Aphelion Issue 233, Volume 22
October 2018
 
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Hegemon of the Honeycart

by Tony Colella




The final sign for the dinosaur park is spray-painted on plywood, the same as Dani expected for roadside fruit stands hawking eight avocados for a dollar. But this wasn't farmland any longer, and she'd seen no houses for miles and miles. The isolation was the goal, the park somewhere in Nevada, or maybe it was Arizona now? Some endless grassland, warm in March, almost too much so for her open windows.

She hoped, though she barely admitted, to hear the dinosaurs by the time she rounded the final corner, saw that sign. A roar, a bellow, a whalesong. Something, over the whispers of the grass, her tires on the maintained but still dirt road. But, nothing.

Until she coasted that final rise, and found herself with a vista both mundane and sublime: The high, blank perimeter walls of the park, several stories tall, and acres of poor parking in dusty, unmarked lots. From where she'd have to park, it would be half an hour's walk just to get to the admission gate. Never mind. She'd arrived, and she covered her mouth as she walked.

She wore the laminated business partner badge, though she wasn't, that she'd received in the mail a week ago. She assumed that any of the long lines would allow her in, but as she shuffled slowly closer, she was recognized. No, more like spotted—her badge, its bright orange against the gray of her blazer. Because she didn't know him, a man she immediately and palpably disliked: for a smile that insisted she come with him, the quick hug he gave before his name, the gentle hand he left resting on her elbow. Ten thousand white teeth, a trustworthy beard, and a casual suit that fit easily.

It wasn't quite that she disliked him. No, she was disappointed: because she knew his type, knew he would steer their conversation as much as he steered with his hand on her arm, and that she would leave today with nothing if she followed his rules. Her other hand toyed with an old receipt in her jacket pocket, crumple and tear and crumple again. In fact, she suspected she might be his job, since his badge told her he was a PR Lead Liaison II. Presumably he was excellent at occupying journalists.

She would have to be the better occupier.

"Dani, please come with me. You don't need to wait here," with a half-smile she couldn't emulate without practice, that somehow told her she was better than these masses and simultaneously reassured anyone watching that the park valued their visit. He was skilled, no doubt. "I thought we'd go first to one of our overlook conference rooms so that you can ask me any questions you have, and then I have a VIP tour package for you so that you can see the park."

So well planned. So kind, to do this all free of charge. So useless to her. "Thank you, Mr. Umberto—"

"Eyvan."

"Evan?"

"Almost!" and there was his first sliver of irritation. "Put the I in Evan and you have me."

She lost him in the crowd for a moment as they scraped through the turnstiles at the entrance. Even with his pass through the scanner, she still managed a quick escape—around a stroller and a school group—for long enough to have her first experience be hers alone. Tall coniferous Araucaria flanked the park's start, separating the various paths: Spineback Swamps, Fellows of the Forest, Ice Queens, Deep Divers—

"There you are," and Eyvan was at her side, pulling her from the main stream so that the occasional family eddied around them. "We'll take a private path up to the main complex."

"But you do remember why I'm here?" she asked, as they began. They were nearly free of the main walkway, their only companions a handful of parents smearing sunscreen on squealing toddlers.

"To write about the park and the tour you'll take," he said, as if by saying it would become true.

"To tell the story of the people who work here," she reminded him. "To write about what really happens. My bosses and our readers are interested in what really goes on at," and a little flattery couldn't hurt, "one of the world's most successful attractions."

"I'm sure," and this is such a classic noncommitment that she balled up the receipt in her pocket, dunked it in the nearest trashcan. Which, she noted, was about to be emptied by a woman who didn't glance at her, kept her eyes down. But then they passed and they were alone on his private path. "Now, the Tithonian Room has one of our best views—"


*****



I wait until they've rounded the corner to pull the bag from the cutesy Allosaurus mouth, with the speech bubble covering half its chibi body: ONLY TRASH IN ME PLEASE! Not that the corporates are likely to dash back and toss a wrapper the same way kids on the concourses like to do, but you never know.

She wasn't a corporate, anyway, despite the badge, and I'm half-minded to take what she threw and see what it might be. But I don't think she's that sort either, and I'm fully minded of my best friend, she who's right now over by Carnotaurus Café, and what Florence always tells me: "Don't bother, Iris. Just don't, whatever it is." Words to live by when you work for nothing, as do we, at the richest theme park in the world. It's not bad advice, but then I'm not Florence and my hands are gloved (but to be fair so are hers, always) and I pluck the crumpled paper from the top of the trash pile in the bag. A receipt, for a few gallons of gas, and nothing else. I toss it back. Nothing this time, but that doesn’t mean nothing every time.

Into the nearest dumpster go the bundled trash bags, and thankfully the emptying of those falls to the night crew. Unfortunately, the trash run means I'm back to the honeycart. I won't lie, I do grumble. Because no matter how much sawdust I use, no matter how insulated the cart's insides, it and I can't help but smell like shit by lunchtime. It is just for the herbivores, whose poops are nothing like the stink of the big carnivores, but even hay and leaves makes for a smelly cart when you push it around all morning and have no choice but to breathe in the enjoyable eau de prehistoria.

The cart doesn't help. It's meant to be as inoffensive as possible, which meant to its designers—and I have no idea who they were, but certainly they weren't me—that it should also be as excessive as possible. It's covered in more chibi dinos, dancing in bright primaries, and HONEYCART is splashed across every available surface in fat neon lilac. To the kids, I'm another pushcart full of candies, and any walk across a main concourse comes with a dozen rebuffs and the slow realization on their sweet little faces that I don't smell like cotton candy or kettle corn but something much fouler. Often as not, I receive looks as though I've personally betrayed them.

"Good thing I don't have any dignity left," because I certainly do mutter to myself. The glamourous life of a poop shoveler.

A roped-off back path leads me over rock and mud to the honeycart's entrance to the Therizinosaurus enclosure. There are none around the clearing on the door's other side and so I sidle through. They've been made as a communal latrine species, which means I can scoop all their poop in that particular clearing. Which suits me just fine, as even though they're supposed to be herbivores, I'm not dumb enough to futz around with any oddity with claws the length of my leg.

This enclosure was full of pines and I heard those claws at work some distance beyond me, bringing down the boughs, along with the therries' low hooting. Beyond that, I heard the low murmur of the crowds, gathered around the raised rails several hundred feet distant. Marveling at Dino Scissor-Hands, as the signs call them. A dated reference, and kind of dumb to me, and one we janitors tend to ignore. They're Therizinosaurus to us, or therries if you're like, or you're tired of –osauruses. "Call 'em what they're meant to be," Florence always says, and everyone else just sort of nods along because Florence is that sort of lady. But I get it, and we always share a wink, because Florence and me both know that what a thing is meant to be isn't necessarily what it is.

Speaking of: with the honeycart full of footballs of therry dung, I back out through the door and trundle back up the path. Uphill, which means I always get the best aromas during that first push. But it also lets me see what others don't, and today that actually means something. Because I'm hidden by several chubby cycads from a little sitting area with a few benches and a trashcan. It's empty save for one well-dressed man, and he might well be acting the part of Suspiciously Disgruntled Park Employee. His lanyard tells me he belongs easily enough, but he's edgy, nearly bolts when I trundle loud wheels over a partially-buried boulder. He tosses a crumpled note at the trashcan, misses, and is already gone.

Of course I went over to take a look. Triumphantly, I might add, because Florence said something like this would never happen, and here it was. Not that the note made any sense to me: Roost & nanny 7.5 @8894*. I remembered it, recrumpled, left it where I'd found it, and returned to the honeycart. No, I didn't know what it was or what it might mean, but it was something, and on a day when dinosaurs had become routine—which, for me, was every day—you took whatever you could get.


*****



The Tithonian Room was a small conference room dominated by a round table of polished petrified wood, though this excess was next to nothing when its entire south-facing wall was windowed, overlooking the park. Dani had made no promises to herself to disavow awe or enchantment, and she fell toward the window, stopped short of pressing against it, but still guzzled the view beyond. The grasslands spread out until the mountains many miles distant, but the park had filled in the natural grasses with patchworks of trees and shrubs, and smaller enclosures within the huge outer walls to hold more extreme environments: one massive dome for the cold-lovers, another for the dripping tropics. The crowds swirled, colored dust on the brightly colored paths that snaked between habitats, and scummed at the fences and rails of the enclosures.

She, like the largest multitude below, was drawn by the central and largest pen, a wildlife preserve measured in dozens of acres, still mostly grassland with a wide lake and several dense copses of conifers. Sauropods' heads rose well above the pines' tops, and even from this distance she could see their longer front legs and the way the necks rose straight up: brachiosaurs of some sort. They were tiger-striped in crimson and lime, a jarring scheme that rattled uncomfortably against the muted backdrop of the grass and lake. But perhaps that had been the point, she thought—and the better, too, to set them apart from the other animals that shared the lakeside: hadrosaurs with half-moon crests whose backs rose barely to the brachiosaurs' bellies; a small herd of cerulean stegosaurs she thought from their long necks might be Miragaia; and a boxy, enormous three-horned ceratopsian that could only be Triceratops.

"We keep them well separated from the carnivores, of course," Eyvan said. "Even so, Fellows of the Forest is our biggest visitor draw. Something about seeing them all together like that, emulating a true Mesozoic ecology—"

"Except that you're cohabiting genera that are separated by millions of years." She cringed but showed nothing more: She didn't care for her own pedantry, but it was the fastest way to show him she wouldn't be placated by a few pretty dinosaurs.

"Of course," he agreed. "But that's not our goal. We aren't recreating dinosaurs. We're mining DNA to make something very new, in a way that resembles what people want most to see from one hundred million years ago." She can just about see his reflection in the clear glass, and she catches the motion of his quick wink. "You should see the sales numbers from the food carts down there, compared to the rest of the park. Everyone wants lemonade with their Lusotitan."

"You know dinosaurs," she said.

"As do you. Or maybe you thought that was not a requirement for working at the park?" He raised an eyebrow. "I assumed, too, that you arrived here knowing your 'saurs. I'm not disappointed."

"But," she reminded him, "I'm here to—"

"Yes, I know. You want to know what really goes on here. Ms. Xuan, let me ask you a question about stories." She, not expecting this, was taken aback for a moment, but nodded for him to continue. "What are the sorts of stories that a park such as this can tell?"

"Awe," she said at once, "and wonder, and the power of science."

"True. We show people what they could never see except in their imaginations: and for this we profit. But the converse is also true," and he licked his lips. "Barely a day goes by when I, personally, to say nothing of the rest of the PR staff, don't handle a request for the 'true story' of the place, the backdoor, the dark underbelly. The hubris of our mad science, we playing gods, etcetera ad nauseum."

She saw where this was going, and headed it off: "But I don't want that story. I'm not looking for cackling megalomaniacs rubbing their hands together over gene sequencers—"

"Which does happen sometimes, to be fair. Not that our geneticists are megalomaniacs, exactly."

"Only natural. But what I want," she said, "is what no one else sees. I don't know exactly what that means—"

"Then let me suggest a third story. People want our park to be a true Jurassic Park, which is to say that they want it all to break down, for our fences to fail, for the wreaking of havoc and their unspoken fantasies of outrunning a T. rex to come true." He shook his head. "They'll be waiting a long time, and you, if that's what you're after. We have minor failures, occasional escapes regularly. Our Garudimimuses are always hopping fences. Those long legs, you know. But we've never had a fatality, never had a major visitor injury due to a dinosaur encounter. So," and he spread his arms wide, "what stories are left to us?"

"There's plenty that goes on at other zoos," she said.

"True. Conservation, mostly. Education, too, but that comes to the same thing. Moneymaking, of course. But that's about it." He rolled his eyes, and she nodded again: because he had his axe honed, clearly, and sharpened it on people like her. He's heard it all, but he hasn't yet said anything about what she wants to know: about the stories that don't belong to the place, the stories that sleep beneath those grand narratives. The story, say, of the janitor they passed on their way up the path, or the ticket-taker whose line they bypassed. The person whose job it is to polish this table. The table itself, the journey of the petrified wood to this conference room overlooking the park.

But she smiled only, and said, "Will I be able to speak with anyone else?"

His mask returned. His vulnerability amounted to his professional ire, the unexpected repetition of grand narratives—and while that's a story, too, she thought, there was surely more to find. The mask became a rictus of smile, and he backed to the door. "I'll see who I can rustle up. Stay put for now," and she knew now that he was as far as she'll get. Unless, as the door snaps shut, she takes the time not taken by the tour and molds it as she sees fit.

She gave him five minutes to get lost, made sure her lanyard was visible, and trotted from the Tithonian Room.


*****



What trash would you imagine is most common in a dinosaur park?

No matter my collection spot, most of each vile bag is food. I say vile because the park's in the warm grasslands and the dinos, for all their looks might say otherwise, are creatures of our time. Which is to say that flies and beetles and crawlies of all sorts love their foods and their shits and pretty much everything else that comes out of their bodies, that our marinating trashcans must smell pretty good to a fly during the warm days, and that in turn means that every full trashcan features a thick smog of buzzing gross.

Of course for the flies it's heaven, each trashcan a particularly appealing marinade of melted ice cream and unfinished chicken fingers and smears of ketchup. Vomit, if it's a hot day and some six year old can't hold their excitement in. And, especially near the restrooms, diapers. Diapers that sometimes rival the food, if I'm particularly unlucky. Endless diapers, and I never guessed before I began this job that the dino park would see so many babies, but it sometimes seems like there's six babies and four strollers for every adult.

All this to say that the trashcan from which I'd plucked that message was the exception, its contents no more than plastic water bottles and old paper wristbands. I purposefully ended my shifts near the food court (Mesozoic Munchies) because that trash is always nastiest. They fill up quickly, they're near the biggest restroom complex, and they're also the only cans where I'm bound to be approached, some put-upon parent complaining about the fullness of the bags and insisting that I do something about it—as if they don't interrupt me in the act of emptying. I only smile and keep my tally for Florence, who asks how many bitched that day and then ends with an eyeroll and a "yeah, well, they pay four-fifty for a diet Coke, so who's the real dummy?"

I'm still pushing the honeycart, though I've swapped its insides from poop-carrying to bag-bearing. The sight of the happy cartoon dinos coming is usually enough to deter even the worst complainers, and if not, the smell from the inside does it. But once I dumpster it all and stash the honeycart for the night crew—after sawdusting it down, because no one needs that sliceable stink first thing—I usually have about half an hour until my shift's over. The day I found the note is the same, and I was lucky: because my job meant I knew every back way in that park, including one that led to my own private overlook. It was back near the admin complex, through a couple of gates I unlocked and left open behind me, winding up a hill around a couple of stands of trees. Then, at the top, the soft leaves of some saplings in full bloom, and the full park spread out at sunset.

Sunset's not a popular time. The crowds swirl toward their cars, recalling the park's distance and the drives ahead of them. The biggest beasties are bedding down, and those more nocturnal are just beginning to stir.

But for those who stick around, the show's worth the stay. Florence used to work more in the labs and such, and she's overheard plenty about the making of dinos that are active specifically when the light's most striking. Crepuscular Country is their place, an acres-huge savanna that seems empty for most of the day, even when most crowds assume 'crepuscular' is some creature that lives there. No, and I hear the meaty wash of Florence's eyeroll in the back of my mind: because crepuscular means that they're most active at twilight. And it's C Country I'm above at my shift's end, and I can see them come alive.

The Amargasaurus group, long-necked and long-tailed sauropods with a hefty sail along their necks, is first. Then, as the Amargasauruses rock the trees as they begin to feed, there's a raucous chittering and down pour the Yi, tiny dinos with bat wings and bright peacock tails. Their cacophony in turn provokes the Parasaurolophuses, with the trombones sticking out of the backs of their heads, hunchbacked like buffalo and coming to life with a series of sad calls. Like a foghorn from far away—or at least that's what I think, growing up in the Pacific fog. Florence just calls it melancholy. Also apparently nonsense, since the real creatures could never make sounds like that, but "you see that head and what do you think? People wanna hear something."

A rustling in the bushes behind me. I work in a park full of monsters—but even so, my first thought isn't of some escaped killer. Rather, I figure some visitor's gone through the gate, come where they shouldn't have come. If I get caught with them, then that's even worse than an escape. To me, at least.

Her face isn't one that I know, which is to say that she doesn't work with me. But I recognize her, after a moment: The woman who passed me with the PR man earlier in the afternoon. She looks as surprised as I'm not, and I'm about to tell her to turn right around when she says, "Good. I hoped I'd find you."

Well, I can tell you no one's ever said that to me. I'm interested in spite of myself and I'm silent to let her go on. "I want to talk to you, about what you see. I'm a journalist and I've had the tour and the runaround and all of it, but I'm not looking for all of it, I’m looking for…" But she doesn't seem able to say what she's looking for, exactly. Not slumming it with the honeycart, maybe, but I'm not too proud to take my moment when it's offered. I pat the dirt beside me and nod down to the bugling dinos below. "So. Business partner, huh? You want to know what really makes this park run…?"


*****



Of course Dani did, though this wasn't yet her question answered, either. Nevertheless, Iris the janitor (though she had a fancier title on her lanyard, Iris herself said "the janitor": "no need to hide what I do with a fancy name") had plenty to say: about the garbage she collected from the boardrooms behind them versus the concourses below, the shapes and sizes of the dinosaurs' dungs, the complex community that existed among the groundskeepers and janitors. Night descended and the strangest calls, whistles, and shrieks yet zeroed in on Dani, and she shivered slightly though the dark was warm enough for her bare arms.

"Listen," Iris said, after her eyes flicked at the wildfire of goosebumps that had swept over Dani, "I can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about poop. But do you want to see something else? Something I never expected either?"

Of course Dani did. Of course.

They entered the main building through a pair of industrial doors this time, and then a metal staircase down. No carpeted halls or Tithonian Rooms, though it felt to Dani as though this clean place—checked linoleum, walls which had seen the brushes of mural painters—was somewhere its people took pride in.

Iris, maybe sensing these thoughts, offered "We're janitors, of course it's clean down here." Some truth there, certainly. But if it was Dani, she would hate to clean her workplace if her job was cleaning.

"Would you say that you take extra pride in cleaning down here?" she pressed.

"No," Iris said at once. "You mean more than upstairs, don't you? Like we do it up there 'cause we have to but we do it here because we want to?" Iris rolled her eyes, but Dani wondered: Did she mean that? She walked down Iris's assumptions, the story she's already begun to sketch of the hardworking support staff, the real workers of the park. Salt of the Earth, good working people, all that. "We're union. We do just fine," Iris said, and then they're at the common workstation. She clocks out with her biometrics, then led Dani upstairs. They passed a few people before, but the upper hallways—which lead, behind biolocked doors, to labs and the like—are deserted. It's dark. People go home. "The lights are low, and the place will be deserted," Iris says, "until the night crew are almost off-shift, at which point they'll mop it down for the return of the day. There won't be anyone around, especially not where I'm taking you."

"Which is where?"

"Nursery," Iris said. "Not that we're going in, you know. Just to the windows. It's monitored so they don't have to bother with any guards in person."

"There must be a bunch of nursuries," said Dani, and indeed they've come to a long corridor of wide, thick windows. Every few steps, there's a different door, each marked with several numbers. The nurseries beyond are occasionally dark but mostly lit in very low red, almost violet. To aid with night-watchers' eyes? Something to do with vitamins? She doesn't know, but Iris does: at least, where they're headed. A pair of doors marked 8894. Dani crowded to the windows to see the fluffpile beyond, a brood of fluffy snoozing chicks that might be chickens except that a display embedded in the window called them Velociraptors. Iris, however, seemed distracted, checked her phone for the time: "7:30," and her mutter marked her mind as somewhere else entirely.

"What is it—?" Dani started to ask, but there was a flutter of movement down the corridor's end and both women whip to look. Whoever (or whatever) it was, it was gone by the time they looked, but then Dani heard a faraway alarm hastily muffled, and then the telltale suck of a vacuum seal. Iris dipped down before Dani could react, and the other woman pulled her into a quick crouch too, their eyes and just above the only bits above the window's edge.

"What's going on?"

"I found a note," and Iris was breathless, excited. "I thought it might mean here and now. I was guessing—but here you go, right? Here's something you're not gonna see otherwise. Someone stealing dino chicks!" Oh yes, that was a story, but Dani's heart sank: because she sees the righteous Eyvan in her mind cross his arms, pronounce this one of the park's stories. Of course there would be industrial espionage, disgruntled employees, dino thieves… Boring, when you came down to it. Expected. "Florence?"

She hadn't been paying attention, but Iris had. There's a woman inside the nursery, though the clutch hasn't woken nor noticed her. Iris stood slowly, and the other woman approached. Behind her, Dani saw the bag she brought in: not for the chicks, but like an upsized egg carton, ready to take from the clutch of eggs Dani picked out of the half-dark, arranged in a half moon behind the sleeping chicks.

When the woman spoke, her voice was muffled, the glass thick and unforgiving. "You shouldn't be here, Iris."

"I shouldn't?"

"Go on," said the other, and Dani, who has almost forgotten herself despite her disappointment, covertly clicks her phone's recorder and takes a step closer. Even if this wasn't what she was there for, she would be a fool to miss it.


*****



"Nope," I tell Florence. I try to make it sound obvious: like, of course I'm not going anywhere. How could I? I’m trying to inject some sense into this nonsense, try to make Florence back into the woman I knew. "You're not a thief."

Her smile has teeth but no humor. "Not yet."

"But why?"

"Is it really so right in Iris-land?" Florence asks me. I feel Dani's presence on my right, but only for a moment. She hasn't gone anywhere, but she doesn't matter. "So right, that you haven't noticed we're getting floated all around the park?"

"Who is?"

"All of us, girl! Remember, I used to just work around here? You and your honeycart out at the perimeter? All the rest? And now we're assigned everywhere, places we can't possibly get to, and we're written up if we're late. Three write-ups and," and she draws a thumb's-up across her jugular. "Today was my number three. I have another two weeks and then I'm out."

"But you're union," Dani interrupts. Florence sniffs her out as intruder, gives her a quick look, and returns to me.

"They can't legally do it. But here we are."

"But stealing eggs?" I remind her.

She coughs a laugh. "I'm not expecting to make a bundle with a competitor. I just want 'em to know. They can make their dinos and treat people however they want and no one's gonna say how, but sometimes they have to deal with what happens next."

"What happens next?" and Dani's excitement is palpable, almost indecent. No business partner, but a journalist. Not the starry-eyed sort, not exactly, not that she wasn't impressed—but there was something about her I hadn't seen before. She wanted more. She might help.

"You want this story?" I ask, rounding on her. "Here you go. Not Florence, but what's happening here. How much this place makes, and how much we make." Her head tilts, the possibility swimming behind her eyes. Not that I need her approval, but her nod makes what happens next easier. "Come talk to her," I say through the glass. "She'll hold your name. She'll tell the story."

"Who hears it?" Florence asks. But she shouldn't be asking, which is to say she's older than me, the one who gives advice. We should be reversed. I should be doing something crazy, not she. I shouldn't have been on her old route, and I shouldn't have picked up her trash. I should be in trouble, not the wise old she.

"I don't know," says Dani. "But it's the sort of place that would expose these kinds of things—"

"You think I won't know the name?"

Dani holds her eye for a moment, gives her magazine's name. Florence hesitates, then turns from us both, back to the still-sleeping raptors and the intact circle of eggs. I can barely hear what she says next, turned from me and crouching: "I should at least take advantage of Paul's broken cameras," and then she's down on her knees on the dirt, stroking each downy chick with a single finger, as if they're kittens. The chubby, sleepy chicks barely stir, so safe and comfortable are they, and Florence slings her bag over her shoulder before she pushes back into the access hall behind the nursery.

At the same moment Dani and I let out the breath we've both held. "This isn't normal?" she asks. A joke. But suddenly I'm not in the mood, and my return's a growl:

"This is the story you ought to tell."

"Yes," and any trace of a smile is gone. "Yes, I think it is."



THE END


© 2018 Tony Colella

Bio: M.C. St. John is a Chicago writer. His stories have been published in Chicago Literati, Quail Bell Magazine, and the Word Branch Science Fiction Anthology. His short story collection Other Music was recently published; he is currently working on his next.

Website: Claire Fitzpatrick

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