Editor’s note: While reading through Kurt Vonnegut’s papers in the Lilly Library, at Indiana University, as they worked on the first comprehensive edition of his short fiction, Vonnegut’s friend Dan Wakefield and Jerome Klinkowitz, a scholar of Vonnegut’s work, came across five previously unpublished stories. Klinkowitz dates “The Drone King,” one of those five, to the early 1950s, when Vonnegut hadn’t yet written a novel and was only beginning to publish short fiction. Complete Stories will be published this month by Seven Stories Press.
One thing about the investment-counseling business: The surroundings are almost always nice. Wherever my work takes me, prosperity has beat me there.
Prosperity beat me to the Millennium Club by about 100 years. As I walked through the door for the first time, my cares dropped away. I felt as though I’d just finished two brandies and a good cigar. Here was peace.
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It was a club downtown—six stories of snug hideaways and playthings and apartments for rich gentlemen. It overlooked a park.
The foyer was guarded by an elegant old man behind a rosewood desk.
I gave him my card. “Mr. Quick? Mr. Sheldon Quick?,” I said. “He asked me to come over.”
He examined the card for a long time. “Yes,” he said at last. “Mr. Quick is expecting you. You’ll find him in the small library—second door on the left, by the grandfather clock.”
“Thank you,” I said, and I started past him.
He caught my sleeve. “Sir—”
“Yes?,” I said.
“You aren’t wearing a boutonniere, are you?”
“No,” I said guiltily. “Should I be?”
“If you were,” he said, “I’d have to ask you to check it. No women or flowers allowed past the front desk.”
I paused by the door of the small library. “Say,” I said, “you know this clock has stopped?”
“Mr. Quick stopped it the night Calvin Coolidge died,” he said.
I blushed. “Sorry,” I said.
“We all are,” he said. “But what can anyone do?”
Sheldon Quick was alone in the small library. We were meeting for the first time.
He was about 50—very tall, and handsome in a lazy, ornamental way. His hair was golden, his eyes blue, and he stroked his mustache with his little finger as he shook my hand.
“You come highly recommended,” he said.
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
He brought his finger away from his mustache, and I saw that his upper lip was swollen on one side, as fat as a Ping-Pong ball. He touched the swelling. “A bee,” he said.
“It must be very painful,” I said.
“It is,” he said. “I won’t deceive you about that.” He smiled sourly. “Don’t let anybody tell you this isn’t a woman’s world.”
“How’s that, sir?,” I said.
“Only a female bee can sting,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know that about bees.”
“You knew that about females, didn’t you?” he said. He closed one eye, and, with his face already lopsided from the bee sting, he looked crazy as a bedbug. “Law of life!” he said sharply. “If you get yellow fever, you’ll have the female mosquito to thank. If a black widow spider does you in, my boy, again—cherchez la femme.”
“Huh,” I said. “I’ll be darned.”
A sweet, doddering old waiter came in with coffee and cigars on a silver tray. “Is they anything else you wants, Mr. Quick?” he said.
“Anything else I wants?” said Quick. He rolled his eyes unhappily. “Wealth, George? Power? Instant success?”
The waiter shrugged and seemed close to tears. “Mr. Quick, suh—we’s goin’ to miss you, sir,” he said.
Quick threw back his head and tried to laugh heartily. It was a horrible laugh, full of fear and peevishness. “Why must everybody act as though resigning from the Millennium Club was the same thing as death?” he said. “Don’t depress me, man! Wish me luck!”
“Oh, I do, I do, sir!” said the waiter.
“I’ll have plenty of expert help on the outside,” said Quick. He nodded at me. “He’ll be handling the financial end, while I take care of research and production.”
The waiter looked at me miserably. “It ain’t gonna be the same aroun’ here without Mr. Quick,” he said. “I’ll come to work in the mornin’, an’ I’ll look in the barbershop, an’ I’ll look in the bar, an’ I’ll look in the shower room, an’ I’ll look up on the roof where the beehives is.” His eyes widened, as though he were telling a ghost story. “An’ Mr. Quick, he won’t be none of them places.
“An’ when I gets ready to go home at night,” said the waiter, “I’ll look in the periodical room, an’ Mr. Quick, he won’t be in there, sippin’ his brandy—just a-underlinin’ an’ a-underlinin’ an’ a-underlinin’.”
“Underlining?,” I said.
“Important things in the magazines,” said the waiter respectfully. “I reckon in the past 25 years Ah done throwed out tons of magazines Mr. Quick done underlined.”
Every word seemed to snap a vertebra in Sheldon Quick’s back. When the waiter left, Quick lay down on the couch. He murmured something, and his voice was like wind in the treetops.
“Beg your pardon?,” I said, leaning close to him.
“You are in the stock-and-bond business?” he said.
“I sell advice on them,” I said.
“I want you to sell some stock for me,” he said.
“I’ll be glad to look at your portfolio and give you my recommendations as to what to hold and what to sell,” I said.
He waved his hand feebly. “You miss my meaning,” he said. “I want you to sell stock in a new company of mine. That’s the way new companies raise money, isn’t it? Sell stock?”
“Yessir,” I said. “But that’s way out of my line. First of all, you’ll need a lawyer.”
Again he said something I missed.
“Are you sick, sir?,” I said.
He sat up, blinking blindly. “I wish he hadn’t said all those things,” he said. “The agreement was that nobody was going to say goodbye. Someday soon, nobody knows when, I’m simply going to walk out, as though for a breath of fresh air. And I won’t come back. The next thing they hear from me will be a letter, telling them where to send my things.”
“Um,” I said.
He looked around the room wistfully. “Well, I’m neither the first nor the last to go out into the world, to recoup my fortunes, to return.”
“Something happened to your fortunes, sir?,” I said uneasily.
“The money my father left to me is at an end,” he said. “I’ve seen the end coming for some time.” He curled his swollen lip, baring a long, white, wet fang. “I’m not unprepared. I’ve been planning this business for more than a year.”
“Look—about this business of yours,” I said, “I—”
“Business of ours,” he said.
“Ours?,” I said.
“I want you to be general manager,” he said. “I want you to see the lawyer, and get us incorporated, and do whatever needs to be done to put us in business.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Quick,” I said, “but I couldn’t take an assignment like that.”
Quick looked at me levelly. “Does $200,000 a year sound like inadequate compensation for a man of your caliber?” he said.
The room seemed to go around slowly, like a stately merry-go-round. My own voice seemed to come back to me from a distance—sweet and flutelike. “Nossir,” I said. “Are you offering me that?”
“Nature is offering us that,” said Quick. He reached out and closed his hand on air. “We have only to reach out and take it.”
“Uranium?,” I whispered.
“Bees!” he said. His face twisted into a look of wild triumph.
“Bees?,” I said. “What about bees?”
“Sometime in the next month I shall call you,” he said, “and you shall see what you shall see.”
“When, exactly?,” I said.
“It’s up to the bees,” said Quick.
“Where are they?,” I said.
“On the roof,” said Quick. “Then you and I will call a press conference, to tell the world what it is we have to sell.”
The clock on the mantelpiece struck noon.
Quick winced with each strike. “In exactly 30 days,” he said, “my membership expires.”
He shook my hand, and opened the door for me. “When I call, come at once,” he said.
In the corridor outside, the old waiter was talking to a young one. “With Mr. Quick gone,” he said, “who’s gonna be Santy Claus at the Christmas party for the help? You tell me that!”
Ten days later, Quick called me up. He was awfully excited. “They’re doing it!” he yelled into the phone. “It’s going on right now!” He hung up.
The man behind the rosewood desk waved me into the Millennium Club. The old waiter was waiting for me. He handed me a beekeeper’s mask and gloves, and hustled me to an elevator. The elevator operator took me straight to the roof.
On the roof was Sheldon Quick and 10 beehives. He was gloved and masked, wearing plus fours, a sport coat, and shoes with gum soles as thick as fruitcakes.
He was furious about what the bees were doing. He pointed to a hive. “Look! Just look, would you!”
Fat, clumsy, colorful bees were staggering out of the hive doors, bumping into one another, floundering around in circles, buzzing in hurt surprise.
Then little bees came out, whining in high-pitched rage. They stung the big ones again and again, and tried to tear them to pieces.
Quick lashed out at the little bees with one gloved hand, and with the other hand he scooped up the big bees. He stepped back, and dropped the big bees into a mason jar—tenderly.
“What is it?,” I said. “A bee war?”
“War?” said Quick, his nostrils flaring. “I’ll say it’s a war! A war to the bitter finish! No quarter given!”
“Gee,” I said, “you’d think the big ones would be knocking the stuffing out of the little ones, instead of the other way around.”
“The big ones have no sting,” said Quick.
“Whose hives were they in the first place?,” I said.
Quick’s laughter clanked with irony. “Your question is good enough to be chiseled in granite for all time to ponder,” he said. “The little ones are the females. The big ones are the males.”
We went from the roof to the basement, with Quick carrying his jar of bees. We went to a big room that opened off the stairwell. The only thing in the room was an office desk, which sat in the middle of the cement floor.
The old waiter had arrived ahead of us with cocktails and sandwiches. He bowed and left.
Video: “The Drone King:” An Animated Excerpt
“Have you guessed it—the wonderful thing we’re going to sell?” said Quick.
I shook my head.
“I will give you the key word, and it will hit you like a thunderclap,” he said. “Are you ready?”
“Ready,” I said.
“Communications!” he said. He raised his glass. “To the so-called drones! If nature has no use for them, we do!” He nudged me. “Eh? Eh?”
He set his glass down hard on the desk, and a deep, lazy, fuzzy buzzing sound came from inside.
“This wholesale slaughter of the males takes place after the males have performed their most basic function,” said Quick. “They have risen in an insane spiral, pursuing the queen—higher and higher and higher!”
He swung his arms around, portraying a swarm of drones chasing a queen. “Until—presto!” he said. “One lucky devil gets her, the jewel beyond price. He dies instantly.” He bowed his head. “And when the rest go home, they are murdered—as you saw.”
“Gosh,” I said. “And you rescue the males?”
“Like the Scarlet Pimpernel in the French Revolution,” said Quick. “I attend the executions, and spirit away the innocent victims. I feed them and shelter them, and teach them to lead useful lives.”
Coyly, he offered me a riddle. “When is a drone not a drone?”
“I give up,” I said.
“When is a file drawer not a file drawer?” said Quick. He opened the file drawer of the desk. In the drawer was a big wooden box with a hole in its top.
Two drones came out of the hole, buzzed stupidly, bumped into each other, waddled back to the hole, and fell in.
“Here,” said Quick raptly, “we have the first all-male beehive in history—a sort of bee Millennium Club, if you like. The food, which I provide, is rich and plentiful. Fellowship is the order of the day. And there is time for reflection and a relishing of life, away from the senseless, thankless, harrowing rush-rush-rush and moodiness of the female workers. Take a drone away from his Millennium Club, and he will be back like a shot!”
Quick opened the top drawer of the desk and took from it a magnifying glass, a needle-sharp pencil, tissue paper, string, and soda straws chopped in half-inch lengths.
“A drone is not a drone,” said Sheldon Quick, “when he carries messages.”
He opened the lid of the bee Millennium Club. It was teeming with drones. He dumped in the drones from the mason jar. “Welcome to civilization, little brothers,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
“For the sake of drama,” Quick called down to me as he climbed the basement stairs, “you will be the president of a motorcar company, and I will be the president of a taxicab company. I am about to order a new fleet.”
“Anything you say,” I said, from my post by the desk.
Gaily, Quick waved a drone over his head, holding it firmly between his thumb and forefinger. The drone buzzed in alarm. Quick had kidnapped it from the file drawer.
He disappeared from sight, going to the top of the stairs. I heard him talking reassuringly to the drone.
A moment later, the drone plummeted down the stairwell, pulled up inches from the floor, and blundered across the room to the desktop. There was a piece of soda straw tied under his belly.
The drone rested, then started groggily for the open file drawer.
“Grab him!” yelled Quick. “Get the message!”
I chased the drone around the desktop with my hands cupped, but I didn’t have the nerve to grab him.
Quick had to come down the stairs to do the job. He handed me the straw with the message in it.
The drone, with a buzz of joy, dived into his club. There was a murmur of welcome inside.
The message was on a scrap of tissue paper. The writing was so tiny, I needed the magnifying glass to make it out. “Quote price on 400 taxis,” it said. “Reply by beegram. Quick Taxi Corp.”
“See?” said Quick. “You would have bees from my club, and I would have bees from yours. And a penny’s worth of honey would keep one of our little messengers operating for a year.”
“Don’t they make their own honey?,” I said bleakly. It was just something to say—something to cover up my feelings. I felt awful. Quick was so happy about the drone business, was staking so much on it—and it seemed to be up to me to tell him what a fatheaded enterprise it was.
“Only the female workers make honey,” said Quick.
“Oh,” I said. “Huh. I guess that’s why the female workers knock off the males, eh? The males are nothing but a drain on the community.”
The color left Quick’s fine face. “What’s so wonderful about making honey?” he said. “Can you make honey?”
“Nope,” I said.
He was excited, upset. “Is that any reason to condemn you to death?” he said.
“Nope—heck no,” I said.
Quick gathered up my lapel in his fist. “Consider the philosophical and moral implications of what you’ve just seen!” he said intensely. “Bees are just the beginning!”
“Yessir,” I said, smiling and sweating.
His eyes narrowed. “The female praying mantis eats the male as you or I would eat a stalk of celery,” he said. “The female tarantula pops her little lover into her mouth like a canapé!”
He backed me into the wall. “What are we going to do with the male praying mantis and the male tarantula?” he said. He stabbed my chest with his finger. “We’re going to teach them to carry interoffice memos, to carry orders from foxhole to foxhole on the front lines!”
Quick let go of my lapel and looked at me disappointedly. “My God, man,” he said irritably, “you stand there with fishy eyes and a slack jaw, and I’ve just showed you the greatest thing in humanitarianism since the New Testament!”
“Yessir,” I said, “but—”
“The greatest advance in communications since the invention of wireless telegraphy!” he said.
“Yup. Yessir,” I said. I sighed and squared my shoulders. “If you’d discovered this before somebody else had discovered wireless telegraphy,” I said, “maybe you’d have something. But, good gosh, what person in this day and age is going to want to write eensy-teensy messages on tissue paper and send them by bee?”
He leaned against the desk, closed his eyes, and nodded to himself. “I should have expected it,” he said. “The chorus of ‘No, no, no—it can’t be done.’ Every innovator has faced that.”
“Yessir, I guess that’s so,” I said. “But sometimes the chorus is right. I mean, good gosh, what you’ve got here is competitive with carrier pigeons.”
His eyes lit up. “Aha!” he said. “And look how wide-open you have to leave a window for carrier pigeons!” He waggled his finger at me. “And tell me this: Can you use carrier pigeons indoors as well as outdoors?”
I scratched my head. “Everything you say against carrier pigeons is true,” I said. “But who uses carrier pigeons anymore?”
Quick looked at me blankly. His lips moved, but no sounds came. An automobile backfired in the outside world, and fear crossed Quick’s face like a cloud. “I’m no genius,” he said softly. “I never claimed that, did I?”
“Nossir,” I said.
“Living quietly and decently seemed to be the best I could expect of myself, with my small store of talents,” said Quick. He was humble and reverent. “But once in this life, as I sat in the small library where we met, I was reading Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee—and I heard the thunderclap and saw the flash of inspiration.”
“Um,” I said.
“In that divine trance,” he said, “I bought my bees, experimented—and here we are.”
“Yup,” I said, wretchedly.
He raised his chin bravely. “Very well,” he said. “I have gone this far—I will go the rest of the way. I will put my findings before the greatest jury of all, the American public, and let them decide: Have I got the seeds of something useful to humanity, or have I not?”
Quick laid his hand on my shoulder. “We will call a press conference at once. Will you help?”
There was a lump in my throat. “Yessir, I will,” I said.
“Good boy!” he said. “You tear up tissue paper while I chop straws.”
For the press conference, Quick chose a sober blue suit and the air of a historian. His eyes were red, and his head ached. For three hours he had been writing tiny beegrams. The messages were a secret, known only to him and to God.
The conference took place in the auditorium of the Millennium Club. Quick had splurged, using some of the little money he had left, on a buffet and cocktails for the gentlemen of the press.
Five gentlemen of the press came—three reporters and two photographers. Quick had prepared for 100.
The five sat in the front row, eating and drinking. Quick stood on the stage. I stood behind him, with his entire fleet of drones in a wooden box. Each drone had a message tied under his belly. By a window stood the faithful old waiter, ready to open the window at a signal from Quick.
Quick had explained his experiments, his theories, and his inspiration. The time was coming when I was to open the box and release the history-making cloud that would fly out the window, down three stories, through an open basement window, and into the first all-male beehive in the desk.
The bees themselves seemed to sense the excitement around them. They bumped their heads against the lid of the box and kept up a steady, anxious, eager buzzing.
“The history of man’s advance,” said Quick impressively, “has been the history of encouraging that which is good in nature, and discouraging that which is bad. For millions of years now, nature has been throwing away, like so much garbage, one of her wisest, gentlest, most beautiful creations—the drone, whose only crime is that he does not make honey.”
Quick raised his finger. “Now!” he said. “Man comes along, and declares in the face of this cruel waste: ‘There is more to life than this crazy, sick-headed preoccupation with honey, honey, honey, everything for honey—and death to anybody who can’t make honey!’ ”
Quick’s voice became husky with emotion, as though he were praying for a multitude. “We welcome the drones today to the fruits of freedom and equality. Down with tyranny wherever we find it! Down with the tyranny of honey! Down with the tyranny of the self-centered and vain queen! Down with the tyranny of the narrow-minded, materialistic female workers!”
Quick turned to address the box. “Life and liberty are yours!”
I opened the lid and dumped the box.
The drones tumbled to the floor in a seething heap. And then, one by one, they took to the air, forming a ragged circle over our heads.
“Pursue happiness!” shouted Quick.
The old waiter threw open the window.
The drones bungled around the room for several minutes, until some found the open window. The swarm strung out in a line and went out the window, over the park below.
The line started down, and we cheered. And then something went wrong. The line went up again, and drifted out over the park.
“Down! Down, boys!” cried Quick.
The drones seemed to be looking for something. And then they found it—not down, but up. They arose in an insane spiral, higher and higher above the park, until they were out of sight.
“A queen!” sobbed Quick. “A queen!”
The press conference moved into the basement with its refreshments, to wait by the bee Millennium Club. The hive in the file drawer was empty. A basement window was propped open, but nothing came in except little gusts of soot.
Quick was strangely at peace. The appearance of the queen seemed to have blown every fuse in his nervous system.
After an hour of waiting, he said in a distant voice to me, “Go up on the roof and keep a lookout for our faithful messengers from there.”
I went to the roof, and found the drone fleet there. They were back from the mating, dragging their message cases, swaggering triumphantly toward the homes of their birth—the hives from which Quick had rescued them.
The female workers came whining out to meet their brothers. In a matter of minutes, Quick’s drones lay dead or dying, buzzing their last in mournful mystification.
With a heart as heavy as a stone, I went back to the basement and told Quick the news.
He took the news calmly. He had banked the fires of his hopes during the long wait. And now, like the gentleman he was, he let the fires die quietly.
“You would think,” he said, “that there would be one out of the many whose intellect would rise above his instincts.” He stood and smiled gamely. “With him, we might have sired a new and nobler race of bees.”
He shook hands all around. “A fiasco, gentlemen. I apologize.” There were tears in his eyes. “Report me as a fool, if you must,” he said. “But report me as a fool with one of the kinder, grander dreams of our time.”
He bowed, and left, climbing the stairs alone.
The newspapermen and the old waiter left soon after, and I was alone.
Footsteps passed the open window, and I saw Quick’s feet go by. He had picked the moment in which to leave the Millennium Club, probably never to return.
I closed the window, and drank to the health of Sheldon Quick, to the memory of his drones.
There was a gentle bumping sound against the window.
I opened the window, and let in a single drone. He was horribly maimed, with wings torn, legs gone.
He flew to the file drawer, crawled to the hole in the bee Millennium Club, and fell in. There was a weak buzz inside—the buzz of a soul fulfilled.
He was dead.
I took his message, and read the words Quick had written over and over again for all his bees to carry.
“What,” Quick had written, “hath God wrought?”