What’s that? That feeling in the room. An unexpected pressurized nervousness, boiling up out of the astral nowhere, getting everyone’s hackles up. Mine included.
It starts with Melisende. She sits up, rigged straight, looking apprehensively at her Swarm. It spreads to the Monster Bees closest to her, then ripples outward through the hundreds and hundreds of others. Piled on the floor, clinging up the wall, hanging off the ceiling, the whole Swarm turn and look at her.
I’m on my feet, ready to get between her and them. Something’s happened. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a fuse reaching its end.
The Monster Bees explode into activity. All of them, the whole lot, up in the air at once, all their wings beating a thousand times a second. It’s a hurricane of noise and pressure and motion, of droning beasts filled with poison. Thiss room used to feel cavernous, and now it feels dangerously confining.
And in the calm eye of it, I can just make out Melisende’s massive shape, pacing and stomping and screaming at them, her voice amplified overtop the cacophony. “Are you happy now? That’z it! It’z over!”
A hand on my shoulder snaps me out of bewilderment. There’s so much noise, he has to lean right up and yell into my ear. “What is it, Vaso?”
I shout back, “General Dragutin, sir! I think it’s happened.”
The storm ebbs upwards and outwards as the Bees stream out through lancets in the heights. “Wazn’t thiz the whole damn point of everything?” Melisende shouts after them. “She’z gone, your perfect autocrat, kaput! CollapZzsed into an abyZzs of her own anxZziety! You’re sZztuck with me, now! Where ever you go, where ever you are, it’z juzt you all and me!” There’s a quiet emptiness left behind when they’re gone. Like they took a weight of karma with them, out the windows.
Melisende looks at her hands. The black, jagged, horrible things that are her hands now. Then stares ’cross the room at us. Hard eyes, still with misplaced optimism lurking in them. I know the question she has for us. Always the same question.
The sound of Maws Holloway’s oily clockwork breaks the moment. A robot of towering height, with a torso mirrored glass, and a lion head constructed of turning gears. Wrapped up in linen clothe like so many of the Mummy Machines, hiding corrosion and defects they’re all seemingly embarrassed of, and unable to repair.
The General steps in front of the robot, assuring it everything’s all right, that everything’s under control. Maws simply strides overtop us and continues directly to Melisende. Crouching to one knee, it asks “Queen-Sybilla-Buzz. Our-sensors-recieved-an-audible-distress, and we’ve-observed-an-abnormal-amounts-of-activity-within-the-ranks-of-your-drones, both-here-on-planet-and-in-all-the-numerous-divisions-waiting-in-orbit. Is-there-something-we-should-be-concerned-about?”
“They’re just upzet, the big babiez. Genofeva haz been killed.”
The General perks up. “You’re certain?”
“I watched the whole affair. You’ll want to avoid that whole sZzwath of zpace for, like, a few million yearz or so… but in all the wayz that make a difference, yez, the bitch iz dead.”
“And the boy? Is he alive?”
“Dezpite the circumzZstancez,” she nods.
“All right. Then it’s time,” the General says to Maws, “With Genovefa gone, the remaining Monster Bees comes under Sybilla’s direct influence, at least for the time being. You and I, we need to coordinate; to awaken your war titans, to combine both armies into one, to move into Super Wizard territory tonight.”
Maws does not reply, and looks to Melisende.
The General’s brow furrows. “Oh for… are we going to do this every time she’s around?”
“Our-alliance-is-not-networked-through-you, General. You-are-only-a-delegate. When-her-status-is-available, priority-authority-delegation-will-always-go-through-our-authorized-guest-administrator, the-Queen-Sybilla-Buzz.”
“Ridiculous,” the General mutters. In what’s become a tired rite, he turns Melisende. “If you please?”
She looks at the General. Looks him up and down, head down to boots. It’s a look that challenges. A snake, coiled up, staring down a bigger, deadlier threat, and thinking ’bout striking out anyway. Too common a face I’ve seen lately. Caused by impatience and disillusionment. Her question, still unanswered. It’s time I placate the monster. I move beside her and place a hand on her arm. A gentle squeeze to get her attention, “Melisende, it’s time for your session.”
The provocation recedes. She nods to me, then waves dismissively at the other two. “Fine. Yez. Go ahead with… whatever it iz he wantz.”
“There, you see? Now, if all formalities have been observed, Maws and I have logistics to figure out before our forces cross the Rubicon nebula. Solider, when you’re done with this, come an find me; I’ve an assignment for you.” With that, the General follows the Mummy Machine out of the room. An assignment. Finally. Feels like I’ve been cooped up for years. I’m looking forward to anything more arduous than babysitting.
Speaking of which. I motion for Melisende take a seat while I fetch my medical equipment. Some of it still has an unfamiliar heft to them; still too new, or too hastily made. Nothing like my original tools, but tolerable enough for field work. And more than adequate for these charades.
When I get back to her, she’s already extended her arm, with her hand flexing open and closed and open again. “We’re gonna draw blood, just three samples, like always. And you’re gonna let me know if you feel any discomfort.” Feeling along the inside of her elbow, I find the overlapping carapace segments and lift. Once I’ve access, it’s a simple (if slow) veripuncture procedure to extract the vials of haemolymph.
“Thank you,” she says, once the last vial is stoppered.
“For before, with the others. For treating me like a person rather than a resource. You’re different from your General. He’s a lot more… focused than you.” I glare at her. “See? There you go again. He always know what he wants. But you, you go back and forth, between solider and social worker. It makes it hard to figure you what you’re supposed to be.”
“Seems you’ve been thinking a lot, lately.”
“Lately, I’ve been given a lot to think about.”
“Hmm.” Putting the vials away, I bring out a magnetic bottle. The contents give off a cobolt-coloured glow that quiets her immediately. She inspects it with child-like wonder as I explain, “This is blue plasma. It’s generated by the fluorescent antibodies of a sentient ocean, to purge itself of mithyalectrics. It’s stronger than what we’ve been using up ’til now, but we’re expecting it to have better results. We’ll start with small doses and monitor any change.”
I inject her and wait for the plasma to move through her system. I know it’s reached her brain when she whines. “It’s gonna sting like that for some minutes. The light given off by the plasma pinballs with your synapses. It’ll pass, but ’til it does, you’re gonna to want to keep you eyes closed.” She covers her eyes with her hands as I pack my equipment and leave. She grimaces, but she’s determined not to admit another sound.
When I’m out of the room and well from earshot, I vaporize the “blood samples” with fusion fire and search out General Dragutin.
I find him in his war-room, a make-shift planning space in a lecture hall. The center is taken up by a holographic map of the universe, with borders of the super-races’ territories marked in thick red lines. Dozens of feline-faced Mummy Machines are continuously updating the map, silently communicating through cables attached to their necks. They work like metronomes, with precise regular motions that translate to shimmering adjustments to supply lines, army positions, and enemy locations.
The General sees me and pulls me away from the map. “So, how is our patient?”
“I got her on a regular schedule of placebos. She’s comfortable in the routine. She doesn’t yet suspect nothing.”
“You don’t sound confident.”
“Part of her believes we can cure her. Part of her’s more cynical than that. You must’ve seen it. It’s dangerous to rely on someone so screwed up in the head.”
“Circumstances don’t allow us to change course. You heard Maws. This alliance hinges completely on her. We can’t accomplish out objectives otherwise. I need to trust you. To keep a soft touch with her. Make sure she holds out hope. For as long as this operation lasts.”
“Ain’t I coming with you? If you’re starting the offensive, I’ll want to be…”
His hand leaves my shoulder and he looks down on me. “This is not a matter of want, solider.”
“No, sir. Sorry, sir.”
“I’ve an assignment for you: you’ll take our queen bee out for walkabout. I can’t have Maws Holloway or his subordinates waiting for Sybilla’s go-ahead on every one of my orders. Nor can I risk her second-guessing my decisions during one of her flighty episodes.”
“Where’m I supposed to take her?”
“I don’t care. As long as it’s not near me or my command. Keep her busy. Keep her happy. Keep her away.” This wasn’t up for further discussion. He turned and went back to his map.
I walk back slowly, using the time to work past my frustration.
Melisende’s waiting for me when I return. I can see blue glow lingering around her eyes, which tells me she didn’t follow my instructions. Already, I’m not looking forward to another round of daycare. Melisende’s been a pain at the best of times - both of them have - never mind the grousing I’ll have to endure dragging her all over. Not even sure how I’ll convince her to be going anywhere.
And before I can bring up the subject, she says, “I want you to take me on a pilgrimage.”