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I Am the Queen
    by William Saxton
I Am the Queen
Artwork by Liz Clarke

Diane opened the door to her townhouse and led her neighbor in. It was just Bill: ever-hopeful Bill, and she hated to encourage him because there was just no chemistry, but she was still bubbling over, wanting to show everyone her new pet. Her alien pet.

"I have all the manuals," she said, "and I have a translation module for when its language ability kicks in, and I have dietary supplements, since it's adapted to a different ecosystem --"

"Where is it?" Bill said. He took off his boots: a requirement, in her house.

She led him into the living room, opened the carrying cage, and picked it up, very gently.

It had feather-like antennas, and too many legs, and a sort of bristly fur: a teddy bear version of a termite, perhaps. Its heart was going bap-bap-bap -- poor thing. It was so adorable. She stroked its fur.

"Whoa," Bill said.

It squeaked. "That's its happy squeak," she said. It sounded just like the recording in the manual.

"Can I hold it?" he said.

She found herself reluctant. Maternal instinct. But she transferred it to him, carefully. It was so tiny it could fit entirely within his calloused hands.

He started to sit. She stopped him. "Your trousers aren't dusty, are they?"

"I changed after work," he said. "Your white sofa's safe, and your white shag carpet, and your glass coffee table."

Diane nodded; he sat. The alien snuggled up to him. She found herself jealous. Silly.

"Are you sure it's a good idea, having it?" he said. "When you had a puppy, I was over here every week fixing things. Ain't no telling what a giant bug will do to this house."

"It's not a bug," she said. "And it's not like training a dog; it's intelligent! In a couple of weeks I'll be able to tell it what to do, and since I'm its queen, it'll do it."

Bill laughed.

She felt a little defensive. "It's not like a regular pet," she said. "Early on, I show it gestures of dominance, and later, it will understand rational statements, although its thinking can be rigid. It can actually do simple tasks, and it thrives on praise."

"You sound like you read that out of a book," Bill said.

Since she had, she said nothing.

"What's its name?" he said.

"I haven't decided."

He looked it over. "How about 'Cheesecake'? Because of the color of the fur, and all."

What a sweet name! "Perfect," she said.

"Or maybe 'Corn Bread.'"

Diane imagined telling everyone about her new pet, "Corn Bread." No. She said, "'Cheesecake' will do just fine."

#

Having Cheesecake was like building a family, without the messy detail of finding a man she could respect. The next day, at work, Diane still wanted to tell everyone. Well, not the other managers. They were all men, all married, and every one of them fat, balding, and on the make. Yuck.

She could only really talk with underlings. That wasn't a problem. She waited until Carole, from Accounting, was free, and they sat in Diane's office, drinking lattes from the coffee shop downstairs.

"So you bought an alien monster, and you named it 'Cheesecake,'" Carole said. "Got it."

"It's not a monster!" Diane said. "It's a 'builder drone.' And I didn't name it; Bill did."

"Bill?"

Diane sighed. She didn't want to talk about Bill; she wanted to talk about the alien. "He lives on my street, and he fixes things in my townhouse sometimes. Anyway -- you should just see it. It's all furry, and it loves --"

"Forget the creature," Carole said. "Tell me about the man."

Diane laughed. "Forget it, Carole. He's a redneck. I mean, he wears cowboy boots to work! He's a carpenter or something."

"What's that song?" Carole said. "'Save the Horse, Ride the Cowboy'?"

"I'm being serious! I mean, could you respect a man who fixes your toilet?" she said, only half teasing. "And he doesn't even charge me." There was that time he'd been working on the sink, and came in when she'd had a date with, oh, she couldn't remember the guy's name. Bill stalked out, red-faced . . . not embarrassed, Diane thought, but put out. Too bad, but it was about time he got the message.

"Honey," Carole said, "if he'd do the plumbing under the house, I'd marry him."

Carole was always over the top, Diane thought. Which was why she was so much fun. "Wouldn't your husband have a problem with that?"

Carole seemed to consider the question. "Does he do dry wall?"

Diane laughed. "Probably. I'll set you up."

#

After a couple of weeks, Cheesecake was able to communicate. It came suddenly: one day, it could say anything it wanted, through the translation box. Genetic knowledge, the manual said.

She stopped keeping it in the crate during the day. "No poo-poos, except in the litter box," she told it. The translation box didn't know "poo-poo," so she had to be more explicit.

Cheesecake's response, through the translator, was satisfactory, if a bit indelicate. Oh, well -- they'd never have to have that conversation again.

One day, Bill came home at the same time she did; so she invited him in.

In the living room, on the far side of the sofa, there was . . . something strange. A cocoon?

Cheesecake came out and squeaked at them.

"It must be twice as big!" Bill said. "Three times. But it's still cute, isn't it?"

The translation device, sitting on the entertainment center, activated. "Welcome, Queen. What is the role of the entity beside you?"

Good question, Diane thought. "He's one of my, ah, worker drones," she said. The machine translated.

"Lord, Diane!" Bill said.

"Sorry," Diane whispered. "I had to tell it something." Then she asked Cheesecake, "What is this thing beside the sofa?" It looked disgusting.

"A nest," Cheesecake said, "for your eggs."

Bill laughed.

Diane's face burned. "Get rid of it," she said.

Cheesecake set to work. "No, don't eat the stuff," she told it. It would have to go to the vet. Again. "Disassemble it, and put it in the garbage can!" She looked at Bill. "We're getting there!" she told him. "See, it can clean up its messes!"

"What's the nest made of?" Bill asked.

The machine squeaked, and Cheesecake gave an answer. "Solid structure from the sofa cushions, cemented with mucous from my mandible region."

Diane looked at the sofa. It didn't seem damaged. She looked at the back.

Into the back. The sofa was completely gutted. "You ate my sofa?" she yelled.

Cheesecake flinched. "I used material from the interior, so that the appearance would not be altered. You ordered me not to destroy the appearance of the sofa."

Diane tried to calm herself. It wasn't Cheesecake's fault . . .

"Cheesecake," Bill said, "would you like to take a break for a while, and snuggle?"

"What should I do, Queen?" it asked. Its antennas were trembling.

"Snuggle," she snapped. It climbed onto Bill, who sat on the floor beside the ruined sofa, and he stroked it. It squeaked with contentment.

#

A few days later, Diane noticed some of her books missing from the shelves. As she looked for them, she found holes in the walls in places she wouldn't ordinarily look, and carpet gone (but only under the furniture), and when she asked -- still controlling herself, resolving to give more sweeping orders -- Cheesecake said its new construction was in the attic. Diane climbed the ladder and looked over the new nest, and told Cheesecake to stop tearing up the house, and stop doing anything in the attic, because fiberglass causes cancer if you breathe the dust.

The next day, when she returned from work, there were huge pods at the curb: containers of some mucous-and-mulch construction, hard like cement, and each beribboned with the tags the city required for garbage pickup. Cheesecake said they contained all the fiberglass that had been in the attic, now removed for her safety. (How had it known about the garbage tags? That was one smart drone.) At least its intentions were good, even she if would have to re-insulate the house. Or get Bill to do it.

"You left the house?" she asked it. "How?"

"Your door mechanisms are functioning normally," it said.

Well, of course. Unlike a dog, it had hands -- or claws, or something. Diane resolved to clean out the medicine cabinet before it got past the child-proof caps.

The garbagemen wouldn't touch the fiberglass pods. Mrs. Mackelmurray, next door, said they were scaring her dog, and Diane would have to remove them immediately or answer to the homeowners' association. Idiot. Bill, bless him, took care of them.

Intelligent or not, Cheesecake couldn't see reason. "I don't lay eggs!" she told it, again and again. "That's a different species!" It was silent while she talked -- waiting, she was sure, for her to stop talking nonsense, so it could go back to building something out of her scrapbooks, or her shrubs, or something else she hadn't thought of.

It knew what it knew. Genetic knowledge.

She let it build a new set of shelves, which looked like a giant honeycomb, in the basement; but then it needed something else to do, so she bought it interlocking plastic blocks, the kind toddlers played with. "These are not useful materials," it said. "My saliva will not adhere to them, and they are structurally unsound without it."

"I don't care," she said. "No construction in my house. Got it?"

"Understood," it said, as it always did, whether it understood or not.

One evening after work, when Diane came home, she could hear the beagle in the house behind hers, was going berserk. She went around the townhouse, dreading what new disaster Cheesecake had for her. From under Mrs. Mackelmurray's porch, Diane heard a noise, and started.

It was Mrs. Mackelmurray's collie, hiding, trying not to bark but unable to restrain itself. The beagle in the other house yowled as though the world were ending.

And on her own porch . . .

It looked like someone had slimed Playland at McDonald's. It looked like the nest scene from a horror movie, with dripping orifices and something about to leap out at the camera at any moment.

Cheesecake emerged, its mandibles smoothing a wall. The beagle continued its howling, with greater alarm; Mrs. Mackelmurray's dog went silent suddenly, and hid.

"Diane!" It was Mrs. Mackelmurray. Great. "That thing on your porch is scaring my dog. This is a violation of the homeowners' covenant!"

Diane ignored her, and went up onto the porch.

The construction smelled. Oh, no. She recognized parts of it. Baked beans. Crackers. Onions, probably puréed by Cheesecake's mandibles. She'd never told it not to use food.

"Diane, you have got to remove this thing immediately. It's in violation of city code!"

And health regulations, Diane thought.

She thought she recognized something else in Cheesecake's monstrosity. A strip of wooly sweater. Her sweater. A strip of faux fur.

Oh, no. Her winter clothes. It had better not be!

"Diane Bowen, I will not be treated this way!"

Diane pushed her way through the construction -- it hadn't blocked the door -- and went through the kitchen, into her bedroom, into the closet, where the chest was, and . . .

It was empty, except for cloth scraps.

She heard squeaking, and whirled around. "I told you not to use my clothing!" she yelled.

"Understood," Cheesecake said. The translator's words were flat, but Cheesecake cowered.

"You used --" She pointed to the chest. "These were my winter clothes! You destroyed them, for this, this . . ." Words failed her.

"These were not clothes," it said, its head on the ground. "Clothes are items the Queen wears. You do not wear these."

Not any more, she thought. She groaned with frustration. But it wasn't Cheesecake's fault: brainy or not, it was just an animal. She shouldn't scare it.

She went into the bathroom, so it wouldn't follow her, and calmed herself. When she thought she could stop herself from yelling, she went out. "Let's go sit on the bed," she said.

She did; it crawled into her lap.

"We have got to do something about you," she said.

She'd talk to the pet store tomorrow. And Cheesecake, sad as it was, would spend time in its crate, until she figured what to do.

She picked up the phone and dialed. "Bill?"

"Hey," he said.

"Can you look in on Cheesecake some time over the next few days, when I'm at work?" she said. "I'll leave the key on the door frame. I -- I've got to do something. It's destroying the house."

"I'm doing repairs for the college this week," he said. "If I can get away, I will."

If something isn't done, Diane thought, I'll need repairs too, and not just to the house. "Whenever you can," she said.

#

At work, over cappuccino in Diane's office, Carol asked her, "How's it going at home?"

"Awful," Diane said. "It won't stop messing up the house. I have to keep it in its crate when I'm not there." She felt terrible, but what could she do? Until she could get time off to consult with the vet or the pet store.

"I meant, with that man," Carole said.

Who? Oh. Bill. A ludicrous picture, of Bill messing up the house and sitting penitent in a cage, came to her mind. She laughed. "So far," Diane said, "he's been good. I haven't had to put him in a crate, or anything."

"How good?" Carole asked. "I want details."

Diane laughed.

"All my man ever does is drink beer and watch NASCAR," Carole said. "I live life vicariously."

#

Over the next week, at least according to Mrs. Mackelmurray's rants on Diane's answering machine, Cheesecake spent the days squeaking "so it sounds like something must be dying in there." Diane didn't know what to do. It spent the evenings cuddled up with her -- she let it sleep in her bed -- and its days in the crate. She'd only had the chance to wash the honeycomb thing on the porch with the hose; it was still there, scaring Mrs. Mackelmurray's brain-addled dog.

One evening, Bill met her at her car. "I can't believe what I saw in there," he said, red-faced with anger.

Oh, no. "What did it do this time?" she said.

"What did it do?" he said. "It stayed in a dang crate the whole day, messing itself. I told you not to get that thing. I told you you couldn't handle it -- and now you just keep it locked up the whole time!"

She stepped back, stunned. "It's an animal," she said. "I know there's a problem, but I'm doing the best --"

"It ain't good enough!" he said. "It wants to build. Let it, already!"

"It wants to destroy my house!" she shouted. Mrs. Mackelmurray looked out at them from behind curtains; Diane glared at her, and she disappeared.

"You can't control things!" Bill shouted back.

He was right about that. But there had to be some way. "I'm doing everything that I know how," she said. "I've got the manuals!" Which weren't sufficient. But what else could she do? Not that it was any of his business.

"Manuals," he said, with disgust. "Oh, forget it." He walked away.

She thought of yelling after him, but it seemed undignified.

Then she went in, saw Cheesecake, looking miserable in its crate, and her heart melted.

She read the manuals again, with Cheesecake on her lap, not even bothering to get dinner. They told her nothing new: dominance gestures, clear orders, and timeouts. Too bad the authors didn't publish their email addresses. She had some choice words for them.

And for Bill. Who did he think he was, anyway?

A man with a backbone, apparently. Who knew? There was more to him than met the eye. She wondered what.

#

The next evening, she came back -- early, so she could call the vet and get some help -- and Cheesecake was out of the crate.

The monstrosity on the porch was gone.

In the living room, there was a new sofa, a mishmash of straw, foam, shredded cloth, and Cheesecake-slobber cement. It was leaning slightly.

Beyond that, everything she could see was repaired -- carpet, walls, furniture -- but repaired with Cheesecake-construction, gooey and enameled and not quite the right color.

She heard a sound of hissing from the kitchen, and jumped. Then she recognized the sound: water flowing.

It was spewing out under the sink. Cheesecake was there, pulling out the pipes.

She rushed past it, and cut off the water under the sink, getting soaked while she did it. (Why did they have to make these things so hard to turn?) "What are you doing?" she asked Cheesecake, furious, when the water stopped.

"I am getting a pipe, to reinforce the sofa," it said.

"Well, stop it!" she said, anger fading into weariness at the same old argument. "Didn't I tell you, no construction in the house?"

"You did," it said. "I now understand why. You are not sane."

"What?"

"You acquired a builder drone, and forbade it to build. I understand now. You cannot be Queen; 'Queen' and 'insane' are incompatible concepts."

Ridiculous. "Well, you can't be Queen," she told it. All the books said so.

"I know," it said. "I have no legal rights. Bill is Queen."

Oh, please. Ever-compliant Bill?

But he wasn't compliant, after all, even if he did do her home repair while she just blew him off. She hadn't known who she was treating so dismissively. An image of his strong hands flashed in her mind: tightening plumbing fittings; cradling the infant Cheesecake that first week.

"The Queen ordered me to repair your house, and then come to his house." Its antennas twitched. Excitement, she thought. "I have usefulness to the Queen," it added. "He wants me to build things with him."

"With that goo you make?" Even Bill wouldn't put up with that.

"He has other means of attaching that he says are sturdier." Its antennas perked up as it squeaked. "He wants to teach me! He told me many things today." It examined her. "You are the kind of creature that does not use social structure; you do not need a drone."

What I need, Diane thought, is a new house. But it was wrong about her. "I do use social structure," she said. "I'm so sorry you were unhappy here. If you want to go live with Bill --" She sagged. "I'm just sorry, that's all."

"You need comforting," it said. "Would you like to snuggle? I can do that, after I finish the sofa."

"Sure," she said. She'd even sit on the gooey sofa, if it wanted.

"We could go over to the Queen's house," it said. "He would like to snuggle too."

"You'll be living there," she said. "He'll have plenty of chances."

"If you come, he can snuggle with you," Cheesecake said.

Diane laughed. "With me? Why me?"

"The Queen would like to build a social structure," it said.

"With me? He said so?"

"He told me many things," it said.

She thought about it, and laughed again. "You know," she said, "that might not be a bad idea."

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