The Play of Not Quite Composers

“It’s locked,” Pen says, “because it’s dangerous. This instrument is deadly dangerous.” Certainly, Dance thinks, Pen looks nervous. “Often–” and he sees it again, a cloudiness, evidence of a secret,in Pen’s face–it’s like finding a secret door where you don’t expect one. Even if the door is locked, Dance thinks, you’re halfway there, because you know that nice, sturdy wall is a sham.

Dance shifts up onto one elbow, pulling himself forward out of Drin’s lap, shifting his weight around on the floor.

Pen starts again. “Often we were obliged to sandwich programming down inside very ordinary cognitive functioning. What we learned–” again, the eyes flash to Dance–“is that music was the best delivery system for the programming. It gets down below the consciousness structures; you can pattern with it, you can even change tissue–”

Change tissue. Dance looks at the coiling, color-changing mass of himself on the floor. Looks at his hands. Shivers.

“Each programmer–well, odd birds, you know, maths and music, you needed them both. Some brilliant composers–” and Pen nods to Barret, and for a second Dance feels something else, something less guarded–“not a drop of the right background in maths.”

“‘S true,” Barret says, reflectively, “I am not a math dude. I don’t even carry cash. And I’m a Mac user. I do all my sample editing visually, and then use my ears to tweak it.” He shrugs.

“Right,” says Pen. “Right. There were not so many. There were very few. We weren’t really composers. Maybe you could call us failures.” The word is harsh, and seems to strike Dance between the collarbones. “We were…not made right, I fear, we programmers.

“Be that as it may, you can identify our handiwork. Lord, you can! Even today. And by all rights I should be able to tell you the name of the poor bastard who gave you your skin, lad. But I can’t. I lost my memories in the Cell. Some of us loved Hindemith; one loved Brian Eno; a goodly number of us loved the Baroque composers, and one of the only bits I’ve got straight in my head–”

There’s a lull in the storm. The room has hushed, attention from all corners fastened on the voice and its unplaceable accent.

“We had a loyalist contingent. Mad for the Baroque, just mad for it, and how they’d go on in the commissary, about the storage capacities. What could we do?”

And he’s turned around to face Dance. He’s furious. He’s furious, Dance thinks, with me.

“What could we do about it? We told stories. We made games. We made you.”

Drin, at this, gets to his feet.

“Howell,” he says.

Pen’s face darkens.

“Howell,” Drin says again, softer this time, “please. Please help us. Then we’ll go. As soon as the storm lets up we’ll go. You won’t–you won’t see us again. Barret might need–”

“For God’s sake,” Pen says. “For God’s sake, you’ve no idea, not a single idea, what you’ve brought into my house.” And he looks at Dance. “You’ve brought this to me and asked me to help you finish it. All right. Let’s finish it.

“The last wave of Deltas were all musicians. Had to be. You needed–you didn’t so much need the music as the propensity to music, sets up the brain, certain basics very strong. Not all the Deltas were players, but they were musicians all, and if you are wondering if I remember you, I do. I remember you. I remember it went hard, with you.”

There is a ragged sound, Drin’s breathing, and behind that, almost lost in the rattle and wind, Emma’s voice, almost a sob.

“Hard with him how?”

“M’dear,” Pen answers lightly, “better not to ask.”

“Hard with him,” Emma says, rising, “how?”

Dance can’t get up off the floor, not yet. His tail moves. The tip of it rises, lightly touching Emma’s hand. “Let’s finish it,” he whispers.

“Right, m’dear,” says Pen. “We’re almost there. Almost there now.

“Eventually we learned to key the instruments. Even when the Deltas were not players, they needed the instruments to–to scare all that information awake. This one–well, this one’s for you. It will kit you out with the rest of you. S’all in there, in your bonnet,” and he waves his hand, “the whole business. Locked into your genetic structure, neat as you please, no piggybacking, no bioalloy data carriers, oh no, thoroughly organic. That’s what made the Deltas special, what made them nice.

“But you had to be careful. You put the stuff in the song, then you put the song with the sound, that’s the two-part lock, and we used those, too, in those dangerous days. We tried, at first, pure sound waves–” he gestures at the keyboard sitting on the blanket beside Barret, “the funniest thing–it wanted strings. Strings. Any would do, as long as they vibrated. Cannot program a modified person with a harmonica, and you can bet your skin they tried. Budgetary constraints.”

Drin makes a sound, then, a rumble in his throat, which is abruptly echoed by a low boom that makes the panes rattle in the window.

“It’s getting rough again– we can be up here, right?” Barret says then, watching the window.

“Sure,” Pen says, sounding suddenly remote.

“You’re saying,” Dance says then, “that this viola comes from before.”

“It does,” Pen replies, quietly. “It’s been waiting for you, all this time.”

He smiles. The smile is just a fraction too bright.

Unlocking Secrets

“There’s a little fluffy business,” Pen says then, “with maths. Isn’t there? Set of codes? Codes and rotations–Ah! Locatelli. You reverse-engineered the song, didn’t you, from the findings. Show me. No, first the numbers, then the tune. The–this is daft. Who did this?”

“Auren Han,” Barret says, “and his friend.”

Pen lifts his eyes from the instrument case to stare.

“Auren Han didn’t lock this case,” he says flatly. “Couldn’t. Hasn’t the wherewithal. This friend of his–Army background?” Dance senses the intensity behind the light and almost careless tone.

“I…don’t think so,” Barret says, his voice subdued.

“No,” Drin says softly and clearly from behind Dance. He nods once at Barret; there’s been a conversation, clearly, at some point when Dance was off chasing the music of the spheres or something. He has suspicions of a vague wisp of a Mozartian giggle, and the rest of his dream, or whatever music he was hearing instead of their voices, is gone. He hates those dreams. Always the fairy gold promises of something wonderful, and then, when he wakes up… nothing.

Barret, a real composer, says, “Auren mentioned that his friend said he studied under Goethe. We’ve no idea if it’s literal fact or not. He can be…very metaphoric about things. Elliptical. His… laboratory… is certainly…” he waits for a wind gust.

“We didn’t usually mess ’em with all the locks,” Pen says, musingly. Dance feels it again, incremental release of tension, as Pen scrubs at his beard and runs nervous fingers over the case. Just for a second, he’s forgotten, he thinks, but what Pen has forgotten, what haunts him: Dance is not sure.

Dance’s memory throws up a sharp whisper that fits nowhere, something heard at that point when his body stopped shivering, body core temperature failing, thrashing uselessly against dull nonreflective walls in the freezing box. Sarcobox dreams. Whispers, by no one he knows.

Worried men, whispering in haste over the sarcobox lid that will be opened after all, in the end, by somebody. By conspirators to murder.

It can’t be redone. They can’t close the case and redo the same thing again over and over. I’m not sure if it can be locked at all, if it’s just flattened back to a cardboard case, or if it has to be rekeyed every time it’s opened.

I don’t know, I told you I didn’t!

Doesn’t make sense, if the programmers expected the naga to use the instrument regularly to retune the mods. They bound the brute to the tusk in it the very first thing.

paper sculpture man on dragon
Man Riding Dragon

We must give the cloud larvae another binding object to fill that void.

Another voice, not as worried. Then your picador command has to hit when the viola case first opens. If the kernel-panic doesn’t do it, then our man could just tell the target to push the button himself. Add a secondary picador to take the target out later on, at some simple trigger. You can work it out. This might be just abstract enough to tempt our man. No big fuss. “Push the button” is my favorite thing, sounds so harmless. Yes, I had forgotten that we’d discussed that. Now, I don’t know why you’d be nervous. You were the one who said it was perfectly safe, as long as this old box holds that beast just inside hybernative temperature, but not so deep it can’t take the pic.

The first voice, bitterly angry. It doesn’t try to kill you every time the liver function is allowed to clear toxins.

A laugh. Not yet.

Pen gives a whistling sigh. “Got your list of numbers?”

Barret cranes his legs around, gets up, carries the Moleskin notebook over to him. Pen looks at it. Flips pages. Looks at the staves full of Locatelli, scribbled and blotted and hasty, with scratched-out bits and a few revisions in pencil. “Pretty tune,” he murmurs. For a moment Pen stares upward, blinking, and then his lips move, and then he scrubs at his face, and sighs. “It’s been so long.”

Dance rests both his forearms on the floor, turning onto his belly and dropping his head into his hand, stretches his spine, feeling the root of aching tail muscles reaching into the muscles of his floating ribs. Probably it’s just the atmospheric pressure changes, but things ache in weird places. He feels Drin’s hand, broad warm palm, smooth along the base of his tail, up into his lower back. He sighs. God, the touch feels good.

“Right, here are the numbers. Your–K Numbers? So and very so. And heeeeere’s the Locatelli correspondences, dee, dee, dee…” He frowns, and drums his fingers on the side of the case, and suddenly Dance hears a gentle resonance, a not-quite-echo.

It’s coming from inside the viola case.

Dance hums along with it. Can’t help it.

Then there’s pain.

Freezing hot pokers shooting up from the core of Dance’s pelvis through the top of his skull. It is so intense that he grovels on the floor, clutching his skull. “Gaaah,” he gasps, flattening himself, while the floor spins around.

Drin’s hand grabs hold of him, and that helps. Dance feels one of his heels kick out, his leg muscles seize, and then he’s loose again, gasping with his cheek on the floor as if he’s got a hangover.

“Christ,” Emma says, and she’s right there next to him, both hands on his back. Too close. Dangerously close, if he has more muscle spasms.

He scrabbles at the floor with one hand. “Get back, oh–oh please–” there’s the next soft ringing from the case, and Dance hears himself give the sound back, and then little pained whine of astonishment.

“Your mad scientist boyo rearranged a few things at the molecular level, in this case,” Pen says lightly, and hums, while Dance writhes on the floor. “Hang on, I’ll have it open in two ticks.”

Dance’s back arches up until he’s on his knees, with his mouth wide open, and there’s Emma with her staring wide eyes looking right into his face. She’s gripping his head.

She is right in front of him, hanging onto his neck, and then dragged down onto his shoulders, and he’s arched past her, pushing upright onto his feet with the triangular prop of his tail, and then he’s standing, with her arms looped round him like a necklace.

That’s when he feels Drin’s hands on the small of his back, bracing him there, holding him steady. If he is screaming or not, it doesn’t matter. They know he is.

Pen’s long fingers are splayed wide on the battered black leather. The viola thrums, a long, mournful note, unholy pure.

“That’s it,” he says.

Dance feels himself loosen, and he’s going to go down–but Emma has her feet under her, and Drin pushes at his back, and between them, they keep him braced up on that tail. The end of it writhes and it coils and it wraps around Drin’s legs as if it’s going to squeeze down on him, frantic, but instead the tip curls up onto Drin’s neck, and it hides behind his ear, and it hugs him, terrified. Drin turns his head, and he kisses the twisted coil gripping at his chest. Dance groans.

“Jesus,” Barret whispers.

“Right,” Pen says. “Here she is. Have a look.”


Pen does not have unlimited power.

Power to protect from harm, Pen thinks, is a dreadful thing. Because that power has an edge, it has its limit, it can only extend so far. You protect–

You protect yourself, Pen thinks, with bitterness. You protect yourself.

Games down. Noises off: This lie, he understands, has only gotten him so far. The only one I am trying to protect from harm–the only one–is Pen.

The house, Tree’s house, buffeted; Tree would never stand for this, he thinks suddenly.

Tree protected friends, strangers, animals–

Tree would not permit this to occur.

–Well, but, it is very likely too late, Pen reasons. Too late to help them. Too late to control the trajectory. Deltas–

Pen is abruptly reminded of an ancient voyage, a trip out to the El Cerrito DMV, a bleary-eyed early morning so many years and years before he ever heard of Deltas, the men who invented them, the men the Deltas used to be. Some unimaginably distant business of auto registration.

All his life ahead of him in the parking lot; and somehow decided right there, standing there, when he put his name on the vehicle registration, the whole life, round and coherent like a piece of fruit.

Deltas, he tells himself firmly, are not people. They are designed. They have failsafes, vulnerable to pica codes. Organic machines: say the word and they all collapse.

You can’t be dwelling on that abomination, that horrible loss. The human, overwritten.

This one, he thinks, is just under a misapprehension.

–The sequence: whispers in memory, that’s the worst of it, it’s already in him, that’s what the killer saw. It’s not like Pen has to be prompted. It’s not like Pen, through the scratched lens of imperfect memory, doesn’t know what he’s done. Already done, to others of precisely this kind.

A dab hand at the death deal. Prompt and friendly, like a good dealer.

Cashing you out.

–The trio of modified abominations: queer, how they have sorted out the snake, holding him more or less upright, and young Barret looking back and forth from them to Pen, his eyes slightly wild.

The snake with the funny new name shuffles forward. He looks at nothing but the viola, still pulsing almost inaudibly, a movement of atoms Pen is quite sure the others cannot feel.

“Well, and how it goes, my dears,” Pen hears himself say. “We did push the last generation awfully far in the direction of performance. By the end we found it expedient to make them musicians, rather than simply musical. We pushed them all further along that spectrum. But you, my friend, were an experiment. You and the other one.”

“Hyphen,” says the snake, strangely. “The other one.”

“I heard the other one was dead,” Pen tells him. “That leaves you. And this your instrument.”

–Now it comes.–

When the Devil Drives

Barret is hungry. Ravenous.

He realizes this in a bewildered rush, watching Pen breathe with his hand resting on the now-open case. When did he eat? Did he even eat?

The whole house vibrates. Dance, who looks green-seasick and is literally undulating back and forth (it takes a village to support that crazy tail) is reaching an unsteady hand towards the case.

“Finish it,” Pen whispers, in a dry, snakeskin voice.

Collard greens, Barret thinks, suddenly. Shrimp boil. Absolut vodka shots; why am I hungry now? What a stupid time to be hungry.

Dance, Emma’s hand on the small of his back, he’s picked up the bow. Rosins it, with shaking fingers. The room rattles and is silent.

Dance picks up his instrument, and the sound comes, and Barret immediately understands why he is hungry: he is alive, and life, right at this moment, is perilous.

It’s perilous.

Dance plays with ferocity. It’s Locatelli, but mirror-universe Locatelli, because Dance is playing every ornament with a funny emphasis, flattening the intonation, refusing to indulge anyone’s fancy, and the notes, Barret thinks, are like peaked roofs in a Dresden cityscape, each, large and small, worked at precisely the same angle, an almost fractal sequence of similar shapes.

He’s carrying out a piece of code, Barret realizes, and with each note almost identically weighted, he’s producing something close to pure aural texture.

Dance nods, and Barret shifts the notebook pages almost as fast as he can read it, holding the little thing braced on the table where Dance can rely on seeing it when he looks up. He’s half-reading, half-remembering what he wrote, and sometimes not looking at it at all. He’s a drillmeister; Dance keeps up the same steady pace he started with, although his arms are moving in tight, tired arcs and he’s breathing in long, dragging gasps as if he needs an asthma inhaler.

There’s a strange harmonic to this viola that Barret’s never heard before, and the overtone is getting stronger as Dance tires. Dance is a powerful athlete of a musician, and it’s not that long a piece, but it’s beating him up with its metronomic precision. His fingering is a little strange, a little tense. Dance is never going to make his way through the passage with the dreadful thirty-second notes if he’s fighting like that, but he’s not lagging on the approach one bit.

It’s like watching a jet lumbering toward a wreck, and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, anybody can do about it.

Barret watches sweat beading at Dance’s temples, rolling down his neck. His face doesn’t change at all as he dives into a scissoring set of opposed and falling notes. His face, Dance’s face, is a perfect blank.

It’s not the Baroque face: Barret knows that face, knows that stillness well. It’s not the face of a musician triumphantly herding home a wickedly beautiful piece of music that he has dreamed, inferred, midwifed into being. Barret knows that face too.

And it really isn’t the face of a guy being eaten alive by his own music, which is sort of what is happening with those mind-boggling 32nd-notes. Then he thinks: oh ho, maybe it’s already happened, boyee.

Very funny. But seriously, there should be something going on there. Come on, Dance: A big goofy grin. Something. But it’s hard to concentrate all of a sudden. Goddamn it, he’s hungry. He’s starving. Barbecue ribs, blackeyed peas, bacon, coffee…shit, turn the page, concentrate…

roof dome tile mosaic
perfectly repeated motifs

What the fuck is happening to Dance?

During the final several measures, the sort of matched-pair evil weathervanes spinning on top of the Dresden roofs, way up at the very top of the piece, something goes tight in the cords of Dance’s neck. There’s a snick of indrawn breath. There’s something new in Dance’s eyes– an inner membrane– and something horribly missing as well.

And Pen is moving. A blur. Barret had no idea he could move so fast.

There’s just a rush, and Pen is on the other side of the room, hunched and picking himself back up. Although Dance has stopped playing, the bow that Pen tried to wrench from his hand is just returning to position.

As Barret looks back, trying to understand what just happened, a thin line of blood begins to trickle from Pen’s nose down his upper lip. And there is a patch of white on one cheek that is just beginning to color as the blood rushes back into the area.

“Don’t,” Pen says, “don’t.”

He’s talking, Barret realizes, to Dance. Who doesn’t seem to hear him.

“Hypnogogic stasis,” Pen says, wheezing a little. “You’re in it, understand? Keep playing, you’ll go in deeper. That’s the preparatory state.”

“The what?” Drin’s voice. Quiet, but penetrating, cuts through the orchestral texture, Barret thinks.

Drin turns his head only briefly toward Pen. His eyes have gone flat and weird too, looking at Pen, his great big hands open in the creepily relaxed posture of someone fully prepared for destruction. It’s not like Drin at all. It makes Barret think he’s going to sock Pen back the other way across the room, or reach over and wring his neck.

“Built into the Deltas,” Pen says steadily, staring at Dance, “the way we controlled them, see.” Emma sucks in a breath, her face white and furious, but Pen interrupts her. “My dear, it’s cruel. It’s all kinds of unimaginably cruel. We could not let them be truly free agents.”

Dance, still holding the bow, viola still raised to his chin, makes a sound in his throat.

“You will,” Emma snarls, then, “stop referring to Dance in the bloody third person, like he’s not even here. He’s right here! Talk to him! Say your piece to him!”

Pen looks startled for a second, then grief-stricken. Too much, Barret thinks; Dance is too much for him to take. But Pen nods, and walks, slowly and deliberately, back to Dance.

“Right. Right. The lady,” he sighs, “is always right. Dance of Knives, you are a Delta,” Pen says. “By the time you invoke the final modifications, with your viola and with your own voice, you will have placed yourself in the preparatory state. Fundamental instructions can then be imparted by your handler, failsafes.”

“Like the guy in the Manchurian Candidate,” Barret hears himself say. “The one that got programmed to kill.”

There’s an awful silence.

“I,” a voice says. Dance’s voice, but more. And less. “I am a musician. I will not– I play. Music. Not– No. My lovers– I… want me back.”

“Yes,” Emma says softly. “Remember what I said?”

“No matter…how big.. a dragon, you… you… it hurts, Emma…”

“You don’t understand,” Pen says simply. “You can’t let him go any further. Not without tossing him into hypnogogic stasis. He’ll be… dearest, he’ll be nothing but programs, at that point. Nothing but–hah! semantics.”

“Bloody, evil bastard!” Emma is white with fury, her face wet as rain.

He nods to her, his eyes wide and full of understanding. “Yes, well, I am that. If you want to kill me, it’s only cosmic justice, after all. I’ve been trying to kill you since you got here.”

Barret feels his Moleskine falling from his hand. “Pen?” he whispers. “Jesus. Pen?”

Pen turns around and gives him a grin. It’s ghastly.

“Estelle, don’t you know. All her life, and never a moment’s peace, until she found me. What would you have me do? Hand her over to Turner? It’s your fault,” he says suddenly, shouting, and now he is talking to Drin. “Your fault. You brought this in. You got Turner’s attention. You waked the whole mass of them, and now they’re in the woods, they’re in the storm–and they’re in my house. Tree’s house. You are the source of all this ruin.”

Emma, her mouth a thin line, begins to cross the floor, but Drin stretches out a hand, touches her, draws her close. Drin is rocking a little on the balls of his feet. That face, Barret thinks, he looks like an old man. He doesn’t even look at Pen. “Dance,” Drin says softly. “Dance, you okay?”

“I. Was made, I’m– what? Not a person.” Dance’s head turns towards his lover.

“You’re you,” Emma says fiercely. “You made yourself. Remember? You named yourself.”

“It’s a wash, dear,” Pen says, rather sadly. “He’s stuck halfway, and it’s terrible, but if we go on–”

“If we go on,” Drin says quietly, “what? What did Turner ask you to do?”

Pen laughs, as horribly as he grins. “Ask? Oh no, there’s no asking. There’s a nice card at Christmas, and you have no choice. Not if you love anyone.”

His hands flex. That awful, glazed, inward gaze suddenly flickers. “No. It’s right you should know. I’ll tell you. Because you are Navarre. Because she is who she is. Because Barret-lad will never have breakfast with me again, if I am silent. Here. This is how it works. It’s all in a name. Isn’t it, darlings? Five notes. A special intonation. Code rings in the breakfast cereal, eh, Barret? Five notes to sing, spread across his name. Then I tell him to kill you.”

“And I do?” Dance asks hoarsely. “And I do?” Dance turns toward the man with slow decision. “If you hurt. Mine.” he hisses. “Won’t– won’t forget. What you did.”

Pen shakes his head. “Well, see, lad, you would forget. You do forget. It’s the one thing I know clear as air. You’d have done it, yes, and her, too, very possibly. Done it and then gone, erased. You would lose even your loss. Even that… Only I broke the spell,” and Pen’s eyes are wild, “and killed the princess.”

“I won’t let Estelle die,” Drin says then. His face is almost gentle. Pen wrenches around to stare at him. “Christ, Howell, don’t you talk to anybody? Remember you have backup? Pen,” he says, using his first name, Barret thinks for the first time, “we’re not going to let her die.”

“Can you stop him? Turner? Navarre, have you gone mad? You think you can stop him? Do you even know where he is? Because he knows where you are.”

“Well,” Drin says then, “I’m tired of running, anyway. We’ve run enough. I give you my word that Estelle will not come to harm.”

Barret, almost against his own will, starts to laugh. Well, he’s seen a few kings, in his time. They don’t do this lightly.

“You want Turner to leave you alone? So does Auren Han, and I assume that’s no small resource,” says Emma.

Pen makes a choked noise in his throat, shaking his head.

“You,” Emma says, slowly and clearly. “You have to help Dance. You programmed all these Deltas. You understand.”

“Ahh, but, Pen, you don’t know what name to use,” Drin says coolly. “His old file-code name won’t work. He’s been desensitized to it. He doesn’t answer to it. Broke it off inside him, as he puts it.”

“Then the failsafe code is jiggered,” Pen says. He looks at Dance. “If it doesn’t work, there won’t be a you.”

“Dance, darling, ” Emma says, and Barret feels a rush of fear, watching her hand lift towards the beast; “could you just hold off for a moment?”

Dance blinks at her, and the membrane slides across his eyes. He tilts his head oddly as if he’s scenting her. It’s not– Barret has seen zoomorphs, he knows them. He knows and trusts Dance. This is nothing he knows.

But Dance does lower the bow. It could be coincidental, for all Barret can tell.

Pen reaches across for Barret’s little midi keyboard, taps out the positions of notes on the keys. “There, and you’ll have to figure out which tuning system for the instrument–”

Emma puts out her hand, and then Drin is right there too, blocking view of Pen, putting up his hand in front of Dance’s face as if to let him scent on that instead.

Dance’s nostrils flare wide.

“Put the bow down,” Drin says quietly, and makes them all suddenly and horribly aware that in Dance’s hands, that thing is also a weapon.

Dance swings his right hand wide toward Emma. “Take.”

“Good,” Emma says, touching the bow. “That’s good.” She pries it, ever so carefully, from his stiff hand, and Barret tries to remember how to breath again.

Dance holds the viola out in his left hand toward Drin, who lifts it gently out of his grip.

“Now, ” Dance says, head turning, eyes focusing again on Pen.

“What are you going to–” Emma says.

Dance’s head lowers slightly, and his tail rolls into coils, and then he’s pushing Drin aside as if the big man is merely so much featherweight. He shifts forward with most of his weight on the surface of the tail, feet touching down, apparently for balance, now and then. Then he stops, only his toe-tips on the floor, looming over Pen. “You killed…many… with your codes. Many of me.”

“I gave you life, as well, I gave you your abilities–”

“Oh god, you did make the Delta Nagas. You made them. You utterly evil–” Emma gulps for air. “They didn’t work. Oh God they didn’t work, we only saved twenty of the white ones in human form from that last warehouse, oh merciful Christ, I remember–”

“You… made me?”

“I don’t know how much of you I created, with my research, I don’t!” Pen cries out.

“You won’t kill me… Mercyman.” Dance turns his head as if it were on a gyroscope. “I have a name. They know– my name. Drin knows it.”

Drin leans forward, looking at Emma. “I could try it, try the notes. But there’s no guarantee what it releases. It could be a kill switch of several different kinds, couldn’t it, Howell?”

“It could make him his own creature forever, and also a shark frenzy in my house,” Pen says, staring up.

“Uh, dudes?” says a thin little voice, and Barret recognizes it as his own. “I don’t think it’s so precise anymore, he’s reprogrammed himself, playing under his new name, all these years. I would guess.”

“I wouldn’t trust that,” Pen says.

“I will trust Barret,” Dance says in that odd flat voice.

There’s a silence. One of those breathless, airless pauses before all hell breaks loose.

And then Dance is singing the notes himself. Singing out his name, on five notes, in Korean. Barret has no idea why he’s so certain it means Dance of Knives, but he is.

Dance tilts his head back until his throat shows and his head is tipped onto his shoulder muscles. He turns with blind accuracy. He lifts out his hands toward both Emma and Drin.

“Here he is, waiting for it,” Pen says, gasping. “My God, both of you. He has rewritten himself. Unique.”

“What kills the kill-switch? You don’t want Turner giving Dance’s orders,” Emma snaps, grabbing Dance’s right hand. “We want to free him, make him own person!”

“Give him back to himself,” Drin says, and takes the left one.

“Tell. Me.” Dance sounds flat.

Emma doesn’t wait for Pen to struggle past his tics. She grips Dance’s wrist.

“You are autonomous,” Emma says, slow and clear. “You will chose the codes you want. No input is a command. Your next command code will filter all input channels.” Then she looks up at Drin, and blinks away tears, and she says, “Remember I love you.”

Dance’s body gives a little shiver.

“Good,” Pen gasps, nodding at Drin, who repeats it. “Now the notes again–”

Dance lifts his head upright again, blinks, sings the notes in a clear, smooth voice. Then he gives a little shudder and a series of five strong s-shaped curves and streaks of brilliant colors run down his back, down through the tail, the last one ending with a little burst of interference rainbow at the end. Open-mouthed and blinking, he sags down onto his knees, shaking his head. “Shit, that felt weird.”

Emma strokes his hand. “Do you remember what just happened?”

Dance nods. Then he looks up, and smiles, and frees his hands. “Pen,” he says. Dance starts to laugh, a great loud roaring laugh, and the end of the tail whips around with a little zzzzipping noise, and then he’s holding Pen Howell in a wrap of about four coils as effortlessly as a kitten. Dance brings him back closer to the window, tilting Pen gently to be seen better in the cracks and edges of the light that come through. “You look ill, Mercyman.”

“That’s right, I’m dying.” Pen, for some reason, is smiling.

Ahh, Barret realizes then. It worked. Nothing much has happened, on the surface. Pen is delighted they’re all still alive.

Dance the quiet little musician is back with them, smiling a fierce, angry smile. “You know Naga venom. Better than anyone.”

“Of course–”

“You know… we can learn. The venom glands can learn.”

Pen stares at him. “I didn’t know that. So few of your series lasted long enough to learn anything.”

Barret winces.

The very tip end of the tail comes up and wraps around Pen’s skull in a familiar way. “I can… smell it. Cirrhosis. Not just from drink. From the old lab toxins.”

“We all thought we’d never die,” Pen says, almost too breathless to be defiant. “Just get on with it!”

“Cats… play,” Dance murmurs.

Emma cries, “Dance– No!”

“Do you know… what Medusa venom is like?” Dance says, and his voice is deeper, suddenly full of timbre, and the eye membranes snick open as he leans over Pen. Open.

Pen wheezes, staring upward in horror. “Yes, by God.”

“Did you make Lacey, too?” Dance asks, like a cello sounding melancholy notes.

“No!” Pen says.

“How many… did you kill with your own little hand?”

“I don’t know! I lost so much in prison, in the Cell, I cannot testify to it! I am sorry, by God I am, for the failures that we had to put down. I am resigned to my guilt over that, and I am most sorry to see any living thing in such pain.

“Ahh,” says Dance. “Drin?”

“Yes, love,” Drin says.

“Were you one of these killers too?”

“Yes. I told you I was one of the handlers. I do remember… killing some of the failures. Mercy killings, yes. Then I came out of retirement to deal with insane black market creations, the failures who attacked people.”

Dance nods once. Then he cocks his head oddly on his neck, looking at Pen.

“Did you know… that a really old Medusa can also learn to modify venoms?” Dance says.

Pen says, “No, I– I never guessed Lacey– It’d be a mercy, I suppose.” He sighs and rubs his eyes. Pats the coils wrapped around his chest. “A favor, yes.”

“Yes… wouldn’t it,” Dance murmurs. “Which is why I’m not going to do that.”

And the tail slides loose, props Pen up against the wall. Dance shifts away. “I’ve got a good taste of you now, Pen Howell. I can try biting you later to cure some of your problems. I don’t know that it will fix much of the old scarring and damage, but I can do something.”

“You can’t fix everything, lad,” Pen says.

“He just offered to help you, after you tried to–” Emma says.

“Of course. Military advisors added a late change order. Make the Nagas know weaknesses in their prey. Needs safety backups. Of course it backfired. The regular cloud Nagas wouldn’t envenom to kill except at direct threat. Something to do with making them musicians, we thought. Only used venom to heal, to give mercy, to sedate. Can’t assume anything about Black Ops versions. Too many secrets.”

After–” Dance looks at them all,” –After I play the viola correctly. I still need to– finish unpinning stuck bits.” Dance shifts around in figure-eight loops on his tail back to Emma. He settles down onto his feet, leaning back into the tail like a prop. Then he sighs, kisses her wet cheek, and takes the bow from her. She hands him the viola too, and a chin-cloth from the case.

Dance leans back onto his tail a moment, wipes off his face with the cloth, and folds it onto the chin-rest. Then he lifts the viola to his shoulder, looks at Barret, and says, “I was so stupid tired I figured Auren and his buddy would give us this correct tuning. Even tone, I assume–Locatelli must have used that late in his life. Fifty per cent chance coin toss, yes? What was I thinking? I should have stopped.”

Barret looks at him and smiles. “I’m not sure you could stop. There’s several different tunings it could be, if it’s just another code. But Locatelli himself, he’d have been only eventone or meantone, right?”

“Meantone, yes. Should have started that way,” Dance says. Then they both look at Pen, who has folded up until he’s sitting on the floor at Drin’s feet, head bowed in apparent exhaustion.

“Christ,” Emma growls. Then she looks at Dance, and beckons with her hand, and when he steps into her and kisses her again, she’s tugging on his hair. “God, Dance, don’t ever give me a heart attack like that again.”

“It was not deliberate,” Dance says, and kisses her face near the corner of her eye, where water is leaking out. “Don’t cry.”

“Tune your bloody viola right,” she says, gulping, “while we can still hear ourselves think.” They can already hear the high wailing harmonics starting to whisper from the roof; the air is starting to move again.

Dance settles the chin rest in place with the cloth, pauses, looks at the cloth, frowns. “I’m wondering if this is part of it too,” he says, and sniffs the cloth. “How odd. It smells like… me, but just a little different. Bigger.”

Emma leans in, sniffs it, makes a surprised face. She says, frowning, “It smells nice to me.”

“You know, I believe that instrument first came from another naga, an earlier one who lasted some years– partly natural mutation,” Pen says suddenly. “It was retuned for you.”

“Right,” Dance says, with a sharp look at Pen. Then he jerks his head aside, and resettles the instrument, and starts plucking strings and adjusting pegs.

smoking barbecue grill food
Roasted Garlic Too

He pauses for a moment, frowning at Barret. “I could just murder a burger. Milkshake. Mmm.”

Barret looks at him and starts to laugh. “Pizza, nice big piece of apple pie, some nice hot coffee–”

Drin smiles. “Bacon and eggs, second the coffee vote–”

“Sushi,” Emma says firmly. “With fresh sardines and crawdads for you, Dance.”

Dance nods, and plucks again. “Mmm. Beignets with cinnamon.”

That’s when they hear the chimes downstairs ringing out.


collaborative effort from the newer edit, coming out of the googledoc version in “All Together Now”