The Swarm - A Steamfunk Adventure
Updated: Apr 25, 2019
In 2017 I was one of eleven writers that participated in the first Steampunk Writers Around The World Anthology. My story, 'The Swarm' was one of three stories from the anthology nominated for the British Science Fiction Society Short Story award. I didn't win, but it was an honor to be recognized, especially as an indie writer. The following is the story in its entirety. I hope you enjoy it!
Famara Keita shielded his eyes from the bright dry season sun, his shesh protecting his face from the stinging windblown sand. His Sokoto stallion stirred restlessly, agitated by the scene before them. A wide stretch of barren land stretched to the horizon. It was a scene that would be normal in the Sahara, but this was the Sahel, a region that even in its driest was covered by grass and clumps of shrubs.
“By the ancestors,” he said.
He nudged his horse into the emptiness. Dust whorls rose before the horse’s hooves as Famara scanned the waste for some indication of life in the expanse. Though he had no clue what occurred, it was obvious the Elders were right to send him to this place.
He was thankful for his provisions, for there was nothing as far as he could see. His horse was another matter. With no grass to graze they were forced to continue through the desolation until they found where the devastation ended. It took most of the day to the edge of night before they found the end of the barrens. The horse picked up its pace instinctively. Soon they were among the grasses, a lake shimmering in the distance. Famara reached into his bag for his binoculars; he spotted a village on the far side of the lake, fishing boats bobbing on the murky water. He would travel to the village in a few days, hoping to find someone that could describe to him what occurred. For the moment he would set up camp then analyzed the remains for clues.
He dismounted then unpacked his horse, allowing it to wander into the grasses. It took him a long while to set up camp. He traveled heavier than normal, but the extra gear was necessary. After setting up camp walked to the lake. The water was fairly pure, good enough for drinking and perfect for his steam generator. He carried the water back to camp in the leather folding bucket he’d brought with him. It took him a moment to set up the table that would serve as lab bench. Once the equipment was set up he filled the steam generator with coal and water, igniting the coal with flint and grass. The generator emitted a rhythmic chugging sound; soon the table was illuminated by the soft light of his portable lamps. He lit a citronella oil lamp, driving away the insects drawn by the faint light then walking into the sand to gather sample. Hunger interrupted his duties.
After a quick meal of sorghum, he set up his makeshift lab. He sat the microscope close to the lanterns then removed the dirt samples he’d collected earlier. Famara was a horro, a warrior for the Elders, but the ndoki trained him to run simple tests when such knowledge was required. They supplied him with different solutions which when in contact with the proper chemicals would change color to indicate the presence of certain materials. He sprinkled the debris on a glass slide then placed it under the microscope. The granules enlarged under the lenses, revealing a multicolored array of particles. This was not just sand, to Famara’s displeasure. He took the first indicator solution, squeezing a drop onto the slide. The sand turned a dark green. Famara frowned; the indicator revealed pieces of human flesh among the particles. The amount present dismissed the possibility of the flesh being random. The indicator confirmed the rest of the rumor. The locusts were devouring everything, people included.
He gathered then tested more samples to confirm his findings. After the tenth sample there was no doubt with what he found. The locusts were consuming everything. He pushed back from his table, his brow furrowed in disbelief. How could these insects change their habits so drastically?
He looked toward the village on the lake again. If there were any answers, he would find them there. He unpacked his cot then built a small fire then brewed a pot of tea. The drink relaxed him; after a few more sips he succumbed to his fatigue and slept.
Famara woke to screams. He sat upright, throwing his blanket aside then gathering his weapons. There After mounting his horse he looked in the direction from which the cries came. The village was under attack. A black cloud swirled over and through it, the people running and flailing against the unnatural onslaught. They scattered in every direction attempting to escape. When a person fell the darkness condensed around them, diminishing them into nothingness. A swirling tendril rose from the carnivorous cloud, slowly drifting in Famara’s direction. Famara searched about, his eyes finally settling on the lake. It was a good distance away but it was his only chance.
There was no way he could save his horse. He jumped off the beast then slapped its rump hard, sending it galloping in the opposite direction. It had a better chance avoiding the swarm in the open. With the horse well on its way, Famara sprinted toward the lake, shedding his items along the way. The swarm sped toward him, descending over the lake. He raised his arms, protecting his face as well as he could. If he could only reach the lake…
Locusts pelted his body as he splashed into the lake’s edge. His exposed flesh stung from numerous bites, spurring his descent into the murky water. His hands bled as he completely submerged. The swarm crashed against the lake surface like lethal rain, swimming inches under the surface a few inches before falling still. Famara swam deeper, fighting to hold his breath as the swarm hovered over the surface awaiting his ascent. Reaching his limit, he swam to the surface, took a breath then descended again, managing to avoid the vicious bites. On his third ascent the swarm had dispersed. Famara treaded water for a moment then swam to shore. When he looked to the opposite bank he was astonished to see the entire village gone. He looked down; hundreds of locust bodies floated on the lake surface. He scooped up a handful then carried them to where his camp was set up. He put the locusts into his pouch then dug with his hands into the sand until he reached his equipment and provisions. He busied himself with setting up the microscope again, fighting to keep his mind off the horror that just occurred and staying focused on his mission. Once the microscope was ready he took a locust from his pouch then placed it under the lenses.
It was not an insect. It was a miniature clockwork construct, a device designed by a master of diminutive machines, most likely someone with experience in watch making. Famara increased the magnification, studying the locust’s antennae. They consisted of thin copper wire, indicating the locusts were probably guided by some frequency radiated from a specific spot nearby. They probably responded to simple commands; if it was a frequency then it could be scrambled. A single passage ran from the locust’s mouth to its anus. The creature was designed to work like a steam-powered saw, chewing up anything in its path then discharging it. Whomever controlled the locusts had to be within site to control the attack, which meant he had been seen.
The artificial insect’s wings were powered by a tiny spring. Famara searched for a winding mechanism and found it on the thorax between the wings. He searched his pouch and retrieved a tiny straight wrench which he clamped over the winding key then turned as delicate as he could. No sooner did he finish winding the locust did the antennae twitch.
“It’s receiving a signal,” Famara said aloud. He quickly located a length of string then tied it around the locust’s thorax then around his wrist. The locust’s wings fluttered and the bug flew from under the microscope lens, its escape halted by the spring.
The locust would lead him to the source, Famara thought. He would wait to see if his horse would return. If not he would set off on foot. The horse did finally return close to dusk, too late for him to travel. He decided to set up camp near the lake just in case the locust returned. The night was a restless one, the locust constantly tugging for freedom while images of the village massacre repeated in his head. He’d served the elders since his manhood rites and had seen many sights both pleasant and horrible, but never had he’s seen a village destroyed in such a manner. This was violence for no purpose, something that would only spark terror.
Maybe that was the reason. Someone was using the locust to frighten the villagers and force them to leave. The Elders had given him three tasks; locate the Source of the threat; discover if a Book was involved and if so, obtain it; and determine if the person or persons using the technology of the Book were worth incorporating into their circle. If not, they were to be eliminated. Famara decided the moment he saw the village attacked by the swarm what his decisions would be.
* * *
The workers trudged though the hot sun and ankle deep sand, their umber skin glistening with sweat. The large stones bending their backs had been carved from the nearby mountains and carried the entire distance. The men staggered to the edge of the thorn bush filled moat then dropped their stones before the masons who positioned the huge carved rocks along the moat borders, plastering them together with mortar. A thorn bush moat ringed the city’s outer perimeter, a single retractable bridge leading to a towering stone gate. Wooden towers were positioned at measured distances, occupied by warriors armed with rifles. Horsemen circled the perimeter every two hours.
Famara lowered his binoculars then placed them at his side. He opened his canteen then took another swig of water. The wind up locust tugged at his wrist, still following the signal calling it home. Over the three days he observed the city he’d seem swarms leave and return from every direction. He imagined the terror and destruction they left behind and anger boiled in his gut. He shuffled backwards until he was out of sight of the towers before standing on his feet and walking to his horse. The city was the origin of the swarm and most likely where the Book he sought was kept. Whoever controlled it was preparing for an attack. The defenses would be formidable once completed; Famara would have to make his move soon or entry would be too difficult. He would wait until dusk to implement his plan
As the sun eased below the western horizon Famara mounted his horse then rode up the hill hiding his presence. As he crested the hill he raised his spyglass, studying the fortifications once more. The gate swung open and three riders emerged, galloping in his direction. He watched them for a moment then reined his horse, galloping away as if fleeing. He rode a distance, dismounted his horse then waited. The riders crested the hill then rode up to him, their pistols drawn. Famara turned to face them, his hand raised. Two of the men dismounted then strode toward him; the third remained on his horse.
“Who are you?” the lead man said in Arabic.
“Just a traveler,” Famara replied.
“A traveler with a spyglass?” the man replied. “I think not.”
“I was looking to see if your village was a hospitable place to spend the night,” Famara explained. “As I suspected it is not.”
“Kill him and be done with it,” the man on the horse said.
Famara twisted out of line of fire as he reached behind his back then threw his knife at the mounted rider. The knife struck the man in the face and he fell from his horse. Famara dropped low, spinning with his leg extended. Both men fired their pistols as the horro swept them off their feet. He pounced on them before they could react, slicing one man’s throat while clubbing the other on the head. He hurried to the man felled by his throwing knife, making sure he was dead. Famara exchanged clothes with the man, ignoring the tight fit. He dressed the man in his garments then trotted back to the clubbed man who was regaining consciousness. Famara pulled his arms forward then tied his wrists together with a thin roped. When the man fully revived Famara squatted before him, his pistol in the man’s face.
“Up,” he said.
The man climbed to his feet. Famara motioned toward the man’s horse and the man climbed onto the steed.
“Try to ride away and you’ll get a bullet in your back,” Famara warned. Famara placed the dead men on their mounts then mounted his horse. He gave the reins of the horse carrying the man in his clothes to his prisoner.
“What is your name?” Famara asked.
“Didinga,” the man said.
“Who controls this city Didinga?” Famara asked.
“Amadou Soros,” the man replied.
Famara’s eyes widened. “You’re lying!”
He struck Didinga and he fell of his horse.
“I speak the truth!” Didinga said.
Famara sat before the man, rubbing his head.
“Amadou? It can’t be,” he whispered.
After a moment he stood then lifted the man up.
The man clambered onto the horse and Famara gave him the reins of the dead man’s horse once again.
“Ride ahead of me,” Famara ordered. “We gallop through without stopping. If anyone asks why you tell them I’m wounded. Once we’re in the stables you will take me to Amadou. Understand?”
Didinga winched as he nodded.
They galloped up and over the hill, Famara following with the other dead mounted man. As they approached the gate Famara heard the familiar hiss of a steam engine and the doors creaked open. Two guards stood on either side of the entrance, their rifles lowered. A third man blocked their entrance.
“Keep going,” Famara said.
“But I will…”
“Keep going!” Famara shouted.
The man blocking their way tried to stop them, waving his hands shouting. At the last minute he jumped out of the way.
Famara and Didinga rode into the stables. Famara jumped off his horse then snatched Didinga off his horse.
“Let’s go now!” he said.
The guards approached. The man who attempted to block them came closer.
“Didinga! Jakada! You almost trampled me!”
The man had mistaken Famara for the dead Jakada.
“Jakada is wounded,” Didinga said. “I’m taking him to the healer. “Fahru and the interloper are dead.”
The men changed directions, walking toward the horses. Famara nudged Didinga.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said. “Get back to your posts.”
The men shrugged then did as they were told.
“Which building?” Famara asked.
“That one,” Didinga said, nodding toward a large stone structure in the center of the village. From a distance it resembled a mosque, but as they drew nearer Famara could see it was designed for industrial pursuits. The structures resembling minarets were actually dormant smokestacks, the entrance wide to accommodate any large contraptions entering or leaving the structure. As they neared the building a familiar buzzing sound reached Famara’s ears.
“A swarm,” he said.
Didinga flinched when he heard the word.
“I hate those damned things!” he said. “I saw them chew a man to dust.”
“I saw them do the same thing to an entire village,” Famara said.
Didinga turned to face him, his eyes wide.
“It’s those books!” he said. “They are filled with evil.”
“It’s not the books,” Famara replied. “It’s the man wielding them. Where did you see the books?”
Didinga pointed into the building. Famara shoved him toward the building. There were no guards outside; Amadou was apparently comfortable with his security. As they entered the building Famara saw huge chamber filling the center of the building. Mechanical locusts swirled inside, their buzzing filling the vacuous chamber.
“His laboratory is behind the chamber,” Didinga said. “Come, I’ll show you.”
They skirted the edge, Famara remaining vigilant. They reached the opposite end of the building, standing before another door.
“Open it,” Famara ordered.
Didinga grasped the latch then opened the door.
“Didinga, what are you doing here?” A familiar voice said. “What do you want?”
Famara shoved Didinga into the room then followed.
“I should ask you the same questions,” Famara said.
Amadou Soros looked up from his bench, a knowing smile slowly coming to his bearded face. He stood, revealing the body of a former horro, his muscular frame clear through the single tobe he wore. He placed the tools he held on the surface, his hands going to his waist.
“Hello, Famara,” he said. “I can’t say seeing you’re here is unexpected. I hoped I would have more time.”
“Your time became short when you began murdering people with your bugs,” Famara replied. “How could you do this? This is not our way!”
“How could I not?” Amadou replied. “The Elders lied to us, Famara. They have no plans to use the knowledge of the Books to heal the world.”
“You’re wrong and you know it,” Famara said. “You’ve been to Wagadu. You’ve seen the wonders there.”
“Wonders that benefit no one. How long must the world wait before the Elders bestow their blessings upon us?”
“That is their decision to make,” Famara said.
Amadou smiled. “Not anymore.”
Didinga’s foot scraped the floor, warning Famara. He ducked instinctively, avoiding the man’s double hand blow. He twisted, driving his fist into the man’s stomach then rolled to avoid Amadou’s throwing knife. Famara rose with pistols in both hands. Amadou dove before his fired and his bullets struck the wall behind him. Amadou pulled his own gun and the men shot as they sought cover. Didinga charged Famara again; the horro knocked him unconscious with a kick to the face. Amadou used the distraction to flee the hangar, taking the books with him. Famara had no idea where the man fled. There was only one way to find out.
He hurried to the chamber holding the locusts. He took a throwing knife then lodged it into the seam of the chamber door. He opened the handle then slipped a stick of explosive into the handle. Famara raised his shesh over his mouth and nose as he walk backwards. Once he thought he was far enough away he raised his handgun then fired. The knife exploded, blasting the chamber open. Famara was already running as the locusts poured from the chamber. With no signal to guide them they descended on everything site. Didinga was consumed in unconsciousness; the tables and the hanger their next targets. Famara swatted away a few errant locusts as he made way toward the stables. The others were still there examining the bodies on the horses. Famara shot them down before mounting his horse then reining it to full gallop toward the still open gate. Halfway to the exit the locusts burst from the hangar, attacking everything in sight. Famara rode through the gate, pushing his mount relentlessly as they crossed the open grasslands. There was no lake for refuge, only the hope the locusts would wind themselves down within the village and not seek out more beyond the unfinished walls.
Two hours later his horse refused to go any further. Famara jumped from the horse then ran a bit further before turning to look in the city’s direction. No dark cloud swirled behind him. He took out his spyglass. The walls still stood, but the wooden buildings beyond them were gone. Famara looked in every direction but saw no signs of the swarm. Logic told him the mechanical devourers had consumed everything and everyone in the camp and spent themselves but he had to be sure. He studied the area for another hour before grabbing his horse’s reins and walking back toward the city.
It was midday when he reached the outskirts. Famara released the horse then entered the city. The ground was littered with the vile locust; human remains were scattered about. He entered the hangar to a similar scene, the only remaining object the metal chamber that held the insects. He searched every building, hoping to find some remains of the books. As he reached the opposite side of the city he realized that would not be. The locust had done their job.
He was leaving when he noticed something stir to his right. Locust rose from the sand then flew to each other. Other locust rose around him then joined the small swarm. Instead of attacking him they flew toward the east.
“Amadou,” Famara said.
He ran back to his horse, mounted and galloped through the city. He found camel tracks in the sand, heading the same direction of the fading swarm.
“This is not over,” Famara whispered. “But it will be.”
He snapped his horse’s reins and they galloped together after the swarm.