Kiana had been in the wilderness alone. It was against protocol, and exactly what she needed. That’s what she told herself anyway. Lions came to nuzzle her belly, rumbling softly, perhaps due to that acute animal instinct for knowing when something was wrong. Usually they scattered when the Old man came around.
The first time was on the first day of the month, on the first hour past noon. Of course it was. He popped around a tree on those sand scattered Kalahari plains and waved. Kiana started, then bent over the hand-held UV monitor in both her mitts and muttered, “It’s not real.”
On the second day, at the appointed hour, he climbed into the sun-screened Jeep with her with a cheery “Hello!” Her grip tightened knuckle white on the steering wheel. “You’re not real,” she repeated, almost as a mantra. Her bright green eyes shunted her off onto a vision, flashing to the live-feed six weeks past, to the same man, now more emaciated than he’d been at their last contact, seemingly plied with ever-more tubes in every vein. She blinked, jerking to the side, but the man was gone, at least for now.
Twice more she saw him, at a distance paralleling her as she did her job, collecting genetic samples from the indigenous wildlife. It wasn’t normally dangerous work, but it was always better to work in teams. Especially on the Kalahari with its hundred-degree-plus temperatures, sparse grasses, pale sand pans and gnarled camel thorn trees clawing infrequently at the sky. On the sixth day, it almost cost her.
Kiana had sampled some weaver birds but hadn’t been paying enough attention to her surroundings. Which was how the cheetah had stumbled into her. They literally tripped over one another. Luckily Kiana rolled one way and the spotted cheetah the other. Her heart hammered at her ribs with startling ferocity. That was nothing compared to the snarl issuing from the big cat.
Its eyes were cloudy. It must have an older cat who stumbled carelessly into the noonday sun and been blinded. With all the other adverse effects of climate change it couldn’t have been helped. This was not helping her at all, though. Her limbs were still trying not to move. She didn’t seem to have much control over her shrill breathing, something the cheetah’s ears tuned in on with terrible accuracy.
That’s when the Old man stepped around her, waving both long arms and yelling, startling the cat enough that she could get off a shot with her tranq pistol. It took a couple of shots to flatten the agitated beast, but it was done.
The pistol thunked to the brittle yellow grass as the Old Man swung back to her with that familiar grin. “That’s why you shouldn’t be out here by yourself,” he said. “Baby? What’s wrong?”
“…please stop,” she whispered, her overflowing eyes burning. “…god, please stop…you can’t be here…”
“I don’t see why not. The cheetah seemed to agree with me.”
“B-but, Poppa, you’re gone. You’re…y-y-you’re…”
It all came spilling out, all the tears dammed for the past six weeks, all the suppressed emotions, stealing her breath, choking her. The Old Man returned from the truck with a paper bag for her to breath into. He held onto her with soothing words as she hunched over herself, hyperventilating for how long, an hour? All she was able to choke out in all that time was, “forgive me.”
“What for, baby?” he asked.
“I-I wasn’t there, Poppa. I-I didn’t come for the end.”
“The cancer was pretty far along this time. There wasn’t a lot anyone could do.”
As he’d done when she was younger and brought home every stray dog in the neighborhood, teary-eyed, he now dabbed her cheeks with a kerchief that was the same safari-brown as his sleeveless shirt and shorts. “It’s okay, Baby. Say what’s really bothering you.”
She could look at him now, into the smiling eyes that had raised her, the face now smoothed of all aches. “Is heaven real?” she asked.
“It’s better than heaven,” he shrugged. “Go on. You can do it.”
“What, the little girl who frolicked with lions? That’s not who I remember.”
“That’s just it. I didn’t want to remember you like that, all wasted away. I wanted you to be strong in my memory. I wanted to remember all the fishing trips with you and Momma. I wanted to remember that big hug you gave me when I came home from my mission.”
“You can still have that. Nothing wrong with that.”
“But I-I’m not ready.”
“I wasn’t. Nobody’s ever ready. That’s okay. I have faith in you, baby.”
“Does Momma hate me, for not coming home?”
He blew a raspberry out the side of his mouth. “Never. ‘Worried’ is more like it. You should give her a call.” Together they stood. “I’ve been allowed this one visit. I’ve probably overstayed it already. Why don’t I help you load that cat in the cage before I get back?”
This was done in no time at all. As she slammed the metal cage shut in the back of the Jeep, he tipped her chin up, chucking her on it. “I’m proud of you, baby.”
She ducked her head with a smile. A stiff breeze whipped through her bones and he was gone. In the depression in the grass where he’d stood, there remained a small red book of Psalms, the one he’d always carried with him for forty years. The one Momma swore she’d buried with him.
Where the devil was this place? The Minister was expecting her. He’d told Kiana, oh it’s only a half hour drive at most from the Storehouse. So far, all Kiana had come across was mile upon mile of dry season veldt. She couldn’t be late. This meeting would determine the level of security she and her crew received over the next couple of seasons. After that last attempt on her life in JoBerg by the self-styled Colonel Welles, they’d need it. Well, she certainly could use some.
Mile upon mile stretched ahead of her beat-up Jeep, and while she loved the outdoors Kiana did have somewhere to be tonight. The Moon shone full upon the South African grasslands. That could be a good or a bad sign, depending on your superstition, she mused. And she was gonna be late, she just knew it.
She only hoped she hadn’t gotten herself dolled up for nothing. She preferred shorts and tank tops, but tonight she needed to make the best impression. She had showered and shimmied into a brand-new shimmering indigo gown and opera gloves, all of it faux leather. Joshua thought it suited her tanned complexion and short strawberry blonde hair. He could be such a sweetheart. She’d put a clean towel on the dusty car seat so as not to stain her bottom–a rare consideration given how raw she lived–and set out. She would meet Joshua Mzima, her second in command at the Storehouse, as well as the Minister at the field station.
That had been the plan, anyway. Had she taken a wrong turn? According to the Jeep’s onboard GPS she was pointed in the right direction. “Alia,” Kiana addressed the dashboard’s AI unit, “give Joshua a ring. Tell him I may be a little late.”
“That line is unavailable,” the prim AI responded.
“What do you…? Never mind. Try again.”
“That line is unavailable.”
Kiana tried to keep her focus on the ‘road’ and not how stuffy it was inside this motorized coffin. She darted a glance to her pocket cell, which was turning out to be a useless slip of plastic. “Why? Is the battery not charged enough?”
“Your cell’s battery capacity is at 92 percent. There is a connection error.”
Kiana slowed down. “Explain.”
“There appears to be a counter signal interfering with reception.”
“What, we’re being jammed?”
“Alia, has someone been hacking into your base program again?”
The reply was almost tart. “My cognitive functions have not been penetrated.”
She’d been relying on the GPS too much to guide her. Kiana realized as she drove on into the dark that might have been a mistake. Ahead loomed a tree with incandescent bulbs strung through its branches. “All right. Stand by, I’m pulling over…So stupid, should have pulled over sooner.”
“Is that an inquiry–?”
“NO! Shut off!” Grass rustled beneath the undercarriage as the Jeep rolled to a stop under the tree’s arching branches. Kiana slipped off her fancy indigo flats; no point getting them dirty, given what she’d already spent on this outfit for this ONE evening. Then she popped her Poppa’s compass from the glove box. It was his gift to her, upon announcing that she was returning to continue his work collecting gene samples of all the wildlife in South Africa for restoration, once present-day disruptions to the climate settled down.
This tree being here, so very conspicuous, screamed ‘too much coincidence!’, but she had to stop somewhere to get her bearings. She stepped out, hiking the trailing fabric of her gown off the grass in her left hand. Using the Southern Cross as a base point, she ought to be able to take a reckoning and gauge exactly how far off the mark she was.
Welles. Huh. She wouldn’t need security if not for his pranks, disrupting her work and that of her crew. She couldn’t figure that man before. The authorities billed him as some kind of ecoterrorist but that just did not fly. They shared the same goals, or so she thought. Surely they could work together. A conversation with Stempf brought some welcome insight.
Stempf had been involved with Welles’ organization prior to joining her staff. Circumstances had apparently disillusioned him toward the good colonel’s methodology, so, on a recent tagging mission involving two displaced lionesses, she got him to open up. She wasn’t sure now whether that had been a good thing.
“I was outside his door, ready for the day’s assignment,” Stempf said in his clipped Germanic tone. “I don’t think I was meant to overhear but…he, uh, he sees your relationship with Dr. Mzima as unnatural, as normalizing relations between races. Apparently it was a notion Colonel Welles found repellent.”
The lioness beneath Kiana jerked as she clipped too hard on the tag she’d just put in its ear. It was 120 degrees in the shade, but her skin suddenly felt chilled. “Not you, though,” she prompted.
Stempf smirked. “I never gave it a thought. It’s obvious you’re both crazy about each other. Everyone knows it. I think it’s kind of adorable, but I’m young. It’s not like my grandfather’s generation, when they still had all that racial separation shit–sorry, didn’t mean to curse.”
Kiana smiled. “Don’t worry, I won’t sick the other lioness on you.”
“There’s also the fact that you’re American. You know some people in your country still consider it the greatest nation in the world, even now that it’s broken into several nationalist provinces.”
“Yeah, I know. Here, help me get her into the shade so she can shake off the tranq without boiling alive.” Thus endeth that conversation.
She took her bearings beneath a string of small white bulbs, groaning at the anomalous readings. Well, the compass worked fine. She knew where the field station was. But it was stupid easy to use that GPS, and that thing in her Jeep had steered her in a polar opposite direction from where she should have been. But as she tipped the flash on her cell toward those lights, her eyes adjusted to the dark. And this tree with its long spindly branches seemingly supporting the sky had taken on a familiar aspect.
Once a season she and Joshua would come here to volunteer alongside a team from the Ministry of Health to vaccinate the children and give adults boosters for their AIDS and Ebola shots, welcome diluted strains from once fearsome diseases. Then she and Joshua would picnic in the shade at this tree’s base, now defaced with smooth bore holes from some joker’s router saw or some other tool.
She imagined this was the kind of tree George Schaller would lounge beneath to write a thesis, or Dian Fossey interacting with her gorillas at Karisake, right before–
Why did this crap always happen when she was thinking of Dian Fossey? A scrape above alerted her too late. Suddenly she found herself the victim of an ice bucket challenge. Kiana screamed as much from frustration as anything. Stupid, sticky, gooey–! She noticed a note clinging to her soaked bare right shoulder. As she peeled it away, she also became aware of the pungent sickly-sweet perfume, almost muskine, bathing her skin.
At least that bucket wouldn’t come crashing down on her head. Her motion beneath the lights probably triggered a pulley trap that yanked the line attached to its rim. The handle was still secure by an outdated ol’ zip-tie. More scrapes, like tarps against wood, sounded from lower down. Now, something else. A hiss in the dark. In fact a whole chorus of them. A fleshy plop of muscle issued…from inside the tree?
Kiana rotated the flash on her cell toward its bole, as a half-dozen thick oily roots seemed to pour out of those bore holes. And she was suddenly aware of how very alone she was. This wasn’t natural behavior, she told herself shakily. Pythons are not naturally gregarious creatures. They’d never nest in the same tree in such numbers, unless… “Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding me,” she said.
The sheer isolation she so often craved was its own kind of enemy. The snakes had cleared the holes in the tree, oozing along the dry grass toward her. Perspiration dribbled from her pits as her empathic sense detected the echo of an unnatural…no, not actual hunger. Their bellies seemed full at least. This was a stronger, overpowering urge. If they were human, she’d have called it by its name among the Seven Deadlies, lust.
She sniffed her arm in sudden suspicion, aware now of a pheromonal element in the greasy crap Welles’ bucket had spilled all over her. It was surely overwhelming the natural pheromones her body normally produced, as a means of gaining an animal’s trust and fitting into any environment. God, but they were so glossy and gorgeous, the mottled patterns in their hides rippling with each sinuous movement. Even the weight of the closest fellow on her bare feet enticed–
Kiana yanked her foot away with unexpected reluctance. Her breathing shouldn’t be this deep, so HUNGRY– Crap crap crap! She thought. Don’t tell me this goo was affecting me the same way! “The latest temptation,” she gasped, chilled in her flimsy clingy gown. Someone had stashed those snakes in those improvised dens. When that bucket tipped and the lights switched off, that probably engaged a separate control that released these cuddlies.
“No wonder lust was one of the Seven Deadlies,” she whispered, her breath a bit shallower than she preferred. Between her and the Jeep lay five slithering tubes, all issuing long extended hisses. Her feet backpedaled on the gritty soil. It should be possible to lure them around, she reasoned, angle back toward the Jeep. Once she winced as the sharp edge of a stone bit into her left heel. Despite that she kept her feet, nimbly prancing backward. Anyway, that wasn’t what tripped her up.
A thick muscular tube slapped her behind the knees. Kiana swayed for balance. The sky rushed away from her as the ground punched the air out of her lungs. Her mouth worked like a fish but she wasn’t getting any air. Her arms, legs, chest, nothing would obey her. Why didn’t she have any energy…? After a quarter of a minute she started to take in a few small breaths as the first serpent flopped across her chest.
Two of the pythons joined as one, corkscrewing around Kiana’s waist in opposing directions. Another thrust between her legs, spreading them apart. She pushed herself up, despite being bundled up to her stomach. Her left hand slipped on a rubbery hide, plunging right up to her armpit into a fistful of coils. This particular herp seemed to take delight in the sudden bounty. Like a fist the loops tightened, and a moan was torn from Kiana. Needle pricks stung up and down her imprisoned arm as the circulation began to die.
Kiana dropped, but this time the snakes squirming under her bare back cushioned the impact. She’d grabbed one of the buggers with her free hand by the scruff of its neck. The problem was they were ALL neck, and these stupid faux latex gloves didn’t allow for a sure grip. In the space of a breath it’d slipped through her hand, and with her other hand trapped there was no way to catch a firmer grip. She stared half in fascination while circles of reptilian muscle flopped around her wrist and arm.
The boys were in no hurry now. Drawn by her empathic nature, as well as her extraordinary body heat, the serpents had enveloped Kiana in seconds, pressing her to the ground, helpless in their glistening coils. A writhing mass of slick hoops like Medusa’s hairdo enveloped her, binding her legs and piling on double, one on top of another, weighing on her ribs. Latex crinkled as she flexed her fingers, in tandem with the firming of those reptilian bodies. Kiana’s small nose wrinkled as a trunk the thickness of her thighs–which she was thinking way too much about right now–oozed across her left shoulder, and the sensation of its sheer weight, its scales clinging to her skin, rocked her with shivers.
Her teeth chattered while a rounded body crept along her throat, brushing her chin. A tail slid into her open palm, cinching tight around her thumb. The noose draped around her neck was pushed up as a second loop landed with a fleshy plop beneath the first. Usually, she was the one who initiated these interactions. This was one instance where she might have no control over the outcome, and no backup to extract her if the situation turned sour.
She might never wear this gown again. It was too stupid easy for these snakes to push beneath its folds. At times like these Kiana was uncomfortably reminded of what a small petite thing she was. Still they piled on, thick meaty coils nestling to her torso, pushing the fabric down, down until her breasts flopped like two pale protuberances sweating under the moonlight. Perspiration tickled her nakedness as a second tail stroked her right breast. She rarely gave them much thought, as other girls she knew in the church were ‘more blessed’. She wasn’t sure if pride or embarrassment were more evident as the flesh mounded over the tail securing a firm grip on her.
More thick bodies like trees pushed from beneath, lifting her back off the ground, winding around the coils already encircling her. Her feet could no longer touch the ground, pedaling incrementally, her range of movement restricted by the loops binding her to the ankles. Yet another tail insinuated itself in the space between her left thigh and her womanhood. Worse still, some primal sinful instinct compelled her to clench her thighs around the supple elastic skin rippling against her bare skin, stirring shameful desires she usually kept to herself.
“No no no no no–! Not again,” she wheezed. Her hips wouldn’t obey her conscious directive, rocking inside her muscular cocoon. At least before she’d had a choice. She would go to the savannah, alone, when she couldn’t take her mind off of Joshua, when the urges became too strong. All alone, when she was sure there was no one around for miles, she would relieve her tensions.
But this–! Her bare thighs tightened around the sinuous trunk thrust between them, a spasm building as an irresistible urge, body jerking as tears burned her eyes. The leathery hides crinkled as the coils oozed over her, firm and inescapable. A coil slipped over her chin, brushing her lips. Shame drove her to bury her face into the folds of its coils, muffling her screams. Her nostrils flared, drinking precious air as creeping death compressed her cheeks.
Finally, blessed release! Her limbs jerked spasmodically one last time, every muscle straining to the bone. Then she’d gone limp, finally sated. Kiana wheezed in her serpentine cocoon, a slick coat of perspiration coating every inch of skin, her body devoid of all energy. The coil willingly slipped off her chin as her head sank into a cushioned mass snuggling firmly to her cheeks. Chest still heaving, Kiana struggled to lift enough of the weight off her ribs to breath deep.
Why weren’t they constricting? That was probably what Welles had been counting on. For now, her companions seemed content to continue this bestial embrace, muscles softly contracting and relaxing, treating Kiana to a full body massage she could never hope to escape. That forked tongue lapping at the bare soles of her right foot wasn’t helping. A brief tickle brought the giggles on top of her shortness of breath.
In the moment when her foot slid along a moist cushion, clarity snapped back to her. A double row of recurved teeth stabbed into her ankle. If she’d had the air she would have screamed. Her leg jerked but the predator wouldn’t be denied. Mucous dribbled thick as its jaws worked its way up her calf, skin stretched tight, just as a second carnal urge pulsed in her loins.
“You can’t be serious,” she moaned. “Not again–AAAA! N-no, think nasty things… autopsy…think autopsies, yeah–GAAA!–scat! Raw, putrid, diarrhetic dog shi–AAA!”
Sweat poured afresh as her heart hammered triple-time against the creeping snakes. Oh God, what if these other brutes turned on her? The rest of them seemed quiescent enough, for now. That bastard had chewed halfway up her thigh, each bite a thousand needles sinking into skin and muscle. The only thing that stopped it was when it reached her crotch and couldn’t engorge her anymore. She had no idea whether her foot had pushed into its stomach or not. Her entire right leg was crushed in a mucous filled tube, tugging at her in a relentless swallow.
Her stomach gurgled, an empathic echo of the juices swirling in her devourer’s empty belly. It was to be expected that at least one of these coiling monstrosities would need to eat. Odds are that was exactly the intent. Think positive, girl, Kiana told herself, one of them could have gone for your head.
Its snout pushed up beneath the coil binding her already-enfolded arm to her hip, glaring into her eyes. It was her first good look at one of her aggressors, and her attention was drawn to the pinhead, a small round red button set between the bony ridges over its eyes. Its distinctive design was intended to commemorate a doomed state, featuring two red diagonal bars symbolizing the cross of Saint Andrew; overlaid on top of that were images of a palmetto tree, a steamboat and a Seminole woman scattering flowers. Just like that, Kiana knew with perfect clarity where Welles’ goons had acquired these herps. Breasts crushed between their obscene caress, Kiana sank slowly, inexorably into their hungry embrace.
Morning brought little relief. Everything was actually kind of a blur. Her ribs ached and her limbs cramped, what she could feel of them. She had no feeling in her left arm; her fingers felt like five bloated sausages. The overhanging canopy of leaves would probably protect her from the worst of the Sun’s heat. A tongue flicked into her gloved hand. The empath in her rubbed her fingers across the top of its head as it nudged her palm.
If the Minister didn’t kill her, she thought…Teeth sank patiently into her thigh, bringing fresh tears. Those red eyes fixed on hers, willing her to die. The snake in her hand gazed down on her almost dispassionately. They were all so beautiful and sleek, glossy and patterned in gorgeous spots. Every coil glistened with each fresh contraction. If only she could be certain this was the naturalist in her talking and not those stupid pheromones…
A subtle vibration jiggled her deep inside her cocoon. Kiana craned her neck, only a few inches. But the only thing in sight was a mound of coils. Still, the supple scales peeled away from her cheeks, reluctantly, high enough that her ears pricked at a distant putter of engine…engines? It was impossible to pinpoint whether those Jeeps were closing in on or speeding past her position. Joshua and the others must have been out searching for her. They would know she wouldn’t have just blown off the Minister.
She had an inspiration for how she might attract their attention, too. The keys to her Jeep had a miniature touchpad that set off the alarm if she even breathed on it. She’d always thought it’d been a bit too touch sensitive, but that just might be the thing. Please tell me I didn’t leave them in the Jeep, she prayed. No, she remembered pocketing them automatically as she slipped out onto the grass. She could feel them poking around in her right pocket… her head slumped onto the meaty coil supporting her neck. “Of course it was,” she grumbled.
Her keys were practically sitting under that snake’s palette. Fine. She grit her teeth and closed her eyes. It had to be done, she told herself, before the guys drove right past her. Yet even an incremental shift of her right hip set off a fresh round of constriction. Whatever feeling she still retained returned full-force as stinging needles in her cramping limbs. She still wriggled, trying to nudge the padd that was suddenly too stubborn to activate. Damn it, usually it was too sensitive, why did this have to be the one time–?
Even with both ears cushioned in a muscular embrace, the sudden muffled hooting startled her. Were the Jeep’s headlights also strobing, or was that just the effect of the constriction?
The snake’s head oozed out of her palm, rising on a stalk half a meter high as its jaws distended. Saliva dribbled over its jaws, onto her lips. Funny, it wasn’t really glaring at her; there was something off to the side. What–? Then a blur, and that head exploded. Moments later Joshua dropped his bloodied prybar and skid to the ground, his stricken face over hers muttering “No no no no no no–!” Another python’s head rose, to be snared in a burlap sack as Joshua unwound the coils drooping around her neck.
His gaze drifted down, widening over her exposed nipples before he snapped away. Someone swore in Afrikaans, and then Stempf peeled his shirt over the top of his head and tossed it to Joshua. Then he too swung away as Joshua carefully draped it over her breasts. “I’m sorry,” she kept repeating, to which they both answered with a shake of their heads.
“We’ll have those things off you in a minute,” Joshua smiled. “First, we thought now would be an opportune time to discuss our wage increases for the coming year.” He winked. Even knowing it for the joke it was, Mkosi still swatted him on the shoulder.
“Yeah? How’d you like to wake up with these herps in your sleeping bag?” Kiana retorted. It hurt too much to grin.
Joshua spread his big hands to take in the spectacle enfolding her. “How the fu–how is this even possible?” Maybe Joshua was just trying to keep her lucid while a second Jeep coasted to a stop near them.
“Welles…” Kiana moaned. “He set this up, disabled GPS…he doused me with a pheromone extract to attract ’em…sexually–“
“Sexually? Kiana, what…?” “I-I couldn’t help myself…” but he didn’t seem to hear her. He was screaming orders, about hazmat conditions, fresh clothes, a portable boma, stuff…
“I’ll kill him for this,” Joshua muttered, bare seconds before he spotted the snake that had swallowed her leg. She practically felt the profanity before he blurted it. “Get my knife from the truck!” he shouted to Stempf. “Get it now! We’ve got to get this off her–!”
“Don’t kill it,” Kiana wheezed.
Joshua hesitated. “Kiana, I know you value life, but there are limits. That thing must have been chewing on your leg all night. It might be infected. I don’t know if we can even save it now–“
“Just sedate it, please! It’s just following its instincts. There’s no malice on its part–“
“I don’t care!”
“This is what Welles wants, don’t you see, to drive us apart. He knows I wouldn’t lift a finger to harm these creatures. Please, you and me. Don’t give him this victory.”
Joshua ducked his head, shaking it. Eyes brimming, he looked left and right, but the others were either not paying attention or pretending not to. “Kiana I can’t stand this. It pains me to see you violated like this.” That last string of words was spat with venom; towards who, it wasn’t hard to guess. But she knew him. With that one mighty clap of his hands, Joshua was on board.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” he began. “Mkosi, Stempf, you and I are going to sedate these things. We’re going to peel them off Kiana, and then we’ll sort how to get this monster to regurgitate her leg. Call the Storehouse, we’ll need as many sedatives and as many transport pods as are available. All right, chop-chop!”
The other snakes were relatively easy to extract, excepting the brute chewing her thigh. Between the three of them, Joshua, Mkosi and Stempf took the time to safely slip a hood over the head of each successive constrictor, then uncoiling them. Each animal would then be piled into the very transport pods that she and Joshua had ordered for crating injured animals they usually brought back to the Storehouse for recovery and later, release. As the coilee, Kiana had little input into the process.
“Where the devil did he acquire these things? Most of them aren’t indigenous to this ecosystem,” Joshua groused to himself as he snapped on a disposable glove, the kind they normally used when sterilizing equipment. He whispered, “I’m sorry,” as he reached beneath her right breast to unwind the tail digging into it. This was done quickly, with as little contact with her fleshy nodes as possible.
“They’re not,” Kiana said. Stempf offered her a waterskin, which she sipped from slowly. “Welles’ goons stole them from the holding area in Joberg we’re using for our cooperative reintroduction program with Florida.”
A collective groan rose from all parties. These snakes were part of a program the South African Ministry of Ecology had initiated with the former state of Florida, now a member body of the New American Confederacy. This was an effort to relocate what had been an invasive species anyway, back to their natural environment. This had become necessary with saltwater encroachment into Florida’s aquifer and the steady loss of land that could no longer be denied, which had actually begun decades ago, in her father’s young adult life.
Finally, they’d come to the real challenge. This whole time Stempf has been preoccupied being the middleman as it were, cradling the midsection of the first five snakes they’d peeled off her. Now suddenly he’d dropped to his knees, eyes wide and bloodshot, sweat pouring off his brow as he stared at the beast where Kiana’s leg should be, blood filling every puncture mark in her thigh where its teeth remained sunken in. A lump rocked up and down in Stempf’s throat, and for a moment she thought he might throw up on her.
Kiana thought he might when Joshua’s big hand clamped on his shoulder. But his voice was surprisingly mellow. “Stempf–this wasn’t you. You had no part in this. You’d parted ways with Welles’ organization a long time before he planned this. Look at me, young man. The best thing you can do is to help us get this thing off Kiana and get her some medical help.” A brotherly thump at the self-same shoulder followed. “Okay? You ready?” The young man forced a smile and nodded.
“Begging your pardon, sir, but why don’t we just have Kiana summon a lion?” the others stared at Stempf then like he’d just landed from Mars. “I mean it’d regurgitate her if it was threatened! She can control animals, can’t she? Uhh, no offense, miss.”
“There’s no lions around…” Kiana panted. Every rib ached from last night’s ordeal. “Dry season…they followed the herds to a moderate climate…”
“She’s in no condition to control wild predators, even if any were nearby,” Joshua confirmed. “Those things squeezed all the strength out of her.” He rubbed one hand over his scalp with a sigh. Kiana’s soft whisper galvanized their attention.
“a-5, in the genetics tanks…you could use the coolant reserve in the Jeeps…”
“Yes–lower environmental temperatures,” Joshua nodded, glancing toward his compatriots. “That’s also what forces a constrictor to regurgitate its prey. Threat or lower temperatures–“
“…guys…? Right here…I can hear you…”
“Sorry,” the three men chorused. Joshua beckoned them to follow him a ways off. Apparently he was outlining a plan, judging by the speed his hands chopped at the air. The huddle broke up, while each man pelted toward a Jeep. Joshua seemed to have chosen hers. Kiana was left to stare down the length of her small body, criss-crossed in black and blue bruises, down to the mouth gushing fresh gobs of saliva over her crotch.
“…don’t suppose you’re ready to just let me go…?” Her burning eyes widened as instead the jaws yawned ever wider. Somehow it inched around her right buttock, its gums pressing to her roundness. “…guys…!”
Three sets of knees scuffed to the ground around her. Their hands were bundled in double layers of haz-mat gloves, each man cradling a thermos-sized coolant tank. The hoses trailing from each tank were now deployed along the python’s flanks. “Brace yourself,” Joshua said as he aimed the tip of his hose right at its broad snout. By either fortune or sheer luck, at that moment the beast opened wide to take in more of her hip.
“No you don’t!” Joshua snarled. His hands twisted a knob. A jet of Antarctic coolant hissed down its gullet. Two more jets sprayed its glossy neck from both flanks. While on their expeditions to collect gene samples from wild animals, Kiana’s crew stored the collected sequences in insulated iceboxes stowed in the back of each Jeep. The iceboxes were chilled with the most recent innovation in coolant technology, ironically dubbed ‘Antarctic ice’, or a-5 for short. That was shorthand, her dad used to say, for ‘it’s five times colder than a witch’s teats.’
This might not have been the use its makers intended, but it achieved the desired goal. The snake’s jaw stretched impossibly wide, gagging as all four meters contracted, roiling backwards as its mouth slid off her butt. Her thigh, a mass of tiny punctures, was suddenly chilled as its muscular embrace oozed from her too-pale skin.
Stempf’s tank was the first to spit and sputter out of coolant. Joshua and Mkosi kept up the pressure, practically jamming their hoses in its mouth. It was a slow motion swallow in reverse. Once it had vomited itself past Kiana’s knee, Joshua dropped his tank and slapped his hands beneath Kiana’s armpits, tensing, waiting. Mkosi and Stempf did the same, tossing their now-useless tanks to one side and hefting a lump of python in their arms. Then Joshua called, “Go!”
Joshua scrambled to the rear, dragging Kiana finally free of its death swallow. Which led to a new problem: now Stempf and Mkosi were stumbling to control an angry, hurting python denied its meal, writhing in their arms. Fog clouded the edges of Kiana’s vision, so she couldn’t be sure if Mkosi was really pressing one foot on a length of coil bucking beneath him. It seemed only seconds passed between the time Joshua laid her head down and bolted, to the moment he was standing over that livid python, pumping one tranq dart after another into its exposed neck. After that, she didn’t know.
Two strong arms bundled her into a blanket. Then Joshua lifted her and padded across the swishing grass. A tailgate rattled down, and tender hands eased them both into the open bed of one of their Jeeps. She drank in his strong man scent, sprinkled with the eggs and jam he must’ve wolfed for breakfast. Joshua held her close, plucking sprigs of grass from her auburn mane. “I’m such a mess,” she moaned. “How can you stand me…?”
“Must be your shining personality,” Joshua quipped. “It’s okay, the Minister was quite concerned about your absence, after his initial tantrum. I don’t think we’ll have much of an issue getting that extra security now.”
Just then Mkosi dashed up to the tailgate with a message. “Magistrate Malaza is sending an air-foil,” Mkosi reported. “He’ll be here in five minutes.”
“That was quick on his part,” Joshua said. “How did you persuade him to do that?”
“I said it was Welles and, ummm, that there might have been sexual crimes involved. I hope I, mmm, haven’t overstepped my bounds.”
Joshua glanced at Kiana, dabbing a damp cloth to her cheeks. “I only wish it wasn’t. No, you haven’t, my friend. Well,” he added, smacking his hand together again, “I suppose after what happened in Joberg and this incident, we can now officially declare that Colonel Welles is a fetishist.”
A flare of light in the south-eastern sky, like the light of Bethlehem, preceded a rush of air, like a rocket falling from space. The Magistrate’s supersonic airfoil wasn’t that far away now. Kiana pawed kitten-soft at Joshua’s wrist. “Hey, I’m curious. How’d you resist Welles’ pheromones?”
He smiled. “I didn’t, not completely. But I’d wrestled with my hormones back in our college days. I knew your religion would never permit a mixed-race relation any more than Welles would. We’ve been friends since childhood, Kiana. I valued that too much. So I could either cut myself off from you, completely, or I could choose to live with it. I chose the latter. And I can always hope.”
Kiana stared down into her lap. “I’ll always love you.”
The professor will probably shit when he reads this report. This was supposed to be a rescue mission. Floating inside the belly of a tardigrade wasn’t part of the plan. Still, navigating the microsphere wasn’t so tough. In some ways it was similar to free fall in zero gravity. This water bear bore me with remarkable alacrity now that I was inside it, if one can assign such values to a microbial anthropoid thingy.
I’m trying not to touch anything. I should be thinking of my own survival, floating in this thick interior jelly, but…this specimen was unique. Its feeding stylets actually shifted into a fissure in the upper part of its snout, which enabled it to ‘devour’ me without harm…. shit, those phrases don’t really belong together, do they?
A flap had opened in its digestive bulb after its intestinal tube pushed me through. That allowed me to slide into its lower body cavity, in the segments between its third and fourth pairs of legs. Here I was wedged between his spinal ridge and that intestinal tract that ran like a big ugly worm throughout the length of its chubby body.
If I pressed my face to its inner membrane I could breathe; these bugger’s respirate through the pores of their skin anyhow. I wasn’t alone either. There were swarms of beach-ball sized nodules–no, eggs, in this fluid-filled cavity with me.
All this for a woman who hated me. Lady Smirnoff was jealous of my position with the Professor, thought he favored me over her. Funny thing was, I was never aware of having any ‘position’. He saw her as a capable lab assistant. Me, I always called him Professor but I thought of him as a second Dad.
Jealousy had driven her to steal an experimental shrinking formula from Dr. Chen’s biolab. It worked, after a fashion. She surprised me in the lab and gave me a hefty spray. Then she watched as a alien grub devoured me.
That the plan failed was only on account of the formula’s unstable nature. Let’s just say that grub experienced an explosive end, once the shrinking effect wore off. I fought back before she could douse me again. Her tanks ruptured on a lab sink, exposing her to ten times the dosage I received. All that was left of her after that were her clothes. Fortunately the biolab was able to refine the formula into a stable element for this mission.
Apparently the goal lay ahead. Mama Bear was ambling along a string of lichen toward this gorgeous orchid floating improbably in this microscopic soup. Its spreading petals displayed a blood red aperture, a bowl tapering into a rounded pitcher vessel. As if aware of our approach, the skin of the pitcher became transparent, stretching over four projecting fingers pawing at its interior. The fingers curled into claws before its waxy outer skin smoothed over once more.
And above said orchid floated my host, I suppose, the goddess who’d been guiding and testing me up to this point. Dark hair that absorbed all color from the spectrum billowed around an oily blue face. Fangs indented the corners of her full red lips while a necklace of skulls rattled across her neck.
Eggs poked my bare thighs as we bobbed in this baptismal chamber, waiting to be discharged unto the world. The question becomes how this mother tardigrade intended to eject me. If I recalled my studies aright, baby tardis get excreted through the anal chamber to make their way in the world–oh crap, that’s not how–
A gush of fluid flooded its torso as a narrow tube squeezed me out of my host. God, do I feel like an ass–! …Stop that. After orienting myself, I paddled to her as the tardigrade lumbered on about its own business. Four arms beckoned and gods, she was as naked as I was. “Welcome, daughter,” she intoned.
I sighed and waved, “Hi, Mom.”
“Oh, you’ve sweated up a storm, child. You’re going to be in no condition to carry your burden home. Come, drink.”
A cup was raised. I hadn’t noticed the empty eye sockets and grinning teeth until I’d taken it in my hands, shaking now as I raised it to my lips. Thankfully instead of worms it tasted of ice-cold water; just water. I drained that, and the second skull thermos she detached from the band around her perfect waist.
Still I held back, suddenly uncomfortably aware of my own state of unclothedness. Shivers rattled me; and yeah, the fact was that I could not look this manifestation of Kali in the face. “Gaze upon me, mortal,” she chuckled.
I gazed down at the underside of my bare arms. “I-I can’t, not as long as you’re wearing that face.”
Her upper left palm, red as blood, cupped my cheek, so very warm. I hadn’t thought about how frigid this place was in a while, if at all. “Does this face displease thee?”
“No–I mean, yes! Gods, you’re gorgeous, it’s just–I know you’re really not her. I-I see Mama lying dead, on the floor by our bed, every time–it just reminds me–“
“C’mere, little vine.”
Just like that my head shot up. That was her voice–! With my guard down, four strong arms drew me to her bosom. I rested my chin on her shoulder, inhaling the scent of incense and perspiration, blood and jasmine all intermingled. Muscles oiled with sweet alms flexed in a protective cocoon. “Why have I found favor with you?” I whispered.
Hands stroked waist and shoulders as her warm breath brushed my neck. “The pure of spirit are rare in the mortal sphere, more so in the realm of gods. It would be sacrilegious to tarnish such a spirit, especially one that has survived so many perils.”
“Huh. You haven’t seen me with the freaks I’ve encountered.”
“Wanna bet, kiddo?”
I jerked back, enough that I was staring nose to nose into my mother’s eyes. That long forgotten smirk was there for a second, and then there was only Kali Ma. Red palms stroked both my cheeks. “Innocence is a state beyond sexuality. It is possible to possess such purity even when the flesh is weak.”
“Doesn’t feel weak when I’m turned on.”
We both shared a laugh. “And now,” Kali said, “I suppose you will want to view the prize, the object as it were of your quest.”
Her arms stretched to their full length as I gazed over the rim of petals. At first I only saw vague shapes in the darkness, two blue mounds twitching and pressing over a reddish scalp. The blue flesh parted and a face tipped up. Our eyes met but no recognition flickered in her glassy stare.
I’d spent weeks scrutinizing every microscope in the observatory to find her. The Professor would pass me the odd assignment to take my mind off her. Somehow, I finally found her. Or maybe I was allowed to view the inescapable horror she’d been subjected to. Maybe it was a challenge our host knew I couldn’t ignore.
Her skin was the whitest shade of pale, with sweaty cheeks sunken. But this was unmistakably the missing Lady Smirnoff. The rest of her body was lost in a quivering fluid mass pressing into her. The mounds flopped over her face with a wet slop and she was gone again. “Is she all right?” I asked as Kali pulled me close again.
“That depends on your definition.”
“Why hasn’t she tried to escape?”
“Where is there for her to escape to? The hallucinating incense infusing that bulb have convinced her that our bodies have melded. It was easy to maintain the delusion with an extension of our musculature around her crippled form.”
“Her encounter with an amoeba was not so fortunate as yours. She has lost the lower half of her right leg. Have no fear, I can detach myself from her at any time. But I needed her to reflect on her life choices, on the karma that had brought her to this state. And I wished her anguish for the terror she had inflicted on thee.”
“I think she’s got it. Kali Ma…Mama…will you grant me the boon of releasing the Lady Smirnoff to me?”
“She may not recognize you now. Not much of her feeble mind is left.”
“I-I don’t care,” I panted. “I need to bring her back.”
“She is not likely to thank you.”
“Huh. That’s what the Professor said. Please, this is inhuman.”
‘Neither are we.”
“Yeah, well,” I ducked down, staring down at my wringing hands. “I am. I’m human. I-I know she did this to herself, but…I can’t leave her. I don’t understand why but I don’t hate her. If only you could understand.” I kept staring down even though I could sense Kali’s gaze on me. Her lips pressed to my forehead. The words she spoke were my Mama’s.
“You couldn’t abandon her to a hopeless situation, the way I’d abandoned you on the Lost Ship.”
“It wasn’t your fault…”
“So. That wasn’t so hard, wasn’t it?”
I shrugged. “I’m still not sure how I’ll get back. Your tardigrades burst all my nanobots, and the growth formula they were carrying. Even if we can get home, we might both be stuck at this size.”
But then Kali held a capsule under my nose, right before she quickly withdrew it and tucked it back into one of her waist pouches. “Not so fast, silly me. That was a disintegration pill. Here’s…no, wait, that’s another shrinking pill. Fear not, I’ll find it. Take this,” she muttered as she absent mindedly handed over the sword in her upper left hand
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked.
“Dance, of course. Join me in the Dance of Kali.”
“I-I can’t dance.”
“Yes you can.”
“But I never…”
“You would deny Kali, who wears your mother’s face?”
“No, I’m just saying…” What was I trying to say? I kept staring down, muttering words to myself: “Om Hreem Shreem Kleem Adya…” “I’ve never danced before. I don’t know how.”
Her upper right arm stretched tight as she took hold of mine, now also extended straight. “Fear not. It’s easy. Follow my steps.”
But there were too many questions. What was this supposed to accomplish? How was this going to get the pair of us home, and at normal size? What was normal anyway? Why’d she have to take my mother’s–
“Shhhh…no more questions. Let your thoughts flow.”
I was about to protest further before this Kali apparition blew into her palm. A cloud of fine dust pecked me full in the face. Breathing was a reflex so I sucked it right up my nostrils and…and…what purty colors they are, swirlin’ an’ oscillatin’ rainbow suckers.
Everythin’s all fuzzy an’ dreamy. Why’d my stomach drop, an’ where these other two arms come from? No, I gotta be dreamin’. My shoulders ain’t really brushin’ up to another pair o’ shoulders rotatin’ an’ poppin’ in their sockets like dey always been there. Heyyy, my palms was red all over, all four of ’em.
Big Blue Babe pressed her hands inna mine, gobs of fingers strokin’ the back o’ my four hands, an’ objectively, Kali’s one gorgeous bitch. “Now I knows you actin’ like a gob,” I giggled. “My mama wudn’ make me hallubsin–hallub–she wudn’ do dat.”
“Is that all you’ve noticed? Suppose I imagined an extra pair of arms growing out of your ass?”
“Eyyy, dis is my hallub–hallu-oooo!” Somethin’ pushed between my cheeks–! I took a gander over both right shoulders just as somethin’ silky, bushy an’ red wit’ white stripes swished from my butt.
I guess when yer stoned dancin’ is easy. Kali’s moves wuz like oil, fluid an’ smooth an’ so precise. With my four palms pressed to hers, I could kinda trace her movements. Her sidewise shuffle led me forward an’ pushed me back, while our arms wheeled in flowing clockwise circles.
The hard part wuz knowin’ which Kali to follow. There wuz ‘nuther Kali overlaid on top of the first one, all fuzzy an’ trailin’ rainbow colors. Didn’t nobody line up the 3D projectors right? Well, so wat? Anythin’ she could do–
OWWWW! I popped the socket in my hip steppin’ too far out. And she kept on, raisin’ her hands in the prayer position, bobbing her head side to side. I followed as her arms flowed up an’ around, feet sliding side to side and back. Our tails counted time as dey swayed to balance us. Our upper palms came together as our heads zigzagged, sharp yet synchronous.
It wuz just me an’ Kali, skifflin’, hand in hand, countless fingers interlocked while Mama’s bootiful lashes batted like butterfly wings. Mebbe it wuz ‘cos we wuz on the same wavelength but some minutes in, it hit me that we been doin’ the same singsong chant: “Om hreem shreem …adya kalika param…” Kinda like that.
A really absurd thought entered my mind as I pirouetted…hey, with this sword I could kill Kali. I dismissed it quick, largely ‘cos even in this state I was repulsed that I ever thought. Besides, this wasn’t Kali facing me, just another aspect of her. That’s probably why she took Mama’s face in the first place. Judging by her toothy smile and slow shake of the head, she already knew what I was thinking anyway.
At some point Kali-Mom eased away. I wuz ‘lone, an’ somehow I didn’ mind. My legs still pranced, touchin’ on water molecules as dey traced her movements as if dey’d always knowed how. Her sword was still in my hands. Our chant grew louder, more authora…authora–more bossy.
Kali floated ‘hind ‘er orchid bulb, gesturin’ hypnotically over its petals. A shadow rose over the inner rim. An’ there she wuz, Lady Smirnoff floatin’ feather-like over her former prison. The left shoulder o’ her skinsuit wuz torn down t’ the upper bicep an’ yeh, her right leg was gone below the kneecap. Her stern scowl musta mellowed on ‘count of her zombie-like torpor.
Despite her emaciated state, she wuz hot in that glistening crimson skinsuit. Oh my gawd, it emphasized every voluptuous curve. You jus’ hang on, gorgeous, we’s gonna gets you outta here.
Now I nebber used a sword ‘fore, but somehow I knew what I hadda do. With an “om hreem shreem” I held my upper hands pointin’ up in supplication, blade straight an’ true as we cut a 180-degree arc in the space facin’ us. On the “adya kalika param“, I followed with a reverse cut…I think. Some of it’s kind of a blur. An’ then it wuz like sunrise over the Moon.
Light poured in us, radiant godlike an’ pure, and ohmygod so toasty–! Even as I bobbed over to take the Lady in my arm an’ arm an’ arm an’ arm, I wondered how Kali’d administer her potion to us, whether with another puff in our snozzers or a dab on our tongues–
Kali answered with a bucket drenched over our heads. Already our skins stretched taut as muscles bulged beneath ’em. There was no time for anything else as Kali braced herself on the rim of her orchid and with both feet booted us into the vortex…