Preamble: This the seventh chapter of a serialized science-fiction short story concerning animal control and an exterminator. (Previously: Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 and Chapter 6)
by Cheeseburger Brown
As we proceeded through the tunnels I heard the odd scrape and rumble from above that reminded me I was being stalked by my loyal cargo palette up on the surface. The tunnels were becoming wider, taller, and more rectilinear as we neared the heart of the burrow.
There were a few animals in those corridors but we kept to the shadows and moved quickly so we wouldn't be noticed. Queenie kept them close in her sight as we passed by; I could tell even she didn't trust them all the way. She had the practiced caution of a zookeeper. So, maybe she wasn't totally off the deep end -- just in over her head.
I waited in an antechamber while she negotiated the contact through her contacts. After a while I managed to climb up onto one of their enormous chairs and had a seat. I may have dozed off.
She snapped her fingers in front of my face. "It is time. Come, William. The first speakers of the progenitors' ruling houses await our parley in the interlocutorium now."
I blinked and stretched. "Okay."
The interlocutorium was a special room on two levels, so that the Mad Queen and I could stand on a wide balcony that brought us up to the eye level of the massive primal animals I'd been hired to eradicate. The air rolled and sparkled with their various organic stinks and vapours, a miasma of eyelashes and keratin flakes and wriggling mites. We watched as the great beasts gradually lumbered into position before us.
"Remember when they used to make us watch documentaries like this in school? This is a lot like one of those old documentaries. Visible light, aerial perspective -- the works." I looked over at Queenie.
"No," she said. "We did not attend a mixed school. Will you perform a vocal test?"
I cleared my throat. "Doe-ray-me. One two three. Ahem, ahem."
"Testing, testing, testing."
"Too low, William. The progenitors cannot follow if you mumble infrasonically. Try to focus around two hundred Hertz."
"Makes me feel like I've got a mouthful of something."
She hushed me. The animals had come to rest before us, their big sloppy eyes blinking, spasms of coloured muscle fibres around the pupils jerking the ragged aperture into a shape roughly tuned to focus. The lips of one slowly parted, strings of drool snapping free, a wild halitosis of hydrocarbons wafting forth over both of us.
"Your majesty," it eventually blubbered, then initiated a dinosauric bow of its bulbous, oily head.
"This is going to take all day," I commented.
"Shut up, William," snapped Queenie. "Mark time on odds, to make it feel faster."
The animal had finished bowing and now resumed orienting its muzzle directly at our balcony. The apparent queen addressed it in a quavering molasses voice: "How goes the war?"
"We've suffered serious casualties; your majesty, why won't your machines fall back?"
"They will not recognize our commands, honoured progenitor."
"Has their been a coup d'état?"
"No, progenitor, but our reign is not accepted or acknowledged in all quarters."
"I'll say," I said.
At this the beasts turned their moist attention to me. "Tell us, new and noble stranger, what tidings you bring. Know you what hampers the sovereign's influence? Is there a plot?"
I looked around awkwardly. "Not a plot, per se. But the queen's office is very old, and most people don't even remember it. And even those that do don't really understand why we'd pay mind to an office obsolete for generations. The Queen of Space isn't really a going concern these past few dozen millennia."
The queen was squinting unkindly at me.
"There are those who contest her rule?"
"I'm not really a politics guy," I explained, "but I don't think the royal house has been a concern since before the war. Not this war, of course: the real one."
"This war is very real."
"Oh, sure. I mean, I get it. This is very real to you. But I'm talking about an actual human conflict with real loss of life. See, a while ago we came up against the Goliath Infrastructure -- basically a self-determining planet colonization engine for a long lost race of organics. A lot like you folks, in fact. But bigger. And somewhat more extinct. Anyway, we fought off their stubborn junk and by the time all the dust settled we just weren't engaging with organics the way we used to…so the liaison between our peoples diminished and became forgotten."
There was an awkward silence. I glanced over at the queen, whose head was lowered. I turned back to the ancestors. They gaped.
I shrugged sheepishly. "Have I said too much?"
One of the animals managed to force more words out of its windy face sphincter. "Your majesty has assured us we would have negotiations in good faith with the robot leadership. Are you not this emissary, come now to treat with us?"
"Me? An emissary? Oh no. I'm just an exterminator. You know, pest control."
Its eyes narrowed, almost like a real person. "What pests, liege?"
"Well, not to put too fine a point on it…" I said, nodding in their general direction. "I specialize in zoo escapes."
Their faces flushed red. "Your majesty!"
"Heed not the words of this knave," suggested the queen, "for he is not an educated man --"
"Knave? That's a fine how-do-you-do, you addled cow. And after I've been so polite with your pets!"
The ancestors were lowing. The air became a sea of saliva drops and bits of shredded microorganisms. Every time the beasts stirred a great cloud of skin wafted from their movements, expanding and twisting before coasting lazily to the floor. I heard the sick churn of their inner pipes glorping and fartling with tension, gases leaking from one length to another in response to hormonal spikes. The big, cartoonish hearts in their chests jerked faster, bludgeoning themselves against bone with an audible slap, slap, slap.