Wyn never had a choice in the matter; the position was assigned to her when she was ten. She was sure that many of the other females in her birth pod were just as large and healthy, so why had she been chosen? For twenty-six years now, she had resented every minute of it and yet she produced the best eggs in the Section, or so they claimed. Being a Queen was her curse.
"When are we landing?" she asked the ship Commander with ill-concealed boredom.
She would so prefer to be a science officer on any ship instead, a real member of a crew instead of one of the current nine Queens, or as she called them, egg machines. While some of the ships science divisions did permit her to follow them around and watch their work, she was now too old to begin at university or apply to the League Starship Service. What rank she actually held was due to her very productive sexual organs and not in any way to intelligence or education.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. She remembered her induction perfectly. General Betrik had been there, accompanied by LoshaDeen, one of the former Queens and UburaSamora, at the time a host of Mainline News. According to them, she was being bestowed with this enormous honor and for a while she had believed this and willingly set aside her personal interests. But then she started to question things. Years of traveling on various ships between Hauad Prime and the three Hauadian colonies to deliver fertilized eggs had taken their toll.
The Commander interrupted her thoughts. He bent rubbed his hands in that manner he had, creating a scraping noise. It was just a nervous tic, not as it appeared, a showing of relish for the suffering of someone other than himself.
"Forora III is below us, my Queen. You might need to retire to your quarters to prepare."
What he really meant was that maybe she would want to go grease up her gatesh or outlet for the eggs, from which she would soon deposit ten thousand or more. At least they allowed her privacy during this process. All the fluttering lab technicians would politely shut her into a comfortable little room decorated to supposedly please Queens in soft greens and violet and she would perform her duty of squeezing out the eggs into the protective solution provided. Her long abdomen would shake over the receptacle until every last egg was out. To make certain, she pressed a buzzer and one of the attendants came running to check. And then she was done and expected to endure yet again, another state dinner in honor of her gift to whatever world she was currently on.
Once that was over and everyone back on the ship after a short leave, they would head back to Miva Space Station where the fertilization process would again take place and the sperm of countless donors injected into her haroch, a small opening on the underside of her abdomen.
Why couldn't she just accept her lot in life and be content? As far as she knew, none of the other Queens felt the way she did, but then they all tended to be rather formal when attending rare public functions together and did not share intimacies.
On the way back to Miva Station, she sought out the ship Sacerdotess Osan for counseling.
Osan was almost as tall as Wyn, not common in those not chosen to be Queens, though she was not as robust. Her thorax was quite narrow, her abdomen shorter and her triangular head rather unattractive, though her large eyes were luminous and a beautiful soft green. Wyn herself had dark brown eyes, which were sharp and penetrating. A good thing, she supposed, for a Queen, but off putting in social situations.
Wyn positioned herself on the priestess' comfortable floor with its scattering of pillows. She crossed both sets of arms around her legs to rest them.
"I'm going to shock you," she told Osan. "I hate being a queen."
If she had expected alarm to register on Osan's face, she was disappointed. "Go on," said the priestess.
"Well," said Wyn, "everyone else is able to choose what they want to do with their lives except me. Queens are the only people in the Four Worlds who are forced to do what they may or may not actually want. And please don't tell me how honored I should feel. That's simply a smoke screen everyone uses to cover up what they don't want to admit, that they're enslaving a sentient being."
Osan surprised Wyn by agreeing. "You're right. Being a queen does seem to be the only career that is forced onto the person. There are, of course, the Seeders, the suppliers of sperm, but that's a short term task, which does not take over anyone's entire existence."
She paused. "I don't know if you're aware, but there are political movements to promote the idea that many instead of a few young females be trained for the job and that the resulting Queens serve only, say, ten year terms. So far this idea has not gained much traction in the General Assembly, but as more and more females are taking over Assembly and Space League positions, I imagine the idea will take hold."
"But how long with that take?" said Wyn. "By the time I'm dead?"
"Just this past year, seven Seeders have resigned. Of course they are permitted to resign. There are always thousands lined up behind them. But you could possibly resign yourself."
After a cynical laugh, Wyn said, "And you know how a former Queen would be treated unless she is retired by the Assembly. My life would not be worth a cup of Lijan beer. As for pursuing my interest in genetics, there would be no chance."
Osan sighed. "Right again, Wyn. I don't know how to comfort you. All I can do is provide you with a sounding board. You cannot resign due to infirmity without the agreement of three physicians and that would leave you having to maintain that state of infirmity for the rest of your life. In no way would you be permitted to pursue personal avocations, at least not professionally."
Though the Sacerdotess was trying to help, for a moment Wyn felt like screeching at her, but she knew none of it was her fault. The law was the law. She left, thanking Osan, and privately hoping that she, Wyn, would not live a long life. They did not allow Queens to retire until their last egg was squeezed out. FianaLome, Universe bless her, traveled the Planets (there were only three then) until she was a hundred and sixteen and then, worn out, lived only three more years.
Wyn walked very slowly down the main hall of the ship, ignoring those she passed. Her thoughts were again on suicide, something she was very much against philosophically, but practically speaking, the idea was looking more and more attractive.
Tomorrow, they would dock at Miva Station for maintenance and supplies and while the others would be free to enjoy the station's many attractions, she would spend the first night in Infirmary being inseminated with the collected sperm of the Seeders. And since this usually tired her since it was impossible to rest while the technicians went about their work, she often ended up sleeping most of her leave.
But this time, things went differently.
The moment she was through the dock, she sensed something ominous in the air.
As always, people of several species were bustling about as if they were trying to condense ten days worth of work or pleasure into one, but their expressions were anxious. Even on those from the planet Kemliac who had faces that seemed carved from wood, Wyn could detect the same emotion. She passed a frantic Feronian and tried to touch her arm for a quick question, but was swallowed by the crowd. A Hooman stopped to purchase a snack and Wyn managed to corner him.
"Excuse me, sir," she said, speaking in station Pidgen. "But something seems to be wrong. What is it?"
The smaller soft being looked up at her with his tiny eyes. "You haven't heard?" He hesitated before going on. "Your Four Worlds are affected, nowhere else so far. A terrible plague has struck that apparently affects only your species. All arriving Hauadians are to report directly to Medical for testing and inoculation if it isn't too late. I wish you well."
It was as if someone had punched her. For a moment, she couldn't inhale. Finally, she thanked him in a barely inaudible voice and darted for the infirmary.
It was overflowing and buzzing with activity. All medical personnel on the station were present. When Wyn walked in, heads turned. Many, both staff and patients knew who she was, in addition to just being a Hauadian.
"My Queen," said Dr. Woon, a Tradorian as tall as Wyn herself. His black skin glistened in the glaring infirmary lighting and his small golden eyes expressed deep concern. "Please follow me to a private cubicle," he said in her language. The brilliant being spoke fourteen tongues.
"Doctor," she said, following him in a state of alarm. "I only just heard about this plague. What exactly is happening? Why did no one on the ship tell me?"
He didn't speak until he had closed the door. "Perhaps they didn't know until landing. News sources are interrupted. The illness is ravaging through the Hauadian Worlds. In a matter of hours, over eight million on Hauad Prime are dead and as many newly ill. On Forora III since your ship left, seven hundred thousand are gone and more falling ill every moment. On little Tunas -"
Feeling an almost overwhelming panic, she cut him off, "What is the plague like? What does it do? Where did it come from? What about Numa? Seven of my siblings and my closest friend live there!"
He motioned for her to sit on the examining table, which was not especially geared to Hauadian anatomy, but she managed. Immediately he reached for her throat and felt her glands. "The disease comes on fast," he said. "One moment you're feeling normal and the next lying in a pool of bodily secretions. Delirium follows, along with sharp pain in the abdomen and then, mercifully, death. A matter of hours." He felt around the back of her head for possible swelling, then pressed in at the soft part of her waist between her thorax and abdomen shells. He drew blood and ran a scan, checked her long tongue and the color of her eyes. "We'll know in a few minutes," he said. He took Wyn's hand and held it warmly. "Just a few minutes," he repeated.
"What if I have it?"
"We'll deal with it best we can."
His wrist receiver buzzed and he tapped it and watched. His head shot up. "All negative, Wyn. So far so good. And now I will give you what vaccination we have developed so far. My staff has been working round the clock."
She almost lost consciousness, so great was her relief. Though her next thought was what if my entire race is obliterated?
The doctor pressed an instrument to her neck and injected the serum. "Please rest here a moment," he said and handed her a cold drink from a receptacle in the wall.
"Where did this disease come from so suddenly?" she asked him.
"An assistant is going to take you to the Hauadian ambassador now," he said. "He will give you the information he has. I have others to vaccinate."
Nodding, she rose and he called for an aide.
ShorelTakur, the ambassador greeted her with: "Have you been vaccinated? Because if you haven't -" His long purple robe did not lend him enough dignity to cover his personal panic.
"I have," she said. "Now please tell me exactly what happened."
"There's the possibility," he said, "that it was an act of war."
"What do you mean?"
"A Manoki freighter arrived on Hauad Prime from the Janrow system, carrying dilode crystals, various sugars and pharmaceuticals for delivery to Global Medical. Apparently, an unknown virus, formulated to affect only Hauadians was let loose, by what manner we don't yet understand. There appears to be no contamination in any of the payloads but as soon as dock checkers boarded, they became ill. Apparently, in the same way, the other three planets were infected by arriving freighters."
"This is terrifying," said Wyn.
"In a matter of hours, a ship arrived here with every Hauadian on board dead. A very junior Jemlaki pilot performed the docking. Two Hauadians lived long enough for the non-Hauadian medical staff to use them to create a vaccine and replicate it.
"Apparently, the virus takes longer to finish off those between thirty and seventy, your and my age group. That would give one time to administer the vaccine on those, but it was hurriedly designed and is just now being rushed to the Four Worlds and this is only being done by so far naturally immune non-Hauadians."
"All the humanoid races are resistant?" she asked.
"That is correct," said ShorelTakur. "The Ragasians, the only other Mantodean race we know of besides ourselves, are probably too far from here to have had any contact and as you know, they are not the most friendly. But we messaged them anyway and they reported that so far, they have not experienced any disease. We warned them not to come into League space."
"Our species did share with the humanoids some susceptibility to the Grundi flu," said Wyn.
"Some," said ShorelTakur. "Though in that case, it only affected Hauadians with disturbed immune systems."
He was quiet for a time, while softly rubbing his hands together, though not in the annoying manner of the ship Commander. Wyn did rather like ShorelTakur. She sometimes thought he wasn't fully up to the job, but other times he surprised her.
"General Vee messaged me this morning," He said. He glanced out into the hall and closed the door. "It is difficult not to notice that quite possibly this was sabotage. A better word might be terrorism."
"But why? Who would do this?"
"We don't know yet," he said darkly. "It could be someone in the League or it could be outside it."
Her eyes widened. "But if it's someone in the League, that would mean the League is all for nothing, that you can't trust anyone! It would mean chaos... war... the end of life as we know it. The League has been in place for a hundred and forty years!"
"Yes," said ShorelTakur. "That is exactly what it would mean."
She considered something. "We are the only non-humanoid species in the League. Does that ever make you nervous?"
"It has not until now," said the ambassador.
Wyn took a suite in the station and hunkered down. After the crew was vaccinated, the ship she had just arrived on, the Murati, volunteered to ferry vaccines to two of the Four Worlds, Numa and Tunas. The captain, now vaccinated, had close family on Tunas.
Maybe I should have gone with them, Wyn told herself but no one expected her to risk her life. She was the egg carrier, the Queen, and it mattered that she stay out of danger. There was no question now of going through the fertilization process. To deliver fertilized eggs to worlds in states of chaos would be ridiculous. The ship that she would have normally boarded next did not arrive at the station. For that matter, no other Hauadian ships came in and the Murati did not return.
This relative isolation, she thought, would give her time to think. She entered the main bar, "The Black Hole." Since alcohol did nothing pleasant for Hauadians, she ordered a strong coffee froth, which did.
As soon as the bartender set it in front of her and she'd taken a sip, the same Hooman she had talked to upon arrival slid into the seat next to her. This time, the soft little creature seemed more down to business and within seconds, had opened his jacket and pointed to an identification badge.
"I didn't introduce myself before," he said. "I am Petra Jacobs, Chief Detective for Miva Station. I was wondering, since you travel between the Four Hauadian Worlds pretty much non stop, if you have any ideas as to who might have started this disaster."
She almost knocked over her froth, she was so startled. "Me? Why would you think I might know anything like that?"
"I don't mean to imply that you could be involved but only that you get around and therefore probably see a lot of things. Maybe things someone else might miss."
Wyn considered this. "When we arrive at one of the Four Worlds, I spend most of one day delivering my eggs. I might go shopping a bit on shore leave and have to endure the inevitable ceremony or dinner at some dignitary or celebrity's home, but not much else. What exactly should I have been looking for?"
The Hooman picked up the small glass set down by the bartender and chugged it. "Just anything unusual," he said.
Wyn tilted her head, which was Hauadian for I-don't-think-so, but then she stopped. "I do remember one slightly odd thing. At my last stop on Forora III. I was in a... well, unpleasant frame of mind and debarking took longer than usual. There were lots of people from various worlds, the usual mix, but..."
"Yes?" prompted the detective.
A crease formed between Wyn's large luminous eyes. "I-I thought I saw a reddish Hauadian."
"What do you mean?"
The bartender placed another tiny glass in front of him.
"Reddish," said Wyn. "Look at me. What color am I?"
"Well, what parts of you I can see are soft green, cream, tan and in some places there are thin brown lines. Very nice colors."
She smiled. "Thank you. Well, my point is that Hauadians are basically those colors, some being lighter or darker. But this person I saw - understand it was just a glimpse - looked like a male Hauadian and he was clothed up to his neck and wore gloves, but his sleeve moved up and I saw a bit of his arm. And it was a reddish color."
"What about his face?"
"Normal," she said. "Though he had a very pointy chin."
"A pointy chin, huh," mumbled the detective and with that, he thanked her, downed his glass and took his leave.
It seemed everyone had forgotten Wyn's existence. No one from Medical looked for her to inseminate her. No one from the Hauadian Ambassador's staff asked her to join them for dinner, as was the usual case when she was in Station. The Guardian, the ship she would normally have left on next must not have arrived. Her transmitter did not alert her to personal messages; there were none other than those from news outlets and nothing they said was good. She tried to reach other Queens, but none responded. This all left her a lot of time to think, but most of that, she spent feeling frantic.
What if my species is wiped out except for a few on stations and ships, she asked herself again. This sent her dashing across the station to the Ambassador's offices.
"May I speak with ShorelTakur, please?" she inquired, but was told that he had departed on the Guardian that morning.
"What?" she snapped. "It left without even contacting me? When did it arrive and where did it go?"
The underling tilted her head in weary aggravation. "He told me nothing," she said. "The office is empty except for me and two others and one of those seems to be having a nervous breakdown."
Wyn left in despair. There was no one to talk with. She returned to her quarters and tried to rest but horrific thoughts kept running through her mind. She had never felt so alone in her life. It hit her then that possibly she could disappear. Just quietly pay to get on some departing ship and take on a new identity. She had the means since she was well paid for her position. She did know a couple of shady characters, one on this very station, who could possibly arrange for a quiet chip removal and new one installed. After a while without regular fertilization, her egg production would dry up. She was larger than the average female but there were others her size who were not Queens and she could stoop a bit in public. This whole disaster could be her ticket out of a life she had grown to despise. She could head for Tunas, the smallest of the Four Worlds, or even one of the alien worlds and begin a new life as something else, perhaps an artist. She did have a bit of talent in that area and some avant-garde or outsider Hauadians lived on humanoid worlds. Alone, sitting on her bed, she smiled in that Hauadian way that appeared like a scary grimace to a few other species. She would need to thoroughly think this over.
Two day later, Petra Jacobs was again in The Black Hole when Wyn made her way there in search of the particular disreputable character she had decided to approach.
Did the Hooman do nothing but down shots of liquor all day? This time, however, he was sipping coffee froth. She ordered one for herself.
He moved to sit next to her and, in a low voice, said, "You will most likely soon be called in to speak with your Ambassador. He will arrive on the evening shuttle."
"On yes?" she said politely, still glancing around. Was that her target in that back corner talking to a Trumaaki?
"I like you," said the detective, "I'm not sure why. Normally, I'm a bit intimidated by Hauadians being that they are so large, compounded by the fact that I am a short man. Also, the four arms thing. But I feel an affinity with you. Possibly because our particular professions lead in their separate ways to lives of loneliness."
He was right about the loneliness. Wyn started to speak but he cut her off.
"What you will be hearing by the end of the day is that your Hauadian plague was a deliberate act of sabotage. And you, my friend, gave me the clue to follow this path of discovery."
"What do you mean? Who did this?"
"Remember you thought you saw the Hauadian who looked 'reddish' at the terminal?"
"Yes," she said.
"Think now, what did you learn in school about the other Mantodean race we know of?"
Wyn's face registered sudden understanding. "The Ragasians. We saw holos of them. They are like us, only..."
"Reddish," said Petra. "And their chins?"
"More pointy," she whispered.
"General Vee's troops found the remains of the individual you probably saw, though there have to be more of them, one or more on each world. The body was in a forest near the Capitol. It was a virulent carrier of the disease, apparently a living time bomb. Each of the time bombs sacrificed themselves in order to start a pandemic and wipe out their sister race."
"But why, why?" demanded Wyn.
"That is for the League to discover, but I have a rough idea," he said.
"What is it?"
"You'll have to wait for that," said the detective. He stood up, gave her a pat on the back and left.
Just then, she saw her "shady character" stand up from his conversation with the Trumaaki; so it was him there as she had suspected. But instead of heading over to him, she took a last sip of her froth and left.
The Ambassador arrived, as the detective had predicted, early that evening and headed straight for his office. Wyn, though she tried, was not permitted to see him. As much as she'd grown to hate serving as a Queen, she had long been accustomed to being treated as an important personage and allowed into offices and ahead in lines. But now it was as if she was nobody, which she understood though couldn't help regretting. Two long days later, the Ambassador called for her and she rather fearfully entered his office.
"I wanted to give you the report," he said. It was the first time she had seen him not in his purple robe of office. Like any common businessperson, he wore a loose gray suit and no jewelry. He looked exhausted.
"Sir," she said.
"The population of Hauad Prime is now only 1.9 billion. That of Forora III is 1.3. Tunas is only 740,000 and Numa is three million.
Wyn was speechless.
"Decimated," he said. He sat down or perhaps fell into his desk chair, so weak he seemed. "The spirit of the people is broken."
"Why did they do this?" she asked.
He looked at her sharply. "How do you know there is a 'they'?"
Not wanting to get her detective friend in trouble, she said, "There is talk."
"I suppose it's inevitable," said ShorelTakur. He paused and motioned for her to sit. "It is apparent by now that the Ragasians, a branch of our own kind, are the perpetrators. From what intelligence we can gather, and there are Ragasians who have willingly handed us information, who were most definitely not in on this, a certain faction of their government cooked up this whole thing in order to free up large areas of the Four Hauadian Planets. Their own population was out of control since they don't regulate their Queens and they needed new worlds to populate, which can support their need, as ours, for a warm enough temperature and our particular element ratio in the soils."
"But," said Wyn, "They're not League members and with this kind of nefarious behavior, how could they ever imagine that they would be invited in? How could they imagine that anyone would invite them to share our planets?"
"They must know," said ShoreTakur (whom she liked a lot better dressed as he was in simple clothing), "from various news sources how liberal the values of the League are, how it has often invited in people who are in need. They are not - how shall I put this? - as intelligent or advanced as our own civilization. The only way they have space travel at all is by buying or stealing the freighters or exploration ships of other races."
"But they know very well how to use biological warfare."
"That is something primitive races have used for millennia."
She sighed. "I haven't heard from my siblings, nor my friend. I don't know if any are still alive."
"I'm sorry," said ShoreTakur. "There's no way to know yet; everything is in chaos on the Worlds and the main thing is to vaccinate those who are left. Ships with the inoculations leave from here and other stations at all hours.
There was a long pause before he spoke again. "You and the other Queens will be very much needed. The ones that survived, I mean."
"Those that were in flight are safe, but the three who were on land are gone. I don't know about the ones in training."
For a moment, Wyn's vision went dark, the impact of what he had said was so intense. How could she have imagined that she would ever escape? Was that person she was thinking of approaching still on the station or had she lost her chance?
But then the thought of how utterly selfish that was hit her just as the Ambassador said, "Right now, Wyn, you and the remaining Queens are the most important people in all of the Four Worlds. The new infants will be nurtured on Marva IV, a Droade humanoid world just accepted into the League. They have a lot of space, have the right temperature for our species and have offered. When the infants are old enough to be vaccinated, they will be taken to the Four Worlds. As it stands now, they would immediately contract the virus if they were to go there. Your insemination will take place within the next few days; I'll notify you as to when. Please be ready."
Her disappointment and revulsion would soon pass. Envisioning a life under another identity on whatever planet, she suddenly imagined how she would feel after a short while as she squandered her abilities and experience while her own race struggled to survive. New Queens in preparation may have died out or be precarious in health. Helping to repopulate the worlds would be an adventure; never for a moment boring. She realized how fortunate she was to be able to contribute in this way.
So when the Ambassador called, Wyn reported to Medical and allowed staff to inseminate her with frozen sperm and more than usual. She did her best to consume as much healthy food as possible and meditated twice a day to calm her nerves and cause her body to be supportive to new life. And when the time was right, she boarded the Droade ship and let them take her to their blue and green world.
x x x
Margaret Karmazin is a regular contributor to anotherealm. Along with Ahmed A. Khan and a few others, she can always find a home for her stories here. I hope she remembers us when she wins her first Stoker, Nebula, or Hugo award. Thanks, Margaret for this exceptional yarn. I've given it the "place of honor" as the October story. Wish I could do more. Tell Margaret how much you like it on our BBS. - GM