Try a sugar cube . . .

The Commoner and the Queen
by Barton Paul Levenson ©2013

***Mannheim, Krekrik II (TP)--Police officers monitoring the colonial internet report increased traffic on so-called Clan of Man web sites, the Mannheim Bureau of Public Safety reported today. A similar increase was detected before the "Action" of 6/12/3279, in which militias supported by the Clan attacked and burned native hives in several locations, causing a total of 23 native fatalities. Two militia members were also fatally injured by natives acting in self-defense, and three more were killed in shoot-outs with police. BPS Administrator Carol C. Barfield stated for the record that "We will not tolerate any more such terrorist acts anywhere on this planet." She noted that the natives are considered legally human under UFN treaties to which Mannheim is a signatory. "If anyone is apprehended taking part in such an act, or planning one, or aiding and abetting one, we will not hesitate to ask the Colonial Attorney's Office to seek the death penalty," she added later. << Click here to continue >>

***

God, I hated these phone conversations with my sister.

"George, people ask me why my brother is doing such a weird thing. What am I supposed to tell them?"

"Tell them I couldn't find a job in the city for two years, and the Hive was willing to hire me."

"But you don't have to live there, do you?"

"I get free room and board. Why wouldn't I want to live here?"

"It's not normal, George. You should live with your own kind."

"Intelligent beings of any species are my kind."

"You know what I mean."

"Jackie, I'm fine here. Really. I enjoy it. I'm fully linked to the Net. I go into the city three times a week to shop and do business for the Hive."

"The Hive. Living like an insect. Tell me George, and please answer me honestly--are you sleeping with those creatures?"

"Jackie, they're hexapods with exoskeletons and compound eyes. And anyway, the workers are neuters. Not exactly strip club material."

"That isn't a denial. I want to hear it from your lips. Are you having sex with those bugs?"

"Don't call them that!"

"Are you?"

"Goodbye, Jackie."

"Don't you hang up on me! If you--"

I clicked off.

I like them, Jackie, because they're generous and friendly and kind, and they really believe they have a responsibility to help other people. I like them because they like me.

***

When the contact alarm sounded, I went up the stairs to the main corridor, then out to the forward entrance. The outside sunlight was harsh. I had to shield my eyes until I got to the security booth. It was oppressively hot in the open air. As usual, sand got in my slippers.

The windows of the security booth are tinted, thank God. I went in and shut the door after me, grateful for the air conditioning. I took off my slippers to knock the sand out of them, put them back on, sat down, and looked at my board.

It was time for the morning tourist bus. I put on my smile and ran through the tour phrases in my mind. The smile wasn't hard for me. People think someone like me must be a misanthrope. In fact I usually have no problem with other humans.

I counted eight tourists getting out of the bus after the driver.

My sister wasn't one of them. I sighed. I had been trying to get her to go on the tour for years. She had said she was coming several times, but she never actually showed up. Of course, at the moment she was mad at me for hanging up on her.

I got out of the booth and said, "Gate open." The gate doors swung to either side. "Hello, folks," I said. "Welcome to Sunny Hive. Or in their language, Ahtch Snek Wikwik Lo." My impulse was always to say our language rather than their language, but it was better not to say that to humans.

"Hi, George," the driver said. Suzy O'Brien was 55, chubby, blonde, and even-tempered. I liked her. The tourists were a mixed bunch; all sexes, races and ages, but mostly from other planets. The local colonists rarely came on the tours.

"Hi, Suzy. People, my name is George Sanderson, and I live and work here in the hive. Before we go in, I have to ask you something. Is there anyone here who is phobic about insects? Afraid of spiders? Anything like that?"

An elderly black woman and a teenaged white boy raised their hands, a little uncertainly.

"Okay. Thanks for being straight with me. Now, the natives of this planet are very like insects, in both their body plan and their social structure. They have exoskeletons, they have multiple arms and legs, they have compound eyes in addition to single eyes. They have complicated mouth parts, including big, hard mandibles they can use as weapons. But they are civilized, intelligent people. They are not going to attack you. They won't even touch you unless you permit them to. Knowing that, is there still anyone who's afraid to go in? Because if you are, it's okay--we can't help our phobias. There's a lounge inside where you can wait while the rest of us go on the tour. Anybody?"

"Well, I'll try," the woman said. "But if they come up behind me or something, I may scream. I'll try not to."

"You?" I asked the teenager.

He shrugged. "Uh, I'm cool, I guess."

"Super. Okay, follow me, then." I led them down the path to the front door. "Door open." The door slid aside.

I led them into the corridor. It was hex-shaped, floor and ceiling and double-angled walls to each side, about four meters high and across. Floor, ceiling and walls were made of translucent hex plates that glowed with warm, yellow light. "The hive is about the size of a football field. It's shaped like an ellipse--round but stretched out. All the corridors look like this. There's not much floor space because of the way the corridors are shaped; part of that big empty width is taken up by those sloping walls, so you'll have to form a sort of wide line. It's okay to touch the walls, by the way, or to lean against them, or even sit down on them if you like. They're not the least bit fragile and they're easy to clean."

"What're they made out of?" a tall man in a business suit asked.

"It's a tough polymer similar to cellulose."

"And it came out of their bodies?"

"Yes." Some murmurs from the crowd. "The workers can all extrude hex plates, and they also lay them in place to build corridors and rooms."

"Where does the light come from?" someone asked.

"Electric lights. They used bioluminescent algae a long time ago, but a million or so years ago they developed electric lights and they've used them ever since. The place also has indoor plumbing, by the way. This room to my right is the lounge--you can see it's got human furniture, and the place is fully wireless if you want to log in. To the left are the bathrooms--human facilities again. The ride from town is about forty-five minutes, so if anyone wants to use these, now's the time. We won't begin the tour until you get back."

***

"Okay, let's go." Workers had passed at a distance occasionally while we waited, but I hadn't stopped any of them. Now I waited by a cross-corridor. A worker showed up in less than a minute. "Can you stop a minute?" I asked her. "Are you busy?"

"Nothing important," she said.

"Which one are you?"

"I'm Bo Lu."

"Come on out here."

Bo Lu walked into the corridor and paused so people could look at her. "Hello," she said.

"Bo Lu is a typical worker," I said. "She's got six legs, and as you can see--could you raise your hand for a minute? Thanks. Her front pair of legs terminate in hands with opposable thumbs. Workers usually use their mandibles for heavy work, but their hands for detail work."

"How can an insect be that big?" a woman tourist asked.

"Good question. On Earth, the biggest insects are the size of your hand. That's for two reasons--exoskeletons, and breathing by diffusion. Both have to do with the square-cube law. Can anyone tell me what that is?"

The teenaged boy raised his hand. "Um, it's like, things change when you get bigger."

"That's a good way to put it. The surface area of an object increases as the square of its linear size, but the volume increases as the cube. A sphere twice as big across has four times the area, and holds eight times the volume. On Earth, insects breathe by diffusion through their skin. Because of that, they can't get very big--if they did, the air couldn't reach most of their mass, and they'd suffocate.

"The square-cube law also makes exoskeletons a problem. You have more volume per unit surface area as you grow, so the thin, tiny legs of insects would crumple if they became very big, because they'd be holding too much weight.

"But Bo Lu is more than two meters long."

"Two point three," Bo Lu said.

"Here's how evolution on Krekrik II beat the square-cube law. For breathing, the large animals have lungs, not spiracles or diffusive skin membranes. As with us, they breathe oxygen into their lungs, it diffuses into their bloodstream, and it gets carried to every part of their body.

"For the other problem, structural strength, evolution on this world came up with semi-monocoque construction. That's a term from the ancient aviation industry on Earth. The body and limb chambers of a large animal on Krekrik II have internal bracing to help support their organs and muscles. In a way they have an endoskeleton, just like we do, as well as an exoskeleton."

"How many workers are there in a hive?" a man asked.

"A typical hive like this has eight workers."

"Isn't that very low?"

"Compared to social insects on Earth, it's very low, yes. An anthill or a beehive has hundreds, sometimes thousands of workers. But a hive on this planet usually has only eight. A wealthy hive may have dozens of workers, but that's rare."

"You mean only eight people live here?" a girl of about twelve asked.

"Ten," I said. "The Queen, eight workers, and me."

"So how come you didn't know her name?"

"What?"

"You had to ask her what her name was. Don't you know?"

"Uh..." I grinned. "I should, and if I talk to them for a minute or so I can usually tell who I'm talking to. But no, I can't tell them apart by sight. Workers in a hive are clones. They look identical."

Bo Lu came fully into the intersection, then backed her hind end into the main corridor, away from the tourists, so she was facing them. She tapped the ideogram on her shoulder. "Except if you read these. Which George a lot of the time doesn't bother to do."

The tourists laughed.

"What's it say?" the girl asked.

"My name--Bo Lu."

"What's that mean in English?"

"Three."

"Three? It's a number?"

"A number, yes, but not just a number," I said. "There are cultural traditions about what each of the first sixteen numbers mean, and stereotyped personality traits associated with each. It's a cultural thing, a belief system rather like astrology among humans."

"But more factual," Bo Lu said.

"Or so they say."

"What are the numbers?" the girl asked.

"Bo, L, La, Lu, Lau, Lo, Loi, and Li."

"Um, and that's... one to eight?"

"Zero to seven," I corrected. "Bo means zero. The others are one through seven."

"Then Bo Lu means 'zero three'," the girl said.

"'Worker three'," Bo Lu said. "Or just 'Three'."

"But he said Bo means 'zero'."

"It does," I assured her. "It also means 'worker.' It can also mean 'off' or 'no,' or 'sister'."

"That's dumb," the girl said.

"Marcia!" the woman next to her said--obviously her mother. She was blushing.

"Well, it is."

"What does 'Marcia' mean?" Bo Lu asked.

"It means 'girl with big mouth'," said her mother.

"Mom! Jesus!"

"Okay, let's go on," I said. "Bo Lu, thanks for helping out."

"Any time," Bo Lu said. "Nice to meet you folks. Oh, Marcia, I have something for you."

"Huh? For me?"

"Yes." Bo Lu reached into the satchel tied to her thorax, took out a small, flat white object, and held it out. After some hesitation, the girl reached out and took it.

"What's this?"

"My card. If you want to learn more about our language some time, feel free to call me. If I'm not busy I'll talk to you at any time."

"Um... Thanks," the girl said. Her mother had looked apprehensive, but now smiled, looking relieved.

"Thanks, Bo Lu," I said. I clapped her on the shoulder.

"I'm moving, I'm moving," she said. "Geez, what a grouch." The tourists laughed. Bo Lu scuttled off down the side corridor.

"Do they all talk that way?" a man asked.

"What way?"

"Like characters in a sitcom."

I sighed. "I guess they pick that up from me. They're superb mimics, and when you have a human living in a hive, the natives there tend to sound like him when they speak English. There's a hive not far from here where a woman with an upper-class London accent lives. A human woman, I mean. All the workers there sound British."

More laughs. We went on.

***

I showed them the fungus farms, the cattle--which the colonists, inevitably, called 'aphids' although they didn't look anything like real aphids--the library, and last of all, the throne room.

"We're about to visit the Queen," I told the group. "Her name, 'Wikwik,' translates roughly to 'Sunny' in English. You don't have to bow or curtsy, but I ask you please to be respectful. Sunny is the head of this hive, the administrator, as well as the mother of every one of the workers."

"What do we call her? 'Your Majesty'?" a man asked.

"'Sunny' is fine." I knocked on the throne room door.

"Come in," Sunny said over the intercom.

I opened the door and led the group in.

Sunny is bigger and heavier than the workers, but differs from them mainly in the proportions of her body. Her abdomen is more than half her length, and her legs don't work very well. She spends most of her time on a big padded item of furniture which humans call the "throne" although it looks nothing like a chair. In front of it is a desk which looks very like a human-made desk--because it is one. She also has a PC.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she said, "Welcome to my home."

"Are you a real Queen?" Marcia asked.

"Marcia," her mother said through gritted teeth.

"That's all right, Madam. Marcia, I'm not really a Queen in the sense you mean, a head of state. All I rule is this hive. I'm more like a parent than a President.

"I hope you all enjoyed touring the hive. Would you like to have your pictures taken with me? It's not required, but I enjoy having some record of my visitors."

There were some hesitant nods and murmurs from the tourists.

"Just stand in front of the desk. Marcia, you might want to stand in front so you're not blocked by taller people. I'll be behind you, but I promise not to touch anyone without their permission. George, would you do the honors?"

"Yes, my Queen." I picked the digital camera up off her desk. "Okay, folks, if you want to just stand in front of the desk and face this way?"

"I don't like having my picture taken," one man said.

"That's perfectly all right," Sunny said. "Stand out of the field of view if you like."

The others--seven tourists and Suzy the bus driver--stood in a group in front of the desk. "Some of you a bit more this way--that's good--the rest of you the other way, so Sunny is visible. That's perfect, people. Smile." I clicked the camera.

"Would anyone like a copy?" Sunny asked.

More nods and murmurs. Sunny typed and clicked, and several big color glossies shot out of the printer. She took the stack, then held each photo down with one hand, signed it with another, and handed it to someone with a third. Soon she had them all signed and delivered.

"Well, that concludes our tour," I said. "I'd like to thank you all for coming today. Suzy and I will lead you back to the bus now."

***

I was reading Lady Julian in my room that afternoon when the contact alarm sounded again. I sighed and went out to the booth.

It was time for the afternoon run. The tour bus came in sight and all my lights went out. The hum of the air conditioner stopped. "What the hell...?" I picked up the phone. "Power failure in the booth."

"The power failure is general, George," a worker's voice said. Bo La was our chief engineer. "The fence is dead and all the gates have opened. We've been hacked."

I looked up. The bus halted just inside the gate. Uniformed men and women with automatic weapons jumped out of it. "It's the goddam Clan! Lock yourselves in! Somebody guard Sunny!"

There was a machine gun under the seat. I'd bought one last month when I first heard the Clan was making threats about another 'Action.' I jammed in a clip and bolted outside. "Halt right there! One more step and I fire!"

A guy in a business suit got out of the bus and walked toward me. He was middle-aged, brown-haired, clean-shaven, handsome. I didn't recognize him.

"Halt, I said! I'm not kidding!"

"Take it easy, Mister Sanderson. We're not here to cause trouble."

"Then you can put down your guns and prove it."

He came closer.

"I'm not kidding, damn it! You're trespassing, and I will open fire! Stop right--"

I saw stars and found myself face down in the sand, minus my weapon. I wasn't unconscious, but I was stunned. Before I could get up the guy in the suit kicked me in the face. "What makes a man, a human being, betray all of humanity?" He kicked me again, in the stomach.

I lurched to my feet and swung. Missed. Then two of them held my arms and one had a gun barrel to my head. They turned me so I was facing the front entrance. "Take us in, insect boy," one said

"Fuck you," I told him.

"We don't need him to open it," the guy in the suit said. "Their locks are pretty much worthless. Just shoot them off."

One of the soldiers aimed her rifle at the lock and fired; the lock blew away. She kicked the door in.

They hustled me with them, down the main corridor toward the throne room. Two workers guarding the door charged, only to be met with a volley of explosive bullets. I couldn't tell which of my friends had just been murdered. The soldiers got to the main door and kicked it in.

Sunny is more than two meters tall standing, and she looked every inch the queen she was. "Ladies; Gentlemen," she said. "Welcome to my home."

"Run!" I screamed. "Sunny, run! They're here to kill you!"

"This is my home. I will not run away from it."

"Good," the suit said. "We wouldn't want you to." He held out a hand and someone handed him a bayonet. "Here's a little message from humanity." He went up and stabbed her.

"Sunny!" I screamed.

Sunny sagged back against the wall. Her eyes couldn't close, of course, but she was obviously dying.

The suit grabbed a handful of my hair and jerked me forward. He walked with me over to the red phone and picked it up. "Tell them to come into the throne room."

He would be expecting defiance. "Go to Hell," I told him.

One of the soldiers jammed the butt of his gun into my back. Ouch. "Do it, insect boy."

"Fuck you."

"Bill," the suit said. One of them stepped forward and grabbed my right hand. He bent my index finger back, hard, then did something to the sides of the fingernail. It was agonizing.

"Call them," the suit said.

"No!"

"Break it," he said.

The soldier bent my finger back so hard it snapped. I screamed.

"You've got nine to go," the suit said. "Then we start on your balls."

"Oh, Jesus..."

"Do another one, Bill."

"No!"

He handed me the phone. I took it in my wounded hand and stabbed the general PA button with an intact finger. "This is George," I said. Then: "General evac! The Queen is dead! Abandon the hive! Abandon--"

A soldier grabbed the phone out of my hand and smashed me in the jaw. "You fucker!" He aimed his gun at me. Oddly, the suit put up a hand and stopped him.

"Not a problem, Stan. I expected him to do that. The rest of the team is outside the other doors. They'll just shoot 'em down as they come out."

"We should waste him anyway. He's a piece of dogshit." The soldier picked me up. "Isn't that right? You fucking insect-lover!" He turned me to face the Queen. "There's your Queen, insect boy! You like it? You probably fucked her, didn't you? You probably fucked all of them! You goddam perverted sack of shit--"

I turned to him and spit in his face. He punched me in the nose and I staggered back.

The suit held up a hand again. He reached for the soldier's phone and took it off his belt; held it up with the button pressed. I heard automatic weapons fire. They were shooting the workers.

"Ah, Christ," I said.

"Lemme kill him," the soldier said.

"Don't waste bullets. When we leave we'll set fire to this place. If he makes it outside, he'll probably kill himself. They do that."

"You make me sick," the soldier told me.

"You're one of the sickest sons of bitches that ever lived," I told him. He kicked my legs out from under me. I managed to twist a bit and hit hands first--shrieked at the pain in the broken finger.

"Come on," the suit said. "We're done here."

He walked out. The soldiers hesitated, then followed him. One gave me a last kick before leaving.

I crawled over to Sunny and took her in my arms. "I'm sorry, my Queen. I'm so sorry. I let you down."

She was gasping, but managed to control it. "You did what you... could. Wait. I am not... dead, yet."

"Let me get you outside. If I can get you to the buggy, get you to the city, a hospital--"

"No. I will be... dead... in about fifteen minutes. They are outside. They will... undoubtedly destroy the buggy. Wait. I order you."

An order is an order. I waited, holding her, feeling her die.

"It is over," she said.

"How do you know?"

"I know. I sense it. All my daughters are dead."

I shook my head.

We waited some more minutes. "Sunny? Sunny, are you still... alive?"

"They are gone," she said. "Take me... outside."

"I can't carry you."

"Drag me."

"My Queen!"

"Drag me! That's an order. I... no longer feel pain. Do this for me."

I got behind her and managed to lift her up from behind, my arms under her top pair of arms. She massed more than 200 kilograms, but I managed to drag her through the main corridor, past the shattered bodies of her guards, toward the front entrance. The door was on fire and the walls were catching.

"We're trapped," I said.

"Kick the door down... and go out. You will only be in... fire... for a moment. Do it."

I let go of her. I leaped forward and stamp-kicked the door. It ripped out of its hinges and spun down onto the sand. I went back and got Sunny and dragged her outside, over the door. Then I collapsed in the hot sand, out of breath.

One of her tiny hands found me. "George."

"Sunny... Sunny, I'm so sorry... Oh, God--"

"Listen. Seventy-five meters due south... of the south... gate... Dig down..."

"What? Sunny what are you--"

"Down! One meter! You will find a daughter. And royal jelly. You know what to do. Do it, George. I beg you..."

"Sunny, of course I will. But how could you have concealed..."

I looked up. She was absolutely still.

"Sunny?"

She was dead. No motion at all.

She had never told me she had a daughter in an outside cache. The fetal standby daughters in the storage room must have burned to death by now. The whole hive was on fire, flames reaching high into the sky.

I had my orders.

***

It took time to find the cache, but I found it. I dug with my hands. Digging a meter-deep hole in sand is not an easy task to begin with. If you want to imagine what it's like when the sand is hot and you've got a broken finger, don't. I still wasn't done by sunset. I slept in the sand.

I woke up the next morning with my face and neck sunburned and hurting. I moved sand all morning. Finally I scooped some away and saw a little hex cell. I cleared the sand and broke the top; hauled out the little creature inside. I stuck my arm into the cell, stretching as far as I could. The bottom of the cell was coated with royal jelly. I scooped up as much as I could, then carefully got up, using the other hand. I sat down in the sand, cradling the hand with the jelly in my lap.

With the other hand, I tried to uncurl the daughter. It was impossible.

I dropped the gob of jelly onto the daughter's side, the side away from the sand. Then I used both hands to pry her face away from her abdomen. She uncurled a little. I took the jelly and brushed it over her mandibles.

I waited.

Her long pink tongue snaked out and licked the jelly off her mouth parts. I gave her more. She finished it and uncurled completely.

I picked her up and carried her to the front of the blackened hive. I put her down on her mother's body. I turned away as she crunched open Sunny's head.

It took her two days to eat Sunny entirely. She grew enormously in that time.

***

I followed her through the desert. She had shown me where a water canteen was concealed in the cache, so I would survive a while longer. "Do you know where you're going?" I asked.

"Of course, George," she said. "I have all my mother's memories, subject to the usual storage limitations. There are many caches. My mother planned well. Her only mistake, and it was a grievous one, was to site her hive so close to the human colony."

"We're not all like the Clan," I said. "Most humans are decent people--"

"I know that, George. Don't expect me to be a bigot."

"Sorry," I said. "Teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, I guess."

"What a disgusting image. Have you, yourself, eaten eggs?"

"Chicken eggs, my Queen. Not people eggs. I'm not a barbarian."

"The thought chills me, nonetheless. Well, I'll get you human food as soon as I'm in a position to buy any, but don't expect me to watch you eat it."

"Of course not, my Queen."

***

The new site was in a cave under a cliff overhang. "I like it," I said.

She crawled into it. I collapsed in the sand behind her.

I came to with her licking my face. "Wake up, George. Wake up."

"Sorry... Sorry... My..."

"How long have you been without food?"

"Three... Uh, three, days. I think. Three or... four..."

"I'm an insensitive bitch. Give me half an hour."

"No..." I grayed out again.

***

Water trickled over my lips. "Are you awake?"

"Uh... Yes, I think so."

"Eat."

"Uh... My Queen, you've never done this before, and the biochemistry is very different--"

"I know everything my mother knew, you fool. Eat. That's an order."

She lay on her back. I crawled over to her. She tapped one of her teats with a tendril. I went to it and began to suckle.

It was good.

***

There were caches of sugar in the cave. The new Queen spent days extruding structural cells and laying in a throne room and a main corridor. On the fourth day, she stopped. "I'm going to need workers."

"I know."

"I'll need a male to produce standby daughters, but that can wait until we contact your city and get phone service out here. In the meantime, I can produce workers. But I need to be stimulated.

"Take off your clothes."

"The Queen is dead," I said. "Long live the Queen."

I undressed and went to her. We made love. She knew every move Sunny had known, every caress, every endearment.

It felt wonderful.

x x x

We start 2013 with a returning writer. Barton has been here before and, if he keeps writing stories like this one, he'll be here again. Tell him how much you liked his buggy tale on our BBS. -GM

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