Bee King

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Bee King
by M. Lazarus

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Lark Publishing 2014
For more stories, visit http://subsidingsun.uk/lark/

Bee King

I know the local kids call me names. They don’t even bother to hide it, the little curs. Nobody has any respect any more. It’s as much the fault of their empty-headed, beer swilling, chain-smoking parents as it is the little feral animals. In my day, we had some panache, some excitement in our life and enthusiasm for our work. We were planning to invent a better way for humanity, to overturn all the fossilised, parasitic institutions that maintained a corrupt and stupid world for their own self-interest. Instead of change and improvement, there are chip-shop franchises and horrific sports-bars, and they called us villains!
I grunted as I pried myself out of my old battered leather armchair. It always hurts to move now. Even little things, things we never consider when we are young have become troublesome. Getting out of bed in the morning is a blasted nightmare. It had taken me fifteen minutes of my back locking up and spasming pains down my side to get from lying down to standing up this morning. When I had been working back in the day, I’d been a spry fellow. You had to be, back then. In our line of work, we would often ruffle feathers and end up in physical altercations with those agents of the status quo. We thought a lot about the future of the world back then, but we never reflected on our own futures, on being frail and weak.
Perhaps I have lived too long.
A bunch of boys who appeared to be dressed in the usual sports-clown fashion threw rocks at my house. Their aim was very poor. When they ran out of rocks, they chanted ‘Creepy Bee Fuck’ at my house.

When I went outside to work on my garden, it became apparent that someone had been permitting their dog to defecate on my front yard. It would appear that the dog in question must be a large breed, based on the size of the deposited faeces. In addition, there was a clear element of malicious intent from the dog’s owner, as the befouling is always more or less targeted at the same part of my garden. The whole process of cleaning up the excrement was very tiresome, having to wrap my hand in plastic bags, bend over and nearly breaking my back, the unpleasant sensation of the texture of the droppings on the other side of the plastic, the awkwardness of handling it and finally the wearying trek to the rubbish bin at the corner of the street for disposal. It is nothing less than stomach-churning thoughtlessness that drives the feckless owner to refuse to clean up after themselves. Such selfishness is endemic, and that dog owner is a perfect model of the sore lack of consideration in the neighbourhood where I am entrapped.
I decided that I have had enough. While I am not permitted to construct new devices without the greedy eye of my keepers falling upon them, I have been cautious and managed to cobble together a few harmless machines without any interference. I may have been forced into retirement, but you cannot force the mind to give up so simply. Walking out through the kitchen and down the back yard, I browse in my garden shed until I located an old case. Inside were all manner of parts and wires and half-completed tinkerings that have accumulated over the years. Eventually I found what I’m looking for, a rough, unfinished thing that had the appearance of a variety of metal colander on a tripod, with a small box on the top connected by wires radiating all over the device. This is not the original, of course, but a substitute I have constructed. It is, however based as closely as possible, on the original device that the Countess had given to me back in the heyday of our group. She was the greatest woman I ever had the privilege to know, beautiful in body and mind. Naturally, she was a real Countess, too. The grubby newspapers pounced upon that, as indeed, they always had a facility for getting their claws on the most trite and sensationalist aspects of any story. Their damnable obsession with absurd nicknames and childish phrasing! Ah, but the Countess could also dance wonderfully! We once waltzed atop the tallest skyscraper of the day as all the lights of the city were switched off by our machinations. Glorious, she was. That’s something else people don’t do any more. Dance together. Not properly. It was an equal pleasure to work with the Countess. She was perhaps the most brilliant of us all – why, how her knowledge of biology informed my own mechanical experimentation! She had loved animals, which is how she had come to build the original of the device, and I had the joy of adding some small improvements and efficiencies to her design. It had been a very long time since we waltzed together. I no longer had any idea if she was even still alive.
My goggles were sitting on a corner of the mantelpiece. Even just holding them in my hand with the thousands of twinkling little hexagons in each lens brought something like a smile to my lips, as I remembered when I was younger and stronger and vibrating with outrage and ideas and life. I noticed the liver-spotted hand holding on to the rubber strap of the goggles was shaking, and with a sigh, I was brought back to the painful truth of the present.
It took me a while to get them on. The less time you have left, the longer everything takes. In time I had them in place and found the switch. The goggles lit up with a comforting hum and I could see outside through the slats of my blinds into the night street as clearly as if it was daytime.
I sat there through the night with a big thermos of tea. Nobody remembers that the true original version of the material for the thermos was developed by a some-time member of our little group of inventors and idealists, the lady Hsui-Tan, a fine chemist who was insultingly written up in the rags of time as the ‘Asiatic Alchemist’. They forget so quickly these days. All the brilliance and pomp of the previous generation has sunk in decades devoted to banality.
I watched and waited. The vigour may have faded from my limbs, and I may have been imprisoned in suburbia by the powers that-be by for what they claimed were my past transgressions, but my mind was not yet entirely gone. And so through my old humming goggles I watched, sipping away at my thermos of tea.
My patience, after a considerable time of quiet, was eventually rewarded. I saw as I squinted through my blinds a grotesque balloon of a middle-aged lady walking some sort of Alsatian. My dear Countess would have wept to see such a noble canine dragged about on the lead by such an unworthy specimen of humanity.
The balloon-woman paused in deliberation and jerked the lead taut, preventing the animal from going on. It was clear that she could only be satisfied if the creature voided his bowels precisely in that spot in my front garden. While she was whispering curses at the Alsatian, I leaned forward carefully towards the controls of the Countess’ device and the dog’s ears twitched noticeable as I locked on the proper frequency. The grotesque balloon-woman jerked the lead again as if to hurry the dog’s defecation, but the low woman was unaware that my equipment was now beaming directions directly to the animal, and much to her surprise, the dog jerked suddenly as I sent instructions through my device. The Alsatian then hopped forward a step or two, and deposited a precisely aimed stool on the woman’s shoe. She shrieked with disgust, but stopped in shock when I banged upon the window to show that I knew about her night-time attacks upon my front garden. Of course, I had forgotten that I was wearing my distinctive goggles at the time, which no doubt would have added to her panic, but the end result was very satisfactory, as the puff-ball creature ran off into the night dragging her dog behind her. I felt sure that she would not dare to foul my garden again with her selfish night time wanderings.

***

I was in a half doze with a stubby pencil in my hand, having started to nod off while listening to some late-night babble-contest of cretins on the wireless, trying to recall some of what scraps of memories I still retain. I was jarred awake by echoing screams and profanity.
“Fuck off, you prick, just fucking fuck off!” shouted a young lady’s voice.
“Shut the fuck up, you fucking bitch” responded her male companion, “You’re a fucking liar, a fucking bitch liar. Give me yer phone, bitch!”
The level of vitriol and violence exhibited by this couple was a sure sign that the weekend had arrived. Invariably, come a Friday or Saturday evening at about three or four o’clock at night, the young locals have spent enough of their meagre leisure time in the horrible bars and pubs and are now so dizzy with drink and anger that they flood the streets, shrieking and bellowing and vomiting their nasty inner lives up and down these echoing streets. Their pitiful regularity always lets me know that another weekend has crawled around.
“Gimme yer phone, you fucking cheating bitch, yer fucking phone!” roared the young male.
I found a spanner under the sink and went outside to investigate.
By the time I had cautiously unlocked the front door, I saw the blurry figure of an older woman who had driven her little red car into the middle of the fracas. I caught sight of the unpleasant angry young man running down the road with the neon of the lady’s phone in his meaty fist.
“What going on?” said the woman in the car.
I squinted and saw a vague picture of a blonde post-teenager weeping incomprehensibly.
“I’m sorry, he’s a fucking bastard, I’m sorry!” she said.
“In this street,” said the woman leaning out of the window of her car, “You have to fucking remember that there are children about – families with children. If you are going to slap each other, bloody do it private, so it doesn’t disturb everyone.”
The woman in the car must have noticed me, because she appeared to be scowling at me, although it was hard to tell in this light.
“Piss off, Mr. Bees,” she said, “Don’t need you making things worse.”
I have no idea how she imagines my presence will make things worse, but I am used to this sort of treatment from my neighbours. I slipped back inside. I could still hear the young girl crying, but I tried to ignore it.

***

In actual fact, despite a long period of unpleasant mocking apiary slurs and nicknames, I had only kept bees for a few decades – a short span in my own career, but a considerable span of time by the modern standards of insufficient attention. It was unfortunate that the locals, despite apparently being completely ignorant of my past and my reputation, had adopted a similar collection of Bee-names by which they referred to me. Indeed, putting aside the unfortunate side effect of provoking the continued misnaming of my own self, bees are the perfect pet for a man of my age, as they require so little maintenance and care.

I was kept awake the next night by a loud discussion taking place underneath my bedroom window, punctuated by much swearing, as well as odd bass hooting and high-pitched screeching. Such important matters as who has got off with whom were discussed quite loudly, along with who happened to be a dirty slag, who has bought a new car, how someone broke another individual’s nose (but they had it coming), who it was that drank and drugged so much they claimed to have seen clouds chasing them and other such loudly-expressed nonsense.
Of course, at my age, sleep is a difficult thing to control, but I must have managed to doze fitfully for a few hours despite the shrieks and hoots of the locals going on late into the night. I was forced awake from my brief rest by the sound of two grating voices and a poorly engineered motorcycle whining. For one happy, confused moment, I did not remember where I was as I look about the shaded clutter of the room. The conversation shouted over the revving motorcycle reminds me.
“Didja hear about Gaz’s auntie – fat Lil?”
“That fucking one with the funny fucking eyes?”
Imbecile the First revved his motorbike in agreement. The stink of ill-refined petrol was beginning to seep into my room.
“She’s dead. Struck by lightening or something.”
“I heard a big chunk of hail cracked her skull.”
“Nah, you stupid fucker, lightning, I’m telling you, lightning.”
Imbecile One made his toy motorbike belch more noise and smoke to emphasise his point. I struggled to my feet, forcing sore joints into slow movement. It took me a minute or two to get to the window.
I threw open the window as Imbecile the Second was enquiring for further details about how the obnoxious motor toy had brought Imbecile One the opportunity to rut meaninglessly with a ‘right slapper’ he met down at the pub. In response, Imbecile Prime squealed up and down outside my front garden with a smug curl of his upper lip.
“It is bad enough,” I shouted out the window, struggling to make myself heard over the noise the unbearable creatures made, “That I am forced to be subjected to the ear-bursting din you cretins thoughtlessly flood through my window, but you are also infesting the air with smog and stupidity. Go away and indulge in your mindless posturing somewhere distant from my flowers and my home.”
Imbecile Two adjusted his hat so it was sitting in a fashion where it could not possibly have the slightest use as a hat.
“It’s the fucking Bee-man,” he snorted.
“Fuck off, Bee-man,” said the First Imbecile, who was clearly the wit of the pair.
Idiot the First spat in my general direction and kicked my hedging. After verbally abusing me for a moment or more, they left to indulge in whatever idiocy they filled their worthless time with.

I travelled to the back garden and inspected my hives.
They had been given to me as a cruel joke when they first imprisoned me in this horrid suburb. Back then, despite my anger at being so constrained, I have to admit that the agents in charge at least had a sense of sadistic care. Nowadays, I expect nothing more than for a big black car to drive past slowly to make sure I am still in my place, but many years ago there was a nasty personal touch that I have to admit I almost miss.
His name was Gregson, as far I recall, the one who had delivered the hives many years ago. It was supposed to ‘provide positive general activities for the subjects’ – well, that was more or less how the caring bureaucrats of the old days had phrased it. Naturally, I had hated the bees at first. They were nothing more than a puerile joke of my jailers and an embodiment of how misunderstood my experiments had been. I must grudgingly admit, however, that over time I had become accustomed to them. I learned to appreciate the routine of checking my hives. I have never had much of a sweet tooth (although the wax of their honeycombs was quite a useful substance), but I quite admired the aesthetics of the jars of honey I would extract from the hives. I now have built up a quite substantial collection – many shelves of jars of different hues that glow in the afternoon sunlight and sit there with a deep beautiful colour. Given how loud and hateful my surroundings are, I have found the ritual of filling jars with the slow-flowing, radiant product of the hives’ labours oddly comforting.
I had been stung regularly, when I was first learning to deal with the hives, but perhaps the buzzing insects had sensed how I felt about my trap. In fact, in the early days, I had used some of the old equipment to direct the hives – it had been very tricky and more effort than it was worth, to be honest. I also had ideas about using them to map the local area by tracking distance and pollen collection. There was one regrettable incident some time back when I had made some plans to direct the bees to give a salutary fright to an arrogant and unpleasant neighbour, and although no real harm had been done to that deserving individual, the shabby memories of the creatures who live here kept a dim hint of the incident, which I suspected was partly responsible for an undeserved reputation that had never quite faded over the years. That is simply my lot in life, and I am long resigned to the strict stupidity and dull minds that constitute the majority of the lamentable evolution of humanity.
In any case, I soon stopped using the machines on the bees – not because my neighbours attempted to retaliate by dumping manure in my yard – but because I no longer had the will to dictate to them. The bees may have been little more than a bad joke by my jailers, but they have done more good with the astounding structures of the natural world than any of the repugnant people I see shuffle and swear and spew past my window. I decided to let the bees be. Nowadays, I have several hives and had come to find their industry and the ambient sound they produce somewhat comforting.
Despite what the grasping and slack-jawed may think, honey doesn’t appear spontaneously under the sickly lights of the supermarkets or accumulate on their rotting sweet breakfast cereals like some sort of mould. Honey comes from technology. Bee-keeping is technology – the finest use of technology – finding ways of improving the world without harming nature, using thought and invention and creativity to make small parts of the world better. Before the eighteen-hundreds, to collect honey you behaved like the gaping supermarket graspers. You’d smash the hive to get what you want and you’d destroy the bees’ system for brief greedy gratification. Then the moveable comb was invented – a simple, prosaic, yet noble invention born from the mind of humanity at its best. In fact, it turns out – as Langstroth discovered, bees built their hives with a space – a bee space – a gap between wax combs of just a few millimetres. This is what allowed the moveable comb to be invented – an artificial set of walls that slots in within the natural construction of the hives so that whole sections could be removed without harming the bees and their production. Nature literally had a space waiting to be filled with human invention – a more fitting model for what we once tried to do I cannot imagine. With structures constructed with the moveable comb, bees could be kept in hives and go about their business, and the apiarist could collect what they produced without smashing the bees and their home. The hive survives and continues and the human enjoys the benefit for as long as they care for the hive, while they can now begin to understand the fascinating biology of the bee – observing them in these hives, studying, uncovering that other gift of nature – the secrets of time and evolution. Despite my hatred of my journalese nick name when my career was more active, even I have to admit that my designs for my flying machines could not have ever existed without the studies of those who came before me. Huber and Burnens studied bees, so that I could build intricate machines that could move though the air. Now I end my life once more allowed to work on no projects but growing flowers and tending to my bees, the remnant of that deeply unfunny old joke of Agent Gregson. Vax, who was called the Fire-Beard by the papers when our group was active, had been a sort of political-physicist who loved nothing more than haranguing the world with his unswerving belief that time and the physical world was ever cyclical. At the time he struck me as nothing more than a stentorian bore. Standing in front of my hives, I no longer have the steadfast certainty of youth.

I am having more and more trouble concentrating. In those days my head hummed with ideas, bright and electric, and I was filled with burning impatience – to discuss, invent, think, and improve. Now, I find myself drifting away when I’m listening to the news on the wireless. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if I was inflicted with the curse of complete senility, but I’m painfully conscious of how much dimmer my mind is becoming, and how quickly. It makes me very angry. We could have done something about it. We could have kept developing systems to prolong the health of the brain, not in the piece-meal fashion that pharmaceutical companies prefer, where health is leased for brief instalments. If people had listened we could have improved so many things. But nobody cares and here I am, rotting away in my house with the curtains pulled tight. Maybe it is for the best. We thought that our inventions and our improvements to the world, to humanity and the earth would be welcomed. That was our major naiveté. A society gets the technology it deserves. The world is crammed with selfish, myopic, grasping beasts with less capacity for creative thought and altruism than the lowest creeping sea worm that swims along the mud and silt of the bottom of the ocean. Look at them with their phones that let them stare at their own reflections constantly, look at them with their computing tablets that are for consuming with slack jaws the most poorly thought out forms of diversion without any interest in doing something themselves, look at their grotesquely inefficient belching cars that proclaim their wealth or supposed style or masculinity, and look at their ugly demand for grotesquely oversized television screens that sit in the front room like a shining animal rump display, making the street twitch with sickly light, as the screens in every front room flash competitively at every other neighbouring window.
We were wrong. Humanity does not want to be better.
                               
***

The sun came out today, which meant that the neighbours have decreed that it is time to all play the same ear-flaying mediocre music as loudly as their machines can manage. Every summer, there are only ever a handful of supposed songs that are blared up and down the street. There is never any real variety, individuality, or creativity to these songs.  The locals were strutting up and down, posturing and flexing, all drinking the same brand of beer that barely needs to undergo a transformation to be expelled as waste from the body. The ones who lived on the right of my prison had a large, rusted metal barrel that they have filled with anything they can tear and chop in order to set it alight and fill the entire block with noxious fumes, without any awareness of what woods produce toxic smokes. A few years ago – a few decades ago, I would have tried to warn them that they are poisoning themselves with their stupidity, but I know that won’t work. They won’t listen.
Because it was warm, I tried to block as much of the off-key shouting of the burners and flexers as I can. I mustn’t grind my teeth. It does me no good. I needed to go outside and water my flowers. The sun is good for them, but a sudden blast of heat can dry up your plants if you don’t keep an eye on them, and I’m rather fond of my flowers. That’s one of the other reason that I value my hives so highly – they provided the pollination necessary to allow my garden to have a chance of thriving. The humble bee, so often swatted away, is one of the essential components that allows the world-machine to function.
I had some splendid peonies and a few roses in my front yard just on the inside of the green hedge that gives me a small border between myself and those outside. I put in an apple tree in the front too, as well as some chestnuts. Planting a tree is a fine thing to do – providing something for future generations rather than your own brief span. The apple tree is still surviving after five or six years, but local boys systematically ripped out all the chestnuts on their way to school over the period of a week or so.
I filled up my watering can, making sure I have a large white hat to protect me from the sun, and I pocketed some small shears to trim the hedges. As I was about to give the apple tree a refreshing drink of water I noticed that two figures have climbed over my hedges and were standing in my garden. My front-fence hedge is not very high, as the soil was never good enough to give it a proper foundation and, in any case, once it gets above waist height it somehow becomes tempting for local vandals to set on fire for their tawdry amusement.
The taller individual in my front garden was a male youth, his cheeks blemished with bad skin, who was in the awkward phase of working out where his ridiculous muscles would go on display. The other individual was a little girl. The boy was tearing apart one of my favourite peonies, ripping off the petals with all the concentration a destructive dolt can muster. The little girl, who I surmised was his sister, given his bare tolerance for her company, stared thoughtfully at him engaged in this activity. She looked a rather grubby little specimen, with various forms of grease and muck entangled in her hair and a few faint food stains on overly fatty cheeks.
“How dare you!” I shouted, or rather, I intend to shout, but in the hot air my voice is thin and strained.
“Wot?” said the boy, throwing down my mutilated peony.
“Look what you’ve done to my garden, you thoughtless little fool!”
“Wasn’t me,” the boy insisted with the swiftness and sureness of past practice.
“Don’t lie. I just saw you!”
He glared at me. I found myself, not for the first time over the years, wishing I still had access to my remote-controlled aerial machines. I would dearly love to have this invader of my garden hoisted into the air and dropped on his head some miles away.
“Flowers are fuckin’ pointless anyway,” he added with all the wisdom of youth, “Can’t even fuckin’ eat the stupid things. Nobody likes flowers.”
The little girl thought for a moment and then announced “I like flowers, Lee.”
Her brother Lee looked disgusted and rolled his eyes.
“That’s just because you’re a stupid little baby and a girl,” he declared and seized the girl by the wrist, “Now fuckin’ come on, Susie Shithead. Don’t talk to that Bee Man.”
Before I could protest at this repulsive lack of respect, the nonchalant vandalism, or even that blasted recurring and reductive nickname, the deeply unlikeable Lee had towed his grubby little sister Susie down the street, taking the opportunity to show his fraternal affection by distractedly berating her while playing with his phone.
Wireless telephony. That was another one that was essentially stolen from our designs. If I closed my eyes, I could still see the elegant plans for the system. When I opened my eyes again, there was no elegant order, but only the careless destruction of my trampled and ripped flowers.
I laboured as best I could to save those plants that have a chance of surviving after Lee and Susie’s visit. Picturing the petty wreckers being superheated by a thermal beam until all their hair and eyebrows burned off barely made me feel better. I was down on my hands and knees in the dirt, my back aching more with every passing minute. But I will not let this place win. I may be trapped here, but I will endure. I must not submit.
When I returned inside, tired and sore and desperate for a nice soothing tea, the sight of the local paper in my mailbox made my anger return in full force. I disliked the local paper immensely, as, despite more efficient alternative forms of communication, the local rag is the medium of choice for the particularly opinionated and badly informed. Besides, I do not have a particularly good history with journalists and sensationalist lowest-common denominator newspapers. The only two things I found acceptable about this weekly delivery of local gossip and inane vitriol was that it has a cryptic crossword (although the standard was generally very low) and the remainder of the paper made for excellent flammable material that, when burnt together with some sumac, could be used in my smoker for placating the bees.
The front page was devoted to a trivial argument over the rebuilding of a particular structure in the laughably named town centre. Neither side of this vociferous debate had intelligent or interesting enough viewpoints on the matter to waste ink and paper on, but that appeared to be a minor objection. The inside contents featured a report on overfeeding ducks, two reports of drunken accidents, a story about lead being stolen from roofs, inarticulate outrage at a proposed change for household rubbish collection, a minor drug bust just a few streets from my prison, pages of information on a deeply unimportant set of local sports teams, and an announcement of an upcoming craft fair selling nothing any human being on earth could possibly ever want.
I sat at my electric typewriter and wrote an outraged letter to the newspaper, decrying their obsession with trivial sensationalism and mediocrity. I explained that there was much that was rotten in this little pustule of a town, and that it was clearly getting worse, as could be seen from the evidence of the atrocious and thoughtless behaviour of youths like the two unpleasant figures who had destroyed months of my horticultural work in a few, careless, bored and selfish moments.
As an exercise in catharsis, it was not particularly successful. I was just as furious by the time I finished my letter as I had been when I had begun. Besides, I was fully aware that they would almost certainly never print my letter. I had sent hundreds before – begging, imploring, chastising, and demanding better, but they were always ignored.        
As my tea brewed, I went outside and placed this latest edition of pulp dross on the pile in my garden shed, awaiting a final and ultimately useful transformation when I burn it into smoke to calm the bees.
The hives were mostly quiet now as the evening was beginning to wear on, and a few last stragglers vibrated their weaving paths back to their homes. There is a particular naturalistic variety of hive design for those apiarists who are only interested in ensuring that bees perform the essential work of pollination, and have no desire to take honey from the hives. Unfortunately, however, although there would be a joyful idealism in providing the swarms with homes and not imposing any more on their beneficial presence in my garden, I must admit that their honey had a use to me beyond the mere aesthetic. The pittance I was kept on here in my prison was a pitiful amount that could barely keep up with the heedlessly rising expenses of this town, expenses which had no connection to any discernible increase in quality. I have long ago forgone any hope of many small luxuries that are now beyond me, which I accepted without complaint, but every year it became more difficult to pay the heating bills or afford sufficient nutrition. This may well be part of the plan of my jailers – a slow execution for supposed crimes of invention long forgotten. To help keep my head above water, I was forced to regularly sell what small amount of honey my hives produce. I made contact with a buyer through an advertisement – we spoke several times on the phone but never met. By her voice alone, she was a gruff gravel-throated woman who always sounded like she was smoking, but mercifully she had no more desire to have any more contact with me than I did with her. My jars of honey were left out on regular occasions and picked up by some minion of hers in a battered rusting car, with an envelope of the appropriate small amount of cash pushed under my door as payment. It was a satisfactory arrangement, as far as I was concerned. I imagined that the buyer sold the honey on at an absurd mark-up to gullible wealthy milksops at organic markets and delicatessens.

I sat in my worn armchair and did some crosswords while listening to the news on the radio. There was naturally war somewhere in the world to discuss on the wireless, but this was hardly a surprise. At my age, I suspected that my ability to feel surprise has atrophied, just as my musculature has become enfeebled and my skin has become drawn and thin. Several commentators debated the best ways to protect freedom or some such vague nonsense in a far off corner of the world, and I mumbled angry rejoinders at their voices as I jotted down design ideas on the side of the crossword. As I finished each drawing or calculation, I tore it up into shreds and put it in a basket to be carried out to the garden shed and to join the rest of the newspaper being burnt in my smoker. It has been a long time since any agents have come to inspect me in my cell, but I am not going to take the risk that they will find me designing things again. At best, they will be enraged at the idea of my returning to my old work, at worst, they will snatch away yet more of my plans and use them for new and crass purposes.
A spring in my armchair was slowly digging its way out and into my back. The chair was old and worn and, like so much here, a particularly defeatist shade of brown. The lines that pattern the arms and back of the chair have faded and been worn away over the years, and even before it started to fall apart, it was never comfortable. I have never had enough financial wherewithal to replace it with something more fit for purpose, and in any case, I was not sure that I wanted to feel comfortable. My concentration wavered and my eyes drooped to the sound of a woman on the radio explaining the need for military intervention with blatant hypocrisies that were old even when I was young.

***

The next day as I watered and weeded the garden early in the morning before the screaming children and their foul-mouthed parents troop off to school, I discovered that exactly half a dozen eggs have been thrown at the front of the building with some enthusiasm. I also found, as I did most days, several bottles of what formerly contained cheap alcohol in my yard. There was a rubbish bin not more than ten steps up the street, but that was ten steps too far for them. They were quite comfortable living in their own filth, dumping bottles and cans and wrappers and half-eaten greasy food stuff and soiled mattresses and broken washing machines, leaving the detritus of their lives wherever it falls without a second thought.
It took me quite some time to clean the egg splats and streaks, and I was in a rush, as I cannot stomach the thought of being out here in the front garden when the morning stampede begins. A piece of discarded paper flew into the roots of one of my hedge plants. It took me a frustrating moment to dig out. When I unfolded and smoothed the paper, it featured a picture of a very ugly dog – a Staffordshire Terrier named Spike that has gone missing. I noticed that yet another copy of this poster has wafted its way over to my little iron front gate. The owner of the ugly dog had certainly not skimped on advertising their loss. It is difficult to imagine who or what could have posed a threat to Spike, who, based on his image, is a snaggle-toothed, muscle-bound monster bred to bite and rip his way through life. He was the sort of show-dog that was very popular around these parts – an imposing monster paraded as a feeble demonstration of his owner’s own hypothetical viciousness.

Today the hives seemed agitated by something. I wondered if one of my neighbours is again plotting ways of killing them off. In the past, these attacks on my bees have been one of the few areas in which they have showed any attempt at creativity, as they have tried insecticides, home-made flamethrowers constructed from spray cans and lighters, as well as the more primitive attempts at throwing various heavy objects in their direction over the fence.
As soon as I started working in the back yard on watering my flowers and weeding my little raised bed of vegetables, an unseen dog next door started barking at me hysterically, as if I was a backyard invader. This occurs very often when I come into the back garden during the day. The Countess would pity the poor bored dog, abandoned by callous owners for long stretches, but I regretted that I could do no more than try to ignore the noise.
I was partial to my own vegetables and grew lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and a small amount of horseradish. I eat very little these days, and besides allowing my prison pittance to go a little bit further, I was suspicious of the growth and composition of much of the commercially available produce. Too much storybook colour in those aisles and a suspicious lack of any taste. The Countess always insisted on food that had provenance. She was quite the gourmand, unsurprisingly, given her aristocratic background. It is not merely the inclusion of pesticides and the like in the unpleasant mass production of food that is unpalatable, it is the tendency to use agricultural science to ensure that food is produced cheaply that merely looks appealing and conforms to a particular childish notion of proper shape, without any thought about quality of taste or what nourishment it provides. In any case, I was not a eusocial creature any more, and I had a deep dread of the supermarkets in this town. They were glare-lit purgatories filled with semi-braindead retirees who insisted on wandering slowly in stops and starts like lost cattle, all the while shabby packs of people with wailing scurrying children were forever knocking you over without apology. No, that sort of thing was not for me. I have no need for further unpleasantness in my imprisonment.

My apple tree in the front yard was starting to lean dangerously to one side, no doubt from the occasional kick it received from passers-by, from the poor thin soil it had to struggle through, and from the violent gusts of wind that tear through here every few months, often scattering the cheap flimsy fences dividing the identically unpleasant houses. I carefully drove a stake into the ground until I could feel it pass through the good moist soil I have strived to lay down over the years to the unyielding flintiness that was always lurking just below. The whole operation took me much longer than it should. I was just fumbling with attaching some twine from the bamboo stake onto the tree in order to drag it back into good posture, when I looked up and saw a short chubby blob staring at me. It was that little girl who had the flower-vandalising lying brother.
“Yes?” I said. My fingers twitched and refused to do what they were told and I dropped the twine. I gave an undignified grunt as I stooped down to retrieve the string from the ground. Sue, I think the child’s name was. She was staring at me just as intently, but was now also picking her nose in a distracted fashion.
“I like flowers,” she announced.
“So do I,” I growled as I stood up with the twine and something in my bones made a disconcerting cracking sound, like the wishbones broken at the end of a feast. “Unfortunately, your brother ruined many of mine. He is most unpleasant.”
Little Sue inspected her investigations into her nose and wiped them on the hedge.
“Lee doesn’t like flowers. He’s a boy. Lee’s also a shithead.”
Remarkably, the child’s use of unpleasant language was still halting enough to indicate that it has not yet become second nature.
“I will grow them back again, I assure you,” I said with angry determination, “No amount of Lees can stop me from rebuilding and regrowing.”
“How do you do that?” the grubby child demanded as she swung some of the hedge back and forth in her hand, “How do you build flowers?”
“I don’t do the building itself, as such. The seed does the building. There are instructions inside the seed that show itself how to build the flower it will become. It’s my job to guide nature, to make sure the seed and the flower has everything it could need to grow strong.”
She thought about this.
“Why?”
“Because flowers are beautiful and interesting from seed to bloom. There is no better reason on earth to devote yourself to a subject, if it is beautiful and interesting.”
She scratched her knee.
“All flowers have got them ‘strucitons in them?”
She squinted at one of the surviving roses her brother had not mangled.
“Everything living does, child. And there are plans and discoveries waiting for we pitiful purblind humans in every aspect of the world around us, even in this terrible place.”
She pondered this, and performed a thoughtful little eruction.
“I been living here one years.”
I was about to send her on her way so I could be left in peace to go about tending my meagre garden when I heard the violent shouting of a youth attempting to make his voice assume a depth and gravitas it did not possess.
“What are you fuckin’ do there, you stupid girl!”
It was her brother, Lee. He ran up, hit her in the head and yanked at her arm, causing her to squeal.
“What are you doin’, running off like that? I told you to stay put, you idiot. Don’t be talking to the fucking Bee Man, dummy. He’ll put you in his fucking bees and sting you until you die. You stay the fuck away from him.”
He yanked the grubby child away, twisting her arm. I stiffened, overwhelmed by the unachievable desire to stride over and thrash her repugnant brother. I imagined knocking him to the ground with a blast from a Cussutum Cannon, or using a subtle vibrational transmission to disrupt his inner ear and equilibrium so that he could not rise from the ground. But I don’t have those inventions any more. I no longer even had any antique or makeshift device hidden in my cell that could do much more than slightly annoy that vile youth, and even as he moved with the gawky unsureness of someone not quite grown to be man-sized, he was already taller and stronger than I.
Anger and powerlessness live together, as old Firebeard and I discussed in the old days. Myself, Firebeard, Hsui-Tan, the Countess, and all the others, we only wanted to direct our own anger at those who craved power and control and kept the world in chains. We would strike at those gaolers, we would devise and invent ways of bringing opportunity and means for those who were bold and creative and thoughtful to make a better future for all, to make-
to make…
The thought drifted away in my head. I snorted at the memory of old Firebeard with his plans to put a cheap fusion-lantern in every home so that no one individual or group would dictate the distribution of light and electricity. If I was not careful with my remaining funds this month, and I failed to sell a bit of my produce, I myself would be in danger, like so many others, of no longer being able to keep the lights on. This is not the first time I have come close to being crushed by those who provide the necessities of living in this gaol. I would have to make sure that I charge up my admittedly derelict solar batteries for backup, but only when I was sure that nobody is watching, and more importantly, when I could be certain of getting a decent amount of sun in this infernal, unpredictable weather. My flowers struggle for sun and soil and rain, but they are eminently better adapted for survival than I am now.

***

When the loathsome local paper was next forced through my mailbox, I perused it briefly but with great infuriation as I came towards the section where I normally carefully cut out this week’s cryptic crossword. The future smoker fuel informed me of an improbable greeting card shop being in danger of closing down. I found myself unsympathetic, knowing that this suburban hell already had three equally pointless card shops competing with equally trite statements for every insignificant occasion. Also reported were the deaths of two troubled individuals from what the few lines heavily implied to have been accidental overdoses from cheap and very impure illegal narcotics. Greater prominence was given to reports of several more missing pets – further ugly dogs of various sizes, and at least three cats. Much ink was devoted to speculation as to whether this was the work of criminals intending to kidnap beloved Muffy or Fluffy for extortion or ransom, or whether unspecified foreign vagrants had spirited away these animals for their own mysterious, but no doubt nefarious purposes.
Flicking the pages by as quickly as my fingertips allowed, I turned past several pieces of advertising poorly disguised in the semblance of articles, mostly to do with weight-loss centres or new oil-soaked items available at one of the unsanitary purveyors of troubling greasy meat and assorted foodstuffs. I came to the section where my cryptic crossword was normally to be found, but was disgusted to find that it has been replaced by some sort of circle-the-word exercise that barely qualified as a puzzle and appeared to be aimed at particularly slow children.
My one small sop, the single humble consolation and comfort of my week had gone. I immediately sat before my typewriter and began composing a most critical letter to the retrograde buffoons responsible for this increasingly inadequate pamphlet of a paper, when I was interrupted by a thud at the front window.
Harrumphing, I straightened myself up and carefully unlocked the front door, peering through the slowly widening crack as I opened it. An excess of caution is far better, as far as I was concerned, than a lack. It was overcast outside, and the clouds had an odd steel-grey tinge to to them. Three or four figures were shouting something in my direction.
“Fuck you, Bee Man,” croaked one voice angrily, supported by a chorus of expletives. I could not see these individuals clearly from this distance, but they appeared to be far more violently enraged than usual. This abuse did not appear to be the variety of laughing contempt most often directed towards me. Something had made them more aggressive than customary. I turned to inspect my window, expecting to find a smear from an egg or some other wasted food-missile and instead found that the front window now had a large, vaguely circular crack on the surface. Waves of force broken into the glass radiated from a central impact – I suspected a rock or something similar, although I could not find the instrument used. On inspection, the window had not been broken quite through, which was a small mercy, as I do not have the means to replace it. However, I decided that to leave the window as it was would be to advertise the triumph of their vandalism and violence, so I shuffled off to locate an appropriate sized sheet of plastic in the garden shed, and began the laborious task of attaching it to the window frame to conceal the ugly defacement of my cell.
My arms strained to reach up and shook terribly when I tried to hold the plastic sheet in place. The escalating threat of violence had left me a touch unsettled, I must admit, but I managed to put that to one side for the moment by focussing on the work at hand and promising myself that soon I would retreat to the back garden to tend to my flowerbeds and my vegetable patch with the quiet background hum of the hives. As I worked, a frustrating feeling of uncertainty tormented me. It was a formless sensation, similar to the sense I used to have when I could not quite bring all the pieces of a new design together – the impression that I was failing to comprehend things clearly, that my mind was grasping at flitting phantoms and could not draw any unified sense from these ghostly half-perceived thoughts. My body has been worn away by time and this prison, and it is not unexpected that my mind, the last thing that I really held as my own, was now also beginning to be taken from me.
The clouds were moving too fast, it seemed to me. There was a crick in my neck from straining up towards the top of the window, where I had finally almost finished attaching the plastic covering.
I heard the grubby little girl-child, Sue, shouting.
“But you said we wasn’t supposed to talk to the Bee Man!”
“I said you shouldn’t talk to him, stupid,” vulgar Lee said with exasperation, “‘Cos you’re little and don’t know anything. Anyway, I’m not letting that old fucker get away with his weird bullshit any more. He’s going to fucking pay for this!”
Indeed, Lee the neophyte thug was straining so angrily and glaring with such obvious ill-intent, that he looked as if he might have a sudden embolism.
“‘Lo, Mr. Bee Man” said the little girl.
“My name is Mr. King, young lady.”
“Your name is whatever we fucking say it is, you crazy old bastard,” declared Lee, kicking at my hedge to emphasise the point, although with less dramatic effect than he had perhaps hoped, as the greenery sprung back into position when he managed to extract his sportsman’s footwear.
“You are a very ill-mannered young man,” I said quietly.
“Yeah, well you’re a fucking bastard. What did he ever do to you, hey?”
“Young man,” I said with a sigh, “I haven’t the faintest idea to what you are referring.”
“Bull!” said the small girl with pleasure.
“I beg your pardon, young lady?”
“Lee’s dog, Bull. He’s gone.”
I indicated that I hadn’t the faintest idea what I had to do with any dogs, whether named Bull or otherwise.
“That’s fucking crap! And he’s not gone, he’s dead!” screamed Lee. The lad looked on the verge of tears, “Everybody has heard about the missing dogs and stuff and that’s your kind of sick shit, isn’t it, Mr. Fucking Bee Man? You killed my dog to get back at me?”
“Bull bit me one or two times,” little Sue explained as she scratched at the dust and grime on her knee, “He was a bad dog.”
“Shut the fuck up Sue!” Lee screamed in his little sister’s face. While this level of anger did stop the child from speaking, she merely then shifted to a plaintive wailing that was most painful to my ears.
“I bet Mr. Bee Dick poisoned Bull, or stung that poor dog to death with his fucking bees, that dog that never did nuffin’. Now people are saying that maybe Fat Lil was killed by his bees or something too. He doesn’t deserve to fucking live, the sick old fuck, I’m gonna smash his stupid head into the fucking ground!”
Somewhere down the road there was some shouting and screaming. All this confrontation was making me feel rather tired, so I slowly sat down on the concrete step up to the front door while Lee accused me of further crimes.
“I admit that I also read about the missing animals,” I said when I could get a word in between threats to my person, “And I can see you are most upset about the death of your pet. You have my most sincere condolences. But think for a moment, if you are capable, in a clear fashion. Firstly, I did not know of the existence of the late Bull until this moment. Secondly, since we are hardly on corresponding terms, I am not aware of the address of your residence, making it difficult for me to commit whatever imaginary crimes of fantasy you have concocted.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t know where we live,” the little girl whispered.
“Quite so, Thirdly, presuming, for the sake or argument, that I have, ah, some method for directing an attack from afar,” I narrowed my eyes to direct my disdain at the frothing adolescent temper-tantrum, “Why, pray, would I attack your dog, rather than your own deserving self? I have, as you said, nothing against your pet.”
“Can you really make bees do trick and things?” asked little Sue, chewing thoughtfully on the side of her finger. “Bull was rubbish. He couldn’t do no tricks. He just did wees all the time and barked at people and bit me one or two times.”
“Shut up, Sue!” her brother said, his voice hoarse, “I’ve heard that there’s been something fucking weird in the sky the last few weeks. That’s what killed Bull and the other pets and those people. It was the Bee Man that done it.”
It was becoming apparent that reason was unlikely to reach this enraged creature, and based on the crack in the front window, this new and absurd slander depicting me as some sort of reclusive murder magician was being disseminated among the credulous locals, who had been accepting it wholeheartedly. Worryingly, I could hear the noisy mindless grunts and yelps of more dolts coming closer. 
I was about to give the grubby girl the merest hint of the innovations that the Countess and myself developed and to begin explaining the use of technology as a medium for modelling and affecting the natural world, when a flabby middle-aged woman in a blouse proclaiming that she was “Dead Sexy!” thudded past and gabbled something about ‘The fuckin’ clouds’.                
Ah.
Suddenly I felt the nagging sketches of thoughts that have been eluding my tired brain beginning to come into focus.
My, it had been rather a long time since they’ve dared do something quite so brazen, but their audacity has increased so rapidly of late, I cannot find myself entirely surprised that they would be up to their old unpleasant schemes.
Lee was momentarily confused by the various lost individuals who run past Mrs. Dead Sexy, arguing and shouting as they flee. There was an almost electrostatic sense of dread in the air, and even these base residents were not so beer-soaked that they could not sense it. I fumbled in my pocket for a pair of spectacles and peering through them I could discern distinct shifting patterns in the clouds.
It was as I thought. I resolved to go inside to retrieve my goggles to better inspect the phenomenon, when I was reminded of the existence of the angry youth and the grubby girl, because Lee squeaked something about somebody collapsed on the road.
“Geezus Fuck! Your bees got him, like all the damn others!”
I cleared my throat.
“To be precise, the sight you are witnessing with the same terror as the village bumpkin who first beheld a rifle being fired or a steam train approaching is not precisely mine. It is, I suspect a descendant of something I made a long time ago.”
“It’s moving! It got that guy!” Lee babbled, twitching with the barely controlled desire to run away. The little girl opened her mouth as if to start wailing again, but apparently thought better of it.
“It appears to be attacking individuals rather more boldly now. I would venture that this phenomenon is what was responsible for the recent deaths of pets and perhaps people, but those who control it must have decided that the time for subtlety is past.”
“You fucking did it!” Lee insisted and had begun to shift down the street, his sister forgotten as he moved at awkward angles, his head twisted back to gog at the unnatural cloud.
“I doubt that running away is the best strategy for-” I began, but the manchild could run rather swiftly even when looking over his shoulder, and he was soon out of earshot. The little girl called after him to no avail.
“Mr Bees, the thing is comin’ closer!” said the grubby girl.
The grey clouds were drifting in a sweeping pattern, ducking to the ground for a moment and then returning to the heights as their deadly work was done. The screaming had become rather pronounced now. The little girl was about to run after her brother, when I demanded she stop.
“Don’t be a little fool. It’s moving in a set pattern. We have a few minutes before it reaches us. I doubt you will be able to outpace it – it was designed to be faster than you. Come and help me carry my equipment and I may be able to do something.”
Before the child could waste time by protesting, I shepherded her to my garden shed, where she helped me transport a case of electronic odds and ends. At my instruction, she left my devices in the back-yard near the vegetable patch.
“This should be a good spot – nice and open to attempt a direct signal. Go and plug that into the outlet in the house” I said, indicating an electrical cable wrapped up in the box. The girl was now too terrified to argue. For my part, I found myself in rather good spirits. I may have even whistled happily to my hives. There is nothing like a lethal problem for focussing the mind, as my dear Countess always used to say with that devilish smile. I donned my goggles and adjusted them. Ah yes. Now I could see.
“What are you looking at?” the child whimpered.
I tapped on the lenses of the goggles.
“I designed these for a range of enhanced vision. When I first made them, I admit I wasn’t thinking they would be rather useful for dealing with fading eyesight and presbyopia. They are perhaps a touch more cumbersome to wear than spectacles, but they have other advantages.”
“They make you look like-”
I cut off the child with an irritated wave of my hand.
“Yes, yes, I am painfully aware of that. I am not unused to being erroneously and foolishly labelled.”
“Lee used to always call me Spew,” she said mournfully. She started at the approaching cloud. “What are they? The things hurting animals an’ people an’ stuff?”
I connected and set up my equipment as quickly as I was able. The girl kept fidgeting.
“Many years ago,” I explained as I racked my brain to try to remember how to set the switches correctly, “I designed a flying autonomous mechanism. It was one of my areas of speciality – a little machine that could fly through the air to help and build and deliver and assist.”
“Like them drone things. I saw them on the telly. Bombing some peoples overseas.”
I grimaced.
“Yes, well, those flying drones were developed based on my stolen designs.”
“And the cloud things? Thems drones too?”
“More of a swarm, I would hazard. Many small flying machines moving, calculating  and working cooperatively. Hrm, quite lazily designed derivatives of my work, in many ways.”
“What’s the swarm for? Why’s it hurting things?”
I handed a battery pack to the child.
“Hold that. Don’t let the cable fall out. It’s rather old, I’m afraid. If you had built a swarm of cooperative flying machines that could be given orders yet could adapt to situations you could do all sorts of marvellous things. Unfortunately, as with the poorly-named drones, they appear to have been set to the rather simple and unimaginative task of killing. Lots of tiny electrical shocks, perhaps, or even a small amount of radiation emitted by each piece of the swarm until the target is quickly roasted from the outside inwards.”
The grubby girl made a gagging coughing noise. I ignored this and directed her to put her foot on the activation switch and connected the transmission wand.
“As for who sent them,” I continued, “Well, who knows? It could be a private body keen to show off a field test, it could be a foreign power, it could even be your own government. By their reckoning, nobody here is of any real value. It would be child’s play to kill off hundreds of the locals and you would not have the slightest difficulty concealing the test of this swarm machine-cloud. You could call it a terrible unusual quirk of nature, an epidemic, or something of that kind. Nobody would care, and in a year or two the whole matter would be forgotten, but the swarm handlers would have collected some useful field data. As an added bonus, I flatter myself that perhaps they even decided they had let me live too long and that it would be ideal to target a test around my location. Ready now?”
The child may have been sobbing quietly, but I barely noticed.
“An’ it’s gonna get us. How far-”
“Oh, I’d say we have about another thirty seconds before the swarm arrives to kill us.”
I brandished the transmission wand in the air, and admitted I enjoyed the feeling. I had not felt so myself in quite some time.
“What I will attempt here is actually rather intriguing,” I explained, “To reluctantly use bees as a comparison, just as a bee-keeper uses smoke to disrupt bees from sending aggressive pheromones to one another, I am going to try and send a sort of signal smoke to see if we can disrupt the way the swarms communicates internally and-”
The girl screamed as hundreds of thousands of shining grey specks moved in a funnelling body towards us. The air crackled about us and I found an unbearable shooting pain spreading through my jaw.
“Don’t wander off now, girl!” I shouted and began transmitting through the wand. At the full intensity, if this didn’t work in the next five or six seconds, I would imagine that my strained old equipment would melt down and we would be swiftly and dispassionately murdered. We were surrounded by the cloud and I could smell burning hair and skin and my arms were shaking uncontrollably. The girl was batting furiously at the swarm, shrieking as her hands passed through the machine mist with thousands of tiny stinging burns.
“Hrm! Swarms! Drones! I always hated the name. Wanted to call them King’s Ptermachinai,” I shouted.
The transmission wand was beginning to melt at the cable. The girl screamed.
Then something fell on the lenses of my goggles. They were metal flakes. Pieces of the swarm were suddenly stopping in the air and gently floating to the ground like ugly snowflakes. In a moment my poor garden was covered with grey metallic dust.
The girl rubbed some of the machine-grit from her face. Naturally, as a youthful magnet for filth of all kinds, she had attracted a novel form of muck and had dead mini-drones all over herself.
“Mr. Bee Man, it worked!” she squeaked.
“Naturally,” I snorted, “That floating rubbish was based on my designs after all.”
The transmission wand sizzled and fell apart.
The girl looked around awkwardly.
“Thank – thank you Mr. Bee Man. I mean, thank you Mister King. I better go see if Lee is still alive, I suppose.”
The girl stumbled out towards the gate. I rushed into the shed and scurried after her.
“One moment, Sue, you are looking a bit pale. Understandable, after all. The first near-death adventure is always the most difficult. You need to get your strength up. Take this and eat two teaspoons every half-hour, no more.”
I pressed the jar of honey into her grubby hands and she nodded earnestly.