The sound of mud and organic waste mixed together was not a pleasant sound. Anyone in the colony would agree on that subject, but no more than Loitus.
“Uhg, this is so gross. Why are we always the ones that have to do this?” she groaned, pushing another pile into the composter. She was glad she had her goggles today. She’d hate to have a piece of the mess land in her eye.
“I could go into all the politics involved, but I’m pretty sure you know all about that already,” Julius said, turning the crank to stir up the waste products.
Loitus sighed and put one of her four hands on a hip. “How much more do we gotta do?” she asked, looking at her friend.
“Well,” he said, looking at his watch. “I think if we leave a bit early and go through the back way, we can get away with it.”
“Perfect!” she exclaimed, throwing her arms up and letting the squeegee’s handle hit the concrete with a loud clack. She winced at the noise, hoping no guards would hear.
“Just leave it there!” Julius hissed, a huge grin forming on his face. He grabbed her wrist and yanked her into a run. At first, Loitus was confused, but then as she regained her balance and pushed her goggles to her forehead, she managed to keep up the pace.
The pair raced through the allies, leaping over a flower cart, much to the surprise of the elderly lady pulling it. They raced past the sweet shop and waved to old Mr. Cilantro as they passed. The old man used to give them honey chews every time they passed by after school.
When they arrived at the brick wall on 34th street, Julius took a flying leap and buzzed right to the top. He stood on the wall and looked down at his childhood friend.
“Come on, larvae!” he mocked. “Flap those wings!”
“Are you sure we’re allowed to go this way?” Loitus asked, looking up at him.
“I dunno, but you’d better get your tushie up here before the policeman around the corner decides that we’re not.” He chuckled and waited for her move.
She shook a fist at him and buzzed up to where he stood. But before she could celebrate, he’d already taken off, buzzing like a crazy bee up to the Hive City roof.
“Julis, you stupid bee! Get back down here!” she called, hovering in place. But he ignored her, seemingly taking in all the joys of being of the Apis race. He looked like a speck from where she hovered.
Though it was against the colony’s laws to fly all the way to the roof, she didn’t want to leave him all alone up there. What if something happened? She sighed and followed, cautiously, holding her breath as a few guards passed below them.
“It’s nice up here,” she heard Julius say as she drew closer. She looked down at the buildings below and gasped. She hadn’t realized how high they were. She could see the housing units all lined up like honeycombs stack on top of each other, the larger and brighter ones indicating the higher classes, mostly politicians and those that served the queen. As the color faded from the golden lights of the higher streets, she could see the gray of the lower classes line up like bricks.
The brightest of them all, of course, was the Queen Perunim’s palace at the highest level of the colony. It was lit by multicolored lights, connecting each section with long bridges and precarious catwalks.
“I wonder what the queen’s doing about now,” Loitus mused. Further discussion of the topic was cut off by an angry guard shouting something at them. Without waiting for an answer, the pair shot off toward the lower ward where the trainee’s dormatories lay.
Though the two were barely sixteen, they had already been removed from their parent’s homes, as the custom within Apis society. At this age, young Apis children were given an aptitude test to decide their career for the rest of their natural life.
Those born of the Queen, considered nobles, were often put into governmental positions or sent to work within the palace. But those born of their own parents, like Loitus and Julius, were considered not able to perform these complex duties and were often assigned menial labor deemed too “simple” for the Queenborn. And, since Loitus and Julius were Plainborn and trainees, they were sent to do the task that no one wanted: garbage duty.
Julius pressed the thumb of his upper left hand into the ID pad on the door. The lock clicked open and he swung the door in. Inside, a set of bunk beds sat on the left side, each with a plain, scratchy, gray blanket spread out on them. Loitus’ mother had sewn two red ribbons into her blanket, and though it didn’t make it less scratchy, at least it made it her’s.
Near the door, a small television sat with an old game console attacked. Two controllers with a few buttons and a joystick sat, attached to the simple 64-bit system.
“We have about an hour before our dinner,” Julius commented. “I still owe you a rematch of Stinger Squad.”
“You won’t beat me this time,” Loitus said, flipping the television, then the console on. Julius plopped down next to her with a grin and picked up his controller.
Just as the loading screen popped up, a loud alarm went off in the street outside.
“What’s going on?” Loitus asked, standing up. She cracked the door open and spotted Kelonus and Perim, their next door neighbors running down the hall.
“Hey! What’s going on?” she shouted at the pair.
“Loitus!” Perim shouted, waving at her friend. She stopped just a few feet from the door, breathing heavily. “Loitus! The Queen’s Jewel has been stolen!”
Kelonus nodded, not able to speak yet. He was in much worse shape than his sister.
Julius stepped outm his eyes wide in disbelief. “The Queen’s what?”
“The Queen’s Jewel,” Perim repeated. “Without it, the queen has no heir!”
“You mean it’s the queen’s egg?” Loitus gasped.
“You didn’t know that? It’s like the first thing we learn in school!”
Loitus flushed in embarassment. “Of course I knew that. But who would steal it?”
Kelonus finally spoke. “Dunno. But they’re calling everyone to the great hall right now.”
Each section of Hive City had their own hall, and though the lower-west ward was the most productive of all of them, it didn’t save it from the nickname of Sewage Alley. It was frowned on by almost every other ward, from the other lower wards, which consisted of mostly Plainborns, to those just below the Queen, made of nearly 100% Queenborn. The reason behind this was lost in the years, but most people attributed it to the fact it was near the waste management plant and always stunk.
While the entire lower-west ward wasn’t all that big, the ward hall was standing room only. Loitus, Julius, Perim, and Kelonus squeezed in at the back just as the ward magistrate stepped up to the podium. He cleared his throat, but the chattering didn’t quiet. He tried again, but once again he was ignored. Finally, growing frustrated, he tapped on the microphone to see if it was functioning, and pleased, shouted right into it.
“Excuse me, if you would all quiet down so I can bring you an important message,” he bellowed. The screeching of feedback followed, and upper hands flew up to attenae to keep them from vibrating. Loitus gritted her teeth against the noise. When the hall quieted down, the magistrate spoke again.
“I bring awful news, citizens. The Queen’s Jewel has been stolen, and it appears the culprit comes from our ‘fair’ ward.” He added a sarcastic note to the word “fair,” thinking of the awful smell he had to endure for twelve hours each day before heading back to his sewage-free townhouse in one of the queen-side upper wards.
A gasp ran through the room and questioning chatter followed. Loitus watched as the magistrate waited for the crowd to die down. She felt Julius squeeze her shoulder and looked at him, but his gaze was fixed on the podium.
“We have evidence already,” the magistrate said. “We already know who did it.” He bent over to pick something up and Loitus felt her heart drop to her feet. She stood staring at the think the man held in one of his hands. “We found this at the site of the crime.”
If she hadn’t been so petrified, she would have fainted. A pastel blue sports jacket hung from the man’s hand.
“Loi? Isn’t that your’s?” Perim whispered just loud enough for Julius to hear. Loitus turned to her, her eyes as wide as dinner plates. Julius still wasn’t looking at her, but she thought of the squeeze he’d given her shoulder earlier.
“Julius?” Loitus said, turning to her best friend in the whole world.
“I’m sorry, Loi,” he said, his eyes sparkling with tears as he turned to her. “There was nothing I could do. It was either blame you or…my sister…would…”
“What are you talking about? What’s going on?” Loitus whispered, growing desperate.
“I’m sorry,” Julius repeated.
Perim couldn’t speak, and Kelonus was still in the shock of disbelief. Before any of them could ask Julius what he meant, a ground of well-armed police pushed their way through the crowd.
“Loitus Ravenian Parsnip, you are hearby under arrest for Grand Theft Queen.” She didn’t argue as they put the handcuffs on her. She was still too shocked and confused.
“Julius!” she shouted, feeling utterly betrayed. He refused to look at her as they dragged her off. She yelled and tried to reach him, but the police were too strong.
She was unceremoniously shoved in a van with no windows and as the door closed, she shouted one more time as if it would save her.