Author: David Barber
“So,” Hoffmann said to Cally. “You are the poet. The one who claims to hear meanings in queentalk that our software misses.”
The man from Transuranics GmbH had brought his own translator rig; Cally listened to it murmuring the subtext of pheromones and body language in his ear.
She had come here to write about the Jirt, and found she had a gift for understanding the queen’s utterances. Hoffmann was here to talk about pitchblende and the hive workers needed to mine it.
The queen interrupted him. “Reassure this one about the future.” The Jirt queen demanded reassurance almost daily now.
Hoffmann faltered, then began again with the advantage that would be gained over other hives.
The man understood nothing, Cally thought. Absently, she rubbed her eyes; the air in the royal chamber was thick with pheromones.
The queen’s mouthparts chattered with anxiety. “But who will remember this one?”
It seemed new queens erased all traces of the old, and though the hive endured, its nameless rulers faced oblivion.
In their conversations Cally had called her the Red Queen, not guessing how the human habit of names and remembering would be seized upon. Now it was an addiction and she had become the queen’s dealer.
Tell again how this one will be spoken of, the queen would insist, after a lifetime of egg-laying, trapped by her own body, and Cally would invent kennings and couplets, weaving words and stories about the queen.
In return, Cally became the female without offspring, a concept the queen did not comprehend. How could such a trait be inherited? It had proved impossible to explain the choices those prisoned by free will make.
Again the queen asked about being remembered, and Hoffmann cleared his throat. “I like to think we will all be remembered. By colleagues. And our children.”
Cally had not expected this corporate henchman to mention his children. Again, she fended off workers, like frantic to taste her. Something was wrong.
“We should come back tomorrow…” she began, but Hoffmann pressed on.
“As I am sure you will be remembered by your own offspring.”
“There is deception here. Our hives will forget us all.”
Within the queen’s great abdomen, organs that squeezed out the hive’s future no longer pulsed and contracted, and one by one, the scurrying workers also ceased their tasks.
“Still half this one’s eggs remain!” she proclaimed. A grotesquely painted dame might lie about her age in the same way.
“Raus, raus,” Cally hissed at Hoffmann. There were languages they kept from the Jirt. “Schnell!”
And as if she was only awaiting that signal, the queen seized the man in her jaws. His eyes bulged with horror and the queen shook him in a spray of blood.
Cally fled through tunnels and spaces filled with confused workers; she carried the scent of the royal chamber which was a protection and a curse. When she found the main exit jammed with struggling soldiers, she took a side passage, pressing herself to the walls as workers darted past, spraying alarm pheromones, the chaos spreading.
Afterward, there was talk of nuking the hive to teach the Jirt a lesson, but economic sense prevailed.
The hive had no history, Cally told the Transuranics people; barren queens were devoured by their offspring, the hive boiling with murder until a new queen prevailed.
Cally wondered how she might have answered the Red Queen, for it was true, flowers wilt, headstones forget, and in the end mourners become the mourned.
The queens that came after, she did not name.