Her Lonely Work
By Joel Tagert
Art by Jason White
Published Issue 093, September 2021
The Hive is doing its work and its workers are happy.
The three present hum together faintly as they turn on the paralyzer. The eyes of the human child in the bed flutter open as she wakes. This is an occasional side effect of the paralyzer, and while it is not desirable, it will not affect the subsequent procedures. He is likely to forget it by morning anyway. It does not occur to them to consider the utter terror he must be experiencing, though they will administer another sedative in a moment.
Fortunately the child has not worn a shirt to bed. This makes placing the torso mantle easy. As the probes pierce his flesh they simultaneously administer a healing agent; they will leave no scars, or minimal scars, tiny dots easily dismissed. A pneumatic syringe administers the sedative, and the boy’s eyes close again.
The humming is minutely varied. It is not speech, exactly; more like electronic signals rendered into sound. It is one of several methods of instantaneous communication, and not the primary one, which are the bioelectronic implants in their brains. They can feel each others’ nervous systems directly. In a pitch black room – which this nearly is – they know the positions of each others’ limbs with perfect accuracy.
More: they can hear their collective thoughts, and the thoughts of those on the ship, and on all the ships. It is a glorious chorus, a symphony playing on an operating room’s speakers. It tells them all they need to know, gives them purpose. They do not really even consider themselves a community, exactly, except in the way cells form a community. They are very nearly one organism.
They are almost done. The child’s genetic material has been very slightly modified. They are directing humanity’s evolution in subtle ways, ways that will benefit all involved (evolved) in the coming centuries. Humanity will join the Hive, and then they too can join the celestial chorus. The smallest worker, three feet high, removes the mantle. There is a sudden boom.
She wakes on the floor, thin limbs still twitching. Something has gone terribly wrong. There are shouts in the house. Instinctively, her skin turns the color of the carpet, a chameleon reflex that saves her life.
Gunfire cracks through the room. She sees that the other two workers are likewise on the floor around the child’s bed, bodies spasming. It is shocking that the intruders would fire weapons with one of their own young right there. Aren’t they concerned for his safety?
Black blood sprays across the wall. She does not think it is her own, but she isn’t sure. Her thinking is disordered. She scrambles toward the door. There are men in black body armor and buglike helmets blocking the way, but she moves faster than they can react – her nervous system operates much faster than theirs – and she leaps up one wall of the hallway, using all four limbs, then bounces directly to the other wall above their heads, presses off a helmet as the man turns, and then she is out the door.
Guns fire. She is already over the railing, leaping for the open front door, running between two startled men in white hazmat suits with instruments in their hands, and she is outside, in a flood of lights, but even though they have clearly made some preparations, the humans are slow, and in a second she is past the ringed vehicles and out into the city.
She flees in animal panic. Her mind is chaos, her senses overwhelming. She darts past headlights and blaring horns, hears screams and curses. She climbs a fence, and another, shimmies up a drainpipe and onto a rooftop. There are higher buildings nearby and she turns toward them, clambering balconies and wires.
When she is thirty or forty feet off the ground she pauses. It feels better up here, away from the crowds of humans. She knows she must act quickly, but she can’t think clearly. Over and over she finds parts of her mind missing. The Hive always acts with certainty: it possesses nearly endless knowledge, maps, technical details. But when she reaches for it, there’s just a gap. For the first time in her life, she is truly alone.
The humans used some weapon, she realizes. Something that interfered with or damaged her implants.
The air is full of powerful staccato sound: the noise from several helicopters, searchlights sweeping the rooftops. She doubts they will see her, but perhaps they have other means of detection, thermal scanners. They know she is there: they are looking for her. She needs to run, and trust the Hive would find her. But where to?
Her gaze sweeps out across the city. It is an old city, built on the hills facing an ancient harbor.
The sea! She can smell it from where she cowers. It is not so far; and now she hears the barking of dogs nearby, dogs that will not fail to find her alien scent. Time to run.
The chopping of the helicopter blades reflects her own mind, each thought cut in half and replaced with Hello? Are you there? Where are you? She knows that sometimes when individuals are cut off from the Hive, they simply curl up and die, rendered catatonic by simple solitude.
Three is the absolute minimum number of workers who would ever be sent on a mission, and only in such dangerous, covert missions as they had undertaken here. More normal are thousands upon thousands, packed close in their great living ships, or on the homeworlds, tens of billions. Then their collective Mind is like a golden ocean, surging and roaring and holding unfathomable depths. Now she is a drop removed from that sea; and a drop alone quickly evaporates.
Perhaps it is this image that draws her downward, ever downward, through the alleys and gutters, along archways and clothelines, through the old city. It is late, but not so late that tourists do not linger in the restaurants and bars on the tiled terraces, sipping anise liquor. She sees heads turn toward the circling helicopters, and toward the uniformed men rushing down the staircases struggling to keep their dogs in check. Oh, they have scented her; but she is close now, close to the wet salt odor.
Finally the long stone pier that enclosed the harbor lays before her. It is brightly lit here, with several wide expanses of gray brick terraces between her and the water. Boats with white and blue canopies crowd the small harbor. Perhaps she can steal one, but will she know how to work it? And won’t its theft be noticed?
She slips down from the shed she has been crouching on and stops, surprised. Three children look up from where they have been sitting in a moment of silence, or perhaps one or two had actually fallen asleep. They are olive-skinned, tousle-haired, barefoot, in dirty shorts and shirts. She is reminded of the boy in his bed; there is a symmetry here, with the three children regarding her, who are frozen in place as if by a paralyzing field. Then two of them shout and run off, up the nearby stairs.
The last one, a boy, looks at her a moment, then slowly extends a hand, offering her an oyster still in its shell. They must sell them here.
Her compound eyes do not have tear ducts, but still she feels a great surge of gratitude at this gesture. Though she does not really want it, she takes the oyster. The other children are shouting for the military officers, who are very near now, at the top of the stairs. The boy who has stayed sees what was happening, and solemnly points down the slanted side of the stone wharf. There, anchored to a rock, is a tiny dinghy: obviously what they use to obtain the oysters.
She doesn’t know how else to thank him, and she needs her hands, so she swallows the oyster. It is surprisingly good: they have sprinkled rock salt on it. Then she climbs down to the dinghy. When the ocean touches her feet, she realizes they are badly cut, as are her hands. The rope comes free with a tug, and she finds a single paddle on the one bench, which soon suffices to send her out into the water, a low bit of driftwood amid the larger boats.
They might have caught her then, but they do not. Soon she is past the mouth of the harbor and out in the open water. The tide is receding and pulls her further and further from shore, until the city vanishes behind the cliffs.
Only when the tiny vessel is well out to sea, does a silken movement beneath her legs make her nearly jump out of her seat. A cat! It must have been hiding under the boat’s single seat. It turns, looks at her inquisitively, and meows, likely hoping for an oyster.
She reaches out and strokes its fur. She and it are now the only living things in sight. She looks up at the stars overhead. Perhaps for the first time, she has a clear and entirely private thought: At least I’m not alone.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Check out Joel’s August Birdy install, The Purp, here.
Jason White is an artist living in the suburbs of Chicago. His favorite mediums are oil on canvas and pencil & ink drawings. When he was a kid he cried on the Bozo Show. His work varies from silly to serious and sometimes both. Check out more of his work on Instagram.
Check out Jason’s piece, Hollyweird Skeleton Crew, from last month here.