.

“Your grandma said so, huh?”

“And a gossipy great-aunt, thank you.” She drawls it.

That raises a laugh.

“Any traits common to all these places?” asks one of their database specialists.

girl in blue shades and flag head scarf
behind the blue shades

The polymath crosses her distracting socks the other way.  “That Houston property sits on Buffalo Bayou.  All the Texas sites were occupied by whites about the same time, in the 1830’s.  Homesteading stakes got filed under various names, but they intermarried, and by now it all amounts to the same family.  All of those are sited on harbors or bayous. Above that, the land use varies depending on the elevation.  Two sites are urban now, heavy-duty transshipment ports, which is where much of their legitimate money comes from. The rest all petered out, little known except to local law enforcement and the cigarette boats.”

“The eastern properties are all on waterways too, but we’d expect that,” says the Napoleonic historian.  “That time period, land owners needed water for milling grain and transport.  Heavy stuff like hides and cast iron and cotton shipped on barges.  But now?  Do bug labs need water?”

“Bug labs?” says one of the database specialists.

Ivan flicks a hand gesture to indicate later.

“Yes.  We just don’t know exactly why.”  The biologist looks glum.  “You see that West Coast lab site?  Brand new this year, quiet, no raid reports yet.  Overflights picked up the same weird EMF frequencies as the eastern bug labs. But that one must be experimental, it’s not on surface waters.  For the outside plantings on that acreage, like the almond trees, they’re using a mix of irrigation sources, but it’s all pretty high salinity. Take that chemistry any further, you’re looking at bug labs able to live off brackish or salt water. Put ’em up anywhere in the world.”

The polymath nods.  “Also, you’ve got another Navarre property near it, even if it’s not at the same site.  And of course we’re pretty sure that Subject Joseph is very hostile to bugs and bug labs.”

The experienced troops all nod. The sergeant who runs the surveillance squad is their resident expert.  She says, “He’s been hostile to those relatives renting space to the labs, but it might be for other reasons.  He reported tax shenanigans by two nephews when they wouldn’t get it straightened out. He knows there’s been all kinds of extralegal stunts in the past.  He’s warned his cousins that the family elders want things kept quiet and they don’t fool around on threats.”

“So he’s a flight risk,” says one of the database specialists.

“Oh yes.  With the spooky veteran background, we think he has Dari and Pashto and Kurdi and some Russian under his belt.  Plus with the family background he’s got Mexican dialects and Spanish from Pamplona.  He’s ready go to ground any time, he maintains backup stashes, links to safehouses, IDs for all of them. Just a question of what might trigger flight.  The reason would change where they’d go.”

“He isn’t concerned about dragging along such distinctive partners?”

“Apparently not.”

“Worrying,” says the Napoleonic historian.

woman in black dress walking to trailer
meetings in the morning, storage in the afternoon

“This is the other reason why Subject Joseph might have a better than normal ability to make them all disappear.”  Ivan clicks into a file with Subject Anne’s designation.  Pulls up a picture that leaves no doubts about the woman’s impact.

“I’d marry her too,” says the biologist, with a sigh.

The polymath throws a paper wad at him.

“Oh, not for that, lovely as it is,” he says, dismissing the picture with a wave.  “Have you got any recordings of her going off on a bit of a rant?  You want some poly– she’s polysyllabic, that’s what.”

“So much for your impartiality,” says Joyeux sternly.

“A few recordings!” the sergeant mutters, making a face.

“In the service of not melting all your brains out your ears, let us move on briskly,” Ivan says.

Joyeux snaps, “We all done with our drool cups?  As Sarge noted, we’ve probably got the most recordings filed on this Subject, actually, because she speaks at public meetings.  Subject Anne is one of your basic killer organizers, she’s become the liaison who puts together fund-raising between the Metro Symphony and the entire County Library system.  That’s how she came to support Subject Mary in the first few months of his job with the Metro.  At the archives, her title keeps changing, but she pulls off all kinds of funding and manages staff who select and scan documents.  She is infamous for protecting historic materials, documents, that kind of thing.  Loves books, as you’d expect.  We’re not actually sure how many languages she has where she’s functionally fluent.”

Joyeux sighs noisily.  Well, they’re not listening to her, they’re just staring at Ivan’s pictures.  The hasty cell phone snaps must have been taken by somebody with quite a thing for myopic people holding books.  Hot librarians with cleavage and ridiculous heels striding along in a hurry.  Whatever.

“What?” Ivan says to her stern look.  “Believe me, you don’t want any of the hotel series instead.”

“You don’t,” says the sergeant, to the speculative looks.  “It’s all video, and I don’t want to have to translate that much feeelthy Italian.  Or all the Latin anatomy terms.  You really don’t want to know the refractory period for those boys.  Trust me.”

There’s a curious silence.

Joyeux gives a noisy huff of breath and goes on.  “We know Subject Anne speaks German, Italian, Latin, some Russian and she’s picked up a bit of classical Greek.  She ordered Turkish language tapes when she was working on somebody’s archeology project, but we don’t know if that is new or a refresh.  Just since she moved to this job, she’s picked up quite a knowledge of local history, of their digital archive materials, and local politics.  Area law enforcement has been visiting her since she first got hired–” she pauses for the collective rude comments suggesting why, “–and she tracked down documents for several murder cases.  She also helped provide Louisiana law enforcement with background for local tourists taken–kidnapped–around NOLA.  She’s been noted in several case files as having a virtually photographic memory for all kinds of visuals.  No one-shot stories if you have to cross her path, she’ll remember the details.”

The sergeant snorts again.  “Every last little detail.”

Joyeux nods.  “The point there being, librarian.  No history of forgery, but she knows where to find information.  She knows how documents should look, and where law enforcement will expect to find the documents.  If this trio decides to disappear on us, she’ll sort out where to go and confirm a damned good cover.”

“Even if they have problems with Subject Joseph’s family, why would they need to disappear?  Just on the grounds you’ve given so far, no civilian agency would find probable cause for all this surveillance,” says their Coroner.

The sergeant starts to laugh, and Joyeux the polymath nods, looking thoughtful.  The biologist gives a loud snort down his nose.  “Oh, we aren’t done yet.”

Ivan says, “Before we go to the more difficult parts of the briefing, I’ll close talking about Subject Mary with some more intriguing moments we’ve observed.”

It lightens the briefing with some humor.  They have shots of Subject Mary in his concert suit, carrying music, music stand, and the violin case, literally running between downtown gigs.  They have shots of him in sloppy sweats at rehearsals, gesturing in discussions with fellow musicians, the hands a blur of movement.  There are awkward surveillance shots of Subject Mary’s capabilities.  Several of them show his comically woeful expression when he’s got distracted and torn off a doorknob, crumpled a car door, broken a bike lock, crushed steel chairs by grabbing things too hard by accident.

Ivan snorts.  “His partners call him Mister Kent sometimes, to remind him to take it easy.” Then he clicks over to the video.

painting of honey bee in fight
Flight of the Bumblebee

Even people who aren’t musical know the piece that’s being played, thanks to Disney. They know that the Flight of the Bumblebee is used as a demonstration of brute speed.

Ivan just lets it run through, right out to the end, where Subject Mary pulls away his violin bow, grins sheepishly at somebody out of camera range, and starts to laugh.  To giggle, honestly.

“My bad,” he says, and to blurry comments from off-camera, he admits to skipping one of the faster notes on his last stanza.  His charm is suddenly obvious.

Ivan gestures at the screen.  “This kind of honesty is characteristic, by the way.”

Ivan’s XO passes out more briefing papers while Ivan clicks off the remote, turns on the lights, and extracts the flash drive from the laptop on the lectern. “Any questions?”


“Your analyses confirmed that this subject’s mRNA made a partial match to reptilian tissues–” one of the medical corpsmen says, flipping through the handouts.

“Yeah, the lab folks lost sleep tracking down that one, making sure somebody’s pet lizard didn’t get loose on the equipment. Backfang vipers are a little harder to come by.”  The biologist shrugs.

“But that isn’t even possible–” says the corpsman.

“Welcome to our world,” says the biologist.

Ivan says patiently, “We have no knowledge of any operation capable of this.  But neither did we have any knowledge of bugs when we first started investigating the patterns of Southern state kidnappings.”

Distance Dreams

Drin sits in front of the open balcony door.  The wind riffles the sheers, and they catch sunset light in the folds.  Idle speculations about the inflated cost of the ungainly hotel furniture occupy the front of his mind.  He’s not pleased about allowing himself such a negative, irritable mood, either.  He is sitting in what amounts to a kingly-proportioned recliner, in a safe clean place, gazing out over a beautiful skyline in a famous tourist city. He’s still wishing furiously that he was in a chilly small old room with homemade shelves, on a brass bed that creaks alarmingly whenever he turns over.  He wishes Dance was wrapped around him as tight as a python, so he has to wait patiently while the smaller man goes wiggling from one position to another every few minutes, dry and warm and happy against Drin’s body, until sleep finally ambushes them both.It used to be he could be out of town for a week or so before the bad dreams started for him.  It started about the same time for Dance, he knew.  Next trick, the vague longings kept pummeling their way into daydreams that blotted out all ability to focus on work.  He always tries to shift that obsessive thinking into long phone calls and planning out ways to have Dance meet him.  There’s been a number of trips where Drin pulled it off, so he could show Dance some fabulous places en route. Sometimes Dance can’t escape his commitments but Emma can, instead, and that’s good for them all in an entirely different way. It stops the bad dreams for him, it calms Emma, and Dance says he’s okay as long as he knows they’re together.

On the last phone call from Emma, she informed Drin that his tether is shorter than it used to be, Dance is starting to have bad dreams already, and she’s not having much fun herself.  She keeps making mistakes at work because she’s so tired.  She bullies Drin into admitting he’s not sleeping too well either; he keeps waking up, startling at strange noises, and snatching at the pillows for the gun he no longer needs.

Other old habits resurface, such as afternoon naps instead of a full night’s sleep.  He’s unable to relax unless it’s daylight and he has a clear line of sight out several angles of the room, watching the streets below, as if he’s got to be able to fort up and keep guard in some kind of unimaginable urban warfare.

Ridiculous:  It isn’t flashbacks at all, it doesn’t begin to fit the kind of mountainside combat he saw in Afghanistan.  Neither do his recurring dreams of crab-clawed monsters emerging like animated cartoons, climbing out of rows and rows of dark green bathtubs with clear lids, dragging along greenish jello and streams of water as they walk.  Or shamble, since about half of them seem to be staggering.  Parts fall off here and there.  Plainly malformed crab-bugs, defective in many cases.  It could be a zombie movie mistakenly filmed with green gels, except the bone-white claw arms look absurdly fake, totally out of proportion.  Oh and the stink— that complicated, vividly remembered stink, making the air choking, thick and warm in the hatchery sheds.  Are people supposed to be able to dream about odors?

When he woke up from that one, during this trip, he called. He tried to describe the details to Emma, give her the odd remembered names of things, the shapes, the functions, while he remembers them clearly–as if it matters, as if they might need desperately to know all of these details to decide on things later on, as if the knowledge might save lives.  Well, it’s a good excuse for another call, anyway.

She asked him only a few careful questions.  Careful, quiet questions of fact, keeping it all as cool and remote as possible.  Keep everything on ice, no lids opened on the hideous nightmare screaming.  She sounded like somebody who’s already seen those same places in their own dreams.  From the nightmares he’s told them, Dance certainly has.  Dance can describe the equipment itself, the leaks in the plumbing, the jointing on the crab arms and where the limits are on their reach when they are grabbing for him and he’s running.

Drin has no explanation for any of it.

But he knows that place is as real as this softly lit hotel room, some damn where, some hellishly stinking place where those in power really don’t care if ordinary people get kidnapped in entire mobs to be made into involuntary troops.  Kidnapped and slowly, agonizingly, murdered.

He’s never been so angry in his life as when he wakes from those dreams, knowing somebody was responsible for allowing it.  Somebody was making money off it.  Somewhere.

He squints his eyes shut, wanting to bury his face in Emma’s hair, wanting to hug Dance as hard as he can clench his arms, wanting fierce pressure against him, reminding him they’re alive, and real, and breathing.

Deep breaths.

Finally he opens his eyes and looks down at the sun across afternoon streets again.

The honeyed light moves on his pants legs; eventually he’ll have to move out of the late afternoon heat.  He could try out various cuisines in nearby bistro-heavy streets, so he could bring back new recipe ideas for Dance from dishes he liked; and yet he’s not even hungry.

He’d really like to be sleeping round the clock, if he could actually sleep at all.  But that can’t happen for some hours to come.  There are evening soirees to attend–whoopie for the threatening collision of hard liquor and bottom lines and electronic secrets and aviation-heavy diplomacy.

He reminds himself sternly that he always dreads these things in advance.  Come the time, he always manages well enough, things go fine at the event. A surprising amount of the time, once it’s over, he has to admit he’s enjoyed the conversations.  That’s often because he made an extra effort to find or invent something fun about the whole thing.  People have told him that they’re only coming when they know he is, because he takes things off in a “wild new direction.”

Well, Bud Innes won’t be happy if he’s as wild as he’d really like to be. And better to assume Bud has noticed how quietly impatient Drin has been with the proceedings so far, with the lack of progress, with the irritating slowness of the people.
He jerks his eyes open again.  Mustn’t nod off just yet.  If sleep is off the list of planned activities, then he’d still rather spend it with Dance, just listening to him humming something.  Anything.  “Umm, gimme the Passacaglia from–”

And he will.  It’s fabulous.  Sometimes Dance will wave those fluid, fast-moving hands, and explain that he has to whistle to get the high notes, but that sounds wonderful too.

Just… breathe into Dance’s hair, while the music vibrates through his whole body, humming down into Drin’s ribs.
That morning, on the phone, Dance sang him some rather twirly bits of Handel, echoing in the kitchen while he cooked, transporting Drin’s mind back home.  He took that with him into the shower, humming, and gave himself some of that one-handed tension relief he never had patience for on road trips.  It had been a break he rather badly needed.  Drin can hear the sigh heave its way up from the very bottom bilge-depths of his ribs.

Bud Innes even said it, earlier:  “Damn, I’m missing Robert something fierce.  Oh, sure I call, but it’s not the same.  At least calling him calms him down, which is good.  Does Dance go into outright panic attacks when you’re out of town too long?”

It struck Drin as an odd thing to ask.  He had to stop himself tapping a pencil on his knee, from irritation at a poorly prepared speaker before them.  That was probably why Bud asked it in the first place, distracting him.  “No, but I’ve only been gone for a couple days, most trips.  Yeah, I miss him a lot.  It’s the first thing he tells me on the phone, too.  Must be those married guy pheromones, right?”

“It’s sure as hell something.  Never kept me up late before.  Quitting the cigarettes and cigars was easier than that miserable week when Robert and I broke up, tell you that.  He whined and cried to come back for three days before I had my head sorted out to let him try again.  I never bothered on anybody else.  When I’m done, I’m done.  But he latched on hard to what I said, when he came back.  Took it all to heart, started practicing for real.  Calls me up now with progress reports.  Big change there, I gotta say that.  I don’t think he’s ever got attached to anybody properly before.”

Drin had blinked at him.  “Attached?”

“Bonded?  Excessively fond of?”

“You make it sound like glue.  Flypaper, or something.”

“Don’t tell me you and Dance and Emma aren’t super-glued together at the hip.”

“But–”  Drin falls silent as the speaker gets loud again, up front.  He doesn’t try to resume the strange conversation afterward.  After all, what would he tell his boss?  Just try to explain the complexity of Emma’s intertwined life with Dance.  His lover is just as firmly welded to her as they both have become necessary to Drin’s inner life.  He’s never worried about the quality of Dance’s attachment to him or to Emma.

What he usually worries about are his own failings, deciding what he should be doing to be a good patron, a good boyfriend, a good lover, a good roomate.  Bud gets that part.  They’ve talked about how to provide the support, the stimulus, the kind of encouragement that Dance needs for each stage of his development as a musician.  They discuss similar things about Robert, with his different needs.

Maybe Bud was just talking from wishful thinking–hoping that Robert can learn to establish one relationship in his life as constant as Dance’s devotion to Emma over the last two years.  A few months is not serious proof about Dance’s attachment to Drin, but Drin has already laid down his own bets on that.  Fold ‘em or show ‘em, there’s my cards, Dance is my man.

Naaah, Drin decides.  It’s not about Robert’s bonding, or failures to.  It’s not wishful thinking.  His boss is about the least-delusional executive Drin has ever worked with.  Bud knows things about Emma and Dance because it popped up on Bud’s radar as a problem.  But what problem?  He’s a great tease, Bud is.  He’ll make Drin work for it if he wants to know exactly what he regards as a problem.

Of course ordinary executives might regard such tight attachment to a lover as a sad limitation, a chain holding him or Bud back from freely taking risks.  They’re the type who don’t hire any married guys, either, if the sentiment is genuine and not hypocritical blather about queers.  In contrast, other CEOs would regard long-term relationships as a reassuring tie to the local community, a sign that they can maintain commitments like “normal” people.  But it’s also a chain that permits gentle blackmailing whenever some adventuresome executive is getting too inclined to court media attention, too likely to speak up, to get too ambitious.

If Bud was checking, there’s plenty of evidence what Drin’s risk tolerances look like.  It must be obvious what risks Drin will take, or not, from time periods before he met Dance or Emma–and there’s files full of plenty of comparable decisions since he got involved with Dance or Emma.  So it’s got to be something about Dance or Emma.

Some problem of interest to Bud Innes, but what?

Why does Bud see any “attachment” parallels between Robert and Dance?

Drin squints irritably at the glare of the sunset amongst the hotel sheers.  His rebellious brain persists in presenting him with remembered images of the two musicians talking, finding only the ways they are completely opposite, highlighting the trivial differences in height, coloring, style, personal habits, and the more important differences in their personalities, their taste in friends, how and what music they prefer to play.

The contrast extends to the calendar portraits taken by Bud’s favorite photographer.  In either case, the viewer has no doubt whatever about the kind of music they are capable of playing.

Robert sprawls sleepily across an antique bed in a floppy poet’s shirt, lit by a dusty shaft of light.  Muted colors show the red tints in tumbled disorderly curls; blue veins bulge in that pale athletic bowing hand, fingers relaxed indolently over the edge.  Robert’s gaze is sultry, aimed sidelong at the camera, totally aware of his powers–just before his mouth starts to widen into his usual maddening smirk of triumph.  Captured at full bloom, just before he loses the lazy charm.

The photographer exercised the other end of his range with Dance.

In exaggerated high chroma, Dance is poised against blue tiles, gripping a chrome rail.  Water droplets streak down his abs toward a scrap of black lycra.  All his hair is pulled back, every bone in his face is sculpted by the harsh light; his corded, ribby body is caught just before he’s going to throw a somersault over the photographer.  Clever man.  Dance’s pale gold eyes glare into the camera like a leopard, unblinking ferocity, forever.

Drin has the framed sequence of shots where the photographer captured the somersault, too.

Drin has a little copy of the last one in his wallet, which he takes out and stares at a little too often for his own mental comfort.  That tight bronze figure, feet pointed, trailing streaks of water, is the same one who sings along with the radio while he’s cooking bacon in the morning.  That is my lover, Drin thinks, staring at it.  That’s the guy who leaves his socks all over the bathroom and forgets to take the trash out.  That’s the one who looks so incredibly aloof in that dark silk concert suit Drin got tailored for him.  That’s the guy who still hangs onto his grubby old gardening sweat pants until they are falling off him.

Drin blinks at the sunset, pulls out his cell phone, and presses the speed dial.  “Hi sweetheart, just wanted to say I’ve been thinking of you again.”

are  bw swimmers legs



Stories from the Swamp

Thank God, they’ve learned the bugs do have flaws.

The swampers have sent that along. Ivan’s people want to learn more about how they’re fighting back the bugs, and not always losing. Some of those people are distinctly odd.  They’re strange even by the standards of the former moonshiners in Ivan’s team, all of them born of rural folk without money for much dental care.  They certainly share a deep love for tall tales and keeping secrets like smuggling drops.  Ivan’s deep reconnaissance specialists are impressed by swamper skills. The area population is heavy on trappers and fishermen and shrimpers and retired military, so they have pretty good fighting skills to start with.  They have to, just to survive.  The bug raids have made it into a war zone. 

That’s why a few of Ivan’s adjunct civilian staff are disabled vets in chairs and on sticks.  One of the women vets is living down there, taping it all openly as “folk tales”.  The rest write up regular reports of all kinds of big whoppin’ Cajun tall tales.  They get paid for remembering their old military specialities and helping out the locals when mysterious raiders with bizarre white crab arms start knocking down shacks and grabbing people.

It’s no secret to the swampers where the bugs are ultimately coming from:  Those fenced lab compounds that the investment companies started building just after Hurricane Hugo came through.

That’s why the folklorists are not happy about all those big secretive installations on the sat photos.  For some of Ivan’s team, the swampers are as close to family as they have left, close as they will ever get.  Bug raids there are killing and kidnapping their people.

The good news on bug flaws came in as two moderately long vids.  They were emailed to one of the ex-Marine folklorists by an amazingly obsessive American Indian swamper named Harold Two Horses, aka Hal.  Hal Not-A-Seminole is a busy online activist based somewhere in the bayous back of Houma, Louisiana.  Mentioning his name makes the Coast Guard command there twitchy, but they won’t explain why.  Anything truly odd in the area can get blamed on the Deepwater oil spill disaster–and will be for years–but there’s no excuse for them to react like that in Hal’s case.  He was giving them fits long before that.

The folklorists heard about him first.  Hal appears to be a real person who will accost small groups of Coast Guard hands near their barracks or their offices.  In a perfectly clear local accent he will tell them where to go to rescue some of the bigger boats in trouble up the bayous before anybody’s got a distress signal.  Most times, because there will never be a proper distress signal– things happened too fast for that.

He might even chat with the hands awhile.  But he escapes before anybody can ask him the serious questions, such as, “How did he know?”

Hal’s evasion methods vary.  He seems to enjoy the chase, he laughs at them.  Sometimes he uses stage magic smoke bombs, sometimes he dodges pursuers among the buildings, outracing them.  The ratings tell totally solemn stories that he changes into an animal if they get too close to catching him.  Sometimes he shows up naked in the first place, sometimes he sheds a pile of clothes when he changes shape.

long-haired black horse rearing

“Goddamn phouka,” says the lead folklorist, disgusted, reviewing the stories about him.

Once, legend has it, they trapped him in an office about ten years ago, in human form.  The Coast Guard hands involved swore that he asked them to dump his clothes in one of their back storage sheds for pickup later.  Then he warned them to step back for their own safety, right before he changed into a horse.  He crashed out through a wall, galloped off unharmed, got clean away.

The pictures of the damage, the discarded clothes, and the unshod hoofprints outside, all got written off as a prank involving one of the scrubby local stallions left feral to graze the levees.  There’s no shortage of those, as the local papers confirm.

The hands got sullen talking about that one, some of them got busted down a rank for the damage.  But they did put his clothes where he’d asked them to, setting a trap for him.  He never showed.  But the clothes disappeared somehow, in spite of extra hands on watch.

The lead folklorist says this clothes-theft stunt would not be difficult.  A black dog showed up two days later at one of the barracks, trotting along carrying a bottle of mid-range liquor in his mouth.  He dropped it at the door, barked at the four hands who’d been complaining about the horse getting away, and then infuriatingly the dog vanished into town before they could catch him.

Some of the warrant officers regard Hal’s incursions as good law enforcement practice and better perimeter security tests.  Others refuse to tolerate gunfire aimed randomly by hands who claim they’re trying to shoot a silly harmless phantom–lucky for Hal.

The lead folklorist says dryly that Hal is not known to change into an alligator in front of people, although one credulous batch of hands opened a Hal trap-shed to find they were dealing with a scarred-up wild twelve-foot gator.  The animal was dressed up in Hal’s discarded, ripped-up clothes, and fighting mad.

head of alligator, pen illo by Sarah Esteje
zooming gator, pen illo by Sarah Esteje

Once taped and roped up, that creature got parked at a gator farm.  It has occupied a display pen for at least eighteen months afterward, without changing shape or disappearing.  The sailors call it Hulk when they visit, and feed it chickens.  The veteran gator is missing some teeth, its hide has odd narrow scars like burn marks, the head has a battered look unlike any of the farmed gators, and and it has a nasty attitude about handling by humans, which limits how they can display it for tourist shows.  A soft life full of chickens is probably not this gator’s idea of heaven, in spite of its gaining a good five inches in length at the farm.

Ivan’s folklorists all speculate instead that the gator experienced injuries from bug labs, and Hal rescued it for them, so the scar marks could be examined.

Swampers, the lead folklorist says, and shakes her head.  She sent along closeups of the weird burn scars on the alligator’s hide, for any use it may be in analyzing data on bug weapons.

She says she would really like to meet Hal.  She’s nosed about trying to find where Hal reportedly lives, but the guy proves as evasive as his reputation suggests.  There is a tribal elder who’s apparently related, but she’s planted pretty solidly in a remote area where they’d need a local guide to take the folklorist in, and without the elder’s say-so, nobody will.  So the folklorist has been working on local credibility to earn that right.  They’re not trusting.

Hal’s electronic trail is just about as elusive.  Somewhere he’s learned how to use anonymizing services and virtual data tunneling to mask where his local server is.  They’ve got it down to regional nodes, that’s all.

Whether he’s a stage magician or a talking dog, Hal has their attention because he hates bugs.  Also, Hal never gives up.  Hal would be considered an OCD nutjob whether he was right or wrong.  Generally he is right, as the Coast Guard has found out the hard way when they respond to his warnings.

Ivan’s folklorists are totally biased in Hals’ favor.  They find ways to get help for the people Hal indirectly tells them about; or they’ll figure out ways to give backup when he’s trying to get help from other agencies for swampers.  Hal probably knows exactly which folklorists are working on more than writing scholarly books, and what they’re looking for.  He loves to send them teasing emails that point them to more information.

They’ve all been waiting for the call to come bail Hal out of jail somewhere interesting– until they got the emails with his new bug raid vids.

The vids are riveting.  The communications analysts found plenty to work with, and they leapt on it.  The graphics team stayed up nights to help recheck time-stamps frame by frame, getting estimates on bug movement and reaction times.  The lab techs are almost panting, running about.  This stuff, they tell Ivan, is gold.

The vids look like regional pro level media work, possibly local news-trained broadcasters.  The techs tell him the footage was shot by somebody using a noisy old 1990s-era Betacam SX, based on the 10:1 temporal compression. Getting their shots took buglike reflexes, too, because they were running away from the bugs, making increasing distance from bugs running at full stretch, and still shooting footage. Godzilla, man.  Just from the lens distortions and the antique alternating MPEG formatting, they know what kind of lenses and camera body it has.  There’s not that many out there in the area to track down.  Hell, they’re tracing the chains of secondhand owners already.   Then more weirdness kicked in with a series of conversions that partly mask the original source.

Hal loaded those vids on an anonymous BitTorrent proxy server whose owner has no idea what their clients are doing, no intention of finding out, and a busy attorney who wins RIAA infringement cases.

Oh yes, the folklorists spent a lot of time arguing about the subject:  bugs on full display.  One vid shows them early on, and later with bugs who have ‘aged’.  One vid showed blurry shots of fast-moving bugs, newly-hatched.  The other showed slower, lingering shots of ‘older’ bugs.

The text captions state that the ‘later’ shots were taken after the bugs had been continuously raiding and fighting in the swamp for four days.  The older bugs wander around blindly, acting brain-damaged.  Crab-arms show tremors.  They’re dribbling oily bubbles, legs shaking so badly they fall over things.  They don’t look very human, by then, but there’s enough left of the original parts to attempt some identification on who their bodies came from, who they used to be, before they were kidnapped and implanted with bug parts and turned into zombie troops under hive-like command.  The new Doc down in the lab has already got started on that.

Something happens to the bugs, walking around out there in the rain.

Via the text captions, Hal asserts that the bugs need to stay bone-dry or they fall apart very fast.  He points out that the weird part is that bug labs sites are all perched right on the water, with industrial sized pipes and pumps sucking up huge supplies in and draining out of the lab buildings, with lots of stinking contaminants.

Hal’s right about that, too.  Sat pix always locate those mysterious compounds on large sources of water.  Those compounds suck in all the water they can grab.  The buildings run hot, blazing away at 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit when infrared pictures are taken in routine survey overflights and satellite sequences.

Hal wants somebody to figure out what happens to the bugs in the swamp.  Possibly it’s the swamp microbiology that happens to them.

There seems to be no similar 4-day sell-by stamp on bugs marching in the dry mountains of Afghanistan, they last for weeks.  Other desert places in the world are turning into bug nests, too.  There’s some very strange fenced compounds hogging water supplies in the Asian deserts, while others are chopped into higher elevation jungle towns off the Mekong River in Laos.  These days, there’s no shortage of drunken tourists partying there for anonymous kidnap victims.

Those places, the locals fight them in the same way the American swampers do.  But the authorities over there in Laos are protecting those investments so carefully that nobody can say who owns the land, who’s running those places.

Chinese sources swear that the bug microwave command signal can be sourced, can be recorded, can be blocked, with difficulty, but nobody’s got proof.  Nobody even knows what data convinced the Chinese military about that.  Ivan’s buddies in other services send Ivan reports about the Red Army executing intel project commanders for failure.   Even Hal comments on rumors that Chinese units keep disappearing in the Taklamakan Desert.   He’s right on that, too.

Ivan’s MSOT was assigned its current duty because somebody noticed the Red Army kept pouring in troops and researchers on the problem.

It is understood that Beijing authorities are unhappy with the idea of regional warlords adapting bugs for their own private enforcement armies.  But somebody else is defying them, quietly.  Local authorities want the labs there.  They are benefiting from the stuff coming out of those labs, same as with the labs in all the American swamps.  Ivan has the same suspicions about midlevel Chinese officials as his own, among the political types.

So far nobody else seems to be making any technical progress.

Once they got the sat photo and IF signature confirmations, Ivan’s team started by looking at what goes in and out of the facilities:  satellite surveillance, street views when they had it, water tests, and invoices for known trucked-in supplies.  Dock invoices for equipment up and down the Gulf coast show the American compounds must be some bizarre cross between survivalist camps and waste-water treatment plants.

Because they do have massive processing equipment for heavy wastes, it’s downright weird how dirty their effluent is.  Their effluent is so contaminated that they cause algae blooms visible from the air.  Samples caught by the folklorists and by Ivan’s recon platoon reveal the effluent has heavy metals, microbial loads as high as industrial-scale pig farms, a weird balance of ag nutrients way lower than it ought to be on phosphorus and potassium for the fertilizer inputs they’re shoveling into those places, and a complex mix of odd light hydrocarbons.

collecting water samples at Karluk Lake

Hal talks to them via emails about that effluent.  He’s taking samples to friends in veterinary labs who usually check on feedlots.  This is worse than feedlot effluents.  Stats on the pollution keep pouring in from the activist’s night-time internet connection.  Hal also does amateur epidemiology stats by collecting aggregate data from medical clinics scattered around the bayous.  He gets it from the doctors, who must know him personally, and who won’t talk to Ivan’s folklorists about Hal.

Hal must be pretty persuasive, given that numbers from small clinics are not exactly anonymous.  His mortality and morbidity stats show that people die at higher rates of heart and lung disorders and virulent cancers at clinics near the fenced compounds.  The drug-resistant tuberculosis rates are five times normal for the region.  There are much higher rates for stillborn births and birth defects.  Nearly everything a normal swamper clinic would see becomes more severe within two miles around the bug labs, from children’s asthma to drug-resistant strains of staph.

Then there’s his counts on the bodies of rotting bugs, which he claims are human victims of the labs:  Perfectly ordinary people kidnapped and transformed into bug soldiers.  Ivan’s forensics lab staff agrees with him.  The crumbling remains left in the swamp by dying bugs are still partly human.  Their skulls sometimes reveal dental work durable enough to identify who they used to be.  But the bones are eaten away unnaturally fast by molds, and when the bodies are retrieved by families, the more resistant shells left by crab-type arms often get thrown into the bayou by whoever found them.  Almost none of the remains have been identified or investigated as murders.

On his own, Hal has managed to get clinic doctors to look at newly-abandoned bug carcasses, to report them and get them counted as murder-kidnap victims.  He’s even got some of the victims traced back to their original kidnapping locations.  He developed maps with clusters of known assaults, attacks and disappearances, as compared to where their bodies were eventually found.

But none of Hal’s stats appear in official sources on the area.  State epidemiology has somehow been editing their morbidity numbers on increasingly shaky excuses, to avoid triggering investigations by other official agencies.  Somebody is keeping officially provable facts thin on the ground.

It doesn’t help that the rural doctors won’t talk about it.  They won’t directly confirm their different numbers.  They won’t talk to anybody about Hal.  Hal helps their indigent patients so much that none of the doctors will reveal anything significant about him.  There aren’t that many doctors working out there, and they keep secrets.  Lots of odd responses there which need further investigating.

Ivan’s superiors agree that somebody should go peel open those fenced compounds and study what they find inside those places, take apart a few of those mysterious corroded sewage fittings that get discarded miles away at sea; to find out why the locals call them bug labs.

Oh yes, and somebody should catch Hal and have a nice long talk with him.  Ivan has argued sometimes that Hal is far more useful roaming around loose, taking pictures, collecting numbers, harassing the Coast Guard, and stirring up trouble for the bug labs.  Ivan has been asked, acidly, why the same guy who can run rings round Coast Guard personnel hasn’t been able to march up into bug labs for a look.

But just try to sneak into those places for a look.

Hal tells them, via angry emails, that he’d have to take a mid-size army battalion to crash his way in and ever have a hope of getting out again.

When Ivan’s law enforcement liasons dared to visit, trotting around playing dumb in the entourage of local politicians, they found guard towers and armed security personnel on the gates–but the tower guns point inward.   They were kept secure in small briefing rooms and sent away again without seeing anything unusual.  It was afterward that some of the visitors disappeared.  Only two ever turned up again, months later, two states away along the Gulf, nothing left of them but dental work and bug arms.  They know that much only because Hal found out about the remains and told them where to look.

It’s impossible to approach regular bug facility employees in the usual ways, either; they don’t socialize, and what few living relatives they have are terrified of outsiders.  Judging by the payrolls that go into these places, and the very few grim mercenaries who drive out to pick up supplies, nobody is kicking back having beer.  Hal says they stink because they’re all bug-implanted anyway, it just won’t show until they’re provoked.  Hal is a firm believer in urban covert bugs, who look human until they attack.  Hal doesn’t have proof of it– yet.

Ivan has never got a report back from agents who tried interrupting truck deliveries in or out of the labs.

A few trained personnel have tried to get inside, of course.  One agent’s pocket recorder revealed that he was told bluntly, “You don’t smell right,” before somebody hit him with an electrical crackling noise, possibly a taser of some kind.  The agent was found eight months after he’d disappeared–his implanted body was shot down as a bug during a raid.  One of the swamper doctors examining the remains recovered the little recorder from the pocket of the agent’s shirt, covered in fungi and slime molds and the batteries eaten out of it faster than the plastic case itself was being broken down.  The biologists were very interested in that difference.

By then, the agent’s shirt was a bit of a wreck, the crab arm implants were rotting rapidly away, and the remaining human skin on his body didn’t show a single red mark from the taser burn that had scorched the cloth.  A great deal of his skin was no longer human-looking.  Hal sent along pictures of the remains, along with the recorder, to a drop-box used by one of Ivan’s folklorists.

Ivan figured out a way to thank Hal for that–he had an anonymous source send along  a rack of three heavy-duty, reliable computer servers to replace the aging unreliable one that was standing in a boat shop pretty deep along one of the bayous behind Houma.

Hal replied in kind by sending them pictures, all scans of bizarre bills of lading copied from dock records in various small ports west of New Orleans.  This is all a long way away from Hal’s usual stomping ground near Houma, but Ivan will take whatever he can get if Hal is willing to do the legwork.  It shows the same three companies are bringing odd stuff into small ports up and down the coast.

The contents of those bills of lading intrigue Ivan’s biologists and biochemists.  They’d like to figure out what those bug labs are doing with all those strange choices in lab-grade reagents.  Really, Ivan’s people didn’t need to get  poked by Hal about that.  They’ve already got stacks of reports on drums of powdered micronutrients which made local cops and Coast Guard inspectors suspicious.  The cops add blunt notes in their reports:  “Doesn’t fit any drug lab profile, but reported use is not credible.  No farmer on earth would pay for potassium nitrate this fancy.”

No matter how persuasive Hal is, he says he can’t get any local law enforcement to talk to the DEA, or ATF, or to anybody else who might organize a decent-sized army big enough march into those fenced compounds.  It’s unclear what jobs humans are still doing, besides playing doorguard inside those places.  Nobody seems to know.  Bugs create more of themselves in there, or so the swampers tell it to the folklorists.  Not just labs.  More like hives.

Part of the blanket of silence is fed by fear, but a bigger part is about local politics and local jobs.  The local politicians and epidemiology people act like it’s bringing lots of money to the area.  Hal may be suspicious, but he has no proof of how they’re making money off the bug labs.

Ivan has warned him about that part.  A select few of the labs in other areas, up in the Dismal Swamp, down into the Okeefenokee, are selling high-purity lines of various street drugs.  Somebody is shipping out barrels of mysterious dry goods from the Louisiana bug labs.

Assigning the bug war studies to Ivan and his unit is not the kind of big official notice that will support his regiment, MSOR, reporting across agency lines to the DEA to shut down those fenced compounds.  None of the usual suspects or their regular political tools want their spiffy reliable new sources disrupted.

The swampers in that area are strange too.  They could get their hands on all kinds of stuff to bomb those compounds and stop the bugs raiding them in their homes.  They’ve got access to all kinds of drilling and blasting supplies.   They could probably get their hands on rocket launchers, easy.  But what are they using against the bugs?  Grenades.  Or hunting rifles.  Semi-automatic rifles and pistols, when they can.   Dog packs, sometimes.

The folklorists get stories that bugs cause problems with conventional ordinance.  They’ve been warned that anything fancier than grenades or rifle shells will receive some weird bug signal and explode in place, right before a raid hits a house or a store or a school.  They’ve found two survivors of such an event, but it’s still no good.  The circumstances were doubtful enough that lack of maintenance in the swamp could be the culprit, no mystery radio signals needed.   Bugs move so damn fast anyway.

The reaction-speed estimates from the vids have them all worried.  Conventional troops will need a variety of tools to counter bug troops, including some way to cope with humans being too damn slow.

What scares Ivan and his XO is how far behind they are.  The labs are expanding rapidly, raids are increasing.  They still, after months of work, barely have an idea of what the bug military capabilities might be, what numbers they could muster, and who controls them.  None of the units who know anything about it are actually ready for outright bug combat.  Nowhere near.  They’re not ready to commit to raids on those fenced compounds, and everybody in Ivan’s chain of command knows it, by now.

What Ivan has been told, repeatedly, is that the odd little guy under surveillance at the Metro Symphony, Subject Mary, is somehow supposed to be the answer to all this.  Higher-ups claim that subject Mary is supposed to be a big potential anti-bug resource, but they won’t say how, and they won’t reveal what Ivan’s unit is supposed to watching Mary for. Or preventing Mary from doing, or else who they’re protecting him from.   Ivan was firmly tasked to observe only, not to provoke him, not to set up tests, not to interfere.

Until recently, they had little to show about Mary’s odd  abilities, due to the poor quality of the surveillance room camera at the Immigration building where various agency reps interrogated Mary and Immigration agents actually slapped at him, the dumb shits.  If they could have caught that on decent video, they’d have better proof of how odd Subject Mary really is.  What they’ve recorded out in the street is not that unusual.  Hell, all of Ivan’s Marines can run fast enough to go sideways up brick walls and somersault, that’s nothing special.  Some of Mary’s other friends seem to think he’s a combat veteran like his partner, although there’s no record of him ever serving, either in the US or in South Korea.

What he does in the dojo doesn’t match anything he would have been taught as a regular recruit in the South Korean forces, unless he was in an elite unit, plus studying privately.  It doesn’t look like kuk sul won, judo, Krav Maga, judo, or various schools of karate.  There’s no Wing Chun equipment, but he appears to use their theories, keeping his mass totally centered, relying on his speed to defend his center line, working up close to his sparring partners, using all the advantages of a small, fast-moving fighter. When Ivan requested an assessment from another unit’s Wing Chun expert, they described him as ‘peculiar’ and ‘very sticky’.  They couldn’t get rid of him.  He seemed to be more interested in learning about his sparring partners, probing for many weaknesses, rather than in driving into the first one found and instantly ending the match.  Playing at it, they reported, in frustration.

It’s exactly like a cat and mouse game to Subject Mary, and he loves sparring with people as skilled as that.  The Wing Chun expert was so disturbed that afterward they insisted on studying tapes of Subject Mary’s practices and sparring in the dojo to figure out what looked so weird about him.   He kept trying difficult new moves, and failing at it, often enough, so he’s very much a work in progress.   Toward what, was the question worrying their expert.

The expert pointed out to Ivan that Mary totally freaked out opponents because he had a strange center of gravity somewhere in the hips, like a woman, instead of up in his chest, where his appearance would place it.  “He’s got lead in his ass to anchor him on this move, and look at this, he’s sticking like a fly when he ought to be flying off the ceiling here.”

But it’s pretty subtle stuff, and Ivan hasn’t tried to share that with his chain of command.   Speculating on what the bug labs could do with Subject Mary’s body comes up all the time, much as Ivan hates the whole topic.  But Ivan had nothing big enough to justify their costs in surveillance on Subject Mary until his unit received the disturbing pictures of Moldovan hookers in hotel rooms in East Germany, apparently murdered by somebody who could be Mary’s twin.  Scary thought, especially since Subject Mary thinks he’s an only son.  Ivan doesn’t mind sparing some resources to keep an eye on him.  For one thing, Subject Mary seems perfectly willing to risk his hands, or his neck, in fights to protect other people from harm.

Car Talk

Do your favorite characters listen to Car Talk on NPR?

If so, what car problem do they call in with?

Which, I gotta admit, is a little different from the usual memes.

emmaboredatwork to teslamomma:

Can you believe it?? I actually got the guys to kick in some fun bits for me, so we’re all doing each other. Verbally. I mean, writing-wise. Stop laughing, you know what I meant!

What, has D– been sending you some of *those* pix too? If I’d known the man was so silly I’d never–never mind what I’d never! It’s *not* helping at work, believe me. Concentrrrrate!! gotta get bloodypresentation whipped up like a souflee before the committee falls.

So yeah, this is what Drin said about *me*. I can’t believe it!!


This is Emma:

“Whoa, the Emma of Doom, man, watch out!”

“Oh yeah, the Rack of doom, you mean. Dust Drin’s bookshelves just by bending over and turning. And I bet he just smiles.”

“Damn right I would.” It’s not even all that gratifying, watching the poor guys jump when I come around the corner and catch them gossipping. I smile at them. “She’ll kick your ass with both high heels, Robert, she ever catch you talkin’ like that.”

Which she will, and given how annoying Robert can be, half his co-workers will help her do it.

Where were we? Oh yeah, the car meme thingie.

Emma listens to various NPR and Sirius radio shows and argues with the callers. If she’s provoked enough, she’ll call in, using a cheap hands-free Blue-Tooth headset which cuts out on every other hill. For the car show, she might call in with embarrassingly detailed discussions of the fit of the upholstery in her ten-year-old Volvo and how it’s aged. That embarrassing rattle as she tries to get it to accelerate uphill never gets mentioned. She just talks about how she doesn’t like it when some guys she knows borrow her car, because they make out in the back, and their lube attracts all kinds of junk that you can’t clean out around the seatbelt attachments, and it’s just soooo embarrassing when she’s carpooling a bunch of the gals out to a True Colors concert.

If you’re noticing this is no longer about cars, you’d be right.

If she’s really provoked by somebody’s remarks, then she’ll go on to explain that she’s currently committed to supporting the relationship of these two guys who are lovers. She will explain she is not part of their sandwich time, although many people assume otherwise. Then she will explain what that word polyamory means, in excruciatingly personal detail, and her broadest Aussie accent.

Of course a lot of deejays just let her ramble on, because she gives great radio.

She really has no mercy.

She will even explain that the guys each used to think they were gay, and no, she didn’t “convert” them, far from it. They thought they were gay because visuals of hawt guys really do it for them, and dorm-room quickies with dorky wannabe Phi Betas in college were really fine too, and all their daydreams were about guys. But then they ran into her, and when it comes right down to a personal relationship, taken on a tangible in-person sort of way, she’s that legendary bi-chick your mother warned you about. They are totally willing to do her exactly the way she tells them to as often as she lets them. She knows that of course they’re on the verge of pleading (with that sort of helpless fascination she says is so endearing to watch) if it could possibly be on their knees, with way too much leather involved. What else would any self-respecting woman do with a couple of pretty pretty menz?

Or, put another way, they seem to have discovered that their taste in lovers was less attached to plumbing parts and more related to intangibles like the capacity to stand toe-to-toe right in their face and yell back totally kick their asses.

No kidding.

However, they totally reserve the right to complain about her cell phone bills.


Can you believe he said that??!

Okay, okay, I know you’re laughing too loud, now cut it out! or your Big Boss will wanna see what’s so funny.

But enough about me. This is what I said about Dance. He hasn’t found out about it yet. I’m probably gonna get it when Drin tattles on me.


If you look at old photos of Dance, he looks like a gawky skinny kid who just stepped off the boat from Hong Kong or Seoul or something. But not now. Not since Drin got his hands on that boy. Talk about sleek and shiny and buffed to a shine! He’s in much better shape, but now he’s being evasive about getting new pictures taken, after I posted embarrassing things about him getting heat exhaustion through stupidly overdoing his exercise routine.

Dance doesn’t own a car. He’s a musician. He’s been poor long enough that he’s lived in people’s living rooms. (Yes, I’m lookin’ at you, Amalia!) He takes transit, he ends up in odd places at the weirdest times, he bums rides. He’s exceedingly good at looking dignified and remote and perfectly self-possessed while holding out his hand asking for your car keys.

He is particularly fond of borrowing well-kept older cars owned by little old ladies with a crush on cute young– okay, enough of that.

Dance always returns a borrowed vehicle exceedingly clean, topped up, oil-checked, tires correctly inflated. He is not stupid. He knows this will get him more loans from people who like their cars clean.

He knows it sends messy people totally berserk because they can never find anything after he’s tossed out everything that is remotely compostable. It’s just a cheap shot on his part.


So Dance doesn’t know what I said about him, yet. But I got him to send me something nice that he wrote up when he borrowed Drin’s laptop this afternoon. Dance just learned how to do strikeout type. His emails are full of it. Yeah, I know, you said you couldn’t *wait* to hear this.


Our Drin is our most-recently person in the house. Easy-going, sooo laid-back he has no blood pressure, older than Emma or me, he is big. He wears big sweaters with cables. He laughs big. He makes our house look small. I like it. I am silly about Drin, and Emma laughs a lot. I like cooking things for him, he brings us cooking toys and weird food to try. He likes my spicy hot food too. I do not know when he decided he must be here, he knew already we like him lots. He kind of wandered in, said hello, hugged and snuggled and kissed ourself all over and did his level best to wreck and reduce ourself to rubble. I think that he’s kind of awesome at kissing sex everything. Well, I can’t speak for Emma but she’s crazy about him too. Umm, he’s very good at it. While Emma was asleep one night he set up computer games on the TV, set up Guitar Hero, and showed me how it worked. Then he came up while playing and tickled ourself until our little man is going off in pants again. It does that a lot with Drin. Some tricks are just not fighting fair.

People ask me how he is rich and I just say he works hard. I do not know what he is working, he does numbers. Drin is checking others. using a lot of bad words about how he makes a living. Most people’s eyes cross when he tries to explain his job. He says, “It mostly involves being a pain in auditors’ patooties.” He spends time staring at computer screen, making tiny change on websites full of numbers. He mutters about people failing to notice all kinds of sad shit totally obvious arithmetic errors. “Look at that, will you!” he says, he points at Greek letters and squiggly lines.

I always point at screen too, saying, “The B-flat is copied wrong, it should be a D, any idiot knows Mozart would never do that,” so we are making him crack up.

You should see him at parties. He will go off into minutely geeky, opinionated detail if you start asking him about commodities markets, real estate investments, and explain how this all relates back to larger political issues such as the GNP of obscure Third World Nations, stabilizing governments, and making their financial instruments more transparent and accountable. anything.

He states that he would never call in the radio show about his car, which looks a bit odd and gets devoted attention from a family of really hunky German mechanics whose names have too many umlauts in them. Even the women are hunky. They charge him much. I think it is all due to accents. He’s a total sucker for bad English when we talk Emma and I have quite different accents, but he says just loves to hear us talk. Which is probably a good thing. You couldn’t shut up Emma if you put a sock in her

He says I wouldn’t know the company that made his car anyway. He says I just like to ride around in it and-never mind what else I like to He thinks making radio calls like “Emma’s rants” just draws too much attention. He says he doesn’t feel the need to explain himself, or justify his taste in lovers, any more than he has to justify his total Aussie-kissing Anglophilia. Or Dancephilia, he says when he stops the car and makes the little man go off.

He’s very happy hugging ourself and our Emma both, and laughing his ass off while arguing with the new-car reviews on an absurdly funny British car show called Top Gear. This is the one where the main part of the show involves three guys competing to buy old beaters and drive them across country until they fall to bits.

He says he’s developed a bit of a thing about threesomes. No kidding.

With no further ado, we give an example of how this car show gets reviews:

…There is nothing quite so beautiful as British boffinry in full, mad bloom. Those wild and crazy guys on the British auto show Top Gear have built and launched a space shuttle based on an odd little 3-wheeled car called the Robin Reliant…

You click away from an ad to see the rest of the review.

We were all sad their YouTube link no longer works, so Drin dug around and found us another link instead.

Arrrrgh! Good Lord, we’ve hatched a monster, letting Dance near the keyboards. I can hear the Graveyard Smash tune in my head already. Don’t you get him going, teslamomma, or we’re all gonna be in the poo.

Selling Romance

Emma makes a disgusted noise. “Well, so much for Bud’s expensive photographer! Look at what our webmistress did with it!”

Drin stares at her aged computer screen, turns his head sidwise like an owl, and makes her laugh. “I saw those pictures. The original shots were wonderful.”

To his puzzled look, Emma says, “I know, I know–you’re going to say, ‘How did she do that to them?'”

“It’s a gift,” Drin says solemnly.

“She ought to love the originals, they were all very pretty pretty, ribbons and organza and all.”

“Not your choice of style?”

Emma squints. “Not for Robert. I always thought he was the rumpled pillows type.”

Drin laughs, surprised by the bluntness.

She waves a pen at the screen. “Okay, let’s imagine the real Romantics here. The Wild Bunch. Keats and Byron and that lot, stormy fights and fucking like bunnies and all. Knock it off with the pretty bowdlerized drippy Pre-Rafaelite simpering over Robert’s curls. Oh hell no. Let’s do some shoots with him looking debauched and liking it, let’s do some goddamn powerful Caravaggio with that pretty cock-teasing face. That’s Robert’s truth. That’s what Robert’s patrons are looking for. Aside from Bud, they’re not into longevity. Get that big fluffy poet’s shirt unbuttoned for crying out loud, he’s got a string player’s chest! Put the puppy in the window, man.”

“But don’t let him talk.”

Emma laughs.

Memory persists in resurrecting the penetrating whine of Robert’s voice. He’d much rather listen to Emma’s laugh. Or stare at Dance’s smile. Drin’s brain irritably erases Robert in the poet’s shirt, and puts Dance there instead. Much better contrast. Far more dangerous, too, when you catch the arousal glinting under those lowered eyelids. The image makes him want to go find a camera and yank back the bedcovers on Dance’s nap. Eventually he manages to form words. “Not the only one who’d look great like that. Contrast.”

She grins at him. “Oh, yeah. Use textures, too, but something better than all those corny mud-splattered wedding shots in the park.”

He can imagine the younger members dressed in half-nothing, and some of them would look pretty damn good that way. And so pan-ethnic, too, the Anglo-Saxon pale peppered with golden-brown and deep ebony and everything in between. “Yes. Dead leaves and satin. Lace fallen in the woods. Fairy candles and park lamposts and old trees. Bare skin and instruments and bark.”

Emma groans, and gives that gurgling laugh. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful?”

Thinking it out, he says, “Do some other styles too. Get the playboy jazz guys with the basses all decked out in sharp suits, against neon lights, looking like the limo is waiting. Trip out on patterns and drumsticks flying with that sweet little mustachioed percussion player who loves batik prints. And that great big solemn guy among his xylophones, with all his huge collection of African thumb pianos, get a shot of how he loves showing them off.”

She nods, paws through paper, taps a catalog. “Hell, you could do classy shots in black and white, elegantly, and end up with the kind of graphics that go into these high-end things they put out for fund-raising. Have you seen how boring the Metro’s schedules are? It’s such a good idea, and the other day I went to email to send it off to… Who? fuck, absolutely no one in the steering committee has that kind of vision!”

“Fixing that is on my to-do list,” he says. He can’t help it. Looking at her determined expression, he starts to chuckle.

Emma flings her hand out toward the bedrooms. “You know how pretty Dance is!”

Drin just smiles.

Another wave. “Christ, has anybody ever taken a decent picture of him?”

Drin looks at the soft lamplight on the curves of the librarian’s passionate face. God, she’s fabulous in her own right. “He’s always moving.”

She nods. “Get those cheekbones lit properly. Have him wear–”

Have him naked– have him right on that chair– just take him, right there– It’s been a couple of weeks and he’s still thinking up new ways to get that soft cry out of Dance: Oh! He wrestles back his rioting imagination. He interrupts firmly. “Have Dance wear dark clothes with a hint of gold. I can see him wearing a good slubbed silk jacket. If I can talk him into letting my tailor work on him.”

Her eyes catch a sudden pale marine light. Reminds him of glitter on waves. “–oh yes, I’ll have a chat about that one– shots of him playing with the quartet–”

He can see them all, Dance playing in what they call jokingly the Genghis Khan quartet, with the scowling Polish cellist, the sad lantern-jawed Russian bassist, and the violist, a sheet-pale Armenian girl with Slavic eyes who’s stacked like an emperor’s concubine. He nods. “In a different series, have them all dressed in brocades, in ethnic costume–”

“In the Library atrium, against the marbles. All that cold blue light for the winter events. Get those contrasts going. Perfect. I bet their violist knows where to find great costumes, she’s a real fashionista.” Emma paws out a notepad and scribbles madly, consulting her calendar and nodding. She jabs out a finger at the air. “Oh yeah, we should talk to Bud about figuring out how best to retire some of the non-visual fogeys on the steering committee to jobs better suited to their real talents in admin–because they do have some serious and valuable capabilities there–but that’s a longer project.”

“Adding it to the to-do list.” Drin smiles. “Now, about getting some decent, interesting rehearsal and summer performance shots.”

“Get some of the other smaller groups in their best outfits, too,” Emma adds more notes to her pad.”–and ask Bud’s photographer to get outdoor shots of the Metro’s musicians for promo graphics and the website. ”

“Add that to our to-do list too.”

“Our list? You’re sure? You know what a terrible nag I am, right?”

He nods at her solemnly. She can probably see he’s trying not to laugh. He says, “Get all the women into some outdoor photography with pretty leaf shadows, gauzy stuff like Midsummer Night’s Dream gone wacky.”

She waves her hand in agreement. “Oh yes. And before we get them all muddy, put the flute-and-harp ladies with a really big floral arrangement behind them, self-referential irony.”

Emma the much-feared coordinator will leap on that with her teeth bared, joyfully wrangling it into play.

Drin can feel his lips twitching. “I have it on very good authority that you eat florists for snacks, and terrify delivery men.”

“They aren’t crunchy if you take the bones out!” and she gives him that laugh of hers. “Put the ladies posed in front of a huge billowy charity ball display, warm colors… get some better lights, yes, use pale peach walls… they begged us to show off the porcelain room in the museum wing more often… get everyone laced up into period clothes, show off all of that formidable pink and brown frontage cinched up on show. Make sure the charity credits are big and unmissable. Shameless promotion, that’s the ticket.”

His brain insists on putting Emma’s own frontage right in the middle of the picture, supported in truly outrageous eighteenth-century fashion. Just because he has his beautiful musician now does not silence the monkey-brain. Oh, it’s always commenting on Emma’s particular beauties. It can be distracting. “Antique fans,” he manages to say weakly, at last. “Gloves. Little silk bags. Frilly things.”

“Absolutely! Plus, we can catch great garter belt shots for your infamous Metro underwear calendar. Get Robert to make a nice leg too. Have you noticed he looks his best when he’s bowing and scraping, the insufferable brat? Now, what are we doing with Dance for the underpants calendar? Sports netting on those abs, or microscopic Lycra trunks and a wet towel, or bending over in baggy shorts that fall down off his butt– Ummm, Drin, luv? Would you mind swabbing off my keyboard? You’re drooling.”
He’s becoming absurdly fond of making that sound come out of her, too.