Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 18
Stories
Trinity County, CA
by Peter S. Beagle
The Mystery of Miranda
by David Simons
Forcing Coin
by William T. Vandemark
The Quanta of Art
by Adam Colston
How About It, Roomie?
by Chase Guyman
Bonus OSC Story Serialization
Eye for Eye Part Two
by Orson Scott Card
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Trinity County, CA
You'll Want to Come Again, and We'll Be Glad to See You!
    by Peter S. Beagle

1st Place - Best Story - 2010

Trinity County, CA
Artwork by Tomislav Tikulin

"This stuff stinks," Connie Laminack complained. She and Gruber were dressing for work in the yard's cramped and makeshift locker room which, thanks to budget cuts, was also the building's only functional toilet. To get to the dingy aluminum sink, she had to step around the urinal, then dodge under Gruber's left arm as he forced it up into the sleeve of his bright yellow outer coverall.

"You get used to it."

"No, I won't. They let me use my Lancome in school. That smells human."

"And has an FPF rating that's totally bogus," Gruber said. "Anything you can buy retail is for posers and pet shop owners. Won't cut it out here."

Laminack unscrewed the top from the plain white plastic jar on the shelf below the mirror, and squinted in disgust at the gray gloop inside. "I'm just saying. Gack."

Gruber smiled. Stuck with a newbie, you could still get some fun out of it. Sometimes. "Make sure you get it every damn place you can reach. Really rub it in. State only pays quarter disability if you come home Extra Crispy."

"Nice try, but some of us actually do read the HR paperwork we sign."

"Oh, right," Gruber said. "College grad." She gave him a hard look in the mirror, but dutifully started rubbing the D-schmear on her hands and arms anyway, then rolled up her pants legs to get at her calves.

"Face, too. Especially your face, and an inch or two into the hairline. Helps with the helmet seal."

"Just saving the worst for last."

Gruber laughed wryly. "It's all the worst."

"You'd be the one to know, wouldn't you?"

"Got that right, trainee."

By the time they headed out to the Heap he was throwing questions at her, per the standard training drill, but not enjoying it the way he usually did. For one thing, she'd actually done a good job with the D-schmear, even getting it up into her nostrils, which first-timers almost never did. For another, she seemed to truly know her shit. Book shit, to be sure, not the real world shit she was here to start learning . . . but Gruber was used to catching new kids in some tiny mistake, then pile-driving in to widen the gap, until they were panicked and stammering. Only Laminack wasn't tripping up.

It had begun to bug him. That, and the fact that she bounced. Like he needed perky to deal with, on top of everything else.

He waved back to Manny Portola, the shift dispatcher, who always stood in the doorway to see the different county crews off. It was one of Manny's pet superstitions, and in time it had become Gruber's as well, though he told himself he was just keeping the old guy happy.

Laminack waved to the dispatcher as well, which irritated Gruber, even though he knew it shouldn't. He slapped the day-log clipboard against his leg.

"Next! Name the three worst invasives in Trinity."

"Trick question."

"Maybe, maybe not."

"No," she insisted. "Definitely. You didn't define your terms." Her bland smile didn't change, but Gruber thought he heard a tiny flicker of anger. Maybe he was finally getting to her. "Are we talking plants or animals here? 'Cause Yellow Star Thistle and Dalmatian Toadflax and Kamathweed are hella invasive, even if the tourists do like the pretty yellow flowers. And if we are talking animals, not plants, do you want me to stick to the D's, or do you want me to rattle off the three worst things that have ever crawled or flown or swum in here from somewhere they shouldn't? Which I could. And what do you mean by 'worst,' anyway? Because for my money jet slugs are about as yucky as it gets, and there are a lot more of them up here now than there are China longs. So yeah, I call trick question."

Gruber definitely wasn't ready for two weeks of this. "Nobody likes a show-off, Laminack."

"No, sir."

"We're not County Animal Control, and we're damn well not the State Department of Food and Agriculture or the California Invasive Plant Council. So what do you think I wanted to hear when I asked that question?"

Reaching the Heap. Laminack opened the driver-side door for him and stepped back. She didn't exactly stand at attention, but near enough.

"I think you wanted me to tell you that last year's baseline survey put quetzals, China longs, and Welsh reds at the top of the list in Trinity, but winter was rough, so it's too early to know yet what we'll be dealing with this season. Especially with the pot growers and meth labs upping their black market firepower."

"Hunh." Without meaning to, he found himself nodding. "Not bad, Laminack."

"Call me Connie, okay? My last name sounds like a duck call."

Great, Gruber thought. She even bounces standing still.

First scheduled stop of the day was more than thirty miles out of Weaverville, up 299 into the deep woods of Trinity National Forest, almost all the way to Burnt Ranch. Despite everything eating at him, Gruber always found the views in this corner of the county restful, an ease to the soul, and he enjoyed watching Connie begin to get clear on just how big the place was, even in this first tiny taste: 3,200 square miles by outline, same size as Vermont on the map -- or all of Texas, if ever God came along and stomped the Trinity Alps out flat -- and only 13,000 people to get in the way, the majority of whom lived in Weaverville and Lewiston and Hayfork. The rest were so spread out that words like "sparse" and "isolated" didn't do the situation justice. Gruber had been on the job for sixteen years, and he knew there were people living in corners of these woods so deep he still hadn't been there yet.

They turned off onto a tributary road that wasn't shown on the state-supplied map, and wound uphill for five snaky miles before Gruber stopped the Heap and killed the engine.

"Welcome to your first block party. Another mile or so up we're going to do a little Easter egg hunt. You want to guess what kind?"

For the first time this morning, Connie hesitated. Then she caught herself and said, firmly, "Belgian wyverns. I thought maybe doublebacks, for a minute, but that would have been a couple of weeks ago at this latitude. Right?"

Gruber nodded. "Almost all the other D's are late summer, early autumn layers, but wyverns and doublebacks -- and Nicaraguan charlies, only we don't have those up here, not yet, thank God -- they lay their eggs in the spring, so they'll hatch and be ready in time to eat the other D's eggs. Just this side of parasites, you ask me. But some elements of the Asian community think ground-up prepubescent wyvern bones are an aphrodisiac, so there's always some idiot in the woods willing to try and raise the little bastards. We got an anonymous tip on this place a week ago."

"So let's go. I'm ready."

Gruber shook his head. "Ground rules, first. And fair warning: say anything but yes -- and I do mean anything -- and we're home in Weaverville before lunch, with your ass planted firmly on the next bus back to UC Davis. This is not a joke up here. This isn't the classroom. Mostly we don't run into trouble, but that's mostly, and you can't let that get in the way of being ready for everything else."

Connie didn't say a word. She looked at Gruber for a moment, and then nodded.

"First rule," Gruber continued. "What I tell you to do, you do. If I say 'run,' you damn well sprint, and you don't look back. If I shout 'Get back in the Heap,' you jump in here and hit the autolock, even if I'm still outside."

"Yes," Connie said.

"Second rule. If you're in here and I'm in trouble, you hit the screechers."

"Yes."

"Third rule. If that doesn't help, then you drive the hell out of sight as fast as you can, and you keep calling in to the sheriff's office for backup until you finally reach a live zone and get through. Then you sit and wait for somebody to show up. This is not -- I repeat not -- some reality TV show. There are reasons Manny's got that NO HEROES sign on his desk."

"Got it." She blinked and corrected herself. "Yes."

"Fourth rule, you see even a hint of a gun, you don't wait for me to yell. You get your butt back in the Heap and duck down. The plate on this thing can handle pretty much anything one of the locals is likely to be carrying." He didn't wait for her to respond before he went on. "And finally, fifth rule, today you don't say anything to anybody without checking with me first. Walk straight, stand tall, and make like you're Clint Eastwood with laryngitis. Got that?"

She nodded once.

Not so bouncy now. Good.

"Helmet and gloves on, then. Let's go."

The road wound on a while longer, then turned left over a ridge and started down. As it did the landscape changed, the usual Trinity mix of tall oak, pine, and fir trees giving way to high pasture and orchards, green and peaceful as a children's book.

The farmhouse wasn't out of a picture book, but a new coat of paint masked its aged and fraying condition. An old woman in a sun hat was down on both knees, pruning roses and humming to herself, not even looking at the Heap as it pulled in. There was a one-gallon lawn and garden sprayer sitting next to her.

"Deaf or on guard," Gruber said. "And you know how I vote. Keep your tapper handy, but stay behind me."

The old woman only looked up when he opened the Heap's door and stepped out, his coverall a bright yellow blotch in the middle of a bright blue day. Gruber checked her out. Pure Grandma. Straw hat, pink cheeks, worn old flannel shirt, muddy-kneed jeans . . . no jury would convict her of stealing cookies, let alone raising D's.

"Can I help you?" she asked.

Gruber turned on the big bland smile that came packaged with the uniform and started forward, nice and easy. He heard Connie fall into line.

"Ma'am, good morning. My name is Mike Gruber, and this is my partner, Connie Laminack. We're D Patrol for the county." He pointed at the big agency patch on the front of his coverall, the one just below the California state seal, then made a show of checking his clipboard. "Are you Mrs. Johanna Watkins?"

The woman leaned back on her haunches, shading her eyes with one hand, even though the sun was behind her.

"That's me. Beautiful day, isn't it?"

"Yes, ma'am. Surely is."

"Nice to be outside. Have to spray these roses every day, you know, or else the deer eat them. What can I do for you?"

"Well . . ." Gruber paused. "The thing of it is, Mrs. Watkins, Johanna, we have reliable information that you and Mr. Watkins have been breeding wyverns -- Belgian wyverns, to be precise -- and selling the younglings to a crew down in Douglas City. Now, as I'm sure you know, there are both state and Federal statutes against wyvern trafficking of any kind: live or dead, eggs, skins, organs, you name it. It's illegal."

The Watkins woman was good: Gruber had to give her that. She flashed a crinkly smile straight out of a biscuit mix commercial, and said, "Oh, but everyone does it, surely -- that's just one of those laws, you know, like they say, more honored in the breach than the observance --"

Gruber interrupted her. "Well, actually no, ma'am, everybody doesn't do it, whatever you've been told. And the laws are enforced, as I'm afraid you're about to find out. Now I'm going to need to speak to your husband -- and then, if you two could give us a brief walking tour of your operation --"

Johanna Watkins was on her feet, periwinkle-blue eyes wide, moving smoothly into Plan B: shocked and trembling innocence. "Officer, we really didn't . . . I mean, Eddie, my husband, Eddie and I, we're just two old people living on a fixed income, and it seemed . . . I mean, nobody really told us, and we were just trying . . . we didn't want to be a burden on our son --"

Gruber stopped her, as courteously as he could, keeping one eye on the garden shears dangling in her left hand. He had once been attacked by an old man swinging a fan belt studded with bits of broken glass, and the event had left him with a certain wariness regarding senior citizens. "Well, ma'am, all I'm required to do is write you up a citation, like a traffic ticket -- the rest'll be up to Sheriff Trager's discretion. So if Mr. Watkins is home . . ." He had always found it better -- and often safer -- to leave commands implied.

"Yes," Mrs. Watkins stammered, letting her voice tremble affectingly. "Yes, yes, of course. If you'll just wait here, I'll be, I'll get . . ." She too left the sentence unfinished, dropping the shears and wandering towards the house in a seeming daze.

Behind him, Connie murmured, "Permission to speak, sir?"

"Only till Sweetie Bat gets back." He took a few steps and craned his neck to observe the surprisingly large stretch of tightly-fenced paddock that was located south and downslope from the house. Several rough-hewn wooden poles sporting a makeshift power line ran between the two. Beyond the paddock, the woods began.

Connie said, "I know it's silly -- I guess -- but she does look like my grandmother. She really does."

Gruber shrugged. "She's somebody's grandmother. Retirement, kids gone, a little problem with cash flow . . . we see a lot of that. Sometimes they're just bored, you'd be surprised."

"She looked so scared," Connie sighed. "I just wanted to tell her, it's okay, it'll be all right --"

She was interrupted by the sound of a slamming door at the back of the house, followed immediately by a stumbling clatter and scraps of a shrill and breathless quarrel -- then the unmistakable growl of a two-stroke engine. Gruber said mildly, "Well, shit." Loping around the corner of the old farmhouse, he saw Johanna Watkins and a lanky old man wearing checked pants and a yellow sweater racing toward the tree line on a metallic green minibike. Gruber halted, scratching his head, and began to laugh.

Connie came up beside him, staring after the sputtering little bike as it vanished into the trees. "Shouldn't we go after them, or something?"

"Not our job, I'm happy to inform you. We're contraband, not perps. Trager's boys can track them later, or maybe nab them when they sneak back to the house, likely tonight. They weren't carrying anything, and it gets cold up here after sunset."

He flipped his tapper to trank and started toward the paddock, saying over his shoulder, "Stay back till I call you." The gate was clearly meant to be opened by a remote switch -- probably in the kitchen, right next to the cookie jar -- but the lock was cheap, and Gruber forced it easily. The two wyverns came out of hiding as soon as he opened the gate, bounding toward him like little kangaroos on their powerful hind legs. Red, with dark-gold chests and bellies, they stood just under three feet high; three-foot-six was a King Kong among wyverns. "Geese with teeth," Manny called them, but for all that they could do damage. The wings -- a much deeper red, almost black -- were useless for flying, but tipped with sharp, curving claws. Gruber had always considered them more dangerous than the fangs, which were just as sharp, and more numerous, but easier to keep track of.

He let the wyverns get close, having no illusions regarding his own ability with hand-held weapons, but then he dropped them with one dart apiece. They were out before they hit the ground, and would stay that way for eight, maybe ten hours: the current generation of tranquilizers was a lot more reliable than what he'd started the job with, and good for a wider range of D's, no matter how many hearts they had, or whether their blood was acid or base. Gruber had no nostalgia for the old days, except as they involved long-gone movies and breweries.

"Easter Bunny time," he called over his shoulder. Connie approached the paddock slowly, casting a wary eye toward the sedated wyverns. Watching her, Gruber said, "No, I take it back, it's May. Time to go gathering nuts."

"They actually do look like nuts, don't they?" Connie frowned, remembering. "We had a whole extra series on protective coloration just in eggs."

"Yeah, they look like nuts," Gruber said. "Except for the ones that don't. Belgian wyverns can be weird. So you watch where you're putting your feet." Remembering altogether too well how long it had taken him to get the knack, he kept a close eye on Connie as they worked through the paddock together, never letting her get too far from him. What worried him more, as they loaded the eggs into the standard McNaughton keeper -- clumsier to carry than the old Dorchester, but it could hold up to six dozen eggs in perfect thermal stasis as long as its battery pack held out -- was feeling their rising warmth in his palms, and realizing just how close they had been to hatching.

When a third pass didn't turn up anything new, he had Connie drive the Heap down to the paddock while he tagged and chipped the wyverns, then bound their wings and legs with thermo-kevlar banding. It took a shared effort to get the sleeping creatures locked away in the back, him lifting and her pushing. The male was particularly troublesome: its head and neck kept flopping in the wrong direction as they tried to angle it into the Heap's fireproofed main containment module. After they finally managed the trick, Gruber took Connie with him to the farm house. He showed her how to fill out the official citation form, and had her tape it to the front door with four strips of bright orange waterproof tape, one strip per side.

Back in the Heap he took the wheel while Connie stored the McNaughton under her seat. Gruber would have sworn that he saw her pat it once, quickly and shyly.

As they headed out, Connie asked, "Where do you suppose the proud parents went?"

"Hiding out with family, maybe. Calling lawyers. Not a lot of options when it gets to this point. When we hit a place where my cell works I'll call Manny. Trager's people will make things plain to them, one way or another." The Watkins farm disappeared from the rear-view mirror as he spoke. "How you liking it so far?"

"Is that another trick question?" Her voice was quiet and subdued, all the early-morning attitude gone. She said, "They were little, but they were scary. The way they went straight for you . . ."

"They can hurt you," Gruber said. He glanced sideways at her. "Not like class, huh? Not like field trips, even."

Connie was silent for some time. In this stretch the narrow old road was rough, all pebbles and potholes. They passed a couple of abandoned trailers, and a lean, ugly dog chased along after the Heap for a while, until it got bored. She said finally, "What are they like . . . the big ones? What does it feel like?"

Gruber shrugged. "Not that different, you been doing it long enough. Sure, you wet your pants, first time it's a quetzal coming at you, first time you look right into the eyes of a China long. But there aren't as many in the county as people think -- I went two years one time, never saw anything bigger than a doubleback -- and as long as you stay cool, long as you treat each and every damn D as though they were twelve feet tall, you're pretty much okay. Usually."

"Usually," Connie said. "Right."

"I'm forty-seven years old," Gruber said, smiling at her before he could stop himself. "Forty-eight in three weeks. Believe me, usually is as good as it gets. D's, anything else. I'll settle for usually any time."

He turned his head away quickly to watch the road; you could break an axle as easily as an ankle in this country. Connie had her back to him, looking out, one elbow braced on the window frame. She said, half to herself, "Looks just like eastern Mendocino."

"Spent some time there?"

"Visited my cousins, growing up. They're over in Ukiah."

"Mendocino's got the same troubles we have. The farms mostly don't pay worth a damn anymore, so a lot of folks either sell out to the pot growers and meth makers or go into the business themselves."

"Will -- my older cousin -- he told me stories." She shook her head. "But I never saw anything. No D's, for sure, though I heard they were there. Sheltered life, I guess."

"Pot farms aren't on your typical family outing list."

She laughed, a bit shakily, and replied, "I liked the trees and the space okay, but I was a city kid. I just wanted a Barbie. A Barbie and a utility belt, like Batman's." Gruber looked at her. "I had to know how he got all that stuff into all those little compartments. And what about the gadgets and things we never saw? I had to know, that's all."

"Permission to speak revoked," Gruber said. "Forever."

*

The rest of the morning went smoothly, standard drill-and-drop-in for every live report like the Watkins' place: drive the neighboring roads, watch for burn marks or D scat, stop every few miles to let the pheromone detectors take a sniff, and knock on whatever doors they could find. In that fashion they checked out half a dozen farms and isolated cabins, the Heap toiling up one barely-visible dirt track to break into briefly-dazzling alpine blue, and then plunging straight down another into a hemlock valley dense with a heavy, motionless dark green. Only one place was harboring a D, a pitiful little half-starved sniggerbit that might actually have been a family pet, like the kids clinging to their silent father's legs claimed. The man himself said nothing. He just looked at Gruber and Connie and the filled-out citation as though they were all different kinds of snake, then led his kids inside so they wouldn't have to see the sniggerbit tranked and taken away.

In the ordinary manner, Gruber reported back to Manny in Weaverville as soon as he got up high enough on some hill to see a bar or two on his cell. Life would have been easier with a satphone, but the county wouldn't spring for the service plan.

Manny's voice sounded like he was on the other side of the moon, or maybe trapped in a room full of rabid washing machines.

". . . ob's guys say they need . . . back at the Watkins'. . ."

"Say again, please, Manny. This connection sucks."

"Who's 'ob'?" asked Connie.

"Sheriff Trager," he told her. Then back into the cell: "Say again, please. I'm not getting this."

". . . burned down. Whole house gone. Big . . . tracks, fire score, maybe some tail marks. Bob wants you there for a walkaround. Meet . . . 299 south of --"

That was it. Gruber looked at the cell phone in his hand. No bars, just a lot of crackling noise. No point in even trying to call back. Briefly he considered going higher, trying to get back in touch, but to do that he'd have to get out and climb for who knows how long, or else head downhill in the Heap and hope he could find the forest service road that tracked the facing ridge.

"Was that about the Watkins' place? It's burned down?"

"You heard what I heard," he said. Then: "County map. Glove compartment." She fumbled for it even as he kept speaking. "Sheriff Trager is not exactly a patient man, so let's see if we can find a shortcut."

*

They were still several miles away, by the map, headed downhill on a road that didn't deserve the name, when a yellow light started blinking on the dashboard. Gruber slammed on the brakes. The Heap skidded to a halt, and he and Connie were jolted against their shoulder belts so hard Gruber knew they'd be feeling it the next day.

Connie shot him a look. "What's wrong?"

"Stay here. I'll be right back." He threw the Heap into park but left it running. With one hand he unstrapped himself as fast as he could; with the other he pushed the door open wide.

"Gruber?"

"Just stay here."

He shut the door behind him as gently as he could, but the clatch sound still seemed like a gunshot in the quiet under the trees. Gruber held his breath and listened. He heard the Heap's low idling and some distant bird sounds, but nothing else. He looked down the rough road in the direction they were going, then back the way they'd come, and off to either side. All the time he kept his eyes vague and unfocused, paying attention mainly to his peripheral vision, trying to tease some hint of motion out of the tangle of trees and leaves and brush. Nothing that way, either. He did get detailed then, leaving the side of the Heap to explore a little way into the woods, peering low on the tree trunks and high into the branches, looking for firesign or fresh breaks.

After five minutes he came back to the Heap, opened the driver-side door and stood there without getting in, frowning at the still-blinking yellow light.

"You are seriously freaking me out," Connie said, not even trying to hide the worry in her voice. "What's going on? Why'd you stop?"

"That," Gruber said, pointing at the light.

"What, do we have engine trouble?"

"No," he said, getting back in the Heap. He pulled the door shut normally and started to belt himself back in. "That's the emergency telltale for the passive pheromone traps. Manny calls it the 'oh shit' light."

"You mean --"

"Oh yeah," he nodded. "I can't find any sign of it out there, but we just crossed serious D trail. That or the damn sensor is showing a false positive, which could be, given the jouncing it's gotten today."

"What do we do?"

"We check it out. Burnt house in the neighborhood, that might have been Grandma and Grandpa coming back to get rid of evidence. But Manny said Trager spotted fire score . . . so we check it out. Cautiously."

She shook her head. "My folks are going to call me at the motel tonight and ask me how my first day went, and I'm so going to have to lie to them. They never wanted me doing this."

"That's not your big problem," Gruber said.

"It isn't?"

"Nope." His lips pulled back in a flat grin as he put the Heap back into drive, then eased down on the gas. "Didn't I tell you? Newbies have to write the first drafts of the incident reports. You're going to be up to your eyebrows in paperwork 'til midnight."

"Thanks."

When he saw her expression he wanted to laugh, but the light that was still blinking on the dash wouldn't let him.

*

Connie spotted them before he did -- a scattering of trees, all firs, all fairly close together, bearing the unmistakable fingerprint of fire: scorch-marks like whip weals, ten or twelve feet off the ground. On the ground next to the trees was what would have looked like an abandoned turnoff, except for the fresh tire tracks vanishing into it. Gruber shifted to four-wheel drive and turned the Heap to follow, doggedly pushing it through clinging, scraping underbrush that grabbed at the tires and fenders, and menacingly low boughs that actually blocked the way. He coaxed and cajoled the truck over logs that had obviously been hauled into position. Finally, around a hundred yards in, things eased off and he found himself driving on a well-tended trail, flat and easy and wide enough for a commercial trailer.

Without turning his head, Gruber said, "Name the seven major D's that actually breathe fire."

Connie welcomed the distraction. "Uh . . . Welsh reds, quetzals, China longs -- the North China subgenus, not the southern longs."

"Keep going."

"Himalayans, the San Ysidro group, the Yilbegan . . . and the Chuvash. Right?"

"Right. So what do we have here? Consider the evidence."

Gruber swung the Heap past a couple of trees burnt charcoal-black, as though they had been through a forest fire. Connie said quickly, "Anything could have done those: they burned from the ground up. But the fire marks back there, those were pretty high. A humungous Welsh red could do it, maybe, but more likely a quetzal or a China long. I'm betting on a long."

Gruber nodded. "Agreed. But why not a quetzal? Why not any of the others?"

She swallowed hard. Her voice sounded dry and rough to him, like it hurt to speak. "They've never been reported up here, not even once. And longs outnumber quetzals and reds six to one in the reclamation stats. The longs have been invasive up here since '82, they're a lot easier to get hold of . . . no, it's got to be a long."

A rambling, ranch-style house was coming into view through the trees, and Gruber braked the Heap to an easy stop at the first sight of it. "Guess we're going to find out."

He put on his helmet and gloves and opened the driver's-side door. Keeping his voice low, he said, "Rules still apply. You lock up after me, stay right where you are, and if I get into trouble you are solid gone, yelling for help all the way."

She said, "I thought we were contraband, not perps."

"All I'm going to do is look around a little bit, size up the operation -- then we're out of here. Just keep your eyes open and the engine running."

"All right." Her voice was almost inaudible, a child's mumble. She said, "I wish you didn't have to do this."

Gruber said, "It's not the D I'm worried about, not so much -- it's the people. People are always scarier than D's, that's the first rule of the job. I'll be fine. You sit tight, you got that? You got it, Connie?" It was the first time he had actually called her by her name.

"I said all right, didn't I?" She frowned at him.

"Back in a flash." He popped a rack of Winged Monkeys out of the holder in the door and stuffed all six into different pockets of his coverall. The little handball-sized spheres were a cross between an insect fogger and a grenade, only with a payload of burst-release broad-spectrum tranquilizers. Gruber hated them, fully trusting neither their accuracy nor their cargo, but at least this way he could go in without looking aggressively armed, while still carrying something useful at longer range than the standard tapper.

Walking alone toward the house, he knew from just tasting the air that one of the big D's was nearby, though he couldn't yet make out which breed. They always smell like garbage dump fires, just different kinds. Part of him wanted to bolt back inside the Heap and head straight for Weaverville, but he knew the grief he'd catch from Trager's boys if something like that ever got around. So he turned, with the Heap already barely visible among the dark trees, and gave Connie a jaunty little wave.

That's when he saw the green minibike parked off to one side, near the bushes. He'd walked right by it, but hadn't noticed because the angle had been wrong.

Well, he thought. That answers that.

He turned without letting his face show anything, then walked the rest of the way to the ranch house. When he got there he climbed the three steps to the low veranda, knocked on the front door, and stood quickly to one side, just in case.

He was not especially surprised when the door was answered fairly promptly, but the wispy, pallid creature who opened it did catch him off-guard. Not quite an albino, having watery blue eyes and watery red hair, the man was still pale as the liquid that pours off yogurt or tofu when the container is first opened. Clearly in his early twenties, he already had the ruined mouth and teeth of a scrofulous old man. But his voice was guilelessly friendly as he inquired, "Yes? What can I do for you?" He stepped over the threshold toward Gruber, pulling the door almost shut behind him.

"D Control, sir," Gruber said. "Not here for you, just trying to trace a couple of elderly persons, last seen heading in this direction on a motorbike." He gestured vaguely behind him. "Kind of like that one out there, actually. We have some reason to believe that they were running a breeding operation out of their farm. Belgian wyverns, to be precise. Would they be here with you presently, by any chance?"

"Elderly persons." The young man wrinkled his genuine alabaster brow and uttered a light, soft chuckle. "Well, I suppose that could be Mr. and Mrs. Edward J. Watkins, my grandparents -- I'm Larry Watkins -- but breeding D's? Please -- those two couldn't cross the street on a red light. Can't help you, I'm afraid. That's my minibike, and I haven't seen the grandsters for at least a month, not a close family, sorry." He turned back toward the house, saying apologetically, "I'd invite you in, but I've got company just now. Old friends getting together, you know how it is. Please do say hello to my supposedly felonious grandparents for me, should you ever find 'em." He vanished through the door, still chuckling.

Gruber knew he'd already pushed his luck as far as it was going to stretch. The sane thing to do was leave, consult with Trager, and not return until he had proper support. But the snotty little shit had put his back up, so instead of hightailing it straight for the Heap he found himself moving around the side of the house as carefully and quietly as he could.

Just a quick little look-see . . .

There were two buildings up the overgrown rise to the rear: Quonset-type huts, like man-sized culverts closed at both ends. One sniff told him what they were making there, and how they were making it. Nobody was ever going to confuse the rotting fish smell of phosphine gas with anything else.

He had just enough time to feel really stupid before the first shot rang out. It didn't come anywhere close to him -- tweakers didn't tend to be Olympic marksmen -- but it was definitely large-caliber, and the next one whanged off a rock and ricocheted by his left ear. He bellowed, "D Control! Not after you!" but he might as well have yelled, "Hey, who ordered the Extra-Large with sausage and mushrooms?" for all the good it did him. People were spilling out of the nearest Quonset now: a couple of large guys with muscle shirts and walrus mustaches, followed by a slighter Latino. Gruber counted two automatic rifles and a shotgun between them, before he spun and ran, praying not to turn an ankle on the tangly, pebbly slope.

He skidded around the house and came face to face with a nightmare.

As many years as Gruber had been with D Control, he had never seen anything like it, not in real life -- just in YouTube videos, which definitely didn't do the beast justice. It was deep, deep ebony all the way, even the wings, at least nine feet tall at its breastbone, easily thirty feet long from head to tail-tip, and spiked everywhere, with a flattened viperine head that looked too big for its body, and yellow-orange eyes that blazed in the twilight like amber stars. The fire dancing in its open mouth seemed redder than any other flame in the world, and different as well, as though it was the D's real tongue, ready to lick and caress and savor.

Gruber froze. How in hell had they gotten a full-grown San Ysidro black up here without anyone knowing? And how in hell had they trained it? He'd only ever heard of three San Ysidros getting past Homeland Security, all eggs, for heaven's sake, all in Florida, and every one of the animals was recovered when the hatchlings ripped up the fools who'd bought them.

It wasn't possible. But here it was, planted firmly between him and the Heap -- dammit, couldn't Connie see the thing? Why wasn't she gone already? -- while assorted bad people with large guns converged on his aging tail. Gruber was suddenly less concerned about them, at the moment. They'd most likely just watch while the San Ysidro did its job, and gave Connie her very first experience of watching a partner vanish in fire.

But he couldn't worry about Connie just now. Or the meth lab commandos. Not if he wanted to live more than a few seconds.

"Hey, Big D," Gruber said casually, stepping backwards, slipping both hands into his pockets. The San Ysidro ran out its blazing red tongue and seemed to grin at him.

He threw the first Flying Monkey at it left-handed, then turned without waiting to see what happened and fired the second one straight at the front window of the house. It shattered the glass, and as it did he beat feet for the door. Fore and aft he heard two loud whumps -- the internal CO2 cartridges going off -- and the hissing spray of the tranquilizer release. He saw thick white tendrils of it coming through the broken window, and for a moment he thought his crazy improvisation might actually work. He didn't expect one half-assed throw to take down the San Ysidro, and the drug mist wouldn't knock out people, just make them cough a lot and tear up badly. But they had to have guns in the house, and obviously the beast was trained to leave the occupants alone. If he could just get inside while the Watkins clan was distracted, grab himself a real weapon --

As a rule, firebreathers weren't big on accuracy; they didn't have to be, not when they could burn down a whole forest to get at the one thing they were after. The San Ysidro's first blast missed Gruber, but took out a sizable chunk of the veranda, and he had to duck away to keep splashes of the clinging, fiery fluid from lighting him up, too. His straight path to the door vanished behind a wall of heat and smoke.

"Crap!" he shouted, then ran uphill in the only clear direction left to him. He could feel the D turn slowly to follow. The guys with guns didn't. In the quick glimpse he allowed himself, he saw them shouting at Larry Watkins, who was out on the veranda with a halon fire extinquisher, spinning like a dervish as he tried to quench the flames.

Gruber jumped over a couple of fallen trees and kept moving. The San Ysidro glided slowly in pursuit, quick and graceful for its size, coming at an angle. Gruber realized that the thing was trying to drive him into the undergrowth, where he'd be surrounded on all sides by easily flammable material. "What, you had to be smart as well as big?" he muttered to himself. Meanwhile it came on without making a sound, though he could hear the fire building in its throat and chest, rustling like terrible wings.

Gruber knew his tapper was useless against something this large, even if it let him get close enough to try it. The four Winged Monkeys were all he had. He got another one ready, turning it over and over again in his right hand as he watched the D come on, banging its way through the trees as if it barely knew they were there.

When the San Ysidro had a clear path it sped up, closing fast as it prepared to let loose another blast. Gruber got a proper two-seam cut fastball grip on the Winged Monkey and reared back, hurling it dead-center straight into the flames and fangs of the thing's open mouth. He didn't wait to see it go down the San Ysidro's gullet, being far too busy hurling himself to one side. Flames shot over him as he tumbled backward down the hillside, trying to spot some cover somewhere as he rolled. He fetched up hard against a tree and sat up slowly, struggling to catch his breath. He'd lost his helmet somewhere, and one of his overall sleeves was on fire. He rubbed the yellow fabric in the dirt until it was out, barely noticing what he was doing. Other things had his attention.

The whump, when he heard it, was barely audible. He saw the San Ysidro stop still, not dead or disabled, by any means, but definitely looking puzzled. It hacked once, like a cat with a hairball, then bellowed in decided discontent. The trickle of fire that splashed out this time had a flickering green streak to it.

Gruber pushed himself to his feet and let the tree trunk keep him there. His shoulder hurt like hell. He whispered "Hold still, you bastard," and threw two more Monkeys, one after the other, as fast and hard as the pain would let him. The first bounced off when the San Ysidro raised its head, and blew uselessly when it hit the ground; but the other one played crazy pinball in a nest of cranial spikes and burst right above the thing's left eye, surrounding its whole head and torso in a thick grey-white fog. The San Ysidro started to take a step, but didn't finish; instead both hind legs jerked stiff and stopped moving, causing it to fall over on one side. The spikes on its right hip and shoulder plowed deep furrows in the soil, and it shook its head up and down, rumbling to itself. Gruber had seen horses in pain do the same thing.

For whatever reason the Heap was still parked where he'd left it, so he began to circle back through the trees, hoping to get there without being spotted by any of the meth-heads standing around the wrecked and smoking veranda. No such luck; fifty yards short of his goal he heard the jagged tear of a semiautomatic rifle firing, and sprays of dirt and splintering treebark stitched a line between him and his goal. Gruber found himself pinned down behind a fallen sapling that wasn't nearly big enough to be good cover. Every time he moved, every time he showed so much as his bald spot, the chips flew; and that log couldn't afford to lose too many chips. He had one Winged Monkey left, but bitterly concluded that it was no help. He couldn't have reached the gunmen from here anyway, even if his shoulder wasn't screaming; and standing up to try would be suicide.

"Quit firing, already!" he shouted. "The Sheriff knows I'm here! You want to get the needle for a murder charge, instead of six years on some punkass meth conviction?"

"Go to hell, asshole!" It was the Watkins kid shouting. "You wouldn't even be my first today!"

Gruber thought about meth paranoia and burned-down houses, abruptly certain that Johanna and Eddie Watkins were never going to see the inside of the Trinity County Courthouse. He shivered.

Then he heard the Heap's engine suddenly rev to a roar, and had his mouth open to yell to Connie not to try and pick him up, that they'd both be exposed the moment she opened the door for him. But in a moment he realized that wasn't her plan.

The nerve-rending wail of screechers came on as she gunned the Heap straight for the house, picking up speed fast. The tweakers fired at it, of course, but the Heap had been built to stand off flames, claws, fangs and pretty much anything short of an RPG. When the guys with the walrus mustaches realized the howling metal monster wasn't slowing down, not even a little bit, they threw away their guns and bailed, running for the trees. The Latino followed a moment later. Only Larry Watkins kept firing, his eyes wide and insane.

With nobody paying attention to him anymore, it was safe for Gruber to stick his head out: even at this distance the screechers were so loud he had to put his hands over his ears. He watched the whole scene in disbelief, tensing at the inevitable collision. Then -- not twenty feet from the house -- Connie must have braked hard and spun the steering wheel all the way to the left, or nearly so, because the Heap suddenly went into a great skidding turn that almost tipped it over, trading back for front as the rear end came round and three tons of reinforced metal hammered what was left of the veranda into kindling. Watkins vanished somewhere in the debris.

The Heap came to a stop. So did the screechers.

Gruber jumped to his feet and ran full-tilt toward the house. He couldn't see Connie through the fissured, pockmarked glass of the Heap's front window, and for a moment he was certain that one of the bullets had gotten through, that she was lying dead on the floor of the cab and it was all his goddamn fault. But before he got there the Heap lurched once, then again, and finally detached itself from whatever piece of the house it had gotten caught on, moving forward smoothly. In a dim, distant way he realized he was shouting.

Connie slowed the Heap to a crawl when she spotted him. As Gruber pulled open the driver-side door and jumped in she moved over, making room for him to take the wheel. He stomped on the gas without bothering to belt himself in.

"You better be okay to drive, and not in shock or anything," she said. "I've got something to take care of here."

He turned to look at her and ask what, but a shadow at the corner of his eye made him pull his head back just in time to see the San Ysidro standing smack in the middle of the flattened dirt road they'd driven up, a century or so earlier. It looked profoundly pissed-off, and if it didn't know that Gruber was the human being responsible for its pain and confusion, then he was in the wrong line of work.

Two seconds, three choices. He could jam on the brakes and pulp both of them against the windshield -- Connie wasn't belted in, either -- or he could ram the D and make it even angrier, or he could veer round it one way or the other and pray not to front-end a tree before he managed to pull the Heap back onto the road. Connie had the McNaughton on her lap, messing with it, doing something he couldn't figure, but Gruber knew she hadn't seen the San Ysidro yet and there was no time to shout an explanation. He picked Door Number Three, threw all his weight on cranking the wheel to the right, crashed into a blackberry bramble and came out the other side just as a blast from the San Ysidro sent it up in flames. Gruber had the wheel to hold onto. Connie didn't. She screamed as inertia threw her against his aching right shoulder, and he yelled as she hit him, the pain causing him to white out for a moment. His foot slipped off the accelerator and the Heap slowed down, half on the road and half off.

When he could focus again the Heap had stopped, and the San Ysidro had climbed on top of it. The D was hammering on the cab with everything it had -- wings, spikes, tails, and claws -- trying to get in. It brought its head down even with the side window, and Gruber found himself staring straight into one of its glaring yellow eyes from ten inches away.

It knew, all right. It knew who he was, why he was there, what he had done to it, how he had felt about doing it; and it knew he wasn't going to get away. Not this time.

It reared its head back, opened its jaws, and let loose hell.

The Heap was completely fireproof, of course, like every D-retrieval vehicle -- flames couldn't even get under the door, normally -- but the designers hadn't done any tests after shooting one all the hell up, slamming it into a house, and driving it through a bunch of scrub and fallen tree limbs. Gruber saw tiny fingers of flame squeezing through cracks in the windshield, and smelled insulation and wiring burning inside the dash. The air in the cab was so hot it hurt to breathe: Gruber couldn't guess what was going to kill them first, roasting to death or smoke inhalation. He turned the key in the ignition, but couldn't even hear the starter motor turning over. If the San Ysidro' fire had gotten through the engine compartment seals, it was all over.

For a single moment, he rested his head on the wheel and -- only for a moment -- closed his eyes.

A sudden raw blast of heat on his face made him aware that Connie had opened the window on her side. He looked and saw her leaning out through it, hurling wyvern eggs at the San Ysidro as fast as she could pull them out of the keeper. No, not eggs -- blazing orange hatchlings, literally biting at her fingers as she scooped them up and threw them. Gruber screamed at her to get down, but she paid him no heed, not until the McNaughton was completely empty. Then she slumped back onto her seat and tried to roll the window up, but couldn't get a grip on the handle. Despite the D-schmear, her crabbed-up fingers were a mass of red and blistered burns, and both hands bled from a dozen bad nips and slices. He reached past and rolled the window up for her, certain that any second they were both going to be incinerated by the San Ysidro's fire.

Only that wasn't happening. Something else was.

The San Ysidro was howling. The cab shook hard as it lurched away, letting go. Gruber saw it rolling and thrashing on the ground, speckled with bright moving sparks, as if its own fire was leaking out from the inside.

Connie was laughing hysterically, her wounded hands curled in her lap. "How do you like being on the receiving end for once, hey? You like that?"

Gruber finally understood what she had done. D's -- all the D's -- were as fiercely territorial as different species of ants . . . and newborn wyverns had teeth that could puncture Kevlar, a mean body temperature hotter than boiling water, and a drive to eat that wouldn't stop until they'd consumed five or six times their own body weight. One of them, the San Ysidro could have handled. Seven or eight, even, with some permanent damage. But more than sixty, and every single tiny mouth eating its way straight in from wherever it started?

Gruber and Connie sat in the Heap's cab, saying nothing, and watched the San Ysidro die by inches. It took nearly an hour before it stopped moving. Somewhere in there Gruber got out the first aid kit and did what he could for Connie's hands.

It was full night out by the time it was over. Connie was slumped beside him, almost bent double, her arms crossed palm-up in front of her chest. They both felt hollow, still half in shock and no longer amped on adrenaline.

She mumbled, "Nobody should be allowed to have them."

"Nobody is," Gruber said. "But they have them anyway." Connie did not seem to have heard him.

"You're a walking mess," he said with weary affection. Her dark-brown hair was scorched short on the right side, just as her right cheek and ear were singed, and all of her right arm had a first degree burn inside her coverall sleeve. He didn't want to think about what was under the bandages on both her hands, but for now the kit's painkiller was keeping the nerves properly numb. That was good. "Thanks for saving my dumbass life. Twice, even."

Connie gave him a wary sideways glance. Most of her right eyebrow was gone too. "Trick compliment?"

"No trick. That was smart, cranking up the McNaughton so the wyverns would hatch out faster. I wouldn't have thought of that one." He rubbed his right shoulder, which was out-and-out killing him, now that it had regained his attention.

"I had to do something when the San Ysidro showed up. It was the only thing that occurred to me."

"You could have peeled out of there, like I told you to."

She shook her head. "I'm not actually so good about following orders. I was going to tell you that tomorrow."

He thought for a silent while. Then he said, "Consider the message conveyed."

A minute later he pushed the door open and stepped out. "Come on. The Heap's not going anywhere, and we've got a job to finish."

"What, we're going back?" She stiffened in the seat, leaning away from his extended hand.

"Not a chance. I think you must have creamed Junior pretty good, or else we'd have had company by now. But it's anybody's guess whether those other idiots came back or not." He made a brusque hurry up gesture, and turned away once he saw she was finally starting to move. "So no, we're not going back. What we're going to do is hike down to 299. Somewhere around the turnoff we're going to find Trager or one of his guys. They were expecting us hours ago, they'll be looking. After we tell them what went down we can get you to Mountain Community Medical."

"You too," Connie said.

"Yeah, me too."

He stood where the San Ysidro had finally ceased thrashing, and looked down at the bloody, riddled corpse. Somehow it looked even bigger, splayed out dead in the darkness. Connie stopped a few feet behind him.

"Hey, trainee. How long before the baby wyverns wake up and start eating their way back out?"

"I have no idea," she said, looking a little worried.

"Good to learn there's something about D's you don't know." Despite the pounding snarl in his shoulder, he realized he felt happier than he had in months. Maybe years. "The answer, for your information, is twelve to fifteen hours. Plenty of time for somebody else to come here and handle this mess, and good luck to them."

He started off the way they'd first come, hunching forward slightly as he walked to keep his torso from swinging too much. Connie caught up with him, matching his pace. The stars were out, and it wasn't hard to find their way.

Neither of them said anything for more than twenty minutes. Then Connie spoke up. "They had a San Ysidro black. Can you believe it?"

"There's a lot of people who'll be asking that one," Gruber nodded. "From the Feds on down. Get ready to star in one hell of an investigation."

Connie stopped walking. "Oh my god" she whispered. "Oh no. What are my parents going to say? I can't tell them about this! I mean --"

"Nice try," Gruber grinned at her. "Parents or no, hands or no, you're still writing up the report. If you can't type, you can dictate."

She tried to kick him in the shin, but he managed to get out of range. The first time, anyway.


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