Francis was penning a letter to his monastery brothers back home when his bees malfunctioned. He stood from a bolted-down table and chair in a corner of the dirigible as tiny black bots emerged from their hives to buzz around the cabin on synthetic wings. Some landed on his letter. He shooed them off.
“Annie, why are the bees out of stasis?”
A hologram of a young woman in Old West attire appeared above the airship console. “I do believe the little fellers are a might agitated,” she said in a thick Western accent.
Francis had once told the dirigible’s AI that they were going into the Wild West, and the idea stuck. Most of the time, he found her Annie Oakley persona amusing. Right now it only served to irritate him.
“No shit,” he said.
She gasped. “Language, Father.”
“You’ll hear worse if you don’t tell me what’s going on.”
“All right, hold your horses a minute.”
“We don’t have a minute,” he said. A few hundred bees had emerged so far. Soon it would be a thousand. They crawled along the walls, blocked out portholes and transformed Francis’ cot into a writhing mass of mechanical bodies.
Francis had been a beekeeper for ten years, since God’s own bees had gone extinct. Corporations had hastened the demise with no-pollinating fruits and vegetables. By planting their gene-spliced foods in coastal zones, they had inadvertently — or, some said, purposely — split America into haves and have-nots. Farmers in the abandoned interior eked out a living any way they could. They needed beekeepers like Francis, and the bees were Francis’ calling. But the bees had never acted like this.
Annie bit her lip. “I’m picking up a signal from the ground, a hundred yards to the southwest.”
Francis tried to look out a porthole for a visual, but for every bee he shooed away, two more took its place. “A competing signal? Is someone trying to hijack the bees?”
Attempted thefts had happened before — pollination bots were in high demand in the interior — but never this brazenly. Never in mid-flight.
“Might be,” Annie said. “Wait, there’s something else.” Her eyes widened under the brim of her Stetson. “Oh.”
“Hang onto something.”
He grabbed a handhold. There was a bang and the sound of ripping cloth, and the dirigible creaked and pitched to one side. The bees swarmed in a black cloud. Francis tried to keep his footing, but the floor tilted away until he dangled from the handhold. He hung there for a few sickening seconds, fingers slipping off the rung, before the dirigible tilted the other way like a pendulum and slammed him into the wall.
Her hologram had vanished, but her voice reached him over the din of the bees and the failing airship. “The envelope is punctured. Projectiles were fired from the ground. Unknown type and quantity.”
“Can you stop the leak?”
“So we’re going down?”
His stomach roiled as the dirigible tilted the other way. “At least stop the swinging back and forth, will you?”
She did, though his ears still popped from their continued descent. He made his way down handholds to the console. Red lights blinked, and the altimeter was dropping. He trusted Annie but had wanted to see for himself. He brushed off more bees.
He was going to end up mangled or crushed over a few thousand pollination bots. Unless…
“Annie, can you override the competing signal?”
“Probably, but why put the bees in stasis now?”
“I don’t want them in stasis. I’m going to open the hatch, and I want every last bee under the airship cabin and pushing up. They might slow us enough that we can survive the impact.”
“It’s a long shot.”
“You have a better idea?”
“Afraid I don’t.”
“Then do it.”
He stumbled to the hatch and released the locking mechanism. The door flung open. He would have fallen out if he hadn’t caught a handhold at the last second. Wind burned his cheeks. Prairie grass rose toward the ship at a dizzying speed, and he caught a glimpse of an antennaed machine, three men and what looked like a harpoon-launcher. He pulled himself back inside.
Dozens, hundreds, thousands of bees flew past him, out the hatch and under the ship.
Please, God, let this work, he thought.
“Our rate of descent is decreasing,” Annie said, “but it might not be enough. Impact in 30 seconds.”
“Twenty seconds… ten… five…”
He curled into a ball on the floor. When it came, the crash hurled him into the wall. Air exploded from his lungs. Pain shot up his spine. Metal screeched and crunched, and then everything was quiet.
Francis hurt all over, but he tried moving and found that he could. He surveyed the damage. The impact with the ground had crushed the dirigible cabin like an aluminum can. Francis had enough space to crawl.
He coughed weakly. “Annie?”
“The ship is unsalvageable, but 80 percent of the bees are operational. I moved them away from the cabin 1.5 seconds before impact.”
“There were three men.”
Francis squeezed through the hatch and limped outside. He had twisted his knee. The deflated envelope draped over the cabin and ground in a heap of cloth. Bees landed and waited, motionless, again under Annie’s control. Arms and legs stuck out from under the ship. Francis threw up.
Back inside, Annie’s hologram wavered above what was left of the console. She looked smug.
“I don’t condone the killing,” Francis said.
“That being said, nice aim.”
She drew a virtual pistol from a holster and blew on the barrel. “With bullets or bees, I’m still the best shot in the West.”
Jennifer Campbell-Hicks’ fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, 10Flash, Ray Gun Revival and other venues. She lives in Arvada, Colorado, where she finds time to write between her two full-time jobs as a journalist and a mother of three.