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art by Ron Sanders

Swarm, the Queen Commanded

K.A. Gillett writes fantasy adventures for middle grade readers, and science fiction and fantasy short stories for adults. She is a graduate of Odyssey and a winner in the 2008 Writers of the Future contest. Visit her at kagillet.com.

Taja's seven fingers worked quickly, efficiently. The tiny brushes at the end of each digit distributed yellow pollen from flower to flower. She worked her way up the branch, pollinating--as directed by the chief of the ag station--every fifth flower. The tree limb, cool under the touch of her real hand, swayed as she shifted her weight to reach the farthest apple blossoms, those closest to the sky.
Wide-based wooden ladders leaned against old, gnarled apple trunks as her team climbed into the trees beside hers. In most orchards, the trees were dwarf with the horizontal branches low so that even a pollinator as short as Taja had no need to stand on tiptoes. But in this orchard, which stretched for kilometers to the horizon, the government was trying to preserve the old varieties, and some trees had branches six times her height.
In the morning's quiet, Levela in the next tree began to hum. Baytl, his older brother, and then Taja joined in. Six more voices added depth and harmony. It was her team's way of greeting the day and making sure that everything was right. One missing voice and someone in the group would check to see if anything was wrong.
Here at the ag station in the far north, the season had just begun. Today they started pollinating the early blooming Gravenstein and would finish with the Northern Spys. Two months of labor from beginning to end. Two months at home, for the ag station was the place where she had been abandoned, the place where her body--and those of her team--had been transformed. They were the lucky children, the ones whose parents cared enough to travel north, away from the cities and the pollution, to leave their deformed children at a place where they could be enhanced.
She had spent her early years roaming through these orchards, learning everything there was to know about apples and the other crops she would be called on to pollinate. It was here she met the children who became the members of her team. And it was here that she had met Jothan.
"Taja," Baytl called, "is everything all right?"
"I'm fine," she replied, realizing that she had stopped humming. "Just thinking."
Levela laughed. "She's thinking about Jothan. He's handsome enough to stop any song in its tracks."
Taja's blush was lost behind the blossoms. But Levela spoke the truth. During the last ten months, while the team had traveled the pollination circuit, Jothan had become a man, in voice, in stature, and in maturity. He even had his own lab, or so he had told her last night when they met at dinner. And he said he had a surprise for her. Just her.
High in the tree, Taja glowed, wondering, excited. Usually surprises were unpleasant and weather-related: hail balls, fast approaching thunderstorms, or violent windstorms. She peered through the branches suspiciously, but the cumulus clouds promised a day of fair weather.
To avoid damaging the delicate pollen brushes, she retracted them into her fingers as her feet found the upper rungs of the ladder. She lowered herself carefully, using the trunk to keep herself stable, until she could safely grasp and climb down the ladder. Baytl had already placed a ladder against the next tree for her. As Taja scrambled up the rungs, the voices in the trees around her exploded into a new melody, a love song meant to taunt.
When Jothan grabbed Taja's real hand after dinner and pulled her away from her team, Baytl hummed a few bars of the love song the team had sung earlier in the orchard. Taja's face grew warm, and she ducked her head, allowing her bangs to cover the flush of pleasure.
She and Jothan walked, hand-in-hand, past a number of long, low cement-block buildings: some had greenhouses on the roofs or attached to the sides, some were dormitories, and others served as clinics where doctors and researchers worked on the perfection of the pollinators' extensions, like her own seven-fingered hand. Before the orchards began, an old and somewhat abandoned-looking building stood by itself off the road. Taja was somewhat curious about Jothan's choice. Why here when the modern laboratories were back by the dormitories?
He halted outside a door painted a startling red.
"Did you paint it?" she asked, a little shyly.
"Yes," he replied, "I had to get permission, but it wasn't too hard."
Taja touched the door. They had talked of this color many times when they envisioned what the front door of their parents' homes might look like. This was the color Taja imagined. She grinned as he pressed his hand against the security pad and the door slid open.
Inside, the room was small and rather noisy. Lab benches with black tops covered with an array of glassware and apparatus lined two walls, and two refrigerators and a deep freezer claimed most of a third. Three fresh, white lab coats hung on hooks screwed into a door, under a stenciled label reading, "Closet."
"This is where I do my research," Jothan said. "Nine to seven every day. Then I do a little of my own work."
He led her to the closet door and brushed one of the coats to the side, revealing a row of old-fashioned locks. Jothan dropped her hand to pull a ring of keys from his pocket.
"Top secret?" she joked.
As the last lock clicked, he said, "You're the first to see what I've been working on. It's our secret, until I figure out all the kinks. No one else is doing anything like this. At least, not that I know."
The door opened into another laboratory, even smaller than the first, which led to a green house filled with potted trees in bloom.
Taja breathed deeply and sighed. "The scent of apple blossoms never tires me."
Something flew past her nose. Without thinking she swatted the bug away and turned toward Jothan. "Are you breeding new varieties?" she asked, certain she had guessed the surprise. Maybe he had named one after her. A red one. The same color as the door.
Or, more likely, he had developed an entirely new fruit. For years they had argued about what would be the best fruit to eat, and they had compromised on a tart apple that grew in clusters like grapes, that you could pop in your mouth like a cherry, but had no seeds or core. Just crisp, juicy, solid flesh. Had he managed to do it? He'd be famous.
"No," he said, frowning, stooping to the floor to pick up the bug that she had swatted away. He set the bug in small glass dish next to a large box on one of the lab benches that lined the two walls between the first lab and the greenhouse. "Didn't even try."
He took her real hand again and said, "I did this for you. So we could be together. So you wouldn't have to leave the Station for ten months to pollinate, not unless you wanted to."
Not leave the station. Not leave Jothan. With growing excitement she said, "Tell me!"
"In a minute. There is one final step." He pulled a stool out from under one of the benches and motioned her to sit next to an old laptop. A picture of the two of them climbing trees when they were six was on the screen. She remembered the day well. He was trying out a new pair of legs, and they were only supposed to walk around the station. Jothan had insisted on climbing the tree. But they had climbed too high and both got stuck.
"Sorry," she said, pointing to the screen, " I was remembering how they got us down from the tree with the ladder truck."
He smiled and handed her a small black rectangle about the size of her pinky finger. "It's a microphone. I want you to say the words that flash onto the screen into the microphone. Don't laugh. No, you can't giggle either. Or ask questions. Not yet."
Taja cleared her throat. Be serious. Jothan needed her not to laugh. The first word flashed on the screen. "Afternoon," she said. "Apple. Aphid. Apprehend. As. After."
The words were grouped by letter, but not fully alphabetized. By the "G's" she needed a drink of water. He paused the parade of words and handed her a glass.
"I know it's a lot. Please be patient."
The words continued to flash. "Zig," she said wearily. "Zag. Zat's it." She sat tall. "What?"
"You're done. Now everything is complete. You'll be the first human ever to command bees."
"Bees," she said warily. "There are no bees. That's why I'm a pollinator. There are no bees anywhere."
He motioned her over to the box. "Come and look. See what I've done."
The box was made of wood, painted black. Jothan used a small key to open a lock on its side, and then he lifted the wood panel facing them, revealing a glass-fronted metal box with many horizontal shelves. As she leaned forward, he handed her a magnifying glass.
Taja gasped. Before her, tiny mechanical bugs--shaped like the bees she had seen in pictures, shaped like the bee emblems sewn on the pockets of the pollinators' shirts, shaped like the glass bees she had once seen in a natural history museum--were busily working on something.
"Oh my God!" she said peering through the glass at the top shelf. The tiny bees were fastening wings on another bee. "Oh my God."
"They're beebots. They make themselves. It's a bee factory, really."
"But what do they do? Can they fly?"
"Some can. But they've been waiting for you to direct them."
Taja picked up the dish holding the bug she had swatted away from her face. Using the magnifying glass, she examined it closely. It didn't look like a real bee. Not exactly. But it did fly. "Is that a stinger?" she asked about the point at the tail end of the bee.
"Yes. And the stingers work, too. The bees need to be able to protect their queen. Enough stings and one could die from the venom."
Swarm. Sting. Strike.
With growing apprehension, she said, "What did you mean by 'command them'?"
Jothan gestured at the metal box. "Some of the bees make other bees. That's all they do. Others will collect and redistribute pollen. But they need to be told what to do. They are voice activated and now they are programmed to listen to your voice. Only your voice. You'll direct where they go and what they do.
"What do you think?" he asked. "Isn't this incredible?"
Taja's mind was whirling. What would happen to the tens of thousands of pollinators if they were replaced by beebots? What would happen to all the armless children birthed with increasing frequency? What would they do if no one wanted them? If they didn't have an important role in society? Would the government still give them hands or arms? Would they be housed and fed and treasured like they were now?
"Taja," Jothan said impatiently, "I've been waiting for a month for this moment. Most of beebots have never flown. Send them into the greenhouse to pollinate the trees. Here, I'll teach you how."
They worked through the night. Taja learned to make the bees swarm, she learned to direct them to an area of trees in the greenhouse to collect pollen and then to another area to distribute the pollen. How efficiently, how effectively they worked.
With the rising sun came a fresh new round of blossoms. She breathed deeply, missing for a moment, the feel of bark, the sway of a limb under her feet, the breeze blowing through her hair. Her team would be waiting for her, wondering where she was, whether something had befallen her.
Or maybe they would be snickering, realizing that she had not returned to her bed last night. But they would be waiting. They would not go to the orchard without her.
Jothan looked exultant. "Let's tell the world!"
"But Jothan, what will the pollinators do if they are not needed?
He remained silent for a long while. Finally he said, "I did this for you, for us. So we could stay together and you wouldn't have to go away."
Taja hung her head. No one had ever loved her as much as Jothan. No one. Yet so much was at stake. The livelihoods of the pollinators. The fate of the deformed. The fate of babies such as herself. The members of her team.
Taja held Jothan's hand tightly. And gave the command.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Author Comments

My childhood home sits in an abandoned orchard surrounded by gnarled apple trees, delicious but wormy apples, and a gazillion yellow jackets. Although pollinators with stingers petrify me, honeybees are fascinating and their demise is especially alarming.

- K. A. Gillett
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