Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Bennett stood out on the sweeping plateau of rock a mile above the ocean and watched as the planet’s orange sun dipped below the horizon.

Beneath him, miles upon miles of tunnels and caverns carved out of the living rock by a hive of the planet’s indigenous flying insects. They hummed now with server equipment, quantum stores of data and wealth from across the charted and inhabited worlds, kept safe here for the rich from prying eyes, and the tax siphons of planetary governments.

As darkness descended, he strolled back inside, the massive glass doors rolling closed, sealing him inside for the night.

In the middle of the large lounge, on his way to the kitchen, he passed the feature reminder of his company’s conquest of this place. The once blistered, but now polished to a high shine ruby red shell of the presumable queen of the nest of insects that had once called this space home. Its multi-segmented torso curled into a tight ball, wings, legs, and all outer extremities burned off as they flooded the nest from low orbit with liquid fire, destroying everything that wasn’t part of the planet itself.

He’d found the shell in the ashes, the only thing to have remained even remotely intact from the inferno, and made it the centerpiece of a massive table. A slab of glass several inches thick, cut around the shell, such that its body provided the base holding the table aloft, and the crown of what must have been its head protruding through a hole cut in its near-center.

He dragged his fingers along the surface of the table as he passed it, then turned down the long hallway to his sleeping quarters.

That night he dreamt of the site’s acquisition, his dreams coming in fits and starts, waking almost from sleep only to be pulled back into the darkness, each time a little different, a little more disturbing.

At first, he was on one of the acquisition ships, staring down at the seething nest and feeling the heat rising up even through the craft’s shielding. He watched the flame pour out of the passages up and down the rock face from it’s peak to the waves breaking at its base, watched the fiery balls of the insects trying in vain to flee their home, the very air around them turning to fire as death rained down from the sky.

Then he was running through the tunnels, devoid of the hardware and networking equipment his company had installed, empty save for the scrambling racket of thousands of feet on the rock floor. The heat this time was closer, at his back, advancing.

Before he awoke, he was drowning, struggling through an icy, crushing force of water so oppressive he thought it would drive him insane.

The whole time, throughout his dreams, he felt a relentless driving need to move, to escape, and heard a high pitched keening sound, one that vibrated his teeth and stood his hair on end.

When he woke finally, the terror of drowning bringing him gasping, wide-eyed, and bolt upright in bed, he couldn’t get that noise out of his head.

He stood, ears still ringing and jaw still buzzing, and staggered down the hall through the lounge into the kitchen, wincing as he stepped on something sharp, and limping the rest of the way to the water dispenser.

As the lights came up, Bennett realized he’d cut his foot badly, leaving a trail of blood across the white stone floor of the kitchen.

Where the trail ended, and the lounge began, a sea of broken cubes of shattered glass covered the floor, and it was one of these that he’d stepped on.

The coffee machine jolted to life in the corner on its morning schedule, making him jump. Puzzled, he looked out across the lounge at the windows to the outside, the room still pitch dark.

By the time the coffee was brewing, the sun should be well into the sky.

Bennett took a few steps towards the lounge, confusion added to the inescapable noise grating at his nerves.

In the middle of the room, the ruby carapace was split neatly in two, its occupant having outgrown it. The queen spread out wet wings, slowly beating them dry, as it’s multifaceted eyes followed Bennett.

The noise grew louder, and Bennett’s knees gave out, sending him crumpled to the floor, clutching at his ears. He realized then the windows were a seething, crawling mass of insects, blocking out the sun, answering the call to come home.

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