The hive had landed in North-Middle, right at the center of a small park. The park was jointly owned by several kemo clans, included two cane packs with help from the lupes and a new hystric prickle. Once MC came back online in the Cathedral—which was odd, but made as much sense as anywhere—and I made sure that there weren’t any other fires to put out, I convinced Derek to take me with him to investigate the impact site. There were a number of good reasons for my presence, from my broad scientific knowledge and the help my power would provide in interrogating any survivors.
But, to be honest, I just wanted to be the first person to investigate an alien structure.
Reports said that the hive had been about half the size of a person when it first came down, and looked like some sort of giant seed. Now, giant spikes had burst out of the ground, there were twisted growths like tumors, and there was a large central dome made out of something that looked like either shell or carapace.
The park itself was pretty much completely gone. The spikes had disrupted the grass, the small stream had disappeared since the font was now under one of those strange growths, and reports said that the trees had been consumed, likely for calories.
And, of course, everything was a variety of different colors, though tangerine—the same color as Leeno’s eyes—was the most prominent. I wondered if these hives were where the para had gotten their predilection for painting all their buildings and gear every color of the rainbow.
The dome had a single entrance, a large hole that jutted out, with stalactites and stalagmites giving it a sharp and dangerous look. I wasn’t sure if there was some important defensive reason it had grown that way, or if it was just random.
It was the only entrance I could see, though, so we had no choice but to enter. The cultures, especially the ones that owned the park, would be here soon. I needed to get inside to lay an exploratory claim by ‘sarian law. I stepped forward with more confidence than I felt, my hand on my pistol holstered on my hip.
Derek immediately grabbed my arm.
I glared at him. “You are not going to tell me this is too dangerous.”
“I would if I thought it would work.” He sighed. “First, you should let the people with shields go first. We can take a hit.” He gestured at the three men behind him. They were all baseline, and were some of his most experienced Defenders, people with force-field powers who he had been training. They had been on the Shield Wall with him.
I thought for a second, then nodded. “Fine. You can go first, but I’m not staying outside while you do all the exploring.”
He nodded. “Of course. But there is the little matter of safety.”
I rolled my eyes. “Derek…”
“Laura,” he said, deadpan. “You are literally trying to walk into a giant mouth. At least let me call Leeno and ask if this thing can eat us.”
I glanced back at the entrance. It did look like a mouth. I wasn’t sure how I had missed that.
“Fine,” I said. I pulled out my phone and hit the button for MC. I still wanted to know what was going on with her, but this hive was far more important at the moment.
While I waited for her to pick up, I noticed Derek and his Defenders subtly taking position around me to protect me if anything came running out of the hive. I smiled a little to myself. Polite and pragmatic. I liked it.
Finally, MC picked up. “Laura? What is it? News on the hive?”
“Of a sort,” I said. “We’re at the entrance, and there are some… worries. This hive is alive. Is there any danger of it eating us?”
There was a pause as she considered. “That’s actually a really good question.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, that’s why I asked it. Can you please pass it along to Leeno?”
MC sighed. “Leeno is… not available.”
I frowned. Had she just sighed? Like, really sighed? She had never done that before. I guess she could have just used some sort of audio clip she got off the internet, but why bother now, of all times?
“Anyway,” MC said, “I’ll ask Zero. Give me a second.” There was a pause of less than a minute before she came back. “Zero says the hive is completely immobile now that it’s passed through its initial growth spurt, but that you should avoid opening any doors.”
“This thing has doors?” The entrance just opened up into a long, dark gullet.
“No,” MC said, presumably relaying from Zero. “She used the wrong word, she means…” Another pause. “Valves. That sort of thing. Basically, biological doors. Most of them will lead to vital organs, and a few will lead to the stomachs. If you fall into one of those, you could trigger another growth spurt.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered under my breath. “I’ll keep you posted.”
I hung up, then turned to Derek. “It won’t try to eat us, but stick together. We really don’t want to step down the wrong side room.”
Derek nodded, then signaled for his men to form up. We advanced down into the hive’s maw, and soon the only light was from the flashlights on the Defenders’ guns. It was a long hallway—or throat—made primarily of bone and carapace. There were some parts here and there that I thought might be flesh, but when I pushed on them they weren’t as soft as I expected. Softer than the rest of it, but still stiff and strong.
Soon, we found ourselves in a round, wide room so large that our feeble flashlights almost weren’t enough to illuminate it. There were depressions in the floor that looked like they might be meant for pools, but there was no liquid in them. There were also strange growths in regular intervals on the walls that might have been eyes, but they seemed dull and dead, and didn’t track us.
“There should be someone here,” Derek said. “It makes no sense to leave this whole thing undefended.”
“That implies that there was no way for them to send troops with the hive,” I said.
“Aren’t para born from these hives?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Some of the things Leeno has said imply they have normal parents. It would explain why they sent the hive in undefended, though.” Some of the other hives had landed in places where they could get troops to quickly, but this was Domina. We had enough anti-air guns around the city, not to mention our fliers and other powers, that there was no way that they would be able to get a troop transport down here.
Derek frowned. “Well, I think—”
He was interrupted by a growling noise that reverberated from deeper inside the hive. It was a low, loud sound, that vibrated up through my bones and made me shiver.
As it faded, all was silent.
“So,” Derek said, in almost a whisper. “Stick together?”
I nodded vehemently. “Everyone, set your phones to camera mode,” I said quietly. “Just in case.”
Everyone clipped their phones to their chests where they would have a good view in front of them. For most of the Defenders, this only took a few seconds—it was a standard ‘sarian tactic, so Derek had taught it to his men—but it took me a little while longer. After a moment, I frowned.
Derek noticed the look on my face. “What is it?” he asked quietly.
“No signal,” I said, equally quietly. I glanced up at the ceiling. “Maybe the carapace is blocking it.” There had to be at least some metal in the structure of the hive to allow it to grow so large. Whether intentional or not, that was likely fouling up the transmission.
“Wonderful,” he muttered. “Just what we need.”
I finally managed to clip the phone to my chest. “As long as we don’t actually die here, it will be fine.”
One of the Defenders gave me the side-eye. I shouldn’t have mentioned dying; I had forgotten how superstitious soldiers could be.
“Two exits,” Derek said. “Any preferences?”
I glanced between the two exits. They both looked exactly the same—tall, rounded doorways ridged with bone. “Which one do you think the noise came from?”
Derek frowned, then glanced at one of his Defenders.
The man scratched his head, looking a little embarrassed. “Left.”
The man looked baseline, but he mast have enhanced hearing. I did too, but not much. I had the hearing of a baseline teenager, which was nice and all, but not much better than what I would have had naturally.
I shook my head. This place was getting to me. I was letting my thoughts wander to keep from having to make a decision. “We’ll take the left passage, then,” I said. “Maybe we’ll find whatever made the noise and kill it.”
Derek nodded, then signaled to his men. They moved in formation, guns up and ready for anything.
The passage—ribbed with bones at regular intervals like the first one—twisted and turned as we walked. There were what looked like a few side passages, but they were all blocked off by strange films. I had to assume they were those biological doors Zero had warned MC about, so I ordered Derek and the others to ignore them. We could deal with them later, when we had more advanced equipment.
“So what exactly are we looking for here?” Derek asked after a few minutes.
I was looking at a pattern of veins in the flesh of the wall, but I glanced up as he spoke. “Hm? Oh, anything. Everything. Mostly, we want to make sure that this place isn’t too dangerous.”
“And if it is? Dangerous, I mean?”
“Then we call in the Canians and tell them to have fun.”
Derek chuckled. “Fair enough.”
We didn’t go much farther before one of the Defenders spoke up. “Uh, sir? Honored Dame?”
I glanced back; the Defender was one of our rear guard. “Yes, soldier?”
“Why don’t we just burn this place down now?”
I resisted the urge to snap at him. He seemed to be asking a genuine question. “There is much we can learn here. About the para, about their biology and plans, and perhaps most importantly, about what the other hives might be used for. If we destroy it, we’ll also destroy a lot of potential information.”
Derek nodded. “Even if this hive is undefended—” He made a face. “Which might be a pretty big if at this point—most of the other hives didn’t drop in the middle of cities. A hive landed on Mars, and there’s no way anyone can get to it before the para. Whatever they’re planning to do with it, they’ll have more than enough time.”
The Defenders seemed satisfied with that, but it made me think. What were the para planning with these hives? When I had initially seen them growing, I had assumed they were weapons. That they’d eat a significant portion of the city, if not the entire planet, softening us up for a more traditional assault.
But this hive hadn’t killed a single person or destroyed a single building. Other than a small disruption to the local water services due to the destruction of some of the pipes that ran under the park, the city didn’t seem affected at all.
There were too many questions regarding these hives. They didn’t seem to be related to the para technology, in either direction. None of the para ships or weapons we had looked over so far had any biological components, and they didn’t even share any aesthetic similarities. Sure, the hive was certainly colorful, but the patterns and color choices were completely different from that of their ships or armor.
But then, those questions were why we were here. I resolved to put them aside for now. Wondering about things like that might just lead me to miss the answers even if they showed up right in front of me.
Just as I started paying attention again, we passed into another large room. This one was smaller than the first, with a lower ceiling, but ran longer. It reminded me of a Native American longhouse, though I wasn’t sure it would be recognizable from the outside.
Two steps into the room, we all stopped, realizing almost simultaneously that we were walking on mud instead of the flesh and carapace we had been dealing with before. I almost freaked out, thinking it might be something else due to the strong smell of fertilizer, but the Defenders played their flashlights over the ground and I breathed a sigh of relief. It really was just mud. I could even see it drying in a few places.
“How random,” Derek said.
“Maybe we’re over the fountain?” one of the Defenders said.
I frowned. “Maybe… but maybe not.” I glanced up. I thought I could see something, but couldn’t be sure. “Soldier. Shine your light on the ceiling, please.”
The Defender did as ordered. The light from his gun revealed large circular clear spots, like crystals. No light was coming down at the moment, but I thought I could see something behind the crystals. A retractable membrane, perhaps, like an eyelid?
The crystal circles covered most of the ceiling. If those membranes retracted, the entire room would be filled with sunlight.
I looked down at the ground again. “I think this might be a farm.”
Derek frowned, looked at the ground, then up at the ceiling.
“That’s the smell in the air,” I said. “It’s some sort of fertilizer chemical. The hive mixed it with the dirt, which made mud. My guess is that anything grown here will grow bigger and faster than anything we could make.”
One of the Defenders—the one with the strong ears—gave me a look. “Faster than the toy maker?”
“Probably not,” I admitted. “I misspoke. But definitely better than anything in normal soil.”
Derek nodded. “So you’re saying that these hives are farms.”
“Yes.” I paused. “No. Maybe. Not just farms, I think. There’s way too much space for that.”
One of the other Defenders spoke up. “Plus, why make a farm indoors when you can just make the same thing outdoors?”
I shook my head. “You’re forgetting that this wasn’t created by the toy maker. It evolved, it wasn’t designed. So while it might have been more efficient in the long run to just find whatever fertilizer they use and mix it into normal soil outside, to an evolving species, that wouldn’t be an option. Farming is a relatively advanced concept. My guess is that this room would have originally been simply a room to let wild plants grow, which the para would then gather. From there, they likely developed farming techniques.”
Derek gave me a look. “That seems like a lot of assumptions. Are we sure they don’t just have some sort of toy maker equivalent?”
“They don’t,” I said. I smirked. “Unless Leeno was lying to me.”
Derek smirked too, but before he could say anything, there was a growl behind me.
It was much quieter than the first one—but much, much closer.
Derek didn’t waste time trying to be polite. He threw me aside and threw up a glowing blue shield, just in time to black some thing that was jumping right at me.
It was hard to see anything in the wild lights of the flashlights, but I saw a white carapace and far too many legs. The beast screeched in pain and rage before withdrawing into the darkness, chittering.
It was answered by more chittering from all around.
“We’re surrounded,” I spat.
Derek tried to watch everywhere at once. “Laura, what’s your take?”
I forced myself to breathe and consider the situation. “Some sort of defense mechanism. If they evolved naturally, then they can’t be that dangerous, but I’m not liking the numbers. We could have a real fight on our hands.”
“But if it’s some sort of coordinated defense, then that means that there’s a central controller, right?”
“I… maybe? Maybe not? It depends on how smart these things are.”
“Seem pretty smart to me,” one of the Defenders said. “They saw something they didn’t understand and are taking a moment to assess the situation.”
“And they’re definitely coordinated,” Derek said. “Natural radios? Pheromones?”
“They might just kill anything that doesn’t smell like para,” I said.
“We have no way of knowing,” Derek said. “But we have to assume that there is somewhere deeper in the hive where they can be turned off or stood down or whatever.”
“I don’t see how—” Realization dawned. “MC mentioned that ancient para used hives against each other. That means that the hives will attack para, and that there is a way to make them stop.”
“Sure,” Derek said. I wasn’t sure he was listening. “Goiania, take Laura deeper into the hive. You’re looking for some sort of controller.”
“Yes, sir,” one of the Defenders said. It was the one with the sharp ears. Before I had a chance to say anything, he had picked me up under one arm and was charging towards the exit. The others started firing in order to provide a clear path.
It was only when we were halfway through the room that I realized what Derek was doing.
“DEREK!” I roared. I tried to shift around to glare at Derek despite the awkward position I was being carried in, but I couldn’t. It was too dark to see, anyway. “I know what you’re doing! Don’t you dare sacrifice yourself! DEREK!”
Then we were through the horde, running through an empty hallway. The soldier’s flashlight bounced everywhere, sending strange shadows dancing over the fleshy walls.
I pounded on his back, demanding he put me down, but he ignored me. It wasn’t until we reached the next empty room that he finally stopped running and set me down on the ground.
He watched me warily, but I just glared at him. I had calmed down some; I knew that fighting him would be an exercise in futility several times over. I took a deep breath and deliberately looked away from him. Even yelling at him wouldn’t solve anything.
“This way,” I said instead. “I think I figured out the pattern.” I walked quickly through the room, stepping around the dozens of short ridges of bone that looked like curved walls. Beds, maybe? Or nursing areas? Or maybe some sort of place for storing biological secretions of the hive itself?
“What pattern, sir? Ma’am?” the soldier asked as he rushed to keep up.
“The blood vessels in the walls and ceilings,” I said, pointing. “They go everywhere, of course, but the network seems to be becoming more complex in this direction. I suspect that we’ll find a vital organ at the end of them.”
“And… what? We kill it to kill the hive?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Whatever happened to keeping this thing alive?”
I glared at him.
He held up his hands. “Hey, sorry, just asking.”
I looked forward again. “If Derek’s theory is right, then at the very least those… whatever they are will consider our proximity to something vital to be a threat. They will likely converge on us, giving the others time to escape.”
“Knight Huntsman won’t be happy about that.”
“Yeah, well, we can argue about it after I’ve saved his life.”
The Defender chuckled, but didn’t say anything else.
We marched for a few minutes before we finally found something more interesting than endless room designed for purposes we couldn’t understand. On the wall of one of those strange rooms—this one had strings of flesh hanging down from the ceiling almost like hair—was a doorway, but one with a door. It was paler than the surrounding flesh-wall, and softer as well. It looked like one of the extra eyelids amphibians had, protective yet flexible.
Hundreds of blood vessels converged on it like rivers. There was something important here, of that there was no doubt. Now I just had to hope it wasn’t a stomach filled with industrial-grade acid.
“So… now what?” the Defender asked. “Ring the doorbell?”
Jokes aside, he was right. There were no buttons, knobs, keys, or anything at all that might imply there was some way to open it. If not for Zero’s warning, I might have even guessed that this wasn’t a door at all.
I searched for a seam with my hands and thought I found it, but it didn’t do any good. Trying to pull it open was like trying to rip steel bars out of the wall. I had my gun, but I didn’t want to shoot in case there was something delicate on the other side.
I held out my hand to the Defender. “Knife.”
“What? Oh.” He placed a large combat knife in my hand. It had a few spots of rust on it, and I made a mental note to have Derek talk to him about it. But right now, it was good enough for my purposes.
I stabbed the knife into the spot where I thought the seam was. The membrane shuddered, but stayed closed for the moment. I frowned, then dragged the knife down, either cutting open the membrane or forcing it open—I didn’t really care which.
The wall’s shuddering increased, until finally, when the knife had nearly reached the ground, it split open like the last gasp of a dying man. There was a warm, wet liquid on my hands that I assumed was blood. I wiped my hands on my pants, thankful that I couldn’t see much in the poor lighting.
We stepped into the revealed chamber, and the Defender started slowly sweeping his flashlight around the room like a professional. It was smaller than the others, more like a large closet than a real room. It was round and peaked, like an onion, and the walls were covered almost completely in bone. The only exception was the sole entrance that we had just stepped through.
In the center of the room was some sort of strange structure. It was a pillar of bone and gray flesh connecting to the floor and ceiling, but it pulsed every few seconds almost like a heart. On a second glance, the gray matter was hidden almost entirely behind a honeycomb of bone, leaving it better protected than I had expected.
The Defender looked it over, awed. “Is that the brain?”
“It’s brain matter,” I said. “But I don’t know if it’s any sort of central brain. I don’t know enough about normal para anatomy, much less hives.” I was going to have a lot of questions for Leeno once I got out of here, though.
And if Derek was dead, I was going to kill Leeno for not warning us about anything.
I took a deep breath and forced those thoughts from my mind. Either Derek was dead or he wasn’t; worrying wouldn’t help him either way. What would help him was figuring out what I was supposed to do with this brain pillar.
Like the door, there were no obvious interfaces. No buttons, switches, or toggles. I took a few steps back, frowning. This did not look like something that was designed to be interacted with. It just looked like a big weird decorative pillar. Maybe this was the wrong place. This was the server room, and the keyboard was elsewhere. The server room needed more power—or more blood, in this case—but the keyboard was where things got done.
I turned to go.
“Wait, you’re leaving?” the Defender asked. “Just like that?”
“This is the brain,” I said. “We’re looking for the ears.”
He looked conflicted. “Well… I mean…” He glanced at the pillar again. “We should at least try something. What if this is the right place, but we run around the hive for an hour before we figure that out?”
I stopped. He had a point. Spending an extra minute or two here was an efficient use of our time.
I turned back to the pillar and raised my voice. “I am Laura Medina, Paragon of Domina City. I wish to speak to you.”
No response. This was probably a waste of time.
Wait… maybe… had I seen a flicker of electricity on the gray matter?
“I bring word from Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado,” I said.
Yes, there were definite sparks this time.
“I am his ally, and wish to pass through this hive unhindered.”
There was a long, low groan that reverberated throughout the entire hive. I could feel my teeth vibrating in my skull. The Defender had a tight grip on his gun, but blessedly didn’t shoot anything.
After what felt like an eternity, the rumbling stopped.
“…is that good?” the Defender asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “Give it a few minutes.”
I glanced at the door behind us, the one I had cut open. It had already stopped bleeding. “I think one way or another, we’re done here. Let’s go see if anything attacks us.”
The Defender sighed. “This is the part of the job I hate.” But he hefted his gun and moved in a position where he could cover me easily.
We stepped into the outer chamber to find it filled with small, strange monsters, but they weren’t moving. They remained perfectly still, breathing calmly as if nothing was wrong. Judging from their positions, they had been preparing to rush the brain room when they had frozen. I suppressed a chill. This had been far closer than I would have liked.
With the beasts still, I could get a better look at them. They were about the size of a dog, with rounded bodies covered in white carapace, eight legs, and a small head with beady tangerine-colored eyes. They looked a lot like fleas, actually. For all I knew, that was exactly what they were. Silver and gold, for all I knew they were Earth fleas, and something about the hive’s growth had found them and grown them to gargantuan proportions.
I looked up, surprised, to find Derek and the rest of his Defenders walking over to me, trying to avoid stepping on the fleas. They kept their guns trained on the monsters warily, but thankfully didn’t actually shoot. I didn’t want to test how far our alliance would do.
They were all covered in gore and a clear liquid that might have been blood, but they were alive, and that was the important part.
I smiled. “I got the security down in time.”
He chuckled. “No. We killed all the bugs, then came looking for you. Then the security came down.” He shrugged. “I knew we’d be fine.”
I glared at him. “Then why make me think you were pulling a heroic sacrifice?”
“Hey, you’re the one who said it, not me. I just thought you’d be more useful looking for the controller.”
I sighed. I couldn’t fault his logic anywhere. “Fine. With the security down, I think we can bring in more people to map this place.”
Derek nodded. “We should bring Leeno in to be safe. The hive will want to talk to him.”
“Talk to him?” My eyes widened. “The hive talked to you?”
Derek raised an eyebrow. “Uh, no. The hive talked to you.”
I frowned. “What?”
“That loud groaning noise? That was the hive speaking.” He pulled out his phone. “I thought it sounded too regular to just be random noise, so I sped it up.” He chuckled. “I sped it up a lot.” He clicked play.
A voice—still deep, but much more recognizable—came from his phone. “Laura Medina, Paragon of Domina City. Bring Leeno. Important. Bring Leeno.”
“Well,” I said after a moment. “I guess you can’t get more direct than that.” I was glad my hunch had been right, and this hive spoke English. I was guessing that it was a result of one of those language chips that Leeno had mentioned.
Derek clipped his phone back onto his chest. “How did it know your name, though?”
“I introduced myself.” I looked around the room, at its carpet of placid fleas, and shivered. “Let’s get out of here. We’ll bring Leeno and Zero down to help explore the rest of it safely.”
He smirked. “Whatever happened to wanting to explore everything on your own?”
“That was before I found out there were monsters,” I said. “We need to keep everyone out. Necessarius already has a cordon up, but we’ll expand it a bit to keep the place completely secured until Leeno arrives.”
“Sure.” Derek frowned. “Where do you think Leeno is, anyway?”
Behind the Scenes (scene 334)
I spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted the para to use bio-tech. I knew I wanted them to use cybernetics to parallel the Dominite toys, but I also knew that I wanted them to have some strange biological processes besides just their eyes, and not just have the ability to make living guns and whatnot.
The hives were the final answer.