Jereme stepped gingerly around the fallen man-bees. Some of them had died in the frenzy that Brundelzebuub unleashed, others were merely comatose. Mina and I monitored the surveillance hologram in the command room while our uninvited guest winced at the sight of a burst and oozing thorax. “Think he’ll come quietly?” I asked.
“He’s never quiet,” Mina sighed. “We can’t leave him in there unattended.”
If only I had my wand. With it, restraining Jereme safely would be a peace of cake. But now it was locked away where Commander Woodward could keep an eye on it. That left one other option.
I took a deep breath. “Erica?” The Singularium manifested an additional hologram, this one representing the part of its intelligence we could talk to most easily. “That doohickey we replicated from the dead kid’s head-
“The pheremonic radio jammer-”
“Sure. Can that be used to turn the man-bees… back on?”
There was a moment of silence. “Returning the creatures to baseline does not seem to be within our current abilities. However, the device itself is still operational.”
“Can you use it to make them follow my verbal commands?”
“Make it happen,” I said, a bit sickly. I looked around at the man-bees lying in the hallway and cleared my throat. “Get up guys.” They snapped to attention, then immediately froze in place. Each man-bee in earshot stared dead ahead, waiting for direction. Gone was the aimless wandering from before. In its place was perfect obedience. “Follow me.”
At least thirty man-bees surrounded us as we approached t the room where Jereme was kept. We unsealed the door to find him pulling data from the singularium and transferring it onto the hard drives. His body-builder physique was gone and back was his shimmering plasma screen skin. Streams of data trickled across his arms and shoulders, soaking into the disc in his opposite hand.
The comatose man-bees in the room snapped to attention as soon as they smelled their brothers’ pheromones. Jereme’s eyes grew wet and large. He stared at me. “I understand that it might seem a bad time for reasonable explanations,” he began.
“Seize him,” I muttered.
Before the next sentence was even out of his mouth the man-bees had him. “Whoa!” he yelped. They grabbed him by his arms and legs. “I had a ‘but’ coming!” he wheezed. One man-bee, utterly expressionless, pinned him to the wall by his diaphragm.
“You got a storm coming if your explanation ain’t fucking stellar, asshole.” Mina waved her gun at the scene around us. A few man-bees still lay dead on the floor. “Because I don’t see a good excuse for all this.”
“This obviously wasn’t anyone’s plan.” Jereme’s tone was slow and careful, even as he struggled for air. Dead-eyed man-bees stared at his every move. “Brundelzebuub proved to be faster than we realized. Things backfired.”
“Things backfired? You broke in!”
“In fairness, we had a deal which you guys never made good on.” I opened my mouth to reply but Mina put a hand on my shoulder. Jereme continued. “The Posse has no idea what happened here, guys. Schilling’s in a whole snit. You gotta remember, the most important part of a superpowered political revolution is clear communication and mutual-”
We learned they were grenades later of course. At the time we just knew that something was pounding against the hull of the singularium with a sickening rock and a terrible kaboom. We ran back to the command center, Jereme flanked by man-bees.
When we arrived we pulled up a hologram of the outside. There was a young woman decked out in biker leathers perched on a nearby cliff. She had a rifle slung over her shoulder and what appeared to be a sack full of grenades in the other.
“One of yours?” Mina asked.
“Kori. Or Deathoscope if you’re into that. Girl’s certainly got… gumption,” Jereme offered.
“No way that girl comes knocking on our door without a plan,” Mina whispered to me.
I rolled my eyes. “Erica, get me on whatever kind of PA system you guys have got.” Another grenade rocked the hull. “You!” I cried. “Stop… that.”
The girl, Kori, paused, finger hooked inside the pin. “Says who?” she called after a moment.
“Stand down, dude!” Jereme called. “We’re having a parley.” Another pause. Then, “dammit! This is serious!” as a grenade rocked the hull again.
“Itchy finger,” she said. “Let me in.”
After a few minutes we met on the deck. It occurred to me, and thankfully hadn’t occurred yet to Jereme, that the only control we had over the singularium came from being human. As far as we knew the IntElect would do anything it thought would make a human being like it. Which meant we had to keep Jereme and his friend as far from the deck as possible.
“Man-bees,” I bellowed “seize-”
Kori reached into her bag of grenades. “Uh-nuh-no. No. Bad witch.”
“-stand down,” I finished.
She pulled her hand out of the grenade bag. “So. I see you’ve got Jereme contained. Where’s the cute one?” Her eyes scanned the horizon above my shoulder. I hated when people did that.
“Eh, about that.” Jereme slouched visibly in the man-bees’ grip. “Squirt got taken down by Brundelzebuub. That’s why his radio stopped.”
She rattled her bag, grenades clinking inside. Were they just loose in there? This nutcase was going to blow us up by mistake. “Well then where is that bug-eyed piece of demon garbage and how do I teabag his stupid corpse?”
“He’s already dead,” I told her. “The man-bees didn’t leave much behind.”
“Fuck. Right.” She slammed the bag of grenades against her leg. I winced. “So what’s the deal here, then? Feels like I should be, you know, hurting some of you guys.”
“Nobody needs to hurt anybody,” Jereme insisted, “because I think I can explain where we are coming from and that Ms. West and Ms. Flores are two reasonable folks who will listen to, uh, reason.”
“Does ‘listening to reason’ mean letting Schilling turn the singularium and the man-bees into her personal army?” I asked.
“How about you listen to it first and see?” he pleaded.
Mina and I shared a sidelong glance. Part of her wanted to hear him out. After taking a second to scream internally I took a long breath out through my nostrils and said, “we’re happy to listen if your friend puts down her grenades.”
Her eyes scanned the sky again. “How about I keep my grenades but I take a seat in this corner so we can all enjoy a bit of storytime with Jereme?”
Mina nodded just barely. “Could I maybe have my hands free first?” Jereme asked.
Another sidelong glance with Mina. “Nope.”
“Of course not. Silly me. Silly billy Jereme.” He cleared his throat. “Here’s the deal, kids. War is coming. America’s got a humanitarian crisis on every side but Canada’s and nobody knows where they went. Bigley’s a tornado of bad impulses and no amount of ‘executive insulation’ can manage that forever. At some point the Mad King’s word will break through and that word will be ‘war.’”
“Do you rehearse this nonsense?” Kori asked.
“I just have a very active internal monologue.” Jereme’s plasma screen skin flushed turquoise.
“Bigley’s gonna have a much easier time getting a war if people see an army of man-bees and a goddamn robot mothership floating in Schilling’s back yard,” Mina protested. “A singularium like this is so powerful, we’re only safe if we give it to someone who doesn’t want it.”
“Well friends,” Jereme said, in a tone no friend of mine would ever use with me, “you seem to have gone through a lot of trouble getting this thing you don’t want. And the Posse would really love to take it off your hands.”
I shook my head. “You guys would get us all killed if we gave you this thing, assuming Bazooka Joe over here doesn’t accidentally blow us up first.”
Deathoscope smiled. “‘Bazooka Joe,’ huh? Thanks, sister. Maybe now people will stop making fun of my real name.” She slung the bag over her shoulder. Another series of clinks. “You’re both right. War’s gonna happen. And it’ll happen sooner if Schilling gets everything she wants. The question is, do you want to meet the tiger charging or falling?”
“We are not going to help start a war,” I hissed.
She shrugged. “See where that gets ya, then.” And then her face was twisted, screaming. Her arms were a flurry and the bag of grenades was hurtling through the air.
Time slowed down. Kori scrambled. Jereme assumed the fetal position like a crab claw snapping. Mina threw her body full-force, coming between me from the blast. The man-bees stood perfectly still.
Crashing. Kori, across the room, rifle rattling in her still-resolving grip. Mina, into my solar plexus, stout frame shielding most of my organs against the wall. The sack full of grenades, too fast to stop, metal banging against metal.
Every muscle tensed. Time to be blown apart. Mina’s tears streamed into my shirt. The silence was terrible, then beautiful. We weren’t dead. I opened my eyes. Kori leaned forward, grinning wicked as she pressed the rifle’s barrel into my forehead.
“Just casings,” she said. A tremendous pressure. Blue-black fire ate the world and for a moment there was nothing.