By Kathleen Molyneaux
“DAMN IT! EVERY SINGLE CORTLAND graft died. Only scions blooming right now are the Red Delicious, and I hate that shit.” Tomi’s voice was muffled by his visor.
“Don’t worry. You won’t have to eat them,” Wikolia said. “They won’t self-pollinate.” Despite her flip tone, she was worried. All the tests showed that every root stock was positive for a nasty iteration of the monoculture virus. The Washagon fruit Nazis that had designed it called the thing n160. Wikolia just called it the bankruptcy bug.
Tomi threw his hands in the air. “We survived global warming, the death of the bees, and twenty years of bioengineered crap. How’d this one get in?”
That was a good question. Every food-producing plot of land in the North American Federated Union had a force field, HEPA-filtered-UV-treated air and water, and a dedicated staff of armed guards. In their Tyvek suits, the Cali orchard workers looked like nurses in an Ebola ward. It didn’t appear that many of their patients would survive.
Wikolia glanced down at her own white plastic jumper and sighed. “Get ready to spend $100 on a single Washagon apple.”
“We can’t let those fuckers profit from this.” Tomi kicked one of the few trees still sporting bloom.
The drone operators hadn’t gotten the memo that pollination was moot because the shaking flowers disgorged a few tiny robotic bees. They were beautiful with their iridescent piezoelectric wings and tiny leg spikes coated in yellow dust.
“Were the real ones this pretty?” Wikolia asked.
“How would I know,” Tomi snapped.
Wikolia barely heard him. Her attention was on the bees as they spiraled up into the canopy. They were just tiny silver pinpricks, but she could still hear a buzz. A second later, she realized it was the communicator in her helmet with a call from operations. “Wikolia on.” Her voice activated the link and a visual came up projected on the left side of her visor. It was a drone pilot. She looked pissed.
“I’m working here. Stop messing with the drones.”
Wikolia apologized, cut the link, and rounded on Tomi.
“Your communicator out?”
Tomi smirked. “I didn’t bother picking up. Those guys are useless, now. Hell, they were useless before. They set them to autonomous, sit back, and watch.” It was true that the pilots didn’t do much actual piloting. They usually just monitored the swarm for irregularities in coverage.
“FYI,” Wikolia said, “that guy was a girl. And she’s gonna be far from useless.” Then Wikolia turned and ran for the airlock, leaving Tomi to swear and stumble through the trees behind her.
“Careful. We can’t let them hear that.” Wikolia’s hands were shaking. She was glad it was Abeba at the controls.
The bee was barely visible on the tiny monitor. Abeba, the drone pilot, flipped on an overlay and the thing’s position was highlighted in red.
Abeba dropped the bee onto the asphalt. It crawled slowly towards the man’s foot.
“This is taking forever,” Tomi grumbled.
“If you’re going to be negative, you may as well get out and pretend to fix a tire or something. We need the cover.”
Tomi grimaced but complied.
It was a relief to get him out of the van. Their equipment didn’t leave much space for passengers, but Abeba had insisted. “Complicated job. Needs computing power.”
They got across the border with the help of fake permits claiming they were demoing electronic surveillance equipment for a buyer in Seattle. Now, they were parked on a berm in the Yakima valley. Washagon agradome #32 loomed in the distance, its forcefield visible as an opalescent shimmer against the sunset. Five cars had already zipped past carrying second-shift workers. None seemed to notice the white panel van with the satellite dish mounted on top.
“Got ’em!” Abeba had guided the drone off the parking lot, up the worker’s shoe and into the shadow of his pant cuff.
“Shh,” Wikolia said reflexively.
Abeba ignored her.
On the screen, they watched the man walk into the lobby. The view was nauseating as the drone rose and fell with his footsteps. It stabilized when the worker stopped for an ID check. Wikolia tensed when the guard produced a hand-held metal detector. The drone must have been too small to pick up. The guard waved the worker past and he went straight for the men’s changing room.
“Shoe covers,” Wikolia said.
“I know.” Abeba jumped the drone onto the floor. The man changed into his Tyvex suit and the bee hopped back onto his foot. The worker opened a glass door and stepped into a small white room with nozzles mounted on the walls.
“What is that?” Wikolia said. “We don’t have that.”
The man raised his arms and started a slow pirouette. The view went crazy.
Abeba’s fingers flew across the controls. “Wind’s swirling the dust down into some floor vents. Drone’s compensating.” The view stopped spinning but was still unsteady. Abeba struggled to get the drone to rise.
The worker moved to a glass door opposite the first. The drone flew at the door and barely got through.
Wikolia winced. The worker had seen something. He looked down and to the left. Abeba flew the drone straight at the man’s back and triggered it to attach. The worker turned in a circle.
“More pirouettes. Guy’s a fricken ballet dancer,” Wikolia said.
The worker didn’t see anything behind him. He eventually gave up and walked into the airlock. It cycled, he stepped out into the orchard, and impulsively brushed at his suit.
Wikolia leaned towards the screen. “You’re so stupid. If you’re gonna do a body check, do it before you get in. And while you’re at it, work in pairs. We all need someone to watch our backs.”
“Where’s Tomi?” Abeba asked.
Wikolia had gotten completely sucked into watching the drone run through its repeating routine. The drone homed in on a Washagon bee, snuggled up against it and wirelessly delivered a dormant packet of code. It looked kinky to Wikolia, like some kind of robotic bee porn.
Abeba rolled her eyes, opened the back of the van and cautiously looked out. Night had fallen, but there was enough moonlight for her to see the tire iron, but a missing tire and no Tomi. The jack was holding up the van.
Abeba pushed Wikolia away from the keyboard.
“We’re humped,” Abeba said. “Time to speed things up.”
“But he only got half the swarm.” Wikolia had started thinking of the drone as a him instead of an it.
“Good enough. Drones’re coming out. You figure out how to get home without four tires.”
Wikolia swore and lurched out of the van, leaving the back door swinging.
Abeba activated the override. It was one of the most complicated programs she’d ever written and she was mildly surprised when it worked. One thousand red overlays appeared on her screen. She couldn’t personally pilot them all so she launched an automation sequence, then resumed control of the infiltrator drone. It was somewhere deep in the orchard, surrounded by shadows and flowers. She dialed up the speed and the drone’s wings blurred as it rose into the moonlight above the trees. One by one, the infected Washagon drones popped out of the foliage and swarmed towards their new leader.
“They’re coming!” Wikolia yelled through the open door. The sirens were faint, but getting louder. “And I don’t know where Tomi dumped the tire.”
By the time Wikolia had finished talking and climbed back into the van, the bees had traveled a quarter meter and were nearing the perimeter of the dome. The leader followed the curve of the force field down to the retaining wall. It skimmed so close that the gray cement filled the entire viewscreen. Abeba searched desperately for a vent. Agradomes used positive pressure circulation with a 70-30 mix of recycled and fresh air. That meant a constant exhaust cycle.
There was a loud clang from the back of the van. Abeba flinched and looked back. Wikolia had pulled a panel off the side of one of the computer towers and had her hands buried in the guts of the machine. She stood back up with a bullpup automatic rifle.
“Complex job. Needs computing power.” Wikolia laughed, but it was brief. She looked terrified. “If Tomi was a plant, did they let us in?”
Abeba didn’t care. She’d found the grate that she was looking for. Her drone guided the rest into the vent. This was the tough part. This tunnel should join the main duct at a t-junction. From there, most of the air would flow to the ops building to be filtered and recycled. However, somewhere along the main shaft there should be one or, hopefully, several branch points leading up to exhaust ports. Filters were likely in the exhaust ducts in case the positive pressure system failed.
The original plan had been to not alert the facility until Abeba took control of the bees. Now she’d have to work twice as fast and, due to the shocking lack of lighting in the ducts, accomplish this step in complete darkness. She parked her own drone at the base of the shaft and set the Washagon bees to random speed. Red dots filled the duct work and streamed to the left and right along the walls. She lost some that flew at full speed into the metal sheathing. She watched carefully until one, then a couple of the dots popped up above the level of the lateral shaft. She took personal control of those drones and flew them up until they reached an obstruction. She parked them there and used their dots to guide her drone into place. Her bee was loaded with more than just the viral control program. It had jaws and carbide-tipped teeth. It made a bee-sized hole in the filter and zoomed free, the rest of the slaved swarm following in its wake.
Gun shots rattled outside and tires squealed followed by the sound of buckling metal. Bright search lights stabbed through the half-open door. It was impossible to see anything outside their glare. Abeba opened the drone case, a flat metal box lined with egg-crate foam designed to cradle two thousand bees. She yelled for Wikolia, told her partner to hold on for just a minute. There was a moving speck silhouetted against the light, now ten of them, now hundreds filling the beam and casting small writhing shadows. The drones streamed in, hovered over the case, then deactivated and fell like metal rain onto the foam.
Abeba snapped the lid shut, clutched the box to her chest and edged toward the door. The motion attracted attention. Bullets stuttered off the back of the van. Abeba dove to the floor. She crawled, still clutching the box and fell head-first out of the van. Wikolia was pressed against the right side of the vehicle, sheltering behind the open door. She dropped her gun, grabbed Abeba’s leg and pulled her partner out of the light.
“You hit?” Wikolia said.
“Don’t think so.”
Wikolia bent to retrieve her gun as bullets pockmarked the door. A few pinged off the ground uncomfortably close to Abeba’s head. The guards had realized that the door only provided so much cover.
Abeba lurched to her feet. “You should use the gun sling.”
“You think I know what I’m doing? Run!”
Wikolia pointed away from the lights, then tried to run backwards. Flanking fire came from a guard who had a clear line of sight past the door. Wikolia swore, sprayed bullets in his general direction, then ducked around the front of the van. Abeba was already crouched there.
“I got us a car,” Wikolia said. “It might still work.”
Thirty meters away, there was a once sleek modern sedan tangled in the crumpled remains of the guard rail. They ran for it. Wikolia slammed the butt of her gun into the driver’s side window. She had to pound it three times before it shattered and she could unlock the doors. The driver was encased in sublimating crash foam. Abeba was already in the passenger seat and was about to shove the driver onto the tarmac.
“Wait.” Wikolia grabbed the guy’s hand and pushed his thumb against the ident controlled starter. “Oh. Thank God,” Wikolia said. The engine didn’t sound great, but it was running.
Then, it was searchlights, helicopters and bullets, all the way to the border where they crashed through a Washagon security cordon. Once across, their own state troopers discouraged pursuit.
“I don’t get it,” Wikolia said. “The pollen’s free of any contaminants. This doesn’t seem like a set-up.” The stolen robotic bees and their pollen had been checked for electronic and biological viruses. Once cleared, they were set free in the Cali orchard to see if they could salvage something of this year’s crop.
Abeba shrugged. She was sitting on the ground under an apple tree trying to enjoy the sunlight filtering through the dome. “I’m not going to get a tan in this suit. Let’s head out.”
Abeba’s skin was as black as they came so Wikolia felt safe ignoring that suggestion. “Nothing but kudzu outside. I like it here.” She affectionately patted one of the trees. A bee buzzed. “You think that’s him?”
“Him? Oh. You mean the infiltrator.” The unique drone had been put to work with the rest of them. “I’m on break. How would I know?”
The question reminded Wikolia of her talk with Tomi the day she’d come up with the plan. “Do you think it was a last-minute decision? He decided to sell us out only after we got there?”
“Must have been. Otherwise we’d never have gotten across the border. What I don’t get is you. We lost a lot of equipment and nearly got killed for a paltry five thousand bushels?”
“Five thousand bushels is a fortune when everyone else’s crop fails. So, yeah, I guess I did get greedy with the pollen.”
Abeba grinned. “You sent something in with the drone, right? Something that’s going to kill their crop?”
“Do you think I’m stupid? Would I release the same drone in here? No. Come with me. I’ll show you the real reason we went in.”
Wikolia led Abeba back to their ops building. Deep underground was Wikolia’s domain: room after room of incubators and laboratory equipment. Wikolia took a 96-well plate from an incubator and placed it on the stage of a microscope. She focused on one of the wells then motioned Abeba to sit down and look. There was a small cluster of green cells floating in the broth.
“Not all of the tissue samples that the drone collected lived. But enough of them did. They’ll grow. Give us new root stock. Give us new scions.”
Abeba grinned, but then her face clouded over. “But they’ll just fail when you plant them. n160. It’s all over the dome.”
“You think the Washagon people would release something like that if their own plants were susceptible? I doubt it. I bet you these babies are resistant.”
Abeba stood up and grabbed Wikolia in a hug. “You sneaky science bitch!”
Wikolia put up with the hug and being called a bitch because the label was kindly meant. “You know,” she said when Abeba finally released her, “if they weren’t so precious, I’d be tempted to send Tomi a box of this year’s crop. I mean assuming we can find where he’s hiding.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Red Delicious,” Wikolia said. “He hates that shit.”
Kathleen Molyneaux holds a doctorate in cell biology. Her first semi-pro sale was in the 12-APR-2015 issue of “Perihelion.” Since then, she has published a flash piece with “Every Day Fiction” and contributed several stories to anthologies.