Collapse of Colduvai: Finale

Begumisa the Trespasser

Yes, I went into your tower Queen Nkoro. I know what my soldiers would say: my scar pulled me there. Since I’m contaminated the only thing I ever could’ve wanted was a throne of my own. There was one at the center of a dead city, unguarded. So I went in, alone, to see what I could claim.

That’s false. I went in alone because I am expendable. Every day I remind myself that a leader is the most worthless sort of person. They are the only kind of person who cannot function alone. An artist can be their own audience. An explorer needs only the land. The affectionate can raise and tame animals… but a leader must be atop a human pyramid for their existence to mean anything at all. It’s the most pathetic, unenviable, pitiable position a human being can occupy. The glamor and respect that comes with it is but a thin bandage to disguise that fact. It’s what people give their leaders so they don’t take their own lives.

A leader exists to be properly disposed of. They are an avatar for a population’s problems and it is healthy to burn them in effigy for rebirth. They become footnotes in history, but nothing more. The hearts of humanity go out to the children that suffer in war, the inventors who never get their due, or the families torn apart by ill health. There is no real affection for the figurehead.

I’ve never been one. Everyone around me has tried to make me one, especially after this scar. It was a vicious assault: the wicked sharp pins on the backs of medals and the choking congratulatory ribbons. I dodged these attacks and never forgot the malice behind them. Finally they made me the leader of those who were tragically unskilled at being led. I made peace with that and called it a stalemate even though I was the one that came away with the scar.

Whatever sort of person you think you’re dealing with, I am not her. I’m not afraid to lose the respect of these men and women. Even so, there’s nothing to admit to. Yes, I found what you undoubtedly kept from your people, and yes I chose not to discuss it with mine. There was nothing to gain from it.

We’ll happily discuss it now to break down the wicked illusion of Loldu; I think it is best to start with your failures as a queen. Magthwi, who will never have my loyalty but will always have my respect, could’ve never survived Varroa the Destructor the way you did. Her palace was alive with her people: a city unto itself. Her children were there, her advisors, her servants, and all their families as well.

Your tower was empty. No living quarters aside from your own. Even the entryway was like the cavern we’ve plunged into. It was absurdly dark, and I had only the light of a hound stick’s eyes to see by. There were clusters of lights on the ceiling, like something between a spider’s egg sac and a net of pearls, but I assume they only illuminated your path.

Anyone adoring their queen who dared to step over the threshold would’ve been turned away by the sheer oppressive aura of it. It stayed that way until I reached the fifth floor, where the difference was night and day. Your servants, undoubtedly mechanical, must’ve been tightly squeezed into wall panels to make way for your toys. Things like I’ve never seen, each designed to plunge you into a fantasy world that would put these lousy bicycles to shame.

How much ruling did you even do from your tower? The people of Laetoli never had to face their problems because you never had to face them. There was always an escape. Your favorite one was obvious: a giant gyroscope with a seat inside, its frame like the vibrant bands of the setting sun. The seat was nearly worn through and the grime of your skin and sweat was in the cracks. That’s the one you lived in while your people died.

You emerged to find them all gone, made silly and starved by Varroa the Destructor. I think all your countermeasures, like the shuffling of the buildings, were thought up by the buildings themselves with your implied approval. Perhaps you were startled when you finally emerged and realized how alone you were. Queen Magthwi would have struggled with her people, and been left hollow and broken by their absence. You’re just a parasite Nkoro.

No, that’s not all I found. You want me to tell them about the machines you collected from all over the world. You think their truth will permanently turn them against me. I think it will free them. It’s not the revelation you think it is, because I’m closer to them than you are. I don’t mean I understand them better, just that we all walk among the dust and dirt while royalty drifts by on the clouds above. It is only a threat to your existence, not to mine.

It was the most beautiful chamber in your home. Open. Your collection spiraling up into the ceiling, so far that I couldn’t see the end of it. At first I had no idea what I was looking at because I’d never seen such machines before. It’s clear now that there is one somewhere in Colduvai, likely at the heart of Magthwi’s spire as well.

Each one was wildly different from the next, but they were all the same size and emitted the same… energy. It’s difficult to describe, but I’ll struggle through it until I have it right. Somehow it was clear that they were the exact same size. Identical weight down to the last gram. What one could sense out of them wasn’t a sound, but it made the hair of the arm stand and dance, and there was no variation in that dance.

The first one I examined closely was crimson and black, coated in spider web patterns. The top had tubes leading down into it, like a heart removed from the chest. Each tube was a different size, and there purposes were again implied in the base of my mind, like a plant blooming a mere second after it sprouts.

I just knew that each tube was for a different-sized person: one for infants, one for young children, and one for adults. Eager as I was to stare down one of those tubes and see what was at the center, I couldn’t get that high without climbing onto it. Something told me not to touch it. This machine would awaken from its slumber and swallow me up the moment I did. This implied reaction did not feel malicious or aggressive. Almost harried… as if it was overworked and couldn’t believe it never noticed the error of Begumisa before.

There were hundreds of them, but most were mounted on the walls far above me, so I had to limit my examination to the sixteen that ringed the floor. Each one’s style was unique: a glass orb filled with shifting sands, a fireplace with pink crystal flames, a matte black die with white pips, and all the other ones I’ll never forget.

Touching them with my bare hands was out of the question, but I had my hound stick with me. Its false teeth are just precise enough to hit buttons. Only one of the machines cooperated with my probing tool, spitting out its purpose and instructions on a piece of brown paper as if it was one of the first printing presses. In fact, they’re called crown presses.

The needle breeding that birthed the queens was the effort of brilliant scientific minds. The crown presses were built by the queens themselves and put to the same task. Royal coffee has been penned in across the generations, kept from nature’s whims, by these machines. A person can go in and come out as anything their queen desires: royal, common, alive, dead… A thousand other permutations I would never want to understand.

That raised the question of why on Earth you had so many of them, Queen Nkoro. I was reminded of some of the things I saw on one of your bikes. Pieces of other queendoms. Where did you get those pieces? Why were they free to take?

It all came together: the end of the tragedy that is the human species. The rewrite, the insertion of the queens, was never anything more than a temporary reprieve, though it did give us the threat called absconding. Queenless or not, Varroa the Destructor has been moving across the globe for generations. Dissolving us. Having a queen allows you to shorten your sight, see only her world. They were a balm for this mighty sickness. None of the partial deaths mattered as long as our queen, the true queen, stood tall.

You knew this, and scavenged what remained of the others. All those automated vehicles you used to send to Colduvai were just a fraction of your mindless forces. The others were flying and salvaging drones that swooped in like buzzards. They brought you footage and data that built Laetoli’s escapism. More concretely, they brought you the crown press from each one.

There are too many things you could do with them to even guess at your intentions. Each one is another piece of a tapestry showing you every edit you can make in a human being, no doubt with recordings of the results in all dimensions, at all levels of magnification, and across the spectrum of light.

I suppose the most innocent is that you were just collecting them. A gloat. Some things to laugh at and remind yourself of your success. The other queens couldn’t handle it, but you could… until you couldn’t.”

Begumisa ended her account. Field and Barolong were still by her side; they hadn’t backed away even one step. The expeditionary force was awake, staring silently, most of them propped up by an elbow with their legs still in the sleeping bags. Their eyes were soft but focused, as if deciding the reality of what they saw and heard. The woman they knew as Mwadine was completely gone, replaced by the true expression and posture of Queen Nkoro on all the screens.

The ruler of the building had stopped bothering to regulate its climate. It was very warm now that the false autumn wind had ceased. Begumisa stepped out among them to test their reaction. None cowered, but they didn’t rise to her side either. They all knew what she’d seen now, but not what she’d done. The true end of the story was what a contaminated person would do when faced with a crown press, and with no intruding eyes to judge. Their assumptions had to be attacked and shredded… or confirmed. The queen was happy to be the one to prod the delicate situation.

And which press did you end up using? Chengdu? Madrid?” Nkoro asked with a smile. “I know it wasn’t Venice; that one would’ve killed you.”

None,” Begumisa claimed.

That is your final lie commander. They will not believe you. The idea that someone like you could see those temptations and not act is absurd. If you used them well there’s no limit to how convincingly you could disguise their influence. I’ll tell them how you did it; it’s how I would’ve done it if I’d been born common.

The first step is conversion into a queen, and from there the possibilities open up. Your intelligence increases dramatically and you understand the language of the press’s biomechanical code. You examine each one of them and learn the genetic profile of every queen that ever was. Then you take a rest in each one, gaining each queen’s strengths and leaving behind their weaknesses.

By the time you’ve used them all you’ve become the greatest human to ever live. You started with those sixteen, but after them you had the raw strength to jump up to the others. Your mind is like a god’s and your body is malleable to an astonishing degree. You realize that people will fear you if they see you in your full grandeur, so you use your new power to change your exterior back. You put that scar right back where it was, as if royal material was still something as forceful and violent as the swipe of a dog’s claws.

You even act as stupid as before, knowing you have the power to become the queen of any civilization you enter. That is why you destroyed my Loldu. You need to return successful, with your force in tow. That will let you get close. Then you can slay your dear Magthwi and take her place.”

The expeditionary force had risen. They stared at their commander, their eyes too weak to ever see what Nkoro claimed. They tried regardless. If they were their old selves they would’ve immediately attacked, whipped into a ravenous froth by the ambitious fantasy they just heard. It would’ve been sacrilege. Every footstep of Begumisa’s would have been desecration, but they had all failed Queen Magthwi by falling under Nkoro’s thrall. Many of them didn’t think they could ever face Colduvai again. They would return to the gorge only to have their bodies reflexively redirect them into the river.

Queens are nothing but leaders,” Begumisa said with a shake of her head. “I made a point of telling you I wasn’t one.”

You might not be one now,” Nkoro added, “but since you’ve been in my spire… thinking you over must be done at different orders of magnitude. If you’re telling the truth, which you aren’t, you’re the greatest fool the species has ever seen. If you’re lying, and you are simply disguised as the old Begumisa, then there are ways to figure that out. If the citizens of Loldu will pledge their fealty to me we can capture you, strap you down, and test your insides. The highest order of magnitude, the one giving you the most credit, is also the most dangerous possibility for the people surrounding you.”

The screens zoomed in slowly. Nkoro no longer spoke from simulated places around the globe. Every screen was just her face, ear to ear. They kept closing in until her mouth was gone and she was just a pair of eyes that felt like fifty kilogram weights sitting on your skull.

We’re all ears,” the commander challenged, stepping forward to bear the brunt of her gaze.

If you are the ultimate creature, born of every crown press I collected, your scheme would have so many layers that it would be incomprehensible to me, and raving gibberish to the common. You might have, in your impenetrable brilliance, made your disguise so complete that you effectively are the original Begumisa. Your changes are hibernating within you, including your memories of the alteration. Your metamorphosis will only trigger when you are moments from achieving whatever ultimate goal you have set for yourself.”

You’re right Queen Nkoro; that does sound like gibberish.” She looked around. The expeditionary force stood. They picked up anything lying about that could be conceivably used as a weapon, most of them handle bars pulled from the bikes.

That’s right,” the queen said. “Capture her. Hold her down. You have my word as your queen that I will not stop dissecting until the lies spurt gold out of her. We’ll leave this building and go back to Laetoli. Loldu would’ve starved in peace, you all never would’ve felt a single sting of pain, but I know we can do better now. I’d never used a foreign press on myself, but once I know what she’s done I can reverse engineer a better me. I will rise again! I will…” The central screen shattered and bled sparks. All of the other Nkoros in the room recoiled, practically stumbling. The force saw the spaces around her again, and they were nothing but foggy blue walls.

We don’t hate being common!” Field shouted at the queen. She was the one who had ripped the handle bars from a nearby hand and tossed them. “We’re fine with being stupid and disposable!”

We’re given missions and we finish them!” Barolong added with a throaty boom. He simulated the voice of a much older man, almost comically so, but the force was all too eager to agree. “The commander is right about at least one thing. We would never want to be leaders. It’s too much responsibility. It’s her job to keep us alive… and we’re a handful!” The others shouted their agreement. Two more weapons spun through the air and smashed screens. Genomon emerged from the crowd, looking ashamed that he’d ever been assimilated into the peaceful populace of Loldu.

You care only for yourself,” he accused the queen. “If Begumisa is what you say she is… what are peons like us supposed to do about it? You’re the only villain within reach!” Another roar. Begumisa choked the handle of her hound stick. Her rage was in full bloom now, triggered by the sight of fear in Nkoro’s eyes. The woman didn’t even have the dignity to die like a queen. She knew she didn’t have her people behind her, to mourn and immortalize what she’d done. Loldu was always meant to be a graveyard, and she seemed to, at that moment, realize the error of her ways.

The screens went dark and the expeditionary force cheered. The celebration died quickly though, as many of them only now realized the emaciated states of their bodies. Begumisa saw them counting ribs and rubbing their protruding hipbones. Field and Barolong rushed back up the stairs and came down with some food labeled Varroa. The others were apprehensive, so Begumisa decided to test the waters. She needed them to follow orders if she wanted to escape that damn hole in the ground.

We don’t have time to be squeamish. I order all of you to eat. If any of you perishes because of a word scrawled on some packaging Queen Magthwi will hear the shame of it from me.” They were silent.

You heard her,” Genomon said. “We’re all traitors, but if we’re ever going to be anything else we have to get out of here.” He snatched a snack bar from Barolong’s arms, ripped it open, and bit into it without even checking the flavor. The others swarmed like piranha after that. The commander was thankful for Genomon, as there were no suspicions around him. Every order laundered through the man would be followed. She pulled him aside while the others feasted and wept over the taste of reality.

Thank you,” she said. They both knew his help was more friendship than loyalty.

Are you?” he asked plainly, his meaning clear.

No. I never laid a finger on those crown presses… but if her theory is true… how would I even know?”

If you think you’re telling the truth that’s good enough for me. Let’s find a way out of here.”

We’ve got business first. Nkoro neglected both her queendoms. I don’t believe she suffers for others, even in platitudinous thought. She must be taught that there are consequences. We will be as a potted flower, shedding its petals in recognition of its hardship and growing thorns instead.”

But where is she?”

Try as she did, she couldn’t actually turn this gymnasium into a city Genomon. There are only so many places for her to hide.” As it turned out, there were nearly a thousand places for Nkoro to hide within the facility. The machinery, infused in places with her DNA, moved out of the way for her, like the Earth politely digging a tunnel for a mole. The force split up into several teams, never less than five individuals, and searched the various floors, regularly hearing the shifting and crawling as Nkoro evaded them.

The woman fought viciously, but only with the claws of her technology. One team opened a door and was inundated with an entire swimming pool of water that was electrically charged. Luckily the current generated was not sufficient to cause significant harm. When the pool area was finally infiltrated they found the scraps of Nkoro’s residency at its deep end: food wrappers, stripped bits of wire, and various tools they did not know the purpose of.

There were a few half-finished gadgets, and their best guess was that she was busy converting one of the bikes into an actual vehicle. She had stripped one of the engines that had gotten the gym out to the middle of nowhere in the first place, so her new creation would’ve flown her out of the crater after she’d soaked up the last adoring breaths of Loldu.

Her next trap was a room full of rock climbing walls. The chamber waited until Begumisa, Genomon, Field, Barolong, and three others were in the midst of it before moving. The walls broke up into pieces, closing in. Worse still, the climbing rigs descended from the ceiling and tried to ensnare them like boa constrictors.

It was clear she didn’t think her plans through, as the rigging gave them something to climb in order to escape the crushing walls. Even at their tightest the ropes couldn’t ensnare their limbs for long. These tactics were now the equivalent of a despot out of missiles, flinging rocks and twigs at their pursuers.

The various parts of the force converged on the top floor outside a locked unlabeled door. Numerous mechanical sounds came from within, like a cuckoo clock trying to assemble itself. Commander Begumisa saw that many of her people had their hands on their old swords, having chipped them out of the freezers in the lowest level. With a silent gesture she ordered them to be sheathed. Her knuckles rapped on the door thrice.

We know you’re in there Nkoro,” she said softly. There was no answer at first, but the mechanical sounds came to a grinding halt.

Of course I’m in here; this building belongs to me.” The nurturing confidence was gone from her voice, bringing back Mwadine. “You’re trespassing.”

You should come out under your own power,” Begumisa advised. “It’s the only power you have left. If you don’t we’ll break this door down and drag you out. You will be taken into our custody and face judgment… from the only peer you have left.”

I won’t be made to kneel before Magthwi!” she spat from what was likely a maintenance closet.

I guarantee she will be kinder to you than you were to us!” Genomon boomed. Many of the others agreed.

I have no fear as to what will be made of me,” she answered, “but I will not submit myself to another queen’s authority. I have no people, but I have my dignity.”

You have a dark closet,” Begumisa reminded calmly. “There’s no reason to keep playing games.” She knocked on the door again, somehow both less and more aggressively.

You mock me Begumisa. From you it is almost acceptable, now that I know what you are. Even your power doesn’t matter. I wasn’t running through these walls like a rat; I was collecting supplies. This room is a safe now, plated on all sides. Nothing you do can penetrate it. It weighs over two tons. Be on your way. You’ve outstayed your welcome.”

Well that’s short-sighted,” Field snorted. Others behind her were already acting on her reasoning. They stabbed the walls beside the door, looking for the places where the plating began. They barely had the energy to work, but there wasn’t a single complaint when it came to giving their generous host what she deserved. After an hour of digging and hacking, ignoring all of the queen’s protests, they had successfully isolated the room from everything surrounding it: cutting all the wires and severing all the tubes.

This place worked so hard to get you back,” Begumisa told the crack in the door when the drywall was finished crumbling. “And now it has you safe and sound.” Genomon handed over the commander’s sword. With a powerful slice she removed the knob. With an even mightier thrust she jammed the weapon in the opening and left it there.

You can’t leave me like this,” Mwadine whimpered. “I can’t get out.” By the time she said it they were already gone. The expeditionary force was on the roof, having followed the path of Field and Barolong, basking in the patchy glow of the clouds and sun. The rigging from the rock climbing room, once ripped from its foundations, made excellent tools for ascending the side of the ground collapse. They touched grass. Their hands moved to the braided trail the comber had left, amazed to feel how tight it remained. How long ago was it that the building dropped on them from the sky? It felt like an age. The brilliance of Colduvai was still there though. This was the end of Magthwi’s leash, and now, with the natural light sloppily kissing their skin, they felt like they’d never been in any danger at all.

Abscond

We’re using the rare finishing salts,” the chef of the spire whispered to one of his servers.

Which ones?”

All of them. Get the pink one from the Himalayas, the black one from Hawaii, and the one with truffles. We won’t need them in storage anymore.” He stood next to the last banquet he would ever make, in the spire’s highest dancing room: a grand hall with bowed columns and a window in the shape and size of an acacia. Its leaves were stained glass, but its clear trunk normally allowed an excellent view of the city. Today however, that layer of the spire had rotated, and it now looked out upon the river.

The servants were all nervous; they knew, at that very moment, that there was a riot in the lobby. The people had gone mad from a disease, and the spire had failed to produce a cure. Worse still, the servers, cooks, guards, and cleaners knew their family members were down there, making criminal fools of themselves. That or they were already gone, having faded into the grasslands like vagabond spirits.

Their tears were dammed by Queen Magthwi’s composure. She stood under the glass tree, enough of its leaves projecting from the window that they cast multicolored shadows across her skin. She wore her traditional dress: golden hexagons across her body with an orange headband directing her striking hair. Her crop shone in the light like a horse rearing onto its hind legs and declaring itself lord of the pastures.

Guards knelt before her, creating a straight path with their bodies. Everything, from the intimate number of attendants, by royal standards anyway, to the gorgeous spread, was as it had been before. Queen Magthwi had worn the same dress, stood in the same place, and performed the ritual that meant Colduvai was one step closer to its next queen. From Polykeng’s first birthday until Wohki’s most recent. Magthwi was always under the brilliant tree, gifts upon her head, hidden amongst her hair and the twinkling lights.

This was the first time they’d skipped a few years, but age was more of an approximation when it came to the royal line. Mossawetu’s birthday was not for months yet, but Magthwi said her growth spurt necessitated the rite of passage.

The transformation really was quite dramatic. The last time the chef had seen her, for a family dinner just three weeks prior, she still had arms and legs as thin as broomsticks. Her walk was still a shuffle, her run still a patter like a fat frog hopping along. Her eyes were still soft sparkling globes of white.

The girl who stood with her sisters near the feast table was much more mature. She stood as tall as her sister Flavakinji, and her face had settled into the cheeks, chin, and jaw she would have for her entire adult life. She looked marvelous in her silver and yellow dress, like a canary emerging triumphantly from a dusty silver mine.

Magthwi explained her bodily progress as something uncommon, but not unheard of for a promising princess. She so desired to care for her people that the royal coffee in her blood couldn’t stand idly by and let them take care of her. She subconsciously recognized it as the perversion of the natural order, so it sought to correct that with bursts of sex and growth hormones. Her word was more than enough, but the evidence was before him. Freed as it was from puffy baby fat, it was still Mossawetu’s face. As with the other princesses, the sight of it triggered all the finest memories he had of her, no matter how personal or distant. To tuck them in was to see them waving from a hovering platform.

All of the girls were lined up by their age, but the previous clear difference in their heights was now marred by her unexpected development. She even had to switch places with Jivahti to even it out. Each of them wore a silver circlet with a number of jeweled beads on it matching their age. Mossawetu touched hers, only for her hand to shoot back down when the servant that had helped dress her gritted her teeth.

I know you’re not her,” Flavakinji whispered. Magthwi was in the middle of a speech, talking about the roots of Colduvai and each of the deep pools of philosophy the city drank from. She would go on for minutes more, and the middle child knew this would be one of her last chances to strike. None of the commoners could see it, but the queen’s heart was turning to snow, readying itself for the breeze that would whip it away.

I was told I didn’t have to hide it from you,” Mossawetu said after a pained swallow. It was the princess’s face, but not her voice. “Just the…”

Commoners,” Flavakinji finished.

It’s strange to say it,” the pretending girl admitted, hoping honesty could melt her new sister’s harsh tone. “I’ve always been one. I feel like I’m in a dream, especially after that machine.”

What happened to my Mossy?” Flavakinji asked, rage bubbling over. Her knuckles popped. The imitator was about to attempt an answer, but Amandili intervened.

The queen has removed her from the family.” She was only second eldest, but her voice was just as steely as Magthwi’s. Even with the queendom crumbling around them she knew it was part of the incredible structure of both knowledge and decorum that they could not be physically destroyed. “Her decisions are perfect. Whether she has gone to a common house or perished, she is not our sister anymore.” Wohki sniffled, but didn’t look at the others. Polykeng’s face looked frozen out of fear rather than stoicism.

My real name is Magthio,” the impostor told them.

No, your name is Mossawetu,” Amandili corrected her. “When we’re being affectionate we’ll call you Mossy, but you mustn’t let the servants call you that. The crown press gave you a new face and no doubt modified you to be royal, but you will need to act like it for the changes to stick.”

I never asked for this,” Magthio whimpered. Her breathing became shallow; Magthwi kept looking at her while she spoke, as if she was the only other person in the world. It was like a god telling her to walk forward and be born, but she was too afraid of all the little sensations of life. It seemed like a cacophony to her, with each beat of a royal heart generating a force that could crush her spirit.

Mother only answers the questions you don’t ask; then she calls it wisdom,” Flavakinji seethed. “What does it matter that our sister was killed by Varroa? The spire still stands, and there’s beautiful food we need to eat and savor, or the chef might die by suicide.”

That’s enough Kinji,” Amandili said flatly. “Don’t make a selfish disturbance at Mossy’s party, of all places.” They quieted after that; Magthwi’s speech drew to a close.

Come forth Mossawetu, princess of Colduvai, and burden your crown. Feel every hand in the gorge pat your head and offer their confidence.” That was Magthio’s cue, so she stepped out of line and walked between the kneeling guards. The servant assigned to help her walked outside the lane, trying to show her the exact pace to maintain.

A member of the Peace Authority, out of uniform, silently approached Magthwi and whispered in her ear; she didn’t so much as tilt her head. He told her that Mister Koulsy was dead, the contaminated florist was deceased in the custody of Zinjan, and that the mob had burst through the authority.

How long until they arrive at this level?” she asked. It wasn’t a whisper, but it was so soft that only the soldier could hear.

It’s impossible to say my queen. They’re raiding the stores for food reserves. Information is spotty, but they seem to have calmed down. They aren’t even taking any of the food. We suspect Varroa has convinced them it is toxic as well.”

The next step is us. They will take their anger out on the queen that failed them. In this I will serve a final purpose: extinguishing their fury. They will be able to ask what have I done? instead of where will I go? When they have destroyed me, their center, their disease will no longer have a focal point. The fires of Varroa will fade, and Amandili will take my place.” She had mostly forgotten the presence of the man next to her, but still avoided any mention of what would happen after that. Loyal and clever Amandili would take her mother’s lifeless body and feed it to the crown press the same way she had fed it Mossawetu.

Her information wouldn’t be used as bluntly, to simply reskin another person. Her code would mingle with that of all the queens of Colduvai, and she would be the history that Zinjan so often spoke of lovingly.

I’m sorry, but there’s another reason it’s difficult to tell when they’ll arrive,” the soldier added. He loaded his words carefully, as if they were cannonballs and his throat a dry paper cannon. “They may not come here at all.”

What?”

Floors five and six are completely unguarded, but none have come through, even out of curiosity. The lobby is emptying. We have only three scouts left outside the spire, and they report that people are heading for the river.”

Why would they do that?”

Walking the grove would be suicide,” he explained. “It’s still highly toxic from the new cloud. The river is the only way out of the gorge.”

The fools.” A tear shimmered in her eye. “A usurping tantrum is their only hope.”

What should I do Queen Magthwi?”

Nothing. We will do our part. We have our own hope. Someone will come up here. Their motives will be largely irrelevant. If they kill me Colduvai will live. If they beg forgiveness Colduvai will live. All we have to do is listen at the door… and give them what they want.”

The soldier stepped back as Magthio reached her new mother. She never really met her old one, but she’d always had her as a picture and a painting. Her new royal eyes helped her fight back the tears as she realized… Her old face was gone. Off in the land of representation, kissing her mother’s theoretical cheek. The old Magthio could only be brought back with the brush, and she wondered if her father and their home were the same way.

I present to you an invigorating responsibility,” the queen declared. She reached behind her head and untied the cloth band over her ears. Pulling it away revealed the crown of Colduvai: an amber circlet so complex and alive that it was an ecosystem unto itself.

It had the same sorts of beads as the ones atop the princesses’ heads, but they varied wildly in size, some as large as quail eggs and others as small as specks of dust. Most of them moved, traveling along the metal wires of the crown like planets that hadn’t decided on their final orbits. Some of the smaller ones even revolved around the larger beads rather than Magthwi’s scalp.

Like the crown press, the crown itself was crafted by the royal line. Magthwi didn’t need to look upon it or even do anything more complex than tap it to have it obey her orders. With the touch of one finger a single red bead popped out of its school and clung to her hand. The false Mossawetu knelt. She felt only the tiniest pressure, like a fly landing on the back of a much larger fly resting upon her skin. The bead attached, marked her as a year older, and then lost much of its luster.

A princess had only a circlet, only jewelry. It would not become the nearly-living thing until she was truly crowned. Then all the beads would move once more, alive in a new shape to honor the new queen. Normally that single bead would’ve been the end of the ceremony, but Magthio had some catching up to do, so her new mother transferred a few more. The whole thing ended with applause, and then the feast.

The queen ordered everyone to stay so the happiness of Colduvai could burn a little while longer. Eventually the servants would have to leave her sight to get more supplies. Magthwi feared that even one moment where she was not in their peripheral vision would spell their doom, but she wouldn’t keep them. She would not be one of those queens that held their people like toys, brushing their hair with their starved and mummified heads in her lap.

The silence of the spire was blissful. Once again nature demonstrated its wisdom. In order to generate such silence, such room to think without time intruding, Zinjan had to put a team of twenty great minds on it. It took them years to produce the bubble-rooms utilized in the laboratories. Varroa the Destructor had solved the problem organically by eliminating the only true generators of noise: the minds themselves.

All it took was for everyone to walk out,” he marveled in a whisper. “I’m so very stupid.”

Stupid is going to the queen,” Huzilwa said, walking alongside him through the empty halls. Curtains hung around them limply where they would usually be alive with an artificial wind. She wore simple blue clothes really meant to be her base layer. When Zinjan had summoned her, an hour before the release of the new cloud, she thought she might have to speak to royalty again, so she had piled on necklaces, bracelets, and other jewelry. As time passed, as he explained to her the flow of Colduvai’s weakening current, she had removed them piece by piece. Now here he was, dragging her, practically naked, to Magthwi’s eyes. “Stupid is bringing her with you.”

She nodded toward Dazelbon, but it was the creature in the machine’s arms that she referred to. Keikogile’s body was the strangest one the gorge had ever known, even across the history of evolution, and Zinjan could not bear to leave it to be trampled in the lobby. In truth he didn’t have any immediate plans for her, as there was no reason to go back to his labs. The new cloud was in the sky, and the wind would take it before too long. The new knife was in the wounds and the dirt, ready to be found. The new mind was with him, ready to wander until the sun exploded and took away the ground.

I know it’s petty,” he told Huzilwa, reaching out and taking her hand, “but I want to know Magthwi’s reaction to her. I want to see all the final emotions on her face; it’ll tell me how stable the idea of the queendom was.”

And what are you planning on doing with that information?”

Nothing, that’s why it’s petty. I’m as done as everyone else, but making the new tools has put me at peace with it.” He looked to her. They were together now, but he knew it was mostly out of comfort and convenience. She sensed his strangeness, but was mature enough not to turn down the only company that would be available to her. Additionally, crucially, she was not disgusted by her daughter Dazelbon. He still did not understand what made this woman so existentially calm, but he was overjoyed that he had successfully translated the quality for an artificial brain.

I won’t stay more than another hour,” she told him. “I like the queen, but I can only offer so many apologies and condolences before I start to feel the pointlessness of such things. The river is calling to everyone the way it has always called to me.”

I understand. We should easily be done before then. We will happily follow.” He rubbed Dazelbon’s shoulder. She acknowledged him by turning her head, but nothing more. He stroked her cheekbone.

Patha!” The florist made the horrible sound by hacking up a golden glob. Zinjan only barely avoided it striking his arm by stumbling backward. Her body twitched and her arms wrapped around Dazelbon’s neck vertebrae as if the automaton had just saved her from drowning. Gently Keikogile was set down, her legs holding her up even though her knees buckled inward. Her arms splayed out to the side, fingers curled like claws, ready to pounce on anything that got in her way.

Her irises were completely yellow, less like jaundice and more like Dazelbon’s ground-mustard bones. With her heart pumping again, blood dripped from her drenched and shredded clothes once more. Her expression suggested the living dead just as much as her body, but there were still words inside her.

You’re alive,” Zinjan said, recovering his composure. Huzilwa on the other hand was much more disturbed. She walked away, leaving Zinjan to his studies. After their time together he understood the implication of her one backward glance: the hour clock was still running and she would meet him by the queen’s side.

I’m alive,” Keikogile parroted. She touched the inside of her cheek, startled to find it moist with saliva. One of her pupils dilated as wide as a manhole. “Where is…” She looked up. “There. I’m still in the stem. I have to go up.”

That’s where we’re headed now,” the head of no authority told her. “You can follow us if you’d like, but we’ll have to pass the queen.”

I passed her a long time ago,” the florist said. “Let’s go.” Death was not something Zinjan feared now that Dazelbon walked, so he didn’t hesitate to let Keikogile plod along behind him. Royal contamination now would be the same as any other infection.

I know what has happened to you, by the way,” he said on the next set of jade stairs. “I had a look in your ear when I thought you were dead. Would you like to know?”

No.” They didn’t speak after that, not until they reached the massive doors of the birthday hall. One was slightly ajar, telling them they didn’t need to knock. Zinjan wasn’t sure what he expected to find, not exactly, but he still pushed on the door cautiously. His entrance would’ve been even slower if Keikogile hadn’t bumped his shoulder and squeezed past. Dazelbon was second. He was happy to be last, given that he was nothing but a parasite on his creation’s greatness from that point forward.

The chamber was nearly silent, the sun shining through the leaves of the glass tree beautifully. Eight people were present, talking to each other in small groups as if they were waiting for the queen to arrive. The only issue with that theory was the queen’s presence. She bathed in the tree’s radiant shade, conversing with Huzilwa. Magthwi wore the crown of Colduvai; to his knowledge it had never been worn outside of ceremony.

The others were the six princesses, gathered around a long table covered in platters and blooming garnishes. Only scraps remained, but the food had been eaten away in a pattern that maintained its artistic arrangement. They were gorgeous scraps, symmetrical no matter how few were left. His eyes caught on Mossawetu, who looked much older than he remembered. Perhaps Magthwi had meddled, trying to make her children immune to Varroa the Destructor. It was an interesting effort, but anything she tried would be a fundamental miscalculation compared to the new tools.

They fell into a hush when they noticed the arrival of Keikogile. The florist, thanks in absolutely no part to her transformation, was oblivious to the stares. She staggered right up to Magthwi, enough of a sense of humor left in her to flail in something that resembled a hybrid of curtsy and bow.

Where are the stairs?” she asked the owner of the home.

My child,” Magthwi addressed pityingly, “you look so ill. I’m sorry that this happened to you. I spent too much time thinking you had something to do with the absconding, yet you are the first one to come back to me.” She stepped forward boldly and embraced Keikogile, who took it stiffly, only wheezing a little.

I’m not here for you. I want the flower, which is at the top, so I need the stairs.”

There is no flower little Keiko. It’s just an illusion from too much coffee. Your body seeks a queendom while your mind lacks the ambition. It has given you an impossible goal so you don’t tear yourself apart.”

Then if you would point me in the direction of the impossible…”

There are stairs everywhere,” Amandili called out from the table. “The only set that continuously goes up is stair fourteen. Head through that door there and keep going until you see that number on a door.” Keikogile grinned, but offered no thanks. She walked past the princesses as they cringed, leaving wet glistening footprints. Flavakinji nearly regurgitated her last bite at the sight of the florist, realizing that if she had succeeded those years ago in dumping an entire cup of coffee on Begumisa she might’ve wound up looking and acting like that.

She can’t do any harm, can she?” Jivahti asked her mother.

No. There’s nothing left for her to contaminate.” She turned to Huzilwa and took the woman’s hands in hers. Magthwi was older, but only in years. Huzilwa had actual wrinkles and grayness. “You and Zinjan are the only pure ones left. Are you sure you won’t stay with me? I will never steer you wrong.”

You never have, my queen. My heart has always lived in the water, and I think it’s the only reason I am unaffected. There were a few others like me, but we all betrayed you from the start. We have wild souls.”

I understand. I’ve met at least one other of you. I regret sending her away now, over a simple scratch on her chin.” Magthwi’s eyes wandered as she thought about the expeditionary force for the first time in a long while. Their rescue had never been completed, and the rescue team had not returned. How foolish it was to send some of her best people out looking for them. It was practically an invitation to abscond, like throwing them into the sea and expecting them to wash right back up.

Zinjan tells me that Dazelbon could not exist without this city, and she will always carry its influence.” The man and his creation walked up to them at the mention of their names. He gently took Huzilwa’s hand. The queen addressed him. “I see now what you were doing. I don’t believe anyone has turned their belongings into artifacts before the fact of extinction. It’s clever, but defeatist. I could’ve never done anything like that. I believe in the gorge.”

I believe in it as well,” he answered, “but belief does not make humans immortal. The gorge has always been vital thanks to its seemingly innate ability to preserve us, from nutcracker man to its first queen to Dazelbon.”

You’re absconding as well?”

I’m no good to anyone anymore,” he said with a serene expression. “You made this all possible my queen. I will forget you when my synapses stop firing, but the new mind won’t.”

Go then,” Magthwi said. “It would be better if you weren’t here when the others show up. They might be tempted to follow you.” The couple bowed, but seemed all too eager to leave the spire. Huzilwa slowed near the table and asked all the princesses to take care of their mother, a request they did not reply to; they were not nurses.

The trio took one of the lesser-traveled back passages in order to avoid the lobby, with its stairs that had turned into dried waterfalls of blood. Huzilwa and Dazelbon both innately knew the direction of the river, so they walked. Zinjan was the only one to look back, and only to see if the peculiar florist visibly crawled the side of the spire like a spider.

Keikogile hadn’t emerged from within yet. She was on the correct set of stairs. Though she didn’t feel fatigued in the slightest her body still told her to crawl up them like a salamander, perhaps to conserve what little energy it had left. Close proximity to the flower sent waves of pleasure through her, each one dyeing the stairs above her a brighter color.

It was impossible for her to tell how much time passed in the ascent. Each section was identical, and none of them had windows to the outside world. She assumed she was as steady as the stairs, but her body changed the closer it came: her eyes bulged out of her skull, her mouth hung open, and her many wounds produced golden powder once more.

Finally she found a door. Her hands were no longer any good for anything other than gripping, so it took several attempts to open. When she succeeded a strong gust was her reward, blowing through her hair and pulling the loosest of it from her scalp. It whipped her clothes, which she interpreted as a warning to stay back. The exterior of the spire was off limits. Nothing was supposed to ride that wind but the petals when they fell.

Naturally she ignored the warning and pressed on. The city was underneath her, streets silent except for the chatter of birds and the paradoxical dainty clop of a few giraffes. Her neck told her where to look, bending upward and locking in place. It was so rigid that it made breathing difficult, but the discomfort was nothing compared to the sight above. The flower bloomed magnificently. A single petal covered the sky above her. Soft. Welcoming. A vehicle to another world perhaps. Her family had drifted to Colduvai in the first place, on waters they trusted to either protect them or harm them in a fascinating way.

The florist climbed anything her fingers would latch onto, including the face of Magthwi’s statue. The top of the spire eventually curved, narrowing to a single pole too small to notice from the roof of any other building, but just thick enough for Keikogile. She shimmied up it as the wind bent it back and forth. With one hand she reached for the luxurious petal, but she wasn’t close enough yet.

I made it,” she told her prize, shimmying further. A hand found air. No stem left. “Let me have a look at you!” Still it seemed she couldn’t quite reach. It was that damn doubting wind. She could push up a little bit more if the pole would just steady for a moment. It occurred to Keikogile that it was actually the night wind, but that the flower had turned the sky as bright as day. She so wanted to be like it, to be a creature that ignored the sun and moon in favor of the soil and water.

She reached. Joints popped that were never intended to do so. Her fingers stretched a little further, grazing the petal. It was real. She felt it. Love was considered real just for the feeling of it, and the flower was better than anything humans could craft. Keikogile howled with laughter. The sensation of petals growing over every inch of her, locking together and becoming like the scaly hide of a pollinating dragon. It cocooned her. It drowned her in ecstasy.

Royal material did its best to serve the ends of whatever organism hosted it, but always with the goal of leading the species. There were times where even the greatest minds couldn’t understand the decisions it influenced, but they always knew there was a reason. For Keikogile that reason was lost in a soup of a thousand variables that couldn’t be isolated from the rest, much like Varroa the Destructor in its maelstrom of interacting contaminants and toxins.

Dead, but still clung to the pole like a cicada husk, life bloomed from the florist. A golden stalk emerged from her open mouth. Four smaller ones joined in from the corners of her eyes. Her ears produced clusters of them as well. The largest emerged from a wound on her back, pushing persistently until it ripped her shirt off, though her dead grip kept it held against the pole.

The stalks burgeoned into shapes like umbrellas. The wind was much kinder to them, happily taking the powdery spores they issued from their gills and distributing them across the sky, coincidentally in the general direction of the absconding migrants.

The Science Authority would not have a difficult time interpreting Keikogile in that final rapturous state. The stalks were undoubtedly fungal, their golden fruiting bodies recognizable to even commoners as mushrooms of a sort. The life cycle of such organisms was well studied at that point: the fungus invades the brain of its host, alters their behavior, convinces them to seek the highest peak they can, and then orders them to latch on. That way the wind has a better chance of taking their progeny.

Without royal material the tallest peak was usually the longest blade of grass, as insects were the typical host. Keikogile and the coffee had given it real ambitions. The burl she drank from was an anomalous growth from an unhealthy tree: an attempt by its royal material to isolate its ailment in tumors that just happened to look like beautiful amber gemstones.

The drink distilled from it was alive with millions of microorganisms and their spores. They had claim to the glorious slime long before her. Never had it been faithful to her, instead serving the fungus from the beginning, all for that moment when its own idea of queendom took to the wind.

Keikogile was used up, and nothing went to waste. Her carcass would not last the season, as it would certainly be pulled down by the wind within a few days. She would blow like a tumbleweed across Africa, refusing to settle down in a nice hole and fossilize into a member of nutcracker man’s family.

There was no guard to tell her she couldn’t cross a line. Nothing to stop her from sticking her fingers in everything and swirling them around. Nothing to stop her from smelling the flowers.

From before the deployment of the new cloud Colduvai knew what would happen to its grove. There was at least some time to prepare for the sight of their luscious vibrant coffee trees shriveling, drying, and dying. Time to look away from the cherries as they dropped, bubbled, and popped.

The expeditionary soldiers were the only ones ever to be shocked by it. Their first warning was the paling and yellowing of the grass braid they followed on foot, but none imagined a sight like that would greet them.

To Commander Begumisa it was actually the second sign of something amiss. They’d been told of a rescue team that was supposed to haul them out of Nkoro’s pitfall, but they had never arrived. Magthwi would not lie to her people, so the team had certainly been dispatched. Begumisa had assumed that the team was somehow waylaid, be it by natural disaster or animal attack. If that had been the case there should’ve been some sign of them along the grass braid like damaged vehicle parts or abandoned supplies. They didn’t come across so much as a fire pit.

Even she did not expect the grove’s devastation. Upon reaching the edge of it they saw that the natural fencing was gone, reduced by both axes and the new cloud to nothing but splinters. The leaves were piles of gray-brown dust in messy caked layers. The grove was silent, and they watched buzzing bugs swerve away upon reaching its stagnant air.

The hound sticks came to life at its edge, yapping and growling in a way they didn’t even know was possible. Their eyes shone brighter than ever before. So the grove had been poisoned. At that point the new cloud had drifted away to the north, so there was only one thing they could think to blame.

It’s Varroa the Destructor,” Genomon whispered to his commander. “It got every queendom in the world, and then it got ours while we were gone.”

We can’t be sure until we investigate,” Begumisa said loudly, so all the others could hear and cease their mutterings. “Perhaps we have to be the expeditionary force a little longer, or we could be the rescue team now. Either way, we must go.” There was little argument, as the whole planet seemed like a desert to them now. They wanted Queen Magthwi to be alive, to shame them for taking so long and being so fickle. Without that condemnation they were just souls on the wind.

They knew better than to step anywhere that set off the hound sticks, so they first had to circle around the city and find a gap in the destruction. The path they’d taken with the grass-comber initially was not clean of the influence, so they walked nearly another hour until they reached the riverbank.

All of the vessels were gone from the docks, many of which hadn’t sailed in two generations. The mud was full of drag marks, some with square edges, suggesting that people set out on the water in any dressers, wardrobes, or standing cabinets that could float. Field filled her arms with abandoned toys and jewelry that were sinking into the riverbank, but didn’t see the point in carrying them into the city. Barolong helped her build a little shrine by the entrance to the docks, commemorating the people who might’ve been dead.

Things only got worse once they were among the buildings, as there wasn’t a single person to find. The silence weighed on them like dark clouds, and they kept expecting some sight to sting like the first raindrop: an arm waving from a window, a pet begging for scraps, or drums echoing from the markets.

We came back for this?” one of them grumbled as they picked up a stick of broken furniture and tossed it through an open window. The building’s only response was to spit out a tropical flying fox that flapped away to a more reasonable roost. Even the silence of its black wings upset them. The panicked wing beats and squawks of a parrot would’ve at least given Colduvai some life.

Here and there they found Delister’s animals, but they’d all grown complacent and sleepy. There were literal tons of uneaten food everywhere for them, and they too knew not to pass through the grove quite yet, so the city was a plush and overstocked enclosure for the time being. Stillest of all was a giraffe they found outside Keikogile’s shriveled flower shop. It had fed on the dead display, which was at the perfect height for it.

The end result was a standing statue with golden mushrooms emerging from its eyes, mouth, and ears. Golden root-like threads coated the lower halves of its legs and grew in webs across the ground. The hound sticks were very displeased with their first whiff of it, so the expeditionary force didn’t investigate closely.

Rage festered in them as they progressed toward the spire. At first it came with guilt; how dare they criticize the queen when they had defected to Nkoro? As time went on their anger flooded into the gaps and gave them something that felt like clarity. The queen of Laetoli, and later of Loldu, stood by and did nothing as her people suffered and died. They were but palliatives, consumed one by one. The expeditionary force heard the sound of the last pills rattling in a small bottle.

Queen Magthwi had done the same thing; that was the only conclusion most of them reached. Their shame, their struggle, meant nothing, as they’d simply moved laterally from one graveyard to another. If she remained alive it was most likely in the spire, surrounded by the last warm shreds of her populace.

If she’s up there lording over a toy version of the city…” Field whispered to Barolong.

I’d cut her up,” he finished, startled by his own graphic threat. His friend didn’t chastise him. Over time they’d all become less sensitive to queens in general, from the moment they were designated the problem children of the gorge.

She’s probably riding someone crawling around on all fours,” someone else suggested. They played with the grip of their sword: their knife that was in no way new. They crossed a few blade gardens like the one the florist had encountered, seeing it as the people laying down their arms as they went to their queen for comfort. They didn’t even want the possibility of harming Magthwi, so they’d plunged their claws into the ground and left them behind. None of them noticed the suspicious look the hound sticks gave all the handles and hilts.

If we’re all that’s left then this is our city,” Genomon told Begumisa. He was a little out of breath, as most of the younger soldiers behind him had picked up the pace. A glance behind revealed that many of them had drawn their weapons despite there being no threat in any direction.

You can have it,” Begumisa answered, simply stating a fact rather than being generous. To her the reason behind their anger was obvious. None of them liked that they had obliviously wandered into their suspicious commander’s situation. For so long they had feared her scar. That fear helped Nkoro sway them, especially as they spread rumors amongst themselves. How stupid did Begumisa think they were? Obviously she was scheming in Nkoro’s tower. Greedily soaking up any royal coffee lying around like a sponge. Unable to contain her instincts. Field, Barolong, Genomon, and the rest had become that as they barreled toward the spire. They were going to invade a queen’s space and take what they could, even feeling entitled to it. Even if it was royal. They hated seeing themselves as greedy scavengers, but all that hate just fed the muscles in their legs as they got closer.

The spire’s lobby only gave them brief pause. It was simply the contrast, as they’d never seen it with so much as a speck of dust. Men and women had made it their passion in life, their greatest achievements, to keep it presentable. Now new people had given it their life, but this time the commitment included their bodies as well.

The Peace Authority was mixed in with commoners of all stripes, sometimes in a pile ten bodies deep that suggested someone had used it to climb up to the next level. The twin elevator shafts were plugged with something like stone. Field thought they looked like nose plugs and said as much, implying that Queen Magthwi was holding her nose against the taint of common blood.

Their boots made an awful sound on the stairs, sticky as they were, like an army of cockroaches marching across an adhesive strip. None of them heard it over the boiling in their ears, made far more aggressive by the sight of Mister Koulsy’s body. That man had never mistreated any of them. He was the one they saw when they pictured someone with the grass braid wrapped around their arm, anchoring their expeditions to the gorge.

Begumisa had known him well. He had a habit of defending her, something most blatant when her scar was fresh. She would’ve preferred he stay silent, as Begumisa did not quite believe in Magthwi’s ability to completely separate herself from normal human emotion. The queen was close, but that was the nearest anyone could ever get. His support made Begumisa and Magthwi seem more adversarial, thus flaring the ember of resentment. The commander never said anything of course. Speaking at all usually made communication more difficult.

The force was roaring by the time it made it to the birthday hall. The building itself was still fully operational, and Magthwi had commanded it to direct all those who sought her. Its slight artificial breeze pushed them down the right hallways. Its lights brightened imperceptibly when they got closer. Artificial plants and hanging decorations tilted, turning themselves into arrows. Leading the stampede to those big cracked doors.

They flew open. The expeditionary force poured in. The light outside faded, giving the glass tree intense and somber shades of orange and purple to play with. Under that light a young girl knelt, her lap a pillow for the reclining queen. The girl, a strange matured image of Princess Mossawetu, looked up at their new guests. Magthwi’s eyes were fixed to the ceiling as if glued in her skull.

What has happened?” Begumisa asked from across the chamber, voice as loud as it could be without expressing aggression. Her words brought her right back to the role of commander, something calculated to keep her people from attacking. At least until the situation was clear.

May I answer?” the princess asked her mother, but the queen didn’t respond. The girl turned to Begumisa. “Colduvai has collapsed.”

Varroa the Destructor?”

Yes.”

Who are you?”

My name is Princess Mossawetu…” She bit her lip and stroked the hair in front of Magthwi’s ears with her thumbs. “…but I am Magthio.”

Everyone is gone?” Begumisa asked. “They’ve taken to the river?”

Many of them, yes.”

Where are the princesses?”

They’ve gone,” the girl admitted. “I think they followed the others.”

My daughters want to live,” Magthwi added. “They cannot get what they want from this dead city.” Magthio winced, holding back tears. This was her second time with a dying mother. The queen had saved her, but now it seemed there was a dark destiny in her first mother’s blood, even better at transferring than royal material.

We went through hell and back to return!” Field shouted at the queen. “This is… it’s… unacceptable! We fought for Colduvai, and you can’t fight for something that’s dead!” The others shouted their agreement. “If you’ve given up… then it is our city now!”

Queen Magthwi rose to her feet, emptied of splendor. She took a few steps, but was directionless. Eyes that only saw Colduvai at its most alive. People buzzing in and out of the grove with baskets full of bright and ripe cherries. Adoration for her children, fear for them as they navigated a climb of maturity that only one could complete. A life of cycles that couldn’t comprehend an end.

Commander Begumisa felt a sharp pain in her jaw, enough to force her to adjust it. She too understood the finality of the queen’s shuffling dance. Magthwi was a brown leaf in the breeze. She was mankind’s final failed experiment: the one that could never be learned from. Begumisa was still as confident as she could be that she never touched the crown presses at Laetoli, but she sensed the end just from the similarity of Colduvai to the open air beyond it.

This was an empty place, not free of life or change, but free of complexity. The walls were rocks. The people were gone, dying rather than taking shelter. Magthwi danced inside a petrified tree, humming a ghost’s song.

The city’s abandoned, so you’re not trespassing,” Magthwi told them softly. “The people have gone, and I am the nothing left behind.”

The Reverse Fable

Mankind has long used the fable to teach itself valuable lessons across generations. In such stories an animal takes the place of a person but retains all the same emotions and responsibilities. This is done to make the stories more appealing to children, but also has the effect of bleeding compassion into our idea of all things. We feel for the tortoise and the hare for making the same mistakes that we do. We could feel for every clod and pebble if we knew their struggles.

Honeybees are invaluable creatures. As pollinators they bring the Earth to its most gorgeous, with colorful flowers vying for their attention. Their honey feeds us and makes life all the sweeter. For a generation now, many of theirs, we have known of a great threat to their existence.

We call it colony collapse disorder. It is a disorder rather than a disease because we’ve never determined its exact cause. There are just so many things to study when it comes to lives smaller than our own, weaving between our heads, our plants, our wooden boxes, and all the little things we’ve pumped into the wind and water. Some have suggested specific pesticides. Climate change. Fungi. Viruses. Genetic abnormalities. Cellphone radiation?

A particularly convincing possibility was an ancient enemy of the bee: a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor. The ominous name alone could make one blame those little hemolymph vampires. Yet, in all likelihood, the answer is some confluence of these factors. Without a clear solution it becomes a fact of life, as long as life remains.

Colony collapse disorder sees a hive lose most of its adult bees, but not to death. They simply fly off, leaving their queen and young defenseless. Leaving behind plenty of food and honey. They simply can’t stand to stay in the wonderful homes they’ve made for themselves any longer. One must wonder what the queen thinks when her workers, as essential to her view of the world as food, shelter, and her own thrumming life force, vanish.

The movement of an entire colony is called absconding.

African bees are known for their relentless confidence in their own decisions. When they swarm they swarm powerfully. They are strong bees, so if the disorder were to ever threaten the last of them one would have reason to think the African insects would be the final golden bastion in the battle against the faceless, but not nameless, foe.

Their struggle is ours, as we rely on them so much. The least we can do is imagine ourselves with their problems. Selfish we have been, always putting animal faces to our problems and telling those stories to our children. They have their own issues before they even meet our domesticating destroying touch. Their struggles, inextricably tied to ours, necessitated the writing of the world’s first reverse fable.

THE END

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