bees, ceres, food, meteor mags, Patches, science fiction, short story, writing
Meteor Mags: The Beekeeper
© 2023 Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.
Episode 40 in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.
When Patches becomes inconsolable about the extinction of one the most important species in the solar system, Mags realizes she needs to solve a central problem of human existence: what to eat.
All I want, and all I need,
all I crave is a good pub feed!
—The Chats; Pub Feed, 2020.
“What is it, Mags? What’s wrong?”
“It’s Patches! I don’t know what’s wrong with her. Come and look. Please.”
Tarzi had not often seen Meteor Mags cry. He followed her to her room as she wiped tears from her eyes.
Patches lay on Mags’ bed. Her eyes appeared dull and cloudy. A bowl of food sat untouched by the bedside.
“I’ve never seen her like this before,” said Mags. “She hasn’t eaten for days. She’s hardly moved and hasn’t cleaned herself at all. I got her to take a few sips of water, but that’s it.”
Tarzi sat on the bed beside Patches. He ran his fingers over her head, from nose to neck. Normally she would purr at his touch. But she offered no response. “She doesn’t look so hot, Auntie. Is she sick?”
“How can an indestructible cat get sick? If her cells are invulnerable, no virus or bacteria could injure her.”
Tarzi thought for a moment. He speculated. “We aren’t really as simple as just animal tissue, are we? We have more bacteria cells in our bodies than we do human cells. And our mitochondria are, like, not even human. They’re more like ancient bacteria living in our cells. Maybe something that’s always been a part of her is just… out of whack?”
Mags sat in her chair, rested her elbows on her knees, and put her head in her hands. “Hell, I never thought of that. Just which parts of her are invulnerable? Which parts of ‘her’ are her, and which ones aren’t?” Mags grabbed a cigarette and lit up. “Fuck. Baby kitty, can’t you tell us what’s wrong? Anything at all?” Mags began to cry again.
The nictitating membranes slowly slid away from Patches’ eyes. Her pupils rolled toward Mags without moving her head. She let out a single mew.
“Oh, baby, of course. Anything you want.”
“What did she say?”
“She wants her tablet.” Mags stood and rummaged around the room. “Hell if I know where it is, though.” She opened drawers in her desk, looked under the bed, and moved books and albums around on her bookshelf. “Where is it, Patches?”
Patches did not answer.
“What if there’s something about her tablet that made her sick?” Tarzi asked. “You’re part cat or—or something, Mags. What would you do with something that made you sick?”
Without hesitation, Mags said, “I’d fucking bury it. Dig a hole and cover it up like shit.”
“Oookay then,” said Tarzi.
“A-ha!” Mags threw open her closet door. On the floor inside sat an enormous pile of socks, bras, skirts, and whatever else Mags had not felt like washing that month.
Tarzi had never known Mags to be disorderly, unless it was immediately preceded by “drunk and”. Then again, he had never rummaged through her closet. He watched with amusement as Mags got down on all fours and dug through the pile to the bottom.
“Found it! Good call, Tarzi. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet, if that’s what’s making her sick. Let’s have a look, then.”
Mags turned it on. Her eyebrows furrowed as she studied the web page it brought up. She touched the screen and examined the browser history. “That’s weird.”
“What is it?”
Mags handed him the tablet. Patches’ eyes followed listlessly as it passed from Mags’ hands to his.
“That’s funny,” said Tarzi. “I recognize most of these pages. I wrote them. Co-wrote, really.”
“You wrote the stuff that’s making her sick? What the fuck, Tarzi?”
“Mags, these are pages from the Anarchopedia, or the pages linked to in their sources sections. They’re all about the exact same thing: honeybees.”
“No one has seen a honeybee in nearly ten years now.”
“I know,” said Tarzi. “I wrote this. It tells all about how the bees died out around 2023. Hell, I barely have a memory of seeing them outside as a kid, but now I don’t know if it was real or just one of those things you think happened, but only imagined. Damn,” he continued, “from her browser history, it’s like she looked at hundreds of pages about bees. You don’t think she understands all this, do you?”
“I know she does. I mean, not all of it. But—how do I explain this?” Mags sighed and sat back down. “Listen. Do you remember when Patches and I were caught by that octopus? And how it told me all the stuff about the lab and everything?”
“Yeah. You said it was like telepathy or something.”
“Right. But it wasn’t just a conversation. It wasn’t like being on a phone call, and I ask you how your day was, and you tell me how it went, and I say, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ and then you say whatever. It wasn’t like that at all, Tarzi. We shared our minds. We shared everything we had ever known or thought or felt. I lived her life, Tarzi. And she lived mine.”
“You mean Patches knows everything you know?”
“Yes. But not perfectly. At least, not if what she’s going through is anything like what I’ve been through. Think about how much information and stuff a whole person’s life is. You can’t just upload all of that in an instant and suddenly be an expert.”
“So it’s not like ‘Whoa—I know Kung Fu’?”
“Right. Your brain needs to process all that. And it takes time to sort it out. I still get things that come to mind, and I know they’re Patches’ memories surfacing all of a sudden, not mine. Or like, I have a dream, and it’s not my dream. It’s one of hers. You know?”
“Not really. It sounds confusing.”
“It is. Tarzi, I had a couple times where I woke up since then, and for a minute I really thought I was her. Other times, I get this realization about something, one of her memories, like my brain is finally putting together the pieces of the puzzle and making a connection about something I ‘saw’ that day.”
“That must be weird as fuck for Patches.”
“Exactly. But I know she understands some of what she reads on that thing. Because she will ask me about it or tell me something about it. I explain some stuff to her, and some of it is still a bit over her head. But she’s getting more and more of it as time goes on.” Mags pulled another cigarette out of her pack and lit up.
“Alright, let me have one of those, then.”
“What? I thought you quit!”
“I did quit. But I am freaking out right now. Come on, Mags. This is no time to start pretending you’re a good influence.”
“Fuck you! Fine!” Mags laughed and handed him the whole pack and followed it with her lighter.
“If you tell Hyo-Sonn, I’ll call you a liar.”
“Mum’s the word, Captain Nicorette.”
Patches’ ears twitched at the sounds of Mags’ laughter.
“That’s my good kitten,” said Mags. “If we assume nothing about the physical tablet could hurt her, then there’s only one possible answer.”
“She’s upset about these articles.”
“She’s sad about the bees.”
Tarzi thought for a moment, puffing on his cigarette and frowning. “That’s a bit of a problem. Seeing as how they’re all gone.”
“It’s fucked, isn’t it? It’s half the reason all the food production has been moved indoors and mechanized, and why most people on Earth don’t have anything to eat but synthetic crap. All the plants we used to eat, they needed honeybees to pollinate them. We screwed ourselves on that one.”
“Right. You wrote the goddamned article about it.”
“But it gets worse. Just about every disease on Earth can be linked back to those shite foods they ‘grow’ now. The stuff that isn’t synthetic is still so devoid of nutrients, you’d have to eat three, four, maybe five times as much as someone living in the Stone Age to get the same nutrition. And when you have a planet full of poor, malnourished people, well—look at all the violence.”
“Look at all the prisons.”
“Fuck that. Now I’m getting sad! Poor Patches!”
“What the hell are we supposed to do about it? Bring back the bees?”
At that, Patches lifted her head, stared into Tarzi’s eyes, and purred.
Mags stood outside the aquatic tank on the Hyades and placed one hand on the reinforced Plexiglass wall separating her and Alonso from the colorful octopus swarm on the other side. She said, “They seem really happy here.”
“Home sweet home,” said Alonso. “Plus, they got more light in here than in that dirty-ass bilgewater in the cave. And the monkeys are always bringing them new toys to play with.”
“Yeah, you know. Beach balls. Rubik’s cubes. An inflatable Richard Nixon sex doll. Just random stuff the old crew left lying around.”
“Do I even want to know why your crew had that stuff?”
“Probably not. But the octos like to play. They need a lot of tactile stimulation.”
“I’ll bet. So here’s what I need them to do, and I want you to stick around so I don’t get my brain fried, okay?”
“Sure, tía. I got your back.”
“You always did. Now we know my babies can read minds and influence thoughts, but I want them to try something else. I want them to find a mind. Or minds, if possible. Conventional wisdom says these minds have gone extinct, but I want to see if there are any left that we don’t know about.”
Sensing Mags’ intentions, the octopuses abandoned their playtime and coalesced into a shape resembling a dodecahedron. Their numerous arms interlaced to give the shape edges and form. Rubik’s cubes dropped by the dozen to the floor of the tank. Richard Nixon floated to the surface. His plastic effigy bobbed on the waves.
“Babies,” said Mags, “I want you to search Earth and see if you can find any bees. I don’t really know what bees’ minds are like, or how you’ll find them, but I’m going to think about them real hard and try to give you some clues. Okay?”
The octo-dodecahedron shifted its pigments into black and yellow stripes.
“Whoa,” said Alonso.
“That’s a good start,” said Mags. “Now shush and let me think.”
Mags pondered all she knew about the lives of bees. She knew they could see ultraviolet light invisible to the human eye. She pictured them dancing inside their hives to communicate the location of nectar-rich flowers to each other. She imagined their democratic process for determining a location for a new hive, the way they oriented themselves to the sun and wiggled their bodies, depicting distance and direction by scurrying back and forth according to that solar orientation. From those conversations, bees would vote and choose a new home. She thought of the male drones who lived only to mate, and the females who fed larvae, and the queen who gave birth to them all.
At first, the octopuses were confused by the enormous number of species who also pollinated plants, and the wasps who lived in similar communities. As they fed these images back to Mags, she mentally discarded the mismatches and focused on the insects she wanted.
How long the process took was measured only by the number of beers Alonso finished in that time. As he cracked open number five, Mags said, “Fuck me dead. We got a match.”
“You found a bee? Where is it?”
Mags shushed him again. For there was not just one bee, but hundreds and hundreds of them, and several queens. And for miles around them, no human minds existed—none save one. “Babies,” said Mags, “focus on that human and see if you can tell me where she lives.”
Miles from nowhere in the North American countryside, Mags knocked on the front door of a Victorian-style house whose white and pale-blue paint needed scraping. The windows needed re-glazing. Much of the siding needed to be replaced. She knocked again.
An old woman’s voice reached her ears. “Quit your pounding! Who’s there?”
Mags flicked the ash of a cigarette onto the buckled wooden porch. “Yo, it’s me, Mags! I called you?” Her sensitive ears picked up shuffling movements, and the next time the voice reached her ears, it was closer to the door.
“You won’t kill anyone, will you?”
Mags frowned. “Not unless I have to. I’m here about the bees.”
There followed a clackety racket of various locks and chains being undone, then the door opened. It revealed an elderly woman with long, grey hair gathered into a ponytail. She wore an old-fashioned nightgown even though it was three in the afternoon, and a pair of slippers. She held a Glock .45 in one hand. “As long as you can behave.”
“I’ll be nice. I promise. May I come in?”
“I suppose. You’ve come a long way, haven’t you?”
“All the way from fucking Ceres, baby!”
“I will not have that language in my house! And put out that cigarette!”
Mags stubbed out the fag on the sole of one combat boot and flicked the butt into the street. “I’m sorry. You know, you remind me of my gramma. She was one hell of a—one heck of a woman.”
“Did she keep bees?”
Mags raised an eyebrow. “You could say that. We had this huge farm, and Gramma was always banging on about how we needed to take care of her bees.”
“She sounds like a wise woman.”
“Delores, you don’t know the half of it.”
The old woman holstered her pistol. “Come in. Would you like to see the hives?”
“I’d love to.” Mags stepped into the foyer and watched with some bemusement as the weathered door slammed shut behind her and the equally weathered Delores set all the locks and chains back into place.
The old woman’s arthritic hands struggled with a final deadbolt.
“Let me get that for you.” Mags latched it into place.
Delores said, “You seem like an awfully nice young woman, despite what I’ve heard about you on the news.”
“Thanks,” said Mags. She looked around the ramshackle décor and the walls of peeling paint. She inhaled the odor of decay. Disorder and decline. But if her senses saddened her at all, she gave not a sign. “Have you lived here long?”
“My husband bought this place fifty years ago, rest his soul. Why don’t you come out back with me?”
Mags took her hand and followed.
Compared to the decrepit interior, the backyard was a celebration of life and greenery. Magnolia trees and holly bushes bustled with birds, and all kinds of flowering plants thrived in the sunlight. All around them, honeybees carried on their daily delight in a constant buzz from one flower to the next.
In the center of that symphony stood the last three beehives on Earth.
“Remind me,” said Delores, “how you heard of me.”
“It’s a long story,” said Mags. “It starts with my cat, and my nephew, and a whole hell of a—a heck of a lot of research. But from what I can gather, you are the last of the beekeepers. The poor little bastards—the—the buggers died out a decade ago. But somehow, you kept them going.”
Delores rested on a concrete bench. “It wasn’t easy.” She held a hand to her forehead, rubbed her temples, and let it fall away. “All these years.”
Mags sat beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I know. I’m not as young as I look, Delores. I’ve been fighting this stuff for longer than you’ve been alive. And somehow, it seems like no matter how much I try to make things right, they just go wrong so fast that I can’t keep up.”
The shoulder in her hand shook in silence, and Mags did not interrupt.
Delores wiped her tears. “What exactly do you want?”
Mags brushed stray locks of hair away from the woman’s face. “I want the same thing you do, Gramma. I want bees. I want bees who thrive. Bees who bring beautiful plants to life, and the crops I need to feed people. But I need these bees in the Belt.”
“The asteroid belt?”
“The one and only. I just set up shop on Ceres, and we intend to grow our own food. We don’t have any interest in depending on Earth for our food supply. But for that, we need crops. And for crops, we need bees. And for bees, we need a queen. Several queens.”
“You want to take my queens?”
“No, no,” said Mags. “Not all at once. But if you can give me one to get started, and I can come back a bit later to get a few more? Then Ceres can develop its own self-sustaining hives. We can do something that’s never been done before in the Belt.”
“Will you make a garden?”
Mags laughed. “Delores, we plan to make a crazy tall building that houses thousands of hives under the care of a full-time staff. I can’t say it will be as pretty as your garden, but it will be awesome in its own way. It will help feed so many people. I can show you the plans.”
Delores was quiet for a moment. “That won’t be necessary. But I have two requests.”
“Anything you want.”
“One, you’ll send me pictures.”
“And two, you’ll name it after me.”
Mags smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. And listen, I’ll get some people out here to fix up your house. You’ll never need to worry about a mortgage or taxes ever again. Anything else you need—getting food and stuff delivered, whatever—you just let me know.”
“That’s very kind of you. But I—”
“Look. My gramma would haunt me for the rest of my goddamn life if I did anything less.”
They sat in silence in the garden for a number of minutes Mags did not bother counting. All around her, the cycle of life buzzed undisturbed in splashes of sunlight and birdsong and the cool, spring breeze.
Miniscule ants carried on their wars and empire building. Plants converted sunlight into their bodies and stretched out to receive the glowing source. A snail crawled to a single drop of water on a leaf and drank from it until it was gone.
Some time later, when the shadows in the garden had changed their angles, Delores set her hand on Mags’ leg. “Help me up, dear. I’d like you to meet a queen.”
“I think,” said Mags, “I already have.”
On the way back to Ceres, Mags held a tiny wooden box in her hand and peered through the wire screen on one side to see the insect inside. The enclosure held a few drones, too—the male bees whose only purpose was to mate with a queen before dying.
Soon, in the newly christened Delores Cunningham Institute for Agriculture, they fulfilled that purpose.
Celina guided a dozen teenage girls on a tour of the DCIA in hopes of interesting a few of them in learning and working there. She began in the lobby. “Some of you already know about this statue of Delores Cunningham. But for those of you who weren’t involved with the project, Kala and her sculpture group at the Community Center carved this to commemorate the life of the woman who made all of this possible.”
She made a broad, sweeping gesture with both hands to indicate the entire structure around them. One hand held a tall glass of colorful liquid and chunks of fruit. She took a sip. “Even this Mai Tai. The citrus was grown right here on Ceres.”
If the stone rendition of the late beekeeper disapproved of drinking, it gave no evidence. It portrayed Delores sitting on her favorite bench in her garden. On one raised hand crawled a queen bee carved from asteroid rock older than Earth itself.
Sarah said, “Did you meet her?”
“Only once. On Mags’ last trip to visit.”
Another girl spoke up. “What was she like?” Most of the group had just come from roller-derby practice at the Community Center. Girls carried helmets and wore pads on their knees and elbows. Their t-shirts bore the names of various teams. The Planet Crushers. The Brawling Bitches. The Legion of Hell.
Celina found the names amusing. She had suggested some of them. Like so many of the children on the asteroid-mining frontier, the Ceresian teens had survived traumas no one should ever endure, and roller derby was one of the activities Celina encouraged to help them find their inner strength. If some adults on Ceres found the team names less than wholesome, Celina was all too happy to give them a piece of her mind. She was, after all, the oldest person in the solar system.
“Delores,” she said, “was probably the last person you’d imagine to be hanging out with Mags. She was gentle. Kind. Softspoken. Not at all like a certain magpie we know.” That got a laugh. Celina continued. “She was struggling in the last few months of her life, but when she walked into her garden, a light filled her eyes, and you could see the young woman she had once been, full of joy in simple things and the life all around her. That is her legacy for us. Would you like to see the rest of the place?”
She walked away as if she already knew the answer, and the tour group followed her—all except for Sarah. The lead singer of the Dumpster Kittens approached the statue and leaned in to examine the carved queen close-up. She stroked its lacelike wings with one finger and marveled at the delicacy one could achieve with hard, unyielding stone. She considered, for a moment, how that odd combination resembled the personalities of the two pirates who had taken her under their own wings.
Then she caught up to the rest of the group.
Halfway through the tour, Celina showed her girls the floor of the building where engineers and biologists experimented with growing meat. “This,” she said, “is where we are building some cutting-edge technology to grow muscle tissue from animal cells. Soon, we’ll be having steak that was never cut from a cow, fried chicken that never knew a cage or was killed, and a bloody good fish and chips that was never pulled from an ocean or a farm.”
Trays filled with sheets of flesh bathed in liquid nutrients. Men and women in white lab coats and masks busied themselves with taking temperature readings, slicing off samples for microscopic examination and testing, and adjusting the nutrient feeds.
“Now I know this looks totally gross,” said Celina, “but compared to a factory farm or a slaughterhouse, this is nothing.”
One of the girls spoke up. “This is freakin’ crazy! Who came up with this?”
“Mags came up with it one night when we were out drinking.”
“What does Mags care? She’s not like, a vegetarian or anything.”
“No,” said Celina, “she certainly isn’t. Because of her fucked up biology—I mean, her unique biology—she needs meat to live. Do you know what an obligate carnivore is?”
“I do,” said Sarah. “Like cats. They need organ meat to survive.”
“That’s right. If you put a cat on a vegetarian diet, the goddamn thing will die. So the question was, can we meet that nutritional need without any suffering?”
Another girl said, “So it’s like cruelty-free cat food?”
Celina laughed. “That’s exactly what it’s like. But this isn’t just for cats. We think this tech will be a game-changer for feeding everyone in the Belt. A long time ago, when Mags and I lived with her gramma, we raised all our own animals, and they lived good lives. They enjoyed fresh air and sunshine. They were loved as much as any house pet. But the sad thing was, they still had to die. And that’s no fun for anyone.” Celina took a swig from her drink. “Unless you’re a total fucking sadist.”
“So how does it work?”
Celina said, “Some of it is really above my pay grade. But if this sounds like something you’d be interested in learning about, then you just let me know. We could use all the help we can get. Are you ready to see the next level?”
On the top floor, the group encountered Mags and Patches. The felonious felines were behind a glass wall, beyond which was an open area swarming with bees. Mags was unrecognizable inside her protective beekeeper’s suit that made her shapely body a lumpy mass of white, but she waved to Celina and the girls.
Patches sprawled on the floor of the enclosure, nearly unrecognizable herself. Bees covered her bushy body in a writhing mass of insect movement that did not bother her at all. Her tuft-filled ears flicked away inquisitive intruders without any fear of being stung, and the black-and-yellow mass covering her torso rose and fell with her rhythmic purring.
Celina said, “I tried to tell them they don’t need to go in there anymore, but they wouldn’t hear a word of it. I don’t think Mags is even doing proper beekeeping anymore. She just likes to let Patches hang out with the bees.”
Patches slowly shifted her weight to let the swarm around her adjust, then flopped over onto her back without injuring a single insect. What had troubled her so greatly two years prior had become a source of happiness. She was, like so many Ceresians, content in her new home, with her new friends—with simple things, and the hum of life around her.