A selection of images including the cover to Titanic Terastructures, A Quiet Afternoon 2, Thirty Years of Rain, New Maps, Shoreline of Infinity, K-Zine, Flotation Device and Magical Crime Scene Investigation.
In the centre are two painted images, one of a frazzled ginger haired woman drinking tea and one of a Sikh gentleman holding a bucket and sword and facing pink tentacles

Why did you leave your last employer?

Why did you leave your last employer?

by Brian M. Milton

    “I want something more, something bigger.” George paused for a moment before continuing his answer. “I’m looking for a change in my life. I’ve worked in offices for twenty years now and more and more I find myself longing for some physical exercise. The opportunity to get away from a desk and move around. So when I saw your advert, the opportunity to combine that escape from an office environment with my beekeeping hobby, I jumped at the chance. I have no complaints with my current employer but I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

    The man opposite nodded, his poorly brushed hair wobbling above his head in a way George found very distracting. Along with the stained lab coat and unplaceable, wandering middle-European accent George was struggling not to make assumptions about his interviewer. But the job description was everything he wanted so he put that to the back of his mind and listened to the next question. “Very good Mr. McNeil. You say in your application that you have kept bees for five years. This is as a hobby, ja?”

    “Yes. Always been fascinated by them. They’re so different to us humans, their lifecycle is so alien. The individual barely matters but as a colony they can thrive, reproduce and defend themselves almost like a single organism. I never tire of watching and learning about it.”

    “This is good. A healthy scientific curiosity will be of great benefit in this job, Mr. McNeil. I feel that you would be ideal for this role, provided you are comfortable with living here at all times. The nature of my experiments means that I could be requiring your assistance at almost any time of the day or night. I am aware this is anti-social but you would be well recompensed. Would you still be interested in the position?”

    George looked around him at the wood panelled room with its shabby leather chairs and bookcases higgledy-piggledy with books, then out the window at the rolling lawn in desperate need of a mow. It was a significant improvement over his one bedroom flat crammed with bee equipment and hives on the roof. “Live here? Would I be able to bring my own hives?”

    “But of course. More genetic diversity will be benefiting my experiments.”

    “In that case Doctor Rotstein, I accept.”

#

    Two weeks later George moved in. The Doctor’s house was isolated in a valley far from the city and he had to arrange a friend to drive a van full of his possessions there but it was ideal for bees. Rolling heather clad hills stretched away behind the house, climbing to gorse strewn moorland and the fields to the front appeared to be occupied by nothing more polluting than cows. No sickly oil seed rape to ruin the honey and no single crop fields soaked in pesticides. There was even a small deciduous wood to the west which broke up the prevailing wind. George could not think of anywhere better. The Doctor gave him space by the wood for his personal apiary and a small suite of rooms above some old stables with plenty of space for spare bee equipment alongside a self-contained small flat. The flat even came furnished with an oddball assortment of burst sofas, creaking beds, mix and match cutlery and even a cow shaped milk jug. Not that he spent much time there once he discovered the Doctor’s apiary. 

    “You must come and see my facilities right away. I am needing your inputs on any improvements to them.”

    “I’ve only just got here Doctor. Can I at least unpack?”

    “Yes, yes, after you see my laboratory. Come, come.” Doctor Rotstein impatiently led the way across the garden and round to the back of the house where George stopped in wonder. On the back of the crumbling Georgian grandeur of the main house was a large extension apparently made entirely of wood. Huge sloped slats faced out over the garden, the wood gleaming golden in the sunshine. Towering over George he could just make out a pitched roof on top but not a single window.

    “What on earth is this, Doctor? The extension looks like a giant, four storey hive. As if someone just changed the units on a drawing of a normal one.”

    A look of embarrassment flashed across the Doctor’s face before he continued. “I am planning for the future. For the moment you will only need the shelter at the back.” He led George to an open area at the back of the building, enclosed on three sides and big enough to hold three large cars. There was a roll-up door at the back and benches to either side covered in bee keeping equipment. George was forced to breathe through his mouth as the smell of fresh cedar overwhelmed his nose. In the middle stood five hives, out of one of which several bees came and went. “This shall be your starting hive. I did acquire it from a local farmer. Everything you will be needing is here but do not have the hesitation to ask for more. No expense is to be spared to achieve my goal. Alles Gut?”

    George looked around. “I don’t think I’ll need anything for quite some time, Doctor.” George took down a suit from a peg on the wall. “Shall I take a look at them now? Might as well see what you’ve got.” The Doctor nodded eagerly and George pulled on the protective suit.

#

    The work went well for the first two years. George managed the increasing number of bees, keeping them disease free and splitting the hives until his work area was full and he started building new hives in the garden. Doctor Rotstein did not interfere in the work, only occasionally taking small numbers of drones away and the odd spare queen. This gave George plenty of time to mind his own bees and also to explore the local area. In year three things changed.

    “Good morning, George. How are the bees today?”

    “Working hard as usual, Doctor.”

    “Have there been any size differentials in the new colonies?”

    “Size differentials?”

    “Yes, have there been any larger bees in the latest batch? I have been performing some experiments upon some of the drones and now that I have released them into the group I was hoping to see a result.”

    “Experiments on the drones? Bees are very sensitive to the environment, Doctor. They can die off very quickly if you upset them. I’m really enjoying this job but I’m not sure I could stay if you were doing something to the bees.”

    “Oh I am sure they will not be dying. I am just encouraging them to grow a bit. You know, allow them to carry more nectar and make more honey.” The Doctor paused, a faraway look in his eyes that George knew meant the scientist was thinking. Sometimes the Doctor could be left in these thoughts for hours and George would have to drape a blanket round him or put a hat on his head but this time he was mercifully quick. “Ja, more of the honey, that is what we are needing.”

    “Doctor, we have piles of honey. Do we really need any more? It’s not like we sell it?”

    “I have been thinking that we ought to. It will help to increase your wages and will be getting some vital feedbacks from the public. In the future it will be important to understand the dietary options when I move to Phase Four. Yes, yes, that sounds good. Can we be doing that?”

    George paused. Doctor Rotstein had shown no interest in honey before now and certainly did not seem to want for money. Where had this sudden interest come from? But George had heard the mention of increased wages. “I suppose we could. We do have plenty already. I’d need a van and a budget for jars and advertising. Would probably go round any local farmer’s markets.”

    “That is decided then. Good.”

#

    George got his budget for honey sales and soon spent every weekend travelling to markets all over the country. He found he enjoyed these markets, chatting to shoppers and other sellers and getting the chance to wax lyrical about the bees. Doctor Rotstein only ever talked of chemical formulae and growth ratio and it was refreshing to talk to people who at least appeared to appreciate his geeky bee enthusiasms. He never made a vast amount of money, there was something about the taste that wasn’t quite right, but he could afford to sell the honey so cheaply it still went, making space for the new honey that the bees kept producing. Not that they produced as much. George tried to bring this up with Doctor Rotstein but the Doctor only appeared to be interested in the size of the bees and did not care that the larger they became the more they ate and the less this left for honey sales. 

    He also had little time for George’s worries about aggressiveness and simply laughed at George’s addition of metal plates to his bee keeping suit.

#

    “Congratulations, George, today is marking five years since you came to work for me and the experiment has been a huge success so far.”

    “Is it really five years? I wouldn’t call it a success. Honey yield is barely above where we were three years ago, yet we have double the number of hives.”

    Doctor Rotstein waved dismissively. “Fee! I would not want them to be producing too much, I need to be able to control them via their food until I can find a more elegant method. It is their size you should be proud of.”

    “I don’t want to question your experiments, Doctor, but I have been meaning to have a word with you about that. If they keep growing the way they are they won’t fit into the hives. I’ve had to reduce the number of frames and increase the openings as it is.”

    “No need to be worrying about that, my dear George. I planned for this. You can now be using the rest of the apiary.” Doctor Rotstein moved to the rear wall and pulled the lever. The shutter raised to reveal a room filled with prepared frames, all significantly larger than normal. “From now on they may use this. Plenty of space for them to grow and other rooms can be opened as they expand in size and number. There is an entrance through my laboratory for you to inspect and remove the frames.” Rotstein pointed to the glass wall on the far side of the room. “It will be most fascinating to watch them grow under my experiments and so much easier to apply my serums. Now the work is really beginning.”

    George peered through the glass to the rows of test tubes and large machines on the other side. He’d studiously ignored what Doctor Rotstein had been doing for as long as he could but this was taking it all to a new level. “I’m not happy with this Doctor. Bees are the size they are for a reason. Beekeeping is about understanding and working with nature, not changing it.”

    “Ach, Igor, sorry, George, you worry too much. It is the most natural thing in the world. Experimentation is how evolution works is it not? Random changes that are then tested in the cauldron of nature, red in tooth and claw, with the weak, poor choices falling away. I am simply introducing a few more random changes, no?” 

    “But you don’t know what the outcome could be. You’ve still not read that book on bee behaviour I gave you and you confused honey and bumble bees again last week. Do you really know enough to do these experiments? We had enough trouble with that giant bluebottle the other week.”

    The Doctor visibly bristled, pulling his head back as if slapped and jutting out his chin. “I will remind you that I have ze doctorate from Nuremburg and have been doing zese chemical experiments for many years before you were employed.”

    George held his hands up. He enjoyed the rest of this job too much to risk losing it over an argument about the Doctor’s  experiments. George was sure they would come to nothing in the end, hoping the Doctor would stop before he harmed too many bees. “OK, I’m sorry, I know you have more education than me when it comes to Chemistry. I just worry for the health of the bees.”

    “Ach, my dear George, they will be fine. Science will see to that.” 

#

    George hopped across the grass, pulling on his suit and trying to keep his pyjamas out of the zip as he did it up. The bellows of a cow dragged him onwards as he rushed into the back field where he’d built the larger hives. The Doctor’s usual attention to detail meant there was only space for two colonies in the giant hive that was the house extension. George kept the largest bees in there but all the other colonies needed space too and so he found himself making ever larger hives each spring. The field was chaos. The cow had clearly forced its way through the hedge at the back and, from the hoof prints, George surmised it had blundered around for some time before eventually rubbing itself up against a hive. The new hives he’d built were considerably bigger to accommodate the increased size of the bees but they still came  apart for inspections. As the cow had found out.

    George took a breath and stepped into the maelstrom of angry bees around the hive. In the moonlight the bees zoomed around him, passing across the light like angry bats and bouncing off him. The closer he got to the disturbed hive the more bees that zoomed up to him, hitting him with enough force to make him stagger, and occasionally trying to sting him. They had now grown to six inches in length and even just landing on him caused George issues.

    Eventually, through the blizzard of bees and flickering moonlight, George saw the damage. Half of the hive, including one of the two brood boxes, lay on the grass, frames and bees spilled all over the ground. Two of the frames had been smashed by hooves and many bees lay dead. George hefted up the boxes and replaced them on the hive. Bees continued to hammer into him as he flicked his torch around on the ground, eventually spotting the yellow mark he’d made on the Queen the year before.

    As he finished he saw Doctor Rotstein. The scientist was shining a torch onto the cow as it bellowed in pain and appeared to be giggling. “Hello Doctor, I’ll re-queen this hive in the morning but until then they’ll be very aggressive so I wouldn’t get too close.”

    The Doctor clapped his hands together. If George could have seen inside the netting of the mask he felt sure the Doctor would have been grinning. “Oh Igor, this is perfect. So much aggression. Wunderbar!”

    “Not so great for this poor cow or all the dead bees, Doctor. Can you help me with this poor beast, see if we can encourage her back out and into her field?”

    The Doctor waved a hand. “Not now, I have to write this up. It is all so perfect.” The Doctor hurried back to the house. George shook his head in despair and then looked at the cow. How was he going to get it out of the garden?

#

    The sun blazed down from a clear blue sky as George made his way through the thigh high grass on the lawn towards the council van. The ear defenders he wore were sweaty and uncomfortable but, as he looked at the two council workers sheltering in their van, he felt it was a price worth paying. He waved cheerily through the windscreen at the couple and then waited for them to get out the vehicle. She was a smaller lady very formally dressed in a skirt, waistcoat and jacket with the council logo and “Noise Abatement Team” embroidered on the pocket. He was older and appeared to have less enthusiasm for the formalities, having ditched his jacket and tie and rolled up his sleeves to better accommodate the summer heat. She scowled at George and mimed that he should take off his ear defenders, which George reluctantly did. He winced as the cascade of booming pops invaded his ears.

    “Good to see I won’t have to explain to you how loud the noise is Mr. Rotstein.” she bellowed. George felt that if her face had not already been red from the heat it would very quickly turn red from her shouting. “Now will you stop it or do we have to get official about this?” She flipped open a folder she was carrying and lifted a pen over a form.

    George tried to keep his voice as low as he could while still being heard. “Firstly Miss,” he squinted at the badge on her lapel, glinting in the sun, “er, Jenny, firstly I’m not Rotstein, I just work for him. He’s gone travelling, he finds the noise ruins his concentration.”

    “But you are responsible for the property at the moment?”

    “Well, I suppose, but I can’t do anything about the noise, that’s the bees.”

    “Bees? Bees go buzz, any child knows that. They do not make a racket that you can hear from half a mile away.”

    “At this time they do, it’s a mating flight.”

    George did not think it possible but the female council worker turned more scarlet and gaped. Her associate gave her a look and then spoke. “Careful now. That sort of thing could be considered harassment by some. We only came here to give you a friendly warning about the noise levels. It’d be best to keep a civil tongue in your head.”

    George took a step back, holding his hands up. “No offence meant, it’s just what the bees do. I think they’re coming to the end now, definitely getting quieter but if you want me to explain I’m afraid I’ll have to talk about such things.”

    The male council worker pulled out his phone. “There are rules and you are breaking any number of them. You’ll be telling this story to a policeman if you’re not careful.” 

    Jenny put her hand on his arm. “Let’s not be hasty John. The noise is less now and we should here him out.” John looked again at Jenny, this time with a level of surprise that George found amusing.

    George paused for a second as a final fusillade of bangs fell into silence. “I recommend you Google honey bee mating flights when you get back to the office. It’s not a pleasant experience for the male drone as at the end he leaves his, er”, George looked between the two members of his audience. John was still holding his phone, primed to call for help while Jenny was looking at him with an eagerness George found worrying. “Leaves his, er, bits behind. The Queen keeps them from many drones and then uses them to fertilise eggs throughout her life. But doing this kills the drone as he quite literally pops and then drops dead. Even in normal bees this makes an audible noise but with our, err, larger strain, the pop is much louder. But don’t worry, I’m not expecting many more mating flights this year so there shouldn’t be any more complaints.”

    Jenny stepped forward, her face once again flushed. “It kills him? Really? Well I never, isn’t nature wonderful.” She turned back to the council van and opened the driver-side door as her co-worker watched, bemused.

    “What about the noise? We should issue a ticket.”

    “Noise? Pop?” she shook her head, “Oh no, the noise has stopped. Besides, I want to get back and look this up. Kills the males, eh?” Jenny got in and closed the door, starting the engine as John quickly jumped in the passenger seat. George stepped back and waved cheerily as they drove off and then turned towards the back of the house.

    “Suppose I’d better get round and see if they damaged anything this time when they fell.”

#

    George staggered to the door as he pulled on his chain-mail bee-keeping suit. He had found his home made plate suit difficult to move in and so was currently trying out a chain-mail version he had made from kits sold to re-enactors. It was much more flexible but he worried it wouldn’t keep out the stings so well, even with the extra padding he had added underneath.  Not so much from the size, they were too big to fit through the rings, but from the force that would be trying to drive through the armour. The largest bees were now so big they could no longer fly and only survived on the fondant and supplements George supplied them but they were also much more aggressive and always seemed to regard him as a threat.

    In the main hive foyer George found the Doctor stood over the corpse of a giant bee, five feet long, a sword standing proud from its abdomen. He scooped ichor from inside the wound and smeared it across his face, saying something George could not hear over the din of ever louder buzzing.

    “What have you done?” George yelled at his employer.

    “The next stage! Now I am moving to Phase Four. I have killed the Queen and now I will be taking her place. Soon my enemies will tremble before my Giant Bee Army! The name of Viktor Rotstein will be known throughout the world!”

    “What? Why did you do that? With the Queen dead they’ll be furious. They’re grumpy enough at the best of times.”

    “I have defeated the Queen. Her hive will be turning to me as the rightful heir by combat. They will now follow my every whim.”

    “No they won’t, they’re bees.”

    “If there are being two queens in a hive, one kills the other and the hive does follow them. I have observed this myself. Therefore, logically, I am the new Queen”

    “You fool, they only follow her because she gives out pheromones. I’ve told you for years to do more research on their behaviour. Size isn’t everything. You’ve enlarged these bees but they still work by pheromones which you can’t produce. They’ll make another Queen who can. Don’t you remember when that cow knocked over a hive? They didn’t start following the cow around”

    “Well, ja, I do know that. That cow incident was very informative, no? That is why I have soaked this bee suit in my new PH09 pheromone solution. They will think I’m the queen.”

    The colour drained from George’s face. “You soaked that suit?”

    “Ja.”

    “That suit, that you left hanging in the equipment room yesterday?”

    “Ja. What is your point?”

    “That suit that I washed along with mine yesterday afternoon? Oh no, Doctor, you must leave now!”

    “I cannot. I am so close to my goal. It was a good soaking, I am sure it will be fine.”

    The din from the bees through the wall grew louder still, almost drowning out the Doctor’s answer. Dents appeared all over the walls as the bees hammered against them and then a sting smashed through the far door, its barb catching as it sprayed poison into the room.

    George turned and ran as fast as his armour would allow out into the garden. His last sight was of Doctor Rotstein waving a sword in the face of a four foot long worker bee as it made its way into the room, crawling on the floor, and readying its sting to strike. 

#

    George looked around him at the sleek glass meeting room and the open plan office beyond, full of the gentle hum of office drones, then back at the question. “Why did you leave your last employer?” George picked up the pen and wrote “The work became too big for me.”

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