Drin hasn’t been watching the sky, so he is startled by a spattering of warm, almost hot, rain banging huge droplets down on his back, each drop soaking through his hair and splotching big wet ellipses in the dust on the car next to him.
Of course Emma automatically calculates the angle of incidence, and estimates the wind shear that caused it. “Wind must be picking up, that was about twenty miles an hour, from the southeast,” she says, not thinking.
Aaron says, “I was guessing about that, maybe twenty, twenty-five em pee aitch just at tree level.”
“Yeah, I’ve been seeing signs of some fierce updrafts,” Emma says.
Aaron looks at her with that flat stare. You’re a weirdo mutant, too. The thought is easy to read on his face. But he tells them, “Cesar’s watching for your guide, and for bugs.”
“Thanks,” Drin says, wetting a rather battered hotel towel in the ice chest.
Aaron stops to look carefully at the woods, all around them, a long slow survey, before he relaxes his grip on his gun. Then he glances at Barret, who has brought over cups of ice, and away again at the woods.
“Could you please get some empty lidded cups rinsed out,” Drin says quietly to Barret. To Emma, he says, “I didn’t realize Dance was this far along, he reacted to the smell of the bug lab wastes out here. He’s already pushing antibodies in his saliva, we want to save it for the lab–let’s not waste it.”
Barret runs around the Jeep, comes back carrying clear plastic cups that he’s rinsed out with bottled water.
“Thanks,” Drin says, taking one, and nodding for Emma to take another. “Got it? Steady, steady, Dance, you’re doing just fine. Just relax into it.” He points for Barrett to grab some latex gloves, and holds out a full cup to him. “Put it back in the ice chest, keep it cool,” he says, taking another empty one.
“He’s really drooling a lot,” Emma says, worried, and hands her full cup to Barret too.
“Things are further along than I realized. Okay, now, he’s gonna–”
Dance arches his back, twists side to side, clutching his face as if it hurts.
That’s when Cesar says, behind Emma, “Why is he drooling like that?”
Dance sneezes into the cuff of Emma’s offered sleeve. She doesn’t even blink, holding it for him.
Cesar’s probably got his gun right at her back, he’s that close.
“Oops,” Barret says, trying not to bump into either soldier.
“It’s a long story–” Emma says.
“Cut to the chase.” In a lifetime of businesslike tones, this one has impact.
“He’s a back-fang viper with a heart of gold,” Emma snaps.
Dance arches back, frowns a little, looks over at Cesar, and says, crossly, “Oh, put that thing up.” And he sneezes down into the dirt four times, big terrific rib-aching bursts that make him clutch his ribs, groaning, afterward.
“If you can sit up more, we can help you drain it in a cup, milk some of the pressure out of your venom sacs,” Drin says.
“Wot fucking larks we are going to have today,” Dance says in Emma’s accent, and he moves his tail slowly, as if he’s testing whether he can get it out of the way of the rest of him. Then he gives a little sigh, and arches backward, and his tail begins to to glitter and spin prisms of light, running up and down the light frequencies. He starts singing, hard pure tones more like a flute than a person, modulating through something Drin doesn’t recognize. Barret clearly does, his hand comes up, moving in time to it.
When the music finishes, the noise stops, the colors slow down along his tail. Then Dance puts his head down and he takes Emma’s wrist in his mouth and he bites her. He bites her fast, shallowly, four times, grabbing each wrist in turn with both his hands and his tail, bracing her up into his strikes.
Drin isn’t clear how he’s doing that. He shouldn’t be able to open his jaw that wide at the back and get his mouth that deep onto her arm, but he is. On the last bites, he grinds his back teeth a little, working his lower jaw back and forth, keeping his eyes shut, and Emma doesn’t struggle, her arms don’t resist being shaken in his grip.
He twists, lashes out and grabs Drin, bites him likewise, harder yet, and Drin makes no effort to pull away. It feels something like needles going into a vein, until the rush of it hits him. He stands very still, braces himself against the wild euphoric pumping through him. He focuses on holding Dance’s shoulder steady.
Dance’s tail is still glowing quite a lot when he opens his mouth wider yet, shakes loose from Drin. He glares up at the others, panting. His tail tip points at Barret, makes a silent question mark.
“Right, so, yeah, anti-bug-venom, good stuff, huh? Guess I can go next,” Barret says, offering his wrists. His valuable, career-making, piano-playing wrists. His eyes are big and dark, his face gone very pale.
Dance’s tail comes up, strokes the man’s arm, turns his hands downward, and instead of biting at the wrists as he did with his own partners, he strikes down onto the big muscles in Barret’s forearms.
If he’s doing an intramuscular injection, he’s got to be pumping in different materials, Drin thinks.
Barrett stiffens his position, making it easier for Dance to bite him. Barret staggers when Dance releases him finally, panting. “Wow, that’s not what I expected– jeez, man, how long does this high last?”
“We don’t know,” Emma says, wiping sweat off her forehead.
Dance hunches forward, breathing hard. His tail points at Aaron, he slurs, “You want me to try? Risky. Making sure not messing… with… what’s in there now.”
Cesar steps between them, shifting his gun. “You want to risk it, it’s better out than going the slow way. Take your time, I’ve got it out here.” Then he’s walking away past the end of the Jeep.
“Hey, checking out, flying on a damn viper high? Sure, why not? Flush all that shit out. That new bug stuff burns. Tryin’ to take over, the fuckers.”
“No, no, please. Your… choice.” Dance breathes even harder after speaking.
“You can do that? Just flush new stuff?”
Dance nods. “You want… to keep… what’s been there so long?”
“Oh hell yeah. We can fight the damn things better when we can hear ’em comin’,” Aaron says.
“Done, and done.” Dance’s tailtip extends toward Aaron’s other arm, waiting, letting Aaron take the offer freely.
“Do it, snake man,” Aaron says, while he grips Dance’s tail like a handshake.
Dance’s whole body shudders, his head recoils, he gags as if something tastes bad. Then he wipes his hand at his eyes, spits at the ground, making a face. Finally he nods, beckons with both hands.
Aaron braces his legs and extends his arms, muscles tensed like he’s boxing.
Dance drags in a couple of deep breaths, cups Aaron’s wrist in a firm hand grip, and strikes into the forearm. He’s yawns his jaws wide around Aaron’s thick muscles, bites three times. Almost sedately he lifts off, grips the other forearm, strikes down on it. Aaron stands like a rock, leg muscles bulging.
Dance shudders in place, pulls his mouth off, and almost falls back into the support of the door frame, leaning hard into Drin’s grip on him. He’s panting with his mouth open, drooling hard. Sweat drips off his brows, his chin.
Emma leans in swiftly with a wet cloth, wiping his face.
Barret reaches out to the soldier, who’s blinking and swaying a bit. “You okay, man?”
“That’s some good shit. Weird, but I’m good. Tingling. Not skyhigh, not like you guys, but helluva nerve thing itch going. Hey, Cesar, I’m good. That damn Hive blather in my ear is dialing down. I’m good. I’m real good.”
“Yeah? Give it twenty minutes, we’ll see how good your manic ass is, you crazy fucker,” Cesar says coolly. “I’ll wait for my turn until my partner here is back on the ground, gotta have somebody keep an eye out.”
Dance huffs out a deep breath, nods. He peers more closely at Drin, and then at Emma, blinking into her face. Emma looks up at him, smiling a little. “Niiice,” she slurs, punch-drunk already.
“I hope so,” he says, and he sounds as blurry as she did. He’s swaying in place with each breath, panting. More sweat drips off his face.
“Oh good,” Emma says, and absurdly, she starts to cry.
Drin smiles, holding one hand on Dance’s back, giving him support. Emma nods, fiercely, wiping her eyes, and braces herself to hold Dance’s other arm.
Dance arches back, wobbling, frowns a little, looks over at Barret, hovering by Aaron. He says, crossly, “Oh, give him a minute, Aaron’s tough, he’ll be fine.” And he sneezes again, big terrific rib-aching bursts that make him complain.
It’s about then that they realize Dance is leaning forward, craning way out of the door of the Jeep, leaning out too far on coils of his own tail. The tail lowers him down, and his torso flops past their hands. He’s laying there flat on his back in the dirt, blinking up at all of them. “Well, that went well,” he mumbles, closes his eyes, and everything goes limp.
Drin tumbles down on his knees, checking vital signs. “Barret, you okay? Can you walk? Would you mind getting some more cups?”
Barrett grins. “Sure thing.”
“Silly boy,” Emma says crossly, kneeling and lifting Dance’s shoulders onto her lap and turning his head to the side, checking his tongue is out of his airway. “Hot as a pistol, poor thing, he just wore himself out, blowing off all that energy at once. He should come around any minute now, and then we want to lay that tail in a lot of ice and let him cool off.” She gives no sign of being worried he might lash out. She’s slurring a bit, but she can still get the words out. “That bug juice has parasites and toxins and all kinds of bacteria, worse than a bite from a monitor lizard or something, I swear. A good analytical lab really needs to see this new stuff.”
“No kidding,” Cesar says, striding along past them to the other end of the caravan, away from Aaron.
Drin accepts the wet bandanna that Barret runs to him. “Thank you. I suspect Dance is gonna need to rest for a day or two. Yeah, Barret, by all means put these cups in the ice too, thanks.”
“Which makes it all the weirder that bugs have no resistance to the germs of this world,” Aaron says slowly, as if his brain is doing all this theorizing quite automatically. He looks around at them, past them at the woods, taking a long moment before he stops to look at his partner, who is walking back again.
Cesar looks at him, shakes his head. Aaron gives him a big grin, flexes his arms.
Dance stirs. Drin is not even surprised that it’s the tail that wanders groggily back to awareness first. The tip of it flickers, lifts off the tangle across his thighs, and curls upward.
Emma strokes it gently between both her palms, not constraining it in any way. More of it comes off the ground, the tip slides around the back of her hand, and hugs her back. The sigh of relief is comically visible in its motions.
Then the tail slides away, gropes around over his own torso, touches his face exactly like a man waking up to a hangover, a man who wasn’t entirely sure he still had a face to hurt that badly.
Dance squints, uses his tail tip to rub his eyes, while his hands hold his head together. “Oh gaaawd, was the party really that good?”
He wipes his nose on the back of one hand, accepts a grubby tissue from Emma’s pants pocket and blows his nose noisily. Then he lays there with his eyes shut, breathing in deeply. He swallows a couple of times. The tailtip begs another tissue from Emma, and holds it up when he sneezes. “Okay, the bit with the extra drooling is fun too.”
Then Aaron says, “Many people would not believe this, right in front of their eyes.”
“Lucky for us, you’re the sort who’s been trained to believe what they see,” Emma says. “You’re bleeding, Aaron. Barret, would you mind–”
“Got it,” Barret says.
Aaron looks at her, frowning, and accepts the first aid box from Barret. “Considering what we’re probably up against, I guess it is lucky, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Emma says, gazing over at the bug-strike puncture marks that dotted the length of their car door.
Cesar takes the box from Aaron, lays it on the hood of their car, and begins cleaning up cuts at the bases of Aaron’s thumbs. “Crazy fucker, hold still,” he says.
Emma looks down at Dance, takes another wet bandanna, and begins washing Dance’s face, down his neck.
“C’mon wake up, there’s a love, you just got yourself way too overheated. Yeah, there you go, lean on Drin, get your breath back. Right, here’s your toothmug, do you need me to hold it while you bite? Okay. Drin’s got you steady, don’t worry about that. I know, I hate allergies too. We’ll get you into the Jeep and you can nap with your tail on top of the ice. Remind me, why were we collecting cupfuls of drool out here in the bush?”
Drin sighs. “Those are full of antibodies that Dance developed to the Harpy-bug juice just now. That’s valuable stuff, just like his venom is. I want to get that to people who need it. Freeze it over at the house, if we can.”
“People who are fighting bugs?” Emma says.
“Among other things,” Drin says quietly. He meets the gaze of the two men at the car. “Dance is gonna need to catch some rest while he can.”
Aaron comes over and looks down at Dance, who is beginning to gag and struggle against the heavy china lip of the hotel coffee mug. Dance grunts, and Emma sits back sharply, glancing around.
“Okay, we’re clear,” she says, and Dance arches his head back, lifting up off the mug. There’s just a brief flash of something glinting, pale, in his mouth, and then he’s sitting up stiffly against Drin’s support, breathing hard, with his nostrils flared.
“It ain’t easy being scaled,” Drin says then, so the other men can hear him. “The temptation is to get right in there to help him, but you want to stay clear of any spray when he pulls off from the rim of the container. We’re not entirely sure, but we think he’s developing spitting cobra capabilities too.” Then he looks at Aaron and Cesar, and smiles a little. “He’s still a baby naga. Dance just unpinned himself from regular human restrictions about three weeks ago.”
Their eyes are very steady. Aaron tests his hand bandages, stretching his fingers, and he doesn’t blink when he says, “So do you know what to expect as he grows up?”
Drin smiles wider. “Well, that’s the fun part with any kids, isn’t it?”
Cesar says, “Given how the noise announced our location, we should be expecting company of some sort soon.”
“What noise?” Dance says, befuddled.
“Harpies, combat, frying things– no?” Aaron says, amused.
“Okaaaaay,” Emma says, and pats him. “You feel up to climbing up and getting into the Jeep?”
When Dance blinks at her, puzzled, it is Aaron who first reaches down and holds out a hand toward Dance and says, “Could I help your friends get you up in the Jeep?”
Dance blinks at him. Then he frowns, puts out a hand to accept Aaron’s help, and with Emma and Drin both hovering, worried, he moves his legs. He looks down at the tail lolling, patchy parts of it quite visible and other parts slowly pretending to be the ground between his knees
“The tail,” Dance says then, “is damn heavy, so please don’t strain anything trying to help me haul it around. And I’m starving.”
Aaron helps haul up a partially lucid Dance and the tail in an order that will not leave a total mess scattered across the back of the Jeep. Partly, Aaron’s in the middle of things because Aaron is efficient. He wants the wagons packed up, ready to follow their guide to the shelter house. He wants to get the next leg of their trip dealt with, get everybody settled under a proper anti-bug guard.
Drin is amused that everybody is talking about it as if it’s a separate entity: The Tail. Partly this is because Dance is heavy for his size, he’s nearly as wobbly as if he’s drunk, and the Tail is very heavy. As strong as Barret and Drin are, they need Aaron too.
There’s big dark splotches of rain on the shoulders of all their clothes, dampening their hair. Sweat darkens the armpits of their shirts. Dance’s shirt is wet all along his ribs and down his back, and his jeans are soaked along the belly and thighs and the back of his knees. He isn’t tracking all that well when they talk to him. He looks like somebody with heat prostration. It’s amazing that Dance will let Aaron get so close.
Of course it’s Aaron who suggests getting Dance out of his shirt and his tail-cut jeans, to help him cool off. It gives Aaron the excuse to examine Dance without causing resentment or extra risks, and maybe they all silently agree to let him get it over with. Certainly Dance doesn’t react when Aaron braces one hand on the root of his tail in a way that Dance wouldn’t have tolerated from the man earlier. Dance just has one hand resting high on Aaron’s shoulder in a way that would alarm anybody who knows what he can do. Certainly Aaron has some idea; he moves his hand carefully off the tail root as soon as he can.
By the time they get Dance sitting sideways in the back seat of the Jeep, he’s panting like a dog. Of course Aaron also knows what to do when Dance adopts the universal posture of a sick hound about to heave up whatever it ate. Aaron snatches a spare plastic grocery sack just under Dance’s nose in time to catch it when he vomits. Dance gags and heaves six or seven times, and Aaron whips up a next bag each time Barret returns to replace it. Aaron has been paying attention, too; he is precise about maintaining a reasonably safe distance from Dance’s mouth.
Drin is also probably too close, but he’s at Dance’s back, crouched up in the cab of the Jeep. He’s taken the job of resting a light grip on Dance’s shoulders, making sure Dance knows he’s got support in the dizziness. When he can, he wipes down Dance’s face with the wet bandanna, leaning in quick and smooth, and away again. Dance isn’t speaking or nodding when Drin questions him, it’s the tail tip curled tightly on Drin’s arm that talks for him.
That’s probably not the only reason that Aaron is watching the tail when he speaks to either of them.
It’s Aaron, too, who hands the bags of vomitus in turn to Emma. He tells Emma, “We don’t want to leave anything like that for bugs to find,” and then he’s busy again.
Between Aaron and Drin, when it’s over, they talk Dance into rinsing out his mouth and drinking some water. When he’s a little steadier, Dance rasps something hoarsely, his tail tip pulling at Drin’s arm.
It’s Aaron who translates it into a reasonable guess. Aaron’s quick. He asks Drin, “Would you expect this reaction after that kind of fight?”
“Yeah, that,” Dance whispers, leaning back into Drin’s hands, head tipped back into the seat, with his eyes half-shut.
Drin brings up the wet bandanna with fresh ice in it, wipes it along Dance’s neck, along the carotid artery, and watches Dance’s breathing ease a little. Preoccupied, Drin replies, “I was pretty sure Dance was going to have a strong immune system reaction to all that stuff flying around in the fight. Antibacterial, antiviral, anti-prion even. If you tested his blood, I’m guessing you might find some kind of compound similar to what’s put out by local fungi, that attacks the bugs. But it might also have some pretty severe anti-parasitic compounds, medicine against larger organisms, things like tapeworms, and I know some of those compounds can make people nauseous.”
Aaron looks at them both. “Can you even take samples of Dance’s blood?”
Drin makes a face. “Early on, yeah, you could get to the veins in his arms just fine. His legs got cut climbing out of the jeep, so probably.”
Aaron looks at him. Dance’s skin, on most of his body, feels perfectly normal. It’s just the tail that has a different texture.
Cesar walks by, saying, “Reptiles can have skin that’s soft with tiny little scales.”
Drin nods. “Yeah, I’d want to take a look at his skin with a field microscope, at least, before anybody tries poking him. You’d think it could vent off enough infrared just fine. Maybe there’s fail-safes built in to keep him from melting all the plastic he’s sitting on, shut down the vents. Maybe it’s like a baby who hasn’t got everything working yet, and it can only handle so much of a heat load. Or it might be his system is running hot on purpose, killing bug germs. In that case, we just want to keep the extreme fever spikes under control.”
Dance gives a groan. “Ice,” he says, and Drin puts the wet cloth on Dance’s closed eyelids, and gets a little grateful squeeze of the tail.
Drin dips the towel in the icewater, wipes the towel down Dance’s chest, watches him flinch and make a face, like a little kid with a fever. Drin turns his head, and says to Cesar and to Aaron, “Thank you for pulling your fire.”
Cesar grins. “He went and saved us some serious ammo. Not like we couldn’t see him coming. You ever see bugs like that before?”
“My suspicion is that they captured some folks who had a lot of mutations. Captured them and stuffed them in a bug lab. I don’t think Dance can be bug-bit, but they might be able to use him to design bugs with parts like his. Terrifying thought.”
“What are you doing, bringing him here?” Aaron asks. “Swamp’s crawling with bugs.”
“Trying to reach friends who can help him grow out the right way,” Drin says.
Aaron grunts, looking at the loops of tail. There’s plenty of Dance sprawled around as it is. Whatever he’s thinking, he doesn’t share it. He just says, “Switch places, and Barret and I can get the ice chest set up for Dance.”
Drin crawls out of the Jeep, feeling unutterably grateful for the help. He knows it’s an artifact of the trip, of being out here in limbo for so long. If these two soldiers somehow think they’re still in service, they have an obligation to report back to an authority that may or may not have the intellectual resources to cope with what their troops have stumbled onto. But he’s pathetically glad to have somebody alert and thinking. Drin wants to recruit them, too. Offer them a whole new service, working in the zoomorph cause. He curbs that dangerous impulse: it’s premature.
Aaron sorts out the ice and makes sure there’s a good thick layer of melting chunks between the lidded cups and the area where the tail will lay on top of everything. He puts the ice chest’s lid along the floor between the seats, scooping more ice into it, so Dance can extend more tail length in direct contact.
Drin gets Dance slowly facing forward, lifts his feet out of the way of closing the door, and says, “We got ice ready?”
Aaron grunts, and nods for Barret to climb up in the cab with him. Dance groans some more when the three of them, Drin, Barret, and Aaron, lift his hot tail up for him and lay the coils on the ice in gentle loops, back and forth, across the ice chest and its lid.
Dance gives a tight little moan, teeth gritted. “Hands off, hurry,” he says, and they do.
“It’s… steaming,” Barret says quietly.
“Yeah,” Drin agrees. The tail is scintillating in the water around it. “I was afraid we’d have the samples and things floating in a little puddle of water, but if he keeps going like that, it’ll just dry out.”
Aaron looks at it. “It should last half an hour or so, I think.”
Dance opens his eyes. He turns his head a little bit, looks at all of them. “Thanks,” he says.
Barret smiles. “Glad to have you back, man,” he says.
When Drin turns, both of them realize that Dance is moving. Dance saw something that dragged him halfway out of the Jeep.
“Now stop it, get that thing on ice!” Drin roars. “You just saved my life, you’re not allowed to fuck up now!”
“Yes sir,” says a soft voice nearly in his ear, and Drin turns, surprised.
Combination of former sections “No Good Deed” and “Lesson in Improv”–from googledocs collaboration with kiyakotari, revising original versions into Aaron and Cesar from earlier characters. Also revised to change GJ’s musician’s name to Barret.