The orchard was syrupy with perfume. An exotic, sweet smell, that seemed as though it had turned the atmosphere viscous. In not too long, the blossoms would fall, and transform the air to a multichromatic wash of spent flowers. If Mamma Universe was not returned to the living universe soon, it would be too late.
This worried The Gardener. For if she failed to return Mamma Universe, there would be no more chances. And if, once returned, Mamma Universe then failed in her task, all The Gardener’s machinations would come undone. In the event of one or the other of these failures, The Gardener realized, she had no clear plan as to what she would do next.
The Gardener tried to remember what she had done last time she had been beaten. But that was so long ago; it would take too much effort to recall how she had proceeded. And even if she could remember, it would do no good. Every defeat produced an altered result, and so what had worked then was unlikely to work now. No, it was better to give full attention to her current plan. If it came to nothing, she’d deal with the consequences as they became relevant. She refocused.
Sound filled all the space between the trees: a deep, throaty, chorusing drone; a friction to tease nerve ends, to make the dead live once more. Everywhere bees buzzed and zipped in erratic movements. They were a brightly-hued, rhythmic chaos; a motley of countless extinct species, drawn together as the result of The Gardener’s carefully charted hive placement. Many of them had already started to phase-shift. They would want to swarm soon.
“If you’ll just follow me through here,” the Gardener said to her four companions. She didn’t need all four; only Mamma Universe and Azeal Braithwaite were necessary. The other two – the Historian-Philosophers, Ajax and Persephone – had just followed along out of interest. The Gardener had allowed this, since it wouldn’t affect the process, and it would be nice to have some company after it was all over.
The group moved through the trees in silence. Not because they didn’t want to talk – Mamma Universe, in particular, still had many questions – but because the abundance of so many bees acting strangely was quite unnerving. At length, the company emerged from the trees, and found themselves in a large, circular clearing. While the clearing had a vaguely artificial feel to it, there was the definite sense that it had not been planned in any way. It was as if, in defiance of how orchards normally work, trees refused to grow there; that instead, they preferred to sweep themselves around the space, and take up positions at its edges.
“So, Azeal, you’ll be standing over there, in that gazebo.” The Gardener pointed to the ornate structure in the middle of the clearing. It wasn’t really necessary for The Gardener to point. The gazebo was the only structure there, which made it very difficult to miss.
“Wow,” said Azeal, “it’s quite unusual, isn’t it?” This was very much the understatement. “I had no idea that those colors went together. I would have thought they’d clash. And the carvings? Are they gargoyles?”
“If you like,” said The Gardener.
“I’m still not convinced about the whole bee thing,” said Mamma Universe. She felt it was okay to talk now. The bees seemed to keep away from the clearing, and were now just so much spooky action at a distance.
“Aren’t you? I thought I’d done a pretty good job of providing a convincing explanation.” The Gardener could not really be sure if she had done a good job – she had been distracted, and in somewhat of a hurry, so it was hard to be certain.
“You said they were holographic-fractals…”
“…That they have deep connections to all the levels of the universe, and are one of several species that are in some vague way responsible for projecting it…”
“I did say that. Frogs, incidentally, are another such species.”
“…You also maintain that they retain these special qualities after death, even beyond the point of extinction. Because of this, you claim, they can be used as a medium of transportation.”
“I’m not really seeing the problem here.”
“Not really. It all seems pretty straight forward.”
“You don’t, perhaps, think it has the slight whiff of being completely made up?”
“Well, it can whiff anyway it likes, that doesn’t stop it from being true.”
“So, you want me to stand here, then?” Azeal Braithwaite had taken a position halfway up the steps that led to the interior of the gazebo. He looked at The Gardener expectantly.
“No,” said The Gardener, “you need to stand inside.”
“Here?” Azeal had shifted to the top of the steps, and was now posing theatrically.
“No, that’s only technically inside. You need to stand in the middle.”
“But you’ll be sitting outside, right? How will you be able to hear me read the story if I’m standing so far away?”
The Gardener sighed. Between Mamma Universe’s need for clarity, and Azeal’s need for stage direction, she’d never get this done in time. At least the two Historian-Philosophers were keeping quiet. Actually, it was a bit strange not to have heard from them by this point. She glanced at them quickly to see what they were up to. They were still standing at the edge of the clearing. Both looked confused. “Are you two alright?”
“Fine,” said Ajax. “No problems.”
“Bullshit,” disagreed Persephone, “we seem to have a major problem.”
“Oh really?” Not another fucking problem, The Gardner thought. This was all becoming more than a little vexatious. “What seems to be the difficulty?”
“We can’t seem to step into the clearing,” said Persephone. “We’ve tried several times, and… well… it doesn’t seem to want to let us.”
Ajax just blushed. He hadn’t wanted to admit to yet another failure so openly. It did soften the blow a little to know that Persephone was having the same trouble, though. At last, they were truly equals.
“Oh,” said The Gardener. Of course the two Historian-Philosophers wouldn’t be permitted entry. “Sorry, I’d forgotten about that. Not to worry, you’ll be able to see well enough from there. I can bring you a couple of chairs if you like?”
“Could you?” Ajax looked hopeful, his feet were starting to ache.
“Sure, I’ll bring–“
“Ahem,” Azeal cleared his throat. “And just how will you all hear me, if you’re all so far away? This story is one of the finest I’ve ever written, and I would hate for anybody to miss its first public reading.”
The Gardener mastered her irritation. “Acoustics. The gazebo, and the clearing, have special qualities that allow for the projection of sound.”
“Are you sure?” Azeal didn’t look convinced.
“Quite sure. I have–.” The Gardener broke off. That had been close. She’d almost admitted to having done this before. If she’d let that slip, there would have been serious trouble. Not because it would have broken any rules. More because she could imagine the interminable questions that would result. She was about done with questions. “It’ll be fine. Allow me to demonstrate.“
The Gardener marched up the steps, brushed past Azeal, and took up a position in the middle of the gazebo. She raised her hands in front of her, and brought them together with a swift, forceful clap. The sound cracked loudly across the clearing, and bounced itself off the trees that hovered at the edge. “See?”
“Amazing,” called Ajax. “Heard it here as clear as a bell.”
“As clear as hands clapping,” corrected Persephone.
“Anyway,” The Gardener continued, “no need to worry. Come, try it out.”
Azeal moved cautiously to where The Gardener stood. He paused, then very softly gave a single clap. The sound magnified, and spread out towards the trees. He smiled a little, and gave a double clap; this recived a result better than the previous one. He broke into big, toothy grin, and began to clap a rhythm. He also danced a little. That produced the best results yet.
“So,” The Gardener queried, “all good? Happy with that?”
“Oh yes. Very happy,” agreed Azeal.
“Great.” The Gardener fished around in one of her pockets, and produced a sheet of paper and an unusual looking fountain pen. She unscrewed the pen’s top, and handed both items to Azeal. “If you’ll just sign this, we can get started.”
“What’s this?” Azeal eyed the paper suspiciously. It had writing on it; small writing. It looked, in fact, quite a lot like a contract. He paid no attention to the pen, which – all things considered – was a mistake. If he had paid attention, he might have noticed that the pen was weeping in a manner that was quietly distressing. If he had been more attentive, he might have thought much more carefully about what would really be required of him. But he didn’t.
“Standard release,” The Gardener said. “Nothing to worry about,” she lied.
“Alright, I suppose I can trust you. Ummm, do you have anything I can use to write on?”
“Of course. Be right back.”
The Gardener descended the steps, went around to the side of the gazebo, and opened a small door at its base. She rummaged around inside, then pulled out four folding chairs, and one very ordinary clipboard. She gave the chairs to Mamma Universe, with instructions to pass two along to Ajax and persephone. They’d want to rest their feet by now. The remaining two chairs would need to be set up next to each other in front to the gazebo. Then, The Gardener climbed the steps again, and handed the clipboard to Azeal. “Here you go.”
Azeal signed the paper, which he now knew to be a standard release, and gave it back to The Gardener along with the pen. The pen had stopped weeping. Instead, it was quietly whispering, not that Azeal noticed.
The Gardener rejoined Mamma Universe in front of the gazebo, and sat down looking very pleased. “Okay, let’s get–. What’s wrong?” Mamma Universe appeared worried. “You look like you’re having second thoughts. It was my understanding that you’d agreed to go through with this? I was sure you’d signed the release.”
“I did. I mean, I have… It’s only… well…”
“Just that you said I’d be alive again once I returned?”
“That’s right. I said that because you will. I was sure I’d made that clear? Most of the dead – especially the extinct ones – tend to be a bit more pleased about another chance at life. You, however, do not seem very pleased. I have to say, this is not the reaction I expected.”
“You’ve done this before? Brought the dead back to life?”
“No,” The Gardner lied, “I meant it hypothetically. What I should have said was: why don’t you seem pleased to get another chance at life?”
“You remember what I told you about? You know, what it was like for me when I was alive? That I had no true form of my own? That I just looked the way people most expected, and always had to ask how I appeared to them – having no clear idea about it myself?”
“It’s only, that since being dead – and extinct – I finally got to have my own form. Not just that, but I’m beautiful. I feel reluctant to give that up, if you see what I mean?”
“I don’t understand?” The Gardener really didn’t understand, not because she cared little for appearances, but because what Mamma Universe was saying made no sense. That is, it made no sense, right up until the point that it did. “Oh, I see. You think that once you’re alive again, you’ll go back to being formless?”
“No, you’ll keep the form you have now. It’s the rules. Anyway, the reanimated dead always ‘return’ subtly different… hypothetically speaking.”
“Well,” said Mamma Universe, “that is a relief.”
“Isn’t it, though?”
“You wouldn’t lie to me about that?”
“Of course not.” Not this time, anyway. It would have been different if Mamma Universe had wanted to return to formlessness, then The Gardener would have had to lie. “Shall we push on?”
“Yes,” said Mamma Universe, pleased that she would retain her astonishing beauty once alive. “Let’s get on with it. I’m quite excited to see what happens now.”
“Me too,” said the Gardener. “Persephone, Ajax, you two alright back there?” The two Historian-Philosophers gave a synchronized thumbs up. “Good. Master Braithwaite, if you would be so kind as to read us your story.”
In the orchard, the sound of bees changed pitch.
END OF PART NINETEEN