Thursday, May 23, 2019


Queen of the Flies
By David Barber

There were markets like these around every mountainous Jirt craft, bidonvilles of greed and filth where the natives sold anything, even each other. This must be the opinion of the Jirt, because sometimes they cleansed a shantytown, reducing it to heaps of sterile white ash. Surely no one would risk living in the volcano's shadow? But time passed, and always the humans came creeping back.

This Jirt ignored shouted bargains. Its six-legged gait was purposeful and its chitinous bulk sometimes splintered the crooked passageways of the human quarter. Hopeful items had been posed on tables and for the discerning buyer there was pre-contact artwork: broken radios, light bulbs, a set of X-ray plates; even esoteric native art based solely on sound waves.

This solitary Jirt was a drone, and therefore idle, curious, and with wealth to squander, its glittering isolation fields protecting it from all this seething pollution.

Come on, big boy, human females shouted as the drone passed, you dirty… and the translator-bug clinging to its thorax fell decently silent.

The Jirt halted in front of a shop, as if studying the word clinic above the door, though it had no need to puzzle over human script, since that was the job of translator-bugs. No one had yet decided what function humans might serve.

To a Jirt, the shop seemed dark and cramped. Human eyes were wounded by ultraviolet, so they frequented the shadows. Behind the counter stood a human medic clothed in the traditional white coat and pens.

"Welcome, watery sperm," it greeted in the fashion of a rival Jirt male, clicking its tongue in an imitation of juvenile speech. Another drone had visited here before and taught the unwitting human this drollery.

Close up, humans were as pulpy and soft as prejudice claimed, though they also reminded some of grubs. This must be the reason they were not all swept away, their world cleansed like a diseased hive.

Reluctantly, the drone began to explain. An itch between the maxillary palps, also some soreness and discharge from the proboscis. Of course the trouble was easily fixed by Jirt technologies, but wings would waggle, the Court would buzz, and the Queen would be sure to hear.

The human was making noises of regret. It could not help, it was saying, not while the honoured one remained armoured.

The drone had prepared itself for this difficult moment. A few adjustments and the isolation field collapsed, leaving it naked and vulnerable. The sudden smells were overwhelming – a powerful mix of burnt meat, bodily fluids and soap. And now the drone sensed vibrations that had been muffled before: the throb and gurgle of this human’s bodily workings, subsonic leakage from the ship's physics, the feeble lighting's fifty cycle hum.

The human obtained samples and busied itself peering through glass lenses mounted in a tube, all the while giving a tiresome lecture on germs. Human medicine was obsessed with these invisible entities and the drone buzzed its tiny wings with impatience. How much simpler, it thought, to be sterile inside and out.

"I see you have dropped your guard before." The human shook its head, one of the few human gestures blunt enough for Jirt to recognise. "What was it? A rubbish tip? A cess pit? Road kill?"

A million years ago, the ancestors of the Jirt had indeed looked for food and mates in such places, but civilisation changes everything. The human tried to explain about penicillin, but the drone cut it short. There was no need for the spells it used to encourage belief in its potions.

Hurrying to open the door for its customer, the human offered uncalled-for advice. The honoured one should be more careful in the future, faecal matter was not the sterile food paste the Jirt were used to.

The pheromones the drone squirted would have sent workers scuttling away, but the human only sneezed.

"You are far from home," it continued. “And perhaps the primitive has awoken ancient instincts."

The drone had heard human faces revealed what they thought. They regarded one another but learned nothing.

Outside was the human quarter, where the discerning could find bargains in pre-contact artwork and amusing gifts for the Queen. It was only later that the drone realised it had not rebooted its isolation field. For a moment it froze, then with a thrill of disgust, headed deeper into the shantytown, abloom with colours and overripe smells, buzzing with raucous noises and disorder, the source of all that was vile, polluted and rank.

The next day in Court, the drone remarked carelessly how it had visited the human market and found the whole place disgusting. Surely others had noticed? The soldiery were slackers. Had to practically insist on the cleansing procedure. A chore long overdue.

That morning the human quarter had been reduced to an expanse of fine white ash. Privately, the consensus of the Court was that hoping to impress the Queen with housework was a tactic unlikely to succeed.

It was while secretly applying the human potion that the drone discovered the joints of its antennae were oozing an offensive fluid. It hurriedly concealed this with cosmetics and pheromone spray, but attending the Queen after, was embarrassed to catch the very faintest whiff of corruption.

The Court was surprised to hear the drone had been summoned to mate with the Queen. But while the drone should have been concentrating on the mechanics of this honour, instead, it found itself recalling the tantalising odours of filth borne on the foetid air of the human quarter.

Few copulations in this day and age finish with the roused Queen biting off and consuming the drone's head, and perhaps it was for this reason that afterwards the Queen declared it to have been one of the most satisfactory matings for many cycles.

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