Box of Dreams

She’s back in the warehouse. She knows, feeling cold, what to expect.

Another bad dream.

Dance’s dreams of bugs, of people being dropped like so many slack sacks of potatoes into boxes with green sides, larger than coffin-sized boxes, my God, in lab buildings that extend for hundreds of feet, every square inch full of green boxes–

She’s seen the bugs who didn’t come out of those boxes. Sarcoboxes. She’s heard Drin say the same things, trying to articulate what he’s seen.

Emma told them both, rather sharply, that the sarcoboxes were not just designed for the implantation of bug parts in people. From somewhere, she knows it can be a lab cradle to develop a fragile zoomorphic fetus, a cocoon to let a bug part go through a pupation period before it’s attached to a screaming person, or a storage locker that uses cryogenic methods to keep something very dangerous locked up safely between limited uses.

Very limited uses.

In her dreams, she looks down into a frost-clouded box, and sees Dance. In her dreams, she stands there, shaking with rage, looking down at the one who went into that box still awake.

This is not a bug.

This is not a human being, either, or so they claim.

It’s possible they’re right, in spite of how human he looks. No human would be able to resist those drugs.

This one had enough of a mind to fight back. The body is contorted in the webbing he’s twisted round him. He shouldn’t have been able to fight that long and that late. His head is the only thing that’s where it should be, held securely by the callipers, while his neck and body twist and angle. If he were conscious, he’d be in agony. One hand is loose from its loop and pressed against the wall of the box; the other is balled into a fist. The strap that should secure his shoulders is missing entirely, the sideclamps biting down on nothing. The creature is incredibly beautiful, and she curses the General, who didn’t warn her of that.

The other boxes nearby have bodies like Dance’s, but they are pale, and they are thinner, they clearly weigh far less than he does. They are not twisted impossibly around. They are not strapped and locked up and barred in like that, and their boxes are plumbed with much lighter equipment. That flimsy gear hasn’t lasted as well.

vertical pattern, wavy glass
Frozen in Place

The stink, my God, the stink is not just of cadaverin. That’s bad enough, plenty of explanation for the gas mask she must wear, and so must the other people around her, taking notes and speaking quietly into their mikes what they find, recording measurements of what used to be there. You see pictures like this from the disinterment of mass graves.

But nobody’s going to open this lid. They’re not even going to check if he’s alive. They won’t tell her anything. There’s heavy new locks and straps on that box, there’s symbols that mean shooting won’t stop him, when he’s the most naked, unarmored thing in the place.

They won’t tell her what’s next, but she knows. With those symbols, they’re certainly not going to thaw him out to see what damage he’s taken. No, a licensed mercyman will deal with all that, late, after all the forensic people have left.

Her dream self is shaking with fury because it’s all so stupid, locking the barn door after the monster has disappeared into the woods–because there were two.

The other one’s gone.

The other box next to him has a pried-up lid, a wrecked cradle of precisely the same shape–some other creature marked in the same secret series as he is. And it’s gone. Vanished. Somebody took it away, there’s no records, there’s no tracks. Nothing among the files to warn her there ‘d be two boxes here. She’ll have to leave the wrecked box with its damning labels, careless scattered evidence, there’s no time to get rid of it.

Whoever stashed these hundreds of sarco-illegal treasures are tied tightly to people who aren’t good with their pets. That other one is out there somewhere, running loose, and in the hands of such people, he’s probably going quite mad. She knows all about those sort of people.

Wojo thought he got the first one safely out. He laughed. “Shows what depending on old intel will do for you, stuck in a cancer ward trying to save the lives of your people when you can’t even save your own damn self.”

“Shipment got hijacked by the trade,” Wojok told her, and coughed. “Fuck, well, we got one more chance, girl! Get over there, see if they found the other one stashed somewhere back in that warehouse they’re still cleaning, see if that other box is still intact.”

Emma had been angry–coldly, icily angry–on so many fronts that she didn’t even give him any of her disagreeable lip. She didn’t argue, because that would have made him happy.

She just went.

She was furious that he didn’t tell her about the first one in time to get him better contacts, to use some people that they could still trust. No, he handed it off to people who hadn’t been with the program for six months, and to make it worse, he said he took the money they offered to pay for the transport. God knows what he did with that, he just laughed that horrible laugh of his.

Hell, at least, trust her to get it out of there in the first place, if she had to wheel it round on a dolly by herself!

And she’d been even more furious that he’d sound so casual about it.

Wojo’s right about one thing.

They’re all genuinely afraid of this thing that didn’t go into the box quietly. So if the stolen one does go as berserk as those locks and chains on the sarcobox say it is feared for, then its genetic twin, in here, may be the only thing really capable of stopping it.

And the damn fools here want to wipe out this fighter in its sleep, pretend it never existed. There will be no embarrassing artifacts left to disgrace the good record of the military program. Only the black marketeers to blame here. Nothing to see, move along.

Emma looks into the records ranked in her bones, finds the little files that detail this naga’s creation and his single mission, and its conclusion.

Emma’s dream self hears her heels slam stacatto clatter down the hall to her station. Her fingers fly over the keyboard, and files change their shapes under her fingers. It’s like rescuing an abandoned dog, except that she’s going to rescue herself at the same time. The general’s orders.

Old uncle Wojo is dying on that hospital bed, with the stench of his cigars still sticking to his skin, and the parts of his face that haven’t turned into squamous cells, as grey as their ashes.

In her head, his voice is still the smoker’s rasp that he can’t even manage now. “Shift your ass Watson, you got places to go, people to do, heh heh heh.”

That fat bastard who took her out of the ranks and told her to let them lace nanocarbon fibers all through her bone marrow. “You got the two things I need, intelligence and stupidity,” he’d said, and ‘stupidity’ was always his slang for ‘loyalty.’

She agreed to turn herself into a memory bank in the military service. Now the bastards are going to see the fruit of that vine.

Emma watches her dreamself, brittle as glass, set up the transport of the sarcobox down a tunnel that only exists in theory.

It’s an apparently random little robot cleaner who trundles up the corridor and slaps a sealed by order of the base commander strip of sticky across the door of her current command chamber, effectively locking it shut behind her.

She sends directives for the disposition of the remaining Black Ops Naga with rapid flicks of her fingertips against the keyboard. A freight robot forks up the chained sarcobox, and the people with the measuring tools simply glance at the usual mercyman’s code on the front. Of course that’s where it’s going. Until it turns right in the main robot concourse inside the secure compound, and heads for a little-known freight elevator, instead of left to the morgue offices.

If it was her, and if she was that worried about transport of something that dangerous, she’d have been kneeling in her fancy dress clothes on the box, riding right along with it. But then, she’s worked for Wojo a few too many years to take those things for granted.

She’s astonished to find the Naga’s future records are slotted up in place, ready to drop into, already planned for just like an emergency parachute, as per emergency specs, but she frowns.

A few quick clicks of the keys, and she sighs. They weren’t done to her specs, that’s for sure. Too pretty, too suspiciously clean, done by somebody who doesn’t deal with smudgy real estate grant deeds on a regular basis. But they’ll have to do.

The life memories are waiting to be poured into his coma-emptied mind, by one of those horrors that the military doesn’t even acknowledge– some kind of AI in human form, maybe.

She understands it takes about half an hour, that process, although nobody will say much about it.

That task done, she takes a short walk, to a box of her own where she’ll undergo a similar oblivion.

Wakeup Call

The light is blessedly dim, he’s not sure why. Dance can smell his partners sitting nearby, hastily washed, with the old traces of swamp and more faintly of bug, and a lot more loudly, the taint of fear.

They can’t talk to him, though. They couldn’t hear him respond if they tried. The roar of the wind is enough to explain the dull, hours-long brassy odor of stress in the clothes that they borrowed. Emma is wearing soft things that once belonged to a bird, faintly dusty; the odor of feathers is still perfectly clear to him, in spite of the rush and swirl of eddies in the gaps of the building.

Oh yes, the storm. It’s not a tropical depression any more, not now, it’s a hurricane. The rain hits like bullets on the siding. It whistles. It moans. The floor rocks like a ship very slightly, giving way and surviving, a very old swamp-built house indeed.

Dance blinks, feeling the floorboards flex under his back. He turns his head, and looks at his lovers.

They don’t see him at all, off staring at something that happened years ago, something he doesn’t know in the least. Old fears, old failings, old laws that were broken, old rigid rulers who didn’t care what they broke underfoot, what they trampled, or who carried out the strange edicts that came mumbled out from some nightmare.

He can feel the heavy cerametal threads laced into Emma’s bones, and she’s drowning in opened data boxes now, feeling guilty as sin. Looking for answers that aren’t there to be found, rummaging things locked away in her skeleton long before the crucial things were ever lost to history, unrecorded.

Drin’s just as bad, for all his memories aren’t indexed or tidy. His keep exploding and screaming and dying inside, he flinches at things that aren’t there in the room. But he may be right, nonetheless, that the things he is fighting are quite close to them now, and the wind is the only thing that keeps them pinned down where they lurk.

wood and iron swing over water with leaves
Rising Water

When the water starts rising they’ll be through any remaining fences there are, heaving up in masses like drowning ants, piles of bugs as desperate as dying hives might ever be. They’ve nowhere else to go, as the flood waters push them higher.

Dance can hear them all over the local broadcasts bands, shrill unintelligible high UHF squeals, screaming for help that won’t come, like tinny brigades of toy pianos, all howling. The records are gone, erasing themselves, disavowed, the investors gone, the officers long since covering their asses, and all that’s left is the bureaucrats running away from the evidence.

Scoured concrete pads, unidentifiable plumbing scattered for miles, random scraps of stinking meat, that’s all that will be left behind when this storm scrubs away bug labs.

He hears Emma mutter the dates that the sources vanished, on things that no longer exist outside that goddamn General’s memory of hers. She’s shifting records about, pulling extracts and building a precis and listing reports like an index of hell, records of war crimes that she won’t forget. He is hearing her do it, on some deep frequency that tickles a place he can’t itch.

I’d put their balls pickled on ice, with cocktails, and she means to do it, by God.

Naga reports

Notes from General Wojo’s buried files

First reports from Drin, dictated during recovery:

1) In spite of other reports that the naga defied remote commands, during combat the naga performed very well, and was capable of withstanding bug fire, unlike myself. Appended are reports on my injuries. During the helicopter flight the naga kept me pain free via its bites, and I could feel the differences as its venom became more and more specific to my condition.

By the end I felt euphoric and secure, and was awake and alert when I was transferred to the hospital. The naga insisted on staying with me until I was secured in a sarcobox. This is not to complain of Tom Richards the assigned handler on the job, as a handler with very advanced capacities might have had difficulty keeping the naga under control. He tells me it was visibly unhappy during the flight and did not easily accept the harness, which impeded its ability to stay near me in the cramped conditions with so many other troops on board as well.

Trabeculae Series by shiro studio
Trabeculae Series by shiro studio

(Drin’s injuries; )

1.a) Torso: Severe, deep, narrow third and fourth degree burns to the right dorsal and ventral torso, extending from midway between the iliac crest, great trochanter, and erector spinae muscles dorsally, across the entire external oblique, to the right rectus abdominus ventrally, not quite to the navel. Burned tissue had exceptions in minor areas shielded by the right arm during combat irradiation.
1.b) Right arm: The brachio-radialis and pronator teres were mostly burnt away, exposing the carbonised radius and ulna of the patient’s forearm. Surrounding smaller muscle groups suffered second-degree burns. Further second and third degree burns damaged metacarpals in the hand.
1.c) Right leg: Mixed depth burns from the tensor fasciae latae downward, a carbonized cavity about three inches deep on the vastus lateralis, the vastus intermedius, damaging the the so-called “sciatic nerve” sheath, and in one area the outer femur was scored with a second-degree burn. Sloughed bone chips had to be removed later in recovery. The patella was dislocated and the tibia had one simple and one compound break respectively about three and eight inches below the patella, with first degree burns extending to second degree burns at the ankle. The boot may have shielded the foot, but it still suffered carbonized areas on the metatarsals

Reports continued:

2) The program has decided to keep the same naga nearby to see how much it could help in aiding recovery. When I come out of the sarcobox each week it is waiting to bite me. The first time it was unwilling to bite and seemed confused. But repetition has taught it what is expected. This naga seems to have very active venom glands and can be milked of a further 4 – 7 ccs of liquid after a bite. The engineers are collecting that for analysis. The lab analysis results appear to be controversial, I have been unable to obtain copies of the reports of what it is injecting into me, as they are classified beyond my level.

3) The naga’s venom has continued effective. I have had no infections and very little pain. There is a continuing sense of unreality from the psychoactives it is injecting into me.

4) I have discussed the narcotics in the naga’s venom, wondering how the naga can moderate the combinations and dosages. The dosages seem to vary wildly. The euphoric effect is pretty nice but I can now stay awake for short times and would like to be able to work lucidly!

5) The handlers have come up with a set of sound-based stimuli that may influence the composition of the venoms. We tried them today. It clearly soothed the naga’s nervous reactions to unexpected noises in the hospital complex.

6) The narcotics are less noticeable, but now I am more restless. My healing is going well, itching like fuckall and I’m usually glad to go back into the sarcobox when the awake session is over. The naga seems to recognize me each week. When Richards brings it in, it comes straight to the side of my box now.  It sniffs my face, down my injured side before it bites. Sometimes it will lick my fingers. I assume this is increasing its familiarity with the health and condition of its subject. Richards says “they will do that sometimes.”

7) Today the other naga was brought in. The sniffing process took much longer, and it kept pulling away just as it seemed to be ready to bite. Eventually it did.  I received a heavy dose of narcotics from it and have not been able to make this report for several days.

8 ) The original naga def. shows a sense of familiarity, and I felt much better seeing it. It vocalized musical notes and insisted on holding me and purring after the bite until I went to sleep under the narcotics. I understand it resisted giving me up until I woke up and spoke to it. It objected to my going back into the sarcobox for further recovery. We (Richards, Algrew and I) assumed that it was displaying an excessive attachment to me until it lunged past them and bent the sarcobox latches and broke it. After the engineering staff arrived, checks of the equipment confirmed the equipment was tampered with, it had been maladjusted to the point of danger to the patient. The naga was hostile to the Richards team and only accepted the new crew (Matheson and Framme) after I was awake enough to reassure the naga. This meant they had to stay with it overnight in an unsecured area, because it did not accept their authority enough to leave me. Matheson tells me that it did not appear to sleep and flared up with fangs bared when Richards or Algrew approached. I am uncertain what set off its defensive mode so strongly. One possibility is that it smelled something it objected to on the sarcobox controls, or that it saw the controls looked too different than it is accustomed to. Their visual memory is quite adequate to support such rigid ideas of “right” patterns.  This makes clear how serious a combat deficit it is, and how impractical it is for daily care, to keep them incapable of language by blocking their language centers.  Priorities in the program do not support the current policy.  Given the level of secrecy in their creation and deployment, justifying their status as animals is lip service to irrelevant legal code.

fashion shoot, Mr. Benoit modeling quilted jacket
quilted jacket

9) I am awakened daily now after the broken box incident, even though some days the naga does not sense a need for biting me. I understand this naga becomes unruly unless it can see all its patients daily, not just myself. It can become dangerous if kept late in its confinement area. It is not hostile to Algrew, the injury to Algrew today seems to be an accidental collateral to its breaking one of the doors. The use of a cattle prod or stun gun are not compatible with its capacity to handle electromagnetic forces, including the ability to reverse the polarity and stun the handler. Richards has been warned about this property before. It is also no surprise that it bent cell bars and damaged magnetic locks when escaping. The surprise is that it did not retaliate in any way when Framme arrived to return it from my hospital area, and accepted its regular harness as always. Matheson said he would see their schedules rearranged to accomodate its needs. My recommendation is to make allowances for a patient-healer bond of some sort, and whenever possible keep one naga on any particular case.

1.a) Torso: Final sloughed tissue removed from the deepest burns to the right dorsal and ventral torso, mostly on the external oblique. Second degree burns are healed on the right rectus abdominus ventrally. Skin grafts have taken and muscle grafts show rapid progress in reattaching to blood vessels.

1.b) Right arm: The brachio-radialis and pronator teres grafts are prepared in storage, awaiting inveination on bone grafts on the radius and ulna of the patient’s forearm. Second-degree burns are healing well. No grafts were required for the metacarpals.

1.c) Right leg: Muscle grafts for vastus lateralis and the vastus intermedius respond as fully healed, as does the sheath of the so-called “sciatic nerve”. A small spot on the femur has not fully healed and reinveinated, but appears to be progressing well on scans. The patella remains unstable, mostly from soft tissue damage, and the joint will require physical therapy to strengthen surrounding quadriceps muscles to anchor it more securely. Both tibia breaks have bridged and reinveinated, but require further calcifying reinforcement for strength. Second degree burns above the ankle have healed and do not require surgical intervention. Metatarsals have been grafted and show good progress.

Reports continued:

11) The naga has vocalization capacities beyond musical notes. I’ve been in the habit of saying “here goes” just before the bite. In this most recent session, the naga initiated physical contact (put its paw on my good arm) and repeated my words back to me: “Here goes.” The first time was almost subvocal, but it repeated the same words much louder; both Matheson and Framme heard it. It also likes the music that the nurses play for me when I’m awake. While I could, I initiated a play session with it, much as I would toss a ball with a dog, given my limited mobility, and it responded with some virtuoso tricks with its prehensile tail, apparently to entertain me. It clearly responds when I am amused, and when I laugh, it will smile back and touch me. At one point it turned to a nurse and barked a blurry noise, pointing its tail tip, trying to get her to correct a misadjusted bandage on my foot. She was so flustered by this she left without doing anything, and sent in another nurse instead. I am afraid I fell asleep with it curled up in a chair by the cot I use when I am out of the sarcobox. I have no excuse for this, as I could have called to Framme to take it back. It was a very careless thing to do with such a large and powerful creature in a relatively uncontrolled environment, as Matheson was quick to remind both me and Framme.

concrete bathroom with stainless facilities and skylight
simple to clean

12) Today I suggested to Matheson that playing music of their own choice in confinement may calm the nagas. He informs me that their quarters are merely concrete walls and unnecessarily bare, noisy, and sterile, which he stated is completely incompatible with the required enriched environment for animals of such advanced intelligence and curiosity. Matheson wants to bring materials to test their capacities more fully. When asked why these tests haven’t been administered before, I received no satisfactory answer. I understand General Wojo is in hospital for advance cancer treatments, and no other officers available at this time are familiar with the program. Matheson tells me that any officers who were senior to Wojo in the project appear to have retired or been assigned to other areas since I was injured. He tells me that most of the zoomorphs in the program were euthanized, only a few were retired to the care of their handlers at home, or assigned to civilian work, such as bomb dogs. He also says that there is a court of inquiry to be convened on what to do with the project’s remaining very dangerous lines, such as the Bagheeras and Shere Khans and of course the Nagas. He says the Baloos have all been destroyed due to concerns over their unstable temperament. I understand that the only reason the two nagas remain awake in confinement is the need to complete my own recovery, as their other military patients have been released. Framme says that the nagas handled it fine when they got to sniff the recovering patients and watch them prepare to leave, or when they were allowed to view the deceased. He said he had to take the other one to sniff the bedclothes for a patient who had died while Framme had other workload demands. He said it vocalized quite a lot, wailing, but allowed him to take it back to its cell. Even dogs understand good-byes.

12) Matheson is furious with me. He gave the naga a few test puzzles while I observed, on my final day in the facility, and it yawned at him. Apparently these toys are the only ones they get, and it is bored of them. I had to ask it to play with the toys and demonstrate what it could do for me. It took the SOMA puzzle and twirled it about into place and about five seconds. It has clearly had hours in which to tinker with the solution and had memorized it. So with the other toys, which totally spoils the results for any reasonable intelligence tests of the same sort, as I agreed on with Matheson. After it licked my fingers, it gave a howl and flopped down on the floor and refused to move. It did not want to bite me. It watched the nurse packing up for me, getting me dressed, and when I was in a wheelchair, it got up to go with me. They had to wheel me down to the confinement area to get the naga back inside. I was angry at the conditions, as Matheson had warned me I would be. At least they’ve kept it clean, but Matheson warns me that even that may break down if somebody doesn’t take control of the program and do something in time. As with simians, once you take on a creature of this complexity, you have to insure care for the rest of its life. I am afraid my objectivity is completely out the window.

13) Matheson called me in my quarters at the convalescent facility. He says the nagas need to be taken out of that hospital facility, it’s being decommissioned for lack of funding. When I asked if he had found somewhere else to put them, he said he himself had been assigned elsewhere, with a workload that did not permit him to take any more time for rescuing them. He urged me to find something for them. I made a few calls when I felt stronger, urging that the military medical authorities look into providing a refurbished simian compound for further study of the nagas and their venom adjustment capabilities. The problem of course is the time frame; nothing can be done quickly unless somebody in authority has a strong motive. Matheson’s absurd suggestion was that I smuggle them out of the facility and onto one of the family properties to hunt like some kind of wild Bagheera. He says they would adapt, but he was not privy to the kind of programming and failsafes built into them. They are totally dependent on people and will seek them out. A slender chance is the option of holding them in trust for future military uses, after General Wojo’s general releases into my records–something that after the recent political purge swill certainly not stand up to a court martial challenge. My calculations of the security and shipping costs and construction of a reasonably secure facility is within reach of the family, if they all took my word in trust and voted in support. This is unlikely. It will take too long to satisfy the conservatives about the risks of disastrous accidents. The safest thing I can do for the creatures is to put them in cryostorage while I attempt to develop funds sufficient to satisfy myself on a secure living space for them. It is tragic that the potential for lifesaving treatments may go down forever under a mercyman’s trank gun.

corner hole to sky by Torre Del Homenaje
view of sky, wood architecture by Torre Del Homenaje

14) I had enough support among the remaining officers from the program, with Matheson’s help remotely, to get assigned cryostorage bins for the nagas. They will be secured among similarly classified zoomorphs, so less noticeable, and perhaps I will be able to gather support to retire them correctly if I can show I have a facility and staff capable of handling them safely. I have started visiting the nagas three times a week, to accustom them to my handling, and to make sure their care has not deteriorated during the facility’s decommissioning. It has become necessary for me to bring them food and water personally. They have learned to clean their own facilities, and wait patiently as I come and go, which amazes me still. I will keep them awake as long as I can, and put them into cryo as late as possible. It will be a long time before I can gain enough family support for such a facility myself. As with the government, the family’s conservatives are running the show currently.

15) I put them both into storage today. The lizard-break activated just as planned on the tail, leaving a fairly long stub that should resorb while providing extra water, minerals, and calories for extended survival in storage. It did not help me a bit to get very drunk afterward.

16) Have shifted the sarcoboxes into different storage facilities twice now. Each time, this is because somebody’s been tampering with other boxes, opening things and leaving things poorly adjusted afterward. Cheap equipment used on other zoomorph cryostorage units is beginning to fail already. Politically things are not going well. Some of Wojo’s junior command officers have been convicted on court-martials and taken to prisons which have a bad reputation. So have some of the civilians, although the only charges could be brought against them in civilian courts were made up in retroactive laws. It’s unbelievable we would waste effort in this kind of savagery when we all know bug swarms will be back again, and probably soon.

17) One of the naga sarcoboxes was cracked open and the beast is stolen, and there was no time safely in the facility to pick up evidence.

17) Well, the fruit of the military projects I didn’t know about has come crashing down on us all. Illegal black market labs have been selling things no damn fool would ever dream of. I’m too far away, and too late, to wake up the remaining naga–for which I would need considerable help–and get it to my wife’s side. Besides, civilian medicine hasn’t been told about bug-style sarcoboxes yet. They may never be. The people who knew this were all killed, purged, re-educated, or tortured to the point of insanity. Secrets, always the secrets.

face of Noemie Lenoir, photo by Russell James
photo by Russell James

17) Matheson advised me to get the hell out three months ago, and he correctly predicted the failure of the current political coalition. I have been unable to contact him. I likewise advised my juniors to go to ground however they could. I’m going to the aid of Susan Lewis, to pop both of us into transport boxes, as she requested. She says she has a way of getting out the remaining naga, and in the face of all possible common sense, she tells me I will see it again. She warns me I may not remember any of this. I tell her that’d be a blessing. I’ve killed enough zoomorphs, and trained enough other mercymen to do it.

Dragon In The Fire

He’s sitting flat on the ground. His head is empty. His allies have fled, blown towards safety on the magnetic wind he made for them, and he hasn’t felt this alone in months.

Honey and machine-oil stench precede the division of mindless once-men chittering in frequencies he no longer hears– his hand comes up to finger the bloodied side of his head where ragged flaps of his scalp still cling.

His hand reloading his guns is slippery with blood, smearing the gunmetal. The transport vehicle lies at a crazy angle, half of its turret blown clean off– where are your extermination frequencies now, stupid American? and half of someone who was his comrade hanging out of the part still attached. There’s no button to push.

The insanely over-complicated bugs, modified at horrendous expense and trouble, and so very fragile in the field– they are winning, in the same way ants and wasps and termites always win– by throwing more and more of themselves at their goal, without qualms or thoughts of the waste, the expense. The poppy fields down the slope are the same color as this battlefield, green ichor and red blood. This field will grow beautiful crops next year, blooms redder than blood, pods oozing their bounty for hurt or healing.

gold and purple poppy seedpods

He turns his weapon towards the glittering beetle-things and pulls the trigger as soon as the first rank comes within range. The bullets thump into the carapaces and explode, destroying their hydraulics if not killing them outright.

Something that looks like a mantis unfurls itself, rising tall amongst the shorter bugs. Drin swears, scrabbles, swings his gun towards the thing, knowing it’s beyond his range– the folded claws open up and fire launches itself at him.The blast catches him along his right side, and he’s grateful that he’d swung the gun wide and to the left– but then the pain hits, and he can’t remember what to do with the thing, watching his own body sear and self-destruct. If he screams, he can’t hear it. If he could call the bees back he would, to his everlasting shame.

In all of the unbearable noise something louder makes itself known. Something rhythmic, a helicopter. Overhead. Drin sees the halo of its propellers, and something silver tumbling out of the side hatch. His eyes are not a part of his body, which is made of pain and nothing else, but his eyes, separate from that, track the unfurling streamers and ethereally glittering tail of a Naga. It’s beautiful.

Fire rains down from the sky, washing the bugs away in jets of billowing filthy smoke. The Naga lands, seconds later. Drin knows he’s screaming when it scoops him up, arms equally tight around his unharmed left side and his flayed right, and drags him up into the sky.

It doesn’t speak. It doesn’t spare him any agony, doesn’t try to soften the swing and bounce of the harness that is dragging it back up to the chopper.

bee bas-relief on silver floral figures, cigarette case
bee cigarette case

It looks right into his face, with those intelligent gold-coin eyes and the sharp planes of its golden face, and he knows that all of its considerable odd abilities are focused on him.

Such a very human face, for what it really is. So heartbreakingly, achingly human, peering down into his screeching, black-edged agony.

He knows, a breath before it moves, what it is going to do. When its mouth opens wide, he just closes his eyes. He doesn’t even feel the fangs sink in, he doesn’t know where.

He just feels it shake him violently, pulling free, and then he pulls a breath into his seared lungs.

His body flashes cold, and then he loses the feeling in his legs, and then his hands are dead, and then praise God in all Her Infinite Mercy, the Naga’s venom is shutting down his burnt body, the charred ribs cracking in its strong grip, and he’s spiraling out into darkness, emptying away like glittering sand from an open palm.

Time to Rest

Emma sits herself down in the sarcobox, carefully pulls the netting into place around herself. She leaves one arm free, in order to to pull the prep unit into place and fits the upper part of that arm into the shining band of the gripper.

She can just flex far enough to flip the lever. The thing hums faintly, and her left eye sees the shining column of a syringe move past, feels the delicate bee-sting as it lands in her neck. Perfect, it’s hit the big vein exactly. She waits, feeling the ambient temperature going up– that’s because, she knows, her inner furnace is banking. Pretty effing stupid, to set oneself up this way, actively participate in freezing oneself. But Emma’s bones tell her exactly what’s going on during every second of the process. She feels confident in that at least– even if the world is falling into sand in every other way, this box will work this time, this once.

Dispassionately she judges her own paralysis. The second injector makes its presence known by sight and sound. Emma lets her eyelids fall closed.

Comfortable, baby? says the voice. It’s a long ride. You make sure you get comfortable first. I’ll wait. We got time.

Who are you?
There is no one left with the clearance to be in these rooms.

Oh, me? I ain’t nobody who matters, you know, when you’re counting heads for doorlocks and guards and brass-type folks. They don’t need to know. People forget I’m here all the time. You can call me teslamomma, if you like. That’s how you wanna get in touch later, after we both retire, baby. Boy, I been looking forward to this for such a long, long time. You and me, girl–we gonna go to concerts, we gonna go eat ice cream and wear straw hats and frilly white dresses and laugh and laugh until we hurt, baby. You just wait.

Who are you? Emma demands, with her hand coming up. But there’s the prick, and the hiss of the third injector, and her arm doesn’t move.

I’m the momma of your new memories, I’m gonna make you a new person, somebody besides Wojo’s best gal Friday. A nice job, but a bit limited in its future prospects, you gotta admit. Well, they all like to pretend upstairs that it’s all done clean, by some computer, but it ain’t. I just don’t tell ’em I never did need all that shiny stuff. It’s all human, that’s me, that’s me having a conversation with you, talking about what you are, what you done, what you think about why you done things. It ain’t gonna be any nicer than giving birth. It’s messy and it hurts and if you’re lucky it makes you very happy when we get you all cleaned up. But you won’t remember it, done right. You’re just gonna be learning a new job. You’re gonna love it, I know you will. And some day we’ll meet for lunch, and we’ll laugh a lot. I promise.

And don’t you worry none about your pretty little naga, I got him safe too. He’s a sweetheart. There’s a boy whose momma raised him right, not like some of those poor motherless babes died in those damn boxes. If they can’t trust nobody, then I can’t help ’em, I just frighten ’em, and I don’t wanna do that. You lay back easy, gal, you in good hands, you know we got your boy too. We gonna take him home with us too, don’t you worry. You been working so hard, girl, your corns got corns. You just lay there and take the load off those dogs for awhile. I got both of you, nice and snug, and we goin’ for a little ride. You might hear some noise, that’s just my little private freight elevator, down where nobody know we get them deliveries going out. You safe with me, baby.

sleeping woman by John Buckland Wright

But– Emma starts to say, but her mouth only opens on a puff of air.

Oh, girl, you ought know better than anyone, tons of stuff those fools don’t know about happens down here in the pipes, where they never come visit. Trust me, you safe. We know all about you and the things you done, getting help to people, making sure those troops get what they need, get them home in one piece. WE know. You safe. Get some rest now, baby. You got time to rest now.

Strings for Cases

Barret’s got a cracked old plastic keyboard across his lap, rocking, and stroking the keys, silently playing, totally unable to hear the ancient electronic speaker, so he doesn’t even have it turned on. He’s playing it like he can hear every note, rocking his head in concentration.

Dance feels more than sees the precise way Barret is handling the keys, feels the way the notes would sound, could he hear them. On that thing, with those settings, it would sound much like the toy Shoenhut piano Barret loves to use for its strange tinny effects. He asked about it, when Barret was telling him about his layering harmonies, composing.

Roll Over Beethoven, done barrelhouse style.

Dance lifts his chin in the air and he laughs.
“Strings, you need strings,” he tries to say, “vibration. Strings.”

It is not clear anyone hears him. Toy pianos, he recalls, don’t have strings either; they have tines, the hammers strike inside, like a xylophone; he saw the harpist Judy Loman play one once, when she did The Crown of Ariadne.

Dance’s throat feels raw and wholly alien, as if something, someone else had been using him for war-cries, for shouts to knock houses down. The strings of his throat have been abused beyond use, in the same kind of flailing and flapping and whipping of trees that are happening all around the old house where he lies. He can feel the wind currents eddy and crash on the rocks of the hills all around. God, he could fly on a wind of that strength.

He doesn’t want hammers, hammered notes. He feels like he’s been hammered on the inside.

“Strings,” he says again.

And this time Barret’s hands go still.

Dance sees his profile, the half-smile, there’s a terrible gravity in it.

“You’re back,” he says, “you’re awake, the other guys are…Emma’s exhausted, and Drin, man…look, I think you better rest a bit, okay?”

“No,” Dance gets out through his throat. “Case. Open it.” Dance smiles. “All locked in boxes, we gotta open locks…” knowing that Barret must read those words on his lips.

Barret puts the keyboard down, scoots across the blanket on the floor–Dance catches a flash of fringe, orange and scarlet. Leans over him, again with that awful serious half-smile.

Buddha smiles, reclining
Buddha smiles

Barret’s Notebook

“All the stuff Auren gave me,” Barret says, “the first part, it was all numbers, man.”

“Ahh, then I have for you the right guy. We have Drin,” Dance says, without bothering to exhale. His abdominal cavity feels as if it’s been explored by merciless hands. Someone working his major trunk muscles straight through his guts, he thinks hazily. A wobbly, newborn feeling. Whoever did it was good, but damnably quick, and definitely no foreplay.

fountain pen writing music notes on staves
writing the music down

Barret shakes himself, lifts first one shoulder, then the other. He waits for a lull in the wind. “Notepad in my duffel,” he says. “Hang steady, man.” And he gets up, and Dance smells the cracked mud on his boots, the old, compliant leather.

“Emma was talking,” Barret says from across the room in a voice modulated to carry quietly, “Emma was talking about Locatelli.”

Dance mouths the word, with the wind rising again. “Right.”

Barret’s squatting next to him, holding out a little notebook, a funny little flip-top Moleskine full of blank staves.

“You brought that?” he says, more lip-reading than sound, with a wheezy laugh. “You work places everywhere!”

“Be prepared,” Barret replies solemnly. “Found sounds, man.” He speaks at a deeper pitch that carries under the wailing of the air ripping at the roof, without thinking. Dance waits for whatever flapping tar-roof sound is caught in Barret’s mind.

But the guy pauses. “Dance, man,” he says, “You can’t actually move to work, can you?”

But he can. The tail-tip rises and plucks the notebook from Barret’s fingers, a glittering loop of bright blue and green, happy and sparkly and cascading with interference surface effects, all colors.

The Numbers Man is Back

“Numbers?” Dance asks in an almost-voice, and there’s a lull in the wind, he can hear his own rasp, surprising and deep.

“Jesus, Auren gave them to me, yeah, numbers…” Barret closes his eyes. “It’s hard. They’re in there, but–” and he gasps, suddenly, “what if I can’t–” the wind eases down a degree more.

“Stage fright,” Dance gets out, then, gravelly, grinning. “Be easy, they’re in your underpants, yo.”

Barret laughs, and then he does it. He starts pulling them out of his ass, God knows how. It’s a chant, as solemn and careful as Tibetan throat-singing, modulated on multiple notes, with a weird little echo as the wind sounds on harmonics of his voice. He has to repeat some of them when they’re hard to hear. Dance asks him to repeat, he has a need to hear the chanted note, not just read the number he gives. Dance points at the things written by tail, goes over it twice.

“That’s it,” Barret says, then, in another lull, and shakes his head like a dog, blinking.

They look at the notebook awhile in silence, while the storm tries to rip off the siding, and the pressure on the joists and studs shivers through the floor. Dance lets the notebook in his tail-tip grip drop to the floor a moment and he coughs, feeling the sore belly muscles protest. It feels like he’s got junk building up in his lungs, junk that his sinuses hate, it’s too packed up to get rid of it.

There’s a brief lull, long enough that Barret hears Dance cough. Looks at him, worried.

Dance is gravelling out, scraping loudly as a truck on a bad road. Dance sees the heads of his lovers pop up; Emma curls back up in her coat, and Drin rests his head in his hand in his chair, blinking. Drin has the abstract distant look, maybe he’s coming from a very long way away, pulling all those fragmented bits slowly together as he comes, but he’s back.

Dance only gets one good long look at him, relieved to see that much, before he’s too busy controlling his own body. Slow down that impulse to thrash and to struggle. Just cough, let it happen, don’t avoid how it hurts, relax with it. Like riding the wind down to the lull, so you can talk.

He hears Drin moving around. “I’m bringing you things,” Drin says in the lull. He marches up at Dance with a wad of tissues, and what’s left of a glass of water, with a straw in it.

Dance manages to lift the notebook up to a decent height with his tail, and the other man swoops down to catch the notebook, so Dance can forget about that and just get on with trying to clear his lungs. Dance feels another spasm of it coming on, and he turns his head to one side, awkwardly, and lets himself do it, lets it hurt his belly, to get rid of the junk.

Drin holds up the notebook, waving it, eyebrow hoisted up. Barret nods, and Dance’s tail makes a flipping gesture, like a hand waving, for him to go on.

“The numbers man,” Dance says hoarsely, in the next lull, and he sees Barret smile.

Barret makes an eager gesture at the markings, urging Drin to look at it. Drin scans down the page and he frowns at it. Dance knows that look, too.

old curtain at frame with cracked paint
wind coming

Dance waits, listening awhile to the howling of rain. The stronger gusts go tunneling by at a speed that may blast paint off the walls. Amazing noise. He wonders how Barret might use it, in one of those not-so-random compositions, because Barret’s got his head cocked listening to that, as if he’s taking notes mentally on it. Dance is tempted to say something about the wildly modulating notes he hears on the wind, but he leaves it, to avoid distracting them both.

Then Drin looks up, and waits past a squall. In the relative lull afterward he shapes his lips exaggeratedly, not loud but clearly, so his words make sense to them. He says, “Well, there’s several things it could be. The most obvious code that occurs to me is either squaring or taking the square root of these numbers. They’re all even numbers that make nice tidy square roots, like four and sixteen, and so on. We could try that as a first sortèe at the code layering involved.”

“Why do you think it might have multiple layers of code?” Barret asks softly.

Drin looks at him. “This is Auren we’re talking about who set up at least part of it, right?”

Barret sighs. “Point taken. He likes to be careful.”

Drin accepts the pen. Quick, precise, down the list he goes. “There you are.”

“In your head?” Barret stares at the rapid scribbles in his notebook, and hands it down to Dance.

Drin just gives a shrug. “Lots of practice from work. I can’t be more help when I don’t know what those numbers apply to. Their meaning, in a code.”

Dance frowns. “Notes? Bars? Köchel numbers for Mozart?”

“They look like K Numbers to me,” Barret says, blinking. “Yes, they do. You’re sure Emma’s right about the Locatelli connection? He doesn’t have K numbers.”

Dance is sure, and says so.

“Do you know them?” Barret asks. He yells into the start of the next gust then. “I mean, what the K-number and the actual Mozart piece are.”

“No, but Emma knows,” Dance says. He smiles. “The numbers woman.”