Harris walked into the tent, his sun-burned face wrinkled into a permanent, unconscious frown.
“There aren’t enough bees.”
“Fuck,” Grace muttered. She pushed the monitor back, blanking the screen showing the active bee swarms and the yet-to-be-pollinated flowers, and unhooked herself from the computer. “That means we’ve got to go out there.”
“I’ll get the finger puppets,” Harris said. He spoke slowly and moved slowly, clearly hoping Grace would stop him with an alternative.
There was no alternative.
“Don’t call them that.”
He grunted, unwilling to argue, and equally unwilling to give in to the respect Grace demanded for the job. But as Harris pulled the bee-bodied pollinators from their careful storage bins, she admitted he was right. Finger puppets. They were god-damned finger puppets. She took her two, leaving them in their protective paper sheath, and led the way out of the shelter. The heat was wet, the air sluggish. Summer in Southeast Texas was what she’d always imagined hell to be. She let Harris drive the gyrowheel. Eyes closed and motionless, she enjoyed the air passing over her.
“So we’re doing this ourselves?”
“Team Carpenter is on honey production. Team Bumble is testing substitute bee protein on Summer Tanagers. Team Sweat is out in Tennessee investigating that live hive sighting. And Team Mining is, well…”
Harris snorted. “They still haven’t checked in?”
“They’re fine. Maybe Genever decided they all needed a break. They’re drinking beer at an icehouse because it doesn’t really matter if one team out of hundreds isn’t pollinating.”
“Yeah,” Harris agreed. “But they were supposed to be handling the bees. Right?”
Grace kept her eyes closed. They both knew the score, so there was no point in talking about it. Whatever Team Mining was doing, they weren’t doing their job, which meant she and Harris, who weren’t part of a team themselves, were forced to pick up the slack.
“We’ll hit the closest ones first,” she said. “No need to waste time and effort.”
Harris didn’t argue. If scrappers had hit Team Mining, there wasn’t anything the two of them could do. Not directly. And any government rescue would be too late. The goal wasn’t to protect each other as much as it was to keep the chain intact, because without the bees, they were all nature had. They were the bees.
They stopped at a wild orchard. The surrounding fence had fallen into disrepair. They drove over it to the ruined farm buildings where the field office sat, a dirty black and yellow tent dulled with pollen and wind-borne dirt. Harris slipped on his pollinators and climbed in an auto-ladder. The treads of the vehicle chewed up the wet ground as he, carefully but surely, stuck the pollinators in the flowers, moving quickly from one to the next. The pollinators didn’t have to look anything like bees, but the designers were convinced it helped morale, as though each animal substitute felt better the more fully they embodied their role.
Grace unsealed the tent with a bit of saliva. Cool air rushed past her as she entered, the inside lighting up with computers and sensors coming online. She called up the local bee tracker. The swarm that was supposed to be here flickered, the signals blinking in and out as though they were coming from an electrical storm.
The skies were clear.
Which meant humans. Scrappers. A few disorients spaced around the area and the bees would blunder from one blossom to another without any pattern, reduced to their most basic programming. She took a moment to type out an SOS to the Kludge Factory, then went out to help Harris. There was no telling when or if help would come. They’d have to do this themselves.
Pollination couldn’t be hurried. Grace lost herself in it, enjoying the sun soaking into her dark skin. Though she didn’t worry about burning, she knew she should have put on protection to prevent cancer. Harris was slathered in oxide every day, and still his skin pinked like raw chicken. She even enjoyed the sodden air, which made every breath a mouthful of steam. Pollination was physical work. Necessary work. With the bees gone, she and the rest of her crews had to keep the chain from breaking by fulfilling every aspect of life the bees did. Harris talked about it as though they were fooling mother nature into thinking everything was okay. Deceit appealed to him. For Grace, it was penance.
After the orchard, they headed toward the nearest swarm remnants. Grace held out a jammer, a government issue salve to the scrapper problem. It hadn’t worked. Her staff reported that the jammers fritzed out close to a disorient. Grace suspected they didn’t interfere with disorients so much as get interfered by them.
They found Silas, arm broken, head clubbed in. Maria was breathing, but her pupils were different sizes. They’d come back.
Following the jammer until it was a useless collection of blinking lights and soft whines, they located one of the disorients. It was cobbled together from junk. Grace even noticed bee parts welded into it. No scrappers were around, but she wasn’t surprised, though she was still tense. Meanwhile, Harris was so on edge he refused to leave the gyrowheel.
“For God’s sake, just break it already. Let’s go.”
Even with the bees incapacitated, catching them would be hard work for the scrappers. Destroying the disorient wouldn’t release the entire swarm—it would only prompt their higher functions to kick in. They’d defend themselves. They’d sting. They’d fly down nostrils and throats, burrow into ears. A lot of the scrappers would die.
But the reason she’d taken this job was that humans didn’t matter anymore, not as humans. The scrappers were just trying to survive. The world was, too.
Some things were expendable. Some were not.
She smashed the disorient.
In a few days, they’d come collect the bees from the bodies.