“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.”
“‘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.