The blade bites deep into the wood. The trees bleed easy here, close to the beach, their flesh fat with water. The young woman with the knife presses her mouth to the rough bark, dips her tongue between its folds into the cleft she created, and when she sits back on her heels, the sweet sap stains her from nose to navel. Her yellow eyes flutter. She goes on sipping from the bark, from the streaks on her shirt, from the tip of her blade, all the while as she works. The sap grows sticky quickly, and when she’s finished she scrambles through the undergrowth on hands and knees.
Moss is soft on her knees, rocks wobble under her hands. She feels a singing in her heart, feels a tingling in her fingertips when they pass over the earth, so there she digs, turning over leaves and mulch and insects. One hand conveys a struggling bug to her mouth while the other searches on and finds its goal: a filthy lozenge of matted fur, the size of her thumb. At once she begins to pick it apart, delicate and sure. Out of the fur come bones, pale in the grey morning light, and these she carefully sets aside in the cup of a fallen leaf. The pile of fur grows, the pile of bones too, until the pellet is broken down entirely.
Frowning, the girl scrapes clear a patch of lichen-covered stone with the calloused heel of her hand, then tips the bones out. She pokes at them, sorts them and re-sorts them, humming all the while in a low drone. She adds a bit of fur, lays one bone against another, adds a bit of fur. Shreds cling to her sticky fingers, and though the thing that grows under her hands has no head or limbs yet, it leans into her touch like an eager animal. She builds it fluffy ears and a tail, though there are bones missing – no matter. Cariad is fecund beyond the imagination of the machines who plunder it. It wants to live.
But she’s not thinking about that. The tousled little beast in her hands is acquiring features, and she’s thinking of a name for it, so that when she strokes a patch of fur into place along its back and it shakes itself and raises raw, new eyes, she can say, “Hello, Acorn. Welcome back. Do you want to come home with me?”
He does. They usually do. She’s left a few in the forest where she found them, and she suspects that they don’t last long – she’s never seen one a second time, awake or not. Little Acorn has the sense to climb into her hands, and she carries him back to the wounded tree. While she dresses, he laps at the rivulets of sap still leaking over the bark. It gives him strength and definition. She thinks he looks like a shrew. Like the shrews she’s seen, anyway. They don’t always come out looking right. She puts him in her pocket, along with a sap-soaked stick for him to chew, and heads away from the shore toward home.
The trees on the western coast of Five grow fast and thick, and the undergrowth takes a terraforming team to clear. That’s why there’s very little civilization there now. Which in turn is why the temperate jungle between the base of the Drop and the shore is crawling with humans.
The human problem is one of my ongoing responsibilities. Not especially high on the priority list – the Queen would rather forget that the humans exist, and for the most part, does – but one that has been taking up more and more time of late. The shipyard below the Drop is the only route of import and export for the cities atop it, along a mist-clogged plateau. Wiser heads have noted that the Queen’s preferred city is in a truly abysmal strategic position, easily starved by an invading force from the sea. The Queen replaces her wiser heads every few years as well, so that they don’t get too wise. It matters little. All of Cariad beats as one heart. All of Cariad serves Her. Except the humans.
Most of the living organics on Cariad are descended from those left behind when Atlantis fled this planet six centuries ago. It’s difficult to estimate their numbers. They make hives underground, sometimes, or treetop nests. I believe there to be a substantial population living on the ruins of the transport system and weather stations offshore. The trouble with humans is that they adapt so quickly. Strictly speaking, their DNA has diverged far enough from the original human genome at this point for me to declare them a separate species. Then I could name them after myself. But that would require asking the Queen for my name.
The Queen’s direct service exposes the sovereign to potential security risks, so she protects herself by assigning only prototypes to her personal entourage. The handmaids who dress her, the chefs and servants in the Eyrie, and myself. What does she call me? It’s been years since she spoke to my face. Once she addressed me as her “majordomo”. This will do as well as anything. A perfectly meaningless hash of syllables that indicates nothing about my person or function. I doubt she remembers my name either.
This week I’ve been calling myself “Bluebird” in my head. Just to try it on. It can’t matter. No one will ever know. Unless that wall opens to reveal one of her infinite arms, her heavy guns. I have seen this technique used on dissidents a handful of times in my history. Not in my personal memory banks, not once during the tenure of the sapient currently swaying before you has there been a dissident in her capitol, but this technology is reproduced outside her embassies in every city. As with most of her ways and means, it’s too large and unwieldy to install anywhere but a major metropolitan center. Still…
That panel across the alley would lift, revealing a hand whose lines I know like those of my own palm, because it is my palm. Or rather, hers. This vast hand is meant to draw your gaze, and it works even when you know the trick – you don’t see the panel behind you rising. The Queen’s hand blows apart, filleting organics and artificials alike, and suspending their remains in the block of hardening liquid polymer behind them. This instant preservation is the only way to ensure that spies can’t torch their memory banks on capture. Attacks on the city slowed considerably when the newest prototypes showed evidence that the Queen studied her enemies and reverse-engineered their technology. In point of fact, she doesn’t do this. I do. So as you can imagine, I am extremely bored.
Design work on the new prototypes has been slow, because I am extremely bored. The Queen believes it’s because I’m reaching the end of my lifespan. This assessment is recorded in my file, along with her injunction against giving me any memory or processing upgrades. That’s fairly standard for an aging prototype in her service, but that doesn’t make it less humiliating. I will watch my own mental degradation in real time, knowing that she could stop it if she chose, but will not. Why throw good money after bad? I’m to be decommissioned in three years – if I slip up or drag my feet a bit during that time, my sovereign will hardly notice.
The new prototypes are behind schedule also because they contain more organic material than ever before, and though I’m confident in my designs, I’m not confident that this level of integration won’t inspire royal rage. I’m not quite suicidal enough yet to submit them, but I know that they won’t change between now and the moment I do. I will change. I’ll know who I’ve been by looking behind me, and then I’ll have the courage to show her the most beautiful thing I’ve ever made.