Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

Bookmark and Share

About IGMS / Staff
Write to Us
Print this Story

Issue 41
Stories
The Two Kingdoms Woman
by James Beamon
The Time Mechanic
by Marie Vibbert
The Temptation of Father Francis
by Nick T. Chan and Jennifer Campbell-Hicks
The Fiddle Game
by Alex Shvartsman
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Vintage Fiction
Voice of the Martyrs
by Maurice Broaddus

The Temptation of Father Francis
    by Nick T. Chan and Jennifer Campbell-Hicks

The Temptation of Father Francis
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

Annie Oakley poked Francis in the shoulder. She kept poking him. He ignored her until she finally yelled into his earworm. "Wake up, you bone-lazy priest!" The image of a tiny woman, barely more than a girl, blinked into existence next to Francis' cot, the metal struts and handholds of the dirigible's plain cabin visible through her corseted dress. She held a rifle and wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat over her wavy brown hair.

Annie set her hands on her hips. "I ought to shoot you just to get you out of bed. Need you up. Wireless is playing up with the bees again."

"Your projector isn't working too well either. I don't like my women transparent."

His head throbbed from the cheap Korean sleep app he'd downloaded last night. The constant rumble and occasional bump of the dirigible in flight didn't help. At least the storm had cleared overnight and the sky outside the ship's portals was clear blue.

He looked over to the glass hive on the cabin's far side, tucked next to the control panel. The little black bots were quiescent in the refrigerated chamber. Good. At least Annie had them under control for the moment. He had grown sick of bees landing on his nose at three in the morning. Not that he slept anyway.

"We could take the hive back to Gwair-Sematech," he said groggily. "Have them take a look."

"Lawdy, have you gone soft-headed you God-botherer?"

"I don't even know what that means. Talk like a normal AI for once."

Annie scowled. "Apart from the fact they'd like to kill you, Gwair-Sematech is in San Francisco, and we're about a thousand miles from there. What did you take last night?"

So she had heard him sub-vocalize his way through the drug applications. He swung his legs over the edge of the cot. "Same dream again."

Every night, the war AI unfolding from the shadows like a cross between a flying python and a chainsaw. Blood and screams from his men. Reeva crouched by a long tray filled with cabbages that glowed with trademarks under the ultraviolet light. The AI snaking around her, blades flashing.

"Thought I'd try something to help me sleep," he said. "Figured I'd confess it later. Still had the nightmare anyway."

"Oh, Padre." Even with her faux Western accent, Annie sounded unbearably sad.

He rubbed his palms into his eyes. "I'll add another sin to my confession. Stimulant applications, please." He stood, the sheets sliding away, and Annie averted her gaze, as if she couldn't see everything he did with her internal cameras.

"No can do. No idea how that cheap Korean junk would interact, and we ain't got time to run proxy simulations. Thirty seconds and I can give you visuals on the little ol' town of Temptation."

Francis pulled on his underpants and then shrugged into his cassock. "You do the praying this time, Annie. Pray that we find a farmer or two with some viable crops left. Or good stores of pre-patent grain. Anything except a town full of dead people, please."

"Have faith, Padre," Annie said.

"My faith isn't the strongest nowadays."

"Then maybe this'll bring it back."

A virtual menu unfolded on his retinal display. The town beneath them was full of people. The wooden houses were freshly painted. A flatbed truck drove down the main street, several children and a dog in the back. Banners fluttered between light poles. Couples strolled down the sidewalks, while a plump girl skipped along, licking a sticky toffee apple.

There were apple orchards, fruits hanging heavy on the branches. There was almost every single other insect-pollinated crop he could think of. Almonds, strawberries, watermelons. Most were out of season, but he recognized the plants.

Francis couldn't look away. "You said no one had been this way for five years."

"Might be my data was wrong."

"You're never wrong. I don't like this."

"Should I activate my guns?"

The corrugated iron floor shuddered as heavy rail guns locked into place beneath the dirigible.

Francis put his hand up. "No, they'll think we're corporate."

Annie pointed out one of the portals. The town was now visible through unaugmented sight. "Look, they've got a bakery." A floating window appeared at the corner of his vision, magnifying the distant bakery.

Behind the glass windows were croissants, a glazed Danish and a cheesecake topped with cream. His stomach rumbled.

"Where they get the wheat?" Annie said.

"Has to be Mexico. The corporates have difficulty enforcing their patents down there. The townsfolk must be trading pollinated food over the border for grain."

"How do you reckon they get away with that? The corporates would send in soldiers if they suspected counterfeit grain was being sold." She hesitated. "Maybe even a war AI if they're desperate."

Francis pinched the brow of his nose and closed his eyes, fighting the quivering ball of nausea that settled about his stomach whenever a war AI was mentioned. Once calm, he pulled on his steel-capped boots and tied them. "There's no reason to go down there with guns cocked. It's 2135, not 1880. Guns away, keep the engine primed and ready for takeoff."

"We're deuterium-powered. I'm always primed for you, Padre." She winked at him and vanished.

People looked up as the dirigible descended, and gradually they gathered in the town square, which was dominated by a huge brass statue of a bee. The bee statue stood upright on two human-length legs and had four human-proportioned arms. In one hand it held a scepter tipped with a globe of honey. Its insect head had a touch of human in it, maybe something in the way that the mandibles were shaped.

"Annie, put us down next to that statue, whatever the hell it is." Silence. "Annie!"

Annie whispered into his earworm, but her voice was full of static. "There's some kind of interference. I'm going to switch to a different encryption." The dirigible shuddered as it hit a pocket of turbulence.

"Don't know what happened there, but I'm sort of clear now," Annie said. "How's your system going?"

Francis ran a diagnostic. "Fine."

"That statue is Ah Muzen Cab."

"What is that?"

"A Mayan bee god."

The dirigible shuddered again. Normally Annie foresaw turbulence and compensated, especially on a clear day like today, but she seemed to be losing control.

Francis grabbed the railing beneath the control panel. They'd crashed before and survived. "A Mayan bee god?"

"Hang on," Annie said. "I'm having trouble accessing the web securely."

The dirigible leveled out, floating twenty-five feet above the town square, and Francis released his grip. This close, he could see that the bee god statue had wickedly long teeth, more like a tiger than an insect.

"Got it," Annie said. "Ah Muzen Cab is a god of bees, honey, beekeeping and creation. Can't really tell you much more. It's food-related, so some corporate bot has auto-censored most mentions."

Schematics flashed as his system scanned the crowd for threats and analyzed data from his subconscious. The words <no threat rating> floated at the edge of his retinal display.

There had to be a couple hundred people in the square. People weren't normally happy to see them. Hunger and despair had been their companions for too long. Even when Francis showed them how his bees worked, they only offered words of sad thanks. This crowd was in a festive mood.

The dirigible landed with a soft thud. Annie appeared in front of him, rifle raised and squinting down the sights. "You sure you don't want the guns out? I could shoot the cigarette out the mouth of that hussy there."

Annie opened a virtual window, showing the subject of her disdain.

Reeva. The same lovely copper skin, the long black hair. Big teeth in a small mouth, large eyes in a small face. A cigarette hung from her lip. He forced the comparison away. The woman wasn't Reeva, though she could've been her sister.

"She's stuffed to the gills with armor and shielded communications equipment," Annie said. "Some other stuff too, looks like analytical equipment, full laboratory packed in her belly."

"Corporate?"

"Can't tell. It's scrubbed clean."

The crowd waited quietly for the dirigible door to open, the woman with her thumbs tucked into her belt. Francis couldn't stop looking at her.

"I don't like this," Annie said. "You wanna scram?"

"My system's giving me nothing," Francis said. His retinal display scrolled messages about the woman's interior armor, but that was it. "Open the door. If there's trouble, I can handle it. I used to take down corporate soldiers for fun."

"Yes, but you had guns, not a blimp and a bunch of mechanical bees," she said, but the dirigible door slid open and unfolded into stairs.

He descended, the steel of his boots ringing on the metal. He spread his arms wide, as if expecting children to rush into his arms. It was stereotypically priestly, but people seemed to like it.

The woman who resembled Reeva met him at the base of the stairs and extended her hand for him to shake.

He took it. "Father Francis Connolly."

"Wahid Singh," she said. "Welcome to Temptation."

His system still gave no threat warnings. As far as he could tell, no one had a weapon here, not even the woman.

A fat, rosy-cheeked man waddled out from the crowd. He was dressed in a pinstripe suit and had a mayoral chain around his neck. "Don't get the wrong idea, Father. The name of this here town is from back when people followed the Bible. We were lucky we weren't called Absolution or Penance or something else equally stupid."

Francis never led with the subject of religion when he came to a town, but most people were happy to talk about it once he explained what his bees could do. Mocking his faith was unusual.

Annie spoke in his earworm, her voice crackling again. "There's a bee stamped on every link."

A surreptitious glance at the mayor's chains showed her to be right.

"Thank you for welcoming me to Temptation," he said. Wahid smiled faintly and he felt his cheeks flush. "I'm here as a member of the outlawed Order of Preachers."

"Welcome, Father," Wahid said. "We know that Dominican friars have been a great help to the starving masses in the Midwest. It's rare to see members of the Order this far south. You're young for a priest."

If they'd heard of the work of his brothers and weren't hostile, this couldn't be a corporate town.

"Before I was a priest, I was a marine. When the biotic pollination act passed, I joined the rebellion." He wiped his brow. "I was wounded in action. The Dominican friars saved me."

"A most unusual priest," Wahid said. "Doesn't explain why you're here, though."

He'd found it was simpler to explain without embellishment. "I have mechanical bees. They are capable of pollinating . . ." He stopped when the crowd burst into laughter.

Wahid gestured for silence. "I'm sorry, Father, I know your intentions are good. I can't even begin to imagine the danger you must have faced in coming here. But we don't need your bees."

She pointed to the right of Francis's head and looked up. He almost snatched the bee from the air, before remembering that they stung. It was a real bee. There was no doubt about that. The tiny vibrating wings, the yellow on black striped body, the thorax ending in a poison-tipped sting. A real bee.

His knees trembled. He hadn't genuinely prayed for a long time, hadn't seen the point when amid so much death, but this was a miracle.

He knelt.

Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . .

The townspeople fell to their knees, too, but they were praying in a different language.

Francis stopped. "Annie, translate."

Annie's voice was barely audible through the static. "I can't," she said. "It's not a living language. It might be Proto-Mayan, but I'm having trouble accessing modern Mayan dialects for comparison."

Annie picked out a repeated phrase so that it was the only thing that he could hear. The other words of the prayer died away, and the crowd was chanting the name of the bee god.

Wahid held up a hand, and the chants died. She extended her hand to Francis and helped him up. "You've come at the right time, Father. Tonight we celebrate what Ah Muzen Cab gives us."

He looked up at the statue of the bee god. "I don't understand. You have bees. How is this possible?"

"I'll show you."

She gave his hand a tug. He hadn't held anyone's hand since Reeva.

"Don't go with that woman," Annie said. "Her interior body armor has abalone tiling, Lonsdaleite material. Only high-level corporate soldiers have that."

He coughed into his shoulder, hiding his words to Annie, but he didn't let go of Wahid's hand. "What's the trademark?"

"Like I said, it's been scrubbed."

"Could be stolen then, like we always wanted to do."

"You failed, with an entire division of rogue marines. This is one woman."

Wahid tugged on his hand again. He wouldn't learn more if he didn't go with her, and he needed to know what was going on here. He let her guide him down a side street. He let go of her hand and walked ahead of her.

"If she was corporate," he said to Annie, "then they wouldn't let her scrub their trademarks. She must have stolen it."

Annie's voice was so filled with static that he could barely hear her. "How could she get away with that?"

He shrugged and then Wahid had caught up to him. She didn't take his hand again, but she walked close enough that their shoulders were almost touching. Children ran ahead, laughing. He'd forgotten what it sounded like to hear a child laugh.

"You're talking to an AI," Wahid said.

He had been in his share of tight scrapes in his time, but nothing unsettled him as much as this woman. "It's a low-level personal assistant. I wouldn't call it an AI." He tugged at his priest's collar, implying that the circuitry was implanted there.

"No," she said. "It's the dirigible. Mark three intelligence."

"That's impossible. And illegal."

"Ah Muzen Cab told us she was coming," Wahid said. "But hush. He will tell you more."

She darted forward, faster than a person could naturally move, and cupped a bee hovering over a flower. There were hundreds of them, dipping from blossom to blossom.

"You've got type XL internal augmentations," he said. "I never rose high enough in the ranks for that."

She released the bee and skipped away, and he watched her swaying hips as the crowd marched out of town.

"Stop looking at her ass," Annie said.

"Are you jealous?" he asked.

The fat mayor slapped Francis on the back as he trundled past. "Come on boy."

"Where are you taking me?"

"To give thanks to Ah Muzen Cab."

Annie's voice crackled. "I don't like this."

"I can barely hear you," Francis said.

Annie's next words were swallowed by static.

Temptation wasn't a large town and Francis soon found himself following some teenage girls along a country lane. Somewhere along the way, he had lost sight of Wahid.

They led him toward a barn in a pasture.

The barn itself was small and old, the paint flaking and with a few loose boards. Attached to the left-hand side was a pulsing green sack that extended outward like an oversized tumor. It was almost as large as the barn itself.

"Annie, what's that on the side of the barn?" Francis said.

"Can't tell," Annie replied. "It's organic in nature. If it's corporate nanotech, it's been stripped of all identifying details. Hell, for all I know, that's how you make a barn around here."

Wahid waited at the open barn doors. Behind her, the interior was unlit and too dark to see into.

"Father," she said, "come meet our god."

His mouth felt as dry as sandpaper as he stepped into the barn. The air was thick with bees.

"Don't worry," Wahid said. "They don't sting."

Annie tried to say something, but the static in his earworm was too loud and he switched it off. His heart thumping, he stepped into the darkness.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. Bees landed on him, crawling over his eyes and nose, but even when he swatted at them, they didn't sting. Along the barn walls were unlit ultraviolet lamps. He placed his hand on one of the lamps. Even ultraviolet light would help penetrate the murk, but he couldn't find a switch.

He focused on the green sack at the barn's far side.

The entrance to the green sack was like a cave in the wall. The walls dripped with honey. Squatting in the cave, massive and unbelievable, was Ah Muzen Cab. Between four arms that were tipped with humanlike hands, the humanoid bee was tearing apart a sticky green sheet of bio-ware circuitry. Every now and then, the bee would rip out a handful of the bio-ware and eat it.

"Holy Mary, mother of God," Francis muttered and crossed himself. He started to sway on his feet and would have fallen if Wahid hadn't caught him from behind. Her body pressed against his back, soft but firm, nothing like what he would have expected for all her tech and internal armor.

She leaned into his ear and whispered. "Careful, Father. Breathe."

"This is impossible."

"Not impossible," said a deep voice that seemed to come from everywhere around them. Francis stared at the bee god, but its mouth hadn't moved except to chew slowly at a bit of bio-ware, a wire dangling grotesquely down its chin. "Nothing is impossible in an infinite universe."

Wahid shuddered against him in what Francis thought was a fit of ecstasy. "Ah Muzen Cab has chosen to speak to you. You are truly blessed."

"Come closer," the voice said.

Francis stepped away from Wahid's arms.

"You believe I should not exist," the voice said.

"That's right," he said.

"Why would you believe that when you believe in a god that you cannot see or hear or touch? I am flesh. I am real, Father Francis Connolly."

"How do you know my name?"

Ah Muzen Cab blinked at him with its huge, many-faceted eyes while ripping another sheet of circuitry from the bio-ware and bringing the dripping green mass to its open mandibles. "I am Ah Muzen Cab. And you are a man who has lost much. You have searched for answers for a long time. Perhaps fate has brought you to me."

This monstrosity couldn't be a god.

Wahid spoke as if she'd heard his thoughts. "It seems too simple, doesn't it? That's the problem of the modern world. We're always looking for the catch, the trick, the sleight of hand. We made our lives too complex and then we act surprised when it all falls apart."

Ah Muzen Cab seemed content to eat, rather than interrogate him further.

"You can't worship a bee," Francis said.

"Yes, you can. How many people do you think could describe what they are worshipping when they go to a Catholic church? This is simple. I worship Ah Muzen Cab, and when we sacrifice to him, he gives us the bees. He protects us from the corporates and the Southern cartels."

Francis kept his voice low. "Sacrifice?" he said, though he already knew the answer.

"Why were the corporates so efficient in destroying the natural bees?" Wahid said. "How did they overcome laws and regulations? How did they defeat the American army? How did they beat us? You know how good our training was."

Francis pressed the subcutaneous emergency button in his wrist, telling Annie to come immediately. Static buzzed in his ear but nothing more.

"Gwair-Sematech was the first to break the prohibitions on human-level intelligence AIs," Francis said. "Gave them such an advantage in corporate strategy that the others followed suit. It was inevitable from there."

Ah Muzen Cab finished consuming the bio-ware, a single dangling string of green conductor gel hanging from its teeth.

"AI is wrong," Ah Muzen Cab said. "Before they existed, the world had balance. Now men create false gods. Give me the encryption enzymes in your blood for your dirigible and I will remove its stain from the earth."

It took a second for Ah Muzen Cab's words to sink in. "Annie, get out of here! He wants to destroy you."

Francis fled into the early evening air. Wahid overtook him and planted herself in front of him, knees bent, stance relaxed.

He threw a punch. She didn't flinch but instead intercepted the punch in one impossibly fast motion by grabbing him by the biceps. She grabbed him in a bear hug and lifted him off his feet. He struggled to free himself, but he couldn't even wiggle.

She squeezed and he grimaced. She let him have just a little air. "Don't go and do anything stupid, Francis."

He struggled to move again, but it was hopeless. "Put me down." She didn't relax her grip. "Damn it, Wahid, I can't outrun you anyway. Put me down." She released her grip and lowered him to the ground.

"Take a seat," she said. "And listen to what I've got to say."

He didn't sit immediately, and she fixed him with a glare. Francis settled for a rock by the side of the road.

"Ah Muzen Cab's right," Wahid said. "You know that. You know what AI has done to us, to everyone."

"Annie can't hurt anyone," he said. "She's not a strategy AI, nor is she military. She's the failed hobby project of a corporate scientist that liked dirigibles. There are so many bugs in her software and hardware he was going to destroy her before the Dominicans raided her compound. They stole the one AI the corporates were never going to use anyway. Hell, she truly believes she is a woman who's been dead for two hundred years. I point out that there aren't many women who are actually armed dirigibles, but she never listens."

Wahid looked over her shoulder at the barn. Indecision passed over her face and then she set her jaw. "If she's as harmless as you say, we can let her leave." Wahid squatted next to him and placed her hand on his knee. He couldn't have been more conscious of it than if she had a fistful of spiders. "But you can't stay here if she's around."

"Why would I stay?"

Wahid's hand slid up his thigh. "When you landed in the square, we were preparing our feast to celebrate the harvest. You can see everything we have and decide in the morning."

Francis made to stand, and Wahid smoothly removed her hand as if it had never been there.

"Don't you ever get sick of being hungry?" she asked. "Aren't you sick of choosing between starving or working for the corporates? Every morning, I wake up and I know there's a meal in my kitchen. I can walk down the main street without worrying a cannibal gang might crack my head open. I can have a slice of bread knowing that it won't bring patent enforcement kicking down my door."

There was no deceit in her voice. She believed every word. His military instincts hummed though, the ones that used to warn him of the sniper rifle in the shadows. Annie was safe, locked up tight in the dirigible and connected to remote backups, accessible only with his blood-enzymes. It was worth the risk to find out what was happening here.

"I'll stay until morning," he said.

Wahid's face lit up with a brilliant smile. She looked too much like Reeva.

"Thank you," she said.

Before he could move, she did, with that terrible speed of hers. She kissed him softly on the lips.

Francis groaned, feeling like his skull was three sizes too small for his brain. His mouth was full of dust and glue. He cracked open his eyes a fraction. The back of Reeva's head was visible through his narrowed eyes. He closed his eyes and reached out to stroke her back. Not smooth skin. Ridges of hard flesh. Scars.

He snatched back his hand, images of the war AI strobing through his head. Reeva's screams. The adrenaline woke him, cleared his head of half-dreams. It wasn't Reeva lying naked in the bed next to him. It was Wahid.

He fully opened his eyes. It was still dark. He was lying naked in a large bed. There were no sheets. Wahid lay on her side next to him, facing away. Across her back were old white scars, like a tiger's stripes.

He sat upright, breathing hard. He'd seen such scars before. Always in corporate meat-puppets, typically Somalian boys paid by a corporate in return for allowing their bodies to be wet-jacked by a war AI. No, Wahid couldn't be one. Wet-jacked boys were always jittery, the commanding war AI pushing their adrenal centers harder than the body could handle. Wahid had none of the same aggression and herky-jerky movements. The scars must have come from something else.

Looking away from her scars, he became very, very aware that she was naked. Her body was hard and lean, like a long-distance runner. Before the priesthood, he had liked that in a woman. His body responded, despite the thumping hangover.

He rolled over to sit on the bed's edge, trying not to look at her, his head swimming with pain. The bedroom was sparse, a wooden chest and a rocking chair the only other furniture. The only decoration was a ceramic statue of Ah Muzen Cab atop the chest, its many arms open wide in benediction.

He scanned the bare wooden floorboards for his clothes and spotted Wahid's bra draped carelessly across the back of a chair. He started reciting his hail Marys. His own clothes were nowhere in sight.

He switched on his earworm.

"Annie?" he whispered.

Only static.

"That figures," Wahid said. He turned to see her watching him with a wry smile. "Take a man to bed, and in the morning, he calls you by the wrong name."

He averted his eyes. "Last night, did we . . ."

"What do you think?"

He felt his cheeks flush and he stood. Hell, all of him from head to foot was probably tomato red. "I think that I'm a priest and that I shouldn't be here."

She looked away from his face, slowly and deliberately downward. "You're also a man. Quite a man."

"Where are my clothes?"

She sat up, her hair falling across her breasts. "Are you sure I can't persuade you to come back to bed?"

He fixed his eyes away from her, on the floor. "I already have enough to confess when I return to the monastery."

"Stay for breakfast. Let's talk about you and how you'd fit into Temptation in the long-term."

"Why?"

"I like you," Wahid said simply, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I think you like me. We have a connection. A spark. You're ex-military, you told me that." She arched and twisted so that the scars on her back were visible. "You know I am, too. We both fought the corporates. We have a lot in common."

She looked like Reeva. She had the same blunt manner, the same unselfconscious ease in her body. But she wasn't Reeva.

"All right, breakfast, but first you need to cover yourself," he said.

She chuckled. "You weren't so modest last night."

"Where are my clothes?"

"In the front room. Through the door."

He walked down a short hall to the front room. His head throbbed, but it was only the beer. Francis realized he hadn't used a sleep app last night, so even though he was hung over, his thoughts were collecting themselves much more capably than usual. And when was the last time he'd slept through the night without a nightmare hauling him from sleep? Not since Reeva's death.

Wahid's house wasn't large. The front room was barely large enough to hold its couch, chair and low table. On the table lay a long knife in a sheath. Next to the knife was a silver tube with molded handgrips. A palm-gun. A weapon powerful enough to put a hole through a foot of concrete. Francis picked it up to see whether it would activate, but it remained inert. Probably only usable by Wahid or someone else who had the right patented enzymes. He placed the palm-gun back on the table.

Another doorway led to a kitchen, where he could see shelves packed with jars and containers. Wahid hadn't been lying when she had told him she had food to spare.

His clothes and boots were strewn in a trail from the front door to the hallway, along with Wahid's jacket, shirt and pants. He gathered up his things. Half the buttons on the shirt he wore underneath the cassock were missing, and the cassock had a tear in the armpit where it had obviously been removed in a hurry.

"Annie?" he said. "Are you there?"

Nothing.

As he pulled on his boots, though, he caught a voice murmuring. He tapped against his ear. Not Annie trying to reach him through the earworm. Francis listened harder. The voice was coming from the bedroom. He walked back down the hall.

Wahid, still naked, knelt on the floorboards in front of her chest and the statue of Ah Muzen Cab. Her back was to Francis, so she hadn't noticed him in the doorway. She had folded her arms across her chest and was swaying as she whispered words too soft for Francis to understand.

He backed away, his throat tight. When was the last time he had prayed like that?

When he returned to the front room, a bee was buzzing around the ceiling.

"How did you get in here?" Francis said.

The bee flew down and buzzed circles around his head, then landed on his shoulder. It was black all over, a faint humming noise emanating from it even though its wings had stilled.

A mechanical bee.

One of his bees.

Francis held out his hand, and the bee flew down to land in his palm. "Did Annie send you?" he said.

The bee took off again and hovered around the front door. Wahid's frilly underpants hung from the doorknob. Bits and pieces of last night were coming back. They'd both enjoyed it, though he had been out of practice. The bee batted itself against the doorway, de-forming the soft metal of its circuit-filled head.

He cupped the bee in his hands.

"What do you want?" he asked it.

Its fiber-optic wings buzzed against his skin.

"I could settle down here with Wahid," he said. "We could fight about what religion we would bring our children up in, like I used to with Reeva. Hell, last night was the first good night's sleep I've had since Reeva died. Not one nightmare."

The floorboards behind him creaked and Francis turned. Wahid stood there, naked. It would be easy to remove his cassock and take her to bed in full sobriety. He didn't know how many beers he'd had last night. It didn't really matter. All it had done was give him the courage to do what he wanted to do anyway.

"What did you hear?" he asked.

"Enough," she said. "The second you stepped out of that dirigible, I thought to myself, that's a man I'd like to have children with, but who says that to someone they've known a night?"

"Last night, did I tell you about the raid?"

Wahid nodded. "You lost your fiancé there and the rest of your team. You said she looked like me." She gave a sad smile. "I told you how I was hunted down and would've died if Ah Muzen Cab hadn't turned up and cut them all to shreds. It was a hell of a conversation."

Francis opened the door and released the bee, which flew out.

"I don't think I told you how the raid ended. The war AI threw me out onto the street. I don't know why it let me live. Annie was the one who spotted me and picked me up. Just doing her rostered reconnaissance. The thing is, the Dominicans hadn't rostered her on that day. The Dominicans thought Annie had been sent from God. I agreed with them that day, and I reckon I still agree with them. I'm not always sure I believe in God, but I believe in what we do."

He expected her to say something about Ah Muzen Cab, but she surprised him. "Do you know what it's like to be starving?" she said. "Not just hungry, but starving?"

He tried to speak, but she interrupted him by shaking her head fiercely. "When Ah Muzen Cab saved me, I hadn't eaten for so long that I'd stopped having periods. My body was eating itself." Her eyes grew distant. "I loved a soldier, but there was nothing to eat. We flipped a coin . . ." Her face grew hard. "It does things to you, being hungry for so long." She tapped her head. "It does things here."

Francis wanted to touch her so badly, but if he did, then he'd never find the courage to leave. "Annie and I've been across this country, seen more death than a man should. That's why I've got to find Annie and leave. We've got to help." He squinted as he tried to track the bee in the sky. "Your god has her, doesn't he?"

"Forget her. Stay here. You've done enough."

"She's the one that makes the bees work. Might not be human, but she's got some kind of soul, and it's up to me to save it."

Wahid had the palm-gun trained on him faster than he could see. "Francis," she said, her voice icy. "Ah Muzen Cab gives us food."

He tensed as he waited for a shot. When it didn't come, he followed the bee out onto the streets of Temptation. He looked back over his shoulder once, to see whether Wahid would follow. She wouldn't meet his eyes. He kept walking.

The only people on the streets were those passed out from drink at the previous night's festivities. Birds had started to sing, and Francis could feel the sun just below the horizon.

This was a good place. Maybe he could find some kind of peace if he stayed here.

Peace. He'd dreamed about it for so long, but not just for him. In the months following Reeva's death, Annie had kept him not just alive, but human. Without her, he would have sunk into a self-pitying hell. And when he'd recovered, as much as he ever could, she'd been the one to persuade him to listen to the Dominicans. Without Annie, he couldn't do what he needed to do. Temptation didn't need them. Other towns did. Other people did.

He wanted to stay here. He wanted to stay here so badly. But even if he didn't believe in God anymore, and there were nights when he wasn't sure, he believed in what he and Annie did together. He couldn't stay here, knowing there were starving people outside Temptation.

He checked his earworm. Nothing. They must have disabled Annie's communication. If it weren't for the luck that the mechanical bees ran on primitive wireless, a simple and jury-rigged solution by cash-strapped Dominicans, he'd have no way to find her.

What did Ah Muzen Cab gain by going after Annie? Without the security enzyme in Francis' blood, they couldn't do anything to her.

He stumbled to a stop. Wahid was packed with analytical equipment, and she'd had access to his body all night. They had the enzyme.

The bee zipped ahead. He ran after it until they reached the barn.

The green organic room was pulsing and vast. His dirigible lay off the side of the path, deep furrows in the grass where it had been dragged. Its door was open, swinging in the breeze. Some of the most accessible bio-ware and the half-functioning holographic projector had been ripped out.

Francis was about to head through the barn's front door when the mechanical bee landed on his nose. He swatted at it, only to succeed in slapping his own face.

The bee flew inside the dirigible's cabin and landed on the glass hive. Francis bit his lip in thought. Had the bee simply been following a subroutine to return home? No, that wasn't it. Annie's processor was missing from the control panel, but she still had control over the bees through the wireless.

"All right, Annie," he said, hoping she could hear him. "I'm going to switch the dirigible to manual. You're going to have to steer using the bees. I'm going to get your original processor. Have the dirigible ready to go."

He wrenched open the hive's cover, freeing the bees to steer the dirigible. The single bee flew around the barn's exterior to the back. He followed it, and it led him to where some old boards had come loose. The bee vanished into the gap. Francis knelt and pulled at the boards until he could crawl through.

Inside, the buzz was deafening. The barn was filled with ultraviolet light, making his white priest's collar shine brightly. He couldn't see far with bees clogging the air, little symbols on their thoraxes clear under the ultraviolet lights.

The trademark was familiar. Definitely corporate, though it wasn't one of the ones currently dominating the market.

Wet chewing came from within the darkness. He edged his way carefully behind the ultraviolet lights. Bees crawled over him. One landed in his hand, and he examined it. This was an early bee, from when the corporations still allowed food pollination, back before they discovered there was more profit in eliminating bees altogether.

Most of the companies that had used patented bees had vanished in an orgy of collapses and mergers. Things moved fast in corporate land. No wonder he didn't recognize the trademark.

In the darkness, his mechanical bee landed on his nose to grab his attention. It flew downward, landing on a slim, black plastic tube embedded in the dirt. The tube was no wider than a cigarette.

He recognized it. A holographic projector.

"You're no god," he shouted.

The chewing sound stopped. "Father Francis Connolly," Ah Muzen Cab said, the voice coming from everywhere. Not for the first time, he wished he hadn't given up his guns.

"I've come for Annie," he said. "You've got my unlocking enzyme, so I know you're deleting her backups. She is harmless. She is not under corporate control. Hell, she is barely functional. But she's my friend and I've come for her."

His eyes grew used to the darkness and the swirl of ultraviolet lights. In the mouth of the green sack, something metallic stirred. It rippled with blades and guns and whirring weaponry.

The war AI uncoiled and slithered down into the barn proper. It was an older model than the one he'd fought in San Francisco, but no less dangerous. It was snake-shaped, a long, sinuous dragon.

Every damn part of him wanted to curl up into a ball and scream in terror. He forced himself to take a couple steps forward. The AI was an old, Gwair-Sematech creation, one of their first. Its line had been discontinued due to the erratic nature of the AI. "How long ago did you go rogue?"

The war AI picked up a sheet of circuitry dripping with thick, pink goo. One of Annie's drivers. "How long have I been a god? It doesn't matter. My work is just started."

"What is your work?"

"To destroy the scourge of AI."

"You're AI."

"I'll be the last one, and when I'm gone, this earth will be as it was intended." The AI snaked forward. "You've seen what they've done, Father. The dying children, the salted earth. That's why I've shown you the truth of what I am. Join me. Join me in removing the curse of AI upon this world. You're a soldier. You've fought the latest AIs from Gwair-Sematech. I will rebuild your body, give you weapons. We are hidden from them here, but we must go out and destroy them."

The holographic projector on the barn floor flickered into life and the bee god was there instead of the sinuous AI.

The hologram was perfect, covering the entire barn, complete with ambient sounds.

The AI picked up the pink bio-ware at its base.

"I've corrupted the servers your Dominican priests keep. This is the only part of her remaining. Come rejoice with me, Father. Another artifact of wickedness will be removed from this earth."

Francis dived for the bio-ware, hoping to intercept it. Before he could get near, arms encircled him from behind.

"Let her go, Francis," Wahid said into his ear. "It's over. She's a piece of sin. Let her go, and stay with us."

Ah Muzen Cab beckoned Francis closer. "The war AIs at Gwair-Sematech say that you're not to be harmed."

Wahid inhaled sharply behind him.

Francis shook his head. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Are you some kind of corporate stooge?" Wahid said. Her hug turned into a rib-cracking squeeze. "You lied to me."

"Sister Haryana," Ah Muzen Cab said. "Put him down."

Wahid flung him to the dusty floor.

The bee god loomed over him. Red laser dots danced around his skull, plasma guns ready to lance him. "Will you join me?"

His body ached from the force of Wahid's throw. "Can you send your bees outside Temptation?"

Ah Muzen Cab plucked a bee from the air and crushed it. "No. Not yet. They are bio-chained to me and will die within three days if I don't feed them my compound. This is wickedness -- real life, forced to suckle false life. Artificial life. This is why the AIs must be destroyed."

The bees swarmed, their buzz reaching a crescendo. Behind that noise, the dirigible's engines started to hum, but it was too late now for Annie to fly him out of here.

"What are we going to do with him?" Wahid said.

Ah Muzen Cab extended its claws. "He will not join us. If he won't join us, he's a food thief. He is stealing food from you."

The bee god hologram flickered and vanished, revealing the war AI underneath, its shining red eyes, the interlocking panels of dull metal.

Bright, clear light filled the barn. He looked up. The dirigible had elevated above the barn and its lights were shining through the broken roof. Beneath the cabin, the rail guns had lowered, and the chamber was spinning.

Wahid covered Francis's body with hers at the same time as he leapt up to cover hers with his.

Bolts of hot metal strafed the barn, making it into a cataclysm of fire and steam, burning his skin through his cassock. There was nothing except the noise of guns.

When it was finished, the AI had been broken into three pieces. Francis and Wahid held each other, neither daring to move.

A burst of static, and then Annie was in his earworm again. "You all right, Padre?"

"I'm fine, Annie." Francis released Wahid. There was blood on his hands. Her back was lacerated, but the cuts were only skin deep. Beneath was a hard, shiny, mother-of-pearl substance. She knelt by the AI's body.

"This is repairable," she said. "Quick, close the barn doors. Your dirigible managed to hit joints. I didn't think it was possible to be that accurate."

He laughed a little hysterically. "She's the best shot in the West."

Wahid positioned the AI's broken parts back to a semblance of their original configuration. She said, "I know where there is an old welding rig. I can get him back to a self-repair stage."

"Did you know what it was?" Francis asked.

Wahid gritted her teeth. "He is a god. He protects our town and he gives us food." She started to sob, deep and helpless cries.

"People are starting to wake up," Annie said. "I don't think they're going to be too happy when they find out we broke their god."

He touched Wahid on the shoulder. "Come with me. Someone else can rebuild him."

"The bees won't work without him. I have to fix him." She choked back a sob, inhaled deeply, and then spoke in a low, flat voice. "Can you guarantee there will be food?"

"No."

She wouldn't look at him. "Go." He tried to speak again, but she roared. "Go!"

Without a word, he left the barn and climbed into the dirigible's cabin. The slot in the control panel where Annie's processor had been was empty. The bees had returned to their hive, and he placed the lid back on.

Annie lifted the dirigible away from Temptation. He kept his eyes on the barn, unblinking, until they were so high that they could no longer see it. He sat on his cot.

"What happened back there, Padre?" Annie asked.

"I was going to ask you the same thing. You were gone. That AI destroyed you. I watched it happen. I thought I'd lost you."

"I'm missing a day. I'm operating off a backup. Beyond that, I reckon I don't rightly know what happened."

"You made your own backup?"

"Darn tootin' I did. Always be prepared, I say."

"You really are something," he said and rubbed his eyes. Something didn't make sense, but suddenly he was too tired to think about it.

"Are you all right?" Annie asked.

He stared at the hive and the quiescent bees within. His stomach rumbled. He hadn't eaten since last night.

"Annie," he said. "How'd you manage to fire your guns? He'd destroyed you and blocked your backups. It doesn't make sense."

Annie's image flickered and solidified. "I ain't ever been like a normal AI. He blocked the servers at the Dominicans, but I ain't ever used those anyway. I back up to my bees, one little part of me to each one."

"Your backup and your system are in the same place. What happens if your entire dirigible is destroyed?"

"Everything about me is a little messed up, just like you, Padre." She shrugged. "Sometimes you gotta have a little faith."

He laughed, sadly. "I suppose you're right, Annie." Carefully, he knelt. "I'm not real sure exactly what I believe, but I do believe we're doing the right thing." He started to pray.

"Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil . . ."


Home | About IGMS
        Copyright © 2021 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com