The bees were uneasy. Another failed hunt, an empty-handed return to their hives. Something in their programming still let them feel something close to apprehension. Disappointment.
The Apiary was only a shadow of what it used to be.
The Beekeeper sprayed a fine mist of LAMS-34 into each hive as it reached capacity. It would be a lie both to say that she was surprised and that she wasn’t nonetheless disappointed.
This could only go on for so long.
Her breath hissed in her suit as she counted queens. Their movements slowed down with the spray, like hers did when they lost the sun and all she had were the fluorescent lights to keep her from shutting down.
She didn’t know how long it had been. Years and days and hours lost meaning when you’d been spinning on a different axis under a black sky.
She could check the logs again, if they hadn’t been corrupted by now. Read the last transmission, even though she could recite it from memory. Look at the timestamp.
Check the time.
“You’ll have to keep checking the time up there.”
“Isn’t that what the AI’s for?”
“Your suit will remind you of scheduled maintenance, but you’ll want to try and have similar waking hours to the ISS, if there’s any incoming transmissions or shipment shuttles.”
“Or kill orders, you mean?”
The Lieutenant looked unperturbed.
“Orders are orders. You do what you’re told up there.”
Warning. Hives in sector V and X require urgent maintenance. Population dormancy exceeding recommended limits.
“Ignore those sectors, please.” The Beekeeper muttered.
Muting notifications for sectors V and X. This is not recommended. Are you sure?
The wasps and blackjackets had been still for a long time. They could have been dead. Or as close to dead as any of them could get. The Beekeeper couldn’t be bothered to check. If anything, they deserved to languish in their hives, growing brittle as their code started to fail.
She tried not to think about how much of the silence was her fault. The wasps were only doing what they were told. What they were built to do.
“Will you raise good bees?”
The Lieutenant turned to her, holding out a tablet.
“It’s a mnemonic. For tracking queens, based on the LED in their abdomen.”
Dynasties were laid out in a repeating pattern of colours, white to yellow to red to green to blue, to cycle again and again as empires fell.
White queens had become blue queens, had become white again so many times that The Beekeeper had lost count of generations. The process of brood to bees never felt any different. There was always the same struggle for power, bloody ascension, and the slow deterioration that followed. The mnemonic had become a steady rhythm; Will You Raise Good Bees? Will You Raise Good Bees? Will You RaiseGoodBeesWillYouRaiseGoodBeesWillYou –
Hive C-18 is currently at capacity. Harvest required immediately.
She made her way through the rows of identical hives, towards the sector where she knew she’d find the moneybees.
Sure enough, as she lifted the lid and pulled out a frame, her eyes adjusted to the glitter of an assortment of precious metals, diamonds in hexagons.
The moneybees were as successful as always, having brought back nuggets of platinum, titanium, and iron from whatever asteroid they had just scoured. There would be no chartered pickup shuttle, of course, but repairs and maintenance often required the addition of more raw material. This sector was the only one still following its original directive.
She’d seen the clouds. Even from such a distance. She’d seen them blooming over the most densely populated regions, watched over the course of days as blue and green was swallowed up by grey. Felt herself seized by a fear so primal she forgot the bees and their castes and virgin queens.
There’d been no transmission immediately afterwards. Nothing she could pick up, which wasn’t too much of a surprise. Protocol didn’t mean anything when everybody was dead or dying.
The Lieutenant didn’t respond to her distress signals. Nobody did.
The Beekeeper had waited, like a good soldier. Three months.
It had taken another four months to introduce her alterations to the bees’ programming. To have them look for life, to search for vital signs instead of dollar amounts.
It would have been easier to use the wasps, or even the blackjacket drones, considering they were already optimized to find the living. But the possibility that they might attack, that they might override whatever failsafe she introduced, default to what was hardcoded into them, was too much to risk. That they would find and destroy whatever had survived certain annihilation.
Her scouts made the journey to Earth and back every two revolutions. Searched with radar and infrared, transmitted a constant SOS. Found nothing.
Her AI constantly suggested diagnostic tests in response to The Apiary’s fail rate. The Beekeeper ran them every time, knowing full well that nothing was wrong.
The biggest breakthrough she’d had with the bees was when one of them came back with a few algae cells.
She’d added them painstakingly to her hydroponic system, watched in horror as they didn’t take.
When the bees came back with more, she was even more careful. Changed the temperature. The cycling and intensity of the lights.
The Beekeeper watched her algae grow with all of the trepidation and pride of a new mother, the desperation of one whose children were all dying.
She loved her algae more than the bees. Watched the green soup for hours on end, knowing that it belonged more to the Earth than she did, that, in the end, it was more human than she was.
The Beekeeper wondered how many millennia it would take for another human to emerge from the soup, for another Earth to birth itself.
She wondered if there would be bees.
If, perhaps, they would be better when they raised themselves.
Qurat Dar is an engineering student at the University of Guelph and an emerging author. She has work forthcoming or currently in The Evansville Review, Augur Magazine, The Temz Review, Rag Queen Periodical, Yellow Taxi Press, Neologism Poetry, Cabinet of Heed, Awkward Mermaid Lit Mag, Anathema Magazine, and KROS Magazine. She was also recently a finalist in the 2018 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word (CFSW). Find her on Twitter: @DQur4t