The Long and Winding Road

Teo is a long way from Detroit, but that’s fine.  Detroit hadn’t been home, either, just a place he’d been for a while.  He stares out the window of the truck cab, into the wilderness, so different from the urban decay he’s accustomed to, yet strangely similar.  The hurricane’s damage didn’t include painted graffiti, just the scribbles of random high-pressure impacts.

On either side of the narrow track, the ditch runs half-full of tannin-black water.  An old track, too, because cypress knees hump up out of the ditch and threaten to take over the road entirely. One of those would blow out a tire.  Most of the trees out here are broken and twisted at the tops, damaged, dead stuff fallen everywhere.  On some of the higher knobs of land, they were sheared off about eight, ten feet from the ground.  There aren’t many signs of civilization, just a few half-ruined fish camps and gas station with capped over pump holes and no roof.

Teobaldo Arkaitz Ridcully Navarre, what have you got yourself into this time?

He glances at the big deer-minotaur creature driving the truck; his crown of antlers nods gently every time they hit a bump.  Tiny is very precise in how he moves his head.  The only reason he could drive this vehicle at all is the sleeper cab provides extra headroom, and even so, the cab was scraped and scarred.  Teo had never seen anything like him before.  That’s happened a lot since he arrived here.

Back home–long before he got out of the sarcobox in Detroit–the zoomorph population was strictly regulated, engineered, contained.  The sheer biological diversity of the “accidental” zoomorphs here is a bit overwhelming; it was like being at a mad scientist’s ball.  He knows he didn’t have the whole story before they sent him here.  He knew he’d been lied to outright by the authorities who put him in the sarcobox.  Give a guy half the picture, out-of-date, politically-doctored– dress him in a paper jumpsuit, irrigate him with chemicals that burned through his veins, seal him in a metal box, and send him off into what was still, essentially, the unknown.  They said it would be a two-way trip, but he is beginning to suspect they lied. Big surprise.

He still hadn’t been prepared by the sheer scope of the disasters here.  Classified technology leaking into the soil of this world, creating life that was never meant to be here.  Human beings, signing on to front for black market bug labs.  

Joshua captured bugs in Detroit and took them apart. Joshua’s friend Fozzie did the same down here.  They both had people who’d been pulled back out of bugs.  The rescued ex-bugs danced around to music, any music, and yelled at each other like brain-damaged children.  They seemed to enjoy themselves, anyway, and he was certain that is more than the bugs did. Or perhaps bugged brains were so overloaded with feel-good chemistry that they felt pretty happy all the time, even when they were killing people.  Maybe especially when they were killing people.

“Who in their right mind would grow out bugs?” Teo demands, staring at the empty cement walls of just such a place, suddenly furious.  The place was solid enough, it’d stayed together during the storm.  Tiny and Barret hadn’t been worried about squatters, just strode right into the building.

Tiny makes signs.  Barret interprets them, while he sets up his midi keyboard and his mikes to record the weird echoes and sounds in the lab, and smiles.  “Dumb shits.  Guys who want to sell bug troops and drugs for lots of cold hard cash.”

He watches Barret for a moment.  Barret is human, Teo thinks wryly, although you had to wonder about him, a professional musician.  The man is a found-sound junkie, composing his own stuff, fingers doing keyboards on his thighs.  Every time they stopped to fuel up, he gets out his midi gear and crammed new inventions into the on-board memory, while Teo fought with the fuel pump to get the rig fueled up again.  Barret was in his own little world once he got those headphones on.

“I’m going to look at the filters on the sarcobox pumps,” Teo says.  “You’ll be all right here?”

Barret just waves vaguely.

He checks the filters, latches the locks on the pump casings.  Tiny’s enormous clawed hands make questioning gestures.  Teo shakes his head.  “Nothing.  The filter screens were removed.  We could probably scrape samples from the walls of the pump, but it looks like they hosed it all down with some sterilant.”  He wipes his hands with alcohol hand wipes from the packet he carried in his hip pocket, just in case.  He’d caught enough viral and bacterial stuff in his first couple of months here, thank you very much. 

Tiny gravely accepts a few hand wipes from Teo.  Tiny had torn open the pump shed door for him, made it look easy.  The zoomorph’s hands have short dense black fur up the back of the hand past the wrist.  The nails are thick, claw-like, more like an Old World monkey, almost black.  It takes a while for Tiny to clean his hands adequately, scrubbing the wipe through the fur.

“Let’s go,” Teo says to Barret past the fat studio earphones.

“But those chirping high-frequency sounds, they’re some sort of modulated station-recognition signal, I have to see what the high-end filters pick up–” Barret complains.

Tiny’s hands go around Barret’s neck completely.  Barret doesn’t seem to mind the indignity of being pushed toward the truck.

Back in the cab, Tiny pulls off the cut-up trucker’s cap. Just behind the big mobile ink-black furry ear, wires hang from the base of his horns.  He has bald spots with little military-style headphones stuck on with some kind of putty.  The power supply is tied to the base of both horns. Teo had wondered where Tiny was getting all the intelligence that allowed him to avoid trouble all the way from Detroit to South Louisiana.  The cap’s logo is a silly ad for some local company’s diaper rash ointment.  It doesn’t go with the formidable horned presence, which might be why Tiny wears it.  Or maybe just because it shades his eyes nicely.

The antennas on Tiny’s truck make an interesting collection by themselves.  There’s a lot of oddly kludged-up electronic gear wired into Tiny’s truck dash.  More of it is attached to weapons racked in the ranks of clips over their heads, on either side of the ladder up to the sleeper compartment.  Teo almost wants to poke through the mess, see what it was and how it works.  But Teo’s specialty is behavioral sciences, not the hard stuff.  He might mess something up by handling it wrong. 

Barret looks quite content, watching the swamp go by. He and Tiny are happy as clams listening to Barret humming tunelessly, working out some kind of African poly-rhythm on his knees. Barrett doesn’t need the radio on, and Tiny likes it quiet, both sound waves and electronically.  Barret explains that Tiny and his equipment could hear better over the truck’s own noise.

Teo thinks about eating.  They’re down two picnic coolers already, they’ve just cracked open the third one of four.  Tiny eats a whole lot.  Mostly fast-food salads and barbecued veggie-burgers–and those couldn’t be easy to track down out here–but a lot of it. What do the herbivore zoomorphs do at barbecues, claim vegetarianism, or just stay away from the fire pit?  Can Tiny even digest meat?  There are so many questions he itched to ask.

The truck jolts through some tight turns and up a grade.  Tiny makes more signs.

“He says we need to cross a few hairy patches in the road, where the hurricane washed out the road.  They haven’t really had time to repair the damage, hell, don’t know if they ever will.”  Barret shrugs as if it’s not really important.  “Also, there’s bug signal off north of where we’re going, he might need to drop us off at the turnoff and go help out.  He says the next bit is bumpy.”

“He made five signs,” Teo says.

“Uh-huh.  I talk more than he does.”  Barret’s head nods happily, fingers keyboarding the air.

“I’ll hang on,” Teo says dryly.

More signs, when the track winding around hummocks of sheared-off trees allows it.

“He wants to know what you’re looking for.” Barret’s head bops around from the truck’s movement, off-time.

Teo blinks at them both.  “Didn’t Fozzie tell you anything?”

“Just get you where you’re going,” Barret grins, long curly hair flying as the truck lurches to avoid a nasty set of cypress knees. 

“I don’t even know where that is,” Teo says.

“Very Taoist, man,” Barret says, and whoops as they lurched across the first two wash-outs.  Teo distinctly remembered being told that Barret was a Julliard graduate, that he was famous in some circles. But Barret looked like he belonged here in the swamp, loopy grin and all.  “But I guess DA and Fozzie know where you’re supposed to go.”

Teo throws a look at him.  He’s never heard anybody give Doctor Alexander a nickname. He likes it.

There’s an annoyed grunt from the sleeper part of the cab, and Doctor Alexander’s voice floats down.  “What the hell was that?” He shoves his head over the side, his hair in wild disarray and pillow creases embellishing his face.  He looks groggy; he’s been sleeping ever since they crossed the border into Indiana.

“Road construction,” he informs DA.

The doctor squints out the forward upper windows and grunts stoically.

“Hurricane style,” Teo says, staring at heaps of spoil cleared from the trail, at trees sheared off at the level of the truck’s windows.  “What, a Category Five storm?”

Barrett nods.  His gaze goes remote, remembering.  “You shoulda heard it.  Harmonics, man.  Singing in your bones, that storm talking to you for days.”

Tiny’s ears go back, and he points at his forehead, lips curling up in a grimace.  Tiny had incisors like a baboon, at odds with the stag body. He didn’t smile often, either.

“Did you have hearing damage?” Dr. Alexander asks.

Barrett nods.  “Just a little bit at the higher frequencies, when I got it tested.  I got off easy.”

Tiny makes an impatient chuffing noise and taps his chest, flicks a finger sign.

“Oh yeah, me too–being alive still beats the alternatives.”  Barrett grins at Tiny.

More hand-waving from their driver. “He’s taking a shortcut, we’ll be there in maybe fifteen minutes.  He says they’re getting the fence open for us so Tiny can keep going through the far side of the compound and head north.  Kind of a rolling stop to drop us off, I guess,”  Barrett translates. They hump down another steep rocky slope and spider delicately up another steep rise, with Tiny gunning the engine and clutching the transmission precisely, just so.  Barret gets that listening look that said he was interested in the growling strain on the engine.

The fence that they had to drive through was an enormous palisade of welded iron fencing, dead saplings, and wire mesh woven together among broken but live trees into an amazing random mess, enlivened here and there by scorch marks.

Tiny leans out the open window and taps a gong-like sequence of percussive noises off the outer shell of the truck door.

A voice from the trees replies distantly, in an Indian accent, “Hey, Tiny, we have you on the gate log, please now drive in.”  A big wad of fence starts sliding open  They drive in sedately along a rather badly-graded track, pull in at a low clutter of temporary buildings.

“Okay, we’re outta here,” Barret says, climbing out.  He pauses long enough to salute Tiny, who nods back. Teo wearily stumbles down after him, hearing Alexander’s heavy breath behind him, hauling down his bags. Like a bucket brigade they unload the rest of the medical boxes of gear from the trailer.  Doctor Alexander unfolds a tarp and ropes it down over the boxes where the stack sits on the gravel drive.  Then Tiny waves, and jumps up–literally–into the cab.  The truck revs into motion, departing by a different exit.

Looks like they’re in for a hike; Teo stops to adjust the straps on his pack, hoping to make it feel lighter.

Doctor Alexander is already moving up the path towards Bayou Rainette. The place is alive with buzzing and chirping insects; their noise merely accentuating the quiet. Teo feels himself duck when something big flips past his face and flies erratically across the clearing.

“Are you used to the creepy crawlies around here?” Teo asks.

Barret falls into step beside him.  “It’s the roaches and the beetles that get to me, you want the truth.  The snakes generally run away, if you give ’em a chance to.”  

Snakes. If what Teo had heard was right, there are some snakes here that don’t run.  Aggressive rattlers, cottonmouths.  And some of the zoomorphs, too.

There hadn’t been any genuine Kiplings at the community in Detroit.  When DA had come back to Detroit to pick up the rest of his research equipment, he’d mentioned the nagas to Teo in passing.  Teo was careful not to reveal his interest to DA; the doctor was sharp and would ask questions that Teo wasn’t comfortable answering.  Not yet, maybe never.  But Teo gets the impression that there were not one, but two of them down here; surely that was a good sign.  After a year of being on World 2, Teo was finally making progress toward his goal.

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