Once More Unto the Breach

Teo holds up one open hand toward the swarm, expecting some reaction.  He is somehow not surprised when a line of bees zip up around him and a dozen at once settle on his sweaty palm, walking around, apparently tasting him.  The yellow stripes all over them manage to sparkle in the hot, dusty strips of sunlight through the trees. The feet catch and tickle a bit on his skin. He is very aware of how many there are, and how he really doesn’t want any surprise to alarm them.

 

Drin says, “The climate is crappy, the terrain can be treacherous as fuck, the people are suspicious and ungodly quick with a snare trap and a sawed-off shotgun, and the reliable ones will tell you stories that make your toenails curl.  You’ll bunk in the houseboat opposite the floating clinic, you’ll be helping out there as first priority. If the buzz gets loud or if it spikes, let us know right away. If you have any alarms or suspicions at night, you call us immediately.  Yell out the window if you have to, Dance will hear you. Yell loud enough, Seung will hear you too.”

 

Teo laughs, an honestly delighted sound. “I’m two steps ahead of you, brother. I actually helped Doctor Alexander buy and outfit that clinic boat, I’ve just been holed up doing research and out in the swamp with Doctor Caleb giving injections. Alex and I arrived at the same time.  He adds, in a very broad patois, “Don’ you worry ‘bout me none.”

 

“Oh good.  Obviously I’ve been out on bounds patrol enough that I’m not keeping up on the local gossip a t’all well.  Okay, we also need to get you trained on emergency treatment by some of the folks who operate on rescuing bug-bit humans, that’s not going to be easy or fun or quick.”

 

“Who made you the Captain round here?” Teo grins at him. It’s such a relief to have him back, bossiness and all.

 

Drin looks under those bristly brows at him.  “Oh, I was volun-told, you know how it is. Oh look, here’s a guy got money, decent shot, got combat experience with zoomorphs, fails to run away when things start blowing up.  It’s a huge goddamn character fault.”

 

“I can see that,” Teo agrees.

 

“And I’ll still worry about you.”

 

“Hey, I’m a research scientist, not a soldier. I don’t do ‘stupid’ as a general rule. ”

 

“Good, that’s what I like hearing in a doctor.” 

 

 Drin starts walking away again.  How the hell do you have a conversation with the man when he never faces you and never stops moving? Hmm, didn’t he see a tranquilizer gun in a case at the clinic?

 

“So how do we have to decontaminate this bug lab, if it’s abandoned?”

 

“Gotta touch nothing and take samples first.  I’ll have to get somebody to come back with proper tools.”

 

“Right,” Teo says.  He has a suspicion that somebody might turn out to be him, once he’s given direction on what kind of samples they’ll want.  

 

Drin stops, turns his head.  The bees swirl around them both.  

 

Then Teo knows why he stopped.  “What the fucking hell is that smell?”

 

Drin just glances at him dryly.  

 

Oh, Teo knows what some of it is.  Cadaverine is a very distinctive stink, one that’s hard-wired way down in the ancestry of every pathetic little creature who ever ran away screaming from a leopard’s old kill.

 

It’s the other nauseating components that puzzle him.  Sort of a weird diesel or burnt machine lubricating oil stink, and a sugary sweet component on top of acid, stronger than vinegar.

 

Then Drin points down a slope into heavier brush, where a trickle of a strange, oil-sheened,  multi-colored stream is draining through a tangle of scrubby fast-growing trees. His eye traces back upward where the water comes from, and it reaches the dark mouth of a pipe about the size of a medium-grade water main.  It’s some kind of green plastic, not a metal pipe, even at that unexpected size, and the stink exhales from it in a visible fog. Bright yellow sulfur has just begun to crust in a thin lining on the mouth of the pipe

 

“Stay away from the gas,” Drin says.

 

“Does it rise, or sink into hollows?” Teo asks.

 

“Sink,” Drin says.

 

“Do we know what’s in the gas, or the drainage water?”

 

“Gas is usually carbon dioxide with methane and sulfides and trace organics. The fluid is usually thirty to forty percent water – not fresh, sodium chloride salts.  The rest of the liquid is long-chain organic fats and oils, lots of metallic compounds, magnesium, zinc, copper, iron chelates, trace selenium…it’s not the same balance as you’d see in normal salt waters of various kinds.”  Drin turns and starts walking upwind of the thicket, staying to open areas on the higher ground above the hollow. He doesn’t go far before he says, “We’ll have to come back with diver’s tanks and masks to trace this one safely.”

 

“Does it worry you that they managed to put this together right under your noses without anybody noticing the noise levels they must have been venting?”

 

“It probably got buried under all the other shit going on at the same time,” Drin says bitterly.

 

“Samples. Yup, I’ll put it on my list of things to do.”

Almost Eye to Eye

Teo is chopping firewood. Well, at least that’s what’s telling himself. The heat and humidity are building up to a thunderstorm, but it’s not really registering. He had impatiently stripped off his sweaty tee and flung it into a pile of wood splinters behind him without even thinking about the heat. Each chop is marked by a short, sharp bark of rage. The axe had to be pried out of the chopping block after every stroke, and that’s just making him angrier. His exclamations are also getting louder each time, although that hasn’t seemed to register either.  The axe head buries itself in the block again, and sticks. Teo pulls it out with a roar of disgust and reaches for another ragged chunk of oak.

It won’t come.

IT… WON’T… COME.

He turns his head more when it won’t pull free of the tumbled sloppy pile.  He reaches down for the green vine grown around through it, snagging around the chunk he wants.

The vine twirls upward along the axe handle, grows six inches in diameter and pulls away the wood, yanking him off balance.  He plants his feet, opens his mouth in a giant roar, and yanks his end of the wood closer to him. The vine gives him six inches and then pulls away the wood so fast he staggers along three paces, stumbling.

Another vine drops down from the tree overhead, flicks up around the axe head, and strips the handle right out of his hand.  He can’t see, the sweat is dripping in his eyes, he grabs after the vines, catches at the wood with both hands. The vine shoves the wood into his gut crossways like it’s sweeping him down with a broom, and releases its grip while he falls on his ass.

The sound of an older brother sighing in exasperation is so familiar he’s shocked still by it, still clutching the chunk of branchy useless slash that he fought so hard to get. Had he really been about to chop that useless hunk of wood? He twists around to glare at Drin, feeling like he’s twelve years old again.

“MIERDA!” he spits, glaring hard, and trying not to look at the ruined chopping block.

“Yup,” Drin says.  He holds out one open hand.  A vine drops down from above, releases an open thermos bottle into Drin’s grip, taps Drin’s wrist and points the tip like a warning finger at Teo.  How can a snaky green tail tip look like a disapproving teacher’s finger, anyway? Wait! A tail tip? Naga.

Two of them.

Tag-teaming Nagas. Teo feels the hair on his head try to rise, even though it’s floppy with sweat. Conditioning is hard to break, even though he’s pretty sure now they’re not the threat he’s been told they are.

Or at least, not the stupid, irrational crazy threat they were reported to be.

On the other hand, everything he’s heard about the bug troops running loose around here suggests you’d have to be pretty stark screaming insane to wade into battle with those things – maybe that’s where they put some of it.

“How’s the tailbone?” Drin says, and stands there holding the thermos.

“It was my ass, not my tailbone.” Teo mutters grudgingly. “It’s fine.”

“Uh huh,” Drin says.  He looks up, flicks a two-fingered salute as if he can see somebody moving away through the tree overhead, and then he waves at the log pile.  No green vines in it now, and Teo didn’t notice a change there. He should have noticed something that big! Doesn’t hear it either, although his own breathing is damned loud.

“You won’t hear ‘em,” Drin says.  “Want some water?”

Teo takes the water and gulps some. “Stop mind-reading me. I’m the one that’s supposed to do that shit.” He sighs heavily.

“You try mind-reading the Tail Twins right now, you wouldn’t like what you got from ‘em.  Bad idea to scare ‘em,” Drin says.

“I’m scaring them? But yeah, I’m not sure that I’m very fond of them, either.” Teo is trying to hold onto his anger, but he’s deflating fast. He always has. He looks frankly at his brother. “What happened to ‘They’re vicious killers who eat babies for breakfast’? Don’t tell me I’ve been LIED to.” There’s acid dripping from his tone.

“Oh, they are.  Murder a dozen eggs every morning, those two, and they’re downright hell on barbecued chickens.”

Teo rolls his eyes hard enough that Drin can hear them pop in their sockets. “Ha.”

Drin just lifts one eyebrow.  Oh man, that fucking older brother eyebrow!

“No, I mean it. Ostensibly I was sent here to destroy every trace of this deadly female naga that never should have been created in the first place, and has the capability to wreak havoc on this planet. I SAW that woman. She’s fucking confused about even having a tail, and she sure doesn’t look murderous. They’re ALL dangerous, but not mindless like I was told. They think. They live lives and… love people.” He makes a pained face. “MIERDA!”

“Oh yeah, right, mindless brutes, or so I was told,” Drin says, and there’s something glittering hard in his voice.  “But our two were made as Black Ops Nagas, smart enough to figure things out for themselves, and they turned out healers more than assassins.  You see them in bug battles, yeah, they’re efficient killers, but that’s not where they want to live all the time. And God She only knows what Grace was made from.  And gee, come to find out, Hal’s figured out there’s other kinds of nagas out there running around too, did you know that? At least fifty, sixty years of different kinds of zoomorphs and at least two other kinds of nagas getting dumped off here like it’s the outdoor cage for all those black market labs.”

“Goddammit. Those labs need to be shut down!” Teo shakes his head again. “La hostia.”

Drin closes his eyes a moment, sighs, and waves at the thermos, urging him to drink more.  “Gotta adjust to drinking enough in this climate. Too many fucking kinds of labs, hell, where to start?  You really need a briefing from Emma on that.”

Teo nods absently and takes a drink. When he hands it back to Drin, he uses his freed hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. Time for another type of briefing, he guesses. “Here’s what I know. Grace’s blueprint was an exercise, not something anyone planned to create. She was a fucking MIND exercise, a cerebral wank. Then someone swiped the plan, and The Company was afraid that someone would use it.” He shakes his head. “They sure don’t consider her a person, just a fucking THING. Some sort of incubator for churning out more killing machines for their use. Something too dangerous to exist.”

“Can’t be as simple as that, in the final impact.  Or she’d look like a massive bug queen, laying there popping hatchlings, pregnant all the time.”

“I dunno. I kinda expected that when I was looking, but she’s…” he shakes his head, something strange in his voice. “She’s nothing like that.”

“She’s a goddamn fierce warrior when it comes to protecting her own, just like the Twins.  Somebody put a big dose of guard dog in all of them. They’ve needed to be that for this community.  You have to make allowance for that, Teo, none of them gonna let you chop off a leg by stupid accident.”

Teo glares upward, then down at his hands. A few blood blisters have already burst.  The finger joints ache, the pads look like boiled sausages. Hell, his wrists are twingeing now that the rage has drained away.  He was chopping much too hard, the axe was the wrong size and weight, it was all shit.

“I assume the cousins were still going on and on about loyalty to the Motherland when you left,” Drin says, gazing away at the woods.

“Of course they were. Along with my Higher Ups bleating on and on about your Glorious Deeds, Sterling Record, and Great Sacrifice in the end. But I knew you weren’t dead.”

Now there’s an expression on Drin’s face, and the full focus of those yellow eyes staring down somewhere far back into Teo’s skull bones is more like the exaggerated glaring eyeballs of some avenging Buddhist shrine statue.  Except the veins pulse.

“How did you know that I wasn’t dead?” Drin asks.  It’s his softest voice, the dangerous one. Teo just blinks at him. “You know, every damn thing that I ever did that was worth a good goddamn thing, got classified so deep that nobody would ever hear about it, ever,” Drin says, even more quietly.  There’s a big vein beating in his temple, and tendons standing out on his jaw.  “Whatever the fuck anybody told you about it, that was a goddamn lie.”

“Oh. I wasn’t told anything. Call it superior intuition. I had a hunch.” His face reddens. “Or you could call it wish fulfillment if you want, but I’d rather not talk about my neuroses right now.”  He can’t continue, looking into those eyes, so his fingers pick distractedly at a frayed seam in his blue jeans. 

“Was coming here your plan?  Or somebody else’s?”

“They suggested I take the mission so that I could live up to your…yeah. Like I might have the right kind of upbringing and bloodline and heroic family to do this thing. I volunteered because it would keep the rest of the team relatively safe.  I had a feeling that they were going to make all of us…migrate. No allowance for anybody else’s family connections or… They said they’d bring the volunteer back, but I had already figured that they couldn’t. Or wouldn’t.  I had already sacrificed my personal life to my…” He snorts. “Career. So it wasn’t as bad for me than for someone with a Real Life.”

“Oh, so those orders came from the very highest levels, huh?” Now it’s louder.  But Drin’s voice edges out into a peculiar depth, hoarse, a little odd vibrato.

“Yeah.”  It’s practically a whisper. Then he tries to avert the storm. “Now that I’m aware that every fucking thing was manipulation, what do we do now?”

”The initial task is to fight bugs, worldwide,” Drin says in an even heavier vibrato.  He sounds quite odd. Then he cuts off and frowns a little, glancing upward.

“Well, that’s kind of a tall order, you….” Then Teo’s looking up, too.

There are small dark flying things coming through the woods.  Some of them zip around Drin, fly a few loops around Teo, and keep going.  The sun hits some of them at an angle and suddenly they glitter and flash, and he sees yellow and black bands.

Drin sees him recognize what they are.  Drin smiles a tight, strained little smile.  “It’s a good idea to stay friendly with the local bees, too.”

“Bees?  Why?  What do bees have to do with anything?” Teo turns his head to follow another flight circling him.  His memories of his brother warn him to pay careful attention.

“Bees attack bugs and bug labs, and not just European honeybees.  I can call some of the various kinds.” Drin points at Teo. “What you just saw was that the bees know you too, just like me.  You just haven’t been trained to direct them like I was.”

“Direct them?”  Teo thinks twice about getting up.

“Yeah, call them to attack targets if we’re…”  Drin stares off in the direction where the bees went.  “…you can kind of it hear it if you’re paying attention.”

Teo twists his head around.  “What? I’m just hearing that buzz you always hear in the hummocks or highlands above the swamp.  Cicadas, possibly?”

“No,” Drin says.  “If it’s really loud, that’s bugs on the march.”

Teo rocks back, pulls one foot under him to get up, and Drin makes a calming wave of his hand for him to sit.

“So you think you could teach me to connect to bees?” Teo is cheered by the prospect of learning something new, but then he grimaces.  “The Higher Ups will be expecting another update on Friday. Have I come any closer to finding this female naga, and how close am I to completing my mission?” He staggers up on his feet, pats down his jeans, removes a device from his pocket and waves it at Drin. 

The thing looks very, very familiar.  The difference is that Teo has put it into a RFID-resistant case of metal and leather.

Drin gives a little grunt.  “You’ve been reporting out of fear that the Company would murder the cousins, yeah?”

Teo sighs deeply, and confesses, “Maybe a little, but I’m convinced that those assholes will just bounce back like they always do.”  Then he shrugs, and that movement hurts, too. “But I swallowed the propaganda, too. Brainwashing isn’t just for idiots, I guess. Or maybe I’m as idiotic as our cousins, just in a different way.” He looks at the thing in his hand.  “I’m not feeling very patriotic and heroic anymore, just foolish. I have to destroy this thing, or at least lose it permanently.”

Drin is gazing off where the bees flew.  “First we need to figure out where your toy reports to, and who’s on the other end of it. Who knows, we might find out the folks at the other end of that thing are friendly, and we can help out.”

“Pretty sure that they’re not friendly,” Teo warns. “It’s the Big Guns on the other end.  They told me I’m reporting directly to the Mission General and the Commandant, who’s reporting to the Premier.”

Drin snorts.  “Yeah, that’s not the sort of brass I signed on with, sure not like that when I got military discharge, let alone when I got… migrated here.”

“You don’t think it’s the Premier on the other end of this thing, anyway, not if we’re so completely cut off from home.”

Drin snorts.  “Could be worse than any of the old brass.  Let me burst another nasty manure bubble.”

“What?” Teo says, looking resigned.

“It could run straight to the guys selling bug lab troop militia services.”

“What?” Teo glances up, surprised.

“The Company made the bugs in the first place, in case you haven’t figured that out.  Company labs cobbled together the first bugs themselves as heavy patrols for putting down civil disorder.  Shock troops, to scare civilians at riots. Couldn’t keep control over them well enough, but they made great enemies of the state.  Couldn’t do without ‘em.”

Teo is very, very still for a moment. “Yes. That makes sense.”

“Operating through human command was built in to start with.  They were designed to be terror weapons.”

“The bugs were our own idea–” 

“To start with.  The bugs got their own ideas pretty damn quick.”

“Our own labs–”  It’s just another shock.  The visceral dislike Teo felt for those first illegal pictures of bugs he found, the uncontrollable nausea on seeing the first one mummified in a sarcobox, and then the smell in the labs– who would ever think of using those things for maintaining civil order?  But yes, they would work beautifully as terror weapons. It makes sense, if they were intended as guerrilla warfare against unarmed people. That’s all they’re really good for, except in vast numbers like ants.  “So they weren’t an invasion–“

Drin snorts.  “Yeah, all those fairy stories.  They made their own monster.”

“And you’d love to ambush the guys who front for bugs,” Teo says.

Drin’s face smooths out perfectly blank.  “Capture and interrogate,” he corrects, still watching things in the distance.  “Carefully, to get immediately useful information, not some kind of…” he grimaces.  “…silly revenge.”

Teo looks thoughtful for a moment.  He holds up the comm. “Perhaps a tech could alter this to reach someone else.”

Drin switches the distant gaze to Teo instead, and it doesn’t look any more friendly.  “That decision is up to you, if you want to ask for our help.”

Teo just stares at him. He has to ask?

“Yeah, I’m not confiscating the toy,” Drin says.  He swings around and starts walking off toward a deer trail through the scrub.  A dark swirl bees comes up to meet him, swirls a dotted line over his head, and zips away ahead of him. 

Drin’s in an odd mood, one that Teo can’t decipher, so he’s not about to jump on him in order to defend his honor, to protest his intentions. Instead he says, louder, “Did the bees find anything?”

“Come find out,” Drin says.

Teo shoves the comm back in his pocket, catches up, walks a few paces behind Drin’s left side.  It’s so automatic that it startles him when Drin turns his head, just a nod to acknowledge he’s there.

Teo says, “I always knew I would never be able to go back, no matter what they promised. What do I have to gain by holding out on you?” He looks down at his wrecked hands. “Besides, why would I trust them instead of you?” He’s pretty sure Drin hears the distant echoes of hero worship.  

Drin stops, cocks his head listening a moment, and looks at Teo.  “Oh,well, life, liberty, and the pursuit of bug labs. Can’t have you packing along that thing on the kind of a fight where we don’t trust your master’s toys, right?  Besides, who knows – we might find out the folks at the other end of that thing are friendly, and we can help them out too.”   

“You are a fucking optimist!” Teo accuses. “And don’t call them my masters. I’m done with that bullshit.”

“Oh, well, I don’t mind a nice brisk fight either.”  The corner of Drin’s mouth curls up just a little bit.  “I’d be mad keen to get into it, man, what do you think?”

“Let’s do it.”

The bees come zipping back, past both of them, loop around on long flights into the woods in about six directions, and return, swirling upward over Drin’s head.  He points ahead and gives a low tone in his chest, and the gathered mass scatters ahead of him in a broad cloud. 

“What does that mean?” Teo says.

“Recon,” Drin says.  “I think they found an abandoned bug lab.”

“Mierda — this close to the houses –” 

“Yeah, Hal found out that some of the labs can set up on a water source and get running in three days, and some of them have been camouflaged pretty well,” Drin says.  “Not well enough to fool you or me or the bees.”

“Or the nagas,” Teo says.

Drin smiles.  It’s not a nice smile.

“Well, what are we going to do about it?”

“Try to figure out why they left it.  Usually, it’s some kind of swamp contamination that gets into the circulation pumps, like they were moving too fast and sloppy hooking things up in the first place.  Like those sites that you sampled for DA on the way down here.”

“They just abandon them? Isn’t that stupidly expensive?”

“Yeah.  Which is why Hal has been trying to trace the moneymen.  And why we want your toy examined carefully, properly.”

“Yeah, sure. I don’t even want to look at the goddamn thing anymore.” Teo pulls it out of his pocket and tosses it to Drin.  “Just don’t screw me when you do it. You not exactly trusting me makes me not exactly want to trust you, y’know.”

“Lots more trust here in the swamp than we two ever got to have in the family manse, bro,” Drin says, looking at the case of the comm more than he’s watching Teo.  “Let’s just say you fit in with the cousins a helluva better than I could manage.”

“Fuck you, Drin. That is NOT a compliment! I hated those money-hungry morons as much as you did. I just hid it better. All those psychology classes were good for something.”

“Beats splitting your knuckles open every goddamn time you have to deal with the fools.”  Drin gives a crooked grin. “Hey, at keast I learned to get a haircut now and then.” 

“Who knows? Maybe I’ll grow it out again, have all the girls drooling over me.” He makes a preening gesture, but his hair is shaved really short, so the gesture looks silly.

Drin holds out the comm.  “You better keep it, it might have some kind of personnel sensor, and I don’t want to set it off with implants like Emma’s got.  Damn thing might have an antipersonnel bomb on board.”

Teo snatches it from his hand, then smacks him in the back of the head with his other hand.  And Drin just lets him do it. “And quit denying that you know me and I know you. Fucking close enough. That shit’s harsh when I came all this way to find you.”

Drin cocks up that eyebrow.  “Have you seen the skeletons yet?”

“What skele…” Teo narrows his eyes and glares at Drin. “You’re yanking my chain, right?”

“Oh, not the pure bug hatchlings you saw back home. Or the dead humans you might have seen up north.  Down here, the mutating bugs – where they zombied bug parts onto live humans, not just eating carcasses.”

Teo keeps thinking he’ll get used to this place, and yet somehow it keeps opening up huge yawning crevasses of horror that he has to figure out how to navigate.  He has a vague memory of his older brother telling him, somewhere back in the shadowy cool of the house where they both grew up, that it’s just like that out in the real world, where people just die, and you have to be clever and quick on your feet and never give up, and still it might not be good enough.

“No,” Teo says.  “No, I have not. Nobody briefed me about bugs being able to… being able to do anything remotely that… adaptable.”

“Oh, humans got no control over these bug troops at all, none.  They operate off their own authority, the labs just run themselves, and the Bug Queens present various good offers through their human tools and various militias find bug troops just irresistible to use in places where nobody will ever believe the wild reports.  Nagas being dangerous to humans? Pfehh, get enough bugs and those labs would eat up nagas, snip up all those lovely genetic tools, and use ‘em to build bug troops that are even more impossible to kill. So you get certain factions who think we oughta kill all the zoomorphs before the bugs can grab them.”

“Huh. The zoomorphs sound like the only hope we have left. The reports I read didn’t hint at the adaptability the bugs seem to have here, but they straight-out claimed that they were damn near invincible. Impossible to destroy in any normal situation.”

“Ideal enemy of the state,” Drin says.

“And somehow they’ve got worse here,” Teo responds.

Drin nods.

“Sounds fucking miserable.”

Drin nods.

“Along with the constant headache from that goddamn buzz,” Teo says.

Drin nods again.

“Okay, where do I sign up?  Yeah, yeah, skeletons, I’m gonna freak over that, got it, move on.  We need to get this mess sorted.”

Drin just gazes at him for a long moment.  “I missed you.”

Teo grins. “Not as much as I missed you.”

A Polite Request

“It’s open.” It takes a minute for the spreadsheets to clear from his mind, but Teo looks up to see who’s at the entrance to the clinic’s living quarters. The barely-cool autumnal breeze ruffles the papers spread out in front of him.  Dance is standing on the doormat holding his tail in both hands amazingly like an anxious kid holding a stuffed toy.  Except most stuffed toys don’t squirm.  “Good morning.”

 

“Good morning.”  Teo waves Dance all the way into the room, and shifts a wad of papers from the bench along the wall.  The room is full of paper. “Hal brought over his records last night, and the piles of paper just keep growing–”  He can feel the headache lurking behind his eyes.

 

Dance smiles.  “I know that look very well.  Do you have perhaps six minutes of time?”

 

Teo watches as the tail taps itself off on the mat, and Dance swipes at a grimy patch with a tissue.  It must suck dragging it through the dirt and the swamp muck.  Teo says, “Of course.  Can I get you anything to drink?  Must be hard to keep that tail hydrated.”

 

“It is rather a feat,” Dance agrees, with a sigh.  The tail tip swipes a trickle of sweat away from Dance’s forehead.  “Yes, please, water would be very nice, but I don’t want to take away from your work.” 

 

Teo hands him a glass of ice water from the pitcher on the desk, which Dance accepts with a smile. “Not a problem.  It’s not like the paperwork will disappear if I stop looking at it.  If anything, it grows exponentially when I turn my back on it.”  He notices that Dance takes inventory of the cabin and its exits before taking a cautious seat on the bench.  Caution is justified — it gives a metallic creak under the weight. Teo resumes his seat.  Having the desk between them might make Dance a little more comfortable.

 

“Oh yes, I remember that, too, paperwork at the Metro.”  He makes a face, sips from his drink.  Then he looks down at the floor.  The tail winds into a coil, uncurls under the bench, rewinds itself.  Dance is preoccupied enough that it’s not being careful, it’s not silent.  The scales make a soft rasping noise against the metal deck.  “I have a big– a very big favor to ask.  Yes.  I ask if you can– if you can come down and talk again to Drin, please.”

 

Teo leans back, lifts one eyebrow.  “I thought you’d ask me to stay away from him.  Why do you want me to come and talk to him?  What are you hoping to accomplish?”

 

The tail tip comes up and wipes off another bead of sweat from Dance’s face, and he shifts on the cushions.  “He has– bad dreams.  We all do.  We have the feeling we are back in the event, blinding us to things that are real now.”

 

“Flashbacks,” Teo says.  “They’re a fairly common phenomenon.”

 

Dance nods, drinks more water.  “Drin’s are sometimes set off when he–when he suddenly recalls something,  when he learns something new about what happened to him.  I was hoping that more knowledge would– would resolve some things.”

 

Teo leans forward a little, sliding his arm along the table, and Dance flinches back, his head rears up, the canopy stirs, his whole body tenses up.  Teo retreats, holds up one hand, flat, open. “It’s okay, I’m listening, we’ve got plenty of time to figure out what to do.”  His voice is soothing, but his eyes are flat and blank.  A scientist’s gaze.  He knows this.  He’s been dreading this moment for days; perhaps cool professionalism will get him through.

 

The tail is moving nervously over Dance’s knees, brushing along the edge of the desk.  Dance grimaces.  “I am too twitchy.  Being what I am, nervous is not good.  I am– I have bad dreams too, and we–wake each other up. Emma, too.”

 

“It’s all right.  Take a deep breath.”  Teo’s voice is firm, but soft.  “Now let it out.  Again.”  Dance breathes as Teo instructs, and his shoulders drop incrementally.  The canopy settles flat again.  “You’re not in any danger right now.  Do I make you nervous?  Is that it?” Teo asks, genuinely curious.

 

“Pen Howell had codes.  Secrets.  He unlocked the viola case during the storm–has anyone told you about that?  He could have unzipped me into… god knows what.  A robot, maybe.”

 

“How would Pen Howell know anything about you?” 

 

“Ahh, he was one of my makers.  He went to prison and they wiped his mind for him, and he says he’s glad to forget.”

 

Teo sits rigid.  He stares at the body, at the tail, at the canopy, and never for long at the eyes, which might be taken as threatening body language.  He’s pretty sure he can confirm the technical epoch in which those slidecoat scales were designed; the canopy design is slightly newer, but only by a decade or two.  The gene-eng work is old-school, detailed, fabulously labor-intensive.  It’s rather like looking at a brocade fragment of an Emperor’s silk gown, all of it hand-embroidered.  The fingerprints of the program that made him are there, distinct, unmistakable.  Shockingly different from the program known to have made all the creatures that Teo has ever worked with, agonized over.

 

All the details shriek of a mythical program that reportedly never existed.  Dance’s fear is perfectly reasonable.  Who knows what they might have built in by way of back doors, hidden priest’s holes, code harpoons?

 

Dance sits there and lets him look.

 

He’s Black Ops, all right, probably on a budget that dwarfs all of the programs Teo’s ever worked in, put together. When Dance is agitated to this pitch, he still has the flexibility not to shout, not to make threat gestures with his fangs, to keep the tail moving quietly.  The Black Ops Naga could spray venom from eight feet away and kill him entirely by accident, and no one who knows about the tech involved would even be surprised.  

But what Dance is choosing to do with all this free will is to push back civilly, arguing with Teo.  It doesn’t surprise Teo as much as it would have before he got here.  He was schooled, drilled, brainwashed during his training to believe that the morphs weren’t entirely sentient.  When he came to Detroit, he saw the result of World 1 technology on World 2 creatures.  Those morphs were either born with zoomorphic traits due to contamination, or they were human fetuses with gene-eng traits deliberately added, mostly for the sex trade.  The community had rescued a lot of bug-bitten, but they took in at least as many escaped or abandoned sex toys.

 

But Teo had never worked on a morph from World 1, his world, who had more than a rudimentary intelligence.  As far as he knew, anyway.  It was a horrific thought, but he tucked it away to ponder later, when he was alone.

 

Dance lets him wander around in his thoughts for a while.  “Yes, that Pen Howell, the scientist,” he says, at last.

 

“I didn’t know.”  He certainly isn’t going to tell him that he had known Pen Howell once, back home.

 

Dance lifts one hand, points upward.  “So how do I know what secrets you bring?  Drin has flashbacks where we must take the gun from him before he shoots bugs who aren’t there.”

 

“I have no interest in tormenting you or anyone else.”  Teo shrugs.  “Perhaps I should not have spoken to Drin at all.  It… It just seemed like it was… something I should share.”

 

“You are really brothers, I smell it.  So does Seung.  If anybody could tell Drin his own history so it is taken in, so it is believed, re-known, brought back to him, you could do that for Drin.”

 

“Perhaps Drin was right.  It’s not really relevant anymore.  Besides, he doesn’t want to hear his history.  He has all he needs right now.  His money.  His lovers.  He doesn’t need–”  He doesn’t need me, Teo thinks.  But he doesn’t say it.  He’s not a petulant child.

 

The tail tip makes a whirring noise, and a smoking mark mars the corner of the table.  “This is untrue.  You look at me, and tell me Drin’s history as a zoomorph handler is irrelevant.  He saved my life.”

 

Dance’s eyes are a startling bright gold.  Angry, Teo thinks in that cool remote part of his observer’s mind.  “They’re his words, Dance.  He’s the one who said his past was irrelevant.” 

 

“I am not just his lover, Teo.  I am his husband, for better or for worse.  It is the proper duty, for me to find what will help him heal from this.  Everything was taken from him. You were taken from him.  I want him to have his brother and to laugh together, the way it should be!”  Dance pulls out another tissue and the tail takes it, swipes it in jerky motions at his eyes, while he clenches his hands on his knees.  He takes deep breaths, nostrils flaring.  “But what I want most is to help him with these new things in the flashbacks.  They bubble up like swamp gas in tar.”

 

“And what if the process succeeds in ripping me apart?” Teo asks quietly.  “I don’t have anyone to lean on, as he does.  No husband.  No wife.  No family save him.  I’m not sure I’m willing to take that risk anymore.  Besides, I have no idea if he’d even listen to me.”

 

“Yes, I understand.  Those are valid fears,” Dance says quietly, but his fists clench so hard that the muscles stand up in his arms.  “I understand.”  After a moment he says, “It is true, Drin can refuse to hear what you have to say.  But we can… be patient, too.”  Those gold eyes look very, very stubborn.

 

“All right.”  Teo’s hand scrubs away at his face.  He’s so tired suddenly.  “Fine.  I’ll do whatever you want if you think it’ll help Drin.”  It’s not like he really has anything left to lose.

 

“No defeating!” Dance snaps.  “None of the ‘hey, give in, why not?’”  He leans forward, glaring into Teo’s face.  “Only because you choose.  Because you want it for Drin.  Not what I say best, what in hell do I know about this other world, back where they grow me in a bucket like a frog?  No.  You say from what you know best, from knowing Drin when you grow up together.”

 

“They did not grow you in a bucket like a frog,” Teo says, amused.

 

“I do not know that.  You do.  He does, maybe.  But you know what family Drin had.  I do not.”  Dance’s pointing finger jabs defiantly at the ceiling, almost too fast to see at all.  It’s a classic handler’s gesture, never pointing directly at another person unless you are commanding an attack on them.

 

“I also don’t know what he remembers and what he doesn’t.” Teo pushes back a little more from the desk, watchful.

 

“I can tell you some of that, from what he says to me,” Dance says.  “But how do I know you will not use codes, like Pen Howell, to unzip all of us?”

 

Had anyone ever considered what their creations might say to them?  The very idea of unzipping Emma Watson, the ultimate keeper of Uncle Wojo’s codes, might be really funny on another day.  He gives Dance a point-blank glare.  “You don’t.  Ultimately, either you trust me to do this or you don’t.”

 

“I have trusted you, telling you things,” Dance says.

 

Teo puts his hand on the table over the charred mark, toward Dance.  “All right.  We can form a trust bond.  Bite me.”

 

“You are not ill, just tired,” Dance says.

 

“So biting me won’t hurt me, right?”

 

“I anticipate biting an old lady at the clinic for rheumatoid arthritis, in maybe half an hour, I must concentrate as much as the fangs can give her.  I do not waste venom on people who just need more sleep,” Dance says.  The dry austerity of that tone surprises Teo.  “But I understand you have had bronchitis and pneumonia.  The colds could be hard this winter.  After I bite some of the children with problem sniffles, and I go to bed for two days, then I have antibodies too.  Then I ask you if you want from me…what do you say… a booster shot.”

 

“How sick do you get from biting someone?”

 

“Less than does Seung, who has less often these exposures to sick people.  Seung has this big bite, dangerous.  He bites on cancers, drug-resistant infections, nasty stuff for adults.  I can do kids.  The flu, the colds, the ear infections, the pneumonias, they get fierce in this swamp.  Surely you see how bad numbers are down here.  We talked about it with Doctor Alexander.  He was shocked.”

 

Teo gives a rough laugh.  “Shocked?  Now that I’d like to see.  But I’ve seen those numbers, too, and I’ll do what I can to help.” 

 

“Yes, thank you.”  Dance’s tail reaches out and touches Teo lightly on the arm, retreats instantly.

 

Teo’s rather surprised that the tail wants to reach out to him.  “It’s okay,” he says, and holds out his open hand toward it.

 

The tail hesitates, gives a flippy little what-the-hell sort of gesture, and the tip lowers itself into Teo’s hand.  Teo says, “Is it okay if I look at your tail more closely?”

 

Dance nods, with that medical look — braced for some kind of pain.  It can’t possibly be physical pain, either.

 

“It makes the kids giggle a lot, I’ve heard them,” Teo says, keeping his eyes down on the smooth, glassy surface in his hand. He strokes it softly with a fingertip, almost reverently, admiring the sheer beauty of its design, of its… biology.

 

The tail brightens in color, the muscle tension relaxes.

 

“For kids, we want to be all clown side,” Dance says.  “Also for lots adults.”

 

“But not for me?” Teo says, making a sad face.  The defensive keels only start about two feet up from the tip–the very end is nearly as fluid and prehensile as a cephalopod’s tentacle.

 

The tip comes up at him and pokes him in the chest like a finger, and at his startled look, again.  Then it smacks itself down in his hand again.

 

Teo is quick enough to catch the moment when Dance stares down at his own tail, mouth open in surprise.  Dance’s brown face flushes darker and he says, “I beg your pardon.”

 

“It has ideas all on its own?” Teo says.  None of the programs he knew ever allowed use of spinal node reflexes because of the dangers once a creature went from combat to civilian life–but clearly, Pen and his colleagues pulled off that trick, too.

 

“Oh yes,” Dance says, looking away.  “And not always waiting for filters from slow head-myself, up here at the other end.”

 

Teo nods.  The wording Dance uses intrigues Teo.  They both know that Dance is letting Teo examine something as personal as his hands or face, usually a manipulative organ rather than a weapon.  And often enough, a sexual organ.  He’s quite sure the designers planned for that too, while they built the weapons specs into it.  They must have made Dance totally susceptible to courtship by somebody as adept as his brother Drin.   “Has Seung learned how to flash-burn things with it, like you have?”

 

“Keisha has him practice on what I say to him, but he’s just now growing out as long as I was at the start of that ability.  He’s blown off a few times, not so good control.  Like doing yoga maybe, putting mind in that right place.”

 

Teo looks for the point where the belly scutes stop, and the entire surface becomes scaled in the same size, which defines the true tail on a snake.  Normally it would be found about one-third up, out of the overall body length.  He was expecting to find a marking, a knob, a button, something.

 

“Are you looking for the snake vent?  Emma found the spot where the belly scales stop.”  Dance rolls a curve of tail upward, presents it to Teo’s view.

 

The change in scaling is about three feet up from the tip.  There’s a couple of paler, larger scales, nothing very obvious.  There’s no visible ventral cloaca opening among them.  It’s a gesture of trust on Dance’s part, it seems almost painfully personal.

 

Teo says, “What happens if I just touch it, or if I push hard on it?”

 

Dance is amused.  “If a strange person does it, I pop my fangs out and spray venom.  Not nice venom, either.  The bug who grabbed me, the venom hit, their skin and clothes started smoking like chemical burn.  But that was during bug raid, running a lot.  You– well, I don’t know.  Conflicting messages.  You asked first.  And smell a lot like Drin.  Well, I tell him he can do what he likes.  He might not agree there is no risk!”  Dance smiles a little.

 

Teo says dryly, “I’ll be careful.”

 

“Thanks.  Emma put on mask and raincoat and poked at the scales there, she used some fancy lab lenses to look, she says no macroscopic opening in it.”

 

“Did she need the mask?”

 

Dance gives a crooked smile.  “Well, yes.  That poke she gave, it surprised me.  It was like she just cut puppet strings, down I went.  Couldn’t move my legs.  Peed on her like a baby in diapers, couldn’t move any belly muscles below my lowest ribs for half an hour.  Scary.  Em was very angry at the designers.  She thought it might be a partial sedative switch if it is pressed by somebody I trust.  Not so nice if I don’t.”

 

Teo nods.  Dance’s story will help keep his partners alive through any kidnapping attempt.  He probably wants Teo to spread it around.  Depressing, really.

 

“What did you expect from it?  What do you know?” Dance asks.

 

“I know a little.” Now is the time to show Dance a little trust. “I doctored zoomorphs back home. Nothing like you, though. Mostly quickly-assembled cannon fodder for the war. Sometimes something put together with more care, meant as elite troops. I wasn’t a soldier, not by a long shot. Not even military. But we ran a facility that was dedicated to physically patching up those who could be patched, adjusting damaged psyches, making them fit to serve again if we could, and neutralizing them if they were too unstable or dangerous.”

Dance’s canopy stirs again. “You mean killing them.”

Teo sighs. “Yes. But I always tried to treat them with respect and help them the best I knew how with the knowledge I was given. He looks Dance in the eyes, then. “More often than not, ending their lives was the kindest thing I could do.” He looks away, refocusing, and is surprised to see Dance’s tail still lying in his hands. He takes a deep breath, amazed by the man’s composure.

“I am guessing, based on my training in biology,”  Teo points at the thicker upper slope of the curve.  “that this part is built from the snake genetics for a body cavity, not for merely spine and muscles.  The designers could have packed support functions like extra kidney or liver lobes, or power transformers, into the cavity.”

 

Dance says, “No gut tissue inside my tail, as far as I know.  Any pain I’ve had along the tail has been muscular, the vertebrae, or in my skin, so far.  I pray I do not get kidney stones.  Some players in the Metro Symphony suffered that.”

 

Teo nods, releases the tail tip.  “I’m looking forward to hearing you play.”

 

“Oh, thank you,” Dance says.  The tail tip makes a little flippy gesture, like a kid’s hand waving goodbye.  “Ahh, time’s up.”

 

“It has a clock?” Teo says, bemused.

 

“Oh yes indeed,” Dance says, with a groan.  “No, no, stay, I know my way out.”

 

Teo rises also.  “I’ll come around to the clinic with you.”

 

“With me?”  Dance seems discombobulated.

 

“Yes.  You wanted me to talk to Drin, didn’t you?”

 

Dance sits down again, suddenly.  “Oh, when he comes to pick me up, after.”

 

“Yes,” Teo agrees.  It would be hard to miss their departures.  The naga staggers out of the clinic boat, after biting some of the patients.  He gets half-carried by both his spouses to get him home.  It’s clearly not easy on him.  Teo hadn’t realized that the naga might spend a few days outright ill from it.  He holds out his hand.  “I know Emma’s busy in her own research.  Would you like me to help Drin get you home, after?”

 

Dance takes it, gets up again, and grips Teo’s hand lightly in both of his hands, releases it.  “Thank you.  That would be most helpful.  I am not taking you too long from your work?”

 

Teo looks down at the short person with the tail rolling about his own feet anxiously.  “Don’t worry.  It’ll be waiting for me.”

 

Dance looks at the piles, and chuckles.  “You and Emma.  She says this planet is too backward.”

 

“It’s quite oddly beautiful, though,” Teo says, closing the door after him.  He gestures up at the uncertain clouds.  “It took me a while to see that.  Some of the spiders and reptiles are amazing, things that are long gone from where we came from.  Must be heaven for an animal lover like Drin.”

“Drin and I grew up on a rather sprawling estate with all sorts of creatures. Blooded saddle horses, half-feral barn kittens, hunting dogs, lap dogs, an elderly iguana named Pablo, even a rather awful tarantula that sort of frightened me. It’s a horrible cliche, grubby kids coming home with something or other clutched in-hand, asking, ‘Mother, may we keep it?’ There was a whole lot of that going on in our house, and our mother never said no. Not once. I think she was just as interested in the menagerie as we were.”

Dance cocks his head.  “He does surprise people, sometimes, the way he talks about orb weavers and the big tropical spiders you see here as what he calls ‘smuggler escapees.’  He likes talking to Michel about some of the weirder things the family brings in.  They go over things very carefully, because the accidental creatures also can have value.”

 

Teo shakes his head.  “Still weirds me out that the smuggling family is the one enforcing a lot of the order around here.”

 

“Michel had enough of chaotic war zones, he will tell you, he tells anyone. They wish to carry on business in a stable manner.  And the authorities supporting bug labs, they are importing chaos.  It makes all backwards.”  Dance pauses at the entrance to the clinic proper.  “You are giving me that look.”

 

“What look?”

 

“‘The weird guy with the tail who should grunt is discussing politics’ look.”

 

“I am very sorry, Dance. I’m not used to the differences that I’m seeing here. I do not mean to condescend or offend, I really don’t.”

 

“Give him a little while,” Doctor Alexander says, inside the open door.  “He’ll adjust.  Ready?”

 

“I am, thank you,” Dance says.

 

Teo stops him with a hand on his arm. “You know, I’m not just good at vaccinations and research. I was a fully-licensed psychiatrist. If you or Emma would like help with that PSTD, feel free to call me. Drin may be my brother, but he’s not the only one I care about.” He grins, dropping his hand. “I took that oath, you know.”

 

“All right, she’s ready for you,” DA says, holding aside an ER-style curtain.  In the loud voice he uses for patients who are hard of hearing, he says, “Mrs. Carter, we’ve got your friend Dance here.”

 

“You mean my angelic cross to bear!” a woman’s voice bellows out.  “Now, Dance, you tell me the truth, do you know what your damned husband Drin did yesterday?”

 

Dance doesn’t even wince, loud as it is.  “No indeed, I do not, you tell me,” Dance yells back at her.  He gives Teo a wry look, and slides past the doctor, who pulls the curtain shut again.

 

“He outbid Minnie for that empty dock on the end of Rainette!”  It’s a roar that fills the whole place.

 

Teo glances at the stunned-looking volunteer at the waiting room desk.  The various retired RNs who normally cover the desk on clinic days are mostly from the extended clan of red wolf zoomorphs, all of them off right now on what everyone calls a powwow. Nobody really knows what they call it, though. They play their cards really close to the vest.  All the RNs, human or not, are needed to patch up wolves after fights.  The limitations of local help, DA said dryly when he complained of it to Teo.

 

The current volunteer, Lucida, is a lady in black and red corvid-type plumage with a lovely glossy décolletage of fine black feathers.  He smiles at her sympathetically.  It clearly wouldn’t do the bird-lady any good to cover her ears.  Her bones probably rattle to this kind of noise.  She’s pretty sturdy, but by the pained look of her right now, some of the bones are still hollow and air-filled.

 

“Oh really?  I thought Minnie wanted to sell it to her cousins from Poughkeepsie?”

 

“She did, the damn fool!  We told her not happening, not around here, but no, off she goes with her stupid designer purse!  Like anybody from Poughkeepsie would last two seconds down here, once they get a good look at you!”

 

“Thank you, it’s a small service I do, scaring off tourists, but–” Dance says.

 

The woman laughs. Teo thinks the windows are rattling in the frames from it.

 

“So now she can’t, and she’s talking lawsuit!”

 

“I daresay some of our lawyers will be glad to speak to her lawyers,” Dance tells her.

 

She just laughs.  She gives a louder whoop then.  “One down!” she says, and laughs again.

 

“There,” Dance says.  “Two more bites, okay?  Are you feeling brave today?”

 

“Oh yeah, you do what you need to, you’re the snake!” Mrs. Carter bellows, and laughs again.  “So you tell your husband watch for that Minnie, she’s got a mean mouth on her, and thanks for helping me!”

 

“I will,” Dance says.

 

Mrs. Carter comes out in a wheelchair, with the help of the bird-lady volunteer.  Mrs. Carter waves at the next people who are waiting–a family with a baby who’s been through recent cleft palate surgery–and when the bird-lady volunteer comes back, she’s breathing hard.  She confides, “Wow, she’s a hoot.  She threatened to shape-change on me, which she hasn’t been able to do for ten years.   I guess those bites are doing her some serious good.  She drove herself down this time.  Used to be, she had to ask a neighbor to give her a ride.”

 

Teo grins.  “What does she turn into?”

 

“Some kind of big draft horse.  We’ll have to run a sling up on a barn rafter to hold her up when Doctor Alexander finally lets her try changing.  I bet her horse legs are totally atrophied, she’s been stuck human with this arthritis so long.”

 

Teo does not mind sitting in the waiting room watching the clouds go by outside, and people-watching. It makes a nice change from stacks of paper covered in improbable and very likely fraudulent medical statistics.  After an interesting succession of patients, most of them zoomorphs themselves and all of whom seem to know Dance already, they get a tired, thin father carrying a little kid who’s crying continuously.  Both of them have bunny ears and furred arms and a fine greyish down on their faces.  Doctor Alexander discusses the medical history with the father in low tones, and the clunk of the trashcan says he’s taken a temperature and examined the kid’s ears behind the curtain.  Another clunk of discarded covers after the father’s exam.

 

He prescribes some veterinary medicine for ear mites for them both, and suggests quietly that a bite each from Dance might help with the ear infections.  Teo knows it isn’t offered casually; if DA thought the kid could get by on standard antibiotics he would give those.  They give out a lot of drug samples, as most of their patients can’t afford to buy what’s prescribed, and they will never have any official presence in the medical welfare world.  He says, “This is the same virus that’s been going around, leaving people wide open to pneumonia,  or close to it.  Dance will be able to smell if it’s close enough that his antibodies will work.”

 

The father hesitates, the kid cries, and the doctor says, “I’ll let you talk to Dance,” and whisks out of their cubicle, into the other one.

 

Teo sighs.  They have no idea how much medical sophistication was packed into Dance.  They have no idea what he is, what he could be doing.  All they can care about right now is getting the bunny-kid something to knock down the infection. Teo needs to do more research, but he sleeps far more than DA, and he was out in a motorboat all week, giving vaccinations up and down the bayou. He doesn’t mind, though. The simple medical procedures give him time to talk to people, help them get a grasp on their issues, reframe them. It’s not just physical problems that people have out in the swamp. Life is difficult out here.

 

It takes about five minutes, a few comments too soft to understand, and DA is called back.  More consultation, a good loud yelp from the child, another from the father, and then Alexander whisks out to the waiting room.  “They need a ride.  He’s in no shape to drive.  Shouldn’t have driven down, if you ask me.  They’re up a trail at the far end of the bayou, they have a pretty clear road along the creek, it’s not bad.”

 

Teo looks up.  “I was going to see Dance home, but these people need some rest ASAP.”

 

“Good.”  Then, over his shoulder, “Thank you.”

 

“Who’s going to pick up their truck?” the bird-lady asks.  No answer.  Lucida glares at Teo.  “Well, I can come along too, I’m headed out to Nicky’s bar anyway.  Won’t take me long to swing over there and drop off the truck, if you can give me a ride over to Nicky’s.”

 

Teo smiles again. “Glad to be of service.” Teo feels like a coward, but at least this will buy him a little bit of time to find something useful to say to his brother.

 

Talking’s Easier in the Dark

Someone lit a bonfire when it started to get dark, and the sounds of a guitar playing a Cajun waltz drift through the light fog drifting off the bayou. The fireflies are out, and kids chase them with jars. There’s quiet conversations, too, and laughter.

 

Hal was down by the fire, telling some tall tale, but Grace didn’t feel very social at the moment. She’s drifted toward Frog’s back porch, where it’s quiet and still and very, very dark. There’s a lot to think about.

 

She doesn’t even know how to sit on her backside anymore. Hal had helped her put herself away – she seemed to have the same sort of zero-g box that he had, and helped her retract all that… stuff.  But the area itches and tingles even worse than it had before it had burst out. Guess it wasn’t some creeping crud after all. It was a… Her mind slips away from the thought before she could finish it, and she shifts on the still-warm wooden stairs to ease the discomfort.

Someone very large and tall appears out of the fog, and slides onto the stair just above her, making the boards creak in protest. The shape doesn’t smell like herbs and leather, so it’s not Hal. Something kind of spicy, and vegetation, and… bayou water? Teobaldo.

 

“Hi,” he rumbles quietly. “You okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” she replies.

 

He is silent in the darkness. She can hear his steady, slow breathing.

 

She sighs then, raises her knees, and puts her head down on them. “No. I’m not fine. Not in the least. But you know that, don’t you?”

 

Silence.

 

“Dammit, Teobaldo, how am I supposed to feel? I’m confused, bewildered, and scared. I don’t want to be any of these things.” Her voice is sharper than she intended.

 

“That seems like a pretty normal reaction to me,” he says quietly.

 

Another silence, while she gathers her thoughts. Having an untidy pile beats having them whizzing around in her brain, bashing into one another and bruising the inside of her skull. “Nothing prepared me for this – I’ve been so normal my whole life. No signs of – anything.”

 

“You haven’t noticed anything strange about your memories of your childhood?” he asks gently. “Nothing about the drowning accident you were involved with?”

 

A chill runs down Grace’s spine. How did he know that had been bothering her?

 

He continues. “All I know is that you had an accident of some sort in the water, in which you nearly died. But how old were you? Who were you with? What color was your swimsuit? How did your parents react to this?”

 

“I… I don’t remember. I don’t remember any of that. Do you think that it was trauma that made me forget?”

 

“Hmmm. Possibly. Okay, let me ask you about something else. You said your mother was very close to her sister. Did you ever go to your Aunt’s house with her?”

“Of course I did. Every Saturday. She had a little dog named Dickens.  He was a wiener dog, and we would play in the backyard sometimes.”

 

“That sounds like fun,” Teo agrees. “What was your Aunt’s name?”

 

This is a struggle. “I…” Grace feels like crying now. “I don’t know. What the HELL is wrong with me?”

 

Teo hums in the back of his throat as if he’s thinking. It’s a grumbly, soothing sound, and Grace has the odd urge to lay her head down on his chest and ask him to do it again. “Let me ask you a few more questions, and then I’ll tell you what I think. I promise.”

 

A part of her is screaming, Run away! but she doesn’t move. It’s easier to stay put in the dark, isn’t it? “Okay,” she sighs.

The questions come faster than she can process them: the hair color of the guy she went to prom with in high school, what make of car her father drove when she was young, whether or not she liked to paint her toenails when she was a tween. On and on.

She was crying softly by the time he stopped. He sighed and enveloped her hand in his. God, it was impossibly large. And warm. And very comforting.

 

“Do you really want to hear what I think?” His voice is very gentle, and he slides an arm around her shoulder as if he feels he has to brace her.

 

“Well, an answer is preferable to this yawning uncertainty,” she says acidly.

 

“True enough. You know that you’re some sort of naga, yes?”

 

“That’s pretty apparent.”

 

Teo chuckles at her tone. “Well, nagas aren’t born from a mother naga, they’re created. So I’m almost certain that your memories are created, too.”

 

“Wait.” Her question is very small, very faint. “All of them? All my memories?”

 

“Only to a certain point.” He thinks for a moment. “I’m thinking… they start after your graduation from high school? Your recall gets much clearer at that point.”

 

“So I still have some real memories. My life after school. Lucas.”

“Ah, yes, your son. Did you adopt him?”

Grace strains to see him in the dark. “No! Actually, I met a nice young man, snuggled up really close, and then my belly grew. After nine months, I popped him out of my vagina. He’s mine.” She starts to cry again, as quietly as she can.

 

“Anyone who sees the two of you together knows he’s your child,” Teo says in that rumbly voice, rubbing her shoulder.

 

Which just makes her cry harder. Until she stops cold, in mid-burble, with a hard, nasty thought spiking her heart rate.  “But – but that means I’m still compatible enough – genetically, physiologically, whatever – to have children with a human being!”

 

“Yes,” Teo agrees.

 

She opens her mouth to continue that thought, and then her mind just slips over that whole issue, too  Better to ask about other things. “And who the hell could just – manufacture memories in my brain, anyway?”

 

“Can Preacher do that?”

 

She jolted still again.  “He – he – won’t. He says he can’t stand to – “ She takes a breath, then continues, “But, yes, I believe he could do that.”

 

“Yes, he could,”  Teo says. There’s a world of sadness in his tone. “I do suspect they must have been gentle when they did it to you, just leaving an impression and letting you work off those, instead of making you remember lists of certain precise details.”

 

“Oh God, who’d want to live in a world where things like that are weapons of – “

 

“Agreed,” Teo says, and tightens the broad pad of his hand on her shoulder a moment. Then he lifts his hand, a little quick about it, as if he’s noticing it too, and really it wouldn’t be appropriate to continue touching her.

 

A pack of dogs chasing one another comes roaring around the house, barking and then one of them peels away and runs up and barks at her, and lays his head on her knee.  The dog is large and all black, tongue lolling, and he looks up at her imploringly. She strokes back the fur on his brows and rests her head on his. “Hey, it’s okay, sweetheart,” she murmurs.  “I’ve just got these – these gaps – and that’s making me upset – “

 

The dog gives a whine, nudges her leg gently with his nose.

 

“Yeah Hal, I’m still trying to figure it all out, too..”

 

The dog makes a gurgly talking noise in his throat and licks her hand.

 

“Yeah, I know, I’ll explain it later, don’t worry.  It’s okay. Everything’s okay.”

 

The dog takes a few steps up the stairs to rest his head very carefully on her shoulder, licks her cheek and her ear, and then backs off and stands quite still, gazing at Teo.  He raises his head and snuffs at the air higher up, air that’s drafting around the corner of the house and coming downwind off the two sitting on the step.

 

“So this is Hal.” Teo says.

 

“Yeah, he’ll fuss later about licking up all that citronella repellent I sprayed on tonight,” Grace says, carefully wiping the backs of her hands at the tears on her face.  She doesn’t want to wipe the repellent into her eyes.

 

For some reason that seems to amuse Teo, he gives a surprised sort of laugh.  Then he holds out both hands flat, open palms turned up, toward the dog.

 

The dog makes a grumbly chest noise, barks once at Grace, and trots off around the corner, off on his own business.

 

“What was that?” Teo twists to watch him go.

 

“Smelled something more important.  Barbecue, maybe.”

 

“Or roadkill, maybe,” Teo says.

 

“He’s only playing at being suspicious. I mean, Drin vouched for you, so he’s not worried about me talking with you, even after dark..”

 

“It’s not safe for zoomorph women to talk to whoever they meet in the swamp.” Teo says.

 

“It’s not safe to get too close to somebody who might have gotten bugbit, not when you last saw them a week ago,” Grace says bitterly. Then she stops, her eyes wide. “Zoomorph women. I’m a zoomorph. I don’t know if I will ever get used to that.”

 

“You got a chance to know what normal life is like,” Teo says.

 

“That’s not very helpful!”

 

Mmm,” Teo says like he agrees.

 

“No, no actually it is. This is all helpful.” Grace lays her head on Teo’s shoulder for a moment, and then slides away when she realizes what she’s done. “I’m just so tired,” she says hastily. She tries to stand up and go inside, but her legs aren’t working very well.

 

“Let me find Hal to help you inside, then-” Teo lurches to his feet. Waves of tiredness come off him, too. It’s been a long day.

“Let me,” Grace says, and whistles a clear, two-note sound, like you would to call a dog. “He’ll hear that.”

 

After a moment, he does indeed show up, in human form, padding up the path wearing only a pair of jeans and his long hair. There are a few twigs and weeds, too, although he doesn’t seem to notice. “Princess?”

 

“I’m so tired, Hal, can you help me to bed?” Grace asks.

 

“Course I can.” Hal smiles and reaches to scoop her up… and can’t quite manage. “Whoo, that zero-g box isn’t working quite right yet. That tail may be tucked out of sight, but it sure is heavy.” He shifts his attention to Teo, and extends an arm.

Ah, Teo’s done this a time or three. Together, they do a two-man seat carry, and it’s much easier than carrying her alone. More comfortable, too. She feels a bit like she’s on a palanquin, being carried by her loyal porters. All she needs is one behind to fan her with a peacock feather fan.

 

“Don’t worry, your box should be fully functional in 24 hours. It’s just a little early yet.” Teo grins reassuringly at her.

“It was working early this evening,” Hal grunts.

“Technology is a wonderful thing.” 

Together the two men maneuver Grace through the door and up the stairs to the bedroom. “I’ll get some water from downstairs. She needs to stay hydrated. Hell, we all do.” Teo heads downstairs.

Hal stays close, but Grace would rather change her clothes herself and doesn’t struggle too badly. Hal’s eyes are heavy on her though; she can feel them  Finally, she slides into bed with a groan, then motions Hal closer. “Come here, handsome man.” She runs her fingers through his hair, removing twigs and debris, then makes a long braid for him to sleep in. She’s certainly not too tired to miss out on this.

Teo comes back in with three glasses and a pitcher of cold water that he found in the fridge. He pours, and hands a glass to each of them. “Staying hydrated will make things easier. Grace, if you wake up in the night, you might have dry mouth. Drink more. It’ll all get absorbed by your body, so you probably won’t have to use the bathroom too much.” Grace sips primly and obediently, but the two men gulp the water quickly. Teo sets the pitcher down by her bedside.

 

Hal clears his throat. “You, uhh, seem to know quite a lot about naga physiology. Would you mind…  staying close tonight?”

 

Teo nods. “I saw a throw on a chair downstairs. Is the couch okay?”

 

Even though she’s half-asleep, Grace protests. “I’ll be fine. I’m sure Dr. Navarre will be more comfortable in his own bed…”

“No, it’s okay. Things might get a little weird tonight, so I don’t mind at all. Call me if you need anything. I’m a light sleeper.”

 

Hal nods his thanks, and Teo turns one last time to gaze at them as they burrow into the comfort of their bed. Grace has just enough time to notice that he looks odd, almost wistful, before she sinks into darkness,

A Tale of a Tail

Dance and Grace disappear under the water, leaving Teo behind on the shore.  They’re headed upstream, of course, but does the road follow the banks of the bayou?  He spins in a tight circle, looking for anything, a motorbike, a bicycle, a… horse?  Yes, a horse.

 

He’s too rushed to be calm, but the animal doesn’t seem to mind.  In fact, it seems to invite him, sidestepping closer and snorting impatiently.  A poor handler he’d be if he can’t guide a horse by shifting his weight and talking to it.  It’s been too long since he’s ridden, but he grips the animal’s mane and flings himself aboard, and the horse takes off down the dirt road that winds along the bank of the bayou.  He has to duck when it veers in and out of saplings, darting down toward the water and up again onto the more open trail along the top of the bank.   Branches smack his shoulders and sting his ears.  Hanging on with his knees only works so well when the horse has a barrel this thick, lots of it muscle, and all of it clenching at once in unexpected jinking, darting motions more like a cutting horse than a trail horse, even though its build is not entirely suited to that.  Hell, it’s built more like a damn Friesian, with all that hair.  Wonder if it’s fought bugs?  Teo thinks.  It sure as hell has the evasive moves.  Why couldn’t he have found a horse wearing a saddle?

 

They screech to a halt and Teo dismounts.  Well, he falls off, but who cares?  Dance and Grace are sitting along the bank, dripping wet.  She’s staring — dumbfounded — at the short, limber tail that’s weaving in the air.  Does she think it’s going to bite her like a cobra?  It won’t.  It doesn’t have teeth.

 

They both turn to him when he makes his dramatic appearance.  He hopes neither of them are unkind enough to laugh. But Dance looks very serious, and Grace keeps gathering up parts of her tail like it might escape into the swamp.

 

“Ummmm,” Teo says, “you do realize that it’s attached to you, don’t you?  It won’t do anything you don’t want it to do.”

 

Teo kneels next to Grace.  It almost looks as if she’s going to go into shock.  God, it must be hard to find out like this, to discover that you’re a monster —  But then, Grace doesn’t seem to think of the zoomorphs as creatures.  She made that abundantly clear the day she met him.  She looks up at Teo, confusion in her eyes, and bursts into tears.

 

Suddenly Hal is there, gathering her up in his arms, crooning nonsense to her as she weeps.  His naked body curves around her protectively, and the tenderness makes Teo’s throat ache.  Hal smooths her wet hair, dries her eyes, and kisses her as she fights for composure.

 

Wait a minute — Hal’s naked.  And sweaty.  A long hank of hair keeps dropping into his face, almost like the forelock of the horse.  The horse that’s disappeared completely, without anyone remarking on it.  The knowledge drops into place with a neat little series of clicks.  The horse is Hal.  Hal is the horse.  A zoomorph, and one that can change form completely.  Teo feels like a moron. Even worse, he has to struggle not to stare at all the bronzed nudity. Just not appropriate in any way.

 

Grace turns to him over Hal’s shoulder.  The weeping has made her eyes a bright, almost metallic silver, a counterpoint to Dance’s golden ones.  “Who are you, really?  You’re not Drin’s nephew from San Francisco, are you?  You’re not from here at all, are you?”

 

“No,” Teo sighs, “I’m not from here.  I’m from — the place that Drin and Dance and Emma come from.”

 

“And you knew that this was going to happen, didn’t you?  You knew when you started asking those questions about my family– what did you do to me?!”

Brotherly Love

“I’ve studied the damaged memory phenomenon.  The sarcobox causes some damage, of course, but I’m assuming that your memory was worked on, as well.  They almost never let anyone come through transit without messing with their brains.” Teo knows he sounds bitter, and he can feel his lip curling in disgust.  He’s lost more than one loved one to that box.

 

“This is more,” Drin says distantly.  “Telepathy work good enough that you don’t even know what you lost.”

 

“Who on earth would be so stupid as to do a telepathy modification to something as valuable as a War Librarian–”  Something in Drin’s expression gives him his answer.  “Don’t tell me–some clever scientist over here came up with it, not even knowing what they were doing.  Since they’ve got all this whacked-out stuff pouring in, they’ve got no idea what’s an accident and what’s been deliberately crafted at an astronomical cost–”  Teo pauses. Actually, a Librarian is more like a quadriplegic without their world-map, totally amputated from most of their sources.  No wonder Emma has that preoccupied look in her eyes, like a research librarian poking for a lost link — a lost world. Doesn’t Drin have an amazing taste in lovers?  One is terminally damaged, the other nothing but a dirty gene-eng bomb.

 

No. That’s not right.  Teo likes Dance, likes the way he plays the fiddle, the sly, clever way he teases Emma and Drin.  And he likes Emma, her braying laughter and tough-girl attitude. Grace was right.  He can’t look at Drin’s lovers and see them as merely damaged tools in a far-off war.  They are more.  They are people.  Drin loves them.  They are people, as surely as he and Drin are.

 

“I know you’ve met Preacher.  Others aren’t so careful.”  Drin’s voice makes him jump.

 

“There are others here?” Teo hears how his voice is scaling higher.  This is no time to lose his cool.

 

Drin just smiles a little.  “Seung probably got worked on by this guy in India.  So did I, probably several times, going in on zoomorph rescues and getting wiped so I wouldn’t reveal who was helping me.”

 

“Is there anything left in your head?  Let me ask you — what was your mother’s name?”

 

“I wish I knew.”  Drin sounds weary now, almost plaintive. “I got nothing.”

 

“All right then, don’t try too hard.  Just imagine — if you had a sister, what might her name be?”  Teo feels his attention drawing in to focus on Drin, on the questions he’s asking.

 

Drin sits thinking for a very long time, and Teo’s heart begins to sink. “I… I’m not sure.  I had at least one sister, I think.”

 

“All right, don’t worry about it.  If you had a brother, what might his name be?”

 

There’s a moment’s pause, then it comes in a rush.  “If I had a brother, his name would be Kai.”

 

“Well, there you have something.”  His heart is pounding his ribs, but he has to stay professional, or he might mess up Drin’s chances of recovering anything else.

 

Drin gives him an irritated look, waves it off.  “They make all that stuff up for your new ID when you get dropped into this place.  Preacher’s very good at what he does.  I daresay the others are too.”  Drin’s eyes are like black holes, all pupil, in the dim light.

 

Teo looks up into those eyes for rather a long time.  “You think I’m faked out like you and Emma and Dance and Seung and God-only-knows how many other–“

 

Drin shrugs.  “It’s an operational hypothesis.”

 

There’s the Drin Teo remembers.  The scientist, the role model, the unreachable never-home war hero.  The one with the impatient expertise who won’t sit there parroting the party line or feeding the ignorant comments in the family, the guy who just walks off rather than get into arguments with the elders spouting nonsense.  Too often the dogma at home won out over facts.

 

“Another question.  What is your full name?”  It’s so easy to fall back on his old examination technique.  It’s comfortable, and it gets results.

 

Drin’s still annoyed.  “Don Ridcully Innocenzio Navarre.”

 

“Do you think your name is fabricated, that someone gave it to you when you got here?”

 

“Probably,” Drin shrugs.  “Somebody with a hell of a sense of humor, more than likely.”

 

“They say that truth is stranger than fiction.  I just think that your mother got some pretty good post-labor drugs.”  Teo smiles and it feels strange.  There hasn’t been much to smile about for a good long while.

 

Drin snorts and Teo can tell he’s trying to decide if he has to defend his mother’s honor or something.  This mother that he can’t remember.  Then Drin turns his line of questioning back on him.  “So tell me, Teo, what’s your full name?  Is it real, or did someone give it to you when you got here?”

 

Ah, you’re always getting somewhere when your subject becomes defensive, so he lightens his tone when he answers.  “Oh, I have the same name I’ve had since I was born.  I was sent here for a purpose, they didn’t wipe me at all beforehand, so I remember everything.”  He sighs.  “My full name is Teobaldo Arkaitz Ridcully Navarre.”  He pauses again and nods sagely.  “Drugs.”

 

“And the rest of the kids?” Drin asks, obviously skeptical.

 

“I’ll write it out, so you can look at it later if you want to.  Do you remember a whole army of little kids running about screaming? Piles of cousins?” Teo says, writing away on a little notebook page, squinting in the dim light.

 

“You still have terrible handwriting,” Drin says then, in quite a different voice.  A different accent.  The English that kept things private in a Spanish-speaking family.

 

It’s like a lightning bolt through the darkness.  He has to swallow to get his heart to slide back into his chest.

 

“There,” Teo says, cautiously. “Like that. You remembered that.”

 

“I can read into what it must have been like from context perfectly well, we’re neither of us stupid.  So we can’t assume that just because we can infer all kinds of things from the current arrangement of limited facts, that we’re correct about what things really were like,” Drin says, in that same iron-hard voice.

 

“Ah, so you were playing me.  Fair enough. Nothing at all shaking loose?”

 

Drin looks at him with those eyes like holes.  “I remember Aunt Maria screaming when the bugs started getting through the bunker walls.”

 

“Oh God, I’m sorry.  I didn’t– I wasn’t at those battles.  I wasn’t old enough, they wouldn’t let me up on the city walls with the guns.”

 

“Oh, the guns,” Drin says bitterly.  “Such as they were.  Yeah, it’d be hard to forget those blowing up in our faces.  Aunt Maria screaming out her best operatic high A was better at stopping the bugs.  She made the damn things explode when somebody brought her a decent amplifier.  Bloody things cut her in half like scissors to stop her when we were getting overrun.  I don’t remember why we weren’t all killed.  Probably they wanted to keep us around as bodies for making bugs, and lucky us, we just got rescued from the lab in time, or something.  That part– that’s gone. Maybe just as well.”

 

Teo gulps. “Nobody ever told us how her mom died when Pilar came to live with us.”

 

“Aunt Maria was a fucking hero, and they erased her name,” Drin says quietly.

 

“Why?”  Teo asks.  He’s learned that neutral questions, political, organizational questions, can get him further into the subject’s memories than the deeply personal.  “Do you remember why the whole bug war or skirmishes, or whatever they were, got covered up by the First Provisional Government?”

 

Drin starts to laugh.  It’s not the kind of laughter you ever want to hear from your brother.  “They didn’t call it that at the time.  Provisional.  My God, what a come-down.”  He stands up, walks around restlessly in the dark.  “Maybe because they couldn’t decide if they were going to play at being a revolutionary assembly, or just admit it was a straight-up fascist elite running everything with an iron fist.”

 

Teo takes a deep breath. Talk about plunging off-topic in all directions.  “How come you remember things like that, but not who your first girlfriend was?”

 

Drin shifts irritably.  “During the — migration process – they take out everything that could be traced back to your loved ones and leave more neutral stuff like that.  Surprised they missed that bit about Aunt Maria dying while she exploded a bug, they must have been in a hurry.  Or they left it on purpose, like a political goad.  Maybe they figured she was dead long since, so it didn’t matter.”

 

“So you’d rather be Drin here, the wacky fun rich guy with no memory, rather than Aunt Maria’s nephew, the war hero, the–  the guy you used to be back home,” Teo says.

 

“Wouldn’t you?  And happily married to my very beautiful partners, let’s not forget.  Who are crack shots in bug skirmishes, by the way.  What’s not to like?”

 

Teo thinks about it. “It doesn’t matter who you say you are, it only matters who you are.” His voice is changing, becoming plaintive.  Younger.  “I was hoping you’d be glad to see me.”  He shakes his head.  “It really doesn’t matter.  I’m just happy that you’re still alive, that you’re happy.”  His voice is very small now, very soft in the dim light.

 

“Teo, I’m warning you.  The guy I used to be was a recruiter, an officer.  He would tell you what you want to hear, get you eating right out of his hand in ten seconds flat, assign you tasks you’d strain really hard to do.  Get you fighting in our bug wars now, right here.  I could recruit guys who were nowhere near as engaged as you are.”

 

“You still could, dammit,” Teo whispers.  “But you won’t.”

 

Drin pauses, as if this surprises him.  He nods. “Instead of playing you, or assuming all kinds of things about you, let’s have the truth. You don’t need to get killed in a bug war for nothing.  You’re a doctor and these zoomoorphs here need your help. I don’t honestly know you at all.  I might not have known you back there, either, as little as I was home. I can’t drag up stuff I don’t have for you anymore.”

 

“I don’t need you to dredge up the details of any horrible holiday dinners, thank you.  I don’t need anybody to give me money or run my life or pat me on the head.”

 

“They didn’t have Thanksgiving.  They had… they had the Festival of Hungry Ghosts,” Drin says, in that weird voice.  Another bolt of dazzle in the dark.

 

“Which is Chinese, not Spanish,” Teo says.

 

“Yeah.  We did… Chinese New Year too.  One of the in-law grandparents was from… a northern province?  Ice Festivals, with lights in the glacier blocks.  Lion dancing.”  Drin’s voice drops away.

 

Teo can’t look at him.  It’s impossible to tell if the loss of memory is hysterical or literal brain damage, or some of both.  He didn’t expect to be able to diagnose it so clearly.  Everything his brother used to be, all that handler’s touch, all that arcane knowledge, all that skill, it’s gone.  The library of Alexandria is burnt.  All washed away, as if it mattered much less than the cost of hiding somebody’s political embarrassments… or whatever the hell provoked the orders that made this happen.  He is angry suddenly.  Again.  He’d thought he was over that.

 

Dreamily, Drin says, “Believe me, far as I’m concerned, this kind of… blank…is probably better than a bullet or a nice clean little needlestick.”

 

“Were those the choices?” Teo says, and hears the anger.

 

“God knows,” Drin says.  A shrug.  “Either I made that choice back then, or somebody made it for me.  They didn’t bother for less, usually.  This is my home.  This is what I care about.  I can get to know you now, if you want.  You’d probably like me better now.  When you hear me hashing up data in those flashbacks, that’s all I was. That’s all anybody wanted.  I was an expert, man.  I was the go-to guy, day or night, I’m at work, I got no time for nothing else.  Partly because, hey, what did it matter if you were going to die no matter what you did?  Who the hell had time to nurture scared little kids with the bugs coming in the windows?  Call the damn shovel a shovel, you know?” Drin says, pacing.

 

Back and forth, restless as hell. The ghosts are not laying quiet in their graves tonight, clearly.

 

“Oh, and any nasty thing I might have been called upon to do?  That’s trivial compared to the kind of slimy politics that went down among the older folks in our so-called family.  If you ever meet their local analogs here, you’ll see what I mean.”

 

“I’ve done some homework,” Teo says, dryly.  “It wasn’t pretty.”

 

“Doing your research first?  That is a Navarre talking.  So, what’s the reason they gave for sending you here?”

 

Teo sighs, and stands up.  The list he wrote out goes on the table.  His voice is strong again, not childish at all.  “Clearly, I don’t know you well enough to tell you that.”  And then he walks off the back deck of the houseboat, down the dock, and into the darkness.

 

He’s still foolishly hoping to hear the clatter of boots coming after him.  He doesn’t.  What he does hear is Drin’s voice in passionate anger, “Well, dammitall to hell in a haybale handcart on fire, dammitall!”

 

Teo smiles a little, even though he feels like shit.  Drin must have picked up and read his list.  When he was young, he remembers Aunt Maria swearing like a farmhand.  That phrase, that was one of hers.

 

But he’s also wondering how long it will be before he gets a visit from the oh-so-exotic partners, telling him to lay off their husband, stop provoking him into flashbacks, or else.  Teo doesn’t think they’ll have to warn him to stay away from Drin.  The brother he thought he grew up with, the brother he adored and emulated, well, wasn’t he just told that that person was nothing but a fabrication?  Besides, all he was to Drin was a half-recovered bad memory.  And that was worse than being nothing at all.

 

Family of Jacinta Luisa Guerrero Martinez and Oriol Guilliam Navarre Abaroa

 

  • Don Ridcully Innocenzio [Cenzo]
  • Erlea (bee!) Maria Papagena [Lea] 2 years younger
  • Eduardo Ridcully Pau (peace) [Pau] 2 years younger
  • Pilar Goizeder (beautiful morning) [Pilar] 4 years younger/cousin
  • Magdalena Luisa Anais [Mags] 4 years younger
  • Teobaldo Arkaitz (rock) Ridcully [Kai] 7 years younger

 

Feeding Frenzy

 “Come in, Grace,” Dance calls cheerfully when she knocks on the door to the Trio’s houseboat. “We are in the kitchen.”  It must be strange to live with a naga.  No secrets.

 

She carries the basket of fresh eggs into the room and sets them down on the counter.  “These are from Rene and Jackie.  Their hens are going nuts right now, so I thought I’d bring some over.”

 

“Her hens lay wonderful,” Dance says, and his tail makes a happy little flippy gesture in the air like an Italian cook waving ecstatically. Grace watches it a moment, laughing, and nodding in agreement, as if it’s talking to her.  Well, it is, really.

 

Seung chuckles.  “Little Brother likes Jackie’s eggs.  So do I.  Good flavor.”

 

“Oh, so does Hal.”  She grins at Seung, bowing to him, and he inclines his head in return from the kitchen chair in the corner.  He’s the consulting expert on authentic tastes when Dance cooks various Asian cuisines, which Grace suspects is just a fancy title for Always Hungry.  And it sure smells like Dance is cooking now. “God, that smells good.  What is that?”  She blushes when her stomach rumbles noisily.

 

“Onions, green pepper, just a little celery–” Dance grins, as reference to one of the major features of Cajun cooking makes that funny look come over Grace’s face, “–many greens, and tiny oily salty fish, rather like the bacon drippings I use to oil the pan–”  He’s stirring things vigorously, the same as he would in a stir fry.  “Now the wonderful part, all of this goes better with the eggs, is that perfect timing from you, or what?”

 

Seung chuckles.  “Not Julia Child, with the tail.”

 

Dance turns, grinning as he pulls down a bowl with it, and starts cracking eggs in swift little flicks of his tail tip.  It’s fun to see him wash his hands and tail tip afterward with soap too, all three manipulative organs smacking around with quick economy.

 

“No, Dance is much prettier,” Grace says, sitting primly in a kitchen chair next to Seung.

 

“Oh stop, you make me blush,” Dance says, with a mischievous glance.

 

Seung’s tail comes up and gives Grace’s arm a little tap.  “See, you say nice, his head get bigger and bigger, explode on kitchen.”

 

Grace’s mouth comes open in surprise, and she pushes Seung’s tail right back.  “Was that a joke??”

 

Seung grins.  “I’m in kitchen with food cooking and beautiful womans, what is to make me sad?”

 

Dance puts up his hair in a twist on top of his head and starts singing Aretha’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T in a silly high voice. Grace pushes her hair up off her neck in an impromptu beehive, and sings right along, chair dancing and smiling at the two nagas.  “Ummm, when is that going to be done, Dance?  I’m starving.”  She gets up to peer into the pan, starts to poke what’s in the pan with a finger, until the tail swats her away.  Her eyes feel large and greedy, like a kid at Christmas, looking under the tree.

 

“Only one moment, please.  Would you mind finding plates?”  The tail indicates where she should look, and it only takes a moment to pull three clean plates down off the shelf and find appropriate silverware. No, not three plates, she needs five.  She can hear two pairs of footfalls at the front door.

 

Drin and Emma troop in moments later, looking like they’ve been in the garden.  They have that earthy, weed-juice, been-in-the-wind-and-sun smell.  She hopes that there’s enough to go around –her stomach is cramping, she’s so hungry.  Emma comes round the stove to give Dance a squeeze, but Drin comes up and eyes Grace critically.

 

“Have you been eating?” he asks.  She shrugs awkwardly.  There’s always a girl with babies to feed who’s fallen on hard times.  Some days it seems like she gives away more food than she consumes.  “Grace,” Drin growls, warning in his voice.  “This will not do.  You need to keep yourself healthy.  Sit down and eat some of this.”  Her butt hits a chair seat suddenly, and a plate of steaming greens and egg is in her hands.  The first bite is heaven.  The second is even better.  Her vision blurs as the food drags complex taste and texture across her tongue, but she still catches the cryptic look that passes between Drin and Dance.

 

The plate is empty.  Did she just eat all those greens?

 

Dance grins proudly.  “Good, yes?  What do you think of this?”  More eggs appear, mixed with pale green and bright red.  It smells sour, like it’s been fermented. Pickled.  The sour and spicy taste makes the roof of her mouth ache in bliss.  Her eyes roll in their sockets.  “Oh, my, yes,” she murmurs.

 

Dance and Drin share another look, and then there’s a steady stream of things for her to taste — spicy bits of leftover grilled meat, some sort of pork dumpling that Dance stir-fries in a hot pan, noodles that have a slightly slimy, gummy texture and a wonderful sweet taste, some sort of mild meat that tastes like fresh seawater.  The last one makes her gasp and pant with her mouth open.  One faraway part of her brain feels like she’s making a fool and a glutton of herself, but the taste is so extraordinary that she just doesn’t care.  More of those morsels come her way, and she swallows them reverently, with her eyes closed.  “What are those?” she asks.

 

“Fresh shrimp,” Drin answers.

 

“But how did Dance cook them?”

 

Dance answers, “I did not cook.  They are raw.”

 

Her eyes pop open.  Raw?

 

He doesn’t even give her time to think.  “Here, taste this.”  It’s some sort of fish, topped with herbs and pan-seared.  The fish must have come from Miss Hester’s kin, because they’re from the spring-fed pond they have on their property, not from Bayou Rainette.  The taste is totally different.  And the herbs are soothing and delicious; she strips them off the top of the white flaky fish meat and swallows them whole.  Then there’s some sort of sharp-tasting green stuff — different herbs? — and some of Dance’s apple butter.  They’re all wonderful, they make her mouth water until she fears she’s just going to drool all over the Trio’s kitchen table.  More apple butter spread thick on home-made bread, and some slices of candied ginger…

 

Then, as quickly as it started, her frenzy eases, and she’s suddenly stuffed to the gills.  She gives Emma a sort of bewildered, poleaxed look, which makes the Aussie woman bray with laughter.  Then Dance urges her out onto the back deck of the houseboat and into a comfy lounge in the sun.  It takes all of five seconds for her to fall asleep.

The Errand

Keisha cursed under her breath as the steering wheel fought her grip. An entire day of rain followed by an entire day of sunshine had turned Rainette Road into something treacherous, baked ruts like the swell of a riptide. It doesn’t help that it’s getting dark. Not a single street light out here.

 

 “So you wanna drive any?” she asked her travel companion.

 

“Only if you don’t want to.  It seems like you’re doing a fine job.”  Grace wrinkled her nose.  “But it has to be hard on the shoulder sockets.”

 

“Huh.” Keisha had to admit the woman was right.  She didn’t think the slender woman would be able to handle much of it, in fact. “How much more of this before the big road, you know?”

 

“At the speed we’re going, only a couple of minutes.” Grace winced as her head banged the roof of the truck, even though she was wearing the seat belt.  “That is if we aren’t swallowed up by a gigantic rut. Once we get onto Bayou Sale Road, it’s smooth as silk — real pavement.”

 

“Okay.” Keisha grunted and wrenched the wheel about, as the truck tried to slew sideways. “Enough talking, okay?” She needed to watch the road, not talk. But an hour later, the tires thrumming smoothly on graded asphalt, she was still driving and not talking. The other woman sat composed in the passenger seat, unfidgeting and unworried. Shit, Keisha was worried; “Don’t this bother you?” she demanded.

 

Grace looked up, her eyes wide.  “Doesn’t what bother me?”

 

“We get sent to hellandgone for something maybe ain’t even there when we find the place. That Tee Pom, wasn’t even sure the name, damn. Your man supposed to be the boss, right?”

 

“Well, yes.  But being the boss doesn’t mean he’s omniscient.  He’s trusting us to be smart enough to figure it out.”  She slants a sympathetic smile toward Keisha.  “I’m sorry if it’s ticking you off, though.”

 

“Nah, it’s cool.”

 

“Of course, nobody is omniscient, unless they’re a badly-written character in a book or movie.”  She tilts her head, pushing a long strand of wavy hair out of her face.  “Or maybe a space alien from one of my son’s bedtime stories.  But I do think that we’re smart enough to figure this out.  May I see those directions?  You’re already driving, after all.” She took the wad of folded paper that Keisha slid across the seat to her, unfolding and smoothing them out.

 

“Okay, we’re in luck.  This is Hal’s handwriting; he must have been the one who took the call.”  She squints at the makeshift map.  “Okay, “PR57” is the Parish road we’re on now.  “4pt” is… oh, that must be Four Point Road.”  Her startled eyes fly up to Keisha’s face, and then she starts to smile.  “I’ve been to Four Point Road before.  There’s a whole bunch of houses out there, all in a row.  Hal calls it the suburbs.”  She points. “See where the road takes a right?  Take a hard left there, where it says Parish Road 67.”

 

“Damn, that’s pretty good!” Keisha grinned widely. “You can be my navigator anytime. Hell, you’d even get paid if you worked for me.” She pauses. “I just want to know why you let him call all the shots like that. Like he’s god or something. Ain’t no man god, girlfriend.”

 

Grace’s laugh is loud and amused enough to startle Keisha a little.  “No, he’s not a god.  He doesn’t even think he is, which is rather enlightened of him.”  Her voice drops lower as she settles.  “But our relationship works for us.  He leads and I follow.”

 

“All the time like that? What if you got something better than he got?”

 

“If I know something he doesn’t, I let him know.  Usually, he just leaves me to do whatever it is, but sometimes he wants me to show him, and then he does it.”  She shrugs.  “It might be hard for a lot of people to understand, but I really just don’t need to be in charge.  I’d rather leave it for the people who really want to lead.”  Her eyes are frank.  “Don’t Seung and Peach usually feel more comfortable when you lead and they follow?”

 

“Well Peach, she’s a cat.” Keisha says matter of factly. “She’s smart like a human, but she ain’t really human. She got to be taken care of. Seung, though, that boy… ” She stops consideringly. “I don’t know why he does that. He just always did wait on my word man, even when he had just gone and killed my partner right in front of me. One shot, boom– My buddy is dead, and then this man was asking me for orders, I swear… So, I got no problem with it, really. Got in the habit.”

Grace nods, as if she understands.  “Some people are just more comfortable with that.  I can teach a class, lead an expedition, give a presentation, but I’m more comfortable if I’m ordered to do it, especially if it’s something that I’m not comfortable doing.”  She peers out the windshield.  “Okay, it says to go past this little cluster of houses, another mile down the road.  It is dark as the pits of Hell down here.”

 

“So you just wait for someone to come along and order you around?” 

 

“Oh, no, not at all.  I have to find someone worth listening to, first.  If I’m a stronger person than my partner, things don’t work out the way they should.  But Hal, he’s strong, and he’s smart, and he has a plan.  So I’ve chosen to follow him.”

 

“I hear you. I gotta be stronger than my boy, all the time. He always testing me. But… you know he could take me down if he really wanted to, and I swear it seems like he really don’t know. Sometimes I wonder about that. Gets a little crazy sometime, like having a tiger for a pet, could take my head off if it wanted to. hell, I bet Peach could. Why they don’t, I don’t know.”

 

Grace smooths the map down, stares at it again.  “I wasn’t there, but it seems to me that Seung offered to follow you.  You didn’t have to allow it.”  She looks up again, and smiles.  “But you did.”

 

“Huh.”  Keisha cocks her head at the thought. “Guess I grabbed it with both my fists, dawg– what the fuck?” Her arm comes across Grace’s chest as the truck skids to a stop. There is no more road. Ahead of them lies a short strip of seagrass and marsh, dimly lit by the crescent moon.

 

“Well,” Grace says drily.  “No more road, just water.”

 

“Tell me about it. What’s the directions say now?”

 

“Ummm, we’re looking for a blue house on the north side of…  oh.”  She points out across the water, to a small hummock.  A house is perched precariously atop the speck of land, a floodlight on a pole standing above it.  The house is blue. “I think that’s it.”

 

The women step out of the truck, and Grace notices how very easily Keisha takes the front position as they walk down the dark path, how wary and poised she is.

 

“Hal give you any directions here, babe?” Keisha hisses over her shoulder.

 

“Yes, he said something about a boat.” 

 

Just then, Keisha stubs her toe on the prow of a small aluminum rowboat hidden in grasses, and the watercraft makes a loud bong that makes Keisha wince.

 

Grace says softly, “Let me get in first, please.  I can’t swim, and I don’t like water much.”  Grace shudders, but she waits for Keisha to gesture toward the boat before approaching it.

 

“Guess this the one, huh?” Keisha reaches out to hand Grace into the little craft. “Got yourself settled?”

 

“Yup.”  She’s quick enough, although her tension shows in the way she grips the sides of the little craft.

 

Grace can feel the sand scrape under the keel for a moment and hear Keisha’s panting breath as she runs it into the water.  it’s a short row to the island; the woman is all sea-captain, and Grace makes a note that Keisha really misses the open water. Her white teeth shine in the half-light with her open smile.

 

She ties it up neatly, too, and hops out to hand Grace out onto the short dock.  All is quiet, except for the buzzing of the floodlight and the soft chugging of a generator somewhere nearby.  Not a sound, even though a lot of boats are tied up under the floodlight, enough for a whole damn party are tocking against each other, all sizes. “What the fuck, man– anyone supposed to be here?”

 

“Hey! We’re here!” Grace shouts at the top of her lungs, and finally allows her pent-up laughter to spill over as Keisha whirls around to stare at her in shock. And then she whirls around again, as the lights come on in the house and the door opens, spilling light and laughter and sound and people onto the jetty. “Happy birthday, Keisha!” Grace snorts, just before she doubles up with laughter and nearly falls into that water she doesn’t like too well.

 

“Aaww man…shit, that’s.. okay.” Keisha shakes her head, but Grace is learning her expressions and can see her pleasure.  “Damn.”  She draws a breath and starts into the crowd. “Hey, Grace– thanks.”

 

Grace just smiles, as if bringing someone pleasure is the best thing she could ever hope to do.  “You’re welcome, Keisha.”

 

“Stop that,” Keisha says grinning. “You know what I mean. You know a lot about that shit, glad I got a chance to hear some of it. You mind if we talk some more, another day?”

 

Grace doesn’t bother to answer, because Keisha is striding up to the door, hollering for her boy.

Look Who the Cat Dragged In

The huge discount store is doing a brisk business, even for a weekday.  The overcast sky has a weird greenish tint — not the dangerous color that presages a bad storm, just a thick humidity that tints everything a strange hue.  Frog and Lucas are still inside, debating the merits of various Hot Wheels.  Auntie had grinned at the two younger adults and suggested that they go outside to the car and wait while she and Lucas conduct their business.  Grace isn’t sure if Auntie was planning to buy Lucas some extravagant toy that she didn’t want Grace to protest, or if she just expects to come outside to find the two of them making out in the back seat of her sedan.  But she and Hal aren’t kissing, they’re talking.  Hal has just informed her that he’s been browsing the website for the Beacon Hill Academy, the BDSM training facility that she used to help Russell Derleth run.

“Nice pictures,” Hal says.  His voice is dry, and Grace wonders if he’s upset, jealous.  It doesn’t look like it, at least not in the odd light of the parking lot.  “I was wonderin’ if I could get one of my hacker friends to go in, get some information for us.  I need to know more about “Daddy Max” and how to stop him.”  Daddy Max is Russell’s online persona.

Grace turns to him.  “What do you want to know, Ogimaa?  His real name?  His street address?  Bank account numbers?  Business accounts?  Social security number?  Shoe size?  Tailor?”  She can feel herself grinning at the last one.  “I could get his medical records, if you think that’d help.”  She pulls a face.  “Actually, I don’t think he even has the password to access his own medical records.  Now that is just sad.”

Hal just gapes at her.

“Personal assistant, don’t leave home without one,” she says, with a straight face.

“You weren’t kiddin’,” Hal says, grinning.  “Baby, you are so awesome, I could just kiss you.”

She holds up a slim hand.  “You haven’t seen anything yet.  It’s been awhile since I got into those accounts, he might have gotten somebody to work on them and alter the passwords.  However…” She smiles, “… because he was worried a few months ago about security, I built myself some extra backdoors, just in case somebody pirated his accounts.  Now, why he was worried about that, I have no idea.  Can’t think why I didn’t ask, it’d make a huge difference what kind of threat you were trying to defend against, but I just… didn’t ask him.  It just wasn’t done, you see?”

Hal chuckles.  “Did the guy even have to wipe his own ass?”

Grace gives him a pointed look.  “Hey, even I have hard limits.  There is no way I would have been doing anything like that for him.  Now, you, on the other hand?  We could negotiate, if you like.”

Hal snorts.  “Ahhhh, I ‘preciate the sentiment, but that’s okay.”

She’s laughing when Hal kisses her.  This is one of those big, lingering, thorough kisses that take your whole body to do it right.  Investigating her tonsils, as he puts it.  It’s nice, but nausea has been growing inside of Grace ever since they started talking about Russell.  Maybe it’s just the strange greenish light, but she pulls away after a moment to catch her breath.

That’s when she looks toward the front of the store, to see Auntie Frog plow into Lucas.  Her son is clutching a plastic bag that is really way too big to be decent, standing still as a statue, staring hard.  The look on his face makes Grace panic.  It’s shocked, and curious, and pleased, in a way that is really not– right.  He’s not staring into space.  He’s staring at a figure leaning against the side of the store.  The bag slips from his hands and falls to the sidewalk.  He absently touches the notch of his throat, prods it as if it’s sore.

Grace follows his stare, sees the man in the black duster turn towards Lucas.  His hair is longish, red even in the strange light.  His profile is crisp as ever, like that on a coin.

“Daniel!” Grace can hear herself making a strangled little sound that meant to be a scream but never makes it that far.   Her hand reaches out to Hal.

Hal is already outside, halfway down the row of cars, running flat out, hair streaming.  Aunt Frog has dropped her bags and put both hands down on Lucas’s shoulders, firmly, and she’s glaring up at the stranger with grim eyes.  Grace is coming out of the car when she hears Aunt Frog say, “State your business, Mister, or leave us alone.”

The man barely looks her way; his eyes seemed filled with the boy.  “Lucas.”  Daniel holds up both hands, empty.  “I mean no harm, to you or my son, I swear it.”  His Irish lilt is noticeable, but not too strong, not uncultured at all.

“Your son?” Aunt Frog says.  “Then why do you come reeking of those people who would take away this sweet boy and turn him into a monster?”

“A monster?” Daniel asks. The man looks confused.

Hal comes charging up — it makes Daniel jump a little, and spin to face him defensively.  “You stink of bug,” Hal says, flatly.  “You stayed in a place that reeks of bug people.”

What are you talking about?” Daniel says, clearly bewildered.  “What the bloody hell is a ‘bug’?”

“Daniel,” Grace says, feeling more weary than days of very hard work at Pen’s house have ever made her.  “If Russell Derleth is still alive by the time you get back to his house to report, I would be very surprised.”

“Why, is he dying or something?”  Then he takes a closer look at the woman who’s just spoken to him.

Claudia?” he asks, incredulous all over again.

Grace glares at Daniel impatiently.  “Did you think I wouldn’t be with him?”  She hovers near Lucas.

“Open your coat,” Hal demands.

“Or what?” Daniel says.

 

“Daniel, please, we’ll explain why we have good reasons to be cautious,” Grace says.  She reaches down, and Lucas clutches her hand in one fist, and his bag in the other.  He stares up at the stranger in the long black coat.  Aunt Frog still has a firm grip on his shoulders, too.

“I’ve seen some of the culchies out there with shotguns–“

“What on earth is a culchy?” Grace asks.

“Ummm, locals.  Country folk.” Daniel shrugs.

She nods her understanding.

“I’d welcome dose guys,” Hal says.  “Dey know what dey’re shootin’ at.  Either open yer coat–and yer shirt, for good measure–or yer in a worlda trouble.”

“Who are these people, Claudia?” Daniel asks.

“My family.”

Auntie Frog says then, “You know, dis could attract a lot of attention, and I’m plum starved, and my feet’re killing me.  Now, ya can come along ta a nice place ta eat, and we can sit and talk like regular people, or we can tell ya some real horror stories  in a hurry.  Without a word spoken, okay?  Picture’s worth a thousand words, all dat?”

“Sweet Jaysus and Mary, you’re Haroldine Stalks Fish, the potter,” Daniel says then.

“Yes, I have dat honor.  And dis is my nephew, Hal Two Horses.  And dis is Hal’s girl, Grace.  But it looks like you mighta met already.  Now, ya know, ya do smell a bit like folks we have reason to mistrust considerably, to dah point I wouldn’t send you back to them on a bet, knowing what they do to people in the dead of the night.  If I were you, in fact, I’d make tracks in the opposite direction.  Now, if you want to find out more, you can come along and talk with us.  Or you can just make tracks.  If you’re coming along, you can show us what’s under the coat.  We purely dislike coats like that.  I hope you never have to find out why personally.”

He opens the coat slowly.  The clothes underneath are casual, but nice, as if he knows what looks good on him.  Maybe a little too pricey for local standards, but he’ll get good service.  There is an inner pocket, with something long and thin inside.  The pocket looks custom.  What’s inside is perhaps a foot and a half long, and about two fingers wide.  He doesn’t seem to be carrying a firearm of any kind.

“Well, you came armed, didn’t you?” Aunt Frog says.  “If you reach for that, we will know you have what they call unfriendly intentions, is that clear?”

“Now the shirt,” Hal says.

Daniel raises an eyebrow at Grace.  “Your man there is a bit paranoid, isn’t he now?” Daniel says, glancing toward people who are exiting the store.  He smiles, makes a light careful wave of his hand, and keeps his hands well away from the narrow custom pocket while he unbuttons shirt buttons down the front as if he’s got too hot in the humidity, a stranger who isn’t used to such warm weather.  He has that sleek look of somebody who’s properly groomed for all occasions, who works out, who gets his hair cut by a good stylist.

Nothing at all like the ragged long hair of the coppery guy glaring at him.

“Not paranoid,” Hal says, “We’re survivors.”

“You don’t say,” Daniel says mildly.  “Okay?”

“Okay,” Hal says, and everybody stands down just slightly.

Daniel flaps the tails of his shirt gently, fanning himself, and starts buttoning it up.  Gotta give him points for style, maintaining his cover while people exiting the store are looking at him.  Then he smiles at Aunt Frog, and he says, “Pleased to meet you, dear lady.  My name is Daniel Sullivan.  I would love to hear more about all this.  Where would you like to eat?”

“Well, how are you on pancake houses?” Aunt Frog says.

“Oh Mom, pancakes and jam for lunch!” Lucas says then, looking up at them.

Grace blinks down tears.  “Okay, today you can have pancakes and jam for lunch,” she says.

“Logistics,” Daniel says then, gently.  “I have a rental car, but if you’re worried about being traced, I’d be happy to leave it here.”

“Because it’s a piece of junk from Hark’s Hunk of Junk rental lot?” Hal says, rudely. 

“Exactly,” Daniel says, smiling.  “And, Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph,  it stinks to high heaven..”

Hal opens his mouth, glances at Lucas, and shuts it again.  “Well, that’s an unhappy piece of news.  We’ll explain later.  Not here.  Let’s get out of here.  Lucas, you got your bag?  You need help carrying that?”

Lucas shakes his head violently.

Grace opens her mouth, looking from the bag to Aunt Frog, who says, “Nope, don’t even ask.”

Daniel looks at the bag and smiles.  If anything inclines Grace to think he might have good intentions, that is it.  That’s the first hint.

“Well then,” Daniel says, looking at Aunt Frog’s rather battered car.  He’s retrieved his suitcase and carry-on from his rental car — a Lexus.  He did so cautiously, looking around casually while the others stay away a good long distance from it.  His things won’t fit in the trunk, which is weighed down with bags of clay and boxes of bisqueware for a class.  The springs are struggling already.  “Ms. Two Horses, I am honored to share your pottermobile.”

She laughs.  “Just watch out for smears of that ferrous clay on the seats, that stuff stains your clothes something fierce.”  He winces a little. 

Grace sits in the front, with Lucas and his rather large knobbly bag on her lap, in the front passenger seat.  Aunt Frog drives.

Hal sits in the back behind Aunt Frog, strongly turned in his seat to face Daniel.  After some silent considerations, they have him seated on the passenger side behind Grace.

Aunt Frog drives serenely, about twenty miles an hour slower than the posted speed limits, cruising along in rather overloaded-spring glory.

“Welcome to the swamp,” Hal says, and Grace is turned enough she can see his eyes are dark and angry and the irises have consumed the eye, as if he’s about to shoot off into dog-shape.  Grace is just trying to keep her breathing under control.  She wishes she were sitting next to Hal so she could pet him.

“You’re a pan-were,” Daniel says quietly.  “I can feel–“

“Yes,” Hal says.  “And believe me when I say, we have reason to fear the kind of people who gave you that car, and the place you stayed, and probably who gave you the job to find Grace and Lucas.  Nobody human would send either of them back to Russell.  We’re gonna talk a little first–and not in a way that might scare Lucas, so don’t go getting excited–and then I’ll show you a few things you really aren’t gonna like one bit.”

“I’ll have a light lunch,” Daniel says, with a grim little smile.

Hal turns his head a degree.  “Take a loop here, would you?  Drive down that second street on the right.  Let’s show you what kind of stuff we’re talking about.”

At a bend of the street that loops out into the woods, there are several cars sitting abandoned on the side of the road.  One of them looks burned out.  All of them have holes, like bullet-holes, dotted along smashed-in sides.

“Those are not from bullets,” Daniel says after a moment, frowning.

“Bugs,” Lucas says clearly.  He points.  “They have arms, with bumps on them.   The arms come out of their tummies like, whoa, so fast.  They run fast, too.”

Hal closes his eyes a moment, rests his head in one hand.  “Yes, Lucas has seen it.  We all have.”

“You have to wash real quick if the juice hits you,” Lucas says.  “Mom says it burns.”

“It does,” Hal says.  “Lucas, make sure you get away first, then wash, right?”

“Yes, sir,” Lucas says.  “Wow, the one that trashed that car was a big one. You think that was a mantis one, maybe?”

Hal nods.

“Where do they come from?” Daniel asks.

He looks at Daniel, steadily, consideringly.  “The people we’re talking about have a nasty habit of kidnapping people they don’t think anybody will miss.  They take them out to some of those illegal black market labs out in the swamp, barbed wire complexes with machine gun emplacements like prisons.  And then they make them into… bug troops.  Creatures who do what they’re told. Some of them don’t look human at all, depending on what their job is. Some of them look very human, until they need to do something… like that.” and he gestures at the last car, as they roll away from it down the street, without ever stopping.

“Bloody hell, you’re havin’ me on,” Daniel breathes.

“No, we’re not,” Grace says.  “Not even a little bit.  We all wish we were.”

“Lucas, tell Daniel what bugs look like, will you?” Grace says then.  “The regular ones, not all the special ones.”

“They’re kinda like zombies.  They look like people, but they stare funny, and they don’t talk.  Callie says they eat people’s faces, and she saw some really bad stuff, but she says they’re all bags and blobs of smelly goo inside that’s taking over the human parts they started with.  Callie said they kinda collapse if the bags get cut open.  I dunno. I just saw them running.  They get these long arms , like the legs on crabs, but not pinchers, with the hard bumps that smush things and make holes when they hit.  And they bite.  They spit stinky stuff that burns.  Their legs look kinda human, but they can unfold and get taller on some of them, like the mantis ones. Those have an energy beam thingie too.  Umm, their hair starts falling out.  Ummmm….the bug parts are kinda weird, they break off funny, like eggs do, all hollow or something.  We think some of them can grow back arms that break off, but we don’t know for sure.  And when you take out all those bug parts, I guess it’s really hard on them, and the people are really, really stupid after that.”

“There are pictures, we’ll show you later,” Hal says dryly.  “Lucas is accurate in his observations.”

“These– these illegal installations must be enormous, to support a lab that can generate implanted growth tanks of that sort,” Daniel says.  “You couldn’t possibly hide it!  It must show up on aerial photographs!”

“Oh yeah, it does.  Local authorities know it,” Hal says.  “The same labs make all kinds of interesting chemical distillations, if you catch my drift.  Lots of dirty, dirty money.  Lots of toxins dumped out willynilly, wherever it’s convenient.  Lots of stray releases of the kind of injection germs used to mod the genetics, just spew it out into the environment.  We get lots of wild zoomorphs, like me.  I can show you the figures on the local mortality and morbidity figures, the underweight babies, the childhood cancers–it just goes on and on.  Blame it all on poverty and lack of local medical care, which certainly doesn’t help.  Seems one of the reasons they picked this area–you’ll love this, Grace, just found this out from some of the Back Forty dudes pokin’ around places he wasn’t supposed to be lookin’–is how compatible a lot of the locals are with existing bug troop samples.  Lots of military folks were recruited from here, the original bug troops were built off local boys and girls, and they’re still coming back to get more.  Only they don’t ask.  They just take people away.”

Grace has seen him give these same facts to other people. Quiet or impassioned, shouting, coolly logical, all different moods, whatever he thinks will reach and touch the person he’s trying to persuade.  “I’ll send it to you, just look at the numbers!” he will say, the eternal cry of the community organizer.

“What’s a zoomorph?” Daniel asks.  “I’m not familiar with that term, exactly.”

“You guys ready?” Hal says.

“Go for it,” Grace says quietly.

Hal lowers his head.  When he looks up again, his eyes lack whites.  Ears crawl along his skin, and he blinks, and he’s a large black dog with the same long hair he had as a man.  Then he makes a sound in his throat, and Grace reaches past the seats and strokes his muzzle.  He licks her hand.  Then he shakes his head again, and he’s leaning back in the seat, hair flung about wildly, with his teeth gritted.  His nostrils flare.  “That,” he said, “is the quietest change I’ve ever managed to do.”

“Just glad you didn’t do the horse in my back seat, my poor car would bottom out completely,” Aunt Frog says placidly.

“You’re getting much better,” Grace comments, “all that practice is paying off.”

Daniel looks at her, and then at Hal.  “How many shapes do you have?” 

“Four,” Grace answers.  “Of course, you’re not surprised.  Why would you be?  But… his changes aren’t a result of a hereditary condition, or… any manipulation of natural energy.  It’s not a natural thing at all.”

“A zoomorph is an animal person, whether they can change shape or not.  Some of us were constructed by military labs, like you’d build a tank from parts–“

“Like Mister Dance, he’s a kinda snake guy–” Lucas says.

“Yes, and some of us are wild mutations, or maybe damaged from stray lab releases–“

“Like Miss Estelle, she’s a bird lady, she was just born that way,” Lucas assures Daniel.

“–and some of us are a mishmash of parts that were modded onto a kidnapped person by black market labs using stolen military tech, something like the bug people.  We are at odds with the bugs because they have no free will, and they are commanded by people who give no one free will,” Hal says.  “And when you stank of them, we had to begin off the assumption you were one of their tools.  They have some people who operate quite freely because they just like the money, you know.” 

“I understand,” Daniel says.  He looks sick, sweating under the black denim duster.

“It’s not magic, like that thing in your pocket, at all,” Grace says impatiently.  “It’s science.  Brutal, hard-core, difficult, and expensive bio-gen-eng stuff.  They use the drug sales to pay for it.  We think — some of us think, anyway — that the bugs themselves have become self-regulating.  They’re starting to run their own show and tell whatever they like to their commanders, while they build to suit their own agenda.  And the black market labs don’t care as long as the money keeps coming in.”

“That’s sick,” Daniel chokes.  He puts his head in his hands, rubbing his temples like the world has stopped spinning on its axis.

“That’s reality,” Grace replies gently.

Then Lucas says, “Mom, you said it was wicked hard to do, making the bugs, right?  Would magic be a good way to stop them?”

Daniel looks at his son.  “Do you have magic?”

Lucas looks at him coolly.  “I don’t know what you call magic.  Uncle Russell used to want me to do all these boring exercises.  It’s much more fun playing music.”

Daniel smiles a bit,  like he agrees.  He looks at Grace.

Grace says, “Why do you think we ran away, Daniel?  The Philadelphia Regent of your damned Knights wanted Russell to give up my son to him, personally, and — and make him into some kind of — tool. It sounded like he wanted to sell him.”

“That’s impossible,” Daniel says, “he’s a child.”

“The Regent was telling Russell he would take my son the very next morning.  Permanently.  Somewhere in Canada or Alaska.  He kept talking about putting him in heavy clothes.  I think a nice long look at the business finance accounts would shock you terribly, I truly believe it would.”

Daniel stares at her.  Then at Hal.  And last of all, at Lucas.

“It’d be boring, going on a trip with that guy,” Lucas says.  “That guy, the Regent? He always talked at me like I was a baby.  He wanted me to do things over and over, like he didn’t believe it the first time.  I mean, it stops working when you get bored, you know?”

“Does it?” Daniel says softly.

Lucas says, frowning, “I think magic might work against the bugs, don’t you?”

Aunt Frog pulls the car around into a parking space.  “All right, children, it’s time for a little flapjack reality shock here.”

“Yay, pancakes!” Lucas hollers, totally diverted.

“Amen,” Aunt Frog says.  “Let’s pour a little maple syrup on the drama, right?”

Lucas races her to the front door, giggling.  Actually, they’re both giggling.

“Why didn’t you tell me that you were pregnant?” Daniel asks Grace, in a very tight, very controlled voice, once Lucas is out of earshot.

“What would you have done if I had told you?” she asks right back.

“I– I would have done the right thing…”

“So you would have married me when I was barely out of high school, and we would have been divorced before our fifth anniversary.”  Grace feels about as sad and tired as she ever has in her life.  “Let’s face it, Daniel, you’re hardly my type anymore.”

“True, we are different people than we were back then.  It wouldn’t have gone over well.”  He considers, then asks, “Would it help if I offered to get Lucas and you out of this– war zone?”

“And Aunt Frog–Haroldine– and Aunt Penelope, and Estelle, and Pen, and his kids– where do you stop rescuing?” Grace asks.  “You can’t save us all.”  She sees his eyes flicker at “us”, but he says nothing.  Perhaps he realizes his offer is futile.

 

Then they’re at the door, and Aunt Frog makes Lucas leave his bag at a table while he goes off with Hal to the men’s room.  Lucas is chattering and waving his arms.  Daniel’s eye follows the boy’s red hair silently.

When he looks down, Aunt Frog says, “Have a seat.  We got a minute for questions dat might upset Lucas.”

“How bad is it?” Daniel says.

“Dah only reason we don’t look like some of them war zones all over, if you want my opinion, is because the bugs want civilian supplies ta keep flowing normally, it’s cheaper,” Aunt Frog says.  “Another way of putting it, crudely, would be don’t shit where you eat.  Dey export deir war of conquest plenty of other places, a’course.  Hal can show you pictures, reports, choke you on printouts and websites and whatall, and you give him half a chance, he’ll be in your offices recruiting your bosses along with you, if they ain’t already corrupted beyond stopping.”

“You have been warned,” Grace says, finding it in her to smile.

“Can anything be done to stop them?”  Daniel grimaces.  “That is, assumin’ you can figure out who ‘they’ even are.”

Grace nods.  “There’s always hope.”

“I know.  But what has been effective so far?”  Daniel is shifting into trouble-shooting mode.  It reminds Grace of Hal, a little bit. “This is shite, so what can we do to fix it?”

“I was hoping you’d ask that question.” Grace quips.  Things are looking up.  Auntie Frog smiles like she’s half smitten with the Irishman.  Grace knows all about the Dublin charm.  “We can take a look at Russell’s accounts, and figure out what to do from there.  Hal has a hacker friend.”

“Or three, or four, or maybe more sometimes,” says Aunt Frog, rolling her eyes.  “The way they go through the soda pop, you’d think it was a herd of them.”

“What works?  Shuttin’ off deir supplies works,” Aunt Frog growls.  “Hal has lists of what dose labs import all dah time.  Things like micron water filters, gear like dat.  And chemicals.  Stop ’em from getting potassium nitrate, for instance, and suddenly we have a month or two where nobody goes missing.  Get it coming in on the docks again down in NOLA, and all of a sudden Terrebonne Parish has a dozen people who don’t show up for church one morning, and Montegut Elementary School has ten kids gone, and so on.  Hal recruited a coupla folks in a position to keep track of dah losses, compile dah lists of abduction victims.”

Grace leans forward.  “I believe Matheson was investing in some of the companies who front for the labs.  Hal has compiled lists of the corporations, and they match up to the lists of some of the donations that Russell was having me make.  I noticed the names, you see, and I noticed some I recognized on Hal’s lists.  Of course, at the time I looked them up, according to the guidelines of the stock investing classes I’ve had, and I warned Russell that these might be high-yield but it was pushing his portfolio toward the high-risk end of things.  They had a terrible record, all short-term shell-game ephemerals.  He just said it was important, and told me to complete the transactions.”

Aunt Frog grunts.  “He’d probably like havin’ bug people do all his chores for him, never argue back, never ask questions, nothin’.  Course, if they explode tryin’ to kill ya, it could get nasty.”

Grace nods at Daniel.  “I think you may want to call somebody to go out and make sure Russell is still alive, I was perfectly serious.  Once they have control of the money, they don’t need him anymore.  Be discreet.”

“I’ll do that,” he says, looking at her, and he gets up, taking his coat with him.  “When the waitress gets here, it’s coffee for me.”

Hal and Lucas and the large plastic bag crowd in beside Grace.  “What’s he callin’ for?”

Grace looks at her son, who is grinning into the bag.  She still has no idea what the indulgence in there actually is.  Then she looks at Hal.  “Sending somebody discreet to check if Russ is still okay.”

Hal nods.  “They may need him to testify.”

Grace looks at Hal.  Something frozen and frightened inside her melts, and she leans across and kisses him.  “Thank you,” she murmurs.

Aunt Frog grins at them, and turns, looking around.  She starts chatting with the waitress, nodding over local news, explaining that purty Irish guy out there is by way of being a distant cousin of Grace’s, and he wants his coffee.

When Daniel finishes his phone call, he heads for the men’s room.  When he returns from that, he looks a little greenish, but better.

Aunt Frog and Grace both look at him.  Hal sighs, and casts a long, watchful gaze at the parking lot, squinting out the window nearby.

“Bad news?” Grace says, bracing herself.

He nods.  “Hal, I would like to go through the records you offered and make copies of whatever you feel comfortable sharing with my superiors.  It would help to make video interviews of anybody who’s willing to talk on-camera about their experiences.  I would like to set things right, and I would like to get other people who are trustworthy to help us do it.  I’ll go home and talk to my Regent as soon as we have some hard evidence to show.”

“Trustworthy the way Russ was?” Hal says dryly.

“Oh, he was, within his limits,” Grace exclaims.  “He just–” and she looks at her son, and falls silent.  She knows Lucas heard her, and he will ask about it later.

“I can’t believe that Derleth has been acting the maggot like this.” Daniel groans. “He’s a right tosser, that one is.  And Matheson?  I don’t even have words for that one.”

The Long and Winding Road

Teo is a long way from Detroit, but that’s fine.  Detroit hadn’t been home, either, just a place he’d been for a while.  He stares out the window of the truck cab, into the wilderness, so different from the urban decay he’s accustomed to, yet strangely similar.  The hurricane’s damage didn’t include painted graffiti, just the scribbles of random high-pressure impacts.

On either side of the narrow track, the ditch runs half-full of tannin-black water.  An old track, too, because cypress knees hump up out of the ditch and threaten to take over the road entirely. One of those would blow out a tire.  Most of the trees out here are broken and twisted at the tops, damaged, dead stuff fallen everywhere.  On some of the higher knobs of land, they were sheared off about eight, ten feet from the ground.  There aren’t many signs of civilization, just a few half-ruined fish camps and gas station with capped over pump holes and no roof.

Teobaldo Arkaitz Ridcully Navarre, what have you got yourself into this time?

He glances at the big deer-minotaur creature driving the truck; his crown of antlers nods gently every time they hit a bump.  Tiny is very precise in how he moves his head.  The only reason he could drive this vehicle at all is the sleeper cab provides extra headroom, and even so, the cab was scraped and scarred.  Teo had never seen anything like him before.  That’s happened a lot since he arrived here.

Back home–long before he got out of the sarcobox in Detroit–the zoomorph population was strictly regulated, engineered, contained.  The sheer biological diversity of the “accidental” zoomorphs here is a bit overwhelming; it was like being at a mad scientist’s ball.  He knows he didn’t have the whole story before they sent him here.  He knew he’d been lied to outright by the authorities who put him in the sarcobox.  Give a guy half the picture, out-of-date, politically-doctored– dress him in a paper jumpsuit, irrigate him with chemicals that burned through his veins, seal him in a metal box, and send him off into what was still, essentially, the unknown.  They said it would be a two-way trip, but he is beginning to suspect they lied. Big surprise.

He still hadn’t been prepared by the sheer scope of the disasters here.  Classified technology leaking into the soil of this world, creating life that was never meant to be here.  Human beings, signing on to front for black market bug labs.  

Joshua captured bugs in Detroit and took them apart. Joshua’s friend Fozzie did the same down here.  They both had people who’d been pulled back out of bugs.  The rescued ex-bugs danced around to music, any music, and yelled at each other like brain-damaged children.  They seemed to enjoy themselves, anyway, and he was certain that is more than the bugs did. Or perhaps bugged brains were so overloaded with feel-good chemistry that they felt pretty happy all the time, even when they were killing people.  Maybe especially when they were killing people.

“Who in their right mind would grow out bugs?” Teo demands, staring at the empty cement walls of just such a place, suddenly furious.  The place was solid enough, it’d stayed together during the storm.  Tiny and Barret hadn’t been worried about squatters, just strode right into the building.

Tiny makes signs.  Barret interprets them, while he sets up his midi keyboard and his mikes to record the weird echoes and sounds in the lab, and smiles.  “Dumb shits.  Guys who want to sell bug troops and drugs for lots of cold hard cash.”

He watches Barret for a moment.  Barret is human, Teo thinks wryly, although you had to wonder about him, a professional musician.  The man is a found-sound junkie, composing his own stuff, fingers doing keyboards on his thighs.  Every time they stopped to fuel up, he gets out his midi gear and crammed new inventions into the on-board memory, while Teo fought with the fuel pump to get the rig fueled up again.  Barret was in his own little world once he got those headphones on.

“I’m going to look at the filters on the sarcobox pumps,” Teo says.  “You’ll be all right here?”

Barret just waves vaguely.

He checks the filters, latches the locks on the pump casings.  Tiny’s enormous clawed hands make questioning gestures.  Teo shakes his head.  “Nothing.  The filter screens were removed.  We could probably scrape samples from the walls of the pump, but it looks like they hosed it all down with some sterilant.”  He wipes his hands with alcohol hand wipes from the packet he carried in his hip pocket, just in case.  He’d caught enough viral and bacterial stuff in his first couple of months here, thank you very much. 

Tiny gravely accepts a few hand wipes from Teo.  Tiny had torn open the pump shed door for him, made it look easy.  The zoomorph’s hands have short dense black fur up the back of the hand past the wrist.  The nails are thick, claw-like, more like an Old World monkey, almost black.  It takes a while for Tiny to clean his hands adequately, scrubbing the wipe through the fur.

“Let’s go,” Teo says to Barret past the fat studio earphones.

“But those chirping high-frequency sounds, they’re some sort of modulated station-recognition signal, I have to see what the high-end filters pick up–” Barret complains.

Tiny’s hands go around Barret’s neck completely.  Barret doesn’t seem to mind the indignity of being pushed toward the truck.

Back in the cab, Tiny pulls off the cut-up trucker’s cap. Just behind the big mobile ink-black furry ear, wires hang from the base of his horns.  He has bald spots with little military-style headphones stuck on with some kind of putty.  The power supply is tied to the base of both horns. Teo had wondered where Tiny was getting all the intelligence that allowed him to avoid trouble all the way from Detroit to South Louisiana.  The cap’s logo is a silly ad for some local company’s diaper rash ointment.  It doesn’t go with the formidable horned presence, which might be why Tiny wears it.  Or maybe just because it shades his eyes nicely.

The antennas on Tiny’s truck make an interesting collection by themselves.  There’s a lot of oddly kludged-up electronic gear wired into Tiny’s truck dash.  More of it is attached to weapons racked in the ranks of clips over their heads, on either side of the ladder up to the sleeper compartment.  Teo almost wants to poke through the mess, see what it was and how it works.  But Teo’s specialty is behavioral sciences, not the hard stuff.  He might mess something up by handling it wrong. 

Barret looks quite content, watching the swamp go by. He and Tiny are happy as clams listening to Barret humming tunelessly, working out some kind of African poly-rhythm on his knees. Barrett doesn’t need the radio on, and Tiny likes it quiet, both sound waves and electronically.  Barret explains that Tiny and his equipment could hear better over the truck’s own noise.

Teo thinks about eating.  They’re down two picnic coolers already, they’ve just cracked open the third one of four.  Tiny eats a whole lot.  Mostly fast-food salads and barbecued veggie-burgers–and those couldn’t be easy to track down out here–but a lot of it. What do the herbivore zoomorphs do at barbecues, claim vegetarianism, or just stay away from the fire pit?  Can Tiny even digest meat?  There are so many questions he itched to ask.

The truck jolts through some tight turns and up a grade.  Tiny makes more signs.

“He says we need to cross a few hairy patches in the road, where the hurricane washed out the road.  They haven’t really had time to repair the damage, hell, don’t know if they ever will.”  Barret shrugs as if it’s not really important.  “Also, there’s bug signal off north of where we’re going, he might need to drop us off at the turnoff and go help out.  He says the next bit is bumpy.”

“He made five signs,” Teo says.

“Uh-huh.  I talk more than he does.”  Barret’s head nods happily, fingers keyboarding the air.

“I’ll hang on,” Teo says dryly.

More signs, when the track winding around hummocks of sheared-off trees allows it.

“He wants to know what you’re looking for.” Barret’s head bops around from the truck’s movement, off-time.

Teo blinks at them both.  “Didn’t Fozzie tell you anything?”

“Just get you where you’re going,” Barret grins, long curly hair flying as the truck lurches to avoid a nasty set of cypress knees. 

“I don’t even know where that is,” Teo says.

“Very Taoist, man,” Barret says, and whoops as they lurched across the first two wash-outs.  Teo distinctly remembered being told that Barret was a Julliard graduate, that he was famous in some circles. But Barret looked like he belonged here in the swamp, loopy grin and all.  “But I guess DA and Fozzie know where you’re supposed to go.”

Teo throws a look at him.  He’s never heard anybody give Doctor Alexander a nickname. He likes it.

There’s an annoyed grunt from the sleeper part of the cab, and Doctor Alexander’s voice floats down.  “What the hell was that?” He shoves his head over the side, his hair in wild disarray and pillow creases embellishing his face.  He looks groggy; he’s been sleeping ever since they crossed the border into Indiana.

“Road construction,” he informs DA.

The doctor squints out the forward upper windows and grunts stoically.

“Hurricane style,” Teo says, staring at heaps of spoil cleared from the trail, at trees sheared off at the level of the truck’s windows.  “What, a Category Five storm?”

Barrett nods.  His gaze goes remote, remembering.  “You shoulda heard it.  Harmonics, man.  Singing in your bones, that storm talking to you for days.”

Tiny’s ears go back, and he points at his forehead, lips curling up in a grimace.  Tiny had incisors like a baboon, at odds with the stag body. He didn’t smile often, either.

“Did you have hearing damage?” Dr. Alexander asks.

Barrett nods.  “Just a little bit at the higher frequencies, when I got it tested.  I got off easy.”

Tiny makes an impatient chuffing noise and taps his chest, flicks a finger sign.

“Oh yeah, me too–being alive still beats the alternatives.”  Barrett grins at Tiny.

More hand-waving from their driver. “He’s taking a shortcut, we’ll be there in maybe fifteen minutes.  He says they’re getting the fence open for us so Tiny can keep going through the far side of the compound and head north.  Kind of a rolling stop to drop us off, I guess,”  Barrett translates. They hump down another steep rocky slope and spider delicately up another steep rise, with Tiny gunning the engine and clutching the transmission precisely, just so.  Barret gets that listening look that said he was interested in the growling strain on the engine.

The fence that they had to drive through was an enormous palisade of welded iron fencing, dead saplings, and wire mesh woven together among broken but live trees into an amazing random mess, enlivened here and there by scorch marks.

Tiny leans out the open window and taps a gong-like sequence of percussive noises off the outer shell of the truck door.

A voice from the trees replies distantly, in an Indian accent, “Hey, Tiny, we have you on the gate log, please now drive in.”  A big wad of fence starts sliding open  They drive in sedately along a rather badly-graded track, pull in at a low clutter of temporary buildings.

“Okay, we’re outta here,” Barret says, climbing out.  He pauses long enough to salute Tiny, who nods back. Teo wearily stumbles down after him, hearing Alexander’s heavy breath behind him, hauling down his bags. Like a bucket brigade they unload the rest of the medical boxes of gear from the trailer.  Doctor Alexander unfolds a tarp and ropes it down over the boxes where the stack sits on the gravel drive.  Then Tiny waves, and jumps up–literally–into the cab.  The truck revs into motion, departing by a different exit.

Looks like they’re in for a hike; Teo stops to adjust the straps on his pack, hoping to make it feel lighter.

Doctor Alexander is already moving up the path towards Bayou Rainette. The place is alive with buzzing and chirping insects; their noise merely accentuating the quiet. Teo feels himself duck when something big flips past his face and flies erratically across the clearing.

“Are you used to the creepy crawlies around here?” Teo asks.

Barret falls into step beside him.  “It’s the roaches and the beetles that get to me, you want the truth.  The snakes generally run away, if you give ’em a chance to.”  

Snakes. If what Teo had heard was right, there are some snakes here that don’t run.  Aggressive rattlers, cottonmouths.  And some of the zoomorphs, too.

There hadn’t been any genuine Kiplings at the community in Detroit.  When DA had come back to Detroit to pick up the rest of his research equipment, he’d mentioned the nagas to Teo in passing.  Teo was careful not to reveal his interest to DA; the doctor was sharp and would ask questions that Teo wasn’t comfortable answering.  Not yet, maybe never.  But Teo gets the impression that there were not one, but two of them down here; surely that was a good sign.  After a year of being on World 2, Teo was finally making progress toward his goal.