The Gaian Devolution is saving the planet. By exterminating the people. But global warming is only getting worse and technothrope Chairperson Flora B. Harper is out of solutions.
Onder Swart is the last Khoisan in the Southern Africa Exclusion Zone. He wants to return to his homeland and live a natural life with the ragtag gang of children survivors he’s collected. But the Gaians have declared it a human-free animal preserve. Their robots patrol its borders with deadly force.
Onder meets Astrix, an ailing visitor from the forlorn genius gulag that is Space Station Independence. They work up a scheme to seize control of the Gaian System and free both their peoples. But the Gaians are using Onder’s epidemic-resistant DNA to complete their master plan and wipe out all humans with their worst plague yet. There are no guarantees and anything can happen.
Onder Swart gazed at shark fins gliding in circles in the milky turquoise surf below. He toed the loose, black rock, loosened a chunk and stepped closer to the edge. He pushed the hot chunk off the edge. It landed on a shark’s head and three of them scrambled to grab it, their teeth glinting in the harsh sunlight.
One step and it’s done. No longer will my children die. No more will Philani nag me. No more will I lack food. No more will I fight robots just to enter my homeland. I will be in the ultimate homeland and in need of nothing.
He firmed his left foot at the very edge of the cliff, his toes curling and extending in free air. The ledge shifted under him. His right foot he extended out over the abyss. He sucked in breath and held it. He leaned forward.
A plump bird, its belly white, a black strip painted across its eyes like a pirate, alighted on Onder’s shoulder. Onder stopped, stepped back and eyed it. It stood on just one leg. The other hung crooked, a dark gray blotch where it was broken. The precious creature shifted its weight to try the leg, slipped and returned to balancing on one leg.
He stepped back twice more. He reached his opposite hand across and grabbed the delicate creature. It cheeped and struggled. Onder tightened his grip. He examined it and shook his head. It won’t survive.
Onder closed his eyes and frowned. Food again. Do they never stop eating?
Slim and tense in her loincloth and ragged gray t-shirt, Philani slapped her sandals against the smooth rock, her teenage hips rocking from side to side in a display of feminine dominance. Her confidence impressed Onder but deep inside he laughed at her pretension of womanhood.
“The children need food!” she said.
“Give me a strip of cloth and help me tie it around this one’s leg.”
Philani narrowed her eyes and stepped closer. “We will eat it.”
“No, we will save it and eat its eggs.”
“But we need food now.” She put her hands on her hips. “I won’t do it. Your children must eat.”
“They are not my children!”
A hollow boom echoed from far away. Three dark balls rose from the scrubland a kilometer inland.
Philani screamed, her face a frozen mask of fear, acute yet fatigued. Onder pushed her to the ground and threw himself on top of her. He sheltered the bird in the soft space under his chin and looked upside down back towards the ocean.
A dust cloud scraped at his back. He jammed shut his eyes and mouth and pushed air out of his nose. Philani sobbed, her body quivering beneath him.
“This land is human-free by order of Chairperson Flora B. Harper of the Gaian Devolution. Move back now or face relocation.”
The dust subsided. Onder positioned himself in front of Philani’s prostrate body and hid the bird at his lower back. It pecked at the bare skin of his buttock and he startled.
He faced the translucent machines, their metal skeletons shadows inside their plastic bodies. They were angry, always.
The children cowered behind large boulders thirty meters to his right. Twenty-nine of them, including three infants and one teenager - Philani - who kept the last non-Gaian people of Southern Africa together and relatively happy.
Are there non-Gaians left on the other continents? Onder only vaguely knew other lands existed but he worried about this question.
Two more robots shot up into the air as balls and unfurled into four-meter-tall humanoid figures before landing nexting to the children.
The children screamed and hugged themselves, forming a mass of frantic arms, jockeying legs and exposed eyeballs.
Onder stepped forward. “Stay away from them!” he yelled.
One of the robots hopped at him and landed centimeters from Onder’s toes. The cliff cracked and shifted under him. He pinched the thin young man’s shoulder between his silicon fingers and lifted him.
Onder met the robot’s deep green eyes. Only lenses, for the Gaians and this Flora Harper to see through. Onder passed the motionless bird to his other hand, slipped his knife from its sheath at his side and jammed the sharp steel into the monster’s eye.
The beast did not react. The blade slid off the lens and Onder’s hand slammed into the hard glass. He flinched but refused to let the Gaians - the people who killed his parents, everyone he ever knew - see him in pain.
The robot pinched his shoulder tighter. Onder screamed and the bird fell out of his hand. He twisted to see its fall but the pain pulled him back. The robot brought him up to his eye.
“You can not injure me, human. As you do not submit, you must be relocated.” Its mechanical arm whined as it pulled him back ever so briefly towards his homeland, then hurled him over the edge of the cliff, his legs kicking, his eyes wide and the salty smell of the sea rising to greet him.
Flora B. Harper, Chairperson of the Gaian System, swivel-rolled out of bed, inserted her soft, fatty feet into her new plush pink slippers and heaved her mass into a semi-erect position.
She pulled the master key from its cradle on her nightstand and hung the rough-hewn blue-purple Tanzanite gem around her neck, its platinum chain jingling. Soft lights came on from behind wall panels. Translucent orange panels retracted behind her to reveal glass wall.
Flora walked around her bed to the window and contemplated her African blood lilies. Tall and deep red, each flower was in fact a community of two-hundred or more tiny tendrils reaching toward the sky for life, no matter that their bloom lasted only two weeks. Too perfect. Neither her alone nor humanity in its entirety could match their evolution.
She tilted her head left. “Environmental Cooperation.” The line beeped in her ear.
“Yep,” said a tired male voice.
“I want the blood lilies harvested today. Cut them all down. You should have done it already. I want them on every table at the feast.”
The voice sputtered and seemed to correct its posture. “Yes, Chairperson! Anything else, Chairperson?”
Flora tilted her head right to break the connection.
Bone knocked on hard wood and a wave of stress rippled through her.
“What!” she screamed, reveling in her loss of control.
“It’s me,” a male voice said.
“I’m not ready yet!” Her voice was half buzzsaw, half drill sergeant.
“Happy Restoration of Balance Day, honey!” The voice was meek and plaintive. It disgusted her.
She waddled back past her bed and straight to the heavy, oak door. She flipped off the deadbolt and whipped it open.
A rail-thin man, his chest caved in and his head leaning precipitously forward stepped back, his mouth hanging open.
“We haven’t restored the balance yet, now have we!” She wagged a meaty finger under his pointed nose. “Close your mouth and stand up straight!”
He flashed her a thin grin and took another step back. “Didn’t you get your beauty sleep, darling? This is why we need to sleep together again. You see that now, surely?”
Her toes tensed and her lower back muscles burned. “I told you, Philip, I will inform you when I am ready!” She stepped back, slammed the door and forced her breath to slow.
Bone tapped oak again. She held her breath and opened the door, ready to snap her husband’s weak frame in two.
“Everyone is waiting...?” Philip said.
“Your speech. It’s Restoration Day, remember?”
A cold chill tightened her back. She blinked and looked up to activate her heads-up display. After 9? Already? And an eighty percent chance of rain. She rolled her eyes. Flora, you idiot. “I’ll be right out!”
She threw the door shut and trotted back to her closet. She pulled her sleepshirt up and over her chest, where it stuck. “Goddamnit!” She kicked her feet, pulled again and a seam popped with the rat-a-tat of machine gun fire.
“Another one?” She thought back to the time before the machines when people assembled clothing. Then you could get quality. If you had the money, of course, which she always did. But now? Well, it just wasn’t important anymore. If you were going to live, you might as well do things right - or not at all. Dad was right about that!
She found the extra-wide, floor-to-ceiling mirror next to her closet and turned away from it. She snaked her head back to look at herself.
“Who’s sexy?” She raised one oversized hip, then the next, again and again, up and down in a rollercoaster of flesh. “I’m sexy!”
Philip rapped on the door again. “Darling, we need you!”
She stopped, glared at the door, raised a hip once more, then dance-thudded to her closet, selected a black mini-dress with three-quarter lingerie sleeves, twirled and pulled the two-sizes-too-small garment over her wide head, thick shoulders and, finally, her abundant midsection.
She walked over to the mirror again and admired herself.
“Dear!” Philip pounded on the door. “We’re starting without you.”
“Just hold on!” She slipped into a simple pair of black flats, shuffled to the door, opened it and slammed it behind her.
Philip raised an eyebrow at her. She flashed him an angry look, then tilted her head back. He lowered his head, got behind her and zipped up her dress with a careful touch.
“Very good.” She gestured with her index finger to a spot a meter behind her and commenced a dignified strut down the hallway and through the open doorway into the garden outside. Chin up. Eyes forward. Back straight. You’re a sex symbol!
“Happy Restoration Day, Chairperson,” a group intoned in perfect coordination.
Flora nodded her head sideways to them and gritted her teeth. Obsequious fawners. Two-faced cowards. Backbiting sellouts. How zealously they cling to their own lives knowing the time has come. And it’s Restoration of Balance Day, not Restoration Day! Idiots!
Flora turned left and climbed the steps to the amphitheater stage. Covered by three long, curved golden-orange teak beams, it reminded her of her first days there in Unity. Dad architected this whole place, together with the machines, of course.
She reached the stage, found the podium and looked out at her people. A quarter circle of benches radiated outwards from her. Their expanding ranks filled the space to overflow. Too many unauthorized babies. Too much weakness. That changes now.
Philip climbed up after her. “Darling, did you see the tigers yet? They’re marvelous, don’t you agree?”
Flora whipped around. The tigers. That’s an important part, Flora, you absentminded enchantress, you! She giggled internally but flashed her husband an icy look. He stopped on the steps.
“How do I release them?” she asked.
Philip studied her, a confused look on his face. “Ferris and his boys are in the audience.”
“You haven’t fed them, correct?”
“The boys?” he asked.
“The tigers, of course!”
“No, not me. The zookeeper takes care of that.” He looked left and right, then sighed.
“How do I release them!” she asked through gritted teeth. And it’s nature liaison. When will they learn?
“Oh, yes, well, just pull the latch at the top. Simple as that.” He raised his foot to continue upwards.
“Go sit with everyone else.”
Philip scowled and lowered his head. He turned and proceeded down the steps, then turned back. “I love you, you know,” he mumbled.
Flora took the podium. Yeah, yeah. I know. There was her loser son, Ferris, with his simpleton wife and their three kids. All boys, not a girl among them. And how dare they have three children? Did they forget why we are here?
Behind that ignorant bunch sat cute little Dove with her boyfriend. Now there was a woman. Refused to get married. Refused to have children. She always was a rebel and Flora did encourage her. So what if she drank a bottle of vodka every night. She imagined them all, screaming, their necks draining rich blood onto the hot geopolymer cement. She suppressed a grin.
“Come on, Mom, the feast awaits!” Ferris yelled.
Flora glared at him, then cleared her throat. She glanced back at the beasts. One looked back, its white canine teeth poking out at her, its huge claws scraping on the floor of the steel cage. She thrilled and turned back to the assemblage. “Today, fellow Gaians,” she shouted, “I am at the end of my rope!”
Her fellow Gaians quieted. All eyes examined her for clues, possibly for weakness. She was a strong Chairperson but they wanted to block the final solution. The cowards wanted to save their own worthless hides. Flora couldn’t allow that, no matter what.
“Happy Restoration of Balance Day!” a jovial male voice yelled from below.
“But we have not restored the balance, have we?” Flora asked. She immediately scolded herself for asking a question. You don’t do that unless you’re willing to get an--
“Are we not close enough?” a deeper voice asked.
“The Gaian System stands today on the verge of failure,” Flora continued, “with enough survivors on three continents to re-establish human hegemony against the planet. I will not allow this to happen.”
Ferris yawned. Dove whispered to her partner. Of them all, only Philip gave her his full attention. And it infuriated her.
“People, they are crossing our southern gate! They have undone the priceless conservation work we have achieved on this very continent!
“Our numbers, too, have grown beyond projections or expectations, such that we have run out of homes in which to put your little brats, not to mention the proper ecological disposal of their dirty diapers!”
They were used to this. They’d heard it too many times. They were immune to ranting, accustomed to scolding. She could see their eyes glazing over, feel their attention turning to other matters. Flora would do something about that.
She whirled around, imagining herself a stage diva wowing the crowd with a racy dance move, and almost tripped over her bovine feet. She found the tiger cage latches and removed each of them, three in total. She descended the stairs, turned to the crowd and bowed.
“It’s time to restore some balance around here, people! Say hello to our friendly tigers!” Flora walked backwards towards the door to her complex, watching for the first signs of what she hoped would happen, what she knew must happen, as long as that idiot nature liaison did what she told him to do, or not to do, more accurately. The sense of guilty pleasure floated in her gut like a fresh chocolate cake.
The crowd stood and cheered. Children clawed for their parents’ legs, others stepped forward hesitantly. The tigers proceeded from their cages. A smaller female sauntered to the edge of the stage, glanced at Flora, then lay down and yawned. Two males jumped out simultaneously, their thick front leg muscles pulsing under shiny cinnamon fur.
One dove into the crowd, knocking Philip violently back into his daughter-in-law, her eyes wide, struggling to escape from under the weight of the beast. It slashed Philip’s neck and she screamed, blood spattering into her silky blonde hair.
The second bounded forward and chased down Flora’s grandson Tyler. The tiger tapped the back of the fleeing five-year-old’s leg with its massive paw. Tyler collapsed, rolled over and broke out into a bawl. The tiger advanced, put his head down and pushed it into the boy’s chest, the weight crushing until a thin crack sounded, then another. Tyler fell silent. The tiger moved on.
“Not the baby. No! Oh my God,” a woman screamed. But Flora didn’t hear her.
She ducked into the building, her heart thumping in her neck, and pulled the glass door closed behind her. A contact tinkled in her ear. Flora refused it. The nature liaison hurdled down the hallway towards her, a dart gun on his back.
Flora stepped into his path. His eyes went wide, he hit her and bounced back a meter onto his back. Flora took a delicate backwards step and put her arms on her hips.
“You will not interfere,” she whispered. A tiger roared and a man let out a scream that chilled Flora. She started to shake.
The nature liaison approached her, eyes narrowed. He opened his mouth, then stepped back in a hurry.
The door behind her rattled in its frame. She turned and immediately jumped back. A wild face, eyes bulging, pressed itself up against the glass.
“Mother, open the door!”
Flora studied Ferris. First-born son. You expect one of those to be there with you when it’s time to man the parapets. To be at your right hand, in fact. To get your back from time to time. But this one was a waste of breast milk. Good riddance. She crossed her arms and shook her head at him.
Ferris looked behind him, then back at her. “Mother! You need me for--”
A spot of orange and black moved behind him. The tiger appeared above him, its giant maw open. Its paws landed on either side of his head, breaking through the glass door. The tip of its longest, hand-sized claw tore the Tanzanite master key from Flora’s neck. The great beast, its middle-finger-sized canine teeth pointing at Flora, ripped into the back of Ferris’s neck.
The man’s eyes rolled up into his head and a heavy sigh escaped from somewhere unexpected.