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A Clockwork Phoenix featured story

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From the pages of Clockwork Phoenix 4
 

The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly

 

Benjanun Sriduangkaew

 

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Under Sennyi’s feet the mud is hissing a mantra for health and prosperity.

The path is a burial ground for seven hundred and seventy-seven monks, sealed behind yellow-paper firewalls. In death their vestments were stripped and torn to little talisman shreds, wards against illness and accident. Their prayer beads went too, spread out on merchants’ mats on- and off-world, touted for their sanctity and bringing terrible misfortune to all buyers: virulent malware that scrambles networks in seconds, infects medical equipment in hospitals, upsets commute at rush hour.

She puts one of those beads, bought for this pilgrimage as offering, into the mulch and buries it deep. Within her the next batch of bees is fruiting, and each of their small hearts flutters in time to the monkly chants. At night they buzz for a queen that will never come. She can hear them between her ears, in her stomach, secret communication through the hive that is her torso.

* * *

When Sennyi was thirty, her closest crèche-sibling disappeared. She—or they, though Sennyi is fairly certain it was a sister—did this by erasing all records of her birth, childhood, and research. One moment Sennyi knew her name; the next, after a routine network sync, she didn’t. If they met now in the streets of their birth city or at the port, Sennyi would think her sibling a stranger. All she had to mind was the idea of a girl who giggled like a horse and who taught her to whistle.

It was the first time a deletion so drastic happened to her. Such things weren’t unheard of, and she should have been able to take it with equanimity. Instead, when she first realized what had happened, she flung a paperweight against her window. The latter cracked; the former shattered. As she gathered and tidied up the shards, she became near-certain that this was a gift from her sister and spent the next hour forgetting that she was too old to cry.

By then, she had thirteen years left to live. Bio-theurges and physics-shamans had already attempted to solve her genetic timebomb, using nanomachines to restitch her soul and laser scalpels to slice at her dreams. They accomplished nothing, and she concluded that she would not die with the mystery of her sibling lodged behind her sternum; she would not die with nothing to show for having lived.

For six years she saved up to have her heart replaced.

She meant to have a hunting bird installed—an osprey, a hawk—and chose the best implant seed she could afford, one created by Esithu. It carried an implicit contract to become one of the cyberneticist’s subjects, a solidarity spanning some two million across the stars. There were studies done to analyze why anyone would willingly accept a modification so unpredictable and occasionally fatal. A disease, some said, and madness to want it. Conspiracy theorists insisted it masked one’s net-presence, turned one into a ghost, and let criminals escape justice. It might well, Sennyi thought, allow the bearer to erase themselves and evaporate.

She prepared to leave a life laid out for her in cradle-city Thirteen O’Clock: a career in virtuality, an engagement to a xenologist.

“You must understand, my dear,” she told her betrothed, “I’ll literally have no heart. That’ll make me difficult to love. You could invest all the emotion but get nothing in return. Terrible business decision.”

The fiancé was first puzzled, then pensive. “Is it that I’m the wrong gender? I could become a woman. I’m willing to compromise.”

“No, no. Really without a heart it is impossible to love anyone. That is a fact.” She did not say that she had never loved him.

“What about your condition?”

“It’s more dignified,” she said cheerfully, “to die alone, don’t you think?”

She didn’t tell him it was not dignity she sought, and she didn’t kiss him goodbye. She’d never liked kissing.

The implant would function as her central processing organ. She imagined the bird a hungry, seeking thing that would help her dig a Sennyi-shaped hole, to spare her crèche-parents and friends unnecessary sorrow. It wasn’t their fault they could do nothing to keep the clock of her body from winding down, and she thought it senseless they should be punished with the unrelenting weight of grief.

She went into the operating tank thinking of the sister-shaped absence.

She woke up with a chest full of bees.

* * *

Cradle-cities are numbered rather than named, designed to be identical: from above, a concave clock’s face. From the ground, a labyrinth of low walls, low buildings. There used to be endless towers, compressed residential units, but that was before Samutthewi changed. A primitive time, when fetuses gestated in flesh-and-blood uteruses.

A citizen does not leave their cradle-city on foot; traveling is by paper ships, in the safety of the clouds. Between cities the ground runs on chaos intelligences. Between cities the ground belongs to Esithu.

Bearing the bees grants Sennyi some protection, but even so she keeps close to the monks’ road, a precisely demarcated ribbon that runs parallel to the river Prayapithak. It is dense with carp AIs in search of the river’s source, a machine-gate that—once leaped—will transform them from lowly intelligences to full-fledged cortices, incandescent overnight.

On the monks’ path anything can happen.

Within the first day she is chased by an ambush of tigers which are only quarter-real: infused with a minimum of substance and a texture that suggests rather than manifests fur. Echoes of lashing tails, thump-churn against the humid wet. The one leading the hunt is more dimensional, with paws that leave deep imprints in the mud. Sennyi registers the mind behind the avatar, a woman on far-away Thotsakan, a planet whose chief exports are fabric made of leopard shadows cast at sundown and perfume distilled from the death of temporally non-linear eels.

Sennyi creates copies of herself and grafts them onto the blank replicants wandering this road, putting a bee in each. It is rough, hasty work and the decoys will expire in forty hours, but it will give her time to plan.

For the rest of the night she wades through the Prayapithak’s shallows with an ear out for every hiss of water, every susurrus of carps, every ripple of network activity. Panic exerts a pull on her, gravitational.

Before the bees she never experienced danger; before the bees her life was mapped out in front and behind, precisely plotted like a replicant’s verse. Each minute an update blip in public data streams, optimized for happiness.

* * *

The first year Sennyi coughed up dead workers and orange phlegm, saccharine fuzziness in the back of her throat, legs and wings spasming against the roof of her mouth in final rites.

She went to have her chest cut open and a small metal lattice installed between her breasts. When the bees became too much, she would open that little gate and let them out in a cascade of corpses and restless workers. The living ones always returned to Sennyi-as-hive, for they were creatures of habit. They drove her to eat voraciously and she developed a private memory. It jolted her to have a cerebral partition that could not be edited by anyone but herself. Still, what had already been forgotten couldn’t be brought back. There was no epiphany that returned her sibling’s face.

Months on, she was approached with offers to pose nude; she rejected them out of hand. Shortly after, portraits of her appeared in galleries on Samutthewi, Yodsana, and Laithirat, where Esithu’s cult flourished. In the images, sculptures, and collages, Sennyi was always more waspish of waist than in reality, with mouth and tongue like invitations. Sometimes she was blindfolded; just as often she was suspended by the wrists, pendulating from the underbelly of spiders as though arachnids and insects are interchangeable. There was pornography featuring facsimiles of her coupling with any number of bugs, anthromorphic and not, on a bed of writhing leaves or pressed—Sennyi facedown—into dry, cracked chrysalises.

Around this time she discovered the bees did more than obscure her presence. They scrambled it. On the net she was a chameleon, able to borrow and discard identities as though they were shoes.

Sennyi tracked down the artists, and each was delighted to receive her. She entered their homes with coquetry in the tilt of her head and the angle of her throat. She left stepping over a body that had become a collection of swelling punctures. When she could, she deleted their works. When that was impossible—their works having spread too far, distributed too many times—she defaced them. A virus that latched onto each copy, spreading in that proven monk-bead method. Before long such pieces came to have the faces and genitalia of their artists instead of hers. It was possible, this way, to erase any recall that Sennyi had ever been spread open for public perusal. Who didn’t synchronize? Who didn’t want to stay up to date with everything?

Samutthewi being lawless justice must be seized in a clenched fist, or meted out with apidae venom.

She almost fell in love with one of those artists, who digitized her not as naked meat defined by open legs and wings emerging from vagina, but who reimagined Sennyi with faceted eyes and arms coated in gold.

It didn’t last. Sennyi-as-bee, in retrospect, missed the point. She is habitat, not inhabitant. The sentiments of romance didn’t in any case ignite a spark in her. A matter far more important awaited.

* * *

On the sixth day Sennyi reaches Twenty-Five. A city beyond clocks; a city that is no cradle, but a nexus of high towers bridged by reinforced resin. An amber skyline—look up and there are jaundiced clouds, brown skies, and paper ships that look as though they have been roasted over a slow fire.

Behind her, just outside Twenty-Five’s perimeter, there are remains of tigers. Flecks of paint, cracked plastic, and machine hearts bleating sparks.

Sennyi’s torn, bruised feet leave prints between puddles of orange shadows. Drops of her blood mingle with those, nearly the same exact shade, and her cranium fills with rapidly beating wings. Reacting to adrenaline they are wild, tickling her lungs with their feet. The ragged shreds of her hair scratches her face.

Rain begins, patter then thud against the bridges, the roofs. She hears owls.

Beneath a defunct banner advertising berserk firearms, a silhouette waits for her. An androgyne, she sees when she comes closer, with a youth’s face and a spareness of body hardly obscured by saffron cloth. Gold at an ankle, gold at a wrist. Filigree snaking right into the veins to shine beneath epidermis.

“The rain will lap the flesh off your bones.”

“Lucky that I’m in the shade.” Sennyi tugs her clothes around herself even so, a gesture consciously useless. It was a decision she made to go forward without a carapace, and no fabric can withstand Samutthewi’s precipitation. “Are you the welcome committee?”

“No.” They have perfectly symmetrical dimples. “I am Esithu.”

“Oh,” she says, for want of any more appropriate thing.

“I’ll give you a bed for some nights, food, necessities. Armoring, since you appear without. Enough to last you on the road back to Thirteen.”

“You track everyone with your implants.”

Esithu shrugs. “It’s hard not to. And you’re famous.”

“Infamous,” she murmurs, following them into an empty hall whose ceiling rears so high it is only a skeleton of iron and shadow. Old cobwebs, robot-spun, glitter with amber beads and brass bells.

“A serial murderer.”

“Everyone on Samutthewi is a murderer, or a murder about to happen.”

They give a short nod. There is no telling how old they are, but if they are Esithu the trail of deaths they’ve left across the planet’s history is longer than most people have been alive. She tries to believe in the idea, that this is the cyberneticist who rules Samutthewi’s interstitial ground, that all it took to meet Esithu was to step into Twenty-Five on a rainy day.

A bronze cage on hydraulics—quaint—brings them past floors full of broken prostheses, furniture suspended upside down, and tableaus of replicant animals in combat. Tortoise against crustaceans, rhinoceros against stags, broken anthills. They share the lift with owls, who hoot and hoot to no appreciable rhythm.

The cage slows to a stop, swinging against its tethers. A thrum of conversations comes to a halt. Sennyi looks at each face, but it is little use. There’s no telltale sign or portent, no sudden flash of familiarity. Her searching gaze purchases no twitch of acknowledgment.

Esithu nods to a young woman, who without requiring instructions takes Sennyi’s arm and steers her away from the tense, silent crowd. Esithu is joined by a pair of androgynes who look very much like them. Heads bent close together they converse in low voices.

“They’re all Esithu,” the young woman says as she shows Sennyi to a room of mosaic and throw rugs.

“Clones?”

A reverent sigh. “Esithu has three bodies. They always say one isn’t enough to contain their mind, and it’s true, you know.”

Groupies, she thinks, with enough self-awareness to recognize she is one too. She experiments with thinking of herself as a headline—inexplicable citizen ran away from qualified fiancé to join a cult at thirty-eight.

The young woman, Ipnoa, treats the cut in her scalp as though it is normal to secrete honey from a wound, and wipes at Sennyi’s face with delicate care. Sennyi lies down on her stomach, and does not object when Ipnoa peels away the rags of her clothes to clean the crusted lacerations. Tiger teeth, tiger claws. A Thotsakan woman whose brother, at the peak of his career, made an obscene sculpture of Sennyi.

“How long have you had your implant?”

“A couple years.”

“Took you a while to come looking for Esithu.”

“It wasn’t an easy decision.” The mess with the artists slowed her down, but taught her new skills as well. “I was told to go back, anyway.”

“Esithu doesn’t mean it. You can stay as long as you want.”

Before Ipnoa leaves, Sennyi murmurs, “What do you have?”

“A small porpoise.” Ipnoa taps her chest. “I’ll be seeing you around.”

* * *

Sennyi does not see Esithu much; she is told they seclude themselves high up the tower, to cultivate new seeds, to oversee—and this is said casually—the secession of Samutthewi.

“Are the rumors true then?” she asks Ipnoa.

“It depends on which rumors.”

Ipnoa, a little shyly, shows Sennyi an upper body that is glass, translucent and green, brimming with brine and water. Between collarbones and hips there is no skin. Curious Sennyi touches it, her thumb drawing circles on the sheer smoothness of Ipnoa. The porpoise’s eyes follow her fingers. “You can feel?”

“Embedded sensory receptors. Can I see the bees?”

Sennyi lets a few out. They alight on Ipnoa, rubbing their legs against a hard, rounded stomach. Sennyi peers closely at a plastic ribcage and pockets of organs. There’s almost no give to Ipnoa, a peculiar soft-hard texture, cold to warm at junctures where flesh meets glass.

Ipnoa touches her in turn, fingers grazing Sennyi’s hair. “Why did you come?”

“To see the person who gave me bees when I wanted something else, I suppose.”

“Esithu told me you’ve compartmentalized a private memory. What is that like?”

“Very odd. Why?”

Ipnoa puts on her clothes and looks away. “Just curious. Let’s walk together.”

Morning in Twenty-Five comes down in slashes of sun and screaming birds pelting the skylight. It is near impossible to escape either the light or the sound, and when Sennyi does locate a shadow or some quiet she always finds it already occupied by another of Esithu’s subjects. Consulting the building’s life support, she learns that there are fifty-six of them in and out of the tower. A considerable percentage comprises androgynes, nearly half of which changed their gender after receiving Esithu’s implant. Not because the budding seed compelled them, but so that they would feel closer to the cyberneticist.

Ipnoa does not make introductions. “Most of them are lovers. The idea is that since each of us bears an implant, to touch each other is to touch Esithu.”

Sennyi’s stomach twitches. “You don’t participate?”

“It can be exhilarating. But it’s not for me.” Ipnoa takes her arm.

They walk bridges built as thoroughfares for trains and mass vehicles, still marked with traffic overlays that no longer function. A city of hundred-millions in a dim and distant era. Each cradle now contains some fifty thousand, a population level carefully maintained in a straight line. Closing her eyes Sennyi can access a cartography of Twenty-Five as of formerly, a metropolis that covered much of this continent. Not so much interstitial ground back then. Not so much realm for Esithu to claim and redo.

Ipnoa brings her to the basin where carp AIs come once they’ve passed the machine-gate. An empty depression choked with weeds and specters of whiskered heads cycling through light spectrums. Carps-become-dragons monitoring and powering the city. “I wish they were a bit real,” Ipnoa says. “I’d like to pet them.”

She has endless questions for Sennyi: where she is from, what she used to do, what she left behind. Sennyi answers circuitously, and when she asks Ipnoa which cradle-city gave her birth the other woman looks away. “That’s not important, is it?”

“Mostly not.”

No one bothers her about having rapturous piety-sex that will purify them in Esithu’s eye, for which she is relieved. But not even Ipnoa explains the nature of their work. Sennyi takes the liberty to probe and finds that they are refining and deploying deletion algorithms.

She explores her hive’s capabilities to interface with Twenty-Five. Translating them into code, she uses one bee to snoop on data packets and another to attach to the dragon AIs—compatibility a matter of course, since Esithu made both. Everyone here synchronizes only partially; everyone has a discrete memory all their own.

The cyberneticist summons her after she’s taken control of a dragon and found their fourth body.

* * *

Esithu’s floor is a series of bone arches, each heavy with dozing owls. Feathers are not shed; pellets are not dropped. Replicants.

Sennyi’s shoes strike no footfalls. They sink, disconcertingly far, into the alabaster sand that shifts and shudders as though deep underneath a great beast-machine hibernates. The chameleon mesh-gown Ipnoa lent her reflects the sand, starkly pale against her skin. Several workers cluster around her neck, eyes and antennae brighter than jewels.

Esithu sits in a circle of flight. Primitive flyers fueled by combustible batteries. Leather stretched on chrome frames. Paper, in all the permutations that paper is capable of.

She expects the three bodies to act in unison, but only one turns to regard her. “You needn’t have dressed up.”

“Ipnoa insisted. She believes in being presentable.” Words come too quickly; her cardiac rate elevates. The cyberneticist unnerves more than she thought. “Is it true that you were around when this was a live city, with a real name?”

Esithu blinks at her. The other bodies are separately sketching a hologram of some chimeral beast and unpacking a data polyhedron. Neither has anything to do with each other in subject matter or medium. It’s hard to decide which would be more unsettling—three bodies that function in tandem, or a single mind that can make them appear independent. “Everyone asks that. You can look it up.”

“Most of the information about you is falsified.”

“I’m a private person.”

“I’ve also heard that Esithu is more title than name, passed from the original to a series of meticulously selected successors.”

“People will believe anything,” Esithu says, inflectionless. “You’re dying, yes? You must realize that my implant won’t help.”

When she sits the sand coheres into clay, contouring to the jut and curve of her calves. “I didn’t expect it to.”

“Nor can I cure the disease or prolong what remains of your life.”

“I came here,” Sennyi says, smiling, “to die among strangers, so that I won’t break my crèche-parents’ hearts. I came here to become a ghost, and your implant lets me do that.”

Eyes whiteless with augmens fix on her. “Five years are very brief,” they say, then thumb the arch, bringing up a display. “Let’s discuss the bees.”

It was never an accident, of course. An experiment incompatible with extant subjects, for those already implanted cannot receive another. Sennyi’s genetic timebomb, a glitch in Thirteen’s birth-web, makes her a suitable candidate. Esithu’s screen ripples and stretches to show a visual of where the hive has bonded to her, symbiotic filaments as ubiquitous through her system as lymph nodes.

“It self-propagates using your nutrients. You might’ve noticed needing more food.”

Sennyi watches the other two bodies. They have moved on to assemble an exoskeleton out of detritus. Bar into joints, a welder wielded with deft speed. At least they are working together now. “They’re hacking tools.”

“Not so basic. I’ve always wanted to make Samutthewi a shadow planet. Our population is low, our cities few. A perfect condition for us to secede from the collective consciousness.”

* * *

Two years in Twenty-Five slip by almost without Sennyi’s notice. She receives messages from the ex-fiancé, which she deletes unread. The ones from her crèche-parents are urgent. Where is she? Why won’t she see them? She sends light-hearted, mostly truthful answers about gainful employment.

“Why don’t you talk to them properly?” Ipnoa asks Sennyi once. “They sound sick with worry.”

She finishes off another brief note. “Says someone who’s scrubbed off her cradle watermark. Even I didn’t do that.”

Ipnoa’s cheeks color. It is a novel sight; Sennyi has never seen her lose temper, or even evidence that she might have a temper. “I have my reasons.”

“So do I.” Sennyi doesn’t ask the question that burns in her mouth like venom at a stinger’s tip. It is not ready; she is not ready. “Do you like your work here? Believe in Esithu’s cause?”

“The work’s what it is.” Ipnoa untangles then obliterates ties between a Samutthewi factory and a weapons conglomerate based in Yodsana. She is effortless. “Their cause is specific and I don’t think too many will agree with it, but it’s necessary. Your memory should be your own, not something for the net to revise at collective whim.”

“In that case,” Sennyi says, “we are both hypocrites. And so is Esithu, unless they believe only the implanted deserve a private memory.”

“There are limits to their influence. It’s not as if the implants could be distributed to everyone in want of them. But, maybe, in time. It is possible.”

Her parents’ messages stop after Sennyi has expunged the final sliver of her existence. There will be no bereavement, she knows, only a nagging doubt and the outline of a solemn girl who grew to be the tallest in her class. In the last year her deterioration will be alarming, she’s been told. A simultaneous malfunction of digestive and respiratory organs. The hive will fail too. But until then it is asymptomatic; until then she is full of health and courage.

Samutthewi is methodically rubbed out from awareness. Outside of Twenty-Five there’s no such thing as truly offline, and to alter data is to alter memory. Her bees are adapted for this purpose, and under that aegis of anonymity Twenty-Five’s deletion algorithms spread and contaminate with breathtaking speed.

When the moth ship lands she is asking Ipnoa, “Did you have family?”

The other woman begins to answer, then stops. Her expression pinches and Sennyi can hear the sloshing of water as the porpoise moves inside her, agitated. “Someone’s here to see Esithu.”

A moment later she understands why Ipnoa is shaking: a broadcast that tells them to head for the roof. At the top everyone has turned out, some having rushed up the stairs and panting into AI-serrated air.

Esithu is already there, serene and singular. The ship’s hostellum unreels and parts, disgorging a pair of foreigners.

Sennyi shades her eyes. From their coloring—“Hegemony?”

Ipnoa draws close to her. “Yes.” Her mouth is tight and her neck corded. Some of her tendons gleam more sculpture than skin.

Giving no regard to their subjects Esithu greets the dignitaries and leads them into the tower. There’s a childlike quality to Ipnoa’s and the others’ distress, as though they are unsure their parent—and monarch, and perhaps deity—is so omnipotent after all.

She goes to see Esithu unsolicited. Two of the bodies, which she’s irrationally come to think of as secondary, barely glance at her when she enters the hall of arches and owls. “This isn’t a good time,” one of them says.

“We aren’t deleting Samutthewi quick enough.”

“They are Hegemony. Different system. I would have dealt with them eventually, but they’re moving faster than I predicted. Look up the Masaal-Yijun dispute.”

A conflict over energy wells, one of many such that have kept the Costeya Hegemony at perpetual war with the Sovereignty of Suoqua. “None of that has anything to do with us.” Samutthewi won free of the Hegemony three hundred years ago.

“Don’t be a child. Every edge they can conceive of they will seize. Your hive would be useful to them, and they’re always fascinated by the thought of feral implants. They think that if I put a tiger in a soldier it’ll turn them into an unstoppable murderer, all aggression and no humanity.”

“Are you,” Sennyi asks, “speaking to them right now?”

You know how to multitask. Talking and breathing simultaneously for one.” Esithu jerks their head. “What is it about warring states? Always so convinced a single unconventional scientist will break a stalemate and decide their victory.”

“You can’t turn them down.”

“Or what? They’ll hardly rain fire and bioweapons on this planet. Even for them that would be heavy-handed—it’s tricky to conjure up a pretext in which Samutthewi is a threat to anyone.” An owl falls, an impact of plastic and metal on disquiet sand. The other body rises, picks up the bird, and gazes at it in thought.

“Where is your fourth body?”

Both sets of eyes turn to her, a lapse she thinks, a break in the illusion of multiplicity. “Difficult to impress, I see. Three are too mundane for you?”

“I’ve been scraping your access logs for two years. The bees do penetrate nearly anything.” Sennyi nods, offering a data pulse, as though this is merely academic to her when in truth it means everything. “My evidence for your perusal, if you like.”

“I profess an abiding disinterest.”

Her hands tighten around the impulse to shake the cyberneticist by the shoulder or throttle them bare-handed, one neck at a time. “I insist on your interest. You need me for your project, and I may leave at will.”

“This,” Esithu snaps, “is a very bad time.”

“You can multi-task. I want two answers. Is Ipnoa my sister? I can’t tell from her DNA since crèche-siblings are genetically unrelated. Second, why did she know about the moth ship entire seconds before everyone else?”

“She is your sister.” The cyberneticist shrugs. “Likely she expects you to respect her choice and not confront her with the fact, but who am I to arbitrate in family affairs. She’s been an assistant to me on and off, and has channel privileges.”

“There’s no record of her working with you.”

Esithu’s laughter issues from two tracheas, two mouths. “I hope you aren’t going to suggest that we are lovers or some such sordid thing. I’ve given you my answers, and frankly they’re more than you deserve. Excuse yourself, please. The Hegemonic representatives are leaving, and I have evacuation contingencies to activate.”

* * *

The next day a woman who wears her cobra outside, around her waist, is sent to Yodsana. Twins, who each have a stoat peering out between their vertebrae, are selected for Laithirat. The paper ships bearing them leave with two boxes of bees. Their passage will be obscured by a set of monk beads, strategically planted a generation previous.

Sennyi spends the day unwell, her chest hollowed out, her lungs alone for the first time in half a decade. The hive’s absence makes her alien to herself. It takes a week to bud and birth, replenishing in twos and threes. When she is half-full, Sennyi forges the workers into a unit, and connects.

In the virtuality of Twenty-Five the monk’s path is without end, winding high around the old towers, penetrating windows with assassin precision. It is alive, signposted with shrines and icons of old spirits. Monks in sedate progress move along the vertical riverbanks, clear-eyed and clean-shaven, black lacquer bowls in hand.

She’s never seen them embodied before, only heard their voices.

A feather grazes the corner of her eye. She catches it—finds it soft, tactile. Dimensional. The scent of coconuts flavors the air. That too is new; before the virtuality has always been flattened, odorless.

The bees orbit her, humming apidae music. In her palms frangipanis have blossomed, yellow-fringed white, pale peach, orange. Funeral flowers, their roots moving slowly under her skin. She twists one off and tucks it behind her ear, inhaling its dessert smell.

Other tower residents pass through her, ghosts that do not mark their collision or her presence.

She climbs as a matter of course, in recognition of metaphor. By the time she has covered the height of two floors her calves begin to throb. After four sweat pours from her, honeyed salt in the crooks of her elbows, honeyed salt on petals and leaves.

When she mounts the last step, her feet are raw and red.

The chanting is loud here, skin-close, and Esithu could have been one of the monks in dress if in little else. “They were massacred, the seven-hundred seventy-seven, when Costeya conquered us,” Esithu says, stepping away from the edge. “The atrocities an expansionist empire will commit to break a nation’s spirit. No one remembers that now.”

“Neither do you. It’s data you inherited.”

“Nothing wrong with inheriting data, as long as it is truthful. The trouble is when someone falsifies history and that history becomes truth in the collective conscious.” Esithu flexes mud-stained fingers. “For the original Esithu to be standing here they would have to be five, six hundred. Not even a cyborg lasts that long.”

“The successor would be someone who no longer exists. Someone who’s removed every thread and trace of their identity.”

“Like you,” Esithu says amiably. “Do you aspire to the post?”

“I did what I did to spare people some tears. You, I wouldn’t know.”

“Back in the day when everyone was entirely offline it was the norm to die among loved ones.” The cyberneticist kneels and opens their cupped hands. Water splashes on grass; a sapling springs, and in a moment they have shade over them, banyan leaves of mica and beaten gold.

Sennyi fingers the frangipani in her hair and discovers that it has become chiseled bone, sharp-edged, without smell. Those in her arms remain floral, continue to waft sweetness. “It strikes me as selfish.”

“It is human.”

The banyan grows roots with the strength of continents, trunks with the age of centuries. Sennyi cranes her neck after the tree until she can’t anymore, until it has become the sky. Boughs in place of sunlight, heart-shapes in place of stars. “The bees unlock a total sensory load.”

“You might have tried with a full hive—but here you are, and perceiving most of what you’re supposed to. Fine, don’t you think, a virtuality that engages all the senses and encompasses all the self?”

“Is uploading minds your ultimate goal?” The fantasy, once, of a certain kind of laypeople. “I didn’t realize you would indulge in that.”

“I wasn’t always a scientist.” Esithu chuckles as though the concept of ever having had a past amuses them. “People should have a choice to exist on their own terms, to forget if they want, to remember if they don’t. To have a history which may not be rewritten. That was Esithu’s wish.”

Sennyi presses her nails deep into the grass. Soft-wet, the smell of mulch. “What happens if everyone connects to Twenty-Five through the hive? Through me.”

“It is possible. It’s inadvisable. Originally I intended for your hive to become Twenty-Five, but we haven’t the time. For now we’ll try again elsewhere.”

“What happens,” she repeats, “if everyone connects to Twenty-Five through me?”

Esithu motions at the sky. A slash of horizon opens. “You’ll be providing the protocols for everyone else’s implants. In essence you will be Twenty-Five. A mind separated from the frailty of your skin.”

She laughs, surprising herself with its loudness. “I thought so. It’s lovely being right.”

“You’ve an abrupt imagination.”

“Three years,” she says, “are so very brief.”

* * *

She has prepared a long time for death. It is jarring to think that there is an alternative now, one that has gestated in her two years and which tastes like delirium.

Once the idea has taken hold Esithu does not allow her time to second-guess. Her hive is monitored more closely. How many bees generated over a given period of time. Do the particulars of what she eats affect their temperament and lifespan. The candidates on Yodsana and Laithirat proved incompatible. Two are dead, four comatose, and Esithu does not try any more after that. The lethal genetic combination that Sennyi bears is both rare and exacting.

Esithu creates back-ups of Twenty-Five and sends them to Thotsakan. “A Hegemony armada came looking for us,” they say. “They went to the wrong system. Tricky to find a planet that doesn’t exist on charts anymore and which doesn’t present coordinates on standard axes. Bless their AI pilots. Such stupid, straightforward things. I prefer to be careful, even so.”

On the day of transition Ipnoa holds her tight, and clutches her hand as long as she may while Esithu runs Sennyi through diagnostics one final time. During the initial stage, Esithu has warned her, she will be a closed loop. All interactive channels will be shut to her. She won’t be able to reach Ipnoa or anyone else.

The casket that would house her body is featureless, hostile. As she slips into it claustrophobia clots her gullet and for a precipice moment her reflexes howl no. Nutrient feeds latch onto her, and she lies there with the bees’ thunder in her ears.

Then she goes in, and becomes Twenty-Five.

* * *

Detached from the net at large and walled into herself, she does not perceive time. She hears from no one and sees little that is not raw data. Even Esithu is spectral and mute to her, their face a paper mask, their torso a convex lens through which the substance of Twenty-Five may be examined. Sennyi exercises her will like a muscle newly discovered. The city gains flocks of ospreys and hawks nesting under each eave, in the crooks of amber bridges. A dilapidated theater finds its lost plays brought back onstage, to an applause of phantoms.

There are caches of history Esithu left behind, and from those she reconstructs the city as it once was. She fills the streets with vehicles like sleek sharks, and ignites the walls with commercial overlays pulsing directions to secret nooks where shoppers will find curios they’ve seen in dreams. She gives the mausoleum bone jars rattling in ancestral voices and a frangipani forest that buds in every color of that species, thick with butterflies the size of her head.

Her hunger for solitude ebbs; the need for company aches. A month might have passed, or more. Her physical body might have met its expiry date, or not. Network activity tells her no Costeya moth has yet descended to destroy them.

The next phase comes in an earthquake.

The edges of her city, her world, fall away. When she looks across tectonic cracks she sees low walls and low buildings.

She crosses to stand before the crèche in which she was raised.

“What do you think?”

“What’s been happening?” she says to Esithu’s reflection.

“Success. I’ve converted Thirteen’s system to ours. You’ll be able to contact your parents. If you wish to.”

“I don’t.” There’s no physicality here unless she permits it. But there is a simulation of pain for all that, of a heart clenched between terror and want. “Am I dead?”

“Functioning brain, functioning hive. The important parts. For what it’s worth I offer my condolences.”

“I’ve made my peace.”

“You make peace too easily.”

“Wrong,” Sennyi says. “Is Ipnoa your fourth body?”

Esithu’s image flickers. “How long have you suspected?”

“A while. Circumstantially. How evasive you were when I pressed about Ipnoa; how well she understands your cause, when everyone else is going along out of sheer sycophantry. How she is the only person in this city who’s erased herself so completely. A price, I’m guessing, she—you—paid to become Esithu.”

“Was it not instinctual then? A reflex, some buried recall.”

“You were thorough. I had only my reason and deduction.”

“I am not,” Esithu says, “your sister. It is more appropriate for you to interface with Ipnoa in that capacity. The convergence protocols that merged me into Esithu have been thirteen years running. There’s no going back, no turning it off.”

Sennyi presses her palm to the glass. It is impermeable; it will not allow her to reach and touch. Esithu—Ipnoa—does not want it, and the long tooth of that knowledge pierces deep. “Why did you do this? Take up Esithu’s goals.”

“To keep you alive, what else.” Esithu’s expression has not changed. A stranger’s. “Successfully, I should like to think.”

* * *

It takes five years for Samutthewi to fall under the shadow of Sennyi’s hive. City by city, ruin by ruin, one patch of interstitial ground after another. Her control over Twenty-Five grows finer-grained even as the limits of her space expand. Well past the death of her original flesh she lives; she imagines her gums shedding molars, her face caving in and peeling away to bare cranium.

In the virtuality the dragons’ basin brims cool and clear, shot through with the ruby of scales, the ivory of antlers. By its shores a young woman sits, whistling a plaintive tune, knees tucked to her chest. Grass sways in a wind that brings the rich truth of honey. The weather is never imperfect. The hour is never too early or too late.

They sit side by side, sometimes, two young women who don’t speak. One has created this; the other has become its god. In the face of such facts words can only be rare, are of limited use. One laughs into the other’s hand, over a shared joke that requires no voicing. She sounds slightly equine. The edge of her pitch has been blunted by adulthood and time, and a cyberneticist’s legacy. They lean against each other even so, cheek to cheek, shoulder to shoulder.

In the virtuality they can still be family.

The sky lightens and banyan leaves patter down, green-gold rain. In the distance their parents wade through shallows, slowly as though waking from a dream. Their names are called through cupped hands.

Fingers laced, the sisters turn away from the basin. Arm in arm they raise their heads, and stand to answer.

 
 

design

Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes love letters to cities real and speculative, and lots of space opera when she can get away with it. She is a Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist, with fiction appearing in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Solaris Rising 3, Phantasm Japan and various Mammoth Books. Her works have also been reprinted in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eight and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014.

About “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly,” she shared this: “The story let me write out some of my long-term obsessions: technology intertwined with flesh, ideas about what we might do with our bodies if given almost-unlimited options. But I also wanted to ground it in the fierce, complicated love between siblings because my sisters are some of the most important people in my life. Why bees? I wanted to be an apiarist growing up. Sometimes you write not so much what you know but what you’d like to have, like bees and porpoises. Probably wouldn’t keep them in my chest, though.”

 

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