One Queen to Another
The harvesters seemed to have necks made of leather. Day after day they went out into the blazing sun and picked cherries, counting on nothing but the leaves to shade them. Only the elders ever wore hats, and that was more so they could see than be protected from the burning heat. This meant that Keikogile had no way to conceal the glowing cracks on the side of her neck without drawing stares.
She wanted to move among them, but not for companionship. The girl just felt safer with people around: a new sensation since she’d become a royal. They felt like shields, but again, not from the sun. Had it always been so unbearably warm out in the grove? Keikogile was high in one of the trees; it was midday. Her chest heaved slowly on the inhale, quickly on the exhale, like a leopard getting ready to pant but sputtering in the effort. Her arms dangled under her, fondling bundles of cherries, tracking one insect crawling between them.
The florist had taken new clothes from a very old harvester who had fallen from one of the larger trees and died. She didn’t leave them naked of course; they were welcome to her old attire. She was in a yellow and black skirt now, thick work gloves tied around her neck. She sucked on one of the fingertips, barely noticing the cavernous grumble of her stomach with each puckering of her lips around the middle finger. She hadn’t eaten or had a drop to drink in days.
Footsteps broke the silence under her; Keikogile flipped around on the branch and watched the heads of several harvesters walk by. There were two women and a man, the baskets on their backs half full. Keikogile, with royal agility, silently followed them, stepping branch to branch. Theories played out in her head.
Perhaps Queen Magthwi emitted some sort of energy blanket that protected them from the sun’s rays. It was an umbrella, with the spire at its center. She had always been protected by it before, but now that she was more than a subject she didn’t qualify. If she wanted an umbrella she would have to use that gorgeous enigmatic flower blooming atop the spire. The commoners couldn’t even see it, let alone use it.
She had tried, but its stem was just so full of angry insects and biting blasting contraptions. The elevator had rudely given her the scar that was just too difficult to disguise. She was stuck out there, among the plants, forced into their peace until she could concoct another way to ascend to the top.
Watching the harvesters hadn’t given her any ideas, but it did soothe her soul. It really felt like they were her subjects as she brachiated directly above them. The odd thing was, she’d already followed a few harvesters that far out before resting. Where were these three going? There were plenty of cherries in the trees they’d already passed. Keikogile silently ordered them to talk to each other, to slip her some context, and she was so elated when they started jabbering a second later that she gasped and nearly fell out of the tree.
“Are you sure it will still be clear?” one of the women asked the man that led them. He didn’t slow down or look back to acknowledge her.
“It’s always clear,” he answered gruffly. “There are these machines that pop out of the ground like metal flowers and cut everything around them. They’re on a timer. We’ve got to be careful or they might surprise us and cut our ankles to ribbons.”
“And you know the timing?” the other woman asked nervously. Keikogile saw her drop her head, inspecting her ankles to make sure they were still there.
“Roughly. It’s every few hours. We can hop across as soon as we get there and hope for the best, or we can wait up to three hours to make sure a trimming cycle just ended.”
“I’m not waiting,” the first woman declared, rubbing her arms as if she was cold. “Someone might find us. I can’t go back there.”
“Just say you got lost,” the other woman suggested. “That’s what I did when I tried to leave two days ago. It was a difficult pair of nights, but I’m here again. You spent, what, fifteen years in that house? You can withstand it.”
“Mine must be worse than yours,” she insisted venomously. “Only my memories live there. Even they throb.” She stopped for a second and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I spent last night just leaning against the outside wall with the window open. Every time an officer walked by I threw myself inside so I could answer the door if they knocked. Every second I’m in there… It’s like a hothouse inside a hothouse inside a demon’s festering mouth. I couldn’t even stick my hand inside without it cramping up.”
“The queen will forgive us,” the other woman said, more to herself than the others.
“She’s giving us our way out,” the man insisted. “They say every last rivet and bolt in the city was her idea, so she made those mowing machines that have cleared our way. All of it is her will, whether she knows it or not. The queen is what she is… not who she is.” They walked silently after that. Keikogile guessed their minds were consumed by guilt for saying anything negative about Magthwi.
Keikogile had her suspicion as to their destination: anywhere but the gorge. The harvesters came as reliably as ever, day in and day out, but she’d been noticing a decline in their numbers. Whole families used to pick together, but she rarely saw children anymore. They spread out like feral cats all looking for their own hunting territory. Something was happening to the city. When she looked at its tallest buildings through the canopy she thought they almost looked tilted now, as if the glue holding them together had softened. The possibility wasn’t lost on her that she had started it by consuming royal coffee and giving it to Delister. It wasn’t a certainty though, as there were a handful of other instances of contamination in the gorge’s past.
The queen before Bimine famously dealt with a burst pipe in the spire that spilled processed royal material across an entire floor. Some of her subjects wound up with golden toenails while others from the floor below had it worse; it seeped through the ceiling and rained on their scalps. Upon shaving their heads one would find a surface not unlike a shallow streambed perfect for gold panning.
The lucky ones mostly accepted minor surgery to have their toenails replaced with artificial ones. Those rained upon had the tougher time, their scalps removed and replaced with permanent metal caps, thought they could be easily decorated with ornamental magnets or dried branch circlets.
After that incident all royal coffee production was taken out of the automated process and done by hand in smaller batches. The human rate of error was higher, but there was only ever one victim or perpetrator contaminated at a time. Keikogile briefly wondered if, assuming she turned herself in, they would show mercy on her and try to give her a metal neck. Something told her that even the darkest science from the deepest cave under the spire couldn’t manage that.
Of course there was an example of contamination much more recent than the pipe burst. Keikogile wasn’t too young to remember Begumisa of the Peace Authority, though the knowledge of exactly how it happened was denied to the public. Rumors swirled about it to this day. Some said it was a friendly boxing match gone wrong, that the queen was training an already flawless body, landed a punch on her sparring partner’s jaw, and incidentally transferred royal skin cells deep into the flesh. Another possible origin was that Begumisa forgot to alternate which side of her face she turned away from the queen and princesses out of deference. Too much exposure to their radiance on one side had given her a royal sunburn.
As far as the present disaster, the people had their own theories that had very little to do with Keikogile. The florist overheard many of the harvesters share their pet theory: the Science Authority’s scouring lamp was to blame. Its energies had successfully eradicated the crocodiles, but it seemed they’d also done something to everyone’s homes. The authority insisted that wasn’t the case, they brought out all sorts of meters to test and proclaimed every result negative, but something had clearly changed that day. Most everyone felt it. It was like the lamp was over every house all the time, beaming oppressive hot rays down through the ceilings.
The harvesters stopped. Keikogile did so a second later, and it was a good thing too, for two more steps would’ve been one step into empty air. They’d reached the very edge of the grove; the florist had seen it a few times before in her pre-infection wanderings, but this spot was different. The trees normally grew into each other, shaped partly by trellises into wooden fences with hexagonal holes. The area in front of the three harvesters was open for nearly ten meters. Tiny stumps were everywhere, about as wide as ankles. Their sides were covered in minuscule branches and dense leaves, but they were all chopped flat at exactly the same height. The tenacious plants managed to stay alive under the oppressive regime of the currently invisible mowing machines.
Keikogile was able to discern the purpose of the clearing, which was bisected by one tree that had been artificially sculpted into a column with a ladder on the front. At its peak, under its thin flat canopy, she saw a mounted machine that looked something like an ancient electrical transformer. The mowers must have been planted there so the area around that machine would stay accessible. She noticed too that the clearing terminated on the right with another wooden fence. That would be the edge separating the public’s grove from the section with the royal coffee trees. The harvesters showed no interest in that though, only the stretch of grassy plains beyond the grove. They stared at it like a calm sea.
“Who’s going first?” the more hesitant woman asked as she pulled off her basket-pack and dumped all its cherries into the underbrush. The others followed her example before answering.
“I am,” the other woman declared. Without the pack weighing her down, Keikogile could see that she was quite tall and muscular. In order to look like a harvester she’d worn breathable red clothes, but it certainly wasn’t what you’d want when the cold of night came. She marched up to the stump line, but the man held her back.
“Wait a moment. Are you sure you don’t want to wait for the next cycle?”
“I could’ve crossed in the time it took you to say that!” she hissed. A glance at leaves chopped down the middle. “You’re going to make me lose my nerve.”
“You won’t need your nerve if you’ve just seen it happen,” he stressed. “These things are only up for a few seconds, and they’ll eat your legs same as anything else. I had the misfortune of seeing a scrounging rodent in there once. It was nothing but red in two seconds.”
“Please don’t say things like that,” the nervous woman requested with a hand over her mouth. She was a much daintier creature with crescent copper spectacles. Keikogile saw a bracelet of wooden beads around one of her wrists, recognizing it as more than decoration. One of the middle beads was much flatter and had writing on it: a medical ID tag. She must have had a serious chronic illness or allergy, something that would need to be identified immediately if she saw a doctor. There was surely not a single animal outside of the gorge that would know what to do with that tag, other than pick it out of its teeth.
“When things die out there, everything else sees it,” the brave woman said. “If you can’t accept that you should stay here. Magthwi will pull a shroud over every corpse before you can even smell it.”
“I’m not leaving because of her; it’s just that I can’t… hey!” The woman in red leapt into the strip of stumps, bounding to the other side as fast as she could.
“Shit!” the man said, jumping after her. “We should all go at once!” Three seconds later they were both across the gap. The man stumbled away from the grove, shocked to see himself outside it. They both huffed and puffed as if they’d run a kilometer. “Hey… hurry up. You’re just making it worse,” he called across the gap, as the bespectacled woman had faltered right at the edge.
“I’ll just wait,” she said meekly. “It’s only a few hours. Maybe everything back in the city will be fixed by then. Maybe I’ll hear a cheer roll through the trees.”
“If you don’t go now you’re not going to go,” the other woman barked. She turned and stalked off into the grass. “We’re not waiting for you.” The man glanced back at his home a bit longer, but he too turned away, heading in a direction all his own.
“Why did this have to happen?” the remaining harvester whimpered. “The queendom’s a stone. It’s not broken. I’m broken. I’m homeless… I’m sorry my queen!” She tried to take a step, but nearly twisted her ankle when she pulled her leg back. Tears rolled down her face. “I can’t do it!” Something landed in the underbrush behind her, crushing several cherries and scattering leaves. She hunkered down with her hands over her head and froze, certain it was a kind leopard, come to kill her before she had to make a decision.
“I’ll help you,” Keikogile said from behind her. Before the woman could react the florist reached down and took her hand, walking her into the stumps.
“Who are you?” she asked, but Keikogile didn’t think it necessary to say anything else. She was right, for the moment the woman saw the golden web of cracks on her neck she panicked, shrieked, and bolted away, now free of Colduvai. Keikogile stopped at the column-like tree, still in the middle of the mowing field, and watched the woman turn into a dot in the distance and disappear.
The tree would be climbed, she knew that much. It had always been the one thing she couldn’t resist doing as a child, but before she investigated it and the machine nested there she wanted to fill her desert throat and cavern stomach. Not with food, but with the greatest goods of the grove. The florist paid no heed to the timing of the mowers as she walked across the length of the gap, over to the fence that kept her separate from the royal coffee cherries.
Normally it would’ve taken an axe to get through, but anything infused with royal material was now like butter to the knife of Keikogile’s outstretched hand. The wood gave way. It didn’t respond to her clothing though, so rather than step through entirely she simply stuck her head in, spotted the nearest cluster of cherries, and picked as many as she could carry.
She ate them standing on the little stumps, moaning with the pleasure of it. It wasn’t the taste; it was the sensation of it seeping into her palate and tongue. It proved so absorbing that she didn’t even see the insects trying to defend the fruits. There were a few species of moths and ants that fed on the plants, resulting in gold-tinted creatures and the odd concept of the six-winged moth queen. Several drones were in her handful, but she chewed them up with golden flesh and the caffeine-filled seeds alike.
The new royal material, much purer than the stuff she’d tasted from the burl, only clashed with the older exposure for a moment. It fell in line inside her, sending a quiver up her spine that popped all her vertebra. When she was done she belched loudly and licked her fingers clean. When the fresh infusion hit her eyes it turned everything brighter and gold-lined, as if time had been turned back to the sun’s brightest and yellowest midday.
The florist yawned. Sleep had been as common as food and drink in the last few days; she ran on royal fumes alone, something she could likely due for another month if necessary, though she would be little more than a golden-eyed mummy at that point. Absentmindedly, her body moved back to the column-tree and touched it. Her hand slid down the bark, recognizing a rung when her fingers reflexively grabbed it. There was still the mystery of the machine to investigate.
Her second hand upon the rung seemed to act as the on switch for the mowers. Metal pegs shot up between the stumps, exactly a meter apart, and unspooled six pieces of wire from their flat heads. Even with royal reflexes Keikogile could not act faster than the machines. The heads went from stillness to fifty revolutions a second in less than a snap of the fingers. The force turned the wires into blades.
Shreds of grass and leaves hopped around above them, losing pieces with every bounce, like staring into a blender full of lettuce. It didn’t take long for drops of golden blood to dye the hopping debris, for the mower nearest the tree had torn much of the flesh from Keikogile’s ankles.
She didn’t cry out and she didn’t panic. Her arms decided, without her input, to climb the ladder as swiftly as possible. Her feet were useless, dangling by the bone, pouring glittering blood over each rung in her ascension. There was incredible pain, but it got lost somewhere in processing. She definitely felt it in her legs, the sensation of being a meal fresh out of the oven as its steaming cover was peeled off, but the excruciating parts of that feeling never made it to her brain. They died somewhere in her waist, neutralized by the royal material.
When her mind cleared the grove was silent once more. There was no trace of the mowers except for the smell of grass’s inner moist layer. She rested comfortably in a curved seat of sculpted wood: part of a thick branch that curled over her head and provided ample shade. The young woman looked down at her feet as if they were a pair of boots just kicked off. One of them leaned to the left, further than was possible for a healthy leg. The toes on the other one twitched like the legs of a Chihuahua standing its ground against a mastiff.
They were splattered with gold, a color that circled the entire branch and dripped below her as well. The war to keep the fullness of the pain away from her mind continued; she felt it waged around her upper thighs. She saw a muscle twitch, like the flank of a racehorse. With her body so busy cleaning up the mess, she didn’t want to bother it. The machine in front of her looked like an entertaining distraction.
From the ground the opposite side of it looked featureless, but from this angle it was covered in vertical and horizontal lines that formed a grid. She leaned forward with a grunt and grabbed a handle barely big enough for two fingers to hold. It pulled out into a tray. Flat pieces of machinery unfolded like scenes in a pop-up book, constructing devices that she barely recognized. One of them was a rod topped with something like an ancient radio microphone. Something within her urged her to pick it up, but she wasn’t a slave to the royal material’s desires. To prove her independence she grabbed several more handles to see what other trays had to offer.
There was a map of the gorge. A map of the continent. Replacement parts. Robotic drones to install the replacement parts. Recording equipment and pads of black waffled soundproofing material. One of them refused to stop unfolding, trying to enclose her in some sort of cell. She smacked it until it gave up and retracted with a whine.
“What are you, aside from so many things?” she whispered. Her best guess was that it was some sort of remote communication station, an outpost in a box meant for lookouts, should something hostile ever camp outside the grove. If she was right then that microphone might connect her to someone in the spire. A fantasy played out inside her, mostly managing to stomp down the pain of coagulation and repair in her ankles, where she forged a mighty emotional bond with someone in the heart of the queen’s stronghold, strengthened to steel by voices alone. This other person would hear her case, understand, and open the way for her to come smell that glorious flower. To bathe in its pollen.
On the other end of the possibilities, initiating communication might alert the spire to her exact position. Surely, in the hundred machines stuffed into another, one of them tracked the unit’s location. Still awash in the bliss of the coffee juice, Keikogile paid that scenario no mind. She snatched the microphone from its tray.
She wasn’t the only thing in that tree that responded to a royal touch. The machine, upon registering the distinct oils in Keikogile’s fingerprints, switched away from its commoner mode. Its interior color, gray and dull, shifted to gold and copper like rain soaking into a blanket. An antenna like a crown sprouted from the top. The handles flowed and stretched, becoming more ornate. It was as if the machine turned itself into Queen Magthwi’s bedroom door.
Even the microphone in her hand changed, its head going from a circle to a hexagon. Its handle split into thirty pieces, like a wooden toy snake, and it wound around her forearm in a friendly manner. It crackled to life, its sound less like a radio and more like the giggling splash of a dolphin. Keikogile leaned back and cleared her throat.
“Hello?” she cooed into it. “Is anybody there?” There was no answer for more than a minute. A glance at her feet informed her that she wouldn’t be able to walk for hours, so there was no harm in being patient. “Hello?” Two more minutes passed, but then she heard a soft sound from the other end, like someone pacing. “I can hear you and I would like you to talk to me.”
“Hello Keikogile.” The florist flinched. That voice, though she knew it, everyone did, was such a surprise. Queen Magthwi.
“Greetings Magthwi. How did you know it was me?” The florist smiled. She was never one for playing games, not with other people anyway, but at the moment she was elated to feel like one of the tiny queens of the chessboard.
“You’re calling from a long-abandoned line,” the queen explained. “It can only reach me directly in the hands of someone who has consumed royal coffee. All of my daughters are accounted for, so that leaves you and Mr. Delister. You don’t sound like an old man, so you are Keikogile. Aside from all that, I recognized your voice. I never forget the voices of my subjects.”
“What is this thingy that I’m talking into? What’s it doing all the way out here?”
“It’s a relic of a system that hasn’t been necessary for generations. There used to come times when princesses matured into queens somewhat randomly, and on their own. Very contentious times for mother and daughter when they both coveted the same throne. Sometimes these agitated princesses would be exiled to the edges of the queendom. Negotiations would take place on one of these devices. Family spats would be resolved. They ended with the current queen either stepping down or the princess leaving with a party of subjects to form her own queendom.”
“This looks awfully fancy for a time-out corner. All these pretty machines you have that do nothing. Cluttering up that spire. You’re going to make the flower wilt.”
“Don’t play dumb Magthwi. I’ve spent my whole life looking at flowers and then looking inside them. I know all the little gross pieces that go into a beautiful bloom. You’re keeping it from me because you don’t think I deserve it.”
“You’re ill, young lady. You should never have consumed. Your body wasn’t bred for it.”
“I feel great.”
“That’s all it can do for you. You feel great, but you are not great. Your body can hold itself together, but you cannot hold together the body of the people. Tell me, how did you acquire the coffee you drank?”
“I found a thing full of it growing on a tree root. It followed me home.”
“I’m sending someone to bring you to me,” Magthwi said plainly. “Stay where you are. We can discuss this in person. We can find a place for you.”
“No, no, no. Your place would be far away from Colduvai. Like you did with Begumisa. And she only had that little line on her chin. I’ve got glitter in my eyes, across my neck, and I’ve just added lovely bands of it on my feet. Soon I’ll look like a very expensive statuette.”
“Do you think I want to hurt you? Nothing could be further from the truth. I would sooner harm myself.”
“I think I’ll just wait to pick my flower. The path to it will clear on its own, like pimples clearing off skin. That reminds me, since you’re the authority. If I get a pimple will it be gold inside too? And will cavities in my teeth look like little gold mines?”
“Why do you think the path will clear on its own?”
“Your eyes work just as well as mine Magthwi. People are leaving Colduvai. Every day. Wandering away. I’ve seen them.” There was a pause. A snap of the queen’s fingers, away from the receiver.
“Who have you seen?”
“Just now. Three harvesters threw out their cherries and walked right past this tree. I don’t think it was just a vacation.”
“Describe them to me.”
“Well there was a man and two women. The women seemed to know each other a little better. One of them was tall and the other was petite with glasses. The man knew about the mowing machines and the gap in the trees.” Another pause.
“The man was Rutabe. The tall woman was Koni. The last was Helolo.”
“Could it be true that you do know every last one of your subjects?” Keikogile asked. Thanks to her own dose of coffee she felt she could barely remember her own name.
“You are all my children,” the queen claimed.
“Tell me about me,” the florist demanded. “I want to know everything you knew about me, but only what you knew before you found out about my exposure. I’m almost sure I’ll be able to tell if you’re lying. If I think you are, I’ll end the call.”
“Your name is Keikogile.” Some of the panels on the machine extended on their own, but the florist stared down into her lap, stroking the microphone with her thumbs while she listened. “Your family has run a flower shop for generations. Your heritage can be traced both from Colduvai and the far off island of the empress.” The panels moved slowly so they didn’t make the same noise as before. Layer by layer they enclosed Keikogile in a spherical cell.
“Anybody could know that,” the young woman challenged. “Tell me something only the queen would know. I never thought I had any friends. If you were actually there, but I just didn’t see you, you must know something about me.”
“You break our laws every day, and proudly display the results above your shop’s door. Those massive flowers and their shifting colors are the result of tinkering with needle breeding. You went out into the grove all the time looking for scraps of biological inspiration, as if combing for glittering shells on the beach.”
“I never got in trouble.”
“I allowed it because my mother Bimine had allowed it from your grandparents. Colduvai is protected on all sides by the grove. The minds of its people are protected from discontent ideologies by my loving confidence. It cannot be protected from the wind and the water. These things will always bring specks of the rest of the world to us.” Keikogile failed to notice the thickening of the shadows.
“So my family’s work was just more pollen in the air? Nothing to concern yourself with?”
“You are something beyond my control,” Queen Magthwi said, her voice soft. It flowed from the microphone and ran down Keikogile’s chest, making her skin prickle. “You have always been vital. Colduvai needs influences like yours to keep its immunity. You challenge me to mother beings with different experiences from my own. You make me stronger.”
Keikogile heard a drop of blood hit a panel that wasn’t there before. Her eyes shot up and witnessed the copper shell enclosing her. It wasn’t quite finished yet, there was still an open crack directly below her branch, so Keikogile leaned and fell. Her body smacked against the paneling; the whole cell shuddered. Leaves fell around her, but the sight and sound of it was hidden. One of her injured ankles had slipped into the hole in the paneling. It repeatedly tried to close around it, but wasn’t strong enough to cut through the bone. Each pulse hurt, but Keikogile was more concerned with the microphone. She rotated onto her back and checked it for cracks. All seemed well, so she kept her weeping ankle in the vice and resumed the conversation.
“So, I’m for something. What a detail. Since I’m just something to be exposed to, why not let me into the spire? I should be much more effective there.”
“You’ve gone beyond needle breeding. Queenship is the pinnacle of the process, but nature doesn’t maintain its perfection; that’s why we have our Science Authority to breed, prune, and test the trees. In nature’s hands the material moves and changes. It leaps from species to species via absorption, predation, reproduction, and parasitism. It mutates with every generation, and the generations of lower organisms are a thousand to a day.”
“You’re putting distance between us, even as you come to get me,” Keikogile claimed. “You shouldn’t do that to your subjects, if you care about them. They’re already leaving on their own. Why is that do you think?” The queen was silent. “I’ve never heard you without an answer glossing your lips. Even through this microphone you sound a little blindsided right now. A little stupid.” She thought for sure that word would get a reaction, but she couldn’t sense anything in the channel.
“It is called Varroa the Destructor,” Magthwi finally admitted. “It is the cause of everything that’s been happening.” She sounded as if it was the first time she’d said it out loud.
“Never heard of it,” Keikogile said blithely. “It wasn’t the cause of the crocodiles. That was me.”
“You said that the royal coffee ‘followed you home’,” the queen reminded. “What did you mean by that?”
“A guard took it from me when I left the grove and threw it back into the trees, but after you visited me I found it in my shop, like magic.”
“A treasonous act, of an intensity and stripe my family hasn’t witnessed in four generations. It is only to be expected that a person like you, curious to a fault, would gobble up anything royal you found, but for another to bring it to you is a sign of insanity. An insanity initiated by Varroa the Destructor.”
“It was right after you were there,” Keikogile pointed out. “Are you sure it wasn’t you? I think you’re tired of not having any competition.”
“I came to your shop because the symptoms of Varroa had already appeared in the city. A man had a psychotic break over his food cart, and your gorgeous display wilted.”
“It wilted and I bloomed,” Keikogile giggled. She reached down and felt her free ankle. The blood had dried into a golden-brown crust like burned flatbread. She realized she had absolutely no idea how long she’d been in that tree; time was so slippery now. “What are you going to do about this thing? If I had to guess… you’d start with a census. Check how many you have left to protect.”
“I’d like to count you first,” Magthwi said, sounding as genuine as any mother holding her newborn.
“I don’t count for anything,” the florist replied. “I just waft between the things that count, exposing myself to everything around me. You said so yourself. Goodbye Magthwi.” Keikogile didn’t know how to end the call, so she bashed the microphone against the bottom of the cell until the head came off and hung by a wire.
It proved difficult to pry the panel beneath her open enough to slip through, but it had to be done if she was to avoid some padded cell in the section of the spire as far from her flower as possible. The fall to the ground would have been damaging, which was fine by Keikogile, but her body reflexively grabbed one of the branches on the way down, her head bobbing sickeningly with the recoil. Again she realized she had no idea how much time had passed. In reality it had only been half an hour since the mowers last rose, but to her they were primed for another taste of rich blood.
The only solution was to swing like a gibbon and avoid the ground entirely. Even with feet dangling in a sickening fashion, Keikogile’s movements had all the precision of an Olympic gymnast. She swung back and forth twice, building up enough momentum to swing around the branch completely. After that she released her grip at the apex, spun, and caught it facing the other direction.
The royal section of the grove was in front of her: a gated community with no gates. What a problem that would be for Magthwi. Only the Science Authority could understand the consequences of ingesting, but they wouldn’t have the daring to chase down the florist. The members of the Peace Authority could, but they might be too tempted by the ripe cherries everywhere. Perhaps, in there, Keikogile would simply be ignored, treated as inert like the burl she’d found.
When her speed was the highest she could generate Keikogile swung from the column tree, across all the mowers, and into the canopy of the royal section. Its leaves engulfed her in an instant.
She could just be a leaf, or a cherry, or a moth fluttering between them for a little while. Time was nothing now anyway. Seconds felt like weather and hours felt like dreams. The two poles of reality were Keikogile and the flowering spire. Everything between was sterile rocky outcroppings. The path had to clear when everything aligned, and the florist would align alongside the rest.
The Queen of Loldu
The leaves of autumn fell from so high that they seemed to rain from the clouds. The refugees couldn’t remember such colors from their old home, no, it was too warm all year round for the trees to ever lose their green. What a depressingly consistent place the gorge had been. It never tasted this nippy air, and it would never even dream of gifting them with snow.
Queen Mwadine of Loldu assured her subjects that snow would come in time. Everyone believed her; she had been correct about the changing of the leaves after all, down to the hour of the day. It had always been blasphemy to doubt their first queen, but Mwadine was different. She knew they would have trouble trusting again, after the debacle that cost their party so many lives.
In addition, they’d become so hopelessly lost. None were qualified to wander the Earth anymore, let alone without a ruler, as their feet were softened by civilized ground. It was like walking beyond their home was impossible, as if each step could put them on any continent, at the bottom of the ocean, or on a polar ice shelf. That must’ve been what happened, as the refugees had arrived somewhere far to the north of Colduvai; it had to be, given its four very distinct seasons.
Mwadine took pity on them and brought them under her wing. Her nation was a quiet one, and her people didn’t trust newcomers, so for now they all lived on the outskirts of Loldu as they learned to adjust to a new way of life. She kept them busy so their minds didn’t wander back to the home that abandoned them.
Commander Begumisa had been given the most prized position as leader of the Border Guard. Mwadine had noticed her habit of always looking out and her general incapability of seeing the beauty in the details of a butterfly’s wings or a leaf’s veins. Her new queen set her free upon a rugged trail that ringed the queendom: a route that let her see all the variety Loldu had to offer.
She awoke alone in her dark stone hut. Its construction was exceedingly simple, yet it kept the elements out well enough. If there was any hidden technology regulating the interior it was far better obscured than anything in Colduvai. Begumisa pulled offer her blanket and checked the seams of the gray bricks with her fingers. There must have been something, as it felt smooth rather than grooved.
There was a single tiny window with no glass. She stuck her face in front of it knowing the chilly breeze would help wake her. The wind had been perfectly reliable since the start of the season: always strong and always the same temperature. It was quiet thanks to the early hour. Everyone she protected would still be asleep for a while. Begumisa turned her naked body and put her back against the window. The chill washed over her, tightening her joints and making her digits rigid.
In her old life she used to have lunch with a man from the Science Authority who always talked between bites. He went on and on about the machines he had to work with every day as if they were his bickering parents. One detail came back to her: that the computing machines always ran better cold. He’d said something about liquid tanks, icy modules, and rubber fans designed to keep everything else moving and thinking as efficiently as possible.
The season of autumn taught her she was the same way. Up until now she’d been running hot, mind always in a haze, always distracted by the chaotic pathways of sweat trickling down her skin. She put her chin near the window to numb her scar, feeling like it had faded some, though there was no way to tell thanks to the lack of mirrors. Mwadine assured them some additional creature comforts after the natives warmed up to them.
It was the perfect time to patrol the trail. She picked her clothes up off the floor, donned them, and stepped outside. Everything was peaceful, each hut in the row as orderly as the night before, most with a bicycle leaning beside the front door. The trail was a little too rough for biking, so Begumisa went on foot. Her stomach growled, but she ignored it. A stomach couldn’t be reassured by a queen’s promises.
The explanation was perfectly reasonable. The cold weather and natural cycles of the vegetation caused food shortages. When winter came they would break out the stores, but the more tolerable weather beforehand was the perfect time to conserve food by fasting. Queen Mwadine told them it was a noble tradition in Loldu. Summer was the time of bounty, and it was only bad luck that they’d missed it.
Their rations had been shrinking lately, but at a constant rate. A few kilograms lost here and there wouldn’t do any harm, not when the clarity of the very air was so enriching. Besides, Begumisa’s stomach quieted when a cannon fired in the distance. She paused on the trail, looking down the hill and into the hues of purple and orange, but the weapon was too far to see. The shots happened regularly: just the intimidation tactics of a neighboring village under the thrall of a malformed and maladjusted princess. They were generally harmless, but Begumisa had been assigned to this patrol route just in case.
She never told anyone, but she sought something else on the horizon as well. Queen Magthwi had failed them; that much was obvious. Yet Begumisa still had some faith in the Peace Authority that had all but spawned her. Every person in it was devoted to at least something, and for most of them it would be their currently assigned task. The grass-comber’s radio, before its malfunction, had confirmed that a rescue team was dispatched to retrieve the expeditionary force. They’d never made it, but they could’ve still been out there, refusing to return in shame. Begumisa did her part by watching the hills just in case another wind-up toy of the gorge rolled over one.
A month ago she never would’ve thought Magthwi would go that far to permanently remove her. Her cold-running mind could believe it though. Send infected individual abroad on dangerous missions. Wait until they need help. Have the help fail in one way or another. Problem gone, and the queen never had to admit she’d fallen to the level of hating someone.
She thought of her former student Flavakinji. The girl was likely following the situation as closely as she could, perhaps even threatening to strike out on her own rescue mission. Magthwi might even allow it. A princess was free to take a small number of people, a container of royal coffee, and enough supplies to journey at least two queendoms away to make her own attempt at a civilization.
Colduvai hadn’t had such a princess during Magthwi’s reign… or had it? Begumisa wasn’t the queen’s daughter, but she’d been cast out with a sample of royal coffee embedded safely in her skin. She had her own people as well, but if this was a subconscious colonization effort she’d sure made a mess of things. In the end they’d only survived the wilderness because another queen had taken pity on her failure and scooped them up.
At the top of the hill, just behind the waist-high stone border wall of Loldu, she stopped and surveyed the hills again. Though heavily forested, there wasn’t a bird in the sky. The sun was also strangely pale; Begumisa stared directly at it with no pain, but she dismissed the phenomenon as the result of her royal affliction. It seemed the stuff had finally seeped into her eyes, making her immune to every ray and glimmer because she would inevitably see those things in the mirror.
A deep breath was her best attempt to shake the sunken feeling in her gut, underneath all the moaning hunger. She still wasn’t happy, but the discontent had to be some sort of disorder. Her entire expeditionary force had thrown themselves into their new life with gusto, having already fully accepted Mwadine as their new queen. She would not abandon them as Magthwi had. No, she promised to keep them until their final days.
The cannon fired again, but this time it seemed to be positioned on the lip of Begumisa’s ear. The explosive sound shook the air around her, stunning her. Her limbs and jaw locked up. She was suddenly like a mouse frightened into paralysis, heart beating so fast that it looked as if it had stopped. The woman pitched forward and rolled over the border wall.
Those stones were the same as the organic fencing around Colduvai’s grove. As Mwadine’s citizens they were never supposed to put even a foot over. Was this destiny? Was Begumisa doomed to be thrown from every queendom she occupied whether she set down roots or not?
The land beyond the wall proved deceptive immediately. The hills were not supposed to be so steep, but Begumisa hadn’t hit any sort of ground yet. Her eyes were open during the descent, but they simply weren’t working, as if all the little people operating them from the inside were on strike. Her mind didn’t even register darkness for several seconds, just a frozen blur: the distorted image of the hills the second before the cannon fired.
The stun felt like an eternity, yet it didn’t protect her from the pain of slamming into the ground. The impact knocked every last bit of wind out of her, even though she’d been so meticulous about collecting it at her window that morning. Howling cracks shot up her wrists and ankles. She had sprained everything that could be sprained, even her sanity. Loldu was gone, replaced by pure darkness. No, not pure. Her eyes begrudgingly got back to work, slowly manufacturing awareness. She saw walls of dark wet stone. Her grunts echoed as she turned herself over and spat out a mouthful of cave dirt.
“What?” she muttered. The surrounding cavern didn’t bother to respond. “What is this?” The only sound was dripping. There were several puddles nearby, some of them bearing strong industrial odors. Her fall was both unlucky and a blessing, as landing in one of the puddles might’ve spared her a sprain but replaced it with a chemical burn. The combined smell, like the urine of a microchip factory, nauseated her. The only thing she could think to do was crawl away from it on her knees and elbows.
A pile of debris prevented her from retreating more than twenty meters. Begumisa picked up a small piece of it and turned it over in her hands. It bore wild scratches that had nearly stripped it of its paint, but the streaks that remained were distinctly the carefully curated colors of Colduvai.
She climbed over the side of the largest single piece, falling into it, right into a seat separated from its stand. It was the remains of the grass-comber, but she couldn’t determine how it had gotten there, or where ‘there’ was for that matter. The last time she’d seen it the radio had ceased functioning, but there was little damage to the body.
“Junkyard,” she reasoned with a tiny frustrated smile. “Junkyard.” Each word out of her felt strange, and she wasn’t sure why she spoke at all. Perhaps it was because there was little solitude in Loldu. Every moment outside her hut was spent with her fellow refugees. There were so many nervous thoughts to share, reassurances to give. The words now were almost like the chirps of a bat though: utilitarian blips meant to return to their master with information.
She pulled her arms over the edge of the destroyed vehicle, hanging like someone seasick at their boat’s railing, and surveyed the area for more junk. Even Loldu had to put its trash somewhere, and the grass-comber was nothing but bad memories. Begumisa was forced to consider that Loldu had advanced beyond material waste, because there was nothing else to keep the comber company. The cavern floor was bare except for the vehicle and the nearby puddles.
“Or it isn’t a junkyard,” she informed herself. It did feel like there was someone to inform, like the fall had given her head trauma she was only now noticing. Part of her mind felt like it was peeling back: a slice of meat flopping away from the rest of the shank. Anxious, she patted the back of her head in different places, probing for an injury she wouldn’t find. When she felt nothing but hair her hand migrated to the shredded floor of the grass-comber. That was where the answer would be, given that its condition was the greatest mystery.
Her memories were like bog mud: opaque and squishy. It could’ve been stagnation. Loldu was such a change, such a promise, that there was no reason to retreat to their recollections of Colduvai. Still Begumisa persisted, mentally scouring the muck near the surface for information regarding the vehicle. In truth, the comber had been a friend to them. The braided grass stuck on it was the rope that got them shelter within that building.
“Wait… what building? There’s no building like that in Loldu. It’s a town of rustic stone… not…” Her eyes shot up. There it was: the gymnasium. That single slice on the back of her mind thickened, pulled more along with it. She remembered that the grass-comber’s radio had stopped receiving; they could no longer hear updates regarding the rescue party. That was the end of it though. She never would’ve approved of her people taking their frustrations out on the vehicle itself.
“Where is Loldu?” There were so many dimensions to the question and so many routes to get to the answer. Her search began with a string of dead ends. Loldu couldn’t be inside the gym; that was absurd. Countries couldn’t fit in such small spaces. That left the question of how they had moved from that building and into Loldu. Begumisa recalled bicycles, but that couldn’t be the answer. A journey on such primitive vehicles could never get them to a place with such varied weather without the travel leaving behind more substantive memories.
The longer she absorbed the darkness the more sense returned to her. They hadn’t gone anywhere at all; Loldu was in the building above her. Begumisa’s probing hands found something soft under a dented panel. She pulled it out, meter by meter, careful not to break it. When she found the frayed end of it she buried her nose in it and breathed deeply. The aroma was slightly putrid, but it was so real that it sent a shiver through her body anyway: grass. It was the rope they’d used to climb up, but someone had dropped the comber on it and left it there to rot.
And rot it had. The color had darkened nearly to black in places. Mold and mushrooms peeked out from the loose spots of the braid. Her fingers sank into it, rubbing it like a dearly departed grandmother’s quilt. If only she’d paid more attention in biology class she might’ve had a better guess as to how much time had passed. For the rope to decay that much it had to be weeks at least.
When the throbbing receded enough that she could feel her hunger again Begumisa stood with the rope wrapped around her neck like a boa. Stepping over the edge of the grass-comber, she slowly walked back to the suspended gym, its oppressive aura increasing with every step. How had she become so confused? There were things she couldn’t possibly have been imagining: the food they ate, the leaves that fell on her head, and the incredible vistas just past the wall. Yet she had fallen into one of those vistas and landed in the damp cave.
“Something real, distorted,” she whispered with her head craned upward, searching for the hole in the bottom of the building. She found it, glad to have remembered something correctly. She had seen the vistas and ridden the bikes, but they were both simulations. The bikes had been stationary exercise equipment, the scenery nothing but screens meant to liven up the experience.
As she pieced it together she came up with a culprit: the building itself. The machines within had the intelligence to chase down a single person from Laetoli and trap them without killing them. Now it had her entire expeditionary force cuddled up inside, breathing air it regulated and eating food from its cold storage. Colduvai’s Science Authority was certainly capable of developing chemical formulas that altered understanding and behavior, so Laetoli likely had similar capabilities. The gym must have slipped them psychoactive substances to make them content, to turn them into the citizens it had lost.
“Not one bit more from its stores,” she told her protesting stomach. “We’ll starve on reality rather than feast on its fantasy. Everyone will fall as I have,” she caressed the rope, “but more gently.” When the sluggish feeling was gone from her mind she wasted no time in assembling a makeshift grappling hook to get her back up; a solid piece of debris from the comber served as the anchor. She spun the rope slowly, praying that the rot had not weakened the grass too much.
It snagged the bay doors on her seventh try and held her weight, but she could hear the strain in the rope each time her hands moved up. The awful chemical smell underneath made her head swim, but wasted time was wasted energy. Every bit of hunger she felt was in the stomach of her soldiers as well. She cursed the building’s cleverness: using a supposed change in seasons as an excuse for a dwindling food supply. It would keep promising them the bounty of spring, but when the flowers came they would be nothing but mummies dried out by its conditioned wind.
“Did you fall?” someone above her asked. Begumisa’s head shot up. Mwadine lorded over her, wearing unfamiliar clothing: some sort of full body suit patterned with chaotic triangles, some of them reflective with a few others iridescent. A belt, just one piece of a device meant to increase weightlifting ability, was the base for something layered and skirt-like, though its material looked better suited to trampolines. The outfit had all the characteristics of something assembled by the building out of the materials it had on hand: stretchy exercise clothing and fabric patches that tracked exertion and hydration by changing color.
The change in outfit was less startling than the difference in her expression; the way she held her face now, cheeks like balconies and eyes stonier than a gargoyle’s, made her look like a completely different person. Her hair was braided close to her scalp, black as night. Begumisa couldn’t recall if there had been gray to it before or if the woman’s frazzled and lost demeanor had just made it seem so. The only color in her crop now was the small blue lights shining from within her braids: machines provided by the building no doubt.
“Yes,” Begumisa grunted. “I fell. Help me up.” The commander resumed climbing when the woman didn’t respond immediately.
“I gave you a very important job,” Mwadine stressed. “One of the crucial aspects was keeping anything from entering Loldu. That included you.”
“That building hasn’t stopped attacking us,” the commander growled, still climbing. The rope didn’t care for their conversation in the slightest. “It’s altering our minds. Since you’re of Laetoli it picked you to brainwash for its stair-climber throne.”
“The size of the nation matters not, only its sanctity.”
“I’ll show you everything. I can prove it. Just pull me up.”
“No. You stay down there.”
“You’re no queen, woman. If you expect to return with us to Colduvai you must submit to its authority. In the name of Queen Magthwi, take me to my people!”
“I’ve got proof as well,” Mwadine insisted. “A queen controls everything within her borders. Watch as I will this grass to rot further, to plunge you back to the depths.” She turned her eyes down to the rope, her pupils seeming to widen. The woman truly believed she could do it; simply reaching down and undoing the grappling hook would’ve been trivial. Commander Begumisa was forced to consider the possibility though, as the rope creaked right at the edge of the doors. Fibers split. Mushrooms fell. Were they wilting as well? It was impossible to tell, for she had to scurry up as rapidly as she could.
The rope snapped just as she grabbed the edge of the bay door, hissing and steaming as it splashed into a chemical puddle below. The door groaned and bent, but the commander was already rolling over its edge. Ready to brawl, Begumisa was on her feet with her fists raised in a flash, but Mwadine was nowhere to be found. She hadn’t even attempted to stomp the commander’s knuckles when she hung by them.
“Our queen would do her own dirty work if the situation required,” Begumisa spat. The loading bay was dark; the gym wouldn’t illuminate anyone but a citizen of Loldu. She was forced to feel her way along, sure she had kicked something when a loud banging filled her ears. “That was the cannon!” she realized. The sound’s character was identical, though the thrall of the building had exaggerated it into something like a mortar shell. Nothing but a simple impact. Somewhere inside, someone was hitting something as hard as they could. Perhaps they were dissatisfied with Loldu citizenship as well. It would be embarrassing for any of her less experienced soldiers to break free of the conditioning before her, but certainly helpful.
She thought she found a door a few moments after finding a wall, but when she wrenched it open it turned out to be nothing but an electrical panel. It buzzed delicately: twenty polished metal knobs surrounded by layered wiring. The sight was startling, as it bore no resemblance to traditional electronics. A fuse box would’ve been something she could handle; the thing before her looked less inviting than a thorn bush.
Her hand drifted over it, feeling tiny pops of electricity. As lightly as she could, and with a breath held tight in her chest, she tapped the top of one of the metal knobs. Something jolted through her body and mind, but it was more than a simple electric current. A flash of Loldu. Begumisa blinked the illusion away and brought her face close enough to the wires to feel the static on her eyelashes.
Many of them were green; those supported tiny fanning networks of smaller wires that looked very much line the veins of leaves. Her scar prickled more than the rest of her face, enough to force her to pull back and massage it. There was something organic going on within the machines of Laetoli, she deduced. It made sense. The building was partly a living thing, which made the false queendom of Loldu all the more convincing. The expeditionary force had been living within not just the building, but its circadian rhythms as well. Their heart beats synchronized with its.
Queen Nkoro and Queen Magthwi, though neighbors, though possibly the heads of the world’s last two civilizations, never communicated more than was necessary. There was always a disconnect given their different strategies for raising well-adjusted cities. Magthwi trusted her people to be satisfied with simple ways of life, to need nothing more than her radiance for inspiration. Nkoro was instead a gift-giver, her science-minded underlings handing out innovations as soon as they were invented. The people of Laetoli could have the whole world from the comfort of their homes.
The conductive quality of Begumisa’s scar meant there was a royal dimension to the wiring as well. It wasn’t difficult to imagine a city where Queen Nkoro didn’t need guards or escorts. The buildings would fly out of her path with a flick of her little finger. There were some places that only her feet could take you: locations that wouldn’t appear on the screens unless she was present. The queen was the remote control for everything they’d managed to make into a machine. Without a queen the desperate gym had turned to Mwadine. Perhaps it had subtly fed her royal material. If that was the case she was the same as the commander now: an aberration. Nothing more than a misplaced lovechild with too much noble blood to be ignored.
Since touching the electronics produced shocking hallucinations, Begumisa then investigated the panel with a five kilogram weight. The bashing produced minimal sparks, but after less than a minute the lights came on. Shaking the feeling that she’d just tortured someone into submission, Begumisa tossed the weight out the bay doors and listened for the following splash.
The loading zone looked worse than the cave below: pale and ransacked. Everything in it had been overturned, likely the result of Queen Mwadine checking her stores for useful items. The door was obvious in the light, but likely locked, so the commander turned first to a pair of freezers knocked on their sides. Their lids, longer than a person, were stubbornly sealed, but the will of the queen could not hold up against Begumisa’s clawing. Both of them eventually popped open and revealed their contents.
The first was filled with packets of food, but Varroa was written all over them. She ripped some of the packets from the ice and fondled them anyway, trying to determine exactly what that word meant to her. She’d seen the effects of whatever the contaminant truly was, and they didn’t frighten her. An empty city was a strange sight, but only because no place on the planet was devoid of life for long. When Queen Nkoro’s ghost grew bored of the haunting, without a soul sparked enough to scare, she would move on.
It caused absconding, but Begumisa hadn’t set foot in Colduvai in years. None of her memories within her city were fresh enough to stir emotion. They were sad and not what she wanted, like looking into a senile mystic’s crystal ball and seeing an acquaintance’s past.
That settled it; it couldn’t affect her. By the time the decision was made she had already torn the packet open and breathed on the frozen yams to soften them. It became clear that would take far too long, so she set the vegetable on a crumpled metal plate from the electrical panel that still sparked. Its heat thawed it enough in a few minutes and she devoured it even faster. The only anomalies with its taste could be attributed to its frozen state and unorthodox cooking method.
The second freezer was full of swords, packed in solid ice like preserved mammoth tusks. The hilts were familiar. Mwadine had collected all the force’s weapons and locked them away. The lull of Loldu was so successful that she was able to pluck things from their belts without them ever being aware. Questions flowed from the freezer, incorporated into the icy vapor. Why discard the grass-comber but keep the swords in the building? What could her end game possibly be? Their total entombment, with her as the central mummy?
Begumisa saw some logic in it, as she could barely pry one of the swords free. It took the partner to the weight she’d already tossed to break through the ice and free an actual weapon. It felt good to wrap her numb swollen fingers around the hilt. Her hand throbbed. A shard of ice between the hilt and her palm melted into a drop that couldn’t escape the pressure. It felt real; it was the sort of detail Loldu couldn’t generate.
The door was indeed locked, but the sword proved a persuasive key. The commander rushed back to the place she assumed she’d fallen from: the room with all the stationary bikes. Two pried doors later, she was there. There were no stone huts, just thermal sleeping bags across the floor and full of her people. The bike pedals moved and whirred on their own. Their screens were live, displaying the autumnal weather and falling leaves of Loldu. Something did actually fall from vents in the ceiling, but it was just shreds of paper.
“They were leaves to you this morning,” Mwadine said. The commander whirled around, but there was no one there. Her voice came through the vents, or hidden speakers, or the screens. The building happily transmitted her will wherever it wanted to go.
“Everyone, get up!” Begumisa shouted, but none stirred. She kicked one of them in the shoulder. No reaction. “That’s an order! Get out of these things that aren’t even beds!”
“They are beds, because I told them they were,” Mwadine taunted. “It’s still very early in Loldu; they won’t stir for an hour more.”
“Why are you doing this? We offered to help you!”
“Laetoli is gone… dissolved. We couldn’t find Varroa’s nature. It will follow us to Colduvai and do the same thing. Loldu is the only queendom safe from it.”
“Because it isn’t real? Because there’s no body for it to infect?” The pounding that had been a cannon came again, from beyond the room and up a flight of stairs. Begumisa walked slowly toward it.
“I knew you were a troublemaker from the moment I saw that golden mark,” Mwadine said. “If you lived in Laetoli you could have had your whole jaw replaced with a prosthetic. It would’ve made you prettier too.”
“It’s not just on my skin!” she roared, still hoping to wake her companions. “It sparkles in every part of me. I am unmoored from authority and I see only one world. The one that isn’t curated.”
“What a tragedy.”
“Where did you pretend to take us?” Begumisa asked, though she didn’t care. The woman needed to keep talking if she was to overlook the commander’s slow shuffling toward the stairs. “These trees don’t look like they belong in Africa at all.”
“They are North American,” the voice admitted. “One of my favorite places to visit in fantasy. Laetoli allowed you to have a second home anywhere thanks to simulation and old video archives. Even now the computers can’t randomly generate human crowds properly though. There was no escaping the death of humanity.”
“There’s no escaping it now; these people are starving. You’re keeping them locked in a cage of illusion. Does their fate not matter to you?”
“Don’t you dare imply that I’m negligent or cold!” Mwadine snapped. The spinning of the bike pedals sped. The falling leaves on the screens were suddenly caught up in a maelstrom. Begumisa was buffeted on all sides by shreds of paper. The air conditioners had been converted into wind generators, pushed beyond their reasonable safeguards by royal will. Even with the shreds getting caught on their lips and up their noses, the expeditionary force laid dormant.
Something on the ceiling, lost in the flurry, magnetized and ripped the sword from Begumisa’s hand. It was supposed to unleash the cannon fire, whatever it was, so she was forced to drop to her knees and feel along the ground for any kind of replacement. One knee rolled over something painfully; she latched onto it: a hound stick. Its shell wasn’t entirely metal, and though she could feel the pull of the magnetism still, she kept hold of it. She looked into its eyes and saw only purple darkness. The poor thing had endured so many strange smells that its internal mechanisms were burnt out, its jaw hanging open and creaking. The stick’s exposed teeth would have to do.
“What would Queen Nkoro think of your actions!?” she shouted while she crawled. The stairs were close now, just a few more meters. Begumisa prayed that there were no cameras betraying her exact movements.
“Don’t act as if you knew her!” Mwadine ordered. “Though you did go into her tower, so you dropped all pretense ages ago. That was why this was so easy, you know. Your soldiers don’t trust you. They feel like ducklings imprinted to the wrong animal, as if they waddled along behind a porcupine or aardvark. You wouldn’t even tell them what you found at the heart of the city. If you were to say… it might wake them. You don’t have that strength.”
Begumisa lunged; she was in the stairwell. The air conditioners couldn’t aim their gusts into the narrow space, so the paper didn’t follow. Only when its crumpled slapping left her ears did she hear her own heavy breathing. Mwadine was probably right. She did keep things from even Genomon, for none of them could understand. They had misbehaved, not been bodily rejected from Colduvai like a splinter coated in ceremonial pus.
The strength to speak was not the strength to climb though, and she had plenty of the second. It was only one flight, only seven seconds away. Her legs pumped, but the door wasn’t coming any closer. An escalator, she realized. Mwadine was pulling her back in to tell her more about the weaknesses she perceived.
“I’m nothing but weaknesses,” Begumisa huffed under her breath. “I am the creature that can’t breathe in water or sand. The sun will kill me, the biting flies, the swallowing crocodiles, the rending cats… I am weakness until I am death. I am success until I am the final failure!” The woman pushed herself, calling upon the royal material in a way she never had before. The skin on her jaw tightened so much that it pulled her head to one side.
The door vanished from her sight, but not from her mind. Her body ignored the roll of the stairs by stuffing all of its efforts into a single breath, rendering the motion practically nonexistent. It couldn’t be called a run; Begumisa fell upward, curled like a dying insect, yet precisely enough to hit the edge of three steps and latch onto the door. The cannon thundered again and the door shuddered against her cheek. Now she knew it was just fists on the other side, demanding to be let in.
The commander jammed the hound stick’s canine teeth into the seam of the door. The lock disappeared, swallowed up. With all her strength she pushed, the banging serving as war drums, drowning out Mwadine’s hostile lecturing. Parts of the door gave way, though not with satisfying splintering. It was made of some sort of composite material that warped and cracked. It turned out to be hollow, so the first piece that came off flaked like fish scale.
Without reducing her efforts, she looked away for just a moment to see the interior of the door. There were clumps of metal around the lock, swollen like thunderclouds or volcanic rock. She guessed some machine, tiny as a termite, had extruded them there to fortify the structure against the relentless cannons on the other side. The lump was closer to the other side though, and it didn’t do anything against the hound stick.
The whole door bent toward her; a current of warm air escaped the upper level. The place on the other side hadn’t been managed by the petty queen, so its unedited air was dusty, smelling the way a gymnasium thrust into hot African earth should smell. The hinges popped together. Begumisa fell onto her back, bashing her spine against the stairs, as the door slid off her. It took the hound stick with it, so she had nothing to bury in the wall as holdfast.
Her reaching hand was found by another; it pulled her back to the top and through the doorway. Begumisa wrenched free from its grip and stumbled away, stamping to make sure the ground was solid. There were no lights in that upper room, but she saw two people standing in front of the bright gate to Loldu. Field and Barolong. They had been counted among the dead, their bodies presumed crushed by rubble.
“You two!” the commander gasped. She flopped forward, grabbing them both around the neck and holding their heads close. She kissed their hair in the greatest display of affection she’d ever shown anything that wasn’t a pet. It took a few moments of choked-back tears for her to remember that she never touched other people, that it tended to fill them with dread over the possibility of royal infection. She released them, but had already felt the prickle of gooseflesh on their necks. “What happened to you?”
“Nothing happened to us!” Field declared, and that seemed to be the truth. Neither of them looked malnourished, and any injuries they’d received in the ground collapse must have been fully healed by then. Their clothes were intact. There was some bruising and ripped skin on their knuckles, but that was from the iron weights held in their hands that they’d been bashing the door with. It was simply the wear the firing had on the cannons.
“We were stuck on the roof at first, but then we ripped our way in here,” Barolong explained.
“What have you done for food?” Begumisa asked, rushing over to a stair climbing machine and pushing it in front of the doorway just in case some demonic device decided to snap its wires and climb up to them. The two young people glanced at each other, Barolong nibbling on his lip, seeming to regret chewing on anything else.
“There was food in cold storage,” Field admitted. “It was marked as Varroa the Destructor… but there was no power and it was going… so we ate it.”
“We didn’t have a choice,” the other added. Begumisa remembered that he was from a family of butchers, and that she’d seen him argue with another member of the force over a piece of dried meat, an argument that involved teeth. Perhaps the two hadn’t been as desperate as they claimed, but she was hardly in a position to rebuke them.
“It’s alright, I’ve eaten of the same stores,” she assured them; they were visibly relieved.
“Where’s everyone else?” the girl asked. “Why didn’t any of you let us in?” The commander pulled them away from the door when a few shreds of paper blew up to them, but then proceeded to tell them everything she knew. The building was wired with a biology-integrated system she didn’t comprehend, but that Mwadine interfaced with. It had brainwashed her in some programmed dream of keeping Laetoli intact, and she in turn had wielded it against the whole expeditionary force. The two stared, stunned, as she spoke, but at the end they looked to each other once more.
“What’s the matter?” Begumisa asked them, observing their nervous body language. “You look as if you’ve forgotten how to use your hands.”
“There’s something we need to show you,” Field admitted as Barolong went to the corner of the room and retrieved an object from underneath an overturned shelf. When he brought it close, holding it as far from his muscular chest as he could, she saw that it was flat, rectangular in shape, and wrapped in some dirty cloth that was shredded in places.
“What is this?”
“It’s better if you look for yourself,” Field told her. “It’s a picture, but be careful! The frame is a machine too, and I don’t think it likes being handled by non-Laetolians… or… whatever all those dead people are called now.” Begumisa reached cautiously and took the item from Barolong, grabbing it exactly where his fingers had. Cloth hung over the front like a veil, so she carefully lifted it and folded it over the top.
It was indeed a photograph, but printed on metal instead of paper. Even in the dim light the colors shone brightly, every line and curve sharp as a sword. It showed a woman standing proudly in a magnificent gown, several ribbons around the waist held up by attending maidens. They were bowed, so Begumisa turned it to get a better look at their faces.
The frame buzzed and snapped, the corners rotating, acting as saw teeth. One of them caught the end of a finger and pulled a streak of blood. The commander dropped it, thrusting the finger into her mouth and putting pressure on the cut with her tongue. Seemingly affronted by the drop, the picture frame stood up on its own after hitting the floor, one of its corners shooting back into a small stand.
“We should’ve mentioned that too,” Barolong apologized, keeping his distance from the picture and the bloody cloth off to its side. “It won’t let you hold it any way but upright. I guess it’s insulting to the queen to put her sideways or upside down.”
“The queen?” Begumisa wondered aloud when she extracted her finger. “Was that?” She dropped to her knees and stared at the picture again. The dress depicted truly was exquisite, stunning in its beauty. She hadn’t noticed because it was of a very different style to those worn by Magthwi. The queen of Colduvai preferred gold, orange, and brown much of the time, but according to the metal photo Nkoro was much fonder of blue.
That was when it struck her for the first time: she’d had no idea what Queen Nkoro looked like. It was a collection of unfortunate qualities regarding the treatment of queens. Every soul in Colduvai would think it disrespectful to even depict the queen of a different society. Most of their communication was done remotely, and the two queens had never held a summit. Begumisa was certain she would recognize the woman immediately, but only because she would wear clothes like those in the picture, and be surrounded by the adoring public that acted as her accessories.
She bolted back to her feet, but not because of the realization; the picture frame had taken a start toward her, hopping forward by flicking its stand like a frog leg. A quick stomp flattened and neutralized it, but it still struggled under her foot.
“That’s why we dropped a shelf on it!” Field said, obviously vindicated that the commander was having just as much trouble with the accursed thing. The commander grabbed the cloth, pinched the top of the frame, and brought it back up, placating it with the proper angle.
“Stay behind me,” she ordered them, “and let’s see how she reacts to this.” The trio climbed over their barricade and slowly descended the stairs. The air conditioners had finally died down, and the clouds of shredded paper now buried the exposed faces and bodies of the expeditionary force: a snow-blanketed mass grave. The bike pedals had stilled. “Mwadine, I know you’re still listening. Show yourself!”
The queen of Loldu obeyed, but not directly. She stepped out from behind a tree on every bike screen. Her video doppelgangers portrayed the entire range of emotional responses to being called out like that. Some of them fumed with crossed arms, others turned their noses up at the intruders, and some danced to celebrate the futility of the confrontation. They each spoke one word at a time, never interrupting each other. The effect very much put Mwadine in the walls, made her the wind.
“I’m right here, in every speck of Loldu. You’re simply there, at the bottom of the stairs, incapable of doing anything more than a meter in any direction.”
“You’ve already run one queendom into the ground,” Begumisa accused, “so why do it to another?” The Mwadines looked away, not a word among any of them. Their enemy held up the photograph, moving it an arc so all of them could see. “I expected better from the mighty Queen Nkoro!” They receded into the trees as the three stepped off the stairs. Begumisa had hoped those words alone would be enough to rouse the force, but their faces didn’t so much as twitch. Their breath was too soft to even disturb the paper on their cheeks.
“So you know.” Her voice was soft, but also full of contempt. Field and Barolong prickled at the sound of it, as if a nasty venom rain had started to fall. “Yes, I am Queen Nkoro. Mwadine was a fiction.”
“I admit you had me fooled,” Begumisa said, still holding the picture in front of her while she turned, treating it as her only weapon. “I never thought a queen capable of looking so crazed and destitute.”
“It’s all in the way you hold yourself. A commoner cannot stand among royalty, but royalty can slouch among the commoners.”
“This building didn’t follow you because you were the last of Laetoli… but because you were its center.”
“Its range was more than I expected,” Nkoro said with a twinge of regret. “My DNA contributed to every computer in my city, and they now cling to me like desperate children. I never wanted it to come down on us. I just wanted…”
“To make it to Colduvai,” Barolong interrupted. He flinched, half-expecting the ceiling to collapse. “You wanted to be queen again in the gorge. You could never depose Magthwi. She would crush your throat with her bare hands. You couldn’t so much as scratch her! Blood has never even touched the outside of her skin!”
“You only speak to me that way because you’re in Loldu as an invader. Notice the silence of my citizens, utterly content with my rule.”
“Your rule isn’t filling their stomachs,” Field added after hearing rumbling from one of those stomachs around her feet. The girl pulled her sword, her companion following right after. Begumisa only now noticed the weapons. With all the others locked in a block of ice below them, it was all they had against the queen if they couldn’t awaken the force.
“Magthwi never told you,” Nkoro went on, “because it would contradict her divine image, but royalty quarrels all the time. Queens with princesses. Princesses with their siblings. Men who find their way in or near the line and foolishly think they can run anything without turning it into a war machine. And even queens with other queens.”
“Would it literally be throne by combat?” Begumisa asked.
“A distinct possibility. Neither of us would take it personally. Each of us is the heart of a world, and two hearts cannot beat in the same chest. One rhythm would always infringe on the other. Sadly I am kept from that home by this hole we’ve fallen in. I’m kept from even the peaceful decline of Loldu by a different royal thorn: you Begumisa. How did you earn that scar?”
“A fight between a queen and a princess; I just happened to step between the two.”
“Thus you were sent so far from home,” Nkoro mockingly pouted. “Still you reject me, even though you’re in no position to do so.”
“Everyone! Get up! I order you to stand!” the commander shouted. She nudged several prone forms with her foot. Field and Barolong crouched down, shaking shoulders and slapping faces, but none responded. “In the name of the true Queen Magthwi, rise!” Nothing but a chuckle from Nkoro.
“They have a new ruler now. You could drive one of those swords through their hearts, and to their last thought they would think it nothing more than a chilly autumn breeze. Only a royal truth, my declaration of a dawn, will awaken them. Of course… you do have one of those truths Begumisa. You could take them back. Fight me on even footing.”
“What’s she talking about?” Barolong whispered; Field shrugged. Their commander marched over to one of the video screens and delivered a powerful kick. Instead of shattering, it warped slightly with the sound of a bird hitting a plastic window. She didn’t even put a knothole in one of the foreign trees.
“You can destroy everything that looks like Loldu, but it won’t scratch its reality,” Nkoro taunted. “If you want to shake its foundation you must tell them what you found in Laetoli, in my tower.” The commander kicked again. She grabbed the bike handles, grunted, twisted, and ripped them from their moorings. She swung them like an ax, desperate to fell at least one tree. She was commander of the expeditionary force, so all she could ever do was handle one target at time. Nothing grand. Nothing sweeping. Just a mission without the innocent eyes of an entire nation’s children, or one very important child, upon her.
“Just say it!” Field encouraged. “We want to get out of here!”
“It’s not so easy for her, child,” Nkoro explained. “She’s had to work so hard to shut it out. I can tell you what she has told herself. It’s none of my business. I just need to report it. I can put this knowledge in the back of my mind and do nothing with it. Only she can’t. Every moment she denies the ambitions rooted in her brain stem is a painful one. It’s getting worse as we speak. She was okay for a while, lost in the fogbank I invested in for her, but you two threw a bucket of ice water on that. She can only attack this shell futilely… or tell the truth and become something else.”
Begumisa seemed to not hear, for she had dug her fingers into the top of one of the tall screens and was using all her strength to peel it away from the wall. Sparks flew, but the video didn’t die even as she tossed it aside. Underneath there was no passageway or vulnerable mechanism: just a wall loaded with more organic-looking circuitry.
“Yes, it’s so much easier to act the cornered animal,” the queen crooned.
“I’m not cornered!” the commander declared. “No matter what I am, I’m not cornered. There’s a whole world out there!”
“It’s not for us any longer.”
“Us? No. Me? Absolutely.” She turned to her two soldiers. “I’ll tell you what I found up there, for it was inconsequential. The same as anything I pass on our expeditions. This truth is just a pebble on the path, and if you can treat it that way it will transform into strength inside you. I promise you that.” With nothing to say that could match her certainty, Field and Barolong nodded their agreement.
“I’m listening,” Nkoro goaded. The words didn’t so much catch in Begumisa’s throat as overflow. She was right; there really was no stopping it. That one truth was like a confession of every illicit thought she’d ever had and every childhood fantasy of wearing a crown. The lights of Loldu dimmed as the commander divulged. Nkoro would not have her soldiers. She would have nothing, be forced to see the abyss in Begumisa’s heart that most others filled with desire.
Continued in Part Seven