We had thought ourselves safe, but then you found us in our little ship. There was a thrilling chase. In our desperation, we flew too fast and crashed, and you crashed too. Now we and you are both stranded on this empty, alien world. We do not know if you have survived. We know that only one of us remains, but we are still we, even when most of us are gone.
In your language, we believe, you sometimes say silence is deafening, but our experience is incongruous with that. The silence brings horrible clarity. In it, we are aware of the breathing which does not accompany our own, of the footsteps which do not fall around us, of the conversations which do not linger in our periphery. The silence is an illumination of all that we have lost.
We have buried the others by the cavern entrance. It is our hope that their decomposition will bring life to the dust of this barren world. Even near the subterranean spring there is nothing living here. No fish. No insects. No bacteria. Our scanners show a frustrating level of microbial safety.
It is there, by the spring, that we first speak to you. Your species needs water as desperately as ours does. Like us, you must have salvaged what you could from the wreckage and taken shelter in the caverns.
We do not know where you have hidden, but it’s you who cries out—”Who’s there?”—when we cause a thoughtless splash against the silence.
We are momentarily afraid, but we do not see you. The cavern is small; water rushes from one fissure into another. The only other point of entrance is the way from which we came. But for your voice, we seem to be alone.
“Where are you?” we ask. There are several sounds: one of your weapons firing, then the crumbling of rock, then a series of words my translator does not choose to divulge.
We think we understand. There is a phenomenon within caves: the chance alignment of reflective surfaces allows for sound to travel very far and very clearly. This must be the case now. You are not in the same cavern as we are; you might be miles away. You might be on the other side of the wall. There is no way of telling.
We test this by stepping briskly to the side. Your cursing fades to nothingness. When we return to the spot where we stood, your voice returns as well.
“It’s a whispering gallery,” we say into the anomaly. You stop shooting the walls.
“So you don’t know where I am?”
“Great! So we can negotiate.”
We’re struck by your audacity. “Negotiate what?”
“Resources. Surrender. I don’t know. How many of you are there?”
“We don’t think we should say.”
“Is that plural pronoun your hive-mind thing or does that mean there’s more than one of you?”
We do not answer that.
“Well, assuming you’re not alone, you got a resources issue. I got plenty of food, you know. Plus, I think I can get us outta here if you ask nice. You lot surrender and I’ll get you a cushy cell ‘til the war ends, I promise.”
We do not answer that, either.
“Listen, it’s better than dying out here, ain’t it?”
“It is.” We feel very alone. We wish desperately for our company, for the ability to talk this through together, but there is nothing to be done about that. “It is better than dying out here. Why would you bother to rescue us?”
This time you’re the silent one.
“You need us alive,” we say. “You need help too. We have no proof that you can help us. We have no proof that you will not slaughter us. So no, we do not surrender, and we will not tell you our location.”
We step away from the gallery before we hear your reply. There is much to do; we have a ship to scavenge, inventory to document, plans to make. Possibly we have defenses to build. You are correct—we cannot survive here forever—but that does not mean we plan to die here, at either your hands or starvation’s.
The room with the gallery is also the most defensible, and there is a nearby chamber that is cold enough for storage. We decide eventually to make this room our base, though during the process of moving supplies we make quite a lot of purposeful noise. You think we are numerous, after all.
Here it is dark and smells of sterile clay. Cool. Humid. The dead rock of the cavern is as much an absence as our silence. We ache for the fresh vegetation of home; the life in the air and the scent of the flowers.
But we cannot mourn. There is work to do.
Occasionally we see you. Once, while we deconstruct the refrigeration chamber in the wreckage of the ship, we spot your outline on a distant hill.
That night you say, “I saw one of you on the wreckage,” and we reply that yes, you did, and hope you ask no further questions.
Once, when we venture out to scout a location for a distress signal, we find a machine of some sort, gathering sunlight. We steal it. That night you ask, “Did you steal one of my water purifiers?” and we reply that yes, we did.
Then we think it over. Perhaps you do not have the same access to water that we do. Perhaps you were unlucky. We feel a bit guilty. A few days later we return the machine without comment.
“What did you do to it?” you ask. We do not answer.
Once, we hear you crying.
We do not cry, though we have studied the phenomenon in school, so, although it takes a moment, we understand the sound. In your language, the convulsive gasp is a signal of despair. We do not think you meant to share it with us.
“Are you in distress?” we ask. You stop crying, or perhaps you move from the spot. You never respond to the question. We do not ask again.
One day we return to the wreckage site and you are standing there, arms crossed, waiting for us. You’re male. Human, of course. Not as young as we thought you’d be, nor as well-armed. There’s a pistol at your hip—it still smells of gunpowder from your duel with the cavern walls—but your ammunition belt is empty. Its grip is visible from your holster; the clip gauge on the side is blank. If you possess firepower, you possess only the shot in the chamber.
“Every time I see you out here, it’s just you.”
We are frozen to our location. We meet your eyes.
“You’re alone, ain’t you? You were lying. No one else survived the crash.”
We hardly breathe.
“You had me pretty fooled. I was impressed.” You hold out your hand. Are we supposed to shake it? We don’t shake it. “I’m Edwin. You got a name?”
“Do your fingertips have names?” we ask. “Do your hands?”
“I call ‘em Left and Right, generally. So… no? No name?”
“Why do you say we?”
“Your hand is still your hand, even if we were to cut it from your body.”
You nod. You glance behind yourself, back towards the way we suspect you came. “I’m gonna call you Honeybee.”
“You’re a hive alien. You look like bees. You ever see a bee?”
“We are not a bee.”
“I’m not saying you are. It’s just a name. I gotta call you something. Like it or not, we’re both stuck here.”
We aren’t opposed to names, really. Our opposition is to you, not your customs. Honeybee. Hm. “Are we? Didn’t you say you had a way out?”
“Thought I did. Turned out I didn’t.”
“Hm.” We lean next to you against the ship. “Neither do we. What was your plan?”
“Originally I was gonna steal components off your ship, but then you gave me back the water purifier.” You sigh. “You ain’t gonna surrender. I sure as hell ain’t gonna surrender. So what now?”
“You have food, but no water?” we ask.
“We have water, but our food is running out. In our language, we say that it is better to die as a community than to live a longer life alone.” By the odd look you give us, we suspect you understand the situational irony. “By this we mean that we risk a shortened life by offering to trust you, but if we rely only on ourself, our expiration date is certain.”
You work through that for a moment. “You suggesting we share?”
“Yes. Return here tomorrow. We will bring you water.”
“And then what?”
We shrug. “Show us your resources. Show us your ship. We’re making the choice to trust you. Trust us in return, and we’ll plan our escape together.”
You look surprised, and a little wary, but you offer us your hand again. This time we do shake it.
“All right,” you say. “Good to meet you, Honeybee.”
“Good to meet you, Edwin.”
This is what you possess: a truly massive cache of rations (roughly half of which are toxic to our biology, which makes division simple), three water purifiers, and half a ship. You do not have the same electrical and engineering knowledge that we do, and we suspect that you would simply have stranded us both if you tried to dismantle our ship to fix your own. You need us more than we need you, we think.
“There are elements we can work with,” we say, perusing your technology, “but it’s going to take a while. We’ll be in a race for time with food.”
“And by we, you mean you.”
“Unless you can learn engineering on the fly.” You laugh. “I have another job for you. As your rations consist of processed bars—”
“Don’t give me that judgy tone.”
“—they cannot be farmed, whereas our rations contain seeds, and likewise will rot sooner. We suggest that you attempt to farm some of our rations while we repair your ship, and that we subsist on your rations in the meantime. Our food grows quickly. It’s meant for this exact scenario.”
“We’re repairing my ship?”
“Ours has been stripped more thoroughly. We believe yours is a more functional base.” We replace the panel we were inspecting and stand to meet your eyes. “We are risking quite a lot to help you, Edwin. We understand that humanity is… individualistic…”
“We comprise individuals, yeah.”
“And it is out of respect for you, as an individual, that we are trusting you will not make the same collective choice as your species.”
“Namely, that you will not choose war. That you will treat us, together, as a collective for the time being. Our good will be your good. Your good will be our good. We will become a community, not a pair of individuals at war.”
“You know we have communities back home, yeah? I ain’t unfamiliar with the concept.”
“As far as we can tell, your hives are constantly in swarm.”
You pause, then laugh. “Fair point. I won’t screw you over. I’ll even let you go free. When we get this fixed we head to the nearest neutral world and part ways. On my word, all right?”
We wince. We do not like the idea of landing on a neutral world, especially not alone. They are dangerous and unpredictable in their diversity. “Forgive us, please, but your word means very little. We will trust in cause and effect.”
“We will see what happens and how you react. We will see how you respond to the situation we have found ourselves in. As time passes, we will learn the mark you choose to leave upon the world. This is the information we need in order to determine the value of your word.”
“Trust takes time, Edwin. We simply do not know you yet. This is a dangerous decision, but one we are making consciously. Do not attempt to put us at ease with promises we have no way of validating.”
You shrug, scratch your neck, survey the desolation of our surroundings. “All right. Guess I can’t blame you for that.”
Time occurs. Days pass, then weeks. You are proving to be an adept farmer, particularly when faced with our fast-growing crops. Our rations are quick and hardy—they can be grown nearly anywhere, and the sweet resin which compacts them doubles as nutrition for whatever soil one can find. Like us, they are less tolerant to heat, but there is a cavern protected from the midday sun that still has some ambient light. We cart in sand from the surface.
The first harvest, one month in, allows us to set aside the remaining ration bars for an emergency supply. The second harvest, two weeks later, allows us to dry fruit for storage. By the third, we have more food than we can eat.
We begin to enjoy our meals together. At first, this is only in shared spaces—the ship, or sometimes outdoors when the weather is bearable.
Over time, however, you introduce us slowly to your space. You reveal that you have inhabited a cave on the far side of the hill. We suspect that you did not survey your surroundings when you crashed, but rather picked a direction to walk in and colonized the first cave you found. It is not nearby. It is not easily defensible. It is well-hidden, to your credit, but only because no tactical mind would choose to hide there.
We do not tell you this. Instead we express our honor when we are allowed to observe the mementos tucked beside your bed, the books piled in corners, the stringed instrument you rescued from the wreckage. It is not clean. The odor of your dirty laundry makes our antennae curl.
Yet you have built furniture: a desk, a lifted bed, storage in unexpected places. It is more confined than our cavern, but you have built an ingenious home in very little space. We are fascinated.
We are also often frustrated, though somehow not by you. When working, we are challenged by the incompatibilities between our two technologies. While hardware is obedient under the pressure of brute force, software is less pliable. Our universal translator is decidedly unhelpful when it comes to programming languages—as are you.
Today, as I swear at the translator, you don’t offer to assist; you watch and laugh until we enter a command. The engine roars threateningly, which stops your teasing.
“Are you wasting fuel at me, Honeybee?”
“You can laugh, or you can help.”
You’re about to respond, but there’s a jolt against the side of the ship that has nothing to do with software. You’re at the window before we can turn around. The sand on the ground is blowing. The wind’s picked up.
In the distance the air has begun to shimmer: heat. Intense, visible heat. You stick your head out the door to observe and burn your hand on the outer wall of the ship. A smell of singed flesh flashes through the bridge. Another untranslatable word—you duck back in.
“Hey, Honeybee, got a fun fact for ya. My life support’s down.”
“We are aware.” We’re trying to assess if we’ve fixed that yet. The translator is currently displaying the code in front of us as a list of various species of snake.
“Did you fix it?”
“We… aren’t sure.”
“You think we can make it to a cave from here?”
“We aren’t sure, Edwin.”
“Well, when you gonna know?” We open our mouth to respond. You don’t let us say it again. “Right. Come on. We’re making a break for the caves. Now.”
We look up from the computer. You’re holding out a hand, halfway out the door already.
“Come on. I ain’t leaving without you.”
“Is it close enough? Will we make it?”
“I ain’t sure.”
The storm is at our back. We try to fly you, to move more quickly, but our wings blister when they spread. When the pair of us dive into the caverns we are afraid, for a moment, that they will not provide adequate protection, but you drag us further below the surface and pat out the charring on our clothes. We press ourself against the cool ground and shiver. In your language you would say we are ‘gasping for air’. We are not sure that this translates directly to our circulatory system, but the intent behind the words is accurate.
We suspect you are more resilient to heat than we are. You are leaning against the wall, sweating, breathing, staring at the inferno that rages outside.
It becomes slowly apparent to us that you have led us to our cave, not yours. It was the closer of the two dwellings; it was also a tactical mistake, to bring yourself to our territory. The action suggests trust. Behind the dull exhaustion of the heat, we are conflicted.
“Think we’ve figured out why nothing lives here, Honeybee.”
We nod, still fragile from the storm.
“You all right?”
We haul ourself to a sitting position. It seems dangerous to tell you that we are vulnerable to temperatures—we do not know what information will be reported to your superiors. To risk our life is one thing; to put all of us at risk is another. And yet you chose our survival over your advantage.
“Bee, look at me.”
But we are weak. We feel a strange, trembling headache, and our body is enervated. When we look at you we do not register your expression. When we fall, we do not register your catching us. The world fades.
There is a sound of rushing water.
We have cooled significantly. Before we open our eyes we can feel our hands and feet are submerged, though our body lies on cold stone. We realize what has happened—you have saved our life, at least temporarily. We had overheated; now we have cooled.
We have perhaps cooled too much. We sit up, slowly, battling the lethargy in our joints. Heat makes us weak; cold makes us heavy. Our blood feels like syrup in our veins.
You made a fire some time ago; it has now dwindled into embers. The smoke still trails along the ceiling, leaving chemical traces in the air. You yourself are currently sleeping on my bed, having covered yourself in empty ration canvas to keep in the heat from your warm-blooded body.
Unlike you, Edwin, we do not generate heat well. Our bodies are more vulnerable to environmental conditions. We need warmth. Unthinking, we crawl across the cavern—we do not have the strength to walk—and bury ourself in the bed beside you. When we rest our forehead on your back, you are like a lantern on a cold and unforgiving night. Then you turn in your sleep and wrap your arms around us, and the lantern blossoms into the sun.
When we wake again, you have rekindled the fire (we wonder how long you searched for our fire kit, how long it took you to recognize it for what it was) and you are cooking fruit on a griddle. The cavern smells like toasted sugar, tart and syrupy. We lay here quietly, watching the scene.
You do not seem alien to us in this moment. You are humming an alien tune, tapping the matte luster of your fingers on alien knees, but there is a familiarity in the domesticity of cooking. We are reminded of morning meals in the cafeteria hall, of baking and frying-up in our rotations of a dozen-or-so individuals. We are reminded of the easy chemistry between ourselves, of the casual warmth and connection of the collective.
We are momentarily and intensely homesick.
“Hey, Honeybee. You alive over there?”
You’ve noticed. We nod, reluctant to leave the lingering comfort of the bed. We think our thermoregulation has balanced itself, but this is comfortable, and we are very tired.
“You had me worried.”
“We were very lucky you knew how to do first aid.” We were, in fact, surprised. You knew to put our hands and feet in the water; if you had placed our body, as human anatomy directs, we would have drowned. “How did you know how to save us?”
“I’m military, Bee. We do get training.”
“In human medicine, certainly. We are not human.”
“We get alien basics, too. You know we’ve got some of you lot on our side, right? Defectors. Not everyone loves the hive.”
The horror is plain on our face, or perhaps the despair.
“Don’t look at me like that! We treat ‘em right. If someone wants to be an individual, let ‘em.”
“We simply cannot imagine the desire.” There is a spot near the fire where you have folded a mat for us to sit on, and we sit there now. “Having lost our connection to the hive, we cannot fathom the decision one must make to leave willingly. One would lose everything.”
“How can you know that? You don’t know their whole situation. You don’t know what they’ve been through.”
“We have lost everything, Edwin.”
“Ah. Right. Sorry.” You pause. “You ain’t alone. Uh. Lost my own family to a hive attack.”
“It was years ago, so… You know. War’s not… great.”
You clear your throat uncomfortably. I change the subject.
“Arrowfruit tastes quite good when paired with redspice.”
“What you’re cooking. Arrowfruit. We believe there is some redspice left in the stores—”
“That’s what, the red powder?”
“Purple, actually. The name misleads.”
We retrieve the bag, and the pair of us begin to cook together.
That first day of the storm, once we have eaten and checked the status of the weather, we take stock together of what we possess.
There are enough rations to get us through quite some time. Together we venture closer to the entrance to check on the crops; their cavern is much warmer than it has been previously, but not so warm as to cause them harm. We have water from the spring. We are not sure how long the storm will last, but our basic needs for survival are met.
Next, comfort. We are in our own territory, but you only have what you’ve carried in your bag. It is admittedly heavy, but it is always on your person and you tend to carry your tools with you: a small multi-device you call a pocket knife, extra rations in case you were to become stuck somewhere for a while, and most importantly a spare set of clothes.
You chuckle at our visible relief. “What, you don’t like how I smell?”
“We were taking into consideration that your living quarters smell quite strongly of human body odor.”
“It’s not like I got a shower in there!”
“And do you have a similar excuse for your ship?” Our antennae curl. “We understand that you have a dulled sense of smell. We can forgive that. We’re simply appreciative that we won’t have to live with it.”
“It ain’t that bad.”
“Not to you.”
You also have a deck of playing cards.
You attempt to teach us the game of poker, which does not go particularly well. When you run out of the pebbles you’ve insisted on gambling with, we offer you some of ours. We receive in turn a lecture on how we are missing the point, to which we reply we have clearly won the game and ask how much of the point we can possibly be missing, and it is at this point that you decide to find a project rather than a game to play.
The phrase in your language is sore loser.
You decide to ‘spruce up’ our living space, starting with the bed. We have been sleeping on a pile of mats, which is quite comfortable, but—
“Listen, if I’m staying here, I ain’t sleepin’ on the floor. I’m making you a bedframe.”
Implicit in this decision is the implication that we will be sharing a bed again. We are not sure how we feel about that assumption. Certainly it was comfortable. Certainly you did not kill us in our sleep, or in our illness, and you had the chance to do so. Your gun lies near the cavern entrance, a single shot still loaded in the chamber.
And yet we wonder whether bed-sharing contains the same implications for you as it does for us—do your people cluster the way we do? Do your people bond together, form lifelong connections? Or are your romances as individualistic and flighty as the rest of your culture? Are you, Edwin, like the rest of your people? Is there even something that can be defined as ‘the rest of your people’? Are we simply overthinking things?
“We are not ectothermic,” we explain eventually, watching you consolidate supplies and tear apart crates. “We are capable of sleeping alone if you wish to bed down elsewhere.”
You shrug. “It’s no bother.”
“Are you sure?”
And the matter is settled.
On the second day of the storm, we teach you our games. We spend some time carving a set of horribly unbalanced dice from spare parts of the bed project, then show you how to use them. You enjoy dare-dice best, where we take turns suggesting a task and then roll to see who must perform it.
The game is generally used to allocate horrible chores back home, but we are stuck in a small and mostly-featureless room, and so dares quickly become questions.
We begin to learn about each other.
The weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten: sawdust, when you were in particularly dire straits on a survivalist training exercise.
The most memorable dream we’ve ever had: it occurred the night before we began our military training, when we dreamed we were a comet sailing peacefully through the universe. When we awoke, we had a distinct memory of a bright light on a horizon that could not have existed, and a longing for understanding that would never come.
Your childhood dream: you wanted to be a space pirate.
Our favorite color: starlight. Pale and shining flecks against the black.
Your most embarrassing moment: you were a child. Your older sister once called you Ed-lose, and it upset you so much you cried and threw up your dinner. You no longer speak with your sister, but you insist that is not the primary reason.
You ask us what we would have done if we had not joined the military, which is confusing. Then it occurs to us that you believe that soldiers are different from ordinary citizens. We find this disheartening. If your citizens are not the same as those who fight, and your people are individuals, how can you truly understand the cost of war?
“Maybe,” you say. “But I think if I weren’t in the military I’d be something real dull, which, well, I guess some people might want to do that with their lives.”
“Why was this the life you chose?” we ask, abandoning the dice. “Why would anyone choose war?”
You’re quiet about that for a while, leaning back against the cavern wall. For a little bit the only sounds are those of the subterranean spring and the distant chaos of the storm. We allow you your time to think, observing you instead. We have become familiar with your face, with the softness of your body. Your appearance has begun to bring us comfort, and that is a frightening thing.
We wonder if perhaps others have not abandoned their communities, but simply chosen new ones.
“I didn’t really choose it,” you admit. “The military’s a shit job, so people in shit situations are the ones who sign up. You get a good deal—good money, good education, good place to lay your head. I didn’t have any of that when I signed up. I do now. Not sure it’s worth the golden chains, though.”
“Do you regret it?”
“I did.” There’s an invisible edge to your answer, somehow. Something clinging behind the words, something which makes our back flutter, which brings a shiver to our fingertips.
We lean forward. “Do you regret it now?”
“You know, Honeybee? I ain’t sure.”
The storm rages on. Days blend together. Time passes.
At night we sleep encircled in the safety of your arms. At first we refuse to talk about this during the day, but then you put your arm around us in a moment of sympathy, and we lean our head on your shoulder, and the physical barrier is broken. What was relegated to sleep becomes common. We sit together. We eat together.
We are no longer alone.
We are awoken by a faint and repeated alarm. We roll over, bleary, to ask you if you recognize the signal. You are not there.
We sit up. We are surprised and a little confused.
The situation makes more sense once we realize the noise is coming from the whispering gallery, and once we realize we can no longer hear the storm outside. It is one of your devices, then, and the world outside is safe for passage. You have returned to your cavern to retrieve it. There is nothing suspicious or unexpected about that.
And so we take the time to think.
This bond we’ve formed with you, whatever it may be—we know it’s doomed. We asked you to consider our pair as a community, and while we meant that, it was not intended to be mutual. For us to consider you the same is—
It’s dangerous. There is no other word for it. We do not part from our community, and upon leaving we must part from you. You have shown no inclination towards joining our hive; we cannot bear to join your swarm. There is no future in which we stay together.
And yet we lie back down and soak in the warmth you left behind. The echo of footsteps that are not there have grown softer in your presence. The silence is no longer intrusive. We cannot deny the change.
Last night you placed your hand on our chest and asked us where our heartbeat was. When we didn’t know what you were talking about, you placed our hand on your chest in demonstration. We laughed; we told you how we have a dozen small hearts down our abdomen, explained our circular breathing. Wasn’t that covered in your training? But you say you only learned the protocol, not the biology.
You placed your hand upon each heart of ours and felt its rhythm. You called us fascinating. You called us beautiful.
Love is a state of neutrality in the hive. We are always perfectly in sync; it is the glue which seals our metaphorical cells, a propolis of the soul. We join sometimes—mostly in twos, sometimes more—but to do so is to entwine two threads within the greater aegis of the soul. Beautiful, yes, divine, but not a source of conflict.
We are accustomed to love, accustomed to connection, and yet somehow entirely unsettled by the feelings you inspire in us. When we speak, we argue as much as we admire; when we fight we are drawn together more than we are repulsed. Everything you are opposes the virtues we were raised on, and yet this only seems to draw us closer.
We asked you, yesterday, what your greatest childhood fear had been. You said: us. The hive. We were the ones who killed your family. (Just as you killed ours. We have forgiven, not forgotten.) But you are no longer afraid.
We are. We are terrified.
We do not want to leave this community.
We do not want to leave you.
We have drifted back to sleep again. This time we are awoken by your distant voice, and this time you are not alone.
“Sorry,” you say through the gallery echo, “I didn’t quite catch that. Can you state your name and ID again?”
“This is Jeffrey Reynolds, ID 809192-9.”
“Hey there, Jeff. Good to hear your voice, it’s been a hot minute out here.”
“We got your distress call, Ed. What happened? We thought you were a goner.”
“Oh, nothing too special. Took a dumb chance chasing some…” You hesitate. We know your language. We can hear the habitual use of bugs on your lips, and we hear you repress it. “Took a dumb chance on a chase and we both crashed.”
“Any bugs get out?”
You hesitate. We understand. You can tell them we all died, and we would be safe. We could leave on the repaired ship and this man could send rescue for you. But we suspect you want us to defect, that you do not want to part ways either. You will want to know what our options are.
“Yeah,” you say. “The crash didn’t get ‘em all. But don’t you worry, we’re all gettin’ on good. Say Jeff, you know how the asylum process works? Think I’d be able to offer my friends here a deal?”
“Sure, probably. Citizenship in exchange for time served against the Hive. Standard.” We can hear the disgust in your friend’s tone. “Sure happy to turn a blind eye if you squash the bastards before we get there, though. All those legs. Ugh. Freaks me out.”
“Well, guess we have differing opinions on that.” Your voice has gone cold, polite. “What would asylum look like?”
“Can’t say as for sure, man. Tell you what, send me your coordinates and I’ll make sure there’s a specialist on board, huh? Give ‘em a good deal?”
“Certainly.” You pause again. “Uh, you know what, Jeff, I gotta go find those coordinates exactly, they’re still on my ship. I’ll get ‘em back to you soon, yeah?”
“You don’t have them with you?” Jeff’s surprise is warranted. You absolutely have them with you. You are likely looking at them, taped to your cavern wall, right in your eyeline. “Right. Yeah. Sure. You can leave the signal on too and we can track—”
There is an audible click.
“Turned it off,” you say. “I can’t bear that guy. You catch all that, Honeybee?”
We are aware you could have deceived us. We can think of a dozen ways that conversation could be faked, and a dozen reasons why. We think of the round you left in the chamber. The gun is with us now; you did not bring it with you when you went to answer the call.
You are an individual; this does not mean your choices are selfish. You have chosen only once to cause us harm, before you knew us. You have kept us safe a dozen times since. Time has passed, and we have seen the mark you choose to leave upon the world.
We pick up your weapon and turn it over in our hands. It has never been used for violence against us. You are the only thing which has been profaned in such a way.
We say: “We do not wish to join your military.”
“I know, Honeybee. Just wanted to know what our options were.” You exhale. “I don’t want to fight my people either.”
“And similarly, you would be required to if you joined us.”
“Of course.” You’re quiet again for a moment, thinking. “Before we make a decision, we should check the ship. See what damage the heat did. See if we have any other choice, you know?”
We stand together in front of the ship.
It’s absolutely fine.
Our ship—that is, the hive ship—has melted irreparably. It is a twisted and deformed hunk of metal and wax, a final monument to those of us who died in its crash. Eventually, future storms will smear it across the face of the planet, and it will be gone forever.
But your ship? Your ship is pristine.
“How?” you ask. We are already climbing in through the hatch, assessing. “What did you do to it? It looks better than when we left it—”
“It’s not better,” we say, “but it appears we did, in fact, fix the life support before the storm hit. The interior was able to protect itself. We had also connected our shields with yours, and that seems to have been a miraculous success, though it’s built to withstand far more intense heat on atmospheric interaction.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“In fact,” — we peer out from the hatch again — “we think our work is done.”
“Done. Complete. The ship is low on fuel, there are a dozen bugs in the software, but we believe a trip to the nearest neutral planet would be viable.”
You’re staring at us.
“So that’s it?” you ask.
“You’re leaving?” There’s a panicked shiver to your voice.
“We didn’t say that. We said the ship is viable. We…” We leave the words unspoken. We aren’t sure what we were going to say, anyway. “There are decisions to be made, that’s all.”
“Yeah.” You glance up at the sky. It’s brightening; a brilliant blue after the firestorm.
We hesitate before speaking again. “We do not wish to part ways, Edwin.”
You exhale. “No. We don’t.”
“And yet we don’t wish to fight our own people.”
“No, we don’t.”
We sit on the ground, leaning against the ship, looking out at the wasteland that has become something like a home. Your breathing is slow and even; mine is a low hum against a background breeze. Our hands brush accidentally. We exchange a glance of quiet desolation.
“We wonder when you started referring to us as a plural.”
You roll your eyes.
“You think of us as a pair.”
“Yeah, I do. Don’t you?”
We close our eyes, thinking of our past pairings, thinking of the hive. We nod. We think perhaps that the two of us are more a pair than any other person we have loved. It is a dangerous thought.
“Listen,” you say, “I don’t know how they do this in the hive. I don’t know if you just… love free, or only love your queen, or how it works, but humans, when we choose someone else— Well, we got a thousand different ways to fall in love, but where I’m from it’s usually just… We pick the other individual we love best, and we make our choices from there.”
To be loved best seems impossible. One is not meant to be loved best. One is meant to sacrificed for all, not sacrificed for. The image of the pair of us in our patchwork ship, running from our people, hiding out in the wild diversity of the neutral planets—it surfaces in our mind and we cannot dislodge it.
We imagine what it would be like, to travel the stars and trust only in each other. We imagine love rife with conflict and passion. We imagine life, free and forlorn but never lonely.
Never lonely. Not with you.
We cannot bear to open our eyes, to see the look upon your face. Perhaps it is not as desperately fond as your voice; perhaps there is not the same helpless affection. Perhaps you are lying. We could not survive it, if you were lying. We have changed too much by loving you to be the person that we were.
“And sometimes that individual changes, Honeybee, I won’t lie about that. But I don’t know you as the collective, right? I know you as Honeybee. And Bee, I love you best. Easily. I love you best.”
We open our eyes. You are not lying. We reach out to clean the tears from your cheek. Our hand is unsteady.
“I can’t fight ‘em,” you say, “but I can’t go back, either. If we don’t want to split up, if you’ll have me…”
“This is our collective,” we whisper. “Us.”
We have buried the others by the cavern entrance. Our hive seems very far away, and you are close, and you are also fascinating, and you are also beautiful.
“Us,” you say.
It is dangerous, and perhaps it is ill-advised, but you never send the coordinates to your superior. Instead, we make our preparations. You harvest the last of our crops: a bit dry, a bit small, but survivors of the storm. We gather a list of neutral planets—an eclectic bouquet of utopias and university worlds, of war-torn dust-traps and regressed historical inaccuracies, of oceans and jungles and constructed habitats. They are unpredictable, but so are you. Perhaps unpredictable does not always indicate danger.
Our first task is to repair our ship beyond a state of limping; after that, we will take to the void. We will have our choice of worlds; we will have our choice of stars.
When the time comes, we chart our course and leave.
We leave together.
On an abandoned, uninhabitable planet, there are several shallow graves. There is, for now, the wreckage of a single spaceship, slowly deteriorating in a harsh and unforgiving climate. In the myriad caves below the surface, there are wild fruits which drink from natural aquifers. They can be found safe in the shade, growing wherever the last traces of light will touch them.
There is a cavern. In it are the scattered traces of habitation; a charred fire pit, broken boards, a bed which was gratefully abandoned. On the wall, we have carved one message in two languages. The engravings are side by side.
We have written:
“In this place, violence was supplanted by love. May the universe share our same conclusion.”
Below our message, you have fired a single shot into the wall.