April 2019

Long before dawn I give up trying to sleep and walk around the apartment packing some essentials into a travel bag. If things go badly today, I’m prepared. As I’m putting my government passport into my purse, a wave of nausea sloshes through my guts. I make it to the toilet this time.

When the heaves subside, my phone buzzes with the first of the day’s texts from the boss.

From Insindiso, Queen of Toronto, to her loyal servant Karen Chen, greetings. I do regret that you are ill. Are you fit to work today?

I put my mouth under the tap and rinse. “Just the usual morning sickness, your Majesty,” I say. “That’s probably it for the day.”

If I can be of assistance, please let me know.

“Thank you, ma’am, I appreciate your concern.” Especially since she was opposed to my pregnancy. Six weeks ago, I told her what I was planning. I strongly urge you to wait until the current crisis has passed, she said. I might have. But then my Mum called to remind me that I’m thirty-seven and single and still haven’t given her any grandchildren. I brought my gay best friend Marcus over that evening and held his free hand while he masturbated into a turkey baster and we giggled at the porno video. Now tiny, perfect Peanut is growing inside me.

And I still have the most stressful job in the city: the public face of Queen Insindiso.

Don’t worry, Peanut. If I still have a city tomorrow, I’ll hand in my notice. Let’s just get through today.

My phone buzzes again as I pour a mug of coffee. (Decaf now. Such sacrifices I make for you, Peanut.)

Karen, she texts, I request your counsel concerning Kokheli, the Usurper of Detroit.

I open my laptop and check the news feeds. Footage shows the sun rising on the bodies of a dozen men and women hanging from the Ambassador Bridge. In confession videos, they weep and babble about their plot to overthrow Kokheli, and beg her for mercy. They got it. Hanging’s better than the alternative.

The Usurper’s been tightening her rule since her decree that all able-bodied subjects aged between sixteen and fifty are to work on building her temple. Every night a few people escape into the United States or cross the river into Canada, but far more get caught by Kokheli or her daughter.

“Breaking news,” says the anchor. “Kokheli is now demanding two extra human sacrifices every full moon until her temple is complete. Let’s get a comment on this—”

I pause it.

“Has Kokheli responded yet to your ultimatum?” I ask.

She has just now rejected it, texts the Queen. By the ancient customs of my grandmothers, I see no alternative to a duel.

“The people won’t support this, ma’am.”

Do they not love and trust their Queen?

“Not when your customs risk their future.”

I made an oath to my grandmothers that I would respect their ways. I cannot break that promise as long as I live.

“Love and trust must be repaid, ma’am. You need to show that you listen.”

Before me, people were murdered. Assaulted. Abused in their homes and workplaces.

“I was one of them.”

I brought justice and equality.

“True.”

And I let them protest outside my very palace.

Only because I persuaded her to allow it. “Ma’am, fight this duel if you must. If you prevail…”

I know what you want, dear Karen. A citizen’s assembly, political parties, a constitution.

“And we still can’t have them?”

The Queen’s rule is absolute and for life. So say the customs. I cannot change that.

I throw up my hands. One way or the other, I’m out of this job tomorrow.

“If you say so, ma’am. Do you still believe you’ll beat Kokheli?”

Insindiso texts me a picture: cheering crowds surrounding her palace, fireworks blooming in the night sky. The image is blurry and the colours over-bright, like all of her visions.

I forward it to the press office and tell them to circulate it to the media. By tomorrow, Detroit will be saved, Insindiso will still be Queen of Toronto, and I’ll ask to be transferred to a cushy job in the Foreign Ministry. Or, if her prophecy is wrong: Insindiso will be dead, the tyrant Kokheli will be marching into Toronto, and, if I plan things properly, Peanut and I will be safe and far away.

“I’ll draft the challenge.”

To ensure victory, I shall require the life of one of my loyal subjects.

“No.” I slam my cup down and slop coffee onto the table. “We don’t do human sacrifice.”

If you wish your Queen to triumph in this duel, a sacrifice is demanded.

“Then what’s the difference between you and Kokheli?”

Go to Detroit and serve her, if you wish.

“Please, ma’am. Don’t do it. This is wrong.”

The decision is made, Karen. Good day.

Why? Why is Insindiso now reviving the blood rituals of her ancestors?

Because she’s afraid. She doesn’t think she can win.

My phone rings. It’s my mother.

“Karen? The Queen going to win or not? Canada keeping the borders closed.”

I check the status online. They’re only allowing government employees and diplomats to cross Toronto’s border with Canada.

“Mum, the Queen says she’ll win. And she’s never wrong.”

“Sometimes wrong.”

“If so, I’ve got a plan. I have to go.” I hang up and text Mick in Security. He owes me.

Mick: sign out a good car. Check wheels, brakes, etc. Fuel up and bring spare gas. Stay close to me all day.

After two scrambled eggs on toast and a shower, I’m dodging through the swarms of business people bursting from the subway entrances. Heads are down, faces tight. I check the Toronto Star’s website. Queen foresees victory over Usurper is the headline over the blurry vision of her triumph, but nobody will feel safe until Kokheli is dead.

The Palace glitters in the early light like a great silver nail pinning earth to sky. Queen Insindiso built it on the plaza in front of City Hall from stone blocks cut in complex shapes. Its windowless, doorless skin is covered in spirals of tiny mirrors and glass beads.

I walk into Palace Square under the ornamental arch of crushed missiles and artillery shells. When I was ten I watched the Queen pluck them out of the sky on the day she and her people arrived. At the base of the Palace, the dozen shaven-headed cultists of the Children of Insindiso chant the dawn worship. They’re extra loud today, trying and failing to drown out the couple of hundred protesters who have already gathered under the plaque commemorating the Treaty with Canada.

“Two! Four! Six! Eight! Change your ways or abdicate!” they shout. A news camera from CityTV pans across the crowd; I recognize a couple of Canadian spies among them. A young women at the edge of the protest spots me and runs over. I speed up my pace.

“Hey! Chen!” she says. “You tell the Queen to quit this crap, eh?”

“She can hear you. But yes, I’ll pass on your concerns.” As if it’ll do any good.

“She loses this fight, we’re all slaves!” the woman shouts at my back as I push open the door of Toronto City Hall.

Inside, the other members of the Queen’s Council got the word and are waiting in my office.

“So the fight’s on?” says the Foreign Minister.

“It’s medieval,” says my deputy, Dario.

“If we ditch the old ways, we could join the Rotterdam Group,” says the Trade Minister. “Shenzhen’s in too now. Nairobi’s applied.”

“Forget it,” I say. “She never breaks an oath.”

“And she wants a sacrifice?” says Dario. “Seriously.”

“Can’t do it,” says Trade. “If we start sacrificing, we’ll be kicked out of half our alliances.”

“So we’ll try to keep it secret,” I say. I text a name to her. How about him?

For eighteen years I’ve avoided thinking of that name, but now I’m flashing back to that midnight in a stairwell in a U of T dorm. The guy from Engineering who I’d said no to the week before was suddenly behind me. He shoved me into the corner. My head smacked the wall. Blood in my mouth. His hand on my throat. He drew back a fist. He was wearing gloves, I realized in that moment, because he had planned this. I flinched.

The punch never came. He cannoned into the air and cracked against the ceiling. A tendril of white mist held him. He screamed and thrashed as the mist pulled him through an emergency exit. The door slammed. As I sank to the floor, my phone beeped. It was the first time the Queen ever contacted me, and it was the number for a sexual assault support line. The next day, the guy was in a cell doing the Path of Solitary Reflection, and I applied for an internship in the Queen’s government.

She texts me back.

Our sacrifice must give themselves of their own free will. He will not.

Damn. “I’ll figure something out,” I tell the room. “Say nothing about it to anyone.”

“What if she loses anyway?” Dario says.

“Emergency plan,” Trade says. “We run for Albany.”

“Have they confirmed?”

“If we make it there,” Foreign says, “we can set up a government in exile.”

Don’t worry, Peanut. If the Queen dies, I’m done. We’re not going to Albany.

“Media’s waiting for you in the press room,” Dario says. I check my reflection on my phone and straighten my hair.

Cameras clatter and flash as I step onto the podium.

“Good morning.” I hope I don’t look as tired as I feel. “Her Majesty Insindiso, Queen of Toronto, issues the following statement. To Kokheli, the Usurper of Detroit: You have illegally overthrown my cousin Uvuko and have refused all demands to relinquish your false claim. I challenge you to single combat according to the customs of our people. Projectiles, firearms, and such weapons are forbidden.”

Through a rush of shouted questions, I hear my phone buzz. I read the latest message and wave for silence.

“Her Majesty adds that she wants a tribute of two dozen shipping containers to be brought to Palace Square immediately. Sorry, I’m not taking questions.”

I’m on the phone as soon as I step off the podium, getting the square cleared, telling Traffic to prepare. Within fifteen minutes I’ve got two freight company owners ordering every available truck to load up.

“Karen?” Dario is at the door of my office. “Watch.” He brings up a news channel on the big screen.

A reporter is standing outside the borders of Detroit. In the background the half-built temple towers above the ruins of the GM building.

“– has accepted the challenge. Kokheli said that she will meet Insindiso later today on a field midway between the queendoms of Toronto and Detroit on neutral Canadian territory. We have cameras on their way to that field at this time–”

My phone buzzes. Please come down to the square and help me don my armour.

“Dario, find out who owns the field and offer compensation. Get Foreign to coordinate with the RCMP. They need to shut down the highway and clear the fight zone. And change that tie. You’ll be her spokesperson there.”

“Aren’t you going?” he says.

“We can’t send the whole government to watch a fight. Someone’s got to manage things here.” Someone with a child in her belly.

When he’s out of earshot I call Mick. “Is the car ready?”

“Standing by.”

“Great. There’s a travel bag in my office. Could you put it in the trunk?”

An email comes in from a lawyer in Montreal. He confirms that my paperwork’s in place. Even if everything else is lost, Peanut, we’re going to be safe.

Beloved Karen Chen, are you planning to flee?

“Only if you lose, ma’am.”

Do you not have faith in my visions?

“Faith is for people who don’t have a baby to worry about. Let’s get you dressed.”

Downstairs, a stack of steel shipping containers the size of a mansion has risen in the square. The guards have ushered all the people to behind a ring of security barriers, except for the dozen cultists sitting cross-legged at the foot of the Palace.

“We’re not going,” shouts one. “We stay with our Queen.”

“Get behind that barrier,” snaps a guard. “I will drag you if I have to.”

I put a hand on his arm. “You don’t have to.” I have an idea. “Children of Insindiso, Her Majesty has a special demand today that I think one of you may be willing to fulfill.”

Two dozen wide eyes are on me. I ask the guards to leave us and gather the cultists into a tight huddle.

Three minutes later, I’ve picked the sanest looking one for what he promises me is the greatest honour of his life. The others are sworn to secrecy, and they march to the barriers at the edge of the square singing ‘Hail Glorious Insindiso’. They join the growing throngs from the surrounding offices and shops who have come to see the Queen prepare for battle.

A faint hum fills the air. Around the high tip of the glittering spike, a pale mist is growing, becoming denser. The Queen is gathering her body. From the edges of her territory, from the skyscrapers and strip malls, ravines and alleys, schoolrooms and barrooms and bedrooms of Toronto, trillions of nanoscopic creatures are flying back to the Palace. The swarm of drones is her eyes, ears, and hands, and she needs every part of herself here.

Misty strands converge from all sides on the top of the Palace. The white cloud there is dense now, most of her tiny drones gathered. Tendrils reach down from the cloud and swirl around the shipping containers. Metal scrapes and clangs. Two containers lift into the air and hover with a gentle sway six storeys above my head, held by the cloud of drones. With a creak and groan, both containers implode, flattening into plates. A bolt plummets. An arm of mist grabs it in midair and sets it gently on the ground.

Another container levitates off the stack, and three more follow it. Screams of tearing metal echo around the square. The Queen squashes them into ribs, rolls them into cylinders, knots them into hinged joints. Flakes of rust rain down. At the joins, the mist presses so hard that a sharp smell of hot steel fills the square as the edges melt into each other.

Dario brings me a sandwich as the Queen sets the sixth and final leg into place. A clang echoes, then silence. A great steel insect stands in Palace Square, its shadow blocking out the sky. Patches of graffiti and logos of rail companies mottle its ribs and belly.

A cheer grows among the bystanders and resolves into a chant.

“In-sin-di-so! In-sin-di-so!”

In one corner, almost as loudly, the protesters shout “De-moc-ra-cy!”

The cloud of mist gathers again at the peak of the Palace. The Queen built her residence like a chimney, only open at the top, and down inside it the swarm descends. The Queen emerges naked. Floating atop a pillar of mist, she presents herself to her people.

She is just a brain, no bigger than a human’s. A dot at this distance. She and her kind discarded their insectile bodies long ago and created the drones to serve them. As always, when she’s exposed, I tense at the thought of what a bullet could do to that pale ball of meat. But many of her drones are still spread wide, watching everything. In her city nobody could harm her.

“Whose lives? Our lives!” shout the protestors. “Whose city? Our city!” A bullhorn voice calls for strikes and marches.

With a clang, the swarm swings open a hatch in the back of the insect’s head. The Queen passes inside and the door creaks shut behind her. All over the insect, white tendrils reach into iron limbs and joints. A creak, a scrape: her swarm brings the armour to life. Legs take a cautious step. An iron head the size of a bus turns and nods towards me.

“Dario?” I say, and swallow the last of my sandwich. “Send the cars up. Time for you to go.”

Karen, she texts, do you know that I trust you above all?

Oh, God damn.

Today of all days I need you. When all seems dark, be close to me.

I’ve never disobeyed her. I won’t start today. I mutter, “As you wish, ma’am.” I turn to Dario. “Change of plan. You stay. I’m going.”

Tonight, you will return to a free city. I assure you of this.

And if she’s wrong? At this time tomorrow, Kokheli might celebrate her victory by picking fifty random citizens to burn on a pyre in front of City Hall.

And if she wins? The protests for democracy will grow. She won’t concede, so her choices will be chaos or crackdown. There’s no good future for this city, just different kinds of bad ones.

I text Mick: Pick me up. We’re going to see the fight.

Clanks and booms echo off the skyscrapers as the great insect walks up Bay Street, towering over the crowds that gather on the sidewalks. Many cheer; some turn their backs. Our line of government cars follows close behind her. Traffic has been diverted from our path but we struggle to keep up with her strides. The car bumps over the craters that her feet are making in the asphalt. Great. Another strain on the maintenance budget.

Behind me, the sacrifice is sitting in the rear seat with a security guard. His name is Cliff, he says, and he used to be a derivatives trader for one of the big brokerages.

“See my nose here?” he says. “I’ve got no septum. Burned right through it with cocaine. Burned a lot of things. Then one morning my phone beeped. It was her. The Queen. She told me something and… I gave it all up. She told me where to go to get help, but the only healing I needed was to be close to her all the time. So I joined the others by the Palace and I never left. She’s never spoken to me since but I know she loves my worship. I feel it.” He clutches my shoulder. “I want you to scatter my ashes outside the Palace.”

“I’ll do that.” If she wins. If not, you’re better off dead.

My phone buzzes. My cousin is joining us.

We’re driving along the emptied highway past the forested valley of the Humber River, where Uvuko has been living in exile since Kokheli hurled her out of Detroit. A great thud, and another: a giant figure is striding towards us through the trees. Uvuko has built a six-legged body like the Queen, but of tree trunks garlanded with leaves and ferns. She bows to her protector and follows us, shedding twigs on the road.

At the city border, the Canadian guards check passports rapidly and wave us through. My phone shows me a news update. In Detroit, Kokheli smashed an office building and made her armour from the ruins. Footage shows her emerging from clouds of dust, bristling with broken spikes of rebar. Leaving her daughter in charge, she waded the Detroit River and crawled into Canada on six immense legs of rubble. In a live helicopter shot, RCMP sirens clear a path ahead of her. A swinging leg rips the front off a house; a bunk bed falls into the garden. She never pauses.

A fist of fear grips my guts. Compassionate Insindiso faces a pitiless enemy. The Queen hasn’t a chance.

Flashing lights and a line of news trucks tell me that we have reached the field. RCMP officers direct our cars to halt. Insindiso steps over pine trees at the edge of the highway and into the grassy pasture. Uvuko joins her. The Queen gestures to her cousin: stay here at the edge of the field. Uvuko can take no part in the duel.

The guard escorts Cliff out of the car. I pause to talk to Mick.

“Park on the shoulder over there.” I point to the far side of the emptied highway. “Point it back towards Toronto. If the Queen dies, we’ll run.”

“We’re regrouping in Albany?”

“We’ll head that way.” And then we’ll turn off and make for the gates of Montreal, where I have allies. Where my asylum request is already filled out and I can apply for my mother to join me. Where little Peanut can grow inside me, far from the stress and futility of running a government in exile.

A distant boom shakes the ground, then another.

“What was that?” I say.

Mick points. “She’s here.”

Kokheli is a grey hulk hundreds of metres away at the far end of the field. She squats and beats the ground rhythmically with her forefeet. Boom-boom, boom-boom: the earth is her war drum.

I walk off the highway into the field. The RCMP have set up a line of tape to corral us into a corner. A CNN reporter finds me.

“Do you feel confident about Insindiso’s chances today?”

I haul on a smile and say, “The Queen foresees victory, and I trust her, as do—”

“Thanks, got to leave it there. It looks like the fight is going to begin.”

Insindiso raises her head high and clanks towards her enemy. Love floods me like a monsoon. I’ve forgotten all the times she infuriated me with her traditions; I just want her to survive this. Cliff, the cultist, presses in next to me, tears trickling down his face.

“She’s so beautiful,” he whispers. “When will she need me? And how?”

My phone buzzes. Instructions will come at the appropriate time. She’s in no hurry for a sacrifice. Maybe she’s changed her mind.

Cliff smiles in rapture and mutters his prayers. I wish I had his stupid faith.

Queen Insindiso bows to Kokheli. The Usurper swaggers up and nods.

The two giants step back from each other and move in a cautious circle. Insindiso’s iron body seems longer, but lighter. Kokheli’s concrete mass is low and strong.

Kokheli lunges forward and swats at Insindiso with an arm of boulders. The Queen steps back, light and quick, and drives a kick into Kokheli’s flank. Concrete shatters and thumps to the ground. I feel it through my feet. The Usurper rushes forward, head down like a bull. Again Insindiso dodges, but a moment too late. A mass of mortar bangs off one leg. She stumbles, one forefoot dented flat, and smashes a leg down onto her enemy’s spine. Kokheli crashes to the ground and rolls to her feet, staggering back a few steps. A loose chunk of concrete flaps from a twisted reinforcement bar on her back. It snaps and falls from her. Beside me, Cliff cries out in joy.

Insindiso steps back two paces and lowers her body to the ground. Kokheli stamps in fury and tosses her head. The Queen waits in silence. Her enemy charges. The ground thunders.

Insindiso is still. My hands are on my mouth.

The hurtling mass is inches from Insindiso when she leaps. Metal shrieks. The Usurper passes under her as the Queen twists in the air and stamps on Kokheli’s back. The earth booms and shakes, birds burst from a tree as it topples, and I grab a cameraman’s arm to keep from falling.

Kokheli’s head thrashes, but she is pinned to the ground. Insindiso seizes one of her midlegs and twists. In a cloud of concrete dust the Queen snaps the leg off and flings it aside. It rips a trench in the earth. Kokheli rolls her body, lashing out. Insindiso leaps off and steps lightly back. She raises herself to her full height, lifts her head. Surrender peacefully, she is saying.

Kokheli regards her in silence then bows her head. She approaches the Queen, staggering on her five legs, and kneels. As if she deserves mercy.

Insindiso looks down on her, brings her iron head close.

No, Queen. Don’t let her live.

Insindiso’s head turns a degree towards Uvuko, who stands silently near me. The Queen’s cousin nods a fraction. Leaves flutter from her tree trunk head. What is their secret?

Silence lies across the field. My phone buzzes. I don’t take my eyes from Insindiso.

Kokheli raises her head. Jaws sag open, chunks of concrete sliding apart. Inside her mouth a pair of black rods slides forward. A cold wave of fear crashes over me.

Both heavy machine guns fire together. Flash, flash, flash: a fierce rattle rips the air. Bullets tear through Indindiso’s head and burst out the back in a fountain of steel shards. The guns rake her again and again.

This is not happening, I think stupidly. Firearms are forbidden.

The spent guns make dry clicks. Their barrels glow red hot.

Insindiso’s body is still standing. Maybe the swarm moved fast enough to protect her inside the head. The Queen is safe. She must be.

The steel insect makes a creaking sigh and collapses to its knees. Joints buckle and, like a tower toppling, the mass of metal falls on its side and crashes onto the clay.

The Queen is dead. Her leaderless swarm is lost.

Shouts and screams break the silence. Inside me, something is torn open. I feel it like a gushing wound in my heart and I clutch it as if I can stop my soul from bleeding. My mouth opens and tries to cry but can’t.

Mick’s hand is on my elbow. “Karen? Let’s go.”

When all seems dark, she said, I want you close to me.

I push his hand away. My Queen needs me now. She had a plan, Peanut. We have to trust her.

I kick off my heels, duck under the police tape, and run across the grass. Behind me someone shouts an order. I keep running. The ground trembles, twigs and bark rain down on me, and a great shadow passes overhead. Uvuko is charging at Kokheli.

A tree trunk foot stamps into the ground before me. I dodge around it. Behind me police voices are shouting, corralling the crowd, but I’m too far ahead. I weave around waist-deep ruts in the ruined earth and reach a dented steel foot. Thunder to my side: Uvuko charges the Usurper. Boulders and branches burst into the air. I press myself against the side of Insindiso’s fallen leg as splinters rain down. The pale mist of her swarm still clings to the cold steel: her drones are immobile now, waiting for commands that will never come.

The enemies step back from each other and I run through ruts around Insindiso’s back. My lungs heave. The ground jumps with another booming impact. Uvuko is hurled high into the air, trunks broken, branches raining down. The ground shakes as she lands, scrabbling on twisted legs to hurl herself forward again.

Before me is the back of Insindiso’s head, shredded with fist-sized holes. I seize the hatch that she cut into the steel. It falls off its shattered hinge and slams onto my toes. Agony flashes. I don’t care. I put my head inside.

The Queen is smeared in tatters on the steel. All that she was is now a few handfuls of broken flesh.

Why couldn’t she see that the Usurper would cheat? A branch crashes to the grass behind me. Uvuko will die too, and by tomorrow Toronto will be a city of slaves. I clutch my belly. Get ready, Peanut. We’ll run for the car as soon as the way is clear. Why didn’t the Queen foresee this?

Maybe she did.

In the moment before she died, my phone buzzed. I take it out now.

Her last message.

To my beloved servant Karen: If there is one who will give up their life for their Queen, let them stand in my presence and say Ndiza.

Ndiza. It means I will.

I see her plan.

Oh God, no. My own life I would give up in a heartbeat. But Peanut too? Never. The tiny life inside me is bigger than the world.

But who else could it be?

Not me. Not Peanut.

But the Queen chose me. The one she trusts above all.

It has to happen now. Kokheli is vulnerable: I can surprise her. I have seconds.

I could run away now. Huddle in Montreal while the cities of Toronto and Detroit shudder under Kokheli’s lash. Try not to think of the thousands sacrificed on the pyre or worked to death. And I could watch my little Peanut be born and come into the world and maybe my joy in that would be greater than the pain of knowing that I could have prevented it all.

Or I could accept this heavy crown and walk into a world of silent grief.

Tiny Peanut, I love you more than the world, but the world is too cruel for you to live in it.

“Ndiza.”

The mist clinging to the metal whirls as if whipped by a furious wind. She told her swarm what to do.

Ribbons of mist rush towards me and tighten in a cyclone around my body. I’m sobbing. All I see is white, closing around me. Nanoscopic drones flood into my mouth, my nose, my ears. I’m so sorry, Peanut.

Then darkness and silence.

And light. My brain bursts into bloom: I see in all directions at once. My faithful drones are furiously building new paths inside my mind. Every instant new worlds of knowing are born in me. More drones linger in my armour, awaiting orders. I feel them in their trillions: my eyes, my ears, my hands, seeing and hearing and touching all.

My old flesh lies in the grass, the skull cut cleanly open and hollowed out. A tendril of my drones reaches out and gently touches the cooling belly. Inside me is a well brimming with black grief. When I have time and privacy I’ll drink that water until the well’s dry. But now I have to lock a cover on it.

Now I fight.

All eyes and cameras are on the two broken giants swatting at each other. Brave Uvuko gave me the distraction I needed.

Kokheli the Usurper drives a kick into my cousin’s belly. Tree trunks snap like twigs. Uvuko’s broken body soars and falls in an explosion of soil. It won’t rise again. Kokheli limps towards her: she will destroy Uvuko’s brain with a punch.

The Usurper pauses, seeing that all cameras are on her. She must have her moment of glory. She lurches to where I lie, stands over my fallen armour, and rears up in triumph.

My drones flow silently into my dented leg. The foot is crushed to a sharp point.

Kokheli claps her forefeet overhead, concrete booming off concrete. Behold, she is saying, I destroyed this Queen.

I strike. For the watching humans, eyes blink in the time it takes. The metal spear smashes under Kokheli’s jaw. Concrete chunks shatter into pieces and plummet. Her guns fall end over end. I drive further through the masonry. Her drones respond, pushing me back. My thrust barely slows. I have my full power behind it and her swarm is scattered. Steel rips through rock and into the black void of her head where her brain is held suspended in space. Here the swarm is densest. They throw themselves at the metal, tearing and pushing at it, but it is too late.

In those nanoseconds we speak to each other through our drones.

“Cunning bitch, Insindiso. I felt you die.”

“I have loyal servants. Have you?”

“So you cheated too. You’re no better than me.”

“You could have seen this path. Arrogance blinds you.”

The steel edge of my foot touches the flesh of her brain.

“Please,” she says. “Spare my daughter.”

“I will. Be at peace.”

She accepts release. Her drones stop fighting me as my iron smashes through her brain. Her body falls to the earth.

Millions will celebrate this moment, but my armour shudders in sorrow as tons of rubble bury the remains of Karen Chen, destroying it and the secret it carried. I want to collapse and weep for you, poor Peanut.

But now life is duty. All duty. And I rise to my dented feet.

The field fills with shouts and cheers. I invite Kokheli’s drones to join me. Gratefully, they flow into mine. I hear the journalists talking, see the footage on their screens: in Detroit, the people have burned Kokheli’s temple. Her daughter hurled flaming cars at the crowd, but when she felt her mother die, she fled for the river. I made Kokheli a promise. I’ll offer the daughter a life of solitary exile.

Faithful Uvuko bows her broken wooden head to me.

“I will keep your secret,” her swarm whispers to mine. “You are Insindiso now.”

“Let’s let the people of our cities vote on whether they want us,” I tell her.

“My cousin chose you wisely,” she says, and strips trees to repair her armour.

The cultist is weeping with shame, his sacrifice rejected. I send him a message: I do not want or need worship. Be free.

The moon is high as I march home. There’s work to do: a funeral to arrange, a constitution to draft, an election to plan. That starts tomorrow. Tonight the people gather on Palace Square to cheer and sing under a sky bursting with fireworks.

I send my swarm out into all corners of the city, to watch and protect, to advise and heal, to listen to the hopes and fears and dreams of all my children. This is why we died, Peanut, my love. I hope you can forgive me.

Your thoughts?