Dawn, and the Stars

By Nancy Fulda
Chitters

The summons came at midnight, by the reckoning of his people.

He slumbered, nestled upside down among thousands of nameless architects who stirred and rustled against the knobby handholds set into the ceiling, until a nudge at his shoulder brought him alert. A third-level hiveling dangled beside him. The diminutive messenger did not speak; the pheromones lingering along its head and thorax commanded obedience far more insistently than words. It cocked its head, dropped from the ceiling with a flutter of vestigial wings, and vanished into a nearby tunnel.

He followed.

The hiveling led him, not to the brood lords' lofty battle spires as he'd expected, but deep within the bowels of the hive, where Her Majesty's geneticists scurried with whispering urgency amidst the pale soft webbing of egg sacs. He glanced with growing apprehension at the pulsing lines of fungus along the walls. He was but a young architect, hardly fit to repair cracks in a brood lord's tower. What could they possibly want with him here, in these hushed tunnels where the gentle dripping of the queen's own water gardens echoed through the stones?

#

A lone geneticist awaited him, erect on four legs within a labyrinth of webbing. She dismissed the hiveling with a wave of her forelimbs, head swiveling to follow its departure. Her eyes, when they returned to center, gleamed with reflected luminescence.

"You are named," she said quietly. The words set both his hearts pounding. In all his glorious days in service to the swarm, he had never aspired to such honor. To bear a name. . . To speak, and have one's words remembered. To exist as an individual within the hive. . .

He could not fathom it. His wings trembled, thoughts racing down the litany of honored architects who had shaped the lives and history of his people.

"The name you are given," the geneticist continued, "is Jaktul. It is a word from the Queen's own mother-dialect. It means 'Hunter', and a hunter you shall become." Her mandibles brushed the top of his head, secreting the pheromone resins that signaled authority within the hive.

Jaktul, he thought, and the consonants rolled across his mandibles. It was a worthy name, a noble one. But. . .

"I don't understand," he said. "There must be some mistake. I am one among thousands. I have not distinguished myself. . ."

"Tomorrow at dawn," the geneticist said, ignoring his stammered objections, "you will join the broodlings in the seventh tower, and will train with them as a soldier. You will travel the tunnels between stars and master the arts of warriors and conquest. You will return from time to time, and speak with me."

Jaktul's elation withered. Leave the hive? Destroy things? He was an architect. A builder. He knew there were architects aboard the brood lords' battlecruisers, but they were bred to the task. Their genes were manipulated. They did not tremble, as he did, at the thought of so much bright and empty vastness.

The geneticist scented his distress. "For the hive to grow," she said gently, "many stones must be shifted. For Her Majesty's empire to thrive, many obstacles must be removed. War is merely another way of building."

"Please. Choose someone else. Let me return to my work." He scraped at his head, but the resins remained in place.

"If only it were so easy, youngling. Change is difficult, and sometimes dangerous. Our people were not meant for the stars, but they demand our presence. And so we go."

"I just want to serve the Queen."

She nodded. A quick motion of approval, as though he'd passed some sort of test. "Yes. This is why we have chosen you. Yours is a good bloodline, resilient. Untainted." She hesitated, as though weighing the cost of her words. "Our people are in flux, Jaktul. To survive amidst spacefaring species, we must rebuild ourselves. This is my task; the task of all Her Majesty's geneticists: to create each generation anew, better suited than those which came before. We have accomplished much. But in our eagerness to attain the stars, we may have... become too ambitious."

It was too much information. Jaktul backed away, drowning. He was not bred for this. His mind could not cope ... and yet, miraculously, it did. Because the geneticist required it. Because the welfare of the hive required it. Slowly, the tangled strands of the situation began to sort themselves.

"Devotion to the queen," the geneticist said. "Service to the hive. It is the strongest of all Chitter instincts, but the bloodlines designed for offworld conquest are less tightly bound by it. The price of our hubris begins to be felt."

"The rumors...?"

She nodded, wings buzzing to spread scents of trepidation. "All is not well within the Empire. We suspect corruption reaching even into the spires of the brood lords."

Jaktul understood her meaning. If there really were broodlings who placed their own needs and objectives above the welfare of the hive ... if the whispered tales of deviants were not simply nighttime stories to frighten hatchlings ... then the queen and all her progeny were in danger.

"I'm a hive-bread architect. What does any of this have to do with me? Why send me to the stars?"

"Because we trust you," she said simply. "The fervent queen's eyes and ears are muted, so deep within the hive. She sees only what others wish her to see, hears only messages that have been repeated by a thousand hivelings." She stepped toward him. "Be our eyes, Architect Jaktul. Be our ears. Tell us what is truly happening out there."

There was no refuting the trembling urgency in her voice. He lowered his head. "I will try."

"Her Majesty asks for nothing more."

She spent half the night instructing him. How to spot signs of deviation. How to mask the scents of his hive-bred bloodline. How to find her again, should he survive long enough to return. He listened with growing terror. He was an architect, not a shipbuilder. He knew nothing of plasma, or rail guns, or the generators which kept Chitters alive in the cold blackness between stars. He wished to protect the queen, but how could he, when the very instincts which defined his thoughts resisted the notion so violently?

At last the geneticist turned to attend her egg sacs, her scent clearly indicating that the interview was over. Jaktul picked his way past dangling strands of webbing, numb with dread. At a gentle call from the geneticist, he turned.

"Jaktul? Remember that a Chitter is more than his genetic pattern." She spread her forelimbs. A gentle swathe of webbing stretched between them. "Our genes determine the landscape of our existence, but not the path we take across it. You were not bred for the stars, but that doesn't mean you can't belong there."

He stared, fascinated, at the chaotic threads of gossamer. It was not the sturdy architecture of sand and clay, tunnels and catacombs, but there was beauty in it. His mind picked at patterns; lines of tension within the webbing, areas of greater or lesser strength.

"Thank you," he said. And he meant it.

#

He returned to the communal halls, but could not sleep. Eventually he abandoned the attempt and followed the twining inner tunnels up, and up, to the brood lords' training platforms, abandoned at this early hour. The stars spread above him, patterns laced with chaos. As dawn lit the sky he began to sense the connections that linked the fading glimmers of distant suns. Could one build structures out of starlight? Empires out of entities? Was there, perhaps, an architectural pattern to politics, and war?

Chitters began to assemble, first in twos and threes, then in larger clusters. They entered the platform hesitantly, feet picking a cautious path out of cradling tunnels into the wide open threshold of the unknown. Warriors; architects; even the occasional geneticist. They were no older than Jaktul, and no more knowledgeable about the inner workings of rail guns or plasma rifles, despite their modified genes.

He could do this. He would do this.

The skills he must learn were different, but the task he'd been given was as noble and challenging, in its way, as that of any Master Architect: Defend the structural integrity of the hive. Search out areas of weakness, and adapt the design so it would hold.

At the far end of the platform, a towering brood lord stepped onto the tarmac. The rising sun gleamed from his armor and from the red velvet folds of his battle cloak. Jaktul's spine straightened. He swiveled his head to attention, and listened as the officer began calling out instructions.

A new task was beginning.

For more stories, see Dark Expanse: Surviving the Collapse and As Good as Bad Can Get: A Dark Expanse Novel