“Hey, Estelle, how the hell–” the tourist-looking guy asks. His sandy brown hair is short and neat and graying at the temples. “Next rest stop, can I take another look at her? Dr. Caleb Greene. I’m the local vet, sort of.” His mouth twists in a wry smile.
“A vet? As in doctoring cows and chickens and–” Somebody turned the weird knob up a little high. It goes up to eleven! giggles the hysterical voice in the back of Marcel Roi’s mind, and he tells it to shut the fuck up.
“Yeah, in my spare time, when I have any. I’m an MD. Mostly I come here for people who look like Estelle, or who just turn into fun things,” the guy says. He shoots a cautious look at Kim standing there, like he’s looking at a cornered carnivore, but at the next stop he moves to Estelle’s side anyway. He flips out a little penlight from a pocket, checks her out in a matter of moments, then approaches the oddness that is Dance. Dance waves him away with an impatient gesture, so he turns and confronts the two agents.
“We have to get out of here, seriously. There’s more of those goddamn insect things headed this way.” His head swivels, suddenly curious. “And what’s with the bees?”
“Friends of a friend,” Dance’s tall husband says. He points. “Look, they’re back, checking things.”
“Bug stink?” asks the wife, Emma.
“Yeah, and they don’t like it.”
Hal snorts, Jack the bull gives a huffing chest noise, and Dance nods as if they’ve spoken words. He says, “I’m good, let’s go. We go fast. Big jump in local chatter on the bug channels. I’m slow but as you see… I have a few tools I’m still getting used to… so if I have to stop, I can try to slow down the bugs for you.”
“Really,” Kim says.
“Well, I try,” Dance says. Everybody’s swapped around positions, taking different tasks to tire different muscles. People brace up under the load of his tail, Jack the bull gives lowing noise, and Dance straightens up. For a moment he staggers under the weight of his own torso, and he pants, clearly in pain. Then he starts walking, with Roi bracing him at one side for awhile. It’s awkward, and Dance is struggling to keep everything balanced. Sometimes his legs simply don’t do what he expects, and he lurches, pulling Roi with him.
“Christ,” Kim says. “What good is that thing, anyway?”
“I get all the girls.” Dance grins, mouth still open, panting out big breaths.
“All that work for sex appeal?” Kim is smiling. Not a good sign. Roi’s only seen him grin like this when it was getting gnarly. Jay Kim gets happy in reverse order to the gravity of the situation. Ought to use him like a maglev train, but it’d take a nuclear exchange to work, for Chrissakes.
“You okay? Not hurting anything worse?” Caleb asks the bird woman, up ahead of them. He tucks Roi’s large jacket around her, pulls the hood up over her head, as if he’s bundling up a child.
“Put me down, leave me here,” says the bird woman, in a thin, soft voice. “He’s right. People need help. Just leave me here if I’m slowing things down.”
“We’re not running off!” says Kim, angrily.
“Fuck that!” Caleb says simultaneously.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she says. Her leg feathers all look crumpled, crushed, pushed around the wrong way, some of the longer vanes are broken off, and she just ignores it, if any of it hurts. Caleb had put some bandages on the worst of her cuts, at one of their hauling switch-overs, but one of those is starting to leak again.
Then Kim lays down the rules. “We’re not leaving civilians behind to get bug-chomped.” He glares at Dance. “You, either.”
“Been fighting — them– longer than you,” Dance gasps.
“How do you know what we…” Roi protests.
“I hear your device. I know all your voices.”
Right. So, on-the-fly code parsing was just another one of those built-in mods they gave Dance, huh? So, hey, it’s arguable whether Dance should be considered a civilian, given that he’s listening to bug chatter on radio frequencies or something. And who knows what he can do if he gets pissed off. Apparently he doesn’t even know for sure.
“Can you talk on those frequencies too?”
“Don’t know,” Dance says. “Seems reasonable… to build in transmission too… But my ignorance… could give away location… to bug troops.”
“Yeah, just like this damn IRT could be doing,” Roi says, and wipes rain out of his face, squinting back behind them.
Dance says then, between long deep breaths, “Awesome warriors, bugs. Just… lack… reproductive… discipline.”
“What?” Roi says.
“Too ambitious. Make too many soldiers. Draws… attention. Use up… their resources… too… fast,” Dance is talking as if he desperately wants to pass along what he’s figured out. Just in case he might not make it back to the house with them. “Sloppy brute force now. Not skilled. If they develop… more effective tactics… less human wall, more targeted skills… they will be… ”
“Stop talking shit and march,” Roi snarls. “Right! Left! Don’t fall over! Right! Don’t pull me over either! Ri-iiight! Left, right!”
“Who knew you ever did drill?” says Kim, and he’s grinning again.
Another thing that Kim will never, ever let him forget. “Marching band in school, man, gotta do that cadence. ‘Granny’s hanging on the outhouse dooooor!'”
“Your timing is off,” says Dance.
“So is yours!”
“Yes, sadly– it is. How many verses… do you know?”
“Fuck, I dunno, I’ve forgot half of ’em,” Roi says.
“I remember,” Dance says. “But no.. breath.. to sing.”
“Ain’t it always the way?”
“I am a lot… heavier than… I used to be. Getting tired. I will… get used to it…”
“No if, there,” Roi says sharply in the guy’s pause. “Don’t you do an if on me! No goddamn iffing. No ifs on this hike.”
Dance smiles, and pants. “Okay. No ifs.”
“All right, you gotta climb through this mess now. Christ.” The trail of flying bees is very clear. Roi keeps an eye on the woods while Grace and Emma lift Estelle’s weight off the horse’s back and carry her over the heaps of wilting trees, while Drin and Caleb are clearing a passage for the horse and bull. Then Roi watches Dance pick his way through the tangle, shoving aside tree branches to clear more space. The tail is carrying most of his weight, looping and coiling and shifting around like a sidewinder crossing a pile of sticks. And when he comes down on mud again, the tail uncoils and takes an active role, prodding and prying and supporting–rolling, from loop to loop, at a diagonal, just like a damn sidewinder.
Roi scrambles across at the same time as the four-footed weres are threading their own maze. Dance’s tail tip comes up to brace him nicely, as he sprawls down about eight feet from the last branch. It feels like a really strong grip of somebody’s hand, but there’s about four feet of it grabbing him.
“Thanks, man,” Roi gasps.
“Likewise,” says Dance. Then he says, “One moment… I try this rolling thing. Ow. I think I dinged it… near the end, when we hit the tree. Ow. Okay, no rolling down onto it any further than –” and then he’s shifting along on the tail itself, sidling around more branches and sometimes over them, pushing off in little bounces with his feet, like he’s helping out the tail because it’s tired too. “Okay, I go… as fast as I can this way… Let you switch off with Drin.”
Roi says to the women, “Can you keep an eye behind us, while I spell you on carrying her over branches? Caleb, can you be ready to grab her if the bugs break cover?”
The doctor nods. Hell, he must be good at it, he’s here, in one piece. He’s breathing hard too, it’s obviously a really good time to give him a break, if they don’t get ambushed first.
Then it’s all just slogging. Slog through crooked piles of broken branches, slog through mud up to your knees, with broken drowned animals, where beached fish are scattered off at the side of the ponds. Slog uphill on the dry bits as the ridge humps upward out of the swampy levels where the rain has been drowning frogs. Sometimes little dense squalls blow up out of the thick ash-gray sky, and it rains on them. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not that warm, but the air is so thick with humidity than they’re all dripping with sweat, including the guy in the snakeskin.
Oh yeah–and then biting, stinging bloodsuckers come down in clouds. Mosquitoes, whatever. The bees aren’t bothering the party of people, they’re hovering now about equally between Dance and Estelle, zipping back and forth like they’re damn passenger pigeons carrying messages. The bees could be intimidating away the mosquitoes, that would be useful, but they’re not even slowing them down.
Roi can see knots of the damn things clustered around the bleeding cuts in Dance’s hood and on his legs, on Estelle’s cuts. Goddamn carriers of West Nile virus and yellow fever and God only knows what, out here where some of the people were made blue, or scaled.
The doctor tries to keep the bugs off Estelle’s injuries, waving his hands in quick, impatient bursts and swearing a steady, quiet stream of profanity that ought to be enough to cauterize the wounds of the injured and flash-fry the swarms of bloodsucking insects. Dude sure didn’t learn how to swear like that in med school.
Roi almost laughs, and then a snaky tree root catches his toes and sends him face-first for water that’s probably contaminated with enough stuff to keep a team of scientists busy for a year. Dance’s tail whips up with an amazing zzzipp-noise, and catches him just in time–and Dance isn’t even looking at him.
Dance turns his head. “You okay?”
“Thanks, dammit. How did you–”
“I heard yelling,” Dance pants, resting a moment.
“Christ,” Roi says.
Dance smiles. “I am learning… many interesting new… rude words… from the nice doctor. I did not know you could… do things like that… with a Rundle faucet. Is a prolapsed uterus… part of a cow?”
“That can happen to any mammal,” Caleb tells him gravely, taking a moment from his stream of profanity to deliver this information.
Roi starts laughing. It’s slogging worse than any boot camp he’s been through–where he did very nicely, thank you, in spite of the insults he gets from Kim about his “rather dojo-bound academic martial arts” and his apathy toward firing ranges and all that. Slogging. Next to a guy with a snake tail, pursued by people with claws like fucking lobsters, it’s got to be the most surreal hike Roi can remember. He switches off with Caleb twice.
“Hey, honey, it’s just me, Doctor Caleb,” says the doctor. “You’re all right, sweetie, don’t kick me, goddammit. Ouch, fuck, Estelle, hey, hey, calm down now. It’s all right. Talk to me.”
She has long odd bluish bare toes, and claws for nails.
“Christ,” Roi says, but not loud.
“Keep… walking,” Dance says. “Tell him.”
“You’re as bad as Kim,” Roi says.
“But we are being a good bad,” Dance says.
“Was that a joke?”
“Yes. Small joke. Still needs mother’s milk.”
A woman’s voice speaks quietly, saying something to Caleb, who replies, “Yeah, I see that. Okay. Dance, what was it that bit Estelle’s arm here?”
“Me. It changes, from what I smell on them. Give her what she needed to lose pain… and rest. She smelled tired… Days… of tired.”
“Oh, just lil ol’ me the guy says, son-of-a-goddamn… What kind of pain, do you know?”
“Not just depressed,” Dance says. “Something more. Minerals… not right. I smelled it at Lacey’s… Fozzie’s… on zoomorphs… doctor said they had weak bones.”
“Fuck, what I’d do for a good lab,” Caleb says.
“Talk to Lacey,” Dance says. “And my husband Drin… at the house. They work with a lab. I gave them venom… to protect from bug attack… stop bug germs. Lacey’s people… know bug bites will rot like monitor lizard bites.”
“Holy fuck,” says Doctor Caleb.
“You do not know… Fozzie or Lacey?”
“Just like some kinda legend, that’s all. Fuckin’ hell, man, people are so afraid to tell anybody anything. Like they can hide the furry long ears on the kids they bring to me. Like I don’t have a set of fuckin’ eyes in my head.”
Dance gives a little panting laugh. “I am not… exactly… easy to excuse… now.”
“No shit,” says Caleb.
Roi says then, “Yeah, what the hell happened to you?” He’s about to ask more, but he knows better. Stay out of your own way, on the questions you ask. Don’t assume. Don’t give the answers. Don’t resolve the tension for them.
Dance laughs in little panting breaths. “I came unpinned. I guess this… is what I was… but… packed up. Hey, I’m so lucky, me, a human! No idea, me. But I unpack. I come apart, the tail grows, it hurts. Up at the house… Pen’s house… I find out… military labs made me. I am… made.”
“Just like Estelle was made,” says the doctor hiking in the swamp, bitterly. “Or Ruby, or Hal, or– goddamn military labs. Fuckers. And now, whatever the hell they were playing at, they just walked away from the mess they left. Gene-eng germs, hell, spray it out in the swamp, nobody will ever know why there’s weird shit mutating out there. Nobody’s business, now. And those goddamn bugs? Those are kidnap victims. Those motherfuckers used to be regular people. Swear to God. They never got asked. The black market labs are running the show. All over the swamps, all over the Third World. Fuckers.”
“Save… your strength,” Dance says.
“Why fucking bother? I’m angry about it all the time!”
“You will… need it. Many, many people need help… at the house. Many.”
“Oh Christ,” says Doctor Caleb. “I wonder how many zoomorphs ended up in a regular hospital.”
“Christ,” Roi repeats it. He says it a lot, on this little hike.
Caleb says, “You remember last time we talked, Estelle, you told me a little bit about where Pen found you, when you were lost. You were going to ask about where you got found, why that lab was making bird-people.”
“I didn’t,” Estelle says. “I got afraid of talking to people I used to know. Strange things started coming out of those woods. Pen doesn’t like it. He gets afraid if we draw attention up here.”
“Can’t blame him for that,” Caleb mutters. “So did anybody ever tell you anything about your condition, about what the lab was trying to do when they made you–”
“No,” Estelle says, and shivers. “Later on, if Pen found out, he didn’t say. Nobody wanted to upset me. They thought I might break. I don’t know, can people break?”
“Yes,” says Caleb.
Estelle points at Dance. “Look at him. Look how weird he looks, and he’s not broken, he’s not giving up. They thought I was afraid of him, half snake. Like I would be afraid of anybody for that, like they’re just an animal! He tried to make sure I didn’t get hurt.”
Definitely gets the label, ‘manic-depressive, will run off into traffic,‘ Roi is thinking.
“Estelle, you don’t have to be broken. You still have a choice, whether to fucking give up or not. If you don’t want to be broken, fight! We’ll help, if we can, you don’t have to do it alone.” Caleb pauses. “What were you afraid of?”
“Bugs,” Estelle says loudly. She puts her hands up over her ears. “They talk where you can hear, sometimes– I can hear them now, just like Dance said. But I’ve been hearing them, every few days, for weeks. I heard them, they were guarding somebody who came to visit us– Pen met with some leader of theirs, in the Back Forty on our property somewhere, like he was negotiating– maybe he thought he could keep them away from us, but I could hear them–”
“Ahhhhh fuck,” Caleb says. “Ahh fuckin’ hell and damnation with little tiny screaming naked Popes on ropes. Ahh, dammit, Estelle, you were right to be scared. I’d be scared to death too.”
Kim says then, “Is there any point in trying to reach Pen’s house, if he has allowed the bugs entry to the property?”
“He couldn’t do it without Iscen knowing,” says Caleb, sharply. “Estelle, you tell ’em. No way she’d negotiate with anything like what we saw back there behind us.”
Dance says, very loud, “I am going to the house. Come, or not. I am. Going. With. My. Partners. To. The. House.”
Roi chuckles a little. “Yeah, we got that.”
“All those people,” Caleb says. “They’re gonna need help, if there’s bugs inside Pen’s security already.”
Dance says, panting hard, “It’s still raining. The bugs are still… flooded…heading to higher ground. No point… in staying outside the fence… no matter what is… happening… inside.”
The IRT clipped in Donahue’s pocket crackles. Identifying numbers come out of it. Roi flips it on where it is. He chuckles. “Boy, you guys are sure lost. Better get to high ground, it’s flood time.” More squawk of outraged numbers, which he ignores. He pants, climbing through another pile, ignoring demands.
“Report!” squawks the IRT.
“Nope, no way. We had our fun about three klicks back, slowest three klicks I’ve ever hiked. Love your new friends. Now we got other new friends behind us, squawking all over the UHF bands. They can hear you, too. Just a friendly warning, your buddy Pen maybe tried the good old Vichy approach to governing France. But we’re bee-bound anyway.” And he flips it off. “Oughta throw it inna swamp, make sure the bugs don’t track us by that.”
“They wouldn’t call if–” Kim says.
“Yeah, yeah,” Roi says. He turns to Dance. “Hearing anything new from the bugs?”
“The bugs found your first kills. Or maybe from Cesar and Aaron… hard to tell. They got upset… Modulated up range… similar to two keyboard… octaves.”
“You mean, they’re screaming,” Roi says. He takes a moment to look around behind him in a long, careful scan, memorizing how the shadows look. He’s on guard at the drag end of the parade.
“Yes, they are,” Estelle says sharply. “Blasting it out, amplified. They were never that strong, each on their own.”
“Some higher-level troop organization,” Kim says, swinging around.
Estelle says, “I don’t know.”
“Yes,” Dance pants. “Feeding signals too.”
Dr. Caleb makes a revolted noise.
“Good to know,” Kim says, and smiles. “We… let’s say I left ’em some funny dust on the first few bodies, kind of a field experiment. If it works, knock ’em down a peg, all together.”
“Christ,” Roi says. The next stage will be Jay Kim humming to himself. Back there, when it was getting ugly, Kim was singing his little verse of the day, doing the same line over and over.
He said it helped him with his timing on blowing apart bug carapaces. Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug–“ boom!
Kim said primly, after he’d used up an amazing amount of ammo–and very little of it wasted–that it was very satisfying, blowing things away. Some days Roi wonders if his partner is bugfuck insane. Other days he doesn’t have the luxury of wondering about it.
“Amen,” says Dance. “Your friend Kim…”
“Very glad you two… found us. Very.”
Roi looks at him. “You’re welcome.”
“Aaahhh, maybe I goof off, I let… you guys… do it all,” says Dance.
“Yeah, right,” says Roi, remembering the way the man snarled like a leopard when he volleyed back that bug shot. Sure. Point him at an actual bug, see what happens.
“Until you run out of ammo, maybe,” Dance says, glancing up, grinning.
Christ, it looks just like Kim, that look. Then Roi says, puzzled, “Hey, Caleb, what was that bit about tiny naked screaming Popes?”
“In hell,” Dance adds. He smiles.
“Where they fucking belong,” Caleb grumbles. “So I got a little political.”
“Just wondering,” Roi says. “You’re a very violent man, aren’t you? You maliciously rescue lost puppies and kitties–”
“People,” Caleb growls.
“Huh,” Dance snorts, and both of his partners chuckle.
“Yeah,” Roi agrees. “I call bullshit. There’s no way you’d walk away from hurt animals.”
“If I was people, the way you are,” Estelle says in her soft voice, “I would not mind so much.”
“Fuck, Estelle,” Caleb says, “if I was people the way you and Dance are, I wouldn’t mind being people like that, not one goddamn bit. Dance saved your life, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” Estelle says.
“And I’ve seen you work your ass off, trying to help people, before you got so depressed. This is an illness, Estelle, we can work on it.”
“Dance can’t bite me every morning and fix me, like he did today,” Estelle says.
Dance pauses. “Hell I can’t,” he says, panting. “We’ll figure out… something.”
Caleb says, “We’ll figure out what’s in his venom! You’re not the only zoomorph who’s got this serious, serious illness, Estelle. Dance can help you, maybe we got something there can help other folks too, and I want to help out folks who weren’t as lucky as you, for Chrissakes!”
“You’re missing a few goddamns, shits, and naked popes in there,” Dance’s red-haired partner says.
“Naked popes don’t shit, they’re so tight-assed they just pass holy water,” Caleb snarls.
“You know,” Roi says, “I think our nice Doctor Caleb is really a werewolf, he just pretends to be human.”
“Oh no, werewolves are much more polite,” Estelle says, in that astonishing mild voice. She’s breathing a little hard too. “They have strict rules. Social packs. Like dogs or coyotes.”
“Hey, I can be polite,” Caleb grunts, “just as soon as I have the time and space to fix some of what’s fucking wrong with you all. Field medicine makes me ornery.” He’s looking at Estelle’s broken feathers, then at Dance’s crumpled streamers.
Dance turns his head, and one of those streamers fallen down on his chest twitches, struggles. He puts up one hand and stills it. “I can smell old trail upwind. Old traces of Pen and… the little girl, Callie… maybe an older woman, they passed through that muddy notch ahead there in the last few days. I think we’ve reached Pen’s perimeter.”
“Oh, we passed that about a half mile back,” Caleb growls.
“Oh yeah. Up here, this is just where it gets real serious.”
“You know how to get in?” Kim asks.
“Oh, you mean if we lose Penelope up there? Only if they haven’t changed it. Last I heard, they change it all the damn time. Pen’s all the time out here tweaking the stuff, sensors or something, fixing it where some dog ran through and got tangled up. Probably all fucked up since the storm, lines torn up, power out, God knows if there’s shit aimed the wrong way, and still live on battery backups.”
“Then nobody but Penelope knows,” Kim says.
“Well, the folks at the house might have some ideas, if we could get whoever reset it last time to look at the mess,” Caleb says.
“Iscen, probably,” Estelle says. “Pen didn’t go out much the last few days. He stayed with me. He was so frightened.”
Caleb says, “Can you smell a road at all, from further away?”
Dance nods. “That way. With extra bug stink. And that gun smell, just after you fire it.”
“Cordite,” Kim says.
“Bugs can smell our tracks too,” Dance’s tall husband says.
“I hate to go off a good clear trail like this, where Dance can smell people have been using it,” says the dark-haired girl, bent over looking at Jack the bull’s injured hoof.
Estelle nods. “Some of the smaller trails are very… unstable.”
===from goodledocs collaboration
Now, if you thought the woods were getting normal again…