(reading time: 1 hour, 18 minutes)
“What do you mean I can’t go in? It’s the grove; it belongs to all of us.” Mr. Jon-Luc didn’t have the energy for a more spirited argument. His back was bent from a day of walking, the sun was already behind the spire, and he needed a place to sleep for the night. The cherry grove seemed perfect. The crickets could sing him to sleep and he could curl up under a blanket of leaves. The thought of it was heavenly, rolling his weary eyes up into his head, but they were pulled back when the argument continued.
“The grove is for harvesters,” the Peace Authority officer informed him. She was stocky, with a face that could obviously hold far more determination than his. He was only one lost citizen among many clumped around the grove’s entrances, so her next sentences would be the last ones she gave to him specifically. “You don’t have a basket, so you’re clearly not cherry-picking. You’re just here because you won’t go home.”
Rather than try to pass, he moved on. The crowd was getting restless, and the authority had proven all too eager to pull their blades as of late. Besides, the woman wasn’t wrong. Mr. Jon-Luc had a perfectly good home that his family had lived in for five generations. There was a wooden chandelier that rattled like a wind chime during family celebrations, each of its pieces painted by a different niece, aunt, or cousin.
They had taken it apart when they left. Mr. Jon-Luc had the piece he painted when he was just thirteen years old shoved in his pocket. Back then his favorite color was green, and so was the piece, but now he didn’t know if he had a favorite. His wife had taken her purple piece and his sons their silver pieces. Those pieces were wherever they were, hopefully somewhere in Colduvai. Maybe if a typhoon came through and made them all rattle, made the city the frame of the chandelier, something would click in his soul and it would all feel like home again.
For now he needed a place to wait for that typhoon. Every archway he passed was guarded, some of them going so far as to bend any branches leaning into the city back into the grove and tie them down. With only vague ideas and the will to walk in his head, he followed the empty spaces between the citizens until he found a less populated area.
It was still along the outer walls, but the grounds beyond were not the grove. They were open fields meant for Science Authority experimentation, small pastures for crops with industrial purposes, and stables for zebroid horses that the Peace Authority sometimes rode. He knew them by their smell, hay and manure, which wafted over the wall. If he wanted to see them he would have to go through the houses built into the wall: homes for the small-scale farmers and ranchers.
Mr. Jon-Luc’s stomach growled; that was a usable excuse. Everyone in Colduvai was family, so he should be able to knock unannounced, earnestly state his problems, and be welcomed in for a warm meal and an even warmer bed. He finished formulating the idea on the doorstep of a home. The entire row all shared the same wall, but the doors were distinct. This one had an ornate glass flower on the front, each petal reflecting a different section of his face. He didn’t like the way it broke him up and rearranged him, turning him into a puzzle dumped out of its box. He had to be open-minded though. Perhaps it was just this family’s version of the wooden chandelier.
There was no answer after several knocks. Mr. Jon-Luc tried the knob and found it open. Without knowing why, he shut the door behind him and let the silence settle in. A wooden table with an abandoned strategy game. Candles turned to puddles and curtains of wax over edges. The smoky smell of wicks burned so low that they’d singed wood and darkened metal. The cozy home felt like it should have burned down ten times over, but that the air just didn’t have enough oxygen for the fire to care.
“Hello? Is anybody home? No… nobody’s home. Is anybody here?” There was no answer. He was about to look for a bedroom when there was a rap on the door. Curious, he answered it and found a young woman in a uniform on the other side. She had a large tome slung over her shoulder and a much smaller one open in her left hand, checking its pages as if they were a mirror.
“Hello, I am from the spire,” she said for what was obviously the thousandth time that day. “Queen Magthwi has ordered a census. Can you please tell me your name and how many you are?” She only looked up after she finished speaking and was immediately taken aback. She knew the neighborhood; it was full of strapping men and women that could keep a bucking horse’s head straight and focused with one arm. Mr. Jon-Luc did not look the part with his soft hands, dainty spectacles, gray stubble like the surface of a dusty rain barrel, and arms thin enough to fold behind his back.
“My name is Jon-Luc. I am just one, but this is not my home.” The young lady snapped her smaller book shut and dropped it, stepping on it as if it might skitter away. She swung the larger one around, walked her fingers along the colorful bookmarks sticking out of the top, and pulled it open.
“I think the whole of this book has been made incorrect in the last five days,” she sighed. “What are you doing in there and what happened to its owners?”
“My house has been affected by the plague, so I had to leave. I only entered this house moments ago to see if it had a bed or some food that suited me. I would’ve rather found hospitality.”
“There is no plague,” she said curtly. “Whatever you’re referring to is mass hysteria and you’re embarrassing Queen Magthwi. You must return to your proper home at once, which is where?”
“I lived near the school. I was a teacher.” His voice sounded heavier with each word.
“Why are you using past tense? You’re only furthering this problem. You live near the school and you are a teacher.”
“We couldn’t stay there. That thing you people sent over did something to our house.”
“Is that all you have to say?”
“That’s what Queen Magthwi said. She doesn’t lie and she’s never wrong.”
“Then something is wrong with me; I’m not too proud to admit it. My house hurts. When I find one that doesn’t I will happily live there.” He looked at the doorframe. “If it’s this far from the school I might have to be a rancher though.”
“You’ve been counted; that’s all that matters to me.” She scribbled something in the book with a black pencil that she hadn’t been holding a moment before. She gathered up her other book and, when Mr. Jon-Luc didn’t look or bid her farewell, closed the door for him. He moved several minutes later, finding a bedroom and resting on top of the blankets. He couldn’t hear any crickets, and he felt the emptiness of the rooms around him.
He grabbed a pillow, buried his nose in it, and inhaled deeply. That should’ve told him what the people who lived there were like. People put everything into their pillows: whispered dreams, angry shouts, and their most pathetic tears. Mr. Jon-Luc coughed thanks to the fiber stuck in the back of his throat. There was nothing in the bed but stuffing. When he stood he felt a little dizzy. The corners of the room stretched, somehow sharpening no matter how dark they were. Breath was short. Fingers tingled. Mr. Jon-Luc fled from the house, out the back door this time.
They had the name of what came out of that infernal lamp. People called it Varroa the Destructor. Mr. Jon-Luc had always believed in the tired sentiment that his students taught him as much as he taught them, but for once he wished the children had kept their mouths shut. He first heard of Varroa from them, and now he always heard the word in their voices. The classroom was gone, in one piece but utterly obliterated by this… thing in the air.
Varroa might’ve been the ghosts of those many crocodiles, still lumbering along after prey they could no longer swallow. That was what it felt like. Something kept catching up to him, plopping itself in every house he found. The next one he entered was empty and peaceful as well, but within an hour his chest felt tight and his ankles quaked. The one after that was the same.
The fourth ranch house was by far the largest. He hoped Varroa wouldn’t be able to find him with so many rooms, but he didn’t have any trouble finding the five other people staying there. They were all together in something that would’ve been called a root cellar if it wasn’t above ground. The room’s purpose had been lost in the fugue of recent happenings, all its furniture rearranged, removed, and then replaced with sacks of dry goods.
“Am I welcome here?” he asked the others. They all sat around a small camping stove with some kind of bubbling soup inside.
“Only if we are,” a frail woman said without a smile. Perhaps she was the leader; she was the one holding the stirring spoon. Mr. Jon-Luc found a small wooden stool and joined them around the bubbling steam. He snuck a glance into the pot, seeing nothing but broth. They were all quiet for a few minutes. With no obvious cue, one of them grabbed a stack of bowls and started ladling out soup.
“So this house doesn’t belong to any of you?” the former teacher asked while everyone was blowing on their food. They shook their heads.
“It was my neighbor’s,” the oldest man claimed. “Haven’t seen them in days. Their horse wandered up to my door looking for food, and when I tried to return her there was nobody to take her.” Mr. Jon-Luc, inexplicably invaded by dark thoughts, sipped at the broth and forced it through his teeth several times. There were no chunks of horse meat. There were no chunks of anything, even with bags full of vegetables lying around.
“Is something wrong with your houses? Mine has become inhospitable.” Four of them nodded. The fifth shed a tear that she wiped away with the soft side of her wrist.
“Mine was fine, but the authority killed my husband,” she explained. “He never did anything wrong. We were just having a fight; that’s why he wasn’t sleeping in our bed. They thought Varroa had a hold of him though. I… I couldn’t stand to be there with his blood dried on the floor.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Mr. Jon-Luc said. “My family’s gone too. They’re not dead… I don’t think so… We couldn’t go in the same direction though. Something pushed us away from each other.”
“Like you’re all on rafts that each has its own current under it,” one of the others said with a nod. The accuracy of it hit Mr. Jon-Luc as if he’d dumped the hot broth inside his shirt collar.
“That is Varroa, isn’t it?” he asked them desperately. “It cuts all the strings off you and you drift, only moving because it’s somewhere behind you. Coming to take your breath!”
“It’s a virus,” one guessed.
“A parasite,” suggested a second.
“I heard people were leaving,” the frail woman said. Her eyes dove down the pot. “They walk out into the grove and never come back. I never realized how much leaving Colduvai does. It’s like they don’t exist, like they turned into asteroids… hurtling silent and frozen through nothing.”
“The expeditionary force never did come back did they? Weren’t they trapped somewhere?” one of them wondered aloud.
“We’re the trapped ones,” the neighbor said, setting aside his bowl and standing. “I can’t stay here. I have to give their horse back.” He left without another word. Mr. Jon-Luc didn’t say anything, but the room felt a little comfier when he was gone. The woman who lost her husband must have noticed too, because she excused herself next. They flooded out after that, as if their secret society had just adjourned its annual meeting.
There were no more houses after that, just the stables themselves and the adjacent fields. When Mr. Jon-Luc stepped outside he couldn’t see any of those that had just left, or the trails their footprints should’ve left. He attributed that to the dimming light, which also made him notice that there was an active lantern in the nearest stable turning its windows orange. If he couldn’t stand the company of Colduvai people perhaps the animals would be more tolerable. They would understand him at least, as they never even had a sense of home to strip away. Every inch of ground was a bed and every cloud a curtain.
“Hello?” he asked upon pushing open the door; the only answer was its creak. The stable was long, but as far as he could see there were no animals in any of the stalls. It seemed that when the people left they had released all the horses and zebroids, perhaps even running in a herd with them as they escaped Colduvai. The smell of dung was weak, so the abandonment must’ve been more than two days old. Yet a hanging lantern was lit.
Mr. Jon-Luc stood under it, staring, for several minutes. He extended a finger to poke at its base, but pulled away. There was no reason to mess with a stroke of luck. It was late enough to sleep, so he wanted to find the cleanest stall and perhaps a horse blanket to wrap himself in. Rather than test the doors one by one he climbed up onto the walls dividing them and held his arms out for balance. He proceeded to jump from stall to stall, examining each’s interior.
Most had too much straw. Some of them were filled with random belongings: pots, pans, clothes, and anything else a person might shed a hundred meters from their door when they realized they were too heavy to carry. One was full of saddles; their leathery smell was like a heavy curtain when he jumped through it. It almost made him lose his balance when he landed, which would’ve been very unfortunate considering the next stall’s resident.
A different kind of leather, white and pockmarked, rose up over the stall and snapped at Mr. Jon-Luc’s wobbling body. The man cried out and threw himself over the gap, falling into the next stall and smashing his shoulder and neck painfully against the dirt floor. The adjacent monster slammed into the wall and made the entire structure shudder. After that it seemed to lose interest, and silence returned.
He couldn’t think over his thundering heart, but he instinctively knew to confirm what he thought he’d seen. The man stood and peeked over the wall as little as possible. There was indeed a massive crocodile curled up in the stall, perched on top of the very sort of blanket he had been searching for. Its white color marked it as one from the zoo. The scouring lamp had blasted the entire city with Varroa the Destructor, and yet it hadn’t even eradicated the monsters completely.
“That lovely lady was hardly the size of a meerkat a couple weeks ago,” a voice rained down. Mr. Jon-Luc craned his head so far up that he stumbled backward. There was a man in the rafters, sitting with his bare feet dangling and his fingers locked together in his lap. Presumably, unless the crocodile was extremely talented, he had lit the lamp. The former teacher recovered from the shock and actually thought about what the man said. There was only one person he could be.
“You’re the zookeeper!” he blurted. “Delister!”
“I was. Nobody in this city is anything anymore. We’re spreading out. None of us can make a claim anywhere, so… we’re just spreading to death.”
“Are you the one who started this? The spire only brought out that monstrous machine because you dumped all of those into the waters.”
“I’ve never started anything in my life,” Delister claimed, clearly insulted. “I picked up critters where I found them and gave them a home. Other people are the ones making life. I never even got married.”
“That’s not relevant. Why did you set those things loose?”
“It’s like I said. Everybody’s just spreading out now. It’s a new instinct. I had to let them all go before it got into me and I rushed out of there without helping them. They would’ve starved to death in that little pit.”
“What about your other animals?”
“They’re all fuzzy and cute. I thought somebody would come in and take care of them. People will feed their children to a bear before they’ll look at his hungry sad eyes…” His voice trailed off as if he’d spotted a pair of those eyes in the distance. Mr. Jon-Luc rapped a post with one finger to get his focus back. “Only now it looks like they’re in trouble too. Might have to go back.”
“They said you fed the animals royal coffee.”
“What on Earth for?”
“Oh… a couple reasons. I was curious. I wanted them to have an edge when push came to… everything drifting away from the dock. I knew it was coming. Of course,” he chuckled, “I knew it was coming fifteen years ago.”
“How could you? Nothing at all was wrong. The last fifteen years are a blur to me. My kids were born and cleaning their plates on the same day. Colduvai isn’t a place where you notice things. If you did they would be out of place.” He glanced at the crocodile again, wondering where its place was. He couldn’t tell if its eye was closed or mostly closed.
“I had a thousand minds around me that had no idea who Queen Magthwi was,” Delister explained. “Every one of them had a life. Habits. Patterns. An animal doesn’t have to know its change; it just lives it. There were these parrots we had: green and yellow with little peach spots on their cheeks like they were caught eating the baking out of the tray.” His thumbs slipped around each other as each hand fanned out into a wing shape and fluttered higher into the rafters. “They were allowed to come and go. They migrated every year, and they always came back, but they were never exactly the same group. There were new ones.”
“I didn’t know the gorge had immigrants.”
“As if your family was born here,” Delister’s voice warbled somewhere between annoyance and amusement. “Never knew for sure, but I assumed those birds stopped at another zoo in another city. It was trade. Fifteen years ago we stopped getting new ones. Wherever they went, the food bowls stopped filling themselves.”
“You think the queendom fell?” The old zookeeper nodded.
“The closest one yet. This Varroa thing has been killing us so long…”
“Then why have we never heard its name until now?”
“It’s not a fever. You’ve got no boils on you. It just sends you away. At first blush there’s nothing unhealthy about that. Most people think it’s a good thing to get out a bit more.” Mr. Jon-Luc leaned against the crocodile’s stall, wiping the sudden sweat from his forehead. Three was a crowd.
“Where are you going to go?”
“I’m too old to leave,” Delister said stiffly. “Easier just to wait for everyone else to get out.” Mr. Jon-Luc closed his eyes; his head swam in the stuffy glow from the lamp. Something gave him shade long enough for him to take a deep breath. Finally, a refuge. The crocodile flopped into his stall, open gullet practically making him disappear. His limbs didn’t protest as the monster bucked its head.
The teacher didn’t know if he should scream. The inside of the animal was just a new place. He’d slipped from Magthwi’s grip as his life melted, but the reptile was watertight. For a moment he was comfortable. Its pale heavy tail slipped over the wall and smacked against the dirt. Delister looked down. That was one way to escape, and probably one of the better ones as well. The teacher wasn’t pretending he had a life somewhere else. The old zookeeper leaned back on the beam, limbs dangling just out of the crocodile’s reach.
He thought about Keikogile. Wherever she was, it certainly wasn’t the bottom of a stomach. That girl was as much of an animal as the rest of his flock. She would find a place to nest, and wouldn’t mind any bones lying around.
A Fresh Start
“I’ve never seen this place before,” Zinjan said breathlessly as he walked around the edge of the circular chamber. His bare toes made soft sounds in the skin of water that covered the turquoise stone floor. There was some sort of schooling organism swimming and sliding in the thin liquid layer: a creature somewhere between tadpole and lancelet. Hundreds of them shimmered as they investigated the island borders of his feet.
An opulent giant clamshell sat at the center of the room, open into something between a throne and a bed. Where the actual animal would’ve had its muscular foot, there was a rubbery blue cushion filled with fluid. It sloshed back and forth with a soothing rhythm, though it also responded to the movements of the two bodies resting atop it.
“You’re the first commoner to see it in my lifetime,” Queen Magthwi said from the cushion. She knelt on both legs, thighs together, back amazingly straight given the water cushion supporting her. Her dress was solidly green, with some sort of polished jewel holding it together around one shoulder. Something like an algal hurricane swirled inside it.
“Who maintains it? I can see that there is technology in here that would require regular work.” He tried to shoo the shoaling things away, but found that he couldn’t get the water to splash. Something in the walls was enforcing absolute serenity.
“I built its current incarnation and I maintain it,” Magthwi answered, drawing the stare of her head scientist.
“Forgive me, your radiance. I know you have an understanding of every topic that kneels before you, but I never dreamed you could do work like this yourself. I wonder why you even have a Science Authority.”
“The work I do here is traditional. This is where a queen might modify her body if there was such a need. This is where royal coffee and those infused with it are nudged in the right direction.” She reached down and stroked the hair of her daughter Mossawetu. The girl was curled up on the cushion, eyes squeezed shut, tossing and turning every few moments.
“Is the princess well?” Zinjan asked, though he only spared a glance for her. His eyes quickly moved to the ceiling and the patterns of light rippling in its glass panels.
“These turbulent weeks have robbed her of her sleep,” the queen said. The girl whimpered and turned over, seemingly unaware she was the subject of conversation. “She worries endlessly for her people. When we cure Colduvai of its ailment she will be righted as well. Do you have the results of the census?” Zinjan circled around the clam so he could look her in the eye.
“I won’t sugarcoat this, my queen. I can tell you things about the census, but I cannot delineate the results.”
“Because the process degraded as it went on. Some of our census-takers never returned. Secondary check-ins gave different results within hours. We never reached the point of having anything I can confidently call results.”
“I see,” Magthwi sighed after a long silence. “This is the first true test of Colduvai’s strength in as long as it has borne that name. My mother Bimine never faced such a threat as Varroa the Destructor.” Mossawetu tried to roll over once more, but Magthwi firmly angled her back to where she was, keeping her hand pressed on the girl’s shoulder. “Tell me everything you can.”
“At best, twenty percent of our population has already absconded. At worst, thirty-two. The first estimate is based on the data from the census, the second on the number and condition of cadavers brought in from the grove and the land just beyond its fence.”
“So the stench of death in the air was not my imagination,” the queen noted. Zinjan spotted a tear in the corner of her eye, but it was reabsorbed before it fell. “What is killing my people?”
“The causes are multitudinous. Some have died of starvation and dehydration. Though the places where they fell suggest they’d walked for less than a day, we must account for their unwillingness to consume food and drink that originated in their homes. Sufferers of Varroa see it as tainted.”
“What do the laboratories say about our food supply?” she interrupted.
“All results are normal. Whatever this contaminant is, we can’t pinpoint it. I’ll have more on that subject in a moment… if you’re willing to hear the worst thing you’ve ever heard. First, other causes of death: suicide in numerous ways, heat stroke, animal attack, cardiac arrest believed to be caused by the rattled nerves of leaving you, and most notably in my opinion, homicide.”
“They’re slaying each other as well?”
“Not exactly. The Peace Authority has claimed the most lives. As of this moment the border patrols are working under orders to violently stop anyone from leaving. Many take the sword rather than turn back. Mister Koulsy has not only enacted that policy, but also the one where sufferers are forced back into their homes and locked inside. These people die of a condition similar to asphyxiation, but something that also makes all the nerves and muscles lock up.”
“The penalty of absconding is death, no matter how it is delivered,” the queen reasoned. “Any that fall by the sword would fall to one of these other causes within days. I’m far more concerned with violence the commoners enact on each other, outside of my Peace Authority.”
“There is plenty of that as well,” Zinjan countered. The queen shot him a look that nearly knocked him over. He remembered that his tone was everything, that even a single word that came out wholly insulting would condemn him. “We’ve seen rioting over homes rumored to be the safest, usually resulting in the destruction of the domicile. We’re losing overall stability at the rate of a percentage point a day.”
“I will need to make more appearances,” Magthwi resolved. “The people must know that the spire does not sway in the wind like grass.”
“I must disagree, my queen.” The look wasn’t sharp this time. She hid her true feelings expertly, but Zinjan could squeeze it from the silent patch of air between them. She was upset at the very possibility that an intimate visit with her wouldn’t solve the crisis. “While, culturally, the people still have the utmost admiration and respect for you, the effects of Varroa become more pronounced when they are directly exposed to your image and your words.”
“How is something so specific possible?” she demanded.
“Varroa removes one’s sense of home. Being encircled in your queen’s arms is home. The devotion to you conflates the two concepts. You are home, and home gives them nothing…”
“It seems you are leading this conversation somewhere,” Magthwi pointed out. Zinjan stared at the floor, but quickly looked back up when he noticed the tiny eyespots on the creatures kissing the skin of his feet.
“Yes, I’m certain of a few things, though I won’t voice them unless asked, as I know my certainty cannot compare to yours.” He pursed his lips. “Still, I have… tools… that can help us.”
“I know what you have.” The head of the Science Authority froze, as if he’d suddenly been lopped from the body of it. The fingerling-things around his feet scattered at the sound of an automated door clicking open and shut. Someone else was in the room, lightly stepping through the water behind the clamshell. He didn’t dare crane his head to look behind it. Even darting his eyes was a mistake, because he saw Mossawetu staring back, cheek pressed against the cushion, but utterly still as if she was certain she was about to watch an execution.
“Queen Magthwi, I…”
“…thought it was secret,” she finished for him. “The gorge has secrets, but I am party to all of them. Everything that happens in your laboratory in the roots of this building is known to me.” The man crossed his arms behind his back to hide his shaking hands, but his legs betrayed him with the ripples they created.
The footsteps had to belong to Mister Koulsy. He was coming around the shell, sword on his hip as if it just happened to be there, ready to carry out the sentence for daring to think in a different direction. Death had to be her decision, because she’d seen everything… including the way he couldn’t control himself around his creation. Somewhere in one of the queen’s million eyes, there was a film of him with his pants around his ankles, shuddering and moaning up against armatures of metal and lights. Perhaps the thing to do was let the shame shut down his body before he even had to see the barely-concealed smugness on the Peace Authority’s face.
“She’s pretty,” Mossawetu said without sitting up. The princess closed her eyes again, a little soothed by the sight of what she thought was nothing more than a bauble. Zinjan opened his eyes. His creation, taking who knew how many steps after her first, walked around the clamshell and stopped. Dazelbon was fully painted now, her whole body that shade of dark mustard. She wore rudimentary clothes in the form of a slanted skirt of green ceramic sequins and a matching shirt that just covered her ribcage.
She was never supposed to wear clothes, so Magthwi must have chosen them out of a sense of decency. It was alright. Even saddled with such concepts, the automaton would be able to shake them off at a moment’s notice. He had honed her gestating mind perfectly. Like everything else in Colduvai, she would obey Magthwi. The differences would only show when all of it was gone and the sun still needed someone to marvel at it.
“I assume many of your notes are kept nowhere but that head of yours,” the queen said, “as this device’s purpose is unclear. I have a rough idea though, as she came with this.” She nodded at the mechanical skeleton; Dazelbon reached behind her pelvis and pulled something from a small sheath under her skirt. She presented it to her creator on flat palms: a dagger with a simple handle of knotted iron. “There’s something inside that blade. It’s time for you to explain yourself fully Zinjan. What are these creations and what is their purpose?”
His throat was so dry that he almost dropped to his knees to slurp off the floor, not caring if he swallowed any of the strange minnows. The scientist had to swallow six times before he found enough saliva to speak. The presentation was still in his mind somewhere, even if he had to rummage around a little to find it. The speech was always for her; he should’ve been smart enough to expect her to pull it out of him first.
“Long have I dreaded the possibility of Colduvai’s fall,” he lied. There was no point in dreading the inevitable. “One by one human civilizations have fallen, a tide that was only briefly slowed by the introduction of queens. I never knew its name was Varroa, but I knew that it would introduce itself.” He started pacing. The next part was the truth, all too easy to spill. “All have failed to best this threat because they looked to the future to save them, treating tomorrow as a lifeboat. The answer lies, instead, in our past. Only the most primal of inspirations can save us, because they are free of the toxic soup.”
“One moment,” Magthwi interrupted, perhaps just to slow the acceleration of his speech. “Toxic soup?”
“It is what prevents us from identifying Varroa specifically,” Zinjan elaborated. “Even with Colduvai’s various filters we are still immersed in it. The Earth’s waters, soils, and gases are irreversibly tainted by a hundred billion acts of industry: microplastics in table salt, endocrine disruptors in meat, chlorofluorocarbons in every breath, mercury in water, and every other contaminant that was called a godsend.”
“You’re saying that you don’t know which one is Varroa because there are too many to test?”
“No, my queen. I’m saying that Varroa the Destructor could be the cumulative effect of multiple toxins, and that testing their combinations is so far beyond possible that we couldn’t see its glint with a telescope that took up the entire gorge!” The last word echoed around the room. Mossawetu covered her ears with a pillow and whimpered. “I’m sorry, dear princess,” he added in a whisper.
“We all need to hear this,” Magthwi assured. “Continue.” Zinjan walked over to Dazelbon, careful not to stare into her sockets as lovingly as he wanted to, and took the dagger from her. He brandished it while he spoke, slashing and stabbing at imaginary foes like a swashbuckler in an old film.
“This is an answer we don’t get to know no matter how much we study it. Civilization will collapse before we can remember the exact recipe of the toxic soup, just as our census collapsed before we could get an accurate number. Our people and their ailment are just variables now. These three devices I have made were inspired instead by the stone tools found in this land ages ago, the earliest ever discovered.”
“I noticed that this machine resembles nutcracker man,” the queen interjected. Zinjan froze mid-swipe and stared at her.
“My queen. The fact that you remember his name gives me that much more confidence. He was key as well. I call these devices the new tools, as I have strived to give them a purity matching those artifacts. Their components are very advanced, but if they should cease to function they will each still have a purpose. These tools are the new knife,” he hoisted the blade into the air, “the new cloud,” the blade moved to Dazelbon, “and the new mind.”
“You’ve tested them already,” the queen guessed. “The cloud is the scouring lamp that was used on the crocodiles.”
“Correct again. Its radiation neutralizes all biological processes, taking out half the toxic soup in one pass. If it were to stop working or move off its intended path its technology would simply keep it suspended in the air for eons. A new cloud. A piece of shade that just happens to not be natural… but… as you said… that was a test. The true purpose of the new cloud is to purify the grove.”
“You intend to use that machine on our monoculture?” the queen asked, surprise edging into her tone. “The trees and cherries will be completely annihilated.”
“Yes, as we can’t rule them out as a source of contaminants. We have seed and sapling in store. The grove can be restored in two to three years, and our reserve food supply can last twice as long, more so if it is supplemented by the river. Each cut with these tools is drastic, but vital.”
“What does the tool embedded in that dagger’s hilt do?”
“The new knife is the perfected version of the old. It still cuts, but it cannot do so violently. If a human kills another human with it, the mechanism will fire minuscule harpoons capable of puncturing thick gloves as well as skin. They inject a swift-acting neurotoxin that ends the life functions of the wielder within twenty-five seconds.”
“You want that to be judge and executioner?” He could tell he was losing her. Even as a queen not all visceral reactions could be suppressed.
“It’s a tool with clear and unavoidable consequences,” he pitched. “The judge would still be you, as I would never distribute these without your blessing. We need this. The people are ripping each other apart, and the Peace Authority is shredding what’s left. Every kitchen knife and sword in Colduvai must become one with the new knife. Only something so severe can make the afflicted and the naturally violent think twice before they flood the gorge with blood.”
“Already I have serious reservations,” the queen admitted. Her voice was less judgmental than he expected. She sounded as if she was trying to scold children while walking a tightrope above them. “This plan is an admission that more have to die before we can recover.”
“When tissue is necrotic it must be removed,” the scientist reasoned. “Without the gaping hole there is nothing to heal. I won’t claim to understand your burden, Queen Magthwi, but even making the decision should be searing and painful.” She was silent once again, playing with her daughter’s small hand.
“And what of that?” she asked, gesturing to Dazelbon. “It is the new mind. What do we need a thousand of those for?”
“Not a thousand,” he swiftly corrected as he returned the dagger to the automaton’s bony fingers. “Just this one. She is a mind that cannot be swayed or clouded. She will obey your orders perfectly, and should no more orders come she will survive the collapse of the city and be a bastion of knowledge for anyone else that may come along.”
“You want it to replace us?”
“No,” he nearly snapped. More than anything he wanted to join her, be his own replacement, but he knew that was impossible. The queen had guessed her purpose correctly, but Zinjan had another lined up as a ruse. “This unit, she has been named Dazelbon for expedience’s sake, is the only mind in Colduvai capable of following your orders perfectly. She is a Varroa slayer, not susceptible to any of its mind tricks.”
Magthwi unfolded her legs, stood from the clam shell, and examined Dazelbon closely. She cradled its protruding cheekbone in her palm, and to her credit, did not act disturbed when his creation leaned into the gesture like a kitten. Zinjan swallowed. It was working. The queen saw her power. Dazelbon would be her final subject, which was as far as Magthwi could think, but she would be so much more beyond that.
“Dazelbon alone is superior to the Peace Authority in this crisis,” he asserted softly. “She can prove it in one night of service. If you authorize the use of the new tools she can install the new knife in the place of every old one in the city in a single night.”
Queen Magthwi took the new knife and held it up against Dazelbon’s spine, just under the machine’s jaw. She stared at Zinjan the entire time, but the man didn’t flinch. He had never been so concerned for anything’s wellbeing, but he knew the woman didn’t have the strength to cut through her plating. Even time wouldn’t be able to do that. If Dazelbon was destroyed it would be along with the Earth.
He showed identical resolve in her next test, when she instead put the knife against his throat. Wordlessly he stood. Eyes forward. She wasn’t threatening his life. Nothing was a weapon in the queen’s hand. She was simply weighing its power, experimenting with the feel of it the way an octopus might examine a glass jar as a hiding spot. Even if it was a threat he was already firmly stood on the single hill he was willing to die on.
“Your confidence is admirable,” she whispered in his ear, “but the people of Colduvai are not replaceable. Strange as it may sound, I am the only thing that will be replaced. When one of my daughters takes the throne and I have passed from this world the people of Colduvai will still be there to bury me, and to carry her as she falls fatigued out of her chrysalis from the burden of transformation. I am sorry Zinjan, but the new tools will not be implemented.”
“I understand,” he said numbly as she backed away and returned the dagger to Dazelbon. That was the end of Colduvai then, as far as he was concerned. Every soul would abscond and it would be a ruin by the end of the year at the latest. His philosophy had provided him plenty of armor for the eventuality of the queen’s decision. If Dazelbon broke she would still be a fossil. If the new knife broke it would still be a blade. When their computers stopped running their screens would still make decent mirrors. Even with his proposal rejected, the new tools were already forged. His work was complete, even if its first days weren’t as grand as he’d hoped.
There was even a bright side to the meeting; the queen had decided against bringing up his predilections, likely to save him from the embarrassment. All of her subjects were bound to be lustful grubs wriggling all over anything that would allow it. None of them had desires as pure as hers.
“You are dismissed,” she told him. He bowed, but she caught his stolen glance at Dazelbon.
“She is still an extraordinary servant,” he said as he turned away. “I recommend you try her ou- utilize her. When you decide on the next step, you know where I’ll be.” With that he left the room he was never supposed to see. Magthwi’s time had felt so compressed lately, advisors leaking from capacity to capacity, giving her updates during meals and first thing in the morning. There had even been knocks on her bedroom door in the middle of the night, an act so serious that it likely woke everyone on the floor.
Varroa the Destructor had given her no choice. When Zinjan was gone she took a deep breath and looked at her bare feet in the skin of water. The organisms were nowhere near her. In fact they all swam as close to the edges of the pool as possible, ready to beach themselves if the royal giant grew nearer.
“I still can’t sleep,” Mossawetu moaned after rolling onto her back. Magthwi came to her side and put one arm on the top half of the shell.
“Then I should close this.” She pulled the shadow of it across the girl’s legs, but they shot up closer to her body and she protested.
“No! I don’t want to go in there. Nobody else has.” She referred to her sisters, most of whom were only vaguely aware of the room and the device at its center.
“Did Amandili tell you what this machine was?”
“She said it fixes you if you’re broken; I’m not broken!”
“Mind your volume,” the queen warned. “This was built by the original queen of Colduvai. It contains every change the royal line has made since our inception. Royal coffee is powerful, and sometimes it makes small changes on its own. You are expected to master these changes with your will, and if you cannot you must be closed in here so that the machine can bring your material back in line.”
“I just can’t sleep.”
“A princess does not get insomnia,” the queen stated. “A nervous night on the eve of great change is acceptable, but you’re showing the nerves of a commoner. You must be stronger.”
“I can sleep in Kinji’s room! Mine just smells funny.”
“Flavakinji has already been scolded for giving you refuge for so long and allowing this behavior to fester. I still have faith in you daughter. Be a mature princess and know what’s inside you. Make the decision for yourself. Will you sleep in your own bed… or will you sleep in here?” The girl turned away without saying anything, little finger poking the cushion. “Time passes. Things happen while you try to think them away.” Magthwi slowly closed the clamshell. It was too well-maintained to creak, but its movement was so agonizingly slow that the mind filled in the gap with similar sounds of its own. The moment before it would’ve clicked shut five small fingers poked out and grabbed the edge. Mossawetu squeezed out from under and flopped into the water.
“Take me to my room,” she said with downcast eyes.
“You’ve made a wise decision princess,” Magthwi praised. She took her daughter’s hand and helped her to her feet. As they walked, making their way from her hidden chambers and back into the beautiful stately halls, the queen reinforced her own decision against Zinjan’s new tools. As always, the queen was proving to be the solution to all problems that had solutions. The people of the gorge were absconding because she didn’t live next door. If they had to face her, to explain this disease rattling their nerves, the condition would likely disappear.
The halls were supposed to be silent and empty, as Magthwi was handling a family issue. The staff would’ve normally been directed to stay out of sight, be nothing more than spiders in the corner of a small cottage. They couldn’t afford that now, so people rushed by the queen and princess. The best they could do was look away and scrape along the wall. Magthwi picked up the pace to escape their flopping feet and panicked breaths.
Mossawetu’s room was in a far worse state. Most of her plants had yellowed and shriveled. Lichen had taken over some of the pots. Her aquarium was empty and none of the frogs were peeping from under their little imitation logs. A dead millipede hung off the side of a pot like a firehose full of dust.
“Look at how it has suffered without you Mossy,” Magthwi mourned. Something trembled in the queen’s neck. She touched it and actually felt it flutter, becoming even more upset because she couldn’t remember ever feeling such a sensation.
“The expeditionary force never came back,” the girl said.
“You mean your set of toys? They should be in the playroom.”
“No, the real one!” She wrenched her hand away and wobbled on her feet, as if she couldn’t decide which direction she should storm angrily. “Kinji told me the rescuers never came back either. So why should I come back? None of my people are!”
“What has gone wrong?” Magthwi asked the air, stunned. Somewhere the education of Mossawetu had failed, for in her words she was missing one of the most fundamental aspects of the royal family. The expeditionary force had not failed to return; it had failed to return to her. She did not have a home. She was a home to others. The queen couldn’t find anything to say, for every version of that point had been built into her interactions with her children since before they were born.
“I want to sleep with Kinji,” the princess insisted with a stamp of her foot. Without waiting for permission she attempted to leave. Magthwi grabbed her by the shoulders and wrapped her up in an embrace, falling to her knees in the process. “Let me go!” She jabbed her chin into her mother’s shoulder insolently because her arms were locked to her side.
“That’s enough!” Magthwi shouted, her voice deep and full of something bruised like an injured tiger growling from the bottom of a pitfall. “You do not go from me. You are a part of the queen. We have made the decision to sleep in this room, so we will do so.”
“No! I hate it here!” Mossawetu shrieked in her mother’s ear. She wriggled madly, but the queen’s embrace only grew tighter. If she felt her children or her people were at stake she could hold a marble pillar upright for days on end. “I hate you!” Something snapped within Magthwi. Her eyes were fixed open. Her muscles locked. Not even Flavakinji had ever gone so far. The machine they’d just left wouldn’t even work at this point; its stubborn programming would most likely insist that the princess be terminated and her cells studied one by one.
“Who is this commoner’s child?” the queen whispered. Her fingers plowed through the girl’s hair and wrapped around the top of her skull.
“Let me goooooo! I can’t breathe! Stop it Mommy!”
“I am your queen.”
“Stoooooooop!” The girl’s chest heaved as she wheezed.
“You’re just being held.” It was true. The embrace was like iron, but nothing worse than snug. The only danger the child faced was from her own uncontrollable flailing.
“I can’t… I can’t breathe! I…” Mossawetu threw her head back. The sounds she made were no longer akin to breathing. They were hollow and forced, like bowstrings dragged across the wrong part of an instrument. A glob of foam shot from her throat and landed on her cheek. Her eyes rolled into her skull, never to return.
“This is no time for a fit,” Magthwi said through clenched teeth. She didn’t dare open them, as she knew they would chatter. The walls of Colduvai could not be allowed to crumble like that. She held Mossawetu upright for half an hour, tears shimmering in her eyes the entire time. The silence was good. It was sleep. Dare not move her. It had been so long since she’d had such a good rest.
Eventually she stood. The princess’s bed was right there, perfectly made. Queen Magthwi pulled the covers back with one hand and gently placed Mossawetu down. The covers crossed her delicate feet and knees, but stopped there, held up like a tent that had its campers violently ripped out of it.
She stared at her daughter’s open eyes and mouth. Historically, royal material and shock did not interact well. The altered instincts were to always act first and in the most effective way. Shock was the inextricably human reaction to the parts of reality that opposed emotion in its entirety. The end result within Magthwi’s stomach, heart, throat, and brain was an internally crushing collapse, like the recycling of an aluminum can. While she dwelled on that agony, feeling the spaces within her own body shrink and push, her external self acted in her stead. It removed the lifeless Mossawetu from her bed once more and carried her away.
“She still can’t sleep,” a servant in the hall whispered to another after the queen passed by. “Poor girl. We’d best be extra quiet.”
Magthwi’s two minds didn’t reconvene until her feet hit water once again. They were back in the secret chamber. The clamshell opened at their presence, but there was nothing for it to rewire. Despite her grief Magthwi was still perfect by the standards of her design. Her daughter was beyond repair.
“This was the work of Varroa the Destructor,” she admitted to the echoing chamber, to her ancestors. There was no ignoring it now. The symptoms were identical. Mossawetu had rejected her home, forgetting herself in the process, and had asphyxiated when forced to remain within its boundaries. Worse, she had shown signs of it before any of the citizens, before the expeditionary force had even left. The contaminant or contaminants that they could never find hadn’t been brought to Colduvai from Laetoli or anywhere else. It had just spread, on wind or water or insect wing or pollen grain, and ignored their achievements. The gorge was a hole in the ground, and animals were stumbling into it and dying.
Magthwi lowered her daughter’s body into the water. She stepped onto the dry tiles at the edge of the room so that her aura would stop intimidating the detritivores. The tiny minnow-like creatures responded immediately, converging around the girl’s body. One of them took an experimental nibble, releasing a puff of skin cells into the water. The others jumped in as soon as the chemical signatures of feeding hit them.
It wasn’t the gruesome frenzied banquet of a school of piranha. Nor was it the tugging and tearing of ants shredding something a thousand times their size. As with every other advancement in Colduvai, the disposal and processing of Mossawetu’s body had the viewer’s sensibilities in mind.
She was still warm, but not a single drop of blood diffused into the water. The detritivore’s genetic code was not written by scientists; it was sculpted by Magthwi. They were not truly feeding on the princess, simply escorting her and the luggage of her molecules to the safe luxury of the clamshell. She would not be forgotten and she would not be missed. Not by the people anyway. They needed the stability of Mossawetu’s smile.
As they burrowed into her skin their boring mouthparts left sealant and coagulant. They tunneled into her as if she was made of Earth, leaving behind glistening golden passages. Magthwi watched as they worked, filling their guts with tissue and swimming, bloated, to the base of the clamshell. They disappeared inside it, reemerging after disgorging their meal, keeping none of it for themselves. They never actually ate, just lived out their short lives in that skin of water until the clamshell recycled them.
“We are not enough like you,” Magthwi whispered to them. “Life should be dormant until purpose triggers it. All these distractions are killing my people.” Two hours later Mossawetu was gone. She would return to reassure her people that Varroa could not stop them, but not with the same soul. Those could not be manufactured, but there was a spare in the spire already.
“I have an order,” the queen told the room. Hidden machines opened a connection with the communications center.
“We’re listening Queen Magthwi,” a voice assured her.
“I need you to have the girl Magthio escorted for a meeting with me.”
“Yes, right away.”
“Additionally…” Magthwi saw a flash of a future where replacements had to be made. “Have Zinjan escort her. I need to speak with him as well.”
The Stem of Salvation
There was something that deserved her attention in every direction, but Keikogile could not look away from her left hand. It had become an absolute masterpiece, decidedly better than anything hanging in the city’s art galleries.
She recalled something her grandmother once said before her personality and her dementia became indistinguishable. It was something about art requiring an observer to actually exist. Without a party to derive meaning art was simply anomalous objects. That meant that Colduvai’s art galleries now had nothing inside them, since there wasn’t a soul in the city looking for leisure.
Her hand had her as audience, so she was convinced it was Colduvai’s last artistic creation. Climbing the coffee trees of the grove had scratched it up, and each cut had healed into a golden slit, like a spear hurled from the sun. The beds of her nails shimmered and there were lines of royal material in them like sparkles in a snow globe. Much of her body was in a similar state after so much time dehydrated and starving in the grove, but Magthwi had been so kind as to put the finishing touch on her hand.
It had been a morning like any other recent one. Keikogile was draped over the branches like a panting jungle cat, watching Colduvai empty. People, most of them no longer pretending to be harvesters, wandered out under her in the hundreds. Axes had hacked the outer fence to pieces days ago, so they simply needed to step over the splintered stumps. The barrier would’ve grown back quickly, but the flow of feet was unrelenting. Every new leaf was brushed off before it could unfurl.
The florist never said anything to them, mostly because she couldn’t think of anything. They were going the wrong way, away from life. The flower atop the spire still shone stronger than anything. Its pull had become so strong that she could no longer tell her dreams of it from the waking world.
The crowd under her had panicked. They started looking over their shoulders and running, sometimes tripping on the stumps. One of them was trampled, but that body soon disappeared when it became a veritable stampede. Their shouts kept Keikogile from counting them, treating them as sheep to force herself asleep or awake. They also prevented her from hearing the leaves as they fell or the branches as they shriveled.
A shadow passed overhead, visible because the canopy vanished under it. The cloud was much more aggressive than the old kind, its rigid corners not letting a shred of light through. A leaf landed on Keikogile’s nose when she rolled around to examine the flying thing, but it thinned to dust and made her sneeze golden dancing particles into the air. They were the only things that seemed immune to the cloud’s influence.
Her left hand, the first thing under the cloud’s shade, burned. The skin bubbled up into blisters that quickly filled with golden pus. That was the finishing touch that made it so gorgeous to look at, like a dozen sunset bulbs planted in a barren field. Her body recognized there was no time to dawdle and gawk though, so it rolled her out of the tree.
It was difficult to keep ahead of the cloud’s sweep across the grove, but the greatly altered Keikogile moved through the trees like a gibbon with fire in its veins, swinging and flipping from branch to branch without using her injured hand. Enrapt as she was, her subconscious mind informed her behavior. The device that had been used on the crocodiles was reassigned to the grove, perhaps in order to weed out and kill her specifically. The grove surrounded the city, so the cloud would eventually move in a complete circle. If she were to reach its starting point before exiting the grove she would be pinned and burned out of existence.
The solution was to alter her course so that her swinging was at a slight angle. As she outran the radiation she drew closer to the city, eventually throwing herself over one of its outer walls a good twenty seconds ahead of her defoliating pursuer. The impact of her landing would’ve been enough to crack her ankles if they weren’t already a spider web of gold-cemented fissures.
She hadn’t looked at a mirror since leaving the city, so she had no idea how close she was to unrecognizable. The golden scars and scabs were not enhancements; they were glue holding her together. As her injuries broke her up into more and more distinct pieces the royal cement had a greater responsibility. The florist had lost more than seven percent of her vital mass, and there was no getting it back. Every chip that was filled in made her less of a person, less humane, and more deliriously joyful.
Awareness of the city around her only came by force when her strolling adoration of her hand was interrupted by something furry and firm squishing against her face. She looked up, and up, and up, and found the head of a giraffe. The animal stood on the side of an ordinary street, neck straining against a fence so it could pluck leaves from someone’s overgrown bushes.
“Hello!” she greeted it, raising her hands to stroke its marbled thigh. Her voice was softer and deeper than before, like wind blowing through a knothole. Even a single word was enough to make her take a deep breath. Much of her energy had been redirected to her other body systems to keep her alive and upright. “You must be a friend of Delister.” The giraffe didn’t bother to look at her. “I knew him; is he dead?”
There was still no answer. The florist climbed its leg in two swift motions and landed on its back. She played with its mane. Eventually the animal had stripped all the desirable foliage and moved on. Its height made it the perfect platform from which to observe Colduvai’s myriad changes.
Most notable was the emptiness. Entire neighborhoods were silent. Corpses were plentiful in places, usually laid a good distance from the doorstep of their home with a sheet or blanket over them. Despite their decay no flies buzzed about. Keikogile looked up once more and wondered if this was the happiest giraffe that ever was. She remembered those animals were constantly beset by biting flies around their ears and eyes. That was why their ears twitched so much, yet this one had ears as relaxed as a bloodhound’s.
The city, at least its outer places, belonged to the animals now. She came across dozens of Delister’s wards over the next few hours: elephants figuring out how to use public water pumps, hyenas jumping in windows to raid kitchens, a giant anteater lounging in a playground sandbox, and countless birds and bats hypnotized and anxious over the surplus of fresh ideal perches. The florist greeted each and every one of them, but they paid her no heed. Their silence seemed almost resentful, as if they’d finally given up the charade of decorum around humans and the baubles of their misguided gold-painted meddling.
The giraffe’s path followed a spiral, and since it brought her closer to the spire she was able to relax and enjoy the ride. It seemed unlikely that anything could pull her away from the magnificent flower above, until she noticed another creature rummaging around in what used to be a community garden.
Keikogile hopped off the giraffe and ran up to it. The creature acknowledged her with a look and a nod before going back to its work. She didn’t greet it, though she offered it a tiny wave after it looked away. The scene before her was so unusual that she could think of nothing to do but slowly circle the garden and observe.
All of the plants had been ripped up and tossed in a pile off to the side that smelled of strong herbs and wet roots. Planted in their place were all manner of blades with their hilts and handles pointing into the sky: swords, sickles, kitchen knives, pocket knives, and a dozen other varieties. The creature attending the garden now didn’t seem to be the one that had planted the weapons, for it was removing them one by one and inserting something into them before placing them back in the soil.
Its bones were the color of dark mustard, but she wasn’t sure if she should call its limbs and its skull-like head ‘bones’ in the first place. One thing she could settle on, after watching its gait, was that it had been designed female. Its clothing was minimal but gorgeous, contrasting with the very large pack strapped to its back that would’ve been too heavy for any human to carry.
Keikogile had no name to put to Dazelbon, and neither did the people of Colduvai who had dealt with the machine’s crusade for the past two days. She appeared without word, barely ever glimpsed for more than a few seconds, did her work on the nearby knives, and moved on. If Colduvai was still healthy enough for legends, as it stood it could only support vicious gossip, one would have formed around Zinjan’s ultimate creation. She came in the dark, and she clearly came to punish them.
Her bronze hand plucked a butcher knife from the soil as the other reached behind her back and pulled something from an opening in her pack. It was a thing Keikogile couldn’t place, something too thin to be manufactured yet too rigid to be natural. Like a needle, but shimmering gold, it scattered the light about it in all directions. The object tested its systems by suddenly branching out into a hundred projections that wriggled like worms. A moment later they snapped back to perfect thinness. Dazelbon dexterously inserted the needle into the butcher knife’s handle; it glided in as if the handle were butter.
“What does that do?” Keikogile finally asked as the knife was planted upright once more. Dazelbon had no voice to answer with, but in the free moment between blades she made a few gestures with her hands: a finger across the throat, a hand traveling up a wielding arm, and then another slit throat. “Oh, I get it!” The florist whispered two theories to herself before settling on one, despite what she’d just blurted. “Anybody who kills anybody gets killed!”
The new knife was proving just as effective as the new cloud, and was similarly indiscriminate. Even in the middle of the dozen riots happening across the city, as people begged to be let out of the homes that had become cages, it only took five deaths for them to learn that their blades were tainted by something as well. They had mostly been discarded, some ritually so as in that garden, even before Dazelbon had altered them.
Awash in cultish confidence and well-versed in botanical chemistry, Keikogile was nearly sure that she could wield the new knife without consequence. Possible mechanisms for the retribution in each handle were electrocution and poison. Electrocution would require a power source, where as some poisons could kill ten people with less than a drop. The second seemed far more likely.
The royal material within her would do just as it had with the radiation. The poison would likely make it up to her elbow before the golden immunity could shut it down, and its damage would be lost on her skin, just one glittering veiny scar among the others. This notion blossomed into an absurd daydream where her scars hardened and flaked, turning into shining armor. If she was to be a knight of needle breeding and fight her way to the top of the spire, she would need a broadsword.
Keikogile hopped the fence and walked through the garden of blades, tapping each handle that was high enough to tap. There was a single broadsword in Colduvai, but it was in a museum that hadn’t seen a guest or a dusting in a month. Even so, there were a few clean spots around it, as no knife was too obscure for Dazelbon to ignore.
The florist settled for a sword of the Peace Authority that still had its sheath and a strap that could go around one shoulder. She had no experience in swordplay, but even her spirited flailing was dangerous thanks to the royal coffee. The best test she could find for it was to swing it at the pile of uprooted plants. Each stroke sliced thick roots and tossed them away.
“Do you want to fight?” she asked Dazelbon playfully; the automaton shook its head. “I don’t mean really fight, just spar.” Another curt refusal. There was still work to be done on the discarded knives of Colduvai: blades dropped in sewers, buried along with their owners, or rusted into oblivion among trash heaps. They were scattered all over, but unlikely to be wielded ever again. She was happy to dig up every last one, but other orders came to her from the spire now that the majority had been changed. She was to return and help deal with the unrest.
Moments after closing the garden’s gate Dazelbon launched into the air on her powerful legs. At its apex the leap reached ten meters. Keikogile knew she could never guzzle enough coffee to make her body do that, but she felt compelled to test her abilities against the machine’s, especially since it was headed in the direction of the great flower. The florist sheathed her new toy and ran after it, vaulting the fence and anything else that got in her way, including a yawning lioness.
Dazelbon leapt from rooftop to rooftop effortlessly, even landing with the softness of a dove. Meanwhile Keikogile, with her eyes locked onto nutcracker man’s daughter, slammed into every wall and corner in her path. At that point her brain had become so encased in crystallized royal material that a concussion was impossible. Still she heard cracking and shifting sounds inside her skull, like chunks of ice breaking from an arctic shelf.
The impacts numbed her, a sensation she found pleasant since it made the burning in her lungs less noticeable. Her body began to feel loose, like an association of human-curious elements rather than an actual person. A human jellyfish, but mostly coffee instead of mostly water.
She pursued Dazelbon in this fashion all the way to the city center, occasionally leaving golden stains on walls and gutters. Eventually, as swift as one street to the next, her surroundings were transformed. There were people everywhere, milling in the streets, sleeping standing against walls, and sneaking glances into each other’s pockets. Keikogile guessed that they searched for food, as many of them had gaunt faces and countable ribs.
There was plenty of food available sitting in great stacks atop Peace Authority carts. There were signs in place telling the public that they were free to take as much as they wanted. Yet most of it moldered untouched, as they feared Varroa contamination. Keikogile didn’t actually notice any of these carts until she ran into one, the shape of its side actually strange enough to knock her down. She stared into the sky as the bounding Dazelbon disappeared onto one of the spire’s many balconies.
“Are you alright?” someone asked. The florist didn’t look at them, nor did she react when a few squishy melons rolled off the cart and onto her chest. Her body reflexively grabbed one of the fruits, tore it open, and shoved a piece in her mouth. Keikogile let herself eat for a minute, juice streaming across both her cheeks. “I… wouldn’t eat too much of that,” the person beside her warned. “It has Varroa in it.”
Keikogile didn’t slow down. She’d heard plenty of absconders muttering about Varroa the Destructor. They blamed it for all their problems. Every last little thing that was unusual was the work of Varroa. The florist didn’t have much reactionary emotion left, but she still felt a flash of anger at the excuse.
She’d always believed that naming bad things made them worse, or turned something neutral into something damaging in the first place. From what her family had told her of history, it was when people started calling science by only one of its disciplines, needle breeding, that the average ability of each person started to decrease. A witch hunt needed a witch because a killer needed something to kill, and hadn’t the people of Colduvai driven her out of her shop by chanting things about black magic?
“I’m not afraid of Varroa,” she declared, rising to her feet. “I happily eat it for breakfast.” She took another bite of melon, rind and all. The taste was far from ideal, allowing her to focus on the person next to her for the first time. She was a woman wrapped up in something red: a robe that looked like it was made from a set of curtains. Perhaps they thought all the clothing stuffed away in their closets was contaminated as well.
“You’re ahead of me then,” she croaked with a thin smile. Her face looked haggard, but her hair was still very dark, implying the last month had aged her considerably. “Everything faded so quickly. I have nothing left to fear losing, but still my hear races.” She looked up at the spire. “I’m waiting for Queen Magthwi to step out onto that balcony, the one with the black curtains that she announces deaths from, and tell me I have permission to die.”
“I don’t think she’s using that balcony anymore,” Keikogile said. She ignored the people gathering around them, staring as she talked with her mouth full. They all had their own worries, but the florist’s glint caught their eye. “Something else just went in there; it was this ape skeleton thing. I followed it here.” The woman nodded.
“We’ve seen that coming and going. Magthwi has invented a new subject to replace us, thanks to our gross inadequacy.”
“I’m going in there,” the florist said to change the subject. She didn’t have time for shame, the most pathetic of feelings. Several around her gasped, with some falling back and others creeping closer.
“You… you mean the spire? The lobby is still open to everyone, but every way up is blocked by the Peace Authority. I heard their swords were cursed along with our knives, but they’ll throw down their lives to keep us out regardless.”
“It’s already very crowded in there,” a man interrupted, stepping in front of the woman. Keikogile saw right through him, discerning his scheming from his tone alone. This man was looking for a battering ram: something to shove in front of an assault to take the first arrows. The florist already had similar plans, so she pretended to listen closely. “We think they’ve got clean food locked away in there. All they’re giving us is that infected stuff.”
When he was done hinting she wandered toward the spire without a word. He kept pace with her, whispering in her ear, planting all sorts of rumors that were as effective on her as mosquitoes dive-bombing a brick wall. He said that Mister Koulsy himself stood in the middle of the blockade of bodies, hand perpetually on his sword even though it might claim his own life. He said that Magthwi and the princesses were being loaded into a time capsule to hibernate, only to awaken when enough skeleton-machines were built to start Colduvai over. He said the new cloud was headed straight for the crowds as soon as it was done razing the grove.
The great doors weren’t just flung open; they’d been removed from their hinges and discarded. Seconds after they passed under the archway the man told her that people had turned them into rafts and fled down the river on them. The crowd thickened, forcing them to slow down. Keikogile didn’t bother asking anyone to move, simply shoving her shoulders through them aggressively. A few were angry at the intrusion, but one look at her terrifying scars and blank face scattered them.
“You’re that girl from the flower shop aren’t you?” the schemer asked. “All this Varroa stuff started with your flowers wilting.” She stopped before the elevators she had unsuccessfully tried to climb the last time she was there. The memory felt so ancient that it had to belong to an ancestor instead.
“It started before that,” she answered, only bothering to speak because she couldn’t immediately spot a way up. “I don’t know what killed them.”
“It was Varroa,” he insisted. His hand hovered over her shoulder, but didn’t make contact. “All those giant flowers were dust in minutes, but you got out of there alive. Plus, you were just eating that diseased fruit.”
“Do you want me to do something?” He flinched at her boldness.
“I’m just… asking questions. A lot of us have questions. The royal coffee’s signature is all over you. Is that why you’re immune? The grove is gone, but do you have any left? If we had just a taste perhaps we could understand what Queen Magthwi is thinking.” Those surrounding them could no longer afford to give Keikogile a wide berth. More people pressed their way in. The elevators shafts, at least near the bottom, were flooded with a material like cement, making them nothing more than support columns. There were three wide sets of stairs as well, but the Peace Authority was there. For the moment the crowd didn’t dare step one foot on any bottom stair.
“There’s no more left,” Keikogile told him as she examined the authority members walking around above her. No doubt they’d spotted her already and recognized her. Her instincts told her that what he said of their swords was true. Dazelbon did not seem like the sort of creature to differentiate between wielders. It had to be true, otherwise a flung blade or two would already be embedded in her shoulder. There was no reason at all for Magthwi to tolerate her presence.
“So you’re our only hope,” the man next to her said.
“I’m not anybody’s hope. I’m just here for the flower.”
“What flower?” He looked around as if he’d missed a decorative vase on their way in.
“The one at the top of the spire. It’s the best thing there ever was.”
“What are you going to do with it?” Keikogile paused; the tip of her tongue wiggled on the roof of her mouth. There was a taste just like the royal coffee there.
“I don’t know,” she realized out loud. “What you do with regular flowers I suppose: look closely, smell it, or chop it up and put it in a salad.” Her eyes followed one pair of boots walking around behind the railing one floor above. The person watched her, but so did the rest of the authority. He didn’t have a sword. She’d seen him somewhere before… The ape skeleton walked behind him, free from the burden of her pack. “The flower is gigantic, bigger than my shop. I’ll probably wrap myself up in a petal and sleep. Be a pollen grain for a while.”
“I’ll get to the point,” the man said. “I never believed you were a witch. It wasn’t fair what the people of this city did to you. Still, I think you should be the bigger person. We want that food in the stores. I just want one more piece of meat that doesn’t taste like an aimless wanderer.” His head lolled as if too much saliva had just sloshed against the back of his teeth.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked, but her eyes never left those guarding the way up.
“I… does this mean you’re willing to help us? I’ve spoken to tens of others. If something starts they’ll immediately be with us.”
“You’re a very stupid man. Say what you want or I’ll throw you like a stick and hope one of the hyenas outside fetches you.” There was a flash of anger across his face, but it was gone in an instant. His health was too thin to hold any heat that intense for any duration.
“We would like you to make our demands for us. Put some royal timbre in your voice and decree that we, the lifeblood of Colduvai, will have the food stores. This city will not resume until we are fed.”
“I’ll do it.”
“Really!? Truly!? That’s excellent. As for the wording, I used to write announcements for the-”
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Keikogile screamed for twenty seconds. Every last person in earshot froze, the hair standing on their forearms and neck. For most of them it took all their effort just to turn their heads and look at the source of the noise. What they saw was statue rubble pasted back together with golden glitter. The inside of its mouth and throat shone like a freshly cast bell, but there was nothing sonorous about its tolling.
Keikogile had no expression and no color in her cheeks, as if the sound was produced by the flick of a switch. It was not a scream of rage or terror, just a scream. A sound test that would soon blow out the speakers. An extinction alarm for the gorge. Imprecise and disturbing as it was, it had the intended effect. The Peace Authority were visibly on edge before, but now they looked uncertain of everything. The one still sturdy, Mister Koulsy, slowly descended the stairs by himself.
“You’ll stop that noise in the queen’s home!” he boomed, drawing his sword without a touch of doubt. Though he hadn’t shaved in several days not a hair was out of place. His uniform was spotless while all the others had dark sweat stains under the arms. He rolled back his sleeves, displaying arms of solid stone. None doubted his reputed ability to crush a skull in his elbow like a nutcracker.
“We demand the untainted food!” the schemer squeaked as loud as he could from behind Keikogile. A wave of reinforcement came from those crowding the lobby.
“You have adequate supplies,” Koulsy countered. “Return to the homes your queen has built for you. Sleep comfortably and dream well… or fail her.” He stopped at the middle stair, blade pointed directly at Keikogile. “You however… you surrender your life here.”
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!” the florist screamed once more, adding only the slightest intent when she drew the sword she’d taken from the blade garden. To everyone around her it looked like she leveled it at Mister Koulsy in order to meet his challenge, but she just aimed for the top of the stairs and the upward paths beyond them.
She took off running before her scream was finished. To the others it was an order to charge. A thousand shouts joined hers along with two thousand footfalls. The protesters moved as a single mass pulled along by the golden pinpoint of Keikogile. They were her wake, and would only crash against the stairs once she struck. The rest of the authority drew their swords, but held the blades in awkward positions across their bodies like sashes. Keikogile jumped, passing over ten heads beneath her, throwing herself at Mister Koulsy gracelessly. It was the perfect way to get herself skewered, but the head of the authority knew he couldn’t do it that way.
His best and most respectful objection had not been enough to stop Magthwi from implementing the new knife. Even with everything collapsing around them he refused to bring it up a second time. He was the highest commoner in the land, but that had only earned him one audible worry for each situation. Anything further was disrespect, and worse than any fate this mob might shred him and toss him into.
Their swords met; Koulsy nearly buckled under the combination of her power and thrown weight. If their blades crossed no bodily harm was done, so the poison wouldn’t trigger. There was a way for him to win this battle, but he couldn’t do it with the edge that had slaked its bloodthirst many times before. He grunted and tossed Keikogile back. She slid down several stairs, chin bouncing, limbs splayed like a brittle star. The point of her sword met the stone and she pulled herself up, looking like a drenched tent with the back half collapsed.
The people flooded around her and up the stairs, clashing with the authority. They did as their head instructed, fighting only with the flat of their blades, pushing the rioters back down the steps and letting gravity do the damage. They had learned the hard way that even thick work gloves were easily penetrated by the deadly projectiles in each hilt.
Mister Koulsy spared one glare at Zinjan who stood on a balcony across from much of the fighting, his arms draped over the railing as if he watched a sporting event. How Koulsy hated that man. The new knife had clearly been his doing, and it was only desperation that convinced the queen to use it. The veteran soldier saw it not as an attempt to prevent violence, but as a jab at him personally. Zinjan was literally poisoning his strategies, shutting down his nerves of steel. He stood there now, with what Koulsy assumed was a metal mistress, just waiting for him to fall in this rigged battle.
Keikogile charged him like a rhinoceros, her sword held too low for it to be an effective strike. He deflected it into the stairs and punched her across the jaw, collapsing her again. His breath caught in his throat, partly expecting the poison to strike, but he was safe. Only a mortal wound caused by the sword itself would trigger it.
When the monstrous girl rose again he saw the damage he’d just done. Her cheek was subtly indented. The eyelid on that side drooped just enough that he could see the moist tissue underneath, now gold instead of pink. There was no swelling and his opponent’s expression hadn’t changed.
“That didn’t hurt at all,” she taunted. “Let me through.”
“What do you think you are?” he growled. “These are the halls of the royal family. Ground meant for the queen would be as quicksand to you. You’re a monster. I’ll do you the kindness of ending your confusion.” He grabbed something off his belt and held it up, waving it so Zinjan could see. Then he attached it to the base of his sword’s blade. It was some kind of electromagnet with a handle, though Keikogile couldn’t discern that it was a simple tool snatched from one of the spire’s laboratories. Its purpose here was obvious, allowing him to wield his weapon by the secondary handle and destroy his opponent without consequence.
“The queen ordered the swords to be even deadlier,” Keikogile said. “What you’re doing isn’t in the spirit of her order.”
“She forgives those who falter,” was his only answer. He truly believed that, and thought his chances all the better if he could bring her the head of this aberration. There’d been precious little time to practice with the secondary handle, but his skill advantage was still massive. A good spin by the fresh handle convinced him that it could be wielded with something close to his regular precision. The next offensive move was his: a series of downward stabs made in the hope that he could puncture her hands.
Keikogile danced out of the way of them, her ankles sometimes bending too far as they slipped on the stairs. She threw in a few swings of her own, but each one had her full weight behind it. The blade clanged against the stairs as her torso bent to and fro. Her third miss left her flank wide open, so Koulsy stabbed between her ribs and drew out the crimson-gold solution that passed as blood. Something else came with it: a cloud of vanishing sparkles.
That Mister Koulsy was careful to avoid, giving her wound a wide berth as he circled around her to regain the high ground. To him Varroa the Destructor was nothing more than embarrassing hysteria. He’d slept comfortably in his bed every night for twenty years, and he would sooner die than turn down food handed to him by Queen Magthwi. The powder coming from Keikogile’s wounds and scars however…
The worst fate he could think of belonged to his old colleague Begumisa. No matter how much the queen appreciated his service, no matter how heroically he fought to keep this creature and her degenerates back, Begumisa’s fate would be his if he came away with a golden spot on his skin. The florist was a walking ball of royal contaminants, and all she had to do was sick on him to ruin any future he might have.
She sensed his hesitation and stumbled in his direction with frightening speed. Mister Koulsy answered the maneuver with an expert thrust that pierced her left lung and came out under her shoulder. This did not stop her; her legs pumped as if nothing had happened. Her body pushed itself further up the blade, drawing to within centimeters of Koulsy’s uniform.
“I’ve got your sword,” she sputtered, blood drooling from her lips. Her eyes pierced his even though her lids fluttered as if they’d rolled back into her head. All of her subtle human behaviors were out of sync, firing at random intervals and broken speeds: her nostrils flared separately, she bit part of her lower lip, and one of her knees shot up in a confused reflex. All the while she slid closer.
There was nothing he could do to stop her. Her gold sick was going to spill no matter what, but perhaps he could target, and later amputate, the infected area. His free hand shot out and grabbed her neck. Its softness was shocking. This was but a girl. More like the silhouette of a girl, left in the sand as the tide washed her body away. This was not what he dreamed of fighting as a youth. Still. She slavered after the queen. He squeezed.
Keikogile smiled as lights popped in her eyes. His thick fingers rode up her neck and pushed on her jaw. Things were going to work out. Even in the middle of this petty fighting her eyes had been forced to the heavens where the flower swayed. Those lights must have been a few falling petals. Perhaps she was close enough. She couldn’t reach out with her hands, but her very being was not such an anchor anymore.
The life seemed almost out of her, and he wouldn’t relent until her limbs stopped twitching. To him her closed eyes signified that she was ready for death, that deep down she knew how wrong her existence was. His grip tightened again, but something that didn’t look very much like death happened. A haze appeared. It surrounded Keikogile like a halo, and as it thickened streams of it became obvious from her eyes, ears, mouth, and wounds.
The man already felt the royal material seeping into his palm, but he was prepared to lose a hand in protection of the gorge. When the haze dyed the hair on his arm gold, dread sapped him of his strength. He knew enough of medicine to understand the sensitivity of a mucus membrane. Breathing too much of her in was a death sentence for his soul. He dropped her, but she only collapsed part of the way before her limbs snapped under her. The outpour continued, drifting down the stairs one at a time, clearing the brawlers behind her, though there was one or two who dropped to their knees to try and lap it up.
“You can’t even fight like a person,” he panted, retreating up the stairs, keeping his affected hand at a distance.
“Who’s fighting?” she asked, crawling after him. Mister Koulsy fell, smashing his back when he didn’t dare use his free hand. He dropped his sword as a result, and Keikogile surged forward at the opportunity. If she was over him for even a moment he would be the rocks at the bottom of a royal waterfall. He would not die with her on top of him.
The swords shrieked across each other. The chaos around them faded. The two figures stood as statues while the suffering masses of Colduvai collectively took a deep breath. It was difficult to make out the details through Keikogile’s haze. Her sword had missed; that much was clear. Its blade rested on Mister Koulsy’s shoulder.
The head of the Peace Authority blew the haze away as if extinguishing a candle for each of the young florist’s birthdays. There it was: a mortal wound. The sword was in her heart. Keikogile’s expression was as vacant as before, but its little twitches had ceased. The haze dissipated. Mister Koulsy was about to shout, to tell his forces to keep fighting, but his last breath was already used up. He looked down in confusion when his chest refused to inflate.
The wrong handle. He’d picked up his sword by the hilt it was born with. A cut with the new knife cut both ways. There was no pain in his arm, but that lack of pain was traveling up it. The peaceful death reached his thighs and his shoulders. He tried to speak, order the death to stop taking his sensation. He’d earned pain: an end like those he had ended. This felt like a slap on a wrist made of dew. It wasn’t his death. This expiration was designed, crafted, and passed down from the spire as a simple solution. A death made by Zinjan, who would only die for the strangest stupidest things.
Keikogile and Mister Koulsy collapsed and rolled down the stairs. The head of the authority was consumed by the crowd at the bottom, but the florist never made it that far. Dazelbon leapt down from above on order from her observing master. She scooped up Keikogile’s body. Two sets of uniquely dead eyes shared a look. The extra weight was nothing to the new mind; her leap back up was just as effortless.
It wasn’t long after that the line was broken, and the homeless poured into the lower levels of the spire, thinking that they searched for food. A few bodies were at the base of the stairs, but they were kicked off to the side to make way. One of them was the schemer, his tongue dyed gold.
Continued in the Finale