They came from the darkness at the back of the stage, with the easy speed of eight-legged creatures. Rona felt the whoop rising from her lungs to join the roar of the crowd.
The Scorpions scuttled to their low, custom instruments: theremin, drum machine, sampler, turntable. A siren whine, a backbeat, fast and loud.
The bass drove Rona’s heartbeat.
The crowd bounced like a single organism, every strobe a snapshot. Between flashes, the exoskeletons on stage glowed blue-green in the ambient black light.
Human bodies pressed wet and warm against Rona’s back and shoulders. She didn’t blame them. She, too, was just barely managing to swallow it down, just barely managing to moor herself to acceptable behaviour. This wasn’t some Thursday night grunge band. This was Swammerdam. This was seven-foot-long super-intelligent Scorpions playing trip hop.
A hand on Rona’s shoulder. Suze squeezed her way through, handed Rona a drink. They grinned at each other. Scorpion bands were common now in Toronto and Montreal but they hardly ever came to Ottawa. Two precious hours of adrenalin, sweat and pheromones, not all of them human. Better than studying for a fucking macroeconomics exam.
Better than anything.
A young woman walked to the front of the stage. Human.
Rona knew Swammerdam sometimes toured with humans, although she didn’t recognize this one. But seeing it made it real. A human playing with Scorpions. A life like that, made possible by impossible Scorpions. The woman stepped casually over the interlocking legs, grabbed the mic and pulled it to her red mouth. A dozen long black braids snapped like whips as she howled.
Rona couldn’t see the Scorpions’ eyes; they seemed oblivious to anything but the music, their pincers spread wide over the instruments. Did they ever look out at the crowd? Did they notice her? Could they tell she was like them, in the ways that counted? Like the woman with the braids. Rona could be like her. She had to be like her. She was on the wrong side of the stage. Couldn’t they tell?
She shut her eyes and reminded herself she probably looked nothing like what she really was. Rona was amazing, or she could be. Maybe. But she probably looked like a pudgy girl in a black Swammerdam t-shirt, the black light mocking every lint scintilla.
The delicious pain of watching them play was like the pain of watching someone she had a crush on. She ought to be with them. That would be right and this was wrong.
She could enjoy the music, she could sway and bounce and scream.
But in the flash of a strobe, one part of her brain became aware that it wouldn’t be enough. Not for her. This memory would always be just a little painful. She envied the others in the crowd, regular people who could just enjoy the music, without always wanting to be the one making it.
In the next flash of the strobe Rona thought, for a second, that the woman with the braids caught her eye.
* * *
After the encores, when the house music came on, Suze grabbed Rona’s shoulder, pulled herself close to her ear to be heard. “Let’s get poutine,” she said.
Rona took a step away from her roommate. “You go ahead,” she shouted.
The singer was packing up the instruments, chatting with a cluster of groupies who had bought her a beer. Her braids swung when she laughed. Rona could do something cool with her own hair, maybe. She could put glitter in her cleavage. Distance. Always so much distance between the ideal Rona and the actual one.
“You’re drunk,” Suze shouted. “Shouldn’t be alone.”
“Fuck off. I’m not drunk. I’ve had two.”
Suze held up three fingers.
“Go ahead,” Rona shouted. She could barely hear herself, could only feel the vibration of the sound in her already hoarse throat, and wondered idly if that made her sound more drunk. “I won’t have any more. I’ll get a cab. I just want to dance a little.”
“I’m not leaving without you.”
The woman with the braids was striding through the crowd, toward the door that led to the bathroom.
“Whatever,” Rona shouted, moving away from Suze. “I have to pee.”
* * *
In the bathroom’s harsh white light, the music was stripped down to the echo of its beats. But Rona could still feel it in her ribs and she wondered whether the singer did too. The singer was fiddling with her false eyelashes, swearing at her reflection. It was just the two of them. Perfect.
“You have a gorgeous voice,” Rona said, standing behind the woman, looking into the same mirror. Her lips were tingly, a little numb. She still couldn’t tell if she was speaking too loudly. Her voice seemed disconnected from her ears.
“Thanks. Did you need the sink? I’m almost done. Goddamned Scorpion in the backstage bathroom. Prima fucking donnas.”
“Take your time. Do you want a hand?”
“Aw, you’re a sweetheart, thanks. It’s hard to do this with your eyes open, and with your eyes closed you can’t see what you’re doing.”
Rona stepped close. She had no idea how false eyelashes worked. How hard could it be? She rearranged it, timidly. Up close, the singer was no less impressive. The fuzzed hair at the tops of her braids, the sweat creases in her cerulean eye shadow, the pores in her nose, only made her more frustrating. She wasn’t much older than Rona.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Let me guess,” the singer said. “You want to know if the Scorpions talk to me.”
Scorpions, with a capital S, had been discovered, or made their presence known, in the 1970s, around the time Rona was born. It was only within the last few years that they’d started interacting with human culture: playing music, sculpting, painting,occasionally doing interviews through one of their chosen interpreters.
No one had yet been able to learn how to communicate with Scorpions. The talent simply appeared in a few humans. No one knew why only those people could hear the Scorpions in their minds, and respond.
“They do,” the singer said. “Anything else you want to know?”
“I`m a musician too,” Rona said, conscious of how close their faces were as she fiddled with the singer’s lashes.
“Of course you are.”
“I play piano. Keyboards I mean. Well, I’m classically trained but–”
“But you write songs,” the singer said, wearily. “And you sing, right?”
Rona nodded, slo-mo, the alcohol sloshing in her brain pan.
“Are you good?”
Rona blushed. “Okay I guess. Not as good as you.”
The singer pulled away, looking pained. Had Rona said something wrong?
The singer put her hands over her face for a moment, then dropped them.
“Will you sing for me?”
Rona laughed nervously. She sang a few lines from When Doves Cry, barely above a whisper. The drum beat from the bar didn’t match the rhythm.
“Well,” the singer said, cutting her off. “We all have to start somewhere.”
We do, Rona thought. This woman started somewhere. With a real human life, like hers. A human brain and human hands, not telepathy or pincers. Yet this woman–
“What’s your name?” Rona asked, as if she needed to know, urgently, and she did.
“Scarab,” she said.
“It is now,” Scarab said. She put her hands up over her face again for a moment. She dropped them and smiled. “Thanks. My eye feels a little better. Listen, you have a good voice. You do. You should keep singing. Can I buy you a drink?”
Rona nodded, afraid to speak a word.
* * *
Scarab took the tall cold glass from the bartender and handed it to Rona, pierced eyebrow quirked.
“What’s in this?”
Rona laughed. “Jack Daniels, Blue Curacao, peach schnapps. And orange juice. It’s sweet.”
Should she offer her a taste? Would that be weird?
“Sounds dangerous,” Scarab said. “I like you already. Gargleblaster’s a stupid name though.”
“Didn’t you ever read Douglas Adams? That’s where the name of the bar comes from too. Everyone calls it Zaphod’s but it’s actually Zaphod Beeblebrox. It’s the name of a character.”
“Huh.” Scarab was already turning away and Rona bit her lip until she tasted blood.
But Scarab turned and beckoned her with her finger.
She followed Scarab through the narrow bar, guided by the purple light tubes on the walls. Her gargleblaster was the thick green of unripe fruit and whenever Rona swayed toward the black light, a fluorescent peachy stain drifted down from the surface, eddying around the ice cubes. People jostled her and she spilled a little on her t-shirt but she didn’t care; it was distant.
Scarab opened the little door by the stage. Holy fuck: Backstage. The band room.
Suze would love that.
“Is it okay if I get my roommate?” Rona asked, leaning close to Scarab to be heard over the music. Cigarettes and beer smelled good on a woman like Scarab.
Scarab grimaced. “It’s a really small room.”
Rona turned and looked blankly at the faces in the crowd. She didn’t see Suze. Maybe she’d gone home after all.
“Are you coming?”
Rona walked through. It was dark on the other side.
* * *
Rona giggled as they felt their way down a flight of stairs.
“The Scorpions don’t like light,” Scarab said. “Especially after a show. They need to recover because the strobe lights make them crazy. Damn near kill them. I keep telling the Scorpions that people would like the shows fine with no lights, but they ignore me. Masochists.”
“They’re down here?”
“Of course. This is the band room. They’re the band. Are you scared?”
“No. I’m excited.”
“Good. They’ll fucking change your life.”
* * *
Up close, the surface of the Scorpion was both shiny and furry, every hair standing out on the razor claws. It blocked out what little light came from the doorframe behind it.
The movement was so fast, it might have been film editing. In an instant, the pincers spread wide, and eight legs flung out, bracing the enormous body, the back angling up, the tail curling, erect. Rona almost had time to wince when the pincers grasped her shoulders.
She didn’t see the stinger when it came.
* * *
When she opened her mouth to scream, Scarab thrust a rag into her mouth and bound it. The Scorpion scrabbled with its pincers on her arms for a moment, then let its pincers drop. Scarab took Rona’s elbow and walked her into the dim band room. The two other Scorpions were there, in the shadows. They might have been sleeping.
Scarab walked her gently into the room and sat her on a sagging couch of indeterminate colour. A part of Rona’s mind felt guilty for not resisting or escaping, but weakness was creeping up her legs and she didn’t want to be anywhere else, anyway. This was happening. She’d been chosen. People said all kinds of things about what Scorpion venom did to a person and now she, Rona, was going to find out.
They had seen her for what she was after all. They had known she was special.
Maybe that meant they were going to eat her, or wrap her up like Frodo in Shelob’s lair. Somehow Rona didn’t care. Whatever it was, it was better than going home to order poutine with Suze and play drunk Donkey Kong.
Scarab sat across from her, on another couch, across a low coffee table. She lit a cigarette.
“The venom takes a few minutes to get into your nervous system,” Scarab said. “Once it does, I’ll take off the gag. You’ll be fine, by the way. You’re not going to die or anything.”
Pain spread from Rona’s neck, just under her right ear. She could hear her own heart drumming way too fast.
“They don’t ask first because they don’t want anyone to say no, and then go tell people about it,” Scarab said. “I tried to tell them you were a sure thing, no need for the ambush and gag with you, but like I say, they don’t listen to me.”
Rona’s ears were ringing, giving every sound an underwater quality. She tried to wonder why Scarab sounded sad, but she couldn’t quite work up the concentration. There was no point in wondering about anything. Things just were what they were.
Her right arm spasmed.
“There you go,” Scarab said. “I’ll take out the gag now if you promise not to scream.”
Rona made some kind of movement with her head that was close enough to a nod. Scarab leaned forward, took the gag out, her face close to Rona’s.
She whispered, into the ear on the sting side, “It’s OK. Just go with it. Don’t worry.”
Her hands slipped on Rona’s sweaty skin.
“How are you doing?” Scarab asked.
Rona opened and shut her mouth a few times, feeling her teeth with her tongue. Spit frothed her lips and dribbled down her chin.
The nearest Scorpion rearranged its chitinous limbs a little, folded one pincer over the other in a clicking movement not quite human, not quite animal. It cocked its head at her in a fluid motion; everything it did was like dancing. She thought this was the one who had stung her.
Rona could almost understand the words in her head. Not quite but almost. Whispers in a far room.
Her neck hurt. And her shoulder. And both her arms. She glanced down. Each of her upper arms had a red slice through it from the pincers, blood welling and dripping.
Whispers. Distant whispers in her mind. Possibilities.
Below the deepest slices on her arms there were several shallower cuts that looked as if they’d been made by the pincers too. The pattern meant something; the more she looked at it, the more it meant.
Instructions. Cut into her skin in a language she was now able to read.
She looked at Scarab. Scarab picked up Rona’s drink, stood up, holding the glass high above the concrete floor. She dropped it and it shattered, the greenish liquid oozing into a puddle.
Rona stood too, and bent to pick up one of the pieces.
“I knew it was coming soon,” Scarab said. “They get bored easily. You have a nice voice. They like your voice.”
“It’s all for the show,” Rona said hoarsely, echoing the words in her mind.
Scarab nodded. “And everyone’s dispensable.”
They stood, and Rona hugged Scarab close, a piece of broken glass in her right hand, against Scarab’s neck.
The three Scorpions, watching, made a noise with their pincers like clapping.
* * *
The bar was almost empty, save a few stragglers who would drink until someone told them to stop.
She came back for me, Rona thought. Or she never left. Maybe she was here the whole time, up here with the clueless people.
She heard the Scorpions in her mind, now, clearly. Hurry up, they said. We need you.
Suze walked up to the stage where Rona was packing up the last of the Scorpions’ gear. She understood now why the band used no roadies; no awkward questions about turnover.
They need me.
“Holy shit,” Suze said. “What are you doing? What are you wearing?”
Rona was wearing a glittery baby doll shirt she’d found in Scarab’s bag. It showed some of her midriff. The old Rona would have been pulling it down all the time. The new Rona couldn’t care less. She’d chosen it mainly because its three-quarter length sleeves covered the scrapes on her arms. Her hair was a mess, so she’d pulled it into a wild ponytail on the top of her head.
“What is that?” Suze was pointing. “What’s on you?”
Rona looked down. In the black light, a spray of drops glowed lurid all the way down one leg of her jeans and on the back of one hand. She thought she’d got all of the blood off. Thanks, Scarab, she thought. It looks pretty.
The venom had subsided but everything still had a faraway, underwater feeling. Everything but the Scorpions’ words. They were trying out some chords and she heard that too, in her mind, where the world was clear.
She was beginning to understand why it had to be death, for the others. This connection felt permanent. Once the Scorpions had crawled into a mind they couldn’t crawl out.
“I’m with the band now,” Rona said, and bent down to wrap a cable.
Copyright © 2013 Kate Heartfield
Kate Heartfield is a newspaper journalist in Ottawa, Canada. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthology Blood and Water and in journals such as The New Quarterly. Her story “For Sale by Owner” will appear soon in Daily Science Fiction. She is working on a novel. She can be found on Twitter as @kateheartfield and blogs at heartfieldfiction.wordpress.com.