(reading time: 1 hour, 24 minutes)
Omen of Laetoli
Seventy men and women in brown uniforms moved across the grasslands, now far outside Colduvai. No warfare had been seen in decades, so the military style of the clothing was only cosmetic. The fabric was soft and breathable; it was easy to fold back a sleeve or a leg and turn it into something more casual. Colduvai hadn’t required a shaved head for the Peace Authority in generations, so most of them couldn’t wear the tiny hats that came with the uniform, instead using them to gather nuts from any trees the grass-comber passed.
The Science Authority rarely made vehicles anymore, so each time they did it was considered a special occasion. Artists were consulted along with the engineers to make sure the resulting creation was sufficiently indicative of Colduvai. The expeditionary force absolutely needed to bring a piece of the gorge with them so that separation from the queen wouldn’t drain all of their hope.
The grass-comber lived up to the expectations, even after the parade that saw it out of the city, just one float among many, ended. Its body had a matte copper finish decorated with gold foil. Viewed from above it was little more than a stretched hexagon, but closer examination would show the numerous brown scales of its back were the open-air seats and their occupants.
The expeditionary force did not have to march in the day’s heat, as the grass-comber moved them all at a comfortable pace. If they wished to stretch their legs they could step down and walk alongside it for a while. Doing so provided a better view of the trail it left in its wake. The grass-comber was technically a hovercraft, but its power consumption was as low as possible. Its height was determined by the height of the grass, the blades rolled up into the gentle turbines on the underside of the vehicle.
They had a heading from a compass, but no maps. They would find their way back by the grass-comber’s footprints, for its turbines braided the plants as it passed by, leaving a beautiful pattern all the way back to the edge of the gorge. Members of the expeditionary force liked to walk along the braid, arms outstretched, to practice their balance.
The vehicle was all but silent; its turbines produced a sound like the wind in a seashell, but it could only be heard if one leaned down next to them. This, combined with its subtle rocking motion matching the rolling of the grass, made avoiding midday naps impossible. Their time passed leisurely, with much conversation and reading of the books they’d brought with. For some it was the greatest vacation they’d ever taken.
The commander of the expeditionary force, seated in a single cushioned chair at the bow of the grass-comber, knew what to expect. Earth was a world full of relics. Each expedition was just a trip to see how far the vines had crawled into the cities of old. She knew the queens of Colduvai were the greatest achievement of the species, so all the others had fallen away, gone silent in Magthwi’s blazing shadow.
Laetoli was no exception. When the commander was a child, there were state visits between the two cities. One princess would go as envoy to the other to deliver gifts and bring some back. Their neighbor stopped such communications over a decade ago, citing the unrest of the outside world. Colduvai didn’t mind. The gorge enjoyed its own privacy as well. There was still trading handled by unmanned vehicles. While Colduvai assigned a human pilot to everything, Laetoli still trusted its computing devices.
The expeditionary force was dispatched when the trucks that delivered ropes, ointments, and solvents stopped coming. Colduvai could provide adequate replacements, so the expedition was but a courtesy. They were to knock on the door and listen for anything on the other side. There was nothing morbid about it as far as the force was concerned; they’d done such things before. If there was no answer then they were all gone. Laetoli would be just another empty shell on the beach.
They’d braided their way across miles of grassland and found only one sign of Laetoli. One of their automatic trucks had stopped along its route and gone dark. It was empty. There were a few salvagers in the force with engineering experience, but they couldn’t coax the machine back to any semblance of life. There was a radio console on the edge of the grass-comber, and the reporting of the truck was the only time they turned it on aside from the daily ‘all is well’ signal. It was until the grass-comber came to an unexpected stop anyway. It was too well-engineered to shudder, so those who were asleep in their seats didn’t even notice.
The commander was one of the only ones awake; she stepped down in the evening twilight, the sun going purple, and walked along the line the grass-comber had found. She bent down and ran her fingers through the dirt. The grass stopped suddenly, and with nothing to braid the comber would go no further. If it did it would lose its umbilicus to Colduvai and become just another part of the dead world.
“Why has it stopped Commander Begumisa?” a younger member of the force asked, following behind her as she walked the shore of grass. It was easy to see why her force, especially the younger ones, thought so much of her. Her golden scar, running out of her left ear and along her jawline, branching twice, was the color of royal biology. She was no queen, but she had come into contact with some of their materials. Rumors swirled about the scar, including one where a rogue member of the Science Authority assaulted her with a syringe full of royal coffee.
She never explained the mark to her subordinates, fully aware that speculation would continue regardless. People would follow her wherever she went, and her mark would draw the ire of the queen, so it was lucky that the great and wise Magthwi had come up with a compromise rather than force her to undergo surgery to have it removed. At the time Begumisa got the mark she was already a seasoned keeper in the Peace Authority. Magthwi promoted her to commander of the expeditionary force. The position kept her at arm’s length from the city and made sure any fanatical followers of her mark would be taken far from any place they could agitate.
Begumisa was nearly a decade older than the queen and without children of her own. She’d only considered motherhood once it was too late. There was the sneaking suspicion that her scar might’ve reinvigorated her womb, but any children now would face the stigma of false princesses of the past. No human was ever treated worse than a royal pretender in some parts of the world.
Her hair, grown out only in the front, was kept combed over her scalp and bundled into an ornate spherical knot in the back, like a blackberry. Her uniform was the same as all the rest, except with a swollen collar like two rose petals. On her hip sat her thick-bladed black sword, styled after the ancient Akrafena. The blade was wide enough at the end, shaped somewhere between a scalpel and lizard’s dewlap, that it accommodated several decorative holes. These holes were arranged in a spiral pattern, the shapes like scorpion stingers gone limp from a flood.
Her expeditionary force carried simpler weapons based on the Billao short sword. The horned pommel was transformed into a likeness of Queen Magthwi’s crown. These were the only weapons available to them, for while they’d come across many rusted horrors of the firearm age, none of them even knew how to aim such a device. As such, the only deaths in the history of the expeditionary force were from misadventure and animal attack.
All swords rested in their sheaths that evening, for beyond the grass the land was barren. There was nothing to give cover to leopards or hyenas. Dead trees stood here and there, the branches leaning away from the foggy blue towers of Laetoli.
“The earth seems salted,” Begumisa said once she realized it had been over a minute since she’d been asked the question. “You can see by the curve that this death surrounds Laetoli. We won’t find anything alive when we get there.”
“Should we turn back? The grass-comber can go no further.”
“No. We must at least knock and listen, as we always have. Let us gather a day’s worth of food. We will then continue on foot.” She walked back to the grass-comber and pushed a button on the side of her seat. All the other seats vibrated, gently waking the other riders. Within two minutes they were all lined up in the grass, awaiting orders. There was nowhere to look but to their commander, for her scar was the brightest thing in sight.
Begumisa shared the plan with them and clapped her hands, sending them off to forage the edge of the grasslands. Back in Colduvai gathering was done by hand, with mechanical assistance only present when one of the oldest and most stubborn harvesters needed something simple to extend their grasp.
The expeditionary force was different. Anything beyond the grove, with its cherries hanging so fat and low that children could take them, was not tailored to them. Everything out there fought for its survival, hiding in the brush or mimicking the colors of poison. For this the Science Authority granted the expeditionary force a tool called the hound stick. Twenty of these sticks hung off the back of the grass-comber in tied bundles. They were distributed, one to each small foraging unit.
The sticks were chemical sensors that analyzed the air, having an easier time of it the closer they were brought to the sources of each scent. The sensor was housed in a casing in the image of a hound’s head. There was no screen to relay information, only the lights in its eyes and a series of sounds.
The force spread out, with those wielding the sticks holding their noses to the ground, sweeping them back and forth. When something edible was sensed the sticks’ eyes would glow yellow. If the scent belonged to a rodent or ground-nesting bird a net would shoot from the tip of the snout and capture them. It took less than two hours to gather enough bush meat and wild-growing fruits to last them a day.
The nets combined upon contact but kept live animals compartmentalized. The attached hound sticks then bent and joined end to end while the nets inflated, creating banded orbs that could be rolled relatively easily. The force left five members to watch over the grass-comber as they rolled their supplies into the barrens. The few remaining hound sticks not used to hold their catch were kept out to analyze the dead ground, but they responded most strongly to the direction of the city itself.
Their eyes flickered white when pointed at the towers; they made electric whining sounds. This puzzled the force, as they’d only ever heard soft barks of approval or growls of warning. Either they were too far away or they sensed something in Laetoli that was between nourishment and poison.
“Rotten food,” Begumisa guessed, ordering them all to continue. It didn’t take long for the dirt to turn to darker ash that crinkled under their feet. There was no smoke from Laetoli, and it didn’t look as if the city had burned. The ash was just its monoculture, whatever took the place of Colduvai’s golden coffee cherries. The fields were burned so thoroughly that the expeditionary force couldn’t identify the plant, only that it had stalks. No stem was left standing, as if a shockwave had bent them all to the ground before the fire rolled through.
Most of them assumed golden coffee plants couldn’t burn, not without Magthwi’s permission, but that if they did they would leave behind traces of their power. Surely royal material couldn’t burn. Laetoli had queens of its own, so where were the golden veins or deposits that should have survived the fire? They swished their feet back and forth in the ash, looking for any sign.
“Why would they burn their crop?” Mr. Genomon, the second in command, asked Begumisa in a hushed tone. He was two years her junior, but he’d spent years hunting any wild animals that had bothered the grove’s fence. His reputation as a monster hunter, born of two confrontations with things given a lust for royal blood by needle breeding, had earned him a medal for bravery, pinned to his uniform by the queen herself. It never left the spot over his heart.
“They wouldn’t,” Begumisa speculated. “They must have been invaded by a foreign army.”
“An invasion? Colduvai’s never even been neighbor to one. Surely the world’s armies are gone. All queens except the first struck accords.” He swept one foot around in the ash. He bent over to pick up a stalk and examine it, but thought better of it when someone with a hound stick walked by. The eyes on the machines were still white, even when pressed deep into the ash. “I see no bodies or bones. If there was an invasion they would’ve tried to flee.”
“Would you flee Colduvai?”
“I would die first,” Genomon said reflexively, “but that’s the gorge. We’re still around because our queen’s will is the strongest of all. We cannot hold the others, fallen others, to that standard.” He thought another moment. “Machines. Laetoli didn’t have a Science Authority. Every house was full of computers and automated servants. Perhaps the invasion came from within.”
“There’s only one way to find out,” Begumisa sighed. They made their way through hours of ash, finally coming to the outer gates of Laetoli. None of them remembered if Laetoli’s crop had a natural fence, but they guessed not given how unwelcoming the gates seemed. Colduvai’s were ornate and warm in color, with numerous door-less arches encompassing the city. Anyone in the grove was already home, so there was no need for anything more than a guard or two.
Laetoli’s gates were more like mechanical garage doors: thick metal shutters with no posted signs or artwork anywhere. There was no need to knock, for one shutter was held partly open by another of the unmanned trucks that had died halfway out of the gate. Begumisa snapped her fingers, instructing two of the braver members of the force, each manned with a hound stick, to sweep the truck.
They moved forward eagerly, putting their backs to each side of the vehicle as if they suspected a giant python slept inside. They held their hound sticks up, the way they’d seen soldiers holding rifles in some of their dated training manuals. Their names were Field and Barolong, but Begumisa knew them mostly by their regular positions near the front of the force, sticking their hands and faces where they didn’t belong.
Field was only twenty-four years of age and was, though muscular, quite small. She was known to crawl into sewer pipes back in Colduvai until her parents grew tired of her antics, ordering her to join the expeditionary force so they wouldn’t have to fish her out of a well or a monkey trap each night. She had blue eyes, a very rare trait in Colduvai, but their beautiful color was often offset by redness. She had allergies that were constantly exacerbated by her insistence on smelling everything that flowered or looked like it might flower in the coming months.
Barolong was a boy of similar age from a family of butchers. He was in training by the medical section of the Science Authority for two years, with plans to become a field doctor, when his superiors dropped him out of the spire with little warning. They were not required to provide a reason for his expulsion, though they did advise his parents to give him lots of fresh air and new experiences. He sulked over it during his first excursions with the force, but his medical training came in handy when Field was bitten by a snake living in a patch of flowers she simply had to smell. She introduced herself during the bandaging, they spoke briefly of their histories, and she mentioned that he had actually achieved his dream of becoming a ‘Field’ doctor after all. His face cracked into a smile and from then on the two were nearly inseparable, not as lovers, but as the sort of friends who wrestle and growl at each other like ear-biting puppies.
They nodded to each other through the windows of the truck. Field crawled inside and scurried across the vehicle’s floor. It was never meant to have a pilot, so the spaces were only wide enough for engineers and their toolboxes to squeeze through. With no lights anywhere, she found her way by the white glow of the hound stick’s eyes. The rest of the force waited just outside, listening to the occasional bangs of her struggle. They expected her to come out of the window, but the bay door at the back of the vehicle rolled open all at once, shaking the entire thing. Field tumbled out and landed on her feet, a couple streaks of grease on her elbows and knees.
“Emtpy?” Begumisa asked, expecting confirmation. Of course it was empty. Every city that did not protect its border was empty. When a queen fell her people simply faded away, with no signs of struggle or discord. Sometimes they just sat down, gathered around her home or body, every member of the queendom holding hands to another member’s shoulders, and died. The most dramatic thing ever left behind was one of these webs of kneeling bones. Most of the time they found nothing at all, as if the city was just what grew when the ambition of weeds went unchecked.
“Mostly,” Field answered her commander, drawing stares. “There is something written on one of the sides in there. I couldn’t see all of it; there are crates in the way. If we empty it we can-”
“We touch as little as possible,” Begumisa interrupted, staring into the hound stick’s white eyes rather than Field’s, which looked especially irritated by whatever dust or dander she’d disturbed in the truck. “Which side are the words on?” Field pointed to the left side. “Tear it open. Touch only the exterior.” Several soldiers moved in and brought out their swords, thrusting them into the seams at the bottom of the truck’s siding. Barolong and Field climbed the sides, setting aside their hound sticks in favor of their swords as well.
The air filled with the horrible wrenching of tearing sheet metal as they slowly opened it like a tin of sardines, starting near the cab. They were careful not to roll the thin metal so as to hide the words in the spiral. When it could go no further without separating from the truck, the soldiers stepped back and observed what they’d revealed. The words were massive, written in the same black grease on Field’s uniform. The strokes were thick, divided into four stripes. Written by the four fingers of a coated hand.
Varroa the Destructor
“What is Varroa the Destructor?” Genomon asked. He turned to the rest of the force. “Does anyone know anything of this? Have you ever heard the word Varroa?” They all shook their heads. He went back to Begumisa’s side. “I don’t like this commander. The last queen who ruled here was not called Varroa.”
“We cannot leave while the hounds’ eyes are white,” Begumisa declared. “We must learn what in Laetoli has confused them, for we could’ve been affected by it the moment we left the grass-comber. We will not bring even a speck of it back to Colduvai. To do so would be treason.”
“What now commander?” Barolong asked from the top of the truck, taking up his hound stick.
“Now we spread out. I want every corner of the city examined with your sharpest eye. Split into pairs. If someone asks to partner, partner. No rejections or complaints. Absolutely no one is to round a corner alone.” She clapped her hands. “Go.” The force began to split up and choose streets and buildings to investigate. “Barolong,” the commander called out as the young man leapt down from the truck, “you are with me.” He looked at Field for a moment before obeying.
Begumisa was no fool; she knew her force was not made up of true soldiers. Colduvai had no need of such a person. Those closest to warriors were used to keep the peace and protect the queen. They would lay down their lives for any citizen of Colduvai, but that bravery would evaporate with the first step beyond the grove. Death within the gorge would be orderly; they would be remembered, cleansed with fire, and set to rest in a decorative urn in the spire. Death outside was an unimaginable horror.
So Begumisa was left with those whose minds were just strange enough to not notice the risks they took out of Magthwi’s sight. The commander was a true warrior with the blood of men and women on her hands, but she knew better than to use those stories with her subordinates. Fear and rage were the controlling tools of the militaries of old. The gold-scarred leader used respect and disappointment, as if dealing with children.
They had no ranks beyond Begumisa and Genomon. They had no formations or set tactics. When they were told to partner up they played immature games of favoritism that had to be nipped in the bud. She knew, as she watched her charges disappear into Laetoli, that they were not the right people for such a mission. They were simply what was left of each generation after all the jobs were filled. They were the fat, to be trimmed and discarded. It was such imagery, of strips of flesh being carefully separated, that convinced her to take the butcher’s son Barolong as her search partner.
“You have a job for me Commander Begumisa?” he asked when he reached her side.
“Yes. You trained in a butcher’s shop, did you not?”
“I did. My family’s water buffalo shoulder couldn’t be beat. Sometimes it made the customers uncomfortable, because we stared as if they bit into our own shoulders.”
“Good. We’ll be looking for the market, livestock, and a butcher’s shop. I want to see if my rotten food theory holds water. You can tell me if anything about their abandoned food preparation seems strange.” Barolong nodded and followed behind her as they began their walk to the still heart of Laetoli.
It was hard to imagine the city alive, and not just because of its emptiness. Its coloring was much colder than Colduvai, its buildings more angular. Some streets were lined with wilting flagpoles, but nothing adorned them aside from the occasional tatter or string. Colduvai had similar poles, but with no need of a flag any longer they’d been replaced by cloth artwork that came to life in the wind.
Laetoli had no equivalent. There were no murals. The streets were all solid pavement to facilitate their automated vehicles; it was the perfect surface for the chalk drawings of children, but there was no sight of those either. Everything about the city’s surfaces seemed scraped or sandblasted. Here and there they’d find a rough patch of adhesive, indicating there used to be something to admire or read that their sanitization efforts couldn’t fully remove. Barolong diligently touched the hound stick’s snout to each patch, but nothing changed.
The pair had no signs to follow for a market, but eventually came to a public circle with a dry central fountain. The statue in the middle of its basin was now just rubble, but they recognized stone fruits and vegetables amidst the rougher pieces. Barolong noticed that one of the empty shops, glass windows intact, bore hooks that would’ve been perfect for hanging various birds or racks of meat for display. Begumisa praised his eye and led the way.
Both were startled by the tiny bell over the door. The little bronze thing was clean and warm-toned, but its friendly tinkle seemed out of place, like an injured bird tweeting for help from a gutter. There must have been a sound sensor as well, for several lights turned on and music started to play from an unknown source.
The shop had red walls and plenty of natural wood countertops. Decorative knives, so dull that they didn’t even reflect light, hung on the walls. Begumisa and Barolong each took a separate side of the counter, moving through and checking under all the seats. Barolong then wrapped around the counter and checked the cabinets underneath. He snorted in mild surprise, but Begumisa did not ask, not yet.
She sharpened her ear and listened. The music was normal enough at first. Soft drums and flutes. The sort of gentle rhythm that allowed one to pour a refreshment while dancing without spilling a drop. Begumisa might not have noticed its strange quality at all if she didn’t recall the melody as a traditional one. It was a song that used to be shared by queens: a gift that could be passed from civilization to civilization without any remembering where the kindness was born.
It was supposed to have lyrics. There was no singing in the music, but there was a sort of bent sound as if the notes of the instruments had been hammered out to fill in the space left by the missing words. Begumisa realized the recording had been altered, scrubbed of anything with clear meaning. It was like the streets, where nothing remained of the art but its sticky corners.
“Commander,” Barolong addressed. He couldn’t confine his puzzlement to little snorts any longer. “I’ve found something strange.” She checked under the last table, found nothing, and urged him to go on with a roll of her hand. Better to let him speak first. If Laetoli was so offended by words, either written or sung, then better to experiment with the inconsequential words of a younger person. Someone coddled by Colduvai into never knowing how cruel a word could actually be. The young man pulled out a large tin can with a top that was only bent open on one side. It was clear by the sound of setting it on the wood that it was empty.
“What’s so strange about canned food?” she asked.
“It’s just a can now,” he said. “I can’t find a crumb or a shine of grease in this entire place. There’s no smell of rot. I don’t think there has been any food in here in weeks. Months perhaps.”
“Then why keep an empty can around?”
“Cans.” Barolong reached under the counter and pulled out two more. They too had small openings and sounded hollow. “I think they’re like the truck.” Begumisa saw a spark of worry in his eye, like he was afraid of being correct. She nodded. He pulled out his sword, put the first can sideways on the counter, and chopped off its top. Then the bottom. He checked the inside, finding a spot to cut once more. He opened the can like a scroll, bending it backward to straighten it out. One word. He turned it toward his commander.
“Wait,” she said. He was reaching for the third can, but she pointed to the second one. “Go in the order they were lined up under the counter. The middle one next.” Barolong obeyed, cutting more carefully this time. He leaned his head back, as if the words smelled rotten, but the shop was just as sterile as the street. He bent it and showed it to her before he’d even read it himself.
He flattened it on the counter near the first and moved on to the last can. Chop. Chop. Bend. Held breath.
“Varroa took my home,” Begumisa said aloud. Barolong’s eyes darted about the ceiling, as if he’d expected the full sentence to be some bat-summoning incantation. “I assume this Varroa and our ‘Varroa the Destructor’ are one and the same. Nothing here seems destroyed though. Only their crop could be called that.”
“This isn’t their home,” Barolong added. “Nobody lives in their shop. I spent plenty of time in my family’s smoking room, shoulder to shoulder with rib cages that could swallow me up, but I’d never want to sleep by them. That would count me among them, as nothing more than flesh.”
“Are you saying this person was driven out of their home by Varroa and forced to sleep in their place of business?”
“Your guess is better than mine commander, and mine hardly answers anything. Who was meant to see such hidden writing? Why is it hidden at all? Is Varroa a thing that can recognize its own name?”
“Check for any more containers,” Begumisa ordered. “Perhaps their tale isn’t finished.” Barolong nodded and disappeared back under the counter
“There’s one more cabinet here, but the knob is stuck,” he grunted. “If I can just… come on you little… Auugh!” Barolong stumbled back and struck the wall. A new head appeared from under the counter, covered in frizzy shocks of hair hanging to the shoulders like palm leaves. The figure whirled around, allowing Begumisa to see it was a woman of similar age to her. Her eyes were wide with terror, her lips drawn in some sort of apology that had left her mouth days ago, but not the muscles around it.
She wore a long blue skirt that looked quite heavy, almost like the ends of a theater curtain. Her hands and forearms were covered in smudged designs, temporary tattoos born of the same black greasy ink of the writing. Begumisa saw a woman who was once extraordinarily beautiful, but that had left with her composure. Fear had moved in, like paranoid rats moving into the abandoned nest of a noble eagle. The woman looked ready to flee from them, but one look at Begumisa’s golden scar dropped her to her knees. Her hands clasped in prayer, the knuckles almost immediately going pale.
“I’m sorry, queen of another place!” she cried, eyes tightly shut. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I was hiding from it.” She seemed to realize something; it made her gasp. Her eyes stayed shut. “How is it that you are here? Have you vanquished it? Please tell me it is gone from Laetoli!”
“I am no queen,” Begumisa said. Were she alone she might have let the misconception stand long enough to get information out of the woman, but if Barolong were to tell anyone she’d let the assumption go unchallenged, even for one conversation, she could be removed from her post. She might’ve trusted Genomon to stay quiet, to know there was no harm in it because there was no ambition in her, but not the inexperienced butcher’s boy. “I serve Queen Magthwi of Colduvai. We have come to learn the fate of Queen Nkoro.” The woman shuddered, her hands forced to drop their prayer so they could support her against the floor.
“Queen Nkoro has fallen,” she moaned. “Our… my queen… was the last victim of Varroa the Destructor.”
“What is Varroa?” Barolong asked. He looked out the window for the stomping feet of a giant monster, but the streets were still silent.
“I…” She opened her eyes and looked around the shop. “I cannot say. Trying to describe Varroa makes it stronger. If I tell you it will get me… and maybe you too! We have to leave this place!” The shop seemed offended by her statement, for the whole of it began to shake. The knives rattled against the wall; the disassembled cans shook themselves to the floor. Barolong grabbed the counter to steady himself while Begumisa simply held her ground. The woman seemed to lose all control of her limbs, crying with her cheek against the floor.
The city moved outside the window. The walls of the shop’s neighbors disappeared, replaced by the distant sides of much taller towers and the shell of Laetoli’s outer wall. Though certainly startled, Begumisa quickly assessed the situation. With the shaking came a smothering droning sound that wasn’t completely alien. Its undercurrent was exactly the same as the grass-comber, even if it was a howl to the comber’s sweet whispered nothing. This was the work of some hidden machines under or around the shop, and its main purpose was to move them somewhere.
She took one stride to the window and grabbed its sill. The whole butcher shop was airborne, hovering over many of the other buildings, and it wasn’t alone. They occasionally rotated to make way for other flying structures, but their path wasn’t meandering. There was a specific place in its mechanical mind where they needed to be, likely marked by one of the deep slots in the ground passing by below. They’d probably created their own slot upon flight.
The box-shaped buildings shed dirt clods as they went, but small wheeled cleaning machines emerged from storm drains to sweep them away. Everything about this shuffling suggested it was routine, like the dancing figures of a cuckoo clock. The only wrench in the works was the expeditionary force. The flying butcher shop rotated around an open-air stall selling tools; Begumisa stared at one of her subordinates. The poor girl clung for her life onto one of the tool stand’s awning supports, her legs dangling and kicking out over Laetoli.
Begumisa held out one hand, palm flat and steady, to tell the girl to keep calm. She nodded in return and visibly took a deep breath. Twice more the commander saw the confused or frightened faces of her force similarly trapped in the shuffling boxes. The ordeal took a total of two minutes before the buildings slowed to a stop and lowered themselves into their new slots. Pads alive with blue light, the hover engines, retracted back into the walls as if they were never there. Laetoli had successfully rearranged its businesses and residences like a child able to drag their freckles around their cheeks.
Barolong threw the door open as soon as the hum stopped. The bell tinkled again, thanking them for their patronage. Begumisa followed after the mysterious woman. She would’ve helped the poor creature up, but there was still the worry that Varroa was something infectious, that she might be a carrier. Something else gnawed at the commander, keeping her at a distance from the survivor. Perhaps it was the knowledge that she’d never actually touched, skin to skin, a human from any place other than the gorge. There were bound to be minor differences in their breeding, perhaps eve incompatibilities in the blessings of different queens.
It wasn’t any of that. It was her mere presence. If the entire city had but one survivor, why her? The commander took a deep breath, but didn’t let Barolong see. It was silent and her eyes stayed open. Even if she’d been surrounded, nobody would’ve noticed the turning of the gears in her mind. She was the oldest in their ranks and so far she had led them perfectly, so she didn’t even make decisions. There was just a long scroll of experiences in her mind, and when one tactic didn’t apply to the situation at hand she simply went on to the next.
Her suspicions were premature; they didn’t yet know she was the only survivor. The others scouring the city might have found more. One pair of her subordinates appeared from between two buildings and ran over.
“What was that Commander Begumisa?” one of them asked. He held something made of cloth over his forearm; it looked like a collapsible hamper.
“I’m not sure,” she answered honestly. “I don’t think it was anything to worry about. What do you have there?” He eyed his partner, who encouraged him to show their discovery to the commander. He folded the hamper inside out, revealing lots of writing like what they’d found in the cans, only smaller. Begumisa approached and put a finger under some of the words to make reading easier.
Varroa the Destructor will claim your home. It will claim your neighbor’s. I don’t care what the others say. It has taken the queen’s. She walks among us, dazed. Only new steps offer a moment’s rest. Take them away from this place.
By the time Begumisa had read her fill of it, more of the force had converged on her location. They milled about, passing items back and forth. The story seemed to be the same all over Laetoli. The homes were as clean as the shops and streets. All signs of intimate life were gone: sheets stripped from the beds, skins of dolls and stuffed animals turned out and emptied, gardens burned or salted, and not a crumb left in any cupboard.
In their place was the mysterious writing, but always hidden away inside containers and chests. It had been found on the inside door of iceboxes, under the lid of toilets, and across the gears of tiny music boxes. Whatever enforced this rule seemed to enforce it perfectly; not even a single written word had been found in plain sight. More music with the stain of words removed was reported as well.
Begumisa turned her eyes to the tallest structure in all of Laetoli: a blue tower wearing a crown of a balcony. While most color had been stripped away from the streets, the same process could not be used on the sheets of gold cascading from many of its windows. It was truly the mineral, cut thin enough to flap in the breeze. It was the residence of Queen Nkoro. If the shadows of her people offered no answers, the expeditionary force would have to tread upon her doorstep. Begumisa gave an order; the tower was their next destination.
There was plenty of whispering among them. Again, she knew their thoughts. To trespass in a royal home was an act of evil. The commander’s mind raced for a rationalization that would settle their nerves, but the need for it was belied by the irrational mind of the survivor. As soon as they started to move toward the tower she begged and pleaded for them to go no further.
“No! You mustn’t!” She reached toward whoever was near, but none would allow her to touch them. “Queen Nkoro was taken by the destructor! It slumbers in there even now, atop the bones of Laetoli as its treasure hoard. We must go the other way! We must leave the city!” Begumisa stepped in front of her just as Genomon came around a corner with the rest of the force in tow. The scene was looking like a public trial for the survivor’s sanity.
“Genomon, here as I need you,” Begumisa called out with a snap of her fingers. He came over quickly, but with his arms folded behind his back so he didn’t look too much like a lap dog coming to lick a treat out of her hand.
“You’ve found a survivor,” he noted quietly, eyeing the hysterical woman. “It seems her dignity has not joined her in surviving.”
“Yes, but remember she has lost her queen,” Begumisa reminded. “With no queen there’s no reason to feel shame or have hope. Her heart beats only to pump blood and she fears only for the integrity of said pump.”
“Does she have any answers for us?”
“She won’t give them up within Laetoli’s walls. I trust your people are reporting the same as mine? There’s nothing anywhere except for this strange writing on hidden surfaces?”
“Yes commander. No signatures on any of it. The only name belongs to Varroa.” Begumisa stood there for a moment, eyes drifting to the queen’s tower. Though it was their mission, at least in name, to ascertain the fate of the whole city, there was but one person that mattered to Colduvai: the neighbor queen. Only information from her could be fully trusted, and even then only if interpreted by Magthwi.
Begumisa knew Magthwi would trust her to handle such information, to cradle it in hands that had at least touched royal material so as to not corrupt it, but not the rest of the expeditionary force. They were just there to protect Begumisa, to grant legitimacy to her treks beyond the gorge that mostly served to keep her at arm’s length. Staring at the flapping sheets of gold in the tower’s windows, she came to the conclusion that if she was the most qualified to carry Nkoro’s corpse back to Magthwi, she was also most qualified to expose herself to this Varroa, to withstand its nature, and return to tell of it. The charade of her entire force joining her was not necessary. They already had a common survivor to pour their curiosity into.
“The risk is mine to take,” she whispered. Genomon leaned in, cupping his ear, because of course his commander had spoken in an appropriate volume and his aging ears had merely failed to listen. She looked at him with something close to affection. He was rather light-skinned for a subject of Magthwi, with a heavy dusting of freckles around his eyes. She often imagined his eyes as shooting stars and the freckles as their glittering tails.
He was a gift, like a wish on one of those stars that resulted in it dropping out of the sky and landing softly in your flowerbox. He had the spirit of an ancient warrior: a man who would gladly fire his bow at constellations stampeding across the sky. Genomon would do anything she asked, perhaps even betray his true queen, because she wasn’t his commander. She grabbed his shoulder.
“Genomon, I would like you to take the force back to the grass-comber. Take with you the survivor and see if she will answer your questions past the ashes of her queendom.”
“I must knock on the queen’s door. I will do this alone so as to not put the others in danger of meeting Varroa.”
“You know this is against the rules,” he whispered, but his stare didn’t waver from hers. “No member of the expeditionary force is ever supposed to be alone, lest we forget we are subjects.”
“I know old friend, but I am not going in order to be alone. I am going to sacrifice myself if need be; I am going considering death. Magthwi will see the reason in that. You are to wait for me at the grass-comber for one day. If I do not return you are to follow the braid back to Colduvai.”
“Is there anything else?” Begumisa smirked; that was his way of asking her if she was sure without audibly doubting her.
“As soon as you reach the comber, use the radio to tell them what we know of Varroa. Update them if she should speak further on the matter.” The commander nodded at the survivor, who was only now catching her breath and wiping her tears away. Genomon relayed Begumisa’s orders to the rest of the force, acting as if she wasn’t among them. She took Barolong’s hound stick and moved in the opposite direction, deeper into Laetoli.
She sensed the stares over their shoulders. They would whisper; it was fine. Whispers were among the only toys they had out in the wilderness. Their attention would turn to the survivor soon enough. Begumisa didn’t fear the city, including its callous clockwork that might accidentally crush her if she stepped in the wrong place at the wrong moment. The hovering buildings moved twice more during her journey, occasionally passing directly over her, as if letting her know they could kill her at any time.
Her only response was to point the hound stick at them. Nothing prompted a reaction from its electric eyes, not even the first step onto the residence of Queen Nkoro. There was a park at the base of her tower, surrounding it in a circle of dirt and massive stone pots that had clearly held trees at one point. The cleansing of the city had left it as lifeless as everything else, though the breeze did occasionally create small dust whirls, passing through the benches like civilians surprised to find themselves as phantoms.
The park had several levels of curved walkways, looking almost like the giant concrete ramps used with the wheeled traffic of old. Instead of asphalt they were paved with a burnt orange substance somewhere between rubber and ceramic. It was marked with numerous symbols, spared the information purge by their utilitarian purpose. There were green and red footsteps marking where a civilian could and could not walk. Paw prints in the same colors for pets.
Begumisa wondered what happened to Laetoli’s animals. Burned up like the crops? Euthanized and disposed of? Set free? The paw prints told her there were dogs. They were members of the family. Puppies given as gifts. Nearly citizens under Nkoro. They were as gone as everything else, without even a single carefree urine stain on any post or pot. She took a step onto one of the paw prints.
Whiiiiirrrrr. The walkway moved on its own, forcing her to commit both feet to it. Such machinery was never used in Colduvai, but Begumisa had heard of such things. She thought them reserved for the laziest queendoms, where lower royalty might weigh close to a thousand pounds and demand their city accommodate them. She placed her hands on the railing and stood still, letting the oddly cool metal slide under her palms as it took her on a tour of the tower’s circumference.
She checked every window for movement, but there was only the fluttering of the gold banners draped over their edge. When she’d circled the park once she spied an exit, turning to jump off the moving walkway, but the machine increased her speed and pulled her past it. The tower disappeared behind another curving walkway, this one angled more steeply.
Before she knew it she felt entangled in a nest of them, two or three on each side at various heights. Wherever it tried to take her, it wasn’t to the front door of Nkoro. She lunged at the next exit, only to have a metal gate snap shut at the last moment. She smashed her shoulders into it, instantly bruising them. By the time she rolled across a set of red paw prints and got back to her feet, she was under the shade of four more walkways.
“What are you hiding?” she asked the hidden machinery through gritted teeth. It answered her by speeding up once again. She caught a glimpse through the bottom of one walkway and the top of another; it definitely moved her away from the tower. Begumisa ran against its pull, hound stick pumping back and forth in her hands, banging against the side and occasionally producing a spark or a whimper. Still she lost ground.
The only solution was to vault over the side and return to the actual ground, but she did so without looking first and was shocked to see how high she was. A complete fall could easily have been lethal, but there were too many other walkways obstructing her descent. She planted both feet on a new one only to have it activate and pull her in the same direction as the last.
She jumped again and found a third platform, immediately abandoning it for a lower one as well. Each time she switched which side she jumped from in an effort to confuse them. Her efforts succeeded only in making her stomach lurch when the ground pulled her. Begumisa leapt again.
There was an angle to the latest walkway, once she had not corrected for. She pitched forward and rolled down it, the pain of a twisted ankle instantly lost in fresh bumps and bruises. The human prints were gone; it was all covered in green paw prints. There was just enough time for her to wonder if the image of the hound stick had convinced the machines she was a lost pet before it rolled her straight into a strange tiered structure with a small rounded doorway.
“Ufhh!” she grunted as her forehead smashed into its arch. She collapsed onto her back and was dragged inside the structure. Her nose filled with the smell of pet dander. Fearing an incinerator at the end of the conveyor belt, her arms and legs shot out to the side, finding the thin metal walls of a now-narrow belt. She pushed her elbows down, holding her body aloft as the belt continued to roll under her.
Her back tensed up quickly, but there was time to catch her breath. Strands of her hair had come loose and now hung down to her lips. She could feel the warm sting of blood exposed to dusty air on her left hand. Begumisa kept her wits about her despite feeling like a caged animal. She had to, for there was something to read by the dim light of the hound stick’s eyes. It was all over the walls, incorporated into dog scratches and bite marks.
Varroa should not be here. This is not our home. Why would the destructor want this place?
Looking further down the tunnel, Begumisa realized this was just part of the park. It was some kind of dog hotel where an owner could leave their animal for a few hours. If the dogs were needle breeds they might’ve been trained well enough to check themselves in, to use this very belt to find their room and wait for a little bell from outside: a call to return to their leash.
With their homes taken, with their shops following, some had taken refuge in this literal dog house. It must not have worked, for there was no sign of anything that walked upon two legs. There was no scrap of clothing or piece of lost jewelry. Not even a whiff of cologne or perfume. Something had pulled them out and disposed of them, but left the smell of the dogs behind. Begumisa wondered why the dust of these creatures, closer to the homes of the people than any other animal, would be spared.
“Are you allergic Varroa?” she asked the writing on the wall. Without her weight on it the conveyor belt eventually gave up and returned to stillness. It had been the only sound, so Begumisa was suddenly surrounded by the smothering silence of dead skin and hair drifting back to the floor. She kept her breathing shallow, not wanting to give any of the unseen machines a sign that she still lived, that she still attempted to traverse against their wishes.
She flipped herself over, keeping her hands and feet on the metal sides, and scuttled out of the dog hotel. Back in daylight, she crawled over the edge of the walkway, hung from it, and dropped the rest of the way to the ground. She held the hound stick like a hammer, ready to bash anything else that protested her presence, but the barren park was silent.
It had likely been the only refuge of nature within Laetoli’s walls, and so the people didn’t want the industry to intrude. It was lucky for the commander, for there were several signs posting the path to the queen’s front door. Their text had been stripped, but they still bore faint pictograms of a crown and pointed the way with their arrow-like shapes.
The door was only for ceremonies and photo opportunities of course. It opened only for processions, mostly providing steps for citizens to kneel on and pray to their queen. As Begumisa climbed them she saw tiny scuff marks all along each where buttons or shoes had scraped the stone.
She stopped in front of the seam dividing the two doors, some ten meters high. There was no knocker or window to break. The tower likely had other more practical entrances all around its base, ones small enough that she could break through, yet she stood there, staring into the seam. Magthwi’s spire was integrated with more advanced technology than any other part of Colduvai; Begumisa imagined that would be exaggerated in the robotics-obsessed city of Laetoli. Nkoro’s home would know her touch, her voice, and any royal imprints in the oils of her fingers.
Begumisa was touched by royal material. There were no human eyes on her. Now was her opportunity to see if it was anything deeper than her golden scar, if some of it had made its way into her blood. If it had, if she was what Magthwi had essentially banished her for being, the ceremonial door would recognize her as such and make way. She raised her hand.
The great doors were gold and blue, with molded statues of Laetoli people dancing with wheeled robots, both alongside and atop them like mobile ballrooms. The commander half-expected them to spring to life, to perform some stage drama, at the mere raise of her fingers, but all the figures remained still. She would receive no encouragement. If she was going to dare to compare herself to the only true power left in humanity, the responsibility would be hers alone.
Begumisa touched the seam.
Wilting of the Market
The back room of Keikogile’s flower shop was lit by a single shaft in the roof. It could be covered by a sliding grate, but most of the time it let in the daylight unfiltered, keeping all of the girl’s experimental plants strong and brazen. They climbed out of their pots and crawled across desks and tables, their growth occurring in such tight clusters that it seemed every bud, flower, and leaf was the result of fevered internal bickering. Everything they could grow was worth growing, so sometimes a leaf turned into a flower halfway up its central vein and sometimes a bud blossomed into a ball of strange bright-colored leaves.
The crack under the door had to be checked regularly in case any of the vines wanted to explore the main shop, where citizens were free to peruse her more standard fare. Keikogile had a towel jammed in that crack at the moment, for she didn’t want to take any chances with the roots she’d brought back from the grove. They had tasted the burl of royal coffee, and her heart was aflutter with possibilities.
At the moment she leaned over something like a counter, though it was hollowed and filled to the brim with a special blend of nutrient-rich soil. She had transferred the root pad from the bottom of her pack back into the dirt hours ago, which was plenty of time for them to snake their way into the root network of all the other plants.
She ran her hands and arms through their stalks and leaves, eyes closed, imagining herself as a fish with elegant ball gown fins swimming in and out of a forest of kelp. The plants were her true home, not Colduvai. Too often was her dream where the city died and had its skeleton overrun by plants. Waking from it dumped buckets of disappointment over her spirit, but she could always scamper down to the backroom and see the sprouts that could do it if they only had the chance.
When she finally opened her eyes she realized the shop was supposed to be open nearly an hour ago; she spent another few minutes staring at the various leaves and buds, hoping to see a shimmer of gold. So far there was nothing. She sighed and planted her elbows in the soil. There were no pictures of her family on the walls, so no stern eyes could chastise her into going to unlock the doors.
Her family had been strange, but not so strange that they didn’t nag her to keep up an air of normalcy. They forced her to get up with the sun, eat meals with her grandparents, spend hours in botanical study, and sleep with the darkness. Now that they were all gone she rebelled by disrespecting the very concept of time as much as she could. She kept a seasonal schedule rather than a daily one, only sporadically doing her duties. In spring she did the most experimentation, in summer the most business, in fall the most relaxing, and in winter the most complaining.
Normally she decided to open the doors to her shop when there was a knock at them. She wasn’t the only florist in Colduvai, but she was the closest for several neighborhoods and her family’s work had, without a doubt, produced flowers far more beautiful and unique than the competition. Today was different; there wasn’t a single knock as the morning wore on. This lull lasted so long that Keikogile took notice. She usually took her breakfast after the first sale of the day, a nice mix of breads, fruit, and seed butters, so her stomach started growling.
“They must all be waiting in line,” she thought out loud. “Impatiently waiting for this flower to open.” She giggled. “Shouting at nature, as if that could make it run its course any faster.” She rose back to her full height and turned to leave, her bare feet shuffling across the loose soil on the floor. Grasshoppers jumped back and forth, chirping, treating her ankles like any other wall to bounce off.
The shop’s lights turned themselves on when she shut the door to the backroom, revealing the true brightness of her outfit. Her collar was a billowing arrangement of thin cloth petals in green and yellow. Her shirt was patterned with diamonds. Her pant legs widened as they descended until they looked like flowers hanging heavy in the rain. She couldn’t help but stop halfway to the doors and smell. The scent, even after all these years, was still so intoxicating.
There were pots and bouquets everywhere, their price tags often entirely obscured by the growth of giant leaves that she really should have trimmed. The walls were alive with thick vines weaved through thin wooden trellises, all of them eventually disappearing into holes on either side of the front door, where they turned into the shop’s main advertisement.
One of the central displays was a giant crystal bowl full of floating lily pad blossoms in a wetlands rainbow of colors: every shade that might shimmer in a drop of rain. Giant decorative koi swam around in the pale descending tendrils of the pads, swimming toward Keikogile once they spotted her. They needed feeding and they weren’t as patient about it as the flowers.
She opened a tin, grabbed a handful of pellets, and tossed them into the bowl from across the room. The fish mad an immediate mess of the lily pads, splashing and flapping wildly, spilling water down the sides and all over the floor. Keikogile slid through one of the puddles on her way to the front door, touching her hair. She wasn’t attempting to organize or straighten it, just physically remembering what her mother used to do each day before opening the door.
The sun greeted her, but nothing else. The streets were empty. Keikogile walked out into the middle of the orange and tan cobblestones, turning to examine the display over her door. The shop had no family name out front; the flowers spoke for themselves. Over the door in a great half-wreath there were some of the largest flowers that had ever existed in the world. Nature had made bigger blooms, some taller than men, but they were merely the anomalies of evolution. They were strange things growing from the pores of the wettest jungles like pimples. Often they smelled like rotting meat to attract all sorts of riff raff pollinators like houseflies and their biting cousins.
Not Keikogile’s gargantuan blossoms. Rather than being misshapen into things like missiles or open wounds they were all the familiar forms mixed with the most ornate. Fleshy blue roses the size of chandeliers were packed petal to petal with flying duck orchids, which, in resembling their name, looked like they might take to the wing at any moment. A layer of pollen, thick as snow, marked the outer edge of her property, acting as the brilliant shadow to the constantly shifting colors of the overgrown awning above.
Each bloom receded into the building, joined with the vines on the walls, and wound up in her back room. It was all one massive plant made from a thousand cuttings, nudged away from discordant organic chaos by her family’s molding of recognized needle-breeding traits. No citizen of Colduvai, or the queen, knew how illegal and unethical that plant was by their standards. They knew only of that one little shop with the flower hat, its decorations growing and changing so fast that you could almost see it.
Keikogile knew that, if one watched for an entire hour, one actually would see it. The flowers slowly morphed into other varieties, sharing colors as they went. It was like the pulsing colors in the skin of a cuttlefish, slowed down until it matched the heartbeat of the day itself. There it was over her, as stunning as ever, yet there were no customers admiring it by her side. She looked to the left and right. Not a soul as far as she could see.
The young woman started to walk, leaving her door slightly ajar. Colduvai had no thieves, for business was just a way to keep busy. The queen and the monoculture provided. Theft was merely a confusion over which house should hold an object.
Almost anyone would be concerned about a wandering child finding her back room, but not Keikogile. The people were not curious and neither was Magthwi. She was the only one. There hadn’t been a single time in her life where she’d explored a dark corner, turned down an abandoned alley, or dove into a thicket in the grove that she ran into another soul with an identical motive. There were places all over Colduvai for explorers; they were dark and quiet even though they were rarely more than fifty meters from a placid citizen.
Her shop’s street was never supposed to be one of those places. It was still early and it was a common day for the people to do their shopping. She knew it wasn’t her fantasy of an empty city, for she could hear crowds cheering down where they sold all the food and crafted goods. They usually weren’t that loud even for the music festivals. Something had drawn everyone there, leaving the more segmented and organized entertainments at the end of the market streets to suffer in emptiness.
“So curious,” she mumbled, walking away from the distant din. She passed the library. The outdoor stage. The first person she saw was the physical instructor: a fit older woman as sturdy as a stick of cinnamon. She ran several classes a day in her bamboo-floored studio ranging from morning calisthenics to martial arts that could no longer protect their country of origin. She was closing her studio’s door behind her when she noticed Keikogile.
“Hello Miss Oufore. Do you know what’s going on today?”
“I have no idea, so I’m off to take a look myself. Will you join me?”
“I’ll be along in my own time,” she answered with a shake of her head.
“Just like always,” Miss Oufore said with a chuckle. She walked past the florist briskly, seeming to speed up when the roar of the far off crowd swelled. Keikogile ran into a few more of her neighbors, all of them doing the same thing: closing up their empty shops to make their own way to the center of the market. Only one more acknowledged the girl going the wrong way. Miss Oufore was always the second nicest to her, and she suspected it was only because she signed up for several of the woman’s classes, though she only attended one in every five or six. The florist wanted to see the reaction of the nicest before she turned around and joined everyone in their investigation.
It wasn’t much further to the zoo. It was the largest establishment on the street, taking up the last fifth of it and bleeding down into an untamed field where the animals could relax when they didn’t want to be gawked at. Its outer walls were sturdy braced wood, reminding Keikogile of those old legends about boats carrying animals across a flooded world. She waved at two giraffes, their heads just tall enough to stick out over the walls. They chewed mouthfuls of shoots quietly, so well cared for that they never tried to lean over and snatch food from guests.
The zoo was just the zoo, a name as unnecessary as one for her flower shop. Its animals were of the continent, but they were still exotic as the gorge thought itself the entirety of civilization. The children were still amazed to see the horns and teeth of the rhinoceros and hippo. They were still delighted to ride on the back of one of the calmer female elephants. Just like the giraffes, the other animals never attempted escape or even an aggressive charge on their caretaker.
That was why it was so strange that Keikogile encountered a juvenile leucistic crocodile strolling down the street, more than thirty meters from the zoo’s front gates. The young woman turned around and kept pace alongside the animal, hands behind her back. It was just a meter long, the armored bumps on its tail shining like pearls.
“Are you off to the market as well?” she asked it. It plodded forward silently, but she smirked and snickered as if it had responded with a delightfully wry joke and sigh. “I don’t know why you’d go. This is your chance to see Colduvai at its best. It’s like a reef now, with all the fish chased away.”
“My thoughts exactly,” an aged voice said from behind her. Keikogile turned and saw a bent man with a scraggly white beard. He had a walking stick, but its tip was an adaptive rubber provided by the Science authority, so when it conformed to the shape of each individual cobblestone there was no satisfying tapping sound. This seemed to annoy the man, who clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth with every step to simulate what should have been so easy to achieve.
He was Delister: the zookeeper. Keikogile had always been able to excuse her general oddity, not that she felt the need to, by mentioning her family and their numerous insular traditions. Delister had no such ability as far as she knew. As far back as she could remember, all the way back to when she could barely stand upright, Delister had been the lonely zookeeper with no spouse, child, or protégé.
She had also kept count of the lines of his face, noticing that the count never went up. His aging was only displayed in the bending of his back, now at a rate of a degree or two annually. His thin blue shirt was entirely unbuttoned, but his posture made it impossible to see his bare chest regardless. There were a few leather cords tied around his middle toes, like the toeholds of a pair of sandals that had completely worn away under him. He caught up with his crocodile, walking on the side opposite Keikogile.
“I tried walking one of the crocs a few years ago, made a nice leash and everything. People complained and I got hit with an official Peace Authority warning. It was everybody else was frothing at the mouth and barking about it. The croc was just walking along, mouth closed, occasionally stopping to rest his cold belly on the warm stone. Which one do you think was disturbing the peace?”
“People have a hard time making peace with fear,” Keikogile said.
“There was nothing to be afraid of.”
“Well you can’t be afraid after the terrible thing has happened. You have to guess when it’s coming. They thought a crocodile walking down the street was a good sign.”
“That doesn’t make sense to me,” Delister said, rubbing his beard. The crocodile stopped for a moment, resting its belly just as predicted. “Then again I’ve never been afraid of anything.” He pointed at his pale scaly beast. “Little Stroll there, that’s what I call him, is my favorite. Loves the land. Poor thing never gets to sit on the sand bar, crowded as the pit’s getting. I’ve got no idea how to stop them from breeding. I don’t have the heart to step on the eggs and I don’t have the strength or space to split up the males and females. All I can do is take this opportunity, give Stroll a stroll, and show him there’s nothing special out here either.”
“Well then I’ve ruined it,” Keikogile said, “as have you. The two of us are special indeed. The only people in the whole city not roaring with the crowd.” Delister didn’t respond, but Stroll seemed to. The crocodile picked itself back up and turned around, waddling back the way it came.
“Seems he’s had enough already. He’s even smarter than I thought. Better go put him back before somebody’s poor innocent child steps on one of his scales and cuts their soft foot open.” Delister let go of his walking stick, which stayed upright on its own thanks to the advanced rubber tip, and threw one leg over Stroll as if mounting a horse. He reached down with both arms, grabbing the animal by its sides and lifting it. Delister couldn’t rise very far, so its tail still dragged across the street. The old man waddled even slower than the reptile, but Keikogile didn’t ask if he wanted help. Delister wasn’t someone you helped; he had made his own world out of animals the same way Keikogile had out of plants and mischief. There was no helping them, merely observing the colorful consequences and unorthodox eventual graves. His walking stick slid along behind him, the rubber now stretching and gliding like the speediest of snails.
“You’re the more special of us,” Keikogile called after him, “for I am going to see the fuss.”
“Oh?” He stopped. “You can do me a favor then. Come here and reach in my left pocket.” Keikogile did as she was told, not showing a moment’s hesitation even when the hanging pocket squirmed and she saw a shadow in it like an embryo inside a mermaid’s purse. She reached in and cupped the contents, gently lifting it out. It was another white crocodile, but judging by its size it had only hatched a few days ago. Its eyes were a bright mix of yellow and green, like a thick algae skin on a pond too lively to call a bog. Its mouth hung open, its tiny needle teeth almost translucent.
“What a little cutie,” she cooed, more to the crocodile than Delister. She reached out with her opposite index finger and rubbed the spot between its eyes. The animal closed them and allowed it, though the scaly skin on its throat quivered. “What is its name?”
“That one doesn’t have a name,” the zookeeper answered with a snort. He resumed carting Stroll back toward the gates. “Just a baby that one. Doesn’t do anything but squirm yet, so I’ve got no way to name it. I just want you to take it into the market and let it see how crammed together all of us are. Once it knows we’re just as silly and cooped up as they are, it can tell all the others in the pit and they can stop giving me trouble.”
“Alright. I’ll be back shortly,” Keikogile said without questioning the logic of the favor. She had no pockets for the tiny beast, so she simply crossed her arm over her chest and held its flank over her heart. Its limbs stilled, as it seemed to enjoy her body heat. “Let’s go be flies buzzing over the market.” The zoo gates closed behind her, but the sound was followed by a repeated tapping. Delister had left his walking stick behind; it was trying to assert itself through the gates.
The walk wasn’t far, and all she had to do was follow the waves of noise. She expected to find the backs of everybody’s heads as they crowded together, but those on the outskirts were seated wherever they could find a flat surface, stuffing their faces with street food that usually came in smaller servings and with a bowl or a cloth holding them. These people used their hands and shirts, disregarding the mess no matter how saucy their meal. One man had an armful of poppy pastries covered in powdered sugar that rained into his arm hair. She recognized them as ones that were very difficult to make and that were usually limited to one per person.
Rather than wade into the crowd and frighten the crocodile, Keikogile stuck to the empty space behind all the market stalls. It was supposed to be for the free movement of the sellers only, but everyone was so distracted she knew she would have no trouble going unnoticed. In fact, she could even pass by just a meter behind them without them turning their heads. Each and every stand was doing fantastic business. Foods and crafts were being handed out everywhere, not to individuals, but to whatever hand in the bouquets of fingers reached furthest across the counter. The vendors were laughing and shouting, holding up handfuls of their goods regardless of the effort that went into them. She saw jewelry held like a handful of peanuts, pieces slipping out from between fingers and disappearing into the greedy grasping horde.
The florist stood behind a basket weaver, looking directly over the woman’s shoulder, watching her pull every piece she had from under the stand and slide it across her counter with a shove. It was grabbed immediately; Keikogile expected it to be torn apart, but it simply vanished in the sea of shoulders. She noticed that the vendor took no money in exchange for her baskets. This was not isolated. She breathed down the necks of a dozen cooks and artisans along that side of the lane and didn’t see a single coin. She wondered if they felt no need to gaze upon the tiny golden face of Magthwi, for the real thing approached.
Keikogile reached the widest street of the entire market, so wide and curved that it was more like a public square. The cobblestones swirled like water, but no statue or fountain stood at the center. Sometimes the queen made speeches there, so nothing could stand in her place and not draw criticism. The florist stayed out of the currents of people still, leaning up against an empty stall, enjoying the shade of its awning.
There was a mess behind it of eggshells, shredded cheese, and herbs. She guessed by it, the smell, and the glistening pans that they’d been selling the very popular omelets using small songbird eggs. She ran her finger along one of the pans, ignoring the lingering heat, and licked at it. The flavor was warm and full-bodied, tasting the way the market looked at that moment. The vendor had simply abandoned the stand when their supplies ran out, wading into the unscheduled festivities to see what free goods they could get their own hands on.
Keikogile gently set the tiny crocodile down in the pan, its fading heat proving the perfect amount to send it into a euphoric stupor. The florist grabbed the handle and rotated it so the little beast stared out into the crowd. Delister had wanted it to observe after all. She did so as well, craning her head out from under the awning once the shadows started passing over the crowd.
The whole city was already cheering, but they doubled their efforts at the arrival of Magthwi’s palanquins. They hovered over the crowd on nearly-silent engines, one glowing at each of the hexagonal platforms’ six corners. The structures had cloth rooves held up by a post over each engine, with a giant velvety bow atop each one. Curtains of purple and gold rained down on three sides, giving it a distinct front from which she could observe the crowd.
Magthwi stood at the edge, far from the throne at the back of the vehicle, with Mossawetu. Keikogile couldn’t remember exactly which order the princesses came in, which was practically blasphemous, but she settled on little Mossy being the second or third youngest. All the other princesses were there as well, but they were on their own smaller palanquins, choosing which portion of the crowd to wave to by standing at an edge, thus telling the vehicle which direction to float.
The oldest, Polykeng, stood with Wohki, the youngest. Polykeng was nearing her seventeenth birthday and had recently switched from her childish showy wardrobe covered in bows and frills to the more elegant and stately gowns of her mother. It was well known that the girl was nervous, having realized that some of her sisters had overtaken her as the favorite for the next queen. It was, at any given time, Magthwi’s decision, but public opinion definitely took its toll.
As a princess she was beautiful, but until she’d been elevated to queen by a massive dose of royal coffee she was just that. Her image would not strike, would not be exceptional, would not be only replicable by the most talented portrait artists instead of photographs, until she earned her city’s favor. The festival seemed to be the perfect opportunity. She stood there with dignity, her hand moving slowly through the air rather than flopping back and forth like some of the younger princesses’. She had large dark eyes, hair that tamed very well, a nose like a bee-eater, and small ears. The crowd still remembered how she used to make them wiggle for their amusement, but she was past all that now.
Wohki was not. The youngest was on her knees, reaching down to the crowd with her rather slender arms, especially for a child that should’ve still had the chubby fingers of a toddler. She giggled and grasped at the hands of her people, even though they were meters out of reach. Magthwi was not concerned for her safety. Her children were too coordinated to fall off anything, and even if they did the people below would catch her. The biggest concern was whether or not those that caught her would ever wash their hands again.
The third palanquin, open on all sides, held up the next eldest and youngest, excluding Mossawetu: Amandili and Jivahti. Amandili was the known prospective queen at the time. Though only fourteen she was a stunning intellect, having already spent entire academic years diving into the philosophies of all the world’s dead lands: a topic that many middle-aged scholars wouldn’t even dare approach. They feared any perspective from a queen that wasn’t their own. After all, every other line had collapsed. Amandili knew some of that fear, but to her those old books with their thin paper and fading ink were the equivalent of bravely entering a dense dark jungle with a machete. The intellect was the only place left to cut her own trail.
She stood and waved, more comfortable in stately dignity than her older sister. She also had a face much more like her mother’s, close enough that the portrait artists could simply paint over Magthwi’s more voluminous hair and call it a likeness of Amandili. She held hands with her sister Jivahti. Among the princesses they were the best of friends, and most sympathy for Jivahti came from her attempts to emulate Amandili. She couldn’t match her in studies, but she was excellent when it came to reaching out to the community.
Jivahti liked to surprise children her own age with visits to their competitions and talent shows. She brought a small army of spire staff with her, referring to them as professional applauders, and having them amplify her own appreciation when an act was finished. She was the plumpest of the children, but for commoners her build couldn’t be called anything other than athletic.
There was one more palanquin, the smallest and most unassuming with its matte nickel finish. It wasn’t meant for the princesses, but there was currently an argument going on between Amandili and Flavakinji, who was the closest thing to a problem child in the royal family. Keikogile did not keep up with the queen’s affairs, she barely kept up with feeding her own fish, but she had a soft spot for the sour middle child currently standing on the edge of the gray palanquin.
Flavakinji’s father was a man obsessed with Magthwi far beyond the ordinary adulation. He had stolen the identity of a hermit who had once served as the maintenance architect of the spire under Queen Bimine. His sabotage of Magthwi’s home even went as far as learning the weaknesses of the Science Authority’s computers and changing some of the information within.
He thought himself a master of seduction for worming his way into the queen’s bed, but the simple fact was that no queen of Colduvai was vulnerable to such men. Magthwi had made her decision based on information given her by the Science Authority. She spent only minutes within him, her mind away on far greater things while he defiled her bed chamber with deception. When he was found out, his breach of the computers was eventually detected, he was immediately thrown in prison for the rest of his natural life.
In his home they found a collection of novels he’d written, all of them romances starring himself and Magthwi. They were burned. That would have been the end of it, but the man screamed through the bars of his cell, day in and day out, demanding to see his queen so he could watch his child grow within her. He was warned repeatedly to behave, but he never heeded them. Building a new soundproofed cell was a concession that, it was unanimously decided, he did not deserve. They also weren’t going to bother keeping him gagged for most of the day, so he was put to death by hanging and his body burned seven days before the birth of his daughter.
None of the princesses knew their fathers well. The men understood that it would hurt their chances of becoming queen. A princess’s family was to be just royalty and her people. Everything else was a distraction that could turn their limitless potential into normalcy. Flavakinji did not even know the whole story of her father. Magthwi treated her as she would any other daughter, for she knew there really wasn’t much for the men to contribute anyway. Still, there was something in the girl’s mind that separated her from the rest. She was a very serious-faced child, fists always clenched and shoulders always tensed. She took no joy in pomp or circumstance, wearing utilitarian clothing, never dresses, in the style of the Peace Authority. The palanquin she stood on now, arms folded behind her, was for the royal guard. Its commander, Mister Koulsy, stood by her side and acted as escort to Magthwi and her daughters.
Koulsy was the closest thing the girls had to a father and, by his own efforts, was closer to being an instructor. There were normally a few possibilities for who might fill his role in their education; the post had previously been held by authors, historians, scientists, or former princesses who did not achieve queen. For this generation there was really no other choice, as the head of the Science Authority was a strange man who did not inspire confidence. Similarly there was no revelatory presence in literature. The gorge’s history was now the only history left.
He was a broad-chested man with thick eyebrows, a wide nose that looked designed to facilitate frustrated sighs, and teeth that rarely separated when he talked, as if he feared people putting words in his mouth. He stood in much the same pose as Flavakinji, but even with all his experience it looked as if he imitated her rather than the other way around. There was a sword at his hip, but more notable was the bumpy armored gauntlet on his right arm that went from his elbow to the tips of his fingers. It was the most vital tool of a royal guard, the most advanced defensive measure the Science Authority had ever whipped up.
With the push of a button the bumps would separate, projectile-resistant canvas material spreading between them, and cover a member of the royal family in a protective cocoon. Each bump was also capable of catching projectiles and blows, saving their fragments or fingerprints to be examined later in case of a trial. Mister Koulsy had never had occasion to use it, his sword was always sufficient, and he dreaded the day when his instincts failed him. Twice he’d drawn blood in defense of Magthwi, and both times it had been before the perpetrator even made a move. He’d correctly deduced their intentions from nothing but body language.
Keikogile had no idea how much of this information the crocodile’s walnut-sized brain could gather from the hovering procession, but she slowly turned the handle of the pan anyway, keeping its yellow-green eyes trained on royalty. Her own eyes were already wandering back to the crowd. The generosity of the vendors seemed infectious. People were handing anything that wasn’t edible back and forth as gifts.
“For you!” someone squealed as they handed a pot to another smiling stranger.
“I can tell you have a family, and every one of them deserves one of these!” insisted another, holding out a forearm loaded with beaded necklaces. A random hand, attached to someone quite short, held up a flatbread loaded with herbs and sun-dried vegetables. Every mouth near it leaned in for a bite, taking one even if it had to be from someone’s else’s visible teeth marks in the edge.
Keikogile recognized several street performers that sometimes parasitized the business around her shop’s entrance. There were ribbon dancers, acrobats, contortionists, and puppeteers. They were all performing their hearts out. In fact, their manner was so frantic that they appeared to speed right over steps and stages of their own acts. The dancers’ routines were so truncated that the ribbons couldn’t keep up. An old puppeteer was trying to walk his wooden procession of soldiers toward a wooden palanquin, but their strings were tangled. They limped along in a disturbing fashion, bumping and jostling the formation until it looked like a sea urchin stuffed into a uniform.
The crowd didn’t mind. Coins and goods were tossed into the performers’ various hats and buckets with abandon. The puppeteer was making more than he had in any single day even though it was the worst show of his life. Keikogile focused on his wild-eyed face, watching him lick his lips. He looked dehydrated, desperate for water in fact, but he just kept marching his tangled soldiers around as if they were the only ones that could find a well for their parched master.
This wasn’t how Colduvai celebrated. On most sanctioned holidays the royal family arrived first. When things weren’t scheduled it was because Magthwi or one of her daughters had arranged a surprise. Yet the market had whipped itself up into this panting mass all on its own. Keikogile couldn’t spot a single banner or themed costume that might’ve acted as the catalyst. Something stopped her from turning the pan handle, which brought her eyes back to the stall. There was a man standing there in an apron; he gripped the edge of the pan and stared at it. The tiny crocodile bit at his fingers, but he didn’t react. Keikogile snatched the little beast up before it could do any more damage.
“Is this your stand?” she asked, taking a step back. Rather than answer the man simply gritted his teeth and gripped the pan harder. It started to shake and clatter against the burner. “Are you alright?” He grunted through clenched teeth, finally releasing the pan, only to grab his wrist and stare at his palm as if it had just been badly scalded.
“My stand?” he repeated, stepping forward menacingly. He spoke as if the stand itself had asked the question. Keikogile continued to step back, expertly fading into the background despite holding a toothy little river monster. “My stand would never do this to me.” He bent down and placed both hands flat on the burners. They had been off long enough that they were harmless, but one wouldn’t be able to tell by the expression on his face. His eyes were shut as tightly as possible. The entire stand shook as he desperately tried to keep his hands in place.
Whatever heat he thought he felt quickly became too much. The man reeled back, staring at his hands in horror. He rubbed them on his apron repeatedly while circling around to the back of the stand. Once under its awning his distress seemed to instantly double. He grabbed at pans, egg shells, and bottles of oil, scalded by them all in equal measure. He threw them to the ground and into the crowd. One of the bottles struck someone in the head before shattering upon the street, drawing the attention of several.
“Which one of these things is it!?” the vendor raved. “One of these is too hot! It’s going to burn everything else! It’s going to destroy my little shop! I work so hard…” People closed in around him, drawn back to rationality by his exaggerated panic. They held out their hands to calm him, told him everything was fine. Someone touched the burners with the tip of their finger and found it had no heat.
“What are you talking about?” they asked. “Everything’s off. Nothing’s burning.”
“Are you blind?” he barked back. “My shop is burning down! I can’t even touch my tools!” He grabbed at a pan handle, yelped, and instantly dropped it on the ground. “The fire’s invisible! I don’t understand…” Tears streaked down his face. He grabbed his cheeks, raking his nails down them, now blubbering and backing away.
A woman from the crowd grabbed his shoulders, urged him back under the awning. She grabbed one of his wrists and tried to make him touch the cool burner, just to show him everything was fine. The moment his finger touched the metal he exploded out of control, throwing her off and sweeping his arms across the stand. Tiny eggs rolled away or splattered in the street.
The man struck with the bottle got back to his feet and stormed over, rubbing the knot on the back of his skull. He grabbed the vendor by the apron straps and tossed him back onto the counter, holding him down. The vendor screamed as if thrown onto a bed of coals, his body fueled only by thoughtless existential terror. Eventually that terror overpowered the man holding him down. Both tumbled into the crowd, right into the puppeteer, tangling his strings further.
There was nothing to see as a member of the crowd; everything was just bodies and noises happening just one flesh layer too deep to have obvious sources. There was nothing to see as one of the vendors or performers gripped by this generous madness. They paid no attention to the growing brawl. They continued to hand out their work, even throwing it into the swarm if people didn’t take it from them quickly enough.
There was something to see from Keikogile’s place at the edge; she was the only one to notice the flickering of the hover-engine glow under all the palanquins. She noticed it intensifying when the people directly beneath them became more disturbed. She could’ve shouted, but there was no shouting over anybody else. It was obvious that she was utterly useless as a person of Colduvai, as she could be neither a participant in the mania or someone judging it from far above. She was just the girl holding the toothy animal, stroking its head and wondering when the people would start biting each other.
There was also something to see from the palanquins: the spread of the brawl like an infection, like an animal falling into thorns and pulling out more tangles and cuts with its thrashing. Queen Magthwi was the first to spot it. The sight of discord was foreign to her. This was not obsession with the royal family, which had always been the foremost disturbance of the peace. She already had her hand on Mossawetu’s shoulder, so her daughter was the second to notice when her mother’s grip almost imperceptibly tightened. She pulled the child one step back.
“My queen? What is happening?” she asked, grabbing Magthwi’s wrist. She almost answered, almost said that she had absolutely no idea, but their attention was suddenly pulled away when Polykeng’s and Wohki’s palanquin shuddered alongside theirs. Just as with the grass-comber, the vehicles had artistry and symbolism engineered into them. The grass-comber could only move if it made a trail connecting it to Colduvai, stopping dead over barren ground. The palanquins’ engines chose a height to hover at based on the crowds below. It treated the crowns of their heads as the caps of gentle waves, sailing on the very health of the market.
The spreading fight disrupted that pattern, turning them into a stormy sea. The palanquins all began to buck in response. The queen and her children were mostly able to grab the posts, the thrones, or the edges, but little Wohki was already leaning over the side. She was tossed from the platform and went tumbling down, her little waving hand the most visible thing, the rest of her lost in her fluttering dress.
If Colduvai was healthy it would have caught her. She would’ve practically bounced all the way back up to the palanquin as if the people below were a trampoline. Instead she disappeared into a pile of bodies, many of which were assaulting anything they could get their hands on. The girl cried out, but the sound was quickly lost in the chaos. The queen froze. The cry of a princess should’ve shattered the activity surrounding her like an ice pick. The people should’ve become statues, eyes crying pure shame. Instead they continued to punch, kick, scratch, and bite, looking for the crazed vendor who insisted his cool pots were ablaze.
Even in her shock, Magthwi’s indecision only lasted a fraction of a moment. Quicker than that even was the response of Mr. Koulsy. He leapt down from his bucking palanquin, straight into the crowd, his feet practically flattening someone. Their back broke under him, but it was those directly surrounding the fallen princess that needed to fear for their bodies. Koulsy’s sword was drawn mid-air; it landed with his feet, right into someone’s shoulder. No commoner was to touch a royal without permission. It was a most egregious lust for power or fame, or the most disgusting negligence, or the insanity of an anarchist. The sentence was always the same. It was so swift that the lives involved were usually forfeited before a drop of blood hit the ground.
The panic didn’t take notice, so Koulsy was forced to continue cutting them to ribbons, until the princess was visible through the drifting of those ribbons. He pulled his sword from the anonymous shoulder and slashed at the edges of the spot where Wohki had disappeared. His blade, thanks to the Science Authority, was one of the sharpest things to ever exist. It treated the flesh of Colduvai as tissue paper. Fingers, ears, and an entire hand were cleanly cut away, establishing a border of blood. Finally they began to respect the more righteous anger of the royal guard. The mob flopped backward, exposing Princess Wohki. The girl was crying, a large purple welt on one of her cheeks. There was one more civilian by her side, touching her, perhaps helping her up, but not even a moment could be spared for context. Koulsy’s blade disappeared into their shoulder. They cried out in pain, but Koulsy just grabbed their other arm and spun them around, kicking them back into the crowd.
He helped the girl up and examined her wounds; they seemed superficial. He had heard several of them cry before, but never from pain. They were too coordinated to ever skin their knees, too intelligent to fall out of a tree. These were the sounds of an injured queen before she could take flight, the cries of an empire falling to a natural disaster beyond its control. That this sound had been forced into her perfect lungs filled the head of the royal guard with rage, but it had to be contained, just as the situation did. Without realizing it, he had put his whistle in his mouth and blown it. Its piercing sound also sent a signal.
It took less than a minute for a small army of guards to arrive. Many of them had been off duty, but at the whistle they turned their hats or sleeves inside out and revealed the stitched symbol of the guard: a bird’s nest with a single crowned egg at the center. Those without swords, joining straight from the doors of their homes or alleyways, started grabbing people from the crowd, throwing them to the ground and subduing them.
The palanquins’ rocking worsened, threatening to throw more princesses to the hungry throngs below. More guards arrived on hovering hexagons of their own. These new vehicles, more utilitarian in function, locked their sides to the palanquins’ with magnetism, quickly stabilizing them in a tightly-locked network. Guards flooded to their wards and stood on all sides of them. One descended to retrieve Wohki and Mister Koulsy.
The network of vehicles, now a platform casting a shadow over the disintegrating blob of the bloody bruised populace, started its retreat. Keikogile, still safely on the sidelines, could not make out any of the royals behind their fence of guards. The Peace Authority on the ground was doing its job, earning its name by authoritatively enforcing calm. Clusters of brawlers were separated, hands bound in high-tensile cloth cuffs, and escorted to different corners where they could be interrogated. The florist wasn’t part of any of it, and her favor for Delister was obviously finished. It was time to return the little water dragon to its pit.
On her walk back she spotted a few people returning to their homes. Most were weeping, but a few had blank shocked expressions as if there was a bomb going off in front of them constantly. Keikogile tried to see what they saw, staring at a patch of street and picturing a geyser of fire and debris. No matter how she tried she couldn’t find the terror everyone else was experiencing. At first she thought it was because she’d stayed so separate, never even touching a member of the crowd, but then she saw something that should have shaken her to the bone. She stopped at the pollen-dusted border of her own shop, stared at the grand arc of giant mixed flowers. They wilted and shriveled before her eyes, audibly so. Petals fell like shell casings, the wind unwilling to take them even an inch to one side or the other. All of the color was gone in a minute, replaced by an ashen purple. The edges of the flowers’ container showed their bare sides for the first time in generations.
“Oh,” she said, stroking the crocodile’s head. “There’s my injury. I get to participate after all. So nice of them to include me.”
Continued in Part Three